Akbar at Yale

From Kabul to the Ivy League
Examining higher ed.
Nov. 15 2005 12:52 PM

Akbar at Yale

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Interviewing Afghani President Hamid Karzai. Click image to expand.
Interviewing Afghan President Hamid Karzai

Here's a story from my first semester at Yale. In one of my classes, Introduction to the Middle East, my professor was talking about the modern history of Iran. During his lecture, he paused to ask a question in an attempt to engage the class. The question was this: "For you future Third-World dictators out there, where would you turn to for money and support?" Nobody answered. I didn't feel comfortable raising my hand, but in my mind I thought, America, of course. The professor, giving up in the face of our studious silence, finally said, "America, of course." I felt pleased at my insight. Then he said, "All right, again, if there are any future Third-World dictators in this room, who would you not want to mess with if you are in power?" Again, nobody answered, and I did not feel comfortable raising my hand, but in my mind, I thought, the religious establishment, duh. The professor answered, "The religious establishment." It was a little disconcerting to know that thinking like a Third-World dictator came so easily to me. My expertise did not come from the books I read or some previous class on "Third-World dictators": It came from experience.

Since high school, I've been a student in three very different environments—Afghanistan, where I've been spending my summers; Diablo Valley College, a community college in Pleasant Hill, Calif., about 20 minutes from my home in Concord, Calif. (where I spent most of my life); and Yale, where I transferred this semester as a junior majoring in economics. So, when the professor asked who you shouldn't mess with, I immediately thought of something I saw in the summer of 2002. It was at the loya jirga, or grand assembly, in Kabul, that first elected President Karzai as the leader of the country. A man came up to the stage to propose that the word "Islamic" didn't need to be in the official title of the new government. Before he could even offer his rationale, people started to crisscross their arms—a traditional sign of rejection in Afghanistan—and the crowd began shouting for him to get off the stage. My lesson for the day? That the country, still recovering from the war against the Soviets in which millions died and fought for their beliefs, is not ready for religious discourse yet.

With friends at Yale. Click image to expand.
With friends at Yale

During that same summer, my father was President Karzai's spokesman, which meant I had a chance to spend months in the presidential palace. It was there that I learned firsthand some of the difficulties of governing a Third-World country reduced to rubble. When I had a chance to ask the president what he felt was the greatest obstacle facing him, he responded almost immediately,"The lack of resources." Afghanistan was in dire need of international assistance as it tried to rebuild, and it looked toward America the most for assistance. So, that is how I knew the answers to my professor's questions. In fact, I was even tempted to add to his lecture a quick postscript: Don't depend on America too much, either.

The other day, as I checked out the books at Sterling Memorial Library, I was thinking about history. The hook Americans use to get people interested in history is usually something along the lines of, "Well, if you want to know where you're going, you need to know where you came from." It's almost seen as a chore. But for me, it's very different. When I read history books or political science books or philosophical work, I don't see where I came from but where I am right now. The feeling is surreal and exciting—sometimes I feel like I'm living in Afghanistan's history. A friend of mine, Sudipta, invited me to a debate for Yale's conservative party last week. He told me how he, along with some of the others in the party, felt that human nature hadn't changed much since the time some of these classics had been written. What he said made sense, of course. But I didn't need to defend studying the classics by trying to draw parallels between that world and the world we live in today, or by studiously figuring out how they apply to each other. In Afghanistan, I couldn't help but notice that it was some of these books—The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes—that best helped explain the situation.

The author in Afghanistan. Click image to expand.
The author in Afghanistan

It used to be that my summers in Afghanistan seemed like a break from my real life; it now seems to me that Afghanistan is where my real life is. When people talk about enjoying "college life," I just don't get it. Some of my peers here at Yale don't want it to end; I, on the other hand, can't wait to get out of here. To me, it feels like I'm in stuck in a bubble while forces outside are transforming the world. In this regard, Diablo Valley College was a boon. A community college is much less of a bubble. You aren't completely submerged in residential college life; you commute to school from your home. Sometimes, that separation can really help.

Even in a place as international and resource-rich as Yale, one encounters strange bits of parochialism. Last August, during one of the orientations for transfer students, someone from Career Services spoke to us about summer opportunities and employment after Yale. I was excited to utilize Yale's connections to find something interesting to do this summer in Afghanistan. But when I walked up to the speaker after the meeting and asked about Afghanistan, I think he took it as a joke. When he realized I was serious, he told me there was no way that Yale could help me with anything I wanted to do in Afghanistan. The security situation wasn't ideal, and there were State Department warnings about the place. So much for taking advantage of Yale, I thought.

There's another irony about life at Yale. These days, when I get back to my room from a day of class and problem sets, I'm exhausted. So disconnected have I become from the real world that the flow of the nightly conversation between my older brother and me has changed: I used to be the one giving him updates about the world, but now by the time I'm done with my work, I've missed all of the day's headlines.

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