The 10 Values I Have Learnt from Afghanistan
David Raj SJ
Today the word ''Afghanistan'' conjures up the images of terrorism, political turmoil, chaos, roadside bombs, suicide bombers, blasts, violence, narcotics... To most people around the world, Afghanistan is a country which is terribly embroiled in war, a country they would probably never want to visit, and a country they feel pity for. However, this country has not always been about war and violence. It has an amazingly rich and glorious history, culture, literature, historical places and monuments, incredibly beautiful nature, with mountains, riverbeds, valleys, springs of water, deserts, forests, and of course very kind and beautiful people with big hearts. When it comes to counting the things, they are numerous! I am inspired by 10 precious values that I have learnt from this country, and these make me feel a sense of deep satisfaction for all that I have learnt during my two years in the country.
Praying five times a day
It is something unique in Islamic countries. When I look at the people, no matter where they are, they stop to pray five times a day - on time. They just spread their prayer carpet, wherever they feel comfortable (even in the crowded place), and start praying. Whenever I see them praying, my mind too is automatically moved to seek the Divine presence. I am really inspired by the youngsters praying on the play-grounds, entertainment centers, and academic institutes. Through their deep commitment to prayer, I feel called to persevere in seeking the Divine presence throughout my day. This is very much in keeping with what we have drawn from the Jewish tradition, but I feel drawn to deepen my resolve to follow it.
People with a Positive Spirit - Joint family system
Despite the fact that there have been thirty years of constant conflict in Afghanistan, during which the majority have suffered loss of loved ones, homes, or all their properties, they always seem to be hopeful and happy. No matter how disturbed they may be, physically, mentally or spiritually, they always manage to have a smile on their faces. As a wise saying goes: ''A smile on my face does not mean that everything is okay in my life. It means that I have the ability and courage to deal with my problems.” The Afghans have that resilient power and spirit to deal with the problems in their lives. Even considering the current situation of Afghanistan, where neither their future security nor their life is ensured, they continue to live happily, hopefully and normally, as if all is well. The secret of their abiding optimism and their positive attitude in life is the joint family system.
Afghans live in joint families. There exists a very strong, almost unbreakable, bond between all the family members, specially the children and the parents. This bond is the healing balm of the wounds of all their bitter experiences through the past decades. I always wonder how, in spite of all their challenges, the people are very happy and celebrate their lives. The unity in the family is one of the main reasons that restores their happiness and makes them forget all the bitter experiences of the past. If this unity in the family were missing, I am sure many more would suffer intense mental trauma due to the continuous conflict situation and pressure.
We are universally united
The greatest consolation that I have experienced in this insecure country is the support and solidarity with Jesuits in South Asia, and all over the world. The number of emails and phone calls asking how we are, whether we are safe, or if any help was needed, and responding at once, is witness to this. We are really grateful to all who reach out to us in love, prayer and support from various parts of the world. We acknowledge with deep gratitude all that so many have done to lift up our hearts and strengthen our hands in reaching out in loving service in “unity of hearts and minds”.
It is a key element of their culture and is viewed as a religious obligation. Hence, Afghan hospitality is well known the world over. Afghans are very friendly and love to welcome guests with open hearts and with respect, because they consider them friends of God, serving them as best as they possibly could. As a matter of fact, guests are always welcomed to families at any time, even without prior notice. Thus, if a guest comes without notice, the families do all they can to cook the best meal in welcome. Not only cooking the best food, but also, as a part of Afghan culture, guests are usually asked to sample several different dishes in order to make them feel comfortable and at home.
The most beautiful aspect of our initiatives to reach out in an effective manner is having strong local collaboration. Though we have language barriers and few Jesuits, our local Afghan team stands with us as the foundation stone of our outreaches, sharing our vision and goals. It is the right time for us to exchange views with our local staff, and see how best we can carry out our plans together more effectively. I strongly feel that in the near future, without local collaboration, it will be very difficult for us to serve the people, either in Afghanistan or any part of the world.
The Growing Desire for Education
I have been teaching in the local University for a couple of years. It has been the best time of my life, being with the youngsters and sharing knowledge. Unfortunately, Afghanistan is among those countries that has the lowest percentage of literacy. It is quite clear that education brings reformation in chaotic societies, and it is through education that a society says ‘NO’ to injustice, violence and all types of cruelty. Over the past years, some part of the local population has realized this fact to some extent. Many conservative families, that did not permit their daughters to go to school earlier, are not only letting them go now, but also providing them with moral support and encouragement. It gives me great happiness to know that most of my students are eager to get an education, and that their perspectives are broadening with a growing desire for knowledge day by day. However, it cannot be denied that many still live with their old mindsets. It IS a good start anyway, and maybe the day will come when the new generation, with the power of knowledge and education, brings peace and stability to the country.
Respecting the elders and fellow men and women with polite gestures
It is a community that respects their elders very much. I have personally gained many insights and values through their behavior and attitude. The respect that the sons and daughters give to the elders of the family is enormous. When you enter a home or a hall for a ceremony or a meeting, everyone stands to welcome you with the greeting ‘Salaam’, and shakes your hand, keeping the right hand on the chest while bowing slightly. We reciprocate with the same gestures, looking at each person and exchanging our greetings. It almost takes a minute to wish each one personally. It does make me feel at home with the people and the place wherever I go to attend any function or a meeting.
We depend totally on God and on our Companions
It is as clear as a crystal to me that I rely totally on the mercy of God for a safe life, and fully depend on my companions for moral support. To get any help, it is my community that I first turn to. This may not always happen in places where we have been well established and settled. On the other hand, living here, very much like the common people, without much security, community life is very much stronger, and we have more time to share, to spend with each other, and to walk together. This is my personal experience, and it has made me feel more humane.
Freedom with responsibility
The freedom and responsibility given to each young Jesuit is tremendous. I am personally grateful for the great trust placed in me, and support that I have received to take the lead in our local outreaches. Of course, we are accompanied and guided, but the most beautiful concept of our service here is that we share the responsibility of leadership, with space and freedom for each one to carry forward our outreach, joining hands as companions in mission. I have really experienced deep trust that has been placed in me at this stage of my formation. This trust has helped me grow as a person, and I believe that this confidence in me will help me in the long run to stand firmly in my vocation, while facing any kind of challenge in any part of the world.
Last, but not the least, what I always admire here is the aesthetic sense of the Afghans in their day today life. In most homes that I have visited, I have found beautiful presentations of flowers, curtains, furniture – all with matching colors. Likewise, their attractive handicrafts, such as carpets, rugs, leather craft, traditional dresses, and many other hand-made products, have made Afghanistan famous internationally. Afghanistan carpets and rugs are made of silk, cotton, and wool, and are generally made by the Turkmen and Uzbek tribes, living in northern parts of the country.
Today the world knows Afghanistan only through the news channels, and when they hear the word ''Afghanistan'', all they can think of is terror. In contrast, Afghanistan is not limited to this negative picture alone; it also has a bright side that we often lose sight of in the media. It is a country with an incredibly rich and glorious history. It has civilization, literature, culture, heroes, beautiful nature, most precious historical assets, and of course people with hearts of gold.
We believe that with the help of the international community, particularly its close neighbors, the eager young generation of Afghans will be able to bring long-lasting positive change, and gradually work towards becoming a self-sufficient and developed country in our world.