A personalized rendering of a decade’s toll of war on one vilified segment of the Afghan populace determined to change its destiny.
Journalist Stern, who helped launch Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Women Initiative, zeroes in on the remarkable efforts of a particular Shia teacher, of the Hazara minority in Afghanistan, who bucked the violent anti-American, pro-Taliban sectarianism during the last decade and managed to establish a well-regarded school outside the country’s capital. The author creates a compelling narrative out of the life of Aziz, aka the Teacher, a former “holy warrior” radicalized when his people were exiled in the early 1990s to refugee camps in Pakistan, where he first started a school. After 9/11, Aziz and the Hazaras fought with the American-led invasion forces against the Taliban and established his school in Kabul, “the first private school in Afghanistan.” Called Marefat—meaning wisdom and enlightenment, among other things—the school grew in enrollment to a few thousand students, both girls and boys, and stuck boldly to an independent, “irreverent” teaching approach—i.e., free of clerical influence. In this intimate narrative, Stern takes up the stories of some of the key players in making the school a success—e.g., Najiba, “the Student,” an illiterate adult woman with several children who not only pushed for her children to attend the school, but resolved to learn to read herself for her own “liberation”; Michael Metrinko, “the American,” who volunteered with the Peace Corps in the Middle East and ended up helping Aziz find funding; and Ta Manna, “the Troublemaker,” a young Hazara student who had to unlearn the terrorist mentality in order to participate in the school. The author concludes with an account of the valiant but doomed attempt to elect an improbable leader, Ashraf Ghani, who, though a Pashtun (an enemy of the Hazaras), is committed to the people’s education.
Stern carefully and gingerly sifts through the changes wrought not only by the American presence, but, critically, by their withdrawal.