When preparing for this trip, Dost made a list of places he wanted to visit in order to evaluate the extent of development in Mazar. The first place we visited with him was the University of Balkh, Afghanistan's second largest university, located in Mazar-i-Sharif. When Dost was last living in Afghanistan, enrollment at University of Balkh stood at 1,000 male students, as women were excluded from public education during the Taliban era. When we visited, men and women passed eachother in the halls on the way to new classes, like journalism. Student enrollment is currently up to 7,000 students. The women we saw wore only loose-fitting head scarves, not the all-encompassing burqa that is still ubiquitous on the streets of Mazar. The male students wore jeans and t-shirts.
Our first stop on the Soviet-built campus was the office of the university chancellor, Habibullah Habib. In the office the chancellor spread out plans for university expansion. "Without education, we cannot move forward," he told us. The land had been purchased for a new campus that would allow the university to increase enrollment and provide its students with an updated study environment outfitted with modern technology. The estimated cost of the project is $200 million, which Habib has been fundraising for to little avail. About $40 million has been raised through World Bank loans and contributions from Pakistan. Habib says he is hopeful, but Western donors have not yet shown interest. It was a frustrating fact to hear, considering the billions of dollars spent each month by the U.S. alone on military operations. I'm inclined to agree with the chancellor that education today will go a long way in pre-emtively stemming conflict in the future.
After leaving the university we headed to the Abraham Lincoln Center, a U.S. State Department-funded center for education about all things American. Reza Hosseini, who runs the center, gave us an enthusiastic tour of the library, which holds both books about the U.S. and classics by American authors. Through the tour Reza, who has never been to the U.S., pulled his favorites from the shelves to show us what he's read. Drawings by local children of George Washington and Rumi, a 13th century poet born in Balkh Province, papered the walls. At the back of the center there was a large, flat-screen television where American movies are screened each week. The movies are a big draw in this area, where TVs were almost non-existent as recently as ten years ago. The center certainly seems to be an extension of the U.S. mission to win "hearts and minds."
As we wrapped up our tour of the library a group of about a dozen girls in black and white school uniforms started to gather at the center table. Before leaving Reza asked me if I could speak to them about Mother's Day traditions in the U.S., since our visit coincided with the holiday. I happily obliged and soon realized that half of the girls I was addressing were the editors of a student newspaper. As a former student newspaper editor myself, we hit it off. Through a translator they fired off a slew of questions about my life in the States, what school was like for girls, and what women did when they left college. They were a fascinating bunch of very smart girls. I asked them some questions back, about what it was like being the first generation of girls to go to school after the Taliban. They told me that they were lucky to be from families that supported education, but that in Balkh Province there are still many families that are against sending girls to school. Many of the girls they know, they told me, are still kept at home, despite schools now being open to female students. They said that they think things will change with their generation, but that change is slow. While a bit of a discouraging fact to hear, it was heartening to speak with such intelligent young women who are concerned about the future of their country, and are doing something about it. I left the talk with a stack of copies of their student newspaper.
Me (second from the left) with students at the Abraham Lincoln Center. These students, from the first generation of girls to go to school in the post-Taliban era, are also the editors of a student newspaper.