One's personality is both a composition and reflection, but if I have to choose one of them, I will choose reflection as the "self" is more important to me than "me". One's composition may change, walking across the cultural landscapes and climbing the social ladder but one's self is tied to one's reflections. The fun part is that reflections are not bound to "Time-Space" barriers ( it is not time-space) and respective mental constructs, which have grown so thick over ages, that they had reduced the image of humans to Sisyphus, rolling different sizes of boulders on hills of different heights.… As the name of this Blog indicates, knols are my perspectives on topics of interests, sweet/bitter experiences or just doodling :)

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Conversations With An Afghan Teacher: Part 7

He took a pause and looked at me. I guess, he wanted to make sure that I followed him. At least that was, how I felt. My feeling wasn’t baseless. It was a common habit of all the teachers that I encountered; when they had to explain something of importance, difficult or spoke for long, they paused and asked, if they were followed. 

“Interesting!” I replied.

We were close to our street. On the main road a large truck with all those showy decorations (my uncle called them shrines) blocked the road for vehicles. Only pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists could pass through the space between the truck and the wall. Two laborers unloaded the hundred kilograms sacs of flours off the truck on their backs. Usually, It took three of us (my father and two of his sons) to pull one of those flour sacks on a wheelbarrow from the store to home. The one who pulled the wheelbarrow definitely expected appreciation as if he had accomplished a difficult task. 

It was dismissal time of the schools (and the beginning of second shifts in some schools). The street was full of students. Some of the female students wore scarves, some dupatta, some shawls and some chadar. Male students dressed in traditional shalwar-kameez and some in pants and dress shirts. It was just another school day. Students walked in both directions, in groups, chattering and laughing. 

Our conversation hadn’t finished and I didn’t want to say goodbye to the teacher without knowing why he wanted a culture that helped people to feel better about themselves. We stopped at the street corner and continued our conversation.

“I highlighted some important historical events just to bring you where we both stand.” There wasn’t anything extra-ordinary about where we stood. Our town was a poor, neglected town in a poor, neglected province of a third world country that struggled with messy multi-level, local and regional conflicts. While even our houses hadn’t postal addresses, how could I believe that we were moving along the events of our time? I felt we were just following the trails that others had already walked. And our disagreements were on what trail take to reach a better place? 

“Have you noticed that most of the students wear dresses that are different from what their parents wear?

“That’s obvious. Parents aren’t expected to wear uniforms of their children?” I tried to crack a joke but the teacher didn’t laugh. That was a bad joke.

“Whenever I see all these different uniforms, they fill me with hope. Those uniforms represent different visions for the future. They remind me that the parents have many choices for education of their children and which school system will attract most students will depend on how their students will perform. It also shows the openness of our people….”

“But don’t you think that these variations may divide our people?” I interrupted.

“I understand your concern.” The teacher answered. “And you are not alone in that regard. Remember, I counted a number of recent failures just to illustrate that we live in uncertain times, and in uncertain times, it is not safe ‘to put all your eggs in one basket’. It is a tested prescription from ancient times, that the more diverse your assets are, the minimum is the risk of your losses. And our children our real assets. Aren’t they?”

“Balay Ustad.” I nodded. “I get your point about modern schools but what about religious institutions? Do you think, they still have usage in our time?”

He smiled. “Instead of yes or no answer, let me put your question in its context and then let you finalize the conclusion.”

“Balay Ustad.”

“ Have you heard this quote, “religion is the opium of masses”?”

“Yeah, I hear it frequently and I assume that it is a darling quote for some of my friends.” I laughed.

“Let me tell you this.” he adjusted his glasses. “Don’t think that I am a mullah or intend to replace mullahs....” and rubbed his “belly”. 

“I know that.” I interrupted to assure him that I believed him. In those times, it was a growing trend to look at religious people as stupids. To avoid the embarrassment of being considered as stupids, the learned individuals, either didn’t mention religion at all, or if they mentioned, they quickly clarified that they are not religious at all. Contrary to individuals who were filled with the air of intellect, the teacher didn’t exhibit any arrogance of understanding or intellect. He just behaved like a teacher, offered his shoulders for the curious ones to climb and see the other side of the walls, still, I wanted to assure him that I didn’t think of him as a “stupid” person.

“... Despite of my deepest desires to look at everything with pure reason, over time, I have learnt to distinguish between ideas that look reasonable and those that are actually practical. For example, in the months of Ramadan and Muharram, my friends remind me now and then, that ‘religion is the opium of masses’ and count all those money, time and skills wasted on those occasions that could otherwise go into building schools, hospitals, roads and other positive things. I do agree with them. One doesn’t need to be Socrates to agree with them. But then, I see the massive consumption of tea, coffee, cigarettes, snuffs, hookahs, opium, painkillers, hallucinogens, alcoholic beverages, and those are the list of things that I know. From time to time, I hear the names of new compounds that are even more potent, and like any other field, I can only expect for more dangerous stuffs…” he paused again to readjust his glasses. 

“Yes Ustad.” I nodded. Unlike our first conversation, this time, he was in mood of explaining things in detail and I wanted him to continue. 

“... And you know all those stuffs are consumed on such massive scales that an entire world of subcultures and dark economies have developed. In a realistic sense, that is the real “opium of masses...”.

“Yes Ustad.” I got his point. I wanted to ask if he was defending one “opium” against another but I let him finished his point. 

“....When I see the popularity of both religion and other stuffs as long back as I can track the history and across the cultures, I have no other choice but to conclude that, the masses need opium or even sometimes, I inclined to think, humans in general are addicted for need of some sort of addiction. You don’t allow them a “spiritual opium” or religions, they will turn to the “material opium”. 

“Ustad, In that sense, movies, songs and video-games (social media, esp, Facebook wasn’t that common in those days) are also opium of masses.”

“Oh, Yes. I forgot to mention them…” he laughed. “Again, my aim is not to favor one thing over another. I want to distinguish between practicality and reason.” 

“Balay (yes) Ustad. Balay Ustad.” I repeated to assure him that I followed him.

“You know, why I’m so obsessed with distinguishing between practicality and reasoning?”

“From your personal experience, I guess.” I threw a stone in the dark. 

“From witnessing the collapse of Soviet Union. For a large part of my youth, I believed the Soviet Union, with all her brilliant scientists, engineers, economists, social scientists, and public servants is the beacon of practical reasoning. But then, I witnessed her collapsing under the enormous weight of the plunders and scattering into daughter-states. Her daughter states are still struggling to come in terms with the realities of the wider world. I used to have a teacher who told us that engineers are the most logical people. If an engineer constructs a building of his liking and ignores reality, the reality will soon deconstruct his building into a lump of concrete, steel and glass. I don’t doubt that Soviets had the best engineers but they constructed a super-state of their liking ignoring the reality and as my teacher used to say, the reality deconstructed their darling super-state. Religious institutions have been part of our society for centuries and they are still standing and that indicate that they are still having some usage, otherwise, they were long deconstructed….”

“Ustad, but we also have seen the spread of hatred and destruction by the promotions of religious institutions?”

“That’s right. As I said, if you construct a building of your liking ignoring reality, the reality will deconstruct it. As you know better than me that, the States opposed Soviet Union worked as a together as a team for over two decades to turn the religious institutions from places of spiritual services to places of training and recruiting militants to counter the expansion of Soviet Union and the rival states. The ongoing war on terror is the biggest evidence that it was a very bad engineering, and the world has to pay the costs deconstruction and of fallout for a long time.” 2 



2. Since, at the time of conversation, there was no sign of Arab Spring and the following Arab Winter, I have to add a footnote here. It seems, despite the earlier failures, there are some countries, for whom, turning religious institutions into factories of militancy are still more beneficial than the costs of resulting destruction. The benefits to costs ratio may be higher for now but as we have seen it in Pakistan, those rations will finally start to change, and they will have to pay the overdue costs of dealing with the destruction, the militants and the mindsets for a long time.

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