Letter from Herat

School books being used by children at school in Herat, Afghanistan

Afghanistan, 2010  – 

This week I went to Herat for a change of scenery and to look at some schools and find out a bit about what’s happening outside Kabul. If anything.

Herat is an ancient jewel – or so I’m told. It has lots of history and might have been here in some form or another for about 2700 years. Indeed one august person, writing in an encyclopaedia in 1902, suggested it was ‘the key of India’ and that if you want to study the history of Persia and all that stuff you can’t miss out on Herat. Another poet called it the Jewel of Khoristan, a place lost in the sands of time. The first lot here were probably the Zoroastrians. Other visitors included Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great.

It’s right next to Iran and it has a very nice river running through it. The river is called the Heri-rud, I think, and it runs through some pretty fertile looking alluvial plains. I’m told that on these plains the ‘best grapes in the world’ are grown. I don’t know if they still make wine here but apparently it used to happen. When we flew over it the other day the river looked pretty full and I could see what appeared to be some well constructed canals that almost certainly pre-date USAID and other more recent irrigation builders. I couldn’t see any red poppies.

Right in the town are two very elegant buildings. One is Alexander the Great’s fortress, probably benefiting from some recent maintenance, and the other is a very elegant Blue Mosque with six portals and a few minarets. It was once massive and is still pretty big, if showing some signs of age. This is truly a building worth visiting and I hope to squeeze a bit of time in before leaving to check it out more closely and do a quick run of the surrounding markets which are obviously old style structures and very busy. No foreign faces there this arvo when I drove through.

On Sunday, when we went out to visit a very small community based school – of which more later – I saw both the river and some of these canals rather more closely. There was also a very nice mountain-bike track constructed right beside the road with lots of humps and old tyres and stuff. It’s apparently a popular spot with the kids on Fridays. Locally constructed I would say and just as good as the one back home. in Namatjira Drive  

Just past the bike track is a stone bridge called Pul i Malan. Pul is Dari for bridge. I counted 23 or 24 arches and it seems to have been there for a long time, maybe 400 years according to my local sources. It was apparently built by a woman. Stone by stone. A closer look suggests it was fixed up a bit in the last 30 years and sure enough a quick Google when I got home disclosed the information that it had been rather badly damaged in a bombing, or six, and had, controversially, been restored. Not sure why the fuss. Possibly people did not want to make it easier to get out of Herat or something.

On the other side of town, out near the Office of Women’s Affairs’ local hangout (I went there for a meeting), there is a rather elegant if slightly crumbly at the edges structure which might be the resting place of Genghis Khan’s son and is certainly the final destination of a few other notables whose names meant little to me. I didn’t have time to go inside, but it looks pretty impressive and very old and big. It’s called the Haji Abdullah Ansari shrine (I think). Adjacent to the entrance is a very large and well presented cemetery in which mere mortals are still being interred to this very day.

Nearby is a rather imposing, domed edifice of very recent construction which marks the current location of the son of Ismael Khan, the local warlord, former governor and occasional thorn in the side of President Karzai. Khan is also currently the as-yet-unendorsed Minister for Water and Energy – a national government position which could be a real little earner for him. So why, I hear you ask, has Karzai nominated him as a Minister for getting rich? Think of tents, direction of urination, and Faustian bargains. Also he might be less annoying there than as Governor of Herat, a job I think he really still holds in all but name.

Anyway, my mate Ismael – I met him once when he visited the Finance Ministry – was Governor of Herat a few years ago and his son was Minister for Aviation (another little earner) who unfortunately got shot, possibly by some policemen. I’m not sure if any of the 200 or so people who were rounded up as suspects were ever convicted or are still alive. But anyway, young Khan has his own monument to posterity, although I am not sure it will last as well as Haji Abdullahs next door.

Herat has been referred to as ‘the Dubai of Afghanistan’, possibly because there are some rather ostentatious signs of recent wealth around the place, in addition to those from the 16th century or earlier. For one thing, all the roads appear to be paved and the electricity seems to stay on all day and all night without the sound of generators. There are lots of trees and it could probably win a Tidy Towns competition. I think we have the Iranians, 120 km to the west, to thank for some of that, and possibly even the Italians who have been quietly looking after the area from an ISAF and ‘Provincial Reconstruction Team’ perspective. But I think it might be mostly to do with Ismael Khan, even if he is no longer the titular Governor of the Province, and his ability to mobilise resources. There are a few USAID signs around the place as well so they might have done a bit. The US are also opening a new Consulate here in a couple of weeks having taken over the lease on the recently bombed International Hotel. Notwithstanding the last sentence, this is probably one of the most peaceful places in Afghanistan – maybe there’s something to be said for warlords.

Anyway, I came here to see some schools and that’s what I did, together with two colleagues, a couple of translators and a government official or two. The first one was a ‘Community Based School’. This is a school you have when the Ministry of Education can’t quite get its act together and the local community gets together, sometimes with the help of some organisation like UNICEF, and makes a school. In this case, the school is in a small and very old looking village of mud and daub about 15 km out of Herat. It’s in a mosque which is only used for prayers on Friday. The building is divided into two rooms by hanging a curtain down the middle. First grade sit on one side and second grade sit on the other, boys and girls together and about 30-40 in each class, and a woman teacher each class. In the porch there’s another small group of pre-schoolers. No desks or chairs – all sitting on rugs on the floor. One blackboard on the wall at the front, and a few things stuck on the wall including a map of the world which I used to point out where Australia was – to a sea of polite but blank faces. There was a small library in an alcove and all the kids had new text books, supplied by the Ministry, and a little pack of ‘learning kit’ things like pencils, writing and colouring books, and stuff from UNICEF.

They all got up and sang what turned out to be the Afghan National Anthem. We looked at books and listened to stories, talked to those who would respond, took a few photos, and generally made a nuisance of ourselves for an hour or so. Then we talked to the teachers and the local inspector, a very handsome fellow in a very black beard and elaborate hat who seemed genuinely interested in educating children and who thought I might be 80 years old! From what we could see the kids were actually quite engaged and wanting to do stuff. The point, of course, is that this type of school is often the only way some kids can get started in education, especially the girls, as there is great reluctance to let them go even a few hundred metres away to school. But you gotta think that what is really going on is that the people really do want their kids to learn and maybe even go on to the bigger school for third grade and beyond. Hope springs eternal and it is days like this you begin to think there’s a reason for coming to shitty places like this.

Then we saw a public girls’ school in town. It has 4000 students! There are three shifts a day to teach them all. Grade 1 to Grade 10 get four hours a day and the last two years of class get six hours a day. We met the woman in charge and several members of her Parents and Community committee (or Parents and Teachers Association or whatever you call it where you are). We spent an hour talking to them about the whole thing. The P&C raised $50,000 last year and built a second storey on the original first storey constructed by the Italians a couple of years ago. The head teacher won a very prestigious medal from the President last year for her work. There were 120 girls in last year’s final class and 86 of them went on to university. But then, only 8 years ago, no girls went to school so this graduating group probably started their education in home schools.

You could feel the energy and the aspirations, even from the mostly male P&C members in a society which, on the whole, still doesn’t value women for much except procreating to excess and washing up. There were two doctors, a very successful biscuit manufacturer and a couple of civil servants on the P&C, and not all of them still had girls at the school. We were assured that three of the 20 on the P&C Committee were women. More reason for hope, even if, just outside the school, many women are still largely veiled and the picture theatre is still closed. This neck of the woods is pretty conservative, but in the end the barriers will slip – if the bloody crooks in Kabul don’t completely stuff it all up.

On Monday we went to see a Madrasa school for boys, called a Darul Uloom, just out of town. It is supported by the Ministry and the Mullah in charge might even be able to read and write. He is also popular with UNICEF because he runs a campus for girls in town, near the Alexander fort and the Blue Mosque.

One of the reasons he is popular around here is that he uses a curriculum that has regular stuff in it and does the religious bit only in the afternoons. He seemed OK, although having a cultivated air of detachment. If nothing else, he said, it was important to stop the flow of young men to Iranian, or worse, Pakistani Madrasas, where they obviously teach the wrong type of stuff. He drew our attention to the fact that, while sitting in his (opulent) office, we could hear no sound from the 500 boys currently in attendance, showing that discipline was very good.

I think I probably learned some stuff on this trip, and it’s mildly encouraging to see what’s happening out in the boonies. But there’s still a long way to go! At the local technical college they have 500 students, including 120 girls, doing ‘construction’ and ‘electricity’, with 17 teachers, none of whom has ever actually worked in a trade. The electricity workshop has a soldering iron, some circuit boards from transistor radios, a model of a substation, and two solar panels no-one could explain. Around the walls were about 20 different examples of household circuit boards, none of which would now be permitted in a new house back home. There is one semester of practical work in a five year program and yet it is alleged that every one of last year’s 70 graduates got a job, some in the industry for which they were trained. We met one young woman who is the Auto-CAD instructor in her newly equipped computer lab with 20 spotless computers, complete with dust covers, but no students (maybe it was lunch time).

I saw a nice monument in the middle of town at a four way intersection. It turned out to be something called the Jihad Monument. One thing I noticed was that the traffic circumnavigated it in one direction when entering the notional roundabout of which it was the central point. Wouldn’t happen in Kabul where ‘road rules’ is an oxymoron. Another attractive feature of the city is the presence of ‘zaranjes’ – motorised rickshaws or tuktuks depending where else in Asia you go. They’re probably cheaper than the ubiquitous yellow taxis of Kabul and take up much less road space.

There are several nice buildings and a very large and quite nice park with more green spots than dust, mature pine trees and all. Many of the newer buildings are of the bejewelled tiling variety, at least on the wall facing the street. If the guest house I’m staying in is a fair facsimile, they are also garishly tiled inside as well and have a maze of rooms and stairs. Solid, but not very good workmanship. Further evidence if any were needed of the moribund technical and vocational education system.

Anyway, that’s it for the tourist guide and news about the encouraging progress in Afghanistan. Makes a change from the view from Kabul. Who knows which is more realistic?

Tony Preston-Stanley

March 2021

Tony Preston-Stanley has worked as a public administration adviser in a number of countries including Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Before that he was a senior public servant in Canberra.  

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