31 October 2009

Hookah-induced nostalgia triggers comparison

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan—I went out again yesterday evening after work with Otto, a former colleague at the American University of Central Asia, and we shared a pot of green chai (tea) and a hookah. This time our shisha, or tobacco, was a mixed flavor of sweet melon and mint. Walking home afterwards, with my consciousness modestly altered—Otto thinks that might be the consequence of excessive oxygen from sucking on the pipe as much as the tobacco itself—I experienced an odd blend of gratitude, longing and sadness.

I have realized since arriving here in Bishkek a few days ago, somewhat to my surprise, that I maintain a strong bond towards the AUCA community. I feel a sense of comfort at AUCA that I have not yet experienced at the American University of Afghanistan, which may be because I have only been working there since January, though I think there are other reasons.

First of all, AUCA is more of a traditional university of fulltime students recently out of high school, whereas AUAF is heavily attended by relatively older students who work fulltime jobs and many of whom are parents, yet take up to four classes per semester, and live with their extended families. Consequently, I only see them during class hours. I know them only as students. By contrast, I would see AUCA students in the halls between classes, on the streets of Bishkek, and during the weekends, sometimes with friends and relatives. In Kabul, our movement is so restricted and proscribed that it is highly unlikely my path would ever cross that of a student.

There is also a much richer intellectual life at AUCA in terms of on-campus guest lectures and presentations, cultural events off campus, and student-driven extracurricular activities. There is virtually nothing like that at either AUAF or which is accessible in Kabul. AUAF, in my opinion, is not yet a liberal arts college because it offers little more than classes designed to help people find employment. That might be enough for a technical-vocational institute or even a professional school, but a liberal arts college must provide more courses in the humanities and opportunities for the university community to engage in the performing, fine and documentary arts. In Kabul, it seems, we have allowed the larger, admittedly hostile environment to determine the nature of the university, rather than creating a university that can help to transform the environment.


  1. Seamus it was good to see you again and the hookah was very good. In regards the presence of the US military at AUCA which we discussed over the smoke, the student newspaper today ran a story about there being some sort of AUCA-Manas agreement. I reproduced the article verbatium on my blog. I do not have any additional information, but I would like to have some.

  2. Based on reports/rumors of USer troops burning Korans, "Hundreds of students turned out in two separate demonstrations in the capital, Kabul, on October 25, one staged in front of the parliament building and another began at Kabul University and moved towards the center of town. There were no reports of casualties, although police were forced to fire warning shots in an attempt to control the crowds."

    You getting any blowback on this?

  3. That was a really interesting comparison. I studied at American University of Cairo and it was incredible to see the differences in student life. I would absolutely love to get the opportunity to see what campus/student life is like in other countries, especially where you've been.

    Thanks for giving us US-based folks a glimpse into life there.