13 September 2011

Suddenly wistful for the unstable environment I left behind

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —I confess to a twinge of longing for Kabul, Afghanistan, even while reading about the multi-pronged insurgent attacks earlier today that targeted the U.S. Embassy, NATO headquarters and other sites across the capital, possibly including the American university where I used to teach.

Reliable information remains sketchy, but Afghan police fired on Toyota Corolla approaching the main gate of the American University of Afghanistan, fearing the vehicle was loaded with explosives or gunmen, according to an email from a former colleague. In response, university security corralled students and workers into a single building and distributed weapons to its transportation escorts, who are typically unarmed.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for coordinated assaults that involved rocket-propelled grenades, shoulder-held rockets, assault rifles, and suicide attackers, some possibly disguised as women wearing burqas, and lasted for more than 10 hours, according to published reports. At least six Afghans were killed and many more wounded, say local authorities, though the actual toll is likely to increase as more information is collected.

I left the university at the end of May in large part because of Kabul’s deteriorating security conditions, which meant increasingly severe restrictions on the freedom of movement for international employees, including lockdowns that increasingly kept us either on campus or in our guesthouse residences. Yet I realize today that I miss the excitement of Kabul and, more importantly, the knowledge that I was contributing to the development of new university in a country with its educational infrastructure in shambles.

Here I find myself dealing with prospective employers who are typically unresponsive and often rude, conduct they can only get away with because of “staggeringly high” rates of long-term unemployment and poverty that is experienced by more than 46 million Americans while a tiny percentage wallows in its wealth. Our political leaders make headlines, not for imagining solutions to complex problems like these, but because stupid things they say or do, like denying modern scientific consensus or piling up a shameful record of public executions, much to the delight of their mean-spirited supporters. Meanwhile, after decades of declining expectations, much of the American public appears numb or beaten.

Another way to conceptualize my reaction, which may seem a little perverse on the surface, is to frame it this way. Death is inarguable, we all have to exit sometime, but there are better and worse ways to depart. Death by a suicide-bomb attack is not my first choice, but if that occurs while I am doing something that I enjoy and believe to be meaningful, then that strikes me as far preferable to a death that simply snuffs out soul-killing tedium. So I read today’s horrid news concerned for former colleagues and students, grateful that I don’t live under those conditions, yet wistful for the ties that once bound us together.

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