War zone sabbatical

A village mosque in Istalif, Afghanistan, near Kabul
I went to Afghanistan and Iraq to learn something about hope.
A village mosque in Istalif, Afghanistan, near Kabul (Tim Kutzmark)
Image: Tim Kutzmark


The electricity goes out often in Kabul. I was warned about this when I first arrived at the out-of-the-way guesthouse where I would stay for nine days. But being told about intermittent power on a sunny February afternoon is one thing; being plunged into total darkness on your first night in a war zone is a different matter completely.

I had just finished dousing myself with icy water in a small shower room. Toweled dry and shivering, I was crossing back into my bedroom when the lights disappeared. Darkness in Afghanistan feels dangerous. Darkness in Afghanistan sounds dangerous. Outside the guesthouse, a vehicle raced down the narrow street. It stopped. Doors opened. Dogs barked. There were sharp voices and fast footsteps. Everything was muffled by thick blankets hanging over the windows to keep out winter and prevent spraying glass from gunfire.

My dark-fueled imagination ran rampant. Had somebody found out that three Americans were staying at the guesthouse? Despite our driver’s careful and winding route from the airport, had we been followed? Had the lights gone out because the power lines were cut? Everyone had told me I was crazy to travel to Kabul. Were they right? Was my first night in Afghanistan going to be my last?

The emergency generator kicked in. The lights flickered on. The vehicle drove away. The dogs went silent. I didn’t sleep the rest of the night.

Few places in our world are more troubled than Afghanistan. Remote, mountainous, just slightly smaller than the state of Texas, this landlocked cusp of the Hindu Kush mountain range was once the crossroads of the world, the heart of the fabled Silk Road trade route. But recent history has been unkind.

Great Britain and the Russian Empire used Afghanistan as a chessboard in their violent quest for supremacy in central Asia. The United States fought a proxy war there against the Soviet Union in which 1.3 million Afghans died. Land mines and bombs maimed 3 million more. After the Soviets withdrew, Afghan warlords fueled a six-and-a-half-year civil war that killed 400,000. The Taliban’s repressive five-year rule came next, followed by twelve and a half years of U.S. occupation and Taliban insurgency. Add it up. Several generations—the entire population—live in a collective state of trauma.

But, as I found out, many Afghans also live in a collective state of hope. I’m not talking about a naïve positivity that ignores reality. Afghan hope is a courageous hope, the kind Václav Havel wrote about, “not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously heading for success, but rather an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

I journeyed to Afghanistan (and later to Iraq) because I wanted to experience something dramatically different. But I also went because I was seeking hope. I needed to leave the sheltered suburbia of the Unitarian Universalist congregation I serve as minister and step into another world, a world where survival didn’t include SUVs, Starbucks, and Sunday morning soccer practice. I wanted to meet people who, despite bombs and beatings, still possessed the “ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.” I craved a fundamental experience of religion, something even a minister can’t always find. After all, religion, at its root, simply means “to put back together, to make something whole once more.” Isn’t that what people are attempting in Afghanistan and Iraq?

There was another reason to go. As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I had spoken against the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. I felt a moral obligation to go and see the very thing I spoke against, or at least see its results and ramifications. I wanted to see if my postulations were correct, if they stood up over time.

This was not my first journey to a conflicted land. I have traveled twice to Palestine, to the occupied West Bank. I have seen firsthand how the media show us only tiny (and distorted) parts of the story. After being taken off buses at gunpoint and waiting at checkpoints, after being tear-gassed by Israel Defense Forces at a protest against Israel’s separation wall, I began to understand what an occupation feels like. Traveling into someone else’s daily life turns headlines into human beings. It gives distant lands an immediacy you carry with you in your heart. And so, when my congregation gave me the gift of a four-month sabbatical, I knew exactly where I would go.

With the financial support of the Unitarian Universalist Natalie Gulbrandsen Ministerial Scholarship for International Studies, I signed on as part of a three-person delegation heading to Afghanistan. Global Exchange, an international human rights organization, sponsored the delegation.

Arriving at Kabul International Airport in early 2012 was like landing at a military base in lockdown. Afghan soldiers with machine guns stood stony-faced in the midst of coiled barbed wire, stacked sandbags, cement barricades, tanks, and a huge cannon. When my guide didn’t appear, I dragged my suitcase through icy mud around the airport’s periphery, searching for someone answering to the name of Najibullah. Soldiers pointed rifles at my chest and gestured for me to put my hands over my head. They searched me to see if I was wired with a bomb. I had wanted a war zone. Now I had one. Eventually our guide found me and the two American women who made up the rest of our delegation. We crammed into our small car and drove into the snarled traffic of snow-filled Kabul, a city bursting with 4 million people. So began our journey to bear witness to those who are rebuilding Afghanistan.

In many ways, Afghanistan still lives by values that teach that women are less than men—that women are property, meant to serve and remain uneducated, separate, and secluded. This male-dominated culture was evident in our first hours in Kabul. Throngs of men crowded together on sidewalks, men gathered at marketplaces, men filled cars and buses, men sat talking at tables in kebob houses and pizza shops. There were some women and girls moving about; there were war widows begging in the street. But they were outnumbered to a staggering degree. We had entered a man’s world, unlike anything I had ever seen before.

But many people are working to transform this patriarchal way of life.

The courage to create a new society is epitomized by Fatema Akbari who, under the Taliban’s rule, was beaten and jailed because of her refusal to stop educating girls. A widow whose husband was killed by the Taliban, Akbari runs a neighborhood school, heads a business association for women, and trains war widows and developmentally challenged adults in woodworking so they can support themselves.

Her small school was located down a tight, snow-choked street in Kabul. We jumped over icy puddles and slipped on rotting garbage on the way to her small compound. For some of her students, her classroom is an afterschool program where girls and boys (together) strengthen reading and writing skills and practice math. For others, especially girls whose fathers will not permit them to attend a public school, this is their only access to education. In the unheated classroom, kids keep their coats and hats on. When one young girl stood to read from the Qur’an, her fingers were shaking. Yet these children were engaged, enthusiastic, and filled with life.

Akbari was passionate as she told of watching women—tentative and unsure at first—emerge into their innate ability to be independent, savvy, strategic, and collaborative. “We have come so far,” she told us. “Ten years ago, women were beaten in the streets if we let our hands be glimpsed outside our burqa. Now, we can use those same hands to learn and practice a trade. Ten years ago, it was illegal to educate girls. Now, our new constitution says it is illegal not to. Ten years ago, a woman wanting to run a business had to deal in the black market. Now, we have citywide associations to promote women-run businesses. Ten years ago I was jailed for wanting something better. Today my sisters and I are openly shaping our country’s future.”

Akbari welcomed the U.S. invasion and championed the occupation. But she knows nothing is certain. The women of Afghanistan know that despite all the progress, the past could come back to haunt them.

Jamila Afghani knows this tension well. The young activist grew up in a conservative family who saw no reason for a girl to be educated, least of all one who was reliant on crutches to move about. Sitting on brightly colored cushions on the floor in the small apartment she shares with her husband and three children, Afghani poured us hot green tea and recalled: “My father and brothers tried to prevent me from getting an education. I wasn’t even permitted to see a doctor for treatment of my disability. But I defied them. I was determined. I earned a master’s degree in international relations and another in Islamic law.” Afghani now heads an educational development organization that teaches women business management, finance, and database design.

But it is her use of religion that is most revolutionary. “Many of those who espouse traditional values regarding women use Islam as the basis for their attitudes,” she said. “I am a Muslim. I try to live in alignment with the Islamic vision of society. But I couldn’t understand why my religion would denigrate me. As I studied the Qur’an, I discovered that it does not sanction second-class treatment of women. It doesn’t advocate child brides, the beating of women, or giving away girls as barter. It doesn’t forbid us education. The traditional culture of Afghanistan is contrary to the will of Allah.”

Afghani tried to share this realization with religious leaders. “At first,” she said, “imams were unwilling to talk with a woman about religion. I was teaching school in one village, and the imam told the parents that I was the Devil. I was persistent and this imam finally agreed to meet with me. As I quoted passages from the Qur’an that supported respect and gender equality, he softened. Regaining his composure, he said in a huff: ‘I know all that already. I was just testing you to see if you knew the Qur’an.’ That day, he gave permission for the girls to come to my classroom.” Jamila Afghani and her teaching team have now trained over 150 Afghan imams in a more egalitarian understanding of Islam. “My hope for Afghanistan comes from seeing religious leaders change,” she said. “Where our religion goes, our country will follow.”

Her hope comes with risk. Death threats are frequent, and she has been attacked several times. She leaves her apartment only when necessary, and no longer feels safe sending her young son to school. “This is the tension we live with,” she said, “the push outward to do what is good, and the pull back to protect those we love.”

“Protection” was a word Afghani often used. With the Taliban’s reemergence in Afghanistan and the imminent withdrawal of U.S. troops, she has no illusions about what the future might hold.

I arrived in Afghanistan expecting to hear complaints about the U.S. occupation, especially about civilian deaths caused by the offensive against the Taliban. But the overwhelming majority of voices—members of Parliament, business owners, schoolteachers, radio producers, refugees, human rights activists, NGO workers, hospital administrators, and ordinary people in the streets—repeated the same thing: The country needs more time; the Afghan military and police cannot yet stand on their own. Those rebuilding the country wanted the occupation to continue. I returned to the U.S. challenged by their courage and their hope.

One year later, I flew into Baghdad International Airport on the tenth anniversary of the invasion that swept Saddam Hussein from power, destroyed the infrastructure of the country, left at least 130,000 Iraqi civilians dead, claimed 4,488 American lives, and set the stage for rising sectarian violence. Iraq, it seemed to me, was a living example of what happened when we invaded, occupied, and abandoned a country. Iraq was a harbinger of what Afghanistan could become.

And so, into this tenth anniversary came thirteen intrepid Westerners, riding together in a small white bus through the heart of ancient Mesopotamia. We had signed on for a sixteen-day tour of Iraq, organized by Hinterland Travel, a British adventure travel company led by a wild-haired, slightly crazed adrenalin junkie named Geoff Hann.

Under his danger-defying guidance, we climbed the steps of Sumerian ziggurats, stood before the great walls of Babylon, got dusty in Abraham’s city of Ur, and admired massive Assyrian stone carvings in Nimrud. We prayed side-by-side with Shiite Muslims in some of Shia Islam’s holiest shrines, then prayed with Sunni Muslims in central Baghdad’s largest mosques. We met Baghdad’s professional basketball team (with several imported American players), visited the tomb of Jonah (remember him from the belly of the whale?), and paid our respects at the tombs of the Jewish prophets Ezekiel and Ezra. We pushed through the crowded marketplace in Basra, rode boats into the marshes of southern Iraq, and drove through the oil fields of Kirkuk (where flames of burning oil shoot into the sky). We sipped tea in Tikrit (Saddam Hussein’s birthplace and hiding place), strolled through the immensity of his palace, and stood in his empty swimming pool. Through it all, we met ordinary Iraqis and tried to take the pulse of post-occupation Iraq.

Kabul had dirt roads; Baghdad had modern superhighways. Kabul had war widows in burqas begging in the streets; I saw no beggars in Baghdad. But Iraq, while more fully rebuilt, was more dangerous. Kabul had an obvious military presence, but it was nothing compared to Baghdad’s. In Baghdad, heavily armed checkpoints carved up the city, block by deadly block. More checkpoints halted traffic on the highways that crisscross the country. Remote villages had checkpoints, too—all attempts to stop the increasing car bombings. Iraq feels tense, explosive. You see it in people’s faces, in the wariness in their eyes.

Early in our travels, we drove to Samarra, 85 miles north of Baghdad. Situated on the Tigris River, Samarra has been inhabited for over 7,000 years. Its glory days came in the mid 800s, when it was the capital of the Islamic world. A grand mosque (one of the largest ever constructed) was built here out of baked brick, and its minaret, a spiral tower, still stands 1,200 years later.

Arriving at Samarra was no easy feat. On the bus were two plainclothes soldiers with handguns, our ever-present security. In front and in back of our bus were two military pickup trucks with large machine guns mounted in their beds. Three soldiers with assault rifles sat in each truck. We passed through multiple military checkpoints only to wait under the blazing sun as the guards sought radio confirmation from Baghdad that we were legitimate tourists authorized to visit. We were, in fact, the only tourists in the entire country.

A fierce wind blew against the minaret as I began walking up those 650 ancient steps. With no railing to hold onto on the outer side, it was slow going. Then the ironies began. Halfway up this religious shrine, I met three Iraqi teenagers on their way back down. Dressed in jeans and T-shirts, they took one look at me, pulled out cell phones, and asked if we could have our picture taken together—ancient Islam meets AT&T. “America good!” they said over and over. “We like freedom. Thank you, George Bush! Thank you, America!” It seemed that the Iraqis who didn’t want to kill us really liked us. My assumptions were challenged again.

Finally, I stood atop the minaret and looked down on Samarra and its massive gold-domed mosque, built on the spot where, it is said, Shiite Islam’s last imam will reappear on the Day of Judgment. Another irony: also within easy eyesight of the minaret is the massive industrial complex to which Hans Blix and his team of UN weapons inspectors returned again and again in their search for Saddam Hussein’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Day of Judgment, indeed!

Two weeks later, I rode in a glass elevator to the top floor of the Cristal Grand Ishtar Hotel, the tallest building in Baghdad, newly remodeled after a missile attack in 2005, where large windows look out over the sprawling expanse of the city. I looked down to the street, at the spot where, two years earlier, a car bomb had killed thirty-seven people. I thought of the almost 300 people killed by bombs during the sixteen days I had been in Iraq, including twenty-seven young people hanging out at an internet café not far from this hotel. Did they include the three teenagers I had met on the minaret?

Standing there, I couldn’t know that two days later the Sunni/Shiite tension would explode into the worst violence Iraq had seen in years, leaving thousands dead. Standing there, I couldn’t know that in the weeks and months to come, I would open my newspaper to read of ongoing bombings and body counts, and that I would weep again and again because I have stood in the places that are exploding, because I have met the people who are dying.

That evening, my final night in Baghdad, the lights went out in my hotel. Sitting in the dark I remembered these words by songwriter Mike Palter:

Take me to your children and your hearth
And the quiet places in your soul,
Where fiends and angels bargain dreams
And hopes from dust rise to speed the night.

In my search for hope, I asked two distant and dangerous countries to take me to their homes and hearths. I met their children and their elders. I asked if hope could live in such conflicted places.

Hope abounds in Afghanistan, and my skepticism was quieted by a sense of awe at the women and men working to transform their country. Hope is harder to find in Iraq. But it is there. I saw it, for example, in the exuberance of a boy named Ahmed who was skateboarding past the carcass of a car bomb in Baghdad, arms raised defiantly in the air. But I felt it most deeply in the ruins of Ur. From Ur—Jewish, Muslim, and Christian scriptures tell us—Abraham set forth on his journey to find a promised land. Perhaps the real reason I dared to travel to Iraq was to visit Ur. I have always been drawn to the myth of Abraham, stirred by the faith and chutzpah it took for him to leave everything behind because his God (or his gut) told him to go. I went to Iraq because I wanted to hold the stones and dust of Ur in my hands, and in doing so to feel Abraham’s eternal presence and courage.

To stand in Ur is to stand in a place of fortitude, a place where past and present merge to stretch forward into days beyond our knowing. That may be the true hope of Iraq. Something endures. Civilizations rise and fall. Empires come and go. Wars are fought and peace is sought. People live and die. But something endures. Amidst that antiquity, there is something greater than the complications of this moment in time. There is something larger that can’t be seen. Call it the wisdom of the ages. Call it the sweep of history. Call it the promise of the future. Call it life renewing itself.

I call that hope.

This article appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of UU World (pages 26-31). Photograph (above): A village mosque in Istalif, Afghanistan, near Kabul (Tim Kutzmark).

From the Archives