September 11, 2002: Class Notes


1991-2001 & Graduate School

Class Notes Profiles:

More than warlords and burqas
David 75 and Holly Edwards 75 study Afghanistan

In harms way
Brian White 00 helps Afghan refugees who have returned home

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More than warlords and burqas
David ’75 and Holly Edwards ’75 study Afghanistan

Caption: David and Holly Edwards in Pakistan, where they both studied in the 1980s.

A month after graduation, David Edwards ’75 arrived in Kabul to teach English with Princeton-in-Asia. Afghanistan was on the verge of prosperity, and Kabul was a “bustling, relatively cosmopolitan city,” he says. In retrospect Edwards, an English major at Princeton and now an anthropologist at Williams College studying 20th- and 21st-century Afghanistan, recognizes that an upheaval was already “simmering.” That summer, however, signs of what would come were “not apparent to the average person.”

Today, Edwards and his wife, Holly Cameron Edwards ’75, a historian of medieval Islamic art and culture who is also at Williams, are anything but average in their knowledge of Afghan culture, history, and politics. Former Fulbright scholars, they together have spent more than a decade in the region.

For several years during the 1980s, Holly, an art and archaeology major, conducted research on Arabic calligraphy and shrines to Muslim saints, and David worked in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. His experience produced Heroes of the Age: Moral Fault Lines on the Afghan Frontier. His new book, Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad, focuses on three Afghan leaders and explains how the tangible national optimism of the 1960s crumbled in the following decades.

A 2002 Carnegie Corporation Scholar of Vision, David plans to return to Afghanistan next year to study the breakdown of civil society there and the parallel expansion of Al Qaeda bases. Meanwhile, Holly is exploring how major media such as National Geographic represent Afghan women.

“Before September 11,” David says, “Afghanistan appeared on Americans’ radar screen in infrequent but dramatic ways” — for example, pro-Soviet coups, the mujahadeen resistance and victory — “and then faded away.” When the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the U.S. government “almost immediately” lost interest. The results of that lapse became evident last September, says David, who has worked with federal agencies and nongovernmental organizations.

The Edwardses have dedicated themselves to producing a more consistent, honest, and useful focus on Afghanistan. “It’s important to keep complexity in the picture,” Holly says. “Afghanistan is more than warlords and burqas and rubble.” Afghans lost much of their cultural heritage under the Taliban, whose much-publicized destruction of third-century stone Buddhas created the mistaken impression that Islam is antirepresentational. Holly warns against this impulse to generalize, pointing out that the Koran prohibits idolatry, not imagery. Her next project will explore iconoclasm.

Recently the Edwardses curated “Through Afghan Eyes: A Culture in Conflict, 1987—1992,” for the Asia Society in Manhattan. Drawn from an archive at Williams, the exhibition (which closes September 17) presented the work of Afghan journalists who covered the lives and concerns of ordinary Afghans during the Soviet occupation.

The Afghanistan seen in the exhibit barely exists now, and the Afghan people must create every aspect of their new country. To help them do that, Holly says, Americans must listen to and “authentically try to understand” Afghans’ needs and desires without confusing them with their own.

By Marianne Eismann ’79

Marianne Eismann teaches high-school English in New Jersey.


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In harm’s way
Brian White ’00 helps Afghan refugees who have returned home

Caption: White, in Dashti Archi District of Kunduz Province in July, where he interviewed Afghanis who have come home.

Many Afghans who fled their country are heading home. And Brian White ’00, who is based in Peshawar, Pakistan, with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), assists both refugees and internally displaced Afghans who have returned to their villages. White works on both sides of the Pakistani-Afghan border, by identifying the challenges returnees face (which include lack of assistance and human rights abuses), determining if conditions are right for repopulation, and getting that information back to those still in camps.

Afghans are both hopeful and wary of going back to their villages, says White, who had been stationed in Congo before arriving in Pakistan last April. In June and July, White visited some 20 or so rural villages in Afghanistan’s Balkh, Kunduz, and Ghor provinces to “figure out what’s really going on.” He interviewed people who have returned and gathered information from other nongovernmental organizations.

“Every village is different,” says White, who majored in politics at Princeton. “Some find that their villages, situated on former front lines, are finally safe and secure from attacks by soldiers, but still threatened by land mines. In other areas, fighting continues and some families find themselves at the mercy of local warlords and other ethnic groups. In some areas, rains have brought opportunity and hope to farmers. In others, drought conditions continue.”

In fact, “most of the people who had to flee their homes in the last three years in Afghanistan weren’t fleeing fighting. They were fleeing famine and drought.” Some villagers “have to walk four or five hours just to get to a place where they can get drinking water.”

As a member of IRC’s eight-person protection unit, White monitors the human rights of returning refugees. When he visited a village in northern Afghanistan, for example, one family interviewed said that armed soldiers came to their house demanding blankets and food. White funnels that news to field staffers, who try to work with local elders and commanders.

When traveling inside Afghanistan, he stays away from areas of fighting and never sets out alone or after dark. “We’re not trying to be cowboys. We’re just trying to get to the areas where people are,” says White, who journeys without armed guards because IRC staff members don’t want Afghans to associate them with a military operation.

Some Afghans have returned home only to leave again because life wasn’t sustainable, says White, whose current post lasts one year. “Basic necessities, like food, water, and shelter, are still in short supply in many of the communities. . . . Security problems . . . are a common feature in urban and rural areas.”

“The international community, led by the U.S., mobilized every available resource to remove the Taliban from power and drive Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan,” says White. “Now the same level of international commitment is necessary to help the people of Afghanistan get back on their feet again and rebuild their country after three years of drought and famine and 20 years of civil war.”

By K.F.G.

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