An Interview with Dr. Arley Loewen

Recently I asked Dr. Arley Loewen if he would answer some questions about the book Images of Afghanistan which he and Dr. McMichael have authored and will be available in June.

1. What led you to write this book?

One day, ages ago (in December, 2005, I think), Dr. McMichael approached me and

said she’d like to write a book on Afghan literature for dummies, and asked whether I could provide her with some material.

I replied, "That would be like if I’d write a book on medicine for dummies and ask you [a medical doctor] for materials."

I can’t remember who then suggested we work on this together, but we thought, "Maybe we can pool our strengths here and produce a book in popular format on Afghan culture for the English reader."

2. What surprised you about Afghan culture? What part of your book and/or the culture do you like the most?

I’ve been researching and analyzing Afghan culture for 25 years. Writing and editing this book did not create further surprises except the growing awareness of how much material there is. Each chapter could become a book of itself, and then we could have divided it further yet by focusing on regions.

It sounds self-serving, but I like the section labeled "Themes of Culture." I wrote all of those chapters. These are a result of much research, constant interaction with Afghans and many lectures on culture. Those chapters reflect much of my own thinking on Afghan culture.

3. Do you have a favorite story of how you developed some part of the book as you did your research and interacted with Afghans? Did you find unique information in an unexpected place or source? How much of what you shared is from your own experiences?

My favorite experiences were the privilege to meet so many key personalities of Afghanistan - Afghan intellectuals who have such unique insights into their own society.

When I met Bashir Sakhawarz in a hotel in Kabul, he introduced me to Omar Tarzi, the grandson of Mahmood Tarzi, the father of modern Afghan journalism. Being able to interview Tarzi, who is more Turkish now than Afghan, was a privilege.

I called Ashraf Ghani and told him that I was writing a book on Afghan culture and had a few questions. He invited me for lunch the next day. The one hour of sitting with an intellectual like Ghani and listening to his insights on Pashtoon dominancy in a context of hegemony of Tajik (Farsi) culture was a fabulous meal.

Meeting Salim Bakhsh, the son of Rahim Bakhsh (famous kharabati musician) or talking with Waheed Kacemy (grandson of Ustad Qasimi) … and the list goes on. Poets, musicians, artists, writers, cinematographers … so many, and yet I’ve met so few. I would want to meet more of them.

4. What is your dream of how you would like to see this book/information used?

I wonder if the book could become standard reading for anyone planning to work in Afghanistan. I think it should. It would be great if such a book could be rewritten for the Dari and Pashto readers as well, but that would mean more than a translation, it would need a complete rewrite because the audience is so different. Maybe it would help Afghans to become more familiar and objective with their cultural heritage.

5. What do you find yourself saying the most about Afghan culture when asked about the problems in Afghanistan?

I ask people, “You know what is the most favorite TV show in Afghanistan? Afghan Star – modeled after American Idol.”

Here is what I wrote recently for a local magazine in my town.

“On Saturday nights we love to watch Hockey Night in Canada,” a Canadian farmer said. “That’s our pastime, our leisure. What do Afghans do for their leisure?” I appreciated his question. He realized Afghans do not simply think violence.

In Afghanistan, it is "Afghan Star," broadcast on Tolo TV every Thursday night. Modeled after "American Idol," in this national music talent show Afghans young and old vie for a chance to gain stardom.

I remember how one Thursday in Kabul traffic came to stand still because "Afghan Star" was on. Tolo TV, the largest television company in Afghanistan, boasts that as many as 11 million Afghans watched the finals in 2007.

We have a very one-dimensional perspective of Afghanistan. It is understandable. It is not that western news on Afghanistan is wrong; rather, it is much too singular, primarily about the military and political quagmire.

Yet, life goes on. Thirty million people eat bread everyday. Imagine the amount of flour to feed 30 million people. Taxis, mp3 players, burgeoning private schools and universities, digital culture, constant construction, trades never out of work, media (radio, press and TV) that continues to grow all across the country.

I also talk about the military and how Afghans by and large do not believe that NATO is serious about the conflict. How is it possible that the most sophisticated and powerful military nation in the world, and having spent billions and billions of dollars, cannot stop a simple rag-a-tag bunch of Taliban?

6. What positive changes do you see happening in the culture?

Education - for me, one of the most exciting things I see everyday on the streets of Kabul is the 100s and 1000s of girls on their way to school.

University students. I regularly do leadership training at Kabul University and other institutions. To see the ambition and passion of young adults keen to become successful in the good sense of that word, and longing to make a real contribution to their nation – that inspires me.

7. What is next for you in your writing plans? Any more collaborative efforts in the works?

I’m finishing a more academic study on shame and honor in Persian culture.

Lots of other ideas floating around.

8. What do you see as the biggest needs in development in Afghanistan?

I travel to Afghanistan 2 -3 times a year for leadership seminars. I think some of the biggest needs are developing good governance and a healthy civil society.

Thank you Dr. Loewen.

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