19 January 2014

This isn’t a normal ‘letter from Kabul’ – for one thing, I’m not there, I’m actually in Greece to teach a course at the Harokopio University in Athens. But I have had some questions, and I did want to try and put peoples’ minds at rest.

To be clear, there was nobody from our project in the Bistro du Liban in Kabul on Friday. This sad incident sends our thoughts out to the family and friends of those who fell, irrespective of their work, their citizenship, their affiliation. It was a terrible thing to happen, and my thoughts and condolences go out to those killed or injured in the attack.

I and other colleagues have eaten at that restaurant, but not too often. To my mind it provides a TRE [a Target Rich Environment, for those who have forgotten the acronym] and, once you’re in though the checks and blast corridors, then you’re in – the only way out is the same way you arrived. So then it becomes a question of whether the walls are keeping Group A out, or Group B in?

I am going to be going back to Kabul in a few weeks, as are other colleagues. Rest assured that we shall take all the common sense precautions which one must take in a place like Afghanistan – and in many other countries, to be honest. We also take a few others, ones which may not be ‘common sense’ in Charlottetown but which are strongly recommended by the people whose work it is to know how to move around in a sometimes insecure environment. We listen to their sage advice, and we follow it as much as we can.

Sometimes, though, it doesn’t matter what you do – you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I suppose we all find ourselves, at different times, in places and situations where there may well be negative outcomes to ourselves or others. But what can we do? Should we just stay in our houses and our small communities of friends and neighbours, never daring to leave the immediate confines of what we know? In Jared Diamond’s new book he talks about this type of life, still lived by some people in remote areas of the world – the mountains of Papua New Guinea, the forests of the Amazon. Here people live in their own small spaces, with limited trading and other connections to those on their immediate borders, but only vague knowledge of peoples one more border away. It is to invite almost certain death if one was to travel past the known to the unknown and get caught in the process.

A colleague from Calgary once wrote about school principals as ‘border crossers’, bridging the diverse communities of teachers, students, parents, business-people, politicians, taxpayers, and so forth. I believe that in our own lives we have now evolved to this role, this great opportunity, where borders are simply things through which we (with the appropriate paperwork) can pass. We can travel and meet people all over the world and, as importantly, they can come to us. This is a function of our modern world, one that has moved us from being a small scale society to a global one.

Last week I gave a small talk at the University of Prince Edward Island. Afterwards three first year students, all new friends, came up to me to ask a question. One was from rural western China, one from northern India, and the third was from South Korea. Two were doing their full 4 year degree as international students, one was on a 6 month exchange program. None had met any of the others before September. And yet they introduced themselves as friends. As we talked they told me of going to down-town Charlottetown at night, how they always walked together. “Why are you scared?” I wondered. “Because we don’t know these Island people” was the response.

Island people, mountain people, forest people – perhaps we are not a long way removed from a small scale society after all. But this should not make us afraid to travel, to see new spaces, to invite new people into our social and professional networks, and to enter those networks of others. Sometimes this may put us in danger, but it seems to me that to live a boarded-up life is simply a different type of death.


19 January, 2014

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