I honestly cannot remember if I ever posted this. To be sure, here it is:
Dear Volunteer (and for that matter anyone of thousands of westerners writing about Afghanistan),
Once I get you, the long term volunteer settled in, I purposely do not look over your shoulder. Your classroom is yours. I merely check in to make sure you are doing ok, otherwise this experience is what you make of it. If I've already "vetted" you then you are good enough for me. The same is true about blog writing. It is your experience, as a volunteer, and you share it in your unique way. I do not in any way wish to censor a volunteer. That said, as a writer and as a westerner with my feet planted on the ground here in Afghanistan, and as a man who has made some mistakes and who loves these people as dearly as he loves life, there are some guidelines I'd like you to seriously consider before placing an entry in your blog, and think about before every public speaking event.
First, when you arrive, take your time. Don't rush into reporting everything you see or hear. Let things sink in, and read, and learn. Get to know what it is you are writing about and (unavoidably because it is the nature of any writing) what it is you are judging. There is much to judge upon arrival. Everything may seem different, even cruel or ugly. Wait. Look inside as much as you are looking outside.
You are now a member of a family. Some time during your months here you will feel a shift from being a tourist to being a witness. A witness reports very differently than a tourist. Think about two things: how will this blog, available to the world, affect the audience and how will it affect the people you are writing about? What is your goal with this entry or that? The audience by and large already thinks of Afghanistan as the Land of the Barbarians. Even the language supports this- Taliban, drug lords, war lords, tribal this and tribal that. If at any time what you write down merely feeds this mythology, I suggest you consider another way to tell your story. Most everyone in Afghanistan, even the bad guys, for thirty years have been victims of outsiders and the games they have played with people's lives. Who really are the Barbarians? (Actually, Afghanistan's entire history is dotted with invasion, from Alexander to Khan to Babur to Tamerlane on through the ages. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Pakistan, Iran, Italy, U.S., England, Germany, Russia, China, India are all presently playing their hands here.)
Thinking about how your entry might affect AFCECO's family, consider if you were writing about your own sister or mother. What would you say? What would you never say? This is where the tourist in you needs to sit down (we are all tourists to one degree or another). Afghans are especially private people. If something personal about them, their family gets broadcast to the world, they become more like objects that we saw on one of our travels, another exotic thing on the side of the road. I have made this mistake, and when one girl found out from her sponsor I had written about something too personal, she was shocked and needed a lot of explanation. I'd lost a little trust. Worse would be if a sponsor mentions something she read in your blog to her child that is sensitive and not for the children’s ears, that an uncle, for example, is aiming to sell his daughter. A devastating ripple would race through the orphanage.
Imagine your work is being read by a sponsor, a fundamentalist Moslem, Hillary Clinton, a blood red blue collar Republican from Texas and a San Francisco gay activist. And most of all, imagine your work is also being read by the people you are writing about.
The world thinks Afghanistan is a freak show. When the NY TImes did a huge article that focused solely on the trend of some families to dress their daughters up as boys because they don't have a son was sensational. They couldn't resist, it was too good a story. But what was the point? One little line in the middle was useful and meaningful: that a woman because of a college education was able to put all her abusers to rest because she became a wage earner and had respect. The rest of the lengthy piece merely added to the freak show.
I do not see a freak show in the streets of Kabul, or Jalalabad, or Mazar or Herat. I see people very much like us. The only significant difference is they are trying to create sanity after being squashed by 30 years of war. There is not a wide gap between us and the drug lord, or the woman hiding under her burqa. None of these things are "cultural". They are indicative of scars and open wounds.
I leave you with this thought, and then the rest is in your hands:
Remember, less is more. Not every titillating story needs to be reported. The story, the real story, is what is in your own heart. Report that. Report the way one of your students gets all excited when there is an exam, as if it is the greatest gift, or the way you struggled trying to teach what the word "pride" means. Report a dream you had last night, or how you feel something changing, a strange shifting behind your eyes.
With sincere thanks, and utmost respect,