STUDENT AGAIN

Once again I found myself in a class with several of my former classmates. One was my most recent classmate, the second of my two cousins. Three others were my earlier classmates who had stayed behind for another year in the l0th grade of high school. There were six more students from other schools. Ten of us were Pukhto speakers originally from Nangarhar, Kandahar and Paktia provinces. There was only one Kabuli student with us whose mother tongue was Dari.

The Faculty of Letters and Humanities was headed by a Pukhto speaking literary personality of the Department of Press and Information of the Government. I immediately attributed my presence among the first year students to him. Soon it became clear that the purpose of the establishment of the Faculty was to further develop the Pukhto language through a group of enthusiastic young scholars who would attempt to advance the cause of the language of the majority of Afghans throughout the land. Along with various subjects dealing with Pukhto literature and Sanskrit (supposedly a sister language to Pukhto thousands of years ago), we also studied Dari literature. The subjects of philosophy and psychology were also being pursued.

We were all given free board and room on the college grounds even though most of us had our homes in the city. The other Faculties considered us a new breed of college students and thought we were wasting our time. What we were stu­dying could very well be added to the curriculum of a Tea­chers’ College and the graduates could be made teachers in various high schools throughout the country or researchers in lin­guistics attached to the Education Ministry.

Whatever the end result, I was a student again and I would now graduate with a B. A. degree in four years, same as most of my other high school classmates, if only a year behind them. And whoever knew what the graduates of our College would be asked to do? Maybe we would be high school teachers. Maybe we would really be scholars and do research in our fields. Maybe we would wind up working in the Department of Press and Information and help develop and enhance the knowledge of Pukhto language through the mass media.

My renewed student status continued. The eleven students of the first class did not comprise a homo­geneous group but we got along fairly well. And time passed.

Somewhere during my second year the Dean, Dr. Mir Najmuddin Ansary (who had replaced Mr. Abdul Hai Habibi), asked me to his presence and gave me an envelope while saying, “a good-for-nothing girl from the West wants to communicate with a good-for-nothing boy from the East. I have chosen you.” As I began to react to this unexpected statement, he stopped me by adding that his remark was only a joke, not to be taken seriously. Yes, an American College student had sent a letter to the Ministry of Education asking for a pen friend and the letter had then been sent to our Faculty. The Dean asked me to accept the responsibility as he thought I could find the time to correspond with a fellow student abroad.

Nancy Elsner, the writer had enclosed her picture, taken on the lush green front lawn of a beautiful Spanish stucco house in California. This was in stark contrast with our brick and mud-plastered homes with no lawns. She had talked a little about her field of education and wanted to know a whole lot about Afghanistan.

My first letter turned out to be quite long and took a long time to be written. I went back to the Dean to see if he wanted to read it. He said,” no,” but suggested that if there was, in the letter, some mention made of Afghan politics, then it might be safer to ask someone in the Foreign Ministry to see it.

I went to that Ministry and was ushered into the office of the Director General of the Political Department, Mr. Abdurrahman Popal, an elderly gentleman who agreed to lend me an ear. He asked to see the original incoming letter. The questions she raised were wide in scope. When I answered his query that I had also dealt with some of her questions about the government and social aspects of life in our country, he asked me to read it to him. The thing took over two hours of his time but he listened patiently, made no comments and asked me to go ahead and send it.

He also told me that I did not have to come to the Ministry again as it was not necessary at all as there were no restrictions on what students chose to write to other students in fo­reign countries. I thanked him and left but I was not totally convinced. If it was so, then why did he ask me to read him my letter in the first place. On the other hand, maybe he actually wanted to know how well or poorly I had written or whether I had done justice in my comments about things all around. I never found out the real reason; neither did it matter. Our correspondence lasted about two years and then a new development made it possible for me to go to her country in person even though I did not get to see her for yet another three years.

I graduated first in my class the first and second years of attendance. A rather extraordinary thing happened toward the beginning of my third year. We were informed through the grapevine that the Royal Government of Afghanis­tan had decided to send the first, second and third gra­duates of all Kabul University classes abroad for higher education. The countries to which these students were to be sent were West Germany, France, England, and the United States. We all felt elated at the opportunity and began planning what fields of study to pursue and where. The demand was for a variety of fields and the returning gra­duates were to be immediately absorbed by the various Minis­tries of the Afghan Government.

By the time official news of the decision reached our College, all kinds of rumors were afloat in the corridors about why this scholarship would not be given to us at the Literature Facul­ty. For example, where would we be able to study Pukhto if not inside our own country? No Afghans would be sent to Pakistan, the only other country in the world where Pukhto was spoken by a relatively small minority. We, as Afghans, were contenders that these Pukhto speaking people were really our own kith and kin and should either be allowed to join us or have an independent country of their own. Consequently relations between our two countries were rather strained and even if Pukhto was being taught in Pakistan, we would not be allowed to study there.

These rumors caused some consternation among the nine top students of the three classes in our College. At one point some even considered going to the Ministry of Educa­tion, en masse, to protest the unfairness. But luckily the situation did not reach that stage. Within reason, the choice of a country and of our fields of study was left to us. I decided to study journalism in the United States of America and was immediately given the go ahead.

Within days, we were grouped into scholarship holders in German, French and English languages and were instructed to contact the Kabul University administration for the neces­sary measures for our departures abroad. From our College, two other students had also elected to study journalism, one in France and one in West Germany. Of the remaining six, some had elected to study economics, finance, linguistics and other subjects. One student, a member of a religious group, feared that his going abroad to a Christian land might affect his family’s relations with the public in his home town and he, therefore, elected not to go. No one was chosen to replace him. I found that the Public Health Ministry had chosen its scholarship holders only from the Medical Faculty.

In the fifth month of our study, the three future journalists were introduced to the Department of Press and Information to get acquainted with the workings of the newspapers prior to going abroad. They severed our rela­tions with the College of Letters and Humanities.

I went to work as a part-time employee at the daily Anees. I was made a member of the editorial staff. My first job was to proof-read news and articles coming back from the printing section. I would, later on, be allowed to give appropriate headings and sub-heads to news items and articles.

Others in the hierarchy would then oversee my work. I was also asked to translate some articles from the collection of magazines which came to the office and which contained all sorts of material of general interest. Later on, this became my main occupation until I was asked to come to the headquarters of the Department to work there until such a time when I could go abroad. In all, I worked with the Department for eleven months when, finally, I received the acceptance documents from the University of Nebraska, at Lincoln, Nebraska, and took off for the United States.

I spent a total of four years in the U. S., two in the Midwest and two on the West Coast. The years were l948 to l952. I got a B. A. in Journalism from my first American alma mater and an M. A. in the same field from the Universi­ty of California at Los Angeles two years later.

While in Los Angeles, I attempted to see Nancy, my pen friend of some years past, but she had graduated from the Universi­ty, joined the diplomatic corps of her government and was then working at her country’s embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. I visited with her mother and brother a couple of times and saw her only once one evening at her parent’s home when she was on home leave.

In my second year as a student in the U. S., I received a special scholastic award offered by two dailies in the city of Lincoln, Nebraska, to five students with highest grade points, placing them in the upper five percent of their class. I was also awarded memberships to two journalistic fraternities, Kappa Tau Alpha and Sigma Delta Chi. I sent the news and the clippings from the local papers home to my father and he sent them on to the Department of Press and Information and I became an overnight student celebrity in Kabul.

Another thing that got my name in the local paper, Anees, was the fact that someone had chosen to write articles and poems using my pen name. Again, my father had intervened and shown my seniority right to the pen name. The gentleman, using it as his, was asked to take on some other pen name. And, according to the then prevailing rules, my precedence to the pen name was acknowledged and he graciously took on a new pen name.

My pen name had already become my last name with my father’s permission.

I tried to stay on for a Ph.D. in Political Science or Mass Communication, but the authorities in Kabul would not hear of it. The Royal Afghan Embassy in Washington D.C. was instructed to arrange for my departure for Afghanistan sta­ting that my services were needed in the Press and Informa­tion Department.

My return journey took four months. I stopped in New York, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam, London, Paris, Bern, Milan, Genoa, Florence, Rome, Naples, Alexandria, Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad, Tehran and Mashhad before ar­riving in Herat, Afghanistan. I traveled by boat, train and bus and took time to see at least some of the historic sights and museums in those cities. My arrival in Kabul from Kandahar was by air as the road between these two Afghan cities was, reportedly, in a rather poor shape and dangerous during winter. My father and his uncle received me at the airport and I arrived home in a jeep that Father had bor­rowed for the purpose.

It was after my return that I was told of my grand­mother’s blindness and eventual death a year before. We also had moved to a new home with many more rooms. It was nothing like the homes I had seen in the U. S. On the first night home, I fell down a flight of stairs as I was negotiating a dark descent into a small courtyard in order to climb ano­ther flight of stairs to go to the only toilet in the house. Luckily I was not hurt badly and there was also nothing any one could do about it other than adding an extra light bulb on the stairs the following day.

My return to the Press and Information Department coin­cided with the departure of the head of the Department, Mr. Mohammed Hashem Mainwandwal, to the United States as the newly appointed Councilor to the Royal Afghan Embassy in Washington.

It turned out that my services for the Press Department were not so much in demand after all. For a few days I just made what could be called routine appearances at the Department. Then someone asked me to take over the responsibility of putting out a daily news bulletin in English presenting a digest of the local news and commentaries to benefit the foreign community in Kabul.

This, too, was not a new venture. The Department was already doing it; they only thought I would do it better. However, given the circumstances, one could not bring about a miracle with just a typewriter and a Gaestetner machine. It soon became a rather dull occupation for me as nothing creative could be done there. I had fallen in a rut and no one cared. The Vice President of the Department was an elderly gentleman who was the editor of the morning paper at the time of my departure for higher studies abroad. In his youth, he was a political activist and had been im­prisoned for many years and later exiled to Kandahar until finally one of the uncles of the King, upon becoming Prime Minister, terminated his exile and appointed him editor of Islah, the Government morning daily. While in prison, this man had learned English, read many books and had become a very knowledgeable personality. He appeared rather cold and unreachable and seemed to be waiting either for a promotion or some new post. The welfare of the Department did not seem to be his chief concern.

I was left in a quandary. Not that my appointment to some responsible position in the Department would bring an immediate change in the pattern of things. For such a change would definitely require much more than the appointment of a young journalist to a position in the Department of Press and Information. I knew that even before I went on my scholarship abroad. But it seemed to me that the Vice President rather liked to maintain the status quo in the structure and wor­kings of the Department of Press and Information and would not disturb the existing setup to accommodate me.

Finally, in desperation, I took a leave of absence and left Kabul for my in-laws’ village near Jalalabad. I was also really angry. They did not permit me to stay on for a doctorate stating they needed me. l was made to leave the United States and come home to serve the government “in its hour of need.” And then, I was to find that I was not needed at all. What was this all about? Was the Ministry not ready to even find out what I had studied and how best I could put my knowledge at the service of the Department? Maybe my knowledge really could not find any practical application. I wished I knew what the other two journalism students, who had gone to France and West Ger­many, were doing right then. Were they home already or soon to come home. Perhaps if the three of us worked together, we may be able to change things. In the first place the autho­rities may feel the urge to hear us. And when we give them all the information on how journalism works in Europe and the United States, and how we may improve the situation in Afghanistan, we may be given a chance to place our acquired knowledge to the service of our nation.

As it was, I was not sure that I alone could do much even if I had the opportunity. There was no free press in the country. What we had, was government owned. What was needed was a press law and the coming into being of privately-owned publishing establishments. Freedom of the press had to be guaranteed by the government and enjoyed by all. The 1931 Constitution had allowed it. Right now, though, no writer or contributor could criticize any government measure or action or wish for the implementation of anything that the public needed and that the government did not provide. We needed privately-owned printing presses, to publish papers. Even the government did not have presses that printed more than four page-papers and that also only two pages at a time. No one had thought about 8-page papers published at speeds of thousands of units per hour. This required hard currency and lots of it. It also required people, both in the government and outside it, who felt the necessity and were dedicated to do something about it.

All this would be costly. Even the government, was hard pressed for huge investments in the printing industry to cover all the provinces. Afghanistan was not an indus­trial country. We did not produce things. There was no need for advertisement on a grand scale. Without adverti­sing revenue, it was hard to believe that subscriptions alone would cover the cost of running a newspaper or a magazine in our country where literacy was still in its infancy. No sane businessman would invest his money in such a venture where there would be all the cost to bear and no income to look forward to.

I spent days and days basking in the sun and thinking of the future during my self-imposed exile. I thought about the sad state of affairs that I had found myself in since arrival home from the United States.

I was there, away even from a phone, a radio or a newspaper. One day, an armed soldier walked into the garden of the home where I was staying and demanded to speak to a Khalid Roashan. I introduced myself. The man, who had walked about ten miles from the seat of the local district government, stepped forward and handed me a piece of paper with a short message. My return to Kabul was demanded by the Department of Press and Information and I was to go see the Nangarhar Governor as soon as possible.

I arranged for the soldier to be fed and rested and then I told him to go back and inform the local governor that I would start for Kabul the next day. The soldier was not sure that his superiors would accept just a statement from me and not my physical presence in front of the district governor. I was able to convince him that it was all right and that I would definitely leave the next mor­ning. I also gave him a written note to the local governor and, in time, he departed.

Members of the family around me were surprised that the soldier had really agreed to go without much ado. They could not believe that the man did not ask for, and receive, a certain sum of money for his cooperation. This was the accepted norm at the time. The soldier’s immediate superior expected something if the original errand were to be changed in any way. Maybe even the district governor expected and received a share. Such things happened but Kabul rarely heard anything about them. There had been cases when people were put in prison and/or fired from their positions for bribery if the authorities in Kabul came to know about them. My reaction to the situation at hand was that the soldier might have demanded some bribe if I were an ordinary villager, in appearance as well as in my manner of speech. In this case the soldier made a mental note that I was perhaps from Kabul and that he should be more careful and had acted accordingly.

I was reminded of the story I was once told by my grandmother of a messenger from Jalalabad who had arrived at her village demanding that the village elder provide fodder for government horses. It was a hard year and fodder was scarce. The village elder could not be found. The messen­ger stayed. On the second day the persistent messenger discovered the whereabouts of the village elder and promptly headed that way. But before he could reach the elder, some vil­lage urchins, way ahead of him, were screaming warnings at the village elder to run away again if he cared not to be caught. The unfortunate man could do nothing and was ‘caught’. Thereupon the messenger enjoyed several more nights of fine dining and rest before taking his ‘captive’ to Jalalabad where he was made to pay some ‘fine’ due to his inability to produce the needed fodder for his attempt to evade the government messenger. So this was still going on here, so close to Kabul and so many years later, in spite of tough laws against coer­cion of citizens, strictly observed in the capital.

I was somewhat puzzled by my sudden recall to Kabul, and, hoping for the best, headed back the next day. At that time it was about a day’s travel from the village to Jalal­abad and one had to spend the night in Jalalabad if one were to see some government authority the next day. The distance involved was not so much but that was what a horse-drawn carriage, the only available means of travel at the time, could do in one day. Trucks were few and far between and taxis did not yet exist in Jalalabad’s environs. I made it to a bus for Kabul on time the very evening of arrival in the city.

The highway between Kabul and Jalalabad, about one hundred miles long, was still unpaved. Many kinds of ve­hicles were using it at all times as it was the main trunk route for import/export to and from eastern Afghanistan into Pakistan and the world.

Upon arrival home in Kabul, I was informed of the appointment of a new President of the Department of Press and Information. Father thought that perhaps the Cabinet member had something planned for me.

The next morning I went to the Department, and was informed that the President, Mr. Khalilullah Khalili, was anxiously waiting for me. I was immediately ushered into his office. I did not know him. He was a newcomer in the Government. Upon introducing myself, he said he was about to have me brought to Kabul under the custody of provincial police because he expected to see me here on the morning of his arrival at the Department, but did not. He had heard about me, seen my records and had appointed me the Chief Editor of the Anees Daily. He could not have announced it over the radio or in the papers due to a government policy that Anees be considered a non-governmental paper by the public. I was to go there right away and take charge of the paper under my name and my editorial. That night the news about the new Editor-in-Chief would be broadcast over Radio Kabul.