The South Asia Channel

Reimagining Afghanistan’s Future, One Pupil at A Time

Candace Rondeaux reviews Jeffrey E. Stern’s new book about a sui generis school that defies the odds and norms in today’s Afghanistan.

Aghan school children carry plastic chairs on their heads as they walk to school in the morning in Mazar-i-Sharif on March 26, 2014. The literacy rate in Afghanistan is about 30 percent and about 42 percent of the country's population is under the age of 14. According to UNICEF more boys than girls attend classes in primary school in Afghanistan. AFP PHOTO / Farshad Usyan (Photo credit should read FARSHAD USYAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Now that NATO bases in Afghanistan have rolled up, the embeds are over, and journalists can no longer trade tales late into the night at rustic underground bars hidden behind high walls and barbed wire, how will the story of Afghanistan be told? Westerners, Americans in particular, have been trying to plot the country’s narrative for the better of a decade and a half. With the rise of the Islamic State (IS) and reinvigoration of violent extremism in Afghanistan, it is not clear what version of the story can make sense of the confusion of violence and the future of U.S. involvement. With the publication of his new book, The Last Thousand: One School’s Promise in a Nation at War, journalist Jeffrey E. Stern has developed an experimental narrative formula for reporting on the complex evolution of a post-Taliban, post-Karzai, post-International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Afghanistan.

Stern, a writer and development worker, has spent a great deal of time describing life beyond the wire in Afghanistan for a variety of American publications. His latest work focuses on the Marefat School, a community-supported school at the furthest, dustiest western edge of Kabul, where he taught English for seven years. Marefat’s founder is Aziz Royesh, a native of western Kabul whose formal education stopped when he was 10 years old after his family fled to Pakistan when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The school began operations in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, in 1994, before moving to the outskirts of Kabul after the fall of the Taliban. Royesh abandoned the frontlines of the Afghan civil war to train a veritable army of contrarian thinkers at a time when prolonged conflict and the Taliban’s reign had decimated the country’s troubled education system. The Last Thousand begins near the end of Afghanistan’s latest war, as former ISAF commander Gen. John Allen prepares for the 2014 foreign troop withdrawal. With only 11 months left before waves of NATO forces begin exiting the country, Royesh tries to convince anyone who will listen that Marefat is the country’s last great psychological dam, a fragile institution holding back the backlash sure to come from conservative forces as the Taliban fill the vacuum left by foreign troops.

Part biography, part memoir, part dream-like ethnographic study, The Last Thousand traces Royesh’s transformation from a disillusioned young fighter with the Hizb-e Wahdat mujahideen faction to a proud progressive. After witnessing the bloody 1993 Afshar massacre in western Kabul at the height of ethno-sectarian clashes between the predominantly Hazara Shia Hizb-e Wahdat party and pro-Wahhabi Pashtun factions, Royesh vows to give up the gun in favor of another powerful weapon: education.

Weaving together Royesh’s story with that of several of his students and supporters, The Last Thousand ably renders the complex history and politics that drive so many to the school’s gates, despite the risks and sacrifices that come with enrollment. Often easily recognizable by their facial features, Hazaras have faced discrimination for centuries in Afghanistan. As Stern points out, their mythical link to the invading forces of Genghis Khan, their religious beliefs, and their status as slaves under the “Iron Amir,” King Abdur Rahman at the turn of the 20th century, have long marked the Hazara as outsiders and pushed them into extreme poverty. Royesh dares his students to get an education that teaches them how to challenge authoritarian traditions.

Today, Royesh’s Marefat is at the leading edge of a tectonic shift in the social structure of post-Taliban Afghanistan. Situated in a predominantly Hazara enclave on the outskirts of the Afghan capital, Marefat caters to its neighborhood of mostly Hazara residents but its doors are open to all comers. Stern asserts that under the protective cover of international forces, the school’s participants found their voices and established a new footing in Afghan society by challenging conventions. “They learned,” Stern writes, “about Islam, but not just by memorizing passages in Arabic. They knew the history, they knew what was in the holy book, and they knew the parts that had been left out. It was no longer the case that the only way to be a person of God was to listen to the men who are paid the most to talk about Him.”

Marefat is something of a legend among those who have spent time in Kabul during the latest American interlude. For those who have worked alongside students and graduates of Marefat, as I have, the school is nothing short of a gift, bestowing on its recipients a rare glance into the promises of slowly breaking the country’s long-held and debilitating embrace of rote education, authoritarianism, and separate and unequal education for women. In the years since Royesh moved the school from Pakistan to the Dasht-e Barchi district of western Kabul after the fall of the Taliban, Marefat has tutored some of Afghanistan’s fiercest defenders of the Socratic method and progressive education. The school, which is co-ed but conducts most courses in gender-segregated classrooms, counts among its number several Ivy League graduates and has provided dozens of international NGOs, think tanks, and major media outlets with a ready pool of highly skilled Afghan staff. Among the vocations Marefat graduates pursue are journalism, medicine, law, and teaching. Over the last 15 years, enrollment has grown from just a few dozen to several thousand. The success of Marefat’s students will echo through Afghanistan as it faces new challenges in the coming years.

In gritty, original, and occasionally lyrical fashion, Stern portrays the transformations that Marefat inspires and the tests its students endure in an Afghanistan forever changed by the United States’ long military commitment. But despite Stern’s seeming sincerity, the novel contains a number of false notes. For readers familiar with the controversy surrounding Memoirs of a Geisha, the Arthur Golden novel told from the first-person perspective of a young Japanese woman in World War II, reading The Last Thousand may feel akin to a trip back to the 1990s, when it seemed like the only literary device available to novice authors writing outside of their cultural frame of reference was to deliver their prose with paternalistic, primitivist undertones. Combined with a narrative that slips between present and the past, this framework left me wondering why Stern did not opt for a more straightforward telling of this important period of modern Afghan history. Given the critical importance of the social transformations Royesh and Marefat have given birth to over the last decade, the jarring tone and uneven tempo of the narrative seems at times to suggest a missed opportunity to document a crucial part of Afghanistan’s post-Taliban story. Stern is to be commended for bravely trying to unpack, in a single volume, the complexities of ethno-religious tensions that have defined the Afghan conflict for eons. But, it is perhaps that very same naked naiveté that Stern conveys in The Last Thousand that may disappoint readers looking for less stylized nuance and more forthright substance in their storytelling.


Candace Rondeaux is a Senior Program Officer with the United States Institute of Peace and Director of the RESOLVE Network, a global consortium of research and training institutes focused on leveraging analysis to address violent extremism. She recently led a study on lessons learned from U.S. strategy in Afghanistan for the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, and she spent five years living and working in South Asia, as bureau chief for The Washington Post and Senior Analyst for the International Crisis Group.

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