Books for Guns

Hus­saini’s mo­bile li­brary brings hope to Afghan chil­dren.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Faizan Us­mani

A new gen­er­a­tion that does not need arms.

On July 3, 1991, the Coun­cil of the Amer­i­can Li­brary As­so­ci­a­tion in Ge­or­gia, passed a res­o­lu­tion on the restora­tion of li­brary ser­vices to Afghanistan by the for­mer Soviet Union that “de­stroyed all in­dige­nous in­tel­lec­tual po­ten­tial in the Afghan na­tion in­clud­ing the ruin of his­tor­i­cal sites and such li­brary fa­cil­i­ties as had ex­isted in the cities of Herat, Kan­da­har, Mazar-e-Sharif and Kabul and plun­dered na­tional ar­chae­o­log­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal wealth, par­tic­u­larly in the ar­eas ad­ja­cent to the bor­der with the Soviet Union.”

The Res­o­lu­tion fur­ther states, “the As­so­ci­a­tion urges the Soviet Union to re­store li­brary ser­vice to the cit­i­zens of Afghanistan through the re­turn and or re­place­ment of those in­tel­lec­tual and his­tor­i­cal ma­te­ri­als it has taken and re­con­struct those fa­cil­i­ties hous­ing them to make them avail­able to Afghan pub­lic, and be it fur­ther.”

How­ever, the Rus­sians never re­vis­ited Afghanistan to re­turn the stolen ma­te­rial or to re­store its lost li­braries. What­ever hap­pened in the coun­try there­after fur­ther ended any chances of bring­ing its li­braries back in the near fu­ture. Nev­er­the­less, a ray of hope emerges from Bamiyan, which is the cap­i­tal of Bamiyan prov­ince and the largest town in cen­tral Afghanistan.

The word ‘ Bamiyan’ is de­rived from San­skrit, which means ‘the place of shin­ing light.’ In the 6th cen­tury, the caves of Bamiyan served as an early Hindu-Bud­dhist monastery wherein thou­sands of the Bud­dhist monks lived, med­i­tated and carved the gi­ant Bud­dha stat­ues.

Hav­ing lost its glim­mer and shine in the last few decades, the war-torn part of cen­tral Afghanistan still has a ray of hope where a 35-year-old Saber Hus­saini, who hails from the same place, is play­ing his part to give Bamiyan its shin­ing light back.

He is an au­thor and sto­ry­teller and, above all, an agent of real change, pro­vid­ing sto­ry­books to a bul­let-rid­den child­hood led by ev­ery young­ster who hap­pens to be born in this un­for­tu­nate part of the world, known as Afghanistan.

In Oc­to­ber last year, Hus­saini pur­chased vol­umes of chil­dren's books from his per­sonal in­come, started a pedal-pow­ered mo­bile li­brary and has been on his bi­cy­cle since then, dis­tribut­ing books among the school­child­ren in far-flung vil­lages and small towns in cen­tral Bamiyan. He trav­els to five vil­lages ev­ery day car­ry­ing books in a small, wooden box on the back of his bi­cy­cle, which can­not con­tain more than fif­teen books at a time.

He does not sell a box of candy or snacks to chil­dren, but you may find him stand­ing in front of schools, invit­ing young boys and girls to get their favourite read­ing ma­te­rial from him for a cer­tain pe­riod at no cost what­so­ever.

Ac­cord­ing to Dr. Al­bert R. Vo­geler, an Emer­i­tus fac­ulty mem­ber of the de­part­ments of Lib­eral Stud­ies and His­tory at Cal­i­for­nia State Univer­sity, Fuller­ton, “Swept for cen­turies by Asian con­querors, rid­dled by eth­nic ri­val­ries and civil wars, dis­rupted by suc­ces­sive Bri­tish, Rus­sian, and fi­nally Amer­i­can in­va­sions, vic­tim­ized by com­mer­cial ex­ploita­tion and religious re­pres­sion, Afghanistan has not been hos­pitable to li­braries.”

“Re­gional lan­guages were mu­tu­ally in­com­pre­hen­si­ble and lit­er­acy was un­usual. In­dige­nous print­ing dates only to the later 19th cen­tury, and a govern­ment print­ing mo­nop­oly con­trolled the sub­jects and num­bers of books. Li­braries were few, but Kabul had four im­por­tant repos­i­to­ries of books, manuscripts, and an­tiq­ui­ties,” says Vo­geler.

“As a re­sult of the Rus­sian in­va­sion of 1980 and in­ternecine wars among ri­val re­sis­tance groups, Kabul was re­peat­edly bom­barded. The ma­te­ri­als in the Kabul Univer­sity Li­brary were partly dis­persed for safe­keep­ing, partly looted, and partly burned. Sim­i­larly, the Na­tional Ar­chives and the Na­tional Mu­seum, smashed by rock­ets, lost much to fire and theft. The North­ern Al­liance burned thou­sands of books in the Kabul Pub­lic Li­brary when it seized the city. Worse still, when the Tal­iban took over in 1996, they sys­tem­at­i­cally de­stroyed ev­ery re­main­ing book they deemed “un-Is­lamic,” in­clud­ing all for­eign lan­guage books and all books with pic­tures—and, in­ci­den­tally, all stat­ues in the coun­try. This was a ’cul­ture war‘ fought to the death.”

Saber Hus­saini also be­longs to a war-weary Afghan gen­er­a­tion, but has taken up the gaunt­let to pro­vide his com­ing gen­er­a­tions with pic­ture books and rhyming sto­ries in place of toy guns. To pro­mote read­ing among the school­child­ren, Hus­saini de­vised a novel idea to ex­change their toy guns and other plas­tic weapons with sto­ry­books and col­lec­tions of rhymes.

Ac­cord­ing to him, Afghan chil­dren need to have a true un­der­stand­ing of education, in­stead of such tools that per­pet­u­ate war and tur­moil.

“My aim is to pro­mote read­ing habit among Afghan chil­dren so that they can get more knowl­edge and in­for­ma­tion, as I want them to be deeply at­tached to the sources of knowl­edge and wis­dom for the rest of their lives,” he says.

“The books Hus­saini brings are very in­ter­est­ing, sim­ple, and help us in our for­mal education in schools. Be­fore hav­ing ac­cess to this mo­bile li­brary, we had to go to dif­fer­ent places to search for books,” says Mur­sal, a stu­dent of the Bamiyan Cen­tral Girls School.

Zaraf­shan, who also stud­ies in the same school, be­lieves Hus­saini’s mo­bile li­brary is a trea­sure for school­child­ren. “Th­ese books help us find out about the world where we learn about other peo­ple’s tol­er­ance to each other, and no one kills each other,” she says.

There is a poem in Dari (an Afghani lan­guage), which says, “Bamiyan is a world of mir­a­cles.” Hus­saini’s mo­bile li­brary shows one can do won­ders for the cause with­out re­ceiv­ing heavy do­na­tions or get­ting any sup­port from the state. At least, he is play­ing his part in cre­at­ing a bright fu­ture for the chil­dren of Afghanistan.

The writer is a mem­ber of the staff.

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