Books for Guns
Hussaini’s mobile library brings hope to Afghan children.
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.