06 March 2012

Poetry as Diplomacy During a Hot War

Christopher Merrill, a poet, essayist, and director of the University of Iowa's International Writing Program in Iowa City, Iowa, recently published an essay recounting his impressions of two cultural diplomacy missions he made to Eastern Afghanistan. In May 2011 and again in January 2012, Merrill travelled to the Afghan capital of Kabul, as well as the city of Jalalabad in Nangahar Province. While in Afghanistan, he travelled via U.S. military convoys, as well as contracted helicopters.

Merrill's essay, "Leaving Afghanistan," was published Feb. 20 by the U.K. literary magazine Granta. In a Feb. 28 interview on Iowa Public Radio's "River to River," Merrill told IPR's Ben Kieffer that his visits, funded by the U.S. State Department, were intended to win hearts and minds by finding common ground with Afghan partners. He participated in roundtable discussions, writing workshops, and even a televised mushaira—a traditional poetry reading. Said Merrill:
There were a lot of soldiers—National Guardsmen from Massachusetts--one of whom could be heard to be saying, "We're doing a mission for poetry"?! They probably thought this was a pretty outlandish idea. But the fact is [...] the colonel riding next to me in the M-RAP and is a long-time veteran in Afghanistan—he thought this kind of thing is exactly what we now need to be doing. Trying to find ways to connect with Afghans, in ways that are important to them. To Afghans, poetry is absolutely essential. They are known as great poets. They have rich poetic traditions everywhere I went—in Kabul, and Jalalabad—I was hearing about the poetry festivals. To have a chance to connect on a level that is important not only to me, but to them, was really pretty thrilling.
Later, Merrill put the mission into larger strategic context, explaining that efforts to build sustainable governmental, economic, and cultural institutions must take place at the same time soldiers are fighting insurgents.
[A]ll cultural diplomacy missions from the outside might look a little complicated. But in fact, that cultural diplomacy is the key to every country's effort to find common ground with other people. We only do missions to places of strategic interest, to places where we hope to make a difference. Think about the missions that these [soldiers] do every day. Some times they're taking a U.S.A.I.D. official out with his or her counterpart in a ministry. They're trying to develop a crop. They're trying to get a distribution for crops. They're trying to build courthouses. All of the different parts to rebuilding a society. Cultural diplomacy plays a part in the larger diplomatic effect.
Merrill described meeting in U.S. State Department-funded "Lincoln Learning Centers", which are library rooms and computer labs administered by the Afghan Ministry of Information. "In Afghanistan, you can't call them an American space, because they'll be a target for the Taliban," said Merrill. "So they're called a Lincoln Learning Center." Some Afghans word business suits to the cultural meetings. Others wore traditional garb, including a woman who wore the blue burqa familiar in the region.
The idea was to create a space in which we could talk freely and frankly about the things that mattered to us. And what we really wanted to talk about was poetry. The interesting thing to me was that this woman in the burqa began the conversation by talking about with the oppression of women in Afghan society. She ended by reciting a poem in Pashto that was translated for me, that ended with a three-fold curse: "May you fail all your exams, may you become a slave like me, may tears run down your face like mine." It left the room just silenced.
Merrill's interview took place in the days following riots in Afghanistan, incited by the accidental burning of Korans by U.S. personnel stationed at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. "There are an awful lot of people working very hard [in Afghanistan], but the odds are very long," Merrill said. Later in the interview, he observed:
It reminds us how absolutely fragile the situation is, how quickly things can go south with an act of blasphemy ... even if, as it seems likely, it was done accidentally. It seems like sparks applied to tinder that was already there. The grievances that Afghan people feel that their government is corrupt, there's no work, there's no heat in a lot of places, there's so few jobs ... And there's this large occupying force that may be working on their behalf. Still it seems very difficult to them. An incident like this happens, and all bets are off.

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