September 11, 2001 was a turning point for Americans and Afghans alike. America started the global war on terror and gave Afghanistan regime change, which was a boon for many Afghans, particularly the ethnic Hazaras whose long history of persecution is documented in English literature by Khaled Hosseini and Lillias Hamilton.
Jeffrey E. Stern’s upcoming non-fiction book, The Last Thousand: One School’s Promise in a Nation at War, picks up the story of the Hazaras from where The Kite Runner left off: a people rising from the smoldering ravages of the Taliban, eagerly flocking in their thousands to schools with a sense of making up for the opportunity cost of their underdog’s history.
The book tells the story of one such school, Marefat, built by a former holy warrior who teaches his students, especially girls, to be outspoken, independent thinkers. Marefat embodies what’s possible in the civic space that emerged in the wake of American bombs and the Taliban.
This book is about the building of a school, but it’s not another stones-into-schools narrative; it is about sustaining the school’s social mission in the face of, among other things, an angry mob hurling rocks at the school where girls learn to take a stand against misogyny. (“Marefat” is Dari for knowledge, wisdom, awareness.)
Stern has lived a portion of the school’s journey, so he tells the story with intimate familiarity and subtlety. Stern’s years-long association with Marefat and its tenacious founder-principal, Aziz Royesh, enables him to write with human empathy even as he appears at times to grapple with his sympathies for the school: Stern is so close to Marefat and Teacher Aziz that he readily finds a unique place for them in contemporary history. Marefat’s art, music and civic education program and the school’s success – compared to what? by what metrics? – emerge as evidence. But the smart, articulate students appearing throughout the book offer enough endorsement to help the narrative withstand inquiry.
The book is paced appropriately as Stern tells the story of the months leading up to the end of American combat mission in Afghanistan. In this sense, the book is also about what happens to a historically oppressed minority after the protective foreign power with which it has sided is gone. This is where Afghan and American histories begin to diverge as neatly as they converged on 9/11: On December 31, 2014, America’s war officially ended in Afghanistan, but the battle was only beginning for Teacher Aziz, Marefat and Afghanistan.
The Last Thousand is a timely exploration of the question “what happens when the Americans leave?” and its corollary, “how will the Afghans manage to wean themselves off foreign support?”
And sure enough, as the Americans leave, the Taliban creep back and regressive forces become more assertive. To push back, the Teacher becomes involved in politics – and radically modifies his civic teaching.
“When the pressure is coming from different sides, you feel yourself unsafe or unprotected, you feel it more with your subconscious,” he decides. “Now we have to take ourselves two or three feet back. Just to remain alive….For the time being we should shut our voice.”
This lesson is not received quietly by Marefat students who have learned to think for themselves and question authority.
The book’s other contribution – documenting America’s earliest missteps in Afghanistan – is easily overlooked in the broader narrative. In the absence of an overall policy, the military gained primacy over diplomacy, which undercut America’s natural allies in Afghan society and eroded support for the mission – a process that started before the oft-cited 2003 divergence to Iraq.
And so Stern offers a more nuanced narrative of American involvement in Afghanistan and how it changed the Afghans who lived through it. He writes with honesty and manages to craft an uplifting narrative without making the story saccharine.
The book is recommended for those interested in the Afghan experience of what Americans call their longest war.
The Last Thousand comes out on January 26 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.