This week a tweet from Canadian Defence Technology News, writing out of Afghanistan, led me to a URL at Radio Free Europe. I read the whole article. It didn’t really make the news. The government in Afghanistan has just produced a new text book for history lessons in schools across the country.
As you’ll probably be aware, the recent history of Afghanistan is a terrible one, difficult to understand, let alone to tell. There have been invasions, assassinations, conflicting political and religious views… and, beyond these grand narratives, personal tragedy on a scale that is unimaginable.
So the Ministry for Education had some tough decisions to make: what to include, what to leave out; who to name, who to leave anonymous. And their answer was to leave out the last 40 years of Afghan history. For the school children of Afghanistan, according to the official history textbook, nothing will have happened in their country since the 1970s.
Imagine if that was Britain. Imagine that, when you were in school, the government had told you that nothing had happened since 1970. Before a lot of current undergraduates were born. And that your teachers had to go along with it.
So there was never a miners’ strike, no Thatcher, no Falklands war, no New Labour, no wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. On an obvious level, this is a problem because, although you're not being lied to directly, these are lies by omission.
But it gets worse: the media, the books in the library, the films you’ll watch, all acknowledge that the last forty years did take place. So what you read in your textbooks will be directly contradicted by what you read and see elsewhere: a paranoia-inducing experience to say the least.
So for the children of Afghanistan, there will be no answers, in their education system, for questions about the Soviet invasion, or any of the waves of violence that have rolled over the country ever since.
One problem is that pretending it didn’t happen will never make it go away: it will just remove any possibility of dealing with it. Not only will they miss the descriptions or the explanations, but they will miss some moments that should be remembered.
Ahmad Massoud was an engineering student when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. He played an important role in driving them out; fighting a war of resistance against superior forces. His men saw him as a hero: a spiritual leader as well as a military one.
He became Minister for Defence, but when the Taliban rose to power, he again took up arms to oppose them. Unable to support their extremism, he returned to guerrilla warfare, often asking the West to help.
48 hours before the 9/11 bombings, Massoud was asked for an interview by two journalists. Massoud was keen for the world to know what the Taliban were doing and what he needed to do to continue the fight against them, so he agreed to speak to them. They were suicide bombers; probably Al-Qaeda operatives.
In Afghanistan, there is a national day of remembrance for Massoud. In 2002 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In the Afghan history book, he will never have existed.
At the end of this month, I’m going to a conference in Washington DC, to give a talk about travel writing in Afghanistan. Since the 19th century, British travellers have visited the country and returned to write books, articles and novels based on their experiences. Add these accounts to the increasing coverage of news media, and we have a vast amount of material about Afghanistan and the situation there. It’s fascinating.
With my undergraduate students at Loughborough I read a range of this material: understanding the contemporary situation probably means trying to understand at least two hundred years of history, of which the last 40 has been complex and fast-evolving. My students and I, and the audience in Washington, will know more of the history of Afghanistan than the young people in its schools.
It’s a cliché that history is always written by the winners. Perhaps the lack of will to write the history of the last 40 years simply suggests that, in Afghanistan, there have been no winners. But for me as a lecturer, as well as for my students, this is about something bigger.
This reminds us of the importance of the freedom to learn about our past and culture, as well as other people’s. Of how important that freedom is, because without it we cannot understand the present, nor imagine a future.