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Keeping Cool on the Firing Line April 27, 2006

Posted by KG in FS Life, Pakistan, State.

Today Islamabad reached a high of 101 degrees. I, of course, came to work in a dark suit and tie. I had a speaking gig, and felt like looking the part (despite being told that I could be casual).

The Gate at Qaid-e-Azam

I was driven by motorpool to Qaid-e-Azam University, on the outskirtsof the city and through the neighborhood of Bari Imam. That neighborhood? Off limits. Something about shootings and being one of the epicenters of anti-American protest.

My topic was US Western Expansion, 1792-1862. I was to speak for an hour. Total prep time: five days. Total knowledge of topic before being assigned: about 4% of what was needed. But I was doing a favor for a good friend, and thus wanted to do a bang up job.

Did I mention the part about it being 101 degrees here today? Well, it was about 105 in the classroom. I was speaking to 150 kids fromthe upper undergraduate to the masters level. I introduced myself, told a couple self-deprecating jokes, and got to the topic at hand. Right when I was finishing my bit about the Mexican American war, I stepped in it. In order to frame a good process story, I mentioned that one of the great opponents of the war was one Abraham Lincoln. A hand shot up from the back. A chhador-clad young lady had a question:

"If Lincoln had opposed the presidential agression of the Mexican American War, wouldn't he be opposed to the war in Afghanistan?"

The floodgates had opened.

My speech after that point was only nominally about America moving west. All the great topics were, instead, fair game: why is the US supporting Musharraf when he is not a democratic leader? Why do African Americans have no opportunity in the US? Is the US a Christian nation? And of course, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran. America as the new colonialists. Democracy as a disguise for imperialism. American's ignorance of Islam. Whether we'd go to war with Iran. What it would mean if we did. I was 20 minutes away from the end of my hour and the hands just kept flying up. A room full of both hostile and friendly Pakistanis.

Friendly? Sure. Someone asked about Afghanistan again, and I answered that from the visa interviews I've had with Afghans (quite a few) its important to realize that though there are hardships, the lives of the Afghan people have improved and they are happier and more free. Applause. It felt like the temperature had gone down like 10 degrees.
After the end of the hour I started to leave. I needed a smoke and some time to think. Instead, I was mobbed by students who wanted my card, wanted to email me. I had brought like 30 and ran out in just a few minutes. Luckily, on running out I had an excuse to get outside.

More than anything now I wanted, needed a cigarette. The stress was getting to me. I got outside to have one and — lo and behold — there were my hardest, most hostile interlocutors waiting for me. They implored me to have a seat, and cigarette in hand I started hearing their various points of view — and answering more questions, hard questions, on American policy and American history. When my motorpool car arrived I said wait and signaled to the FSN with me. I needed a picture of these kids. It was just too good to pass up.

After getting a good shot with them, I shook all of their hands. One of them, possibly the toughest questioner of the bunch, smiled broadly and gave me a hug. A hug! I think it was something about having my picture taken with them. I don't know why, but it broke some sort of barrier. They went from interlocutors to friends I was having a discussion with. All of a sudden, the importance of speaking to this group felt very real. Unlike some of the other speakers, I was like them: young, eager, idealistic. The research, the extra time put in, the sweat under my collar — it was all worth it.

Opportunities like this are not as prevalent here as I'd wish. But when they happen, I'm reminded of how hard this job is. And how much I love it.

After the Lecture



1. Lisa - April 27, 2006

Just amazing! I would have loved to hear the entire interrogation. Is it my imagination or do you look younger than the kids?

2. KG - April 27, 2006

Imagination. Really, Pakistan ages people. And the penchant men have for facial hair does not help.

3. Silvie - April 27, 2006

Love this post. Amazing experience.

4. Audrey - April 27, 2006

This is the best Pakistan picture yet. Here’s to more days like this one.
As for defending the further adventures of this administration . . . um, good luck with that!

5. Solomon2 - April 27, 2006

I’m proud of you. Maybe, in about a year and by the grace of the FSOA, I’ll arrive there to help you with the visa stuff so you can do more of this.

6. Consul-At-Arms - April 27, 2006

Good job.

Have you met Atlas yet?

7. epaminondas - April 27, 2006

You are BOOKMARKED, dude.
Good SHOW !

Carry on.
No prejudice (except one) survives personal contact.

8. WJF - April 27, 2006

Looks like you need to grow a mustache.

9. Furnish Worldwide » The marrying man - April 27, 2006

[…] Meanwhile, if you want to read some good accounts of what’s going on in the field, check out my buddies here and here.  Pretty good reading, als je me vraagt.   […]

10. Nick - April 28, 2006

That’s a pretty incredible story, dude. It must’ve been crazy stressful during your talk, but it certainly seems to’ve turned out well.

How often would someone in your position be called on to give a talk at a local university? Is that a rare occurance in itself?

11. Reenee - April 30, 2006

Not to sound lame or anything, but you are an inspiration to one kid sister.

12. Shawn - April 30, 2006

I’ve enjoyed following your blog. I’m starting A-100 myself in about…hmm…15 hours. Feel free to check out my (currently spare) blog when you get a chance. I hope we cross paths someday.

13. Tom - April 30, 2006

Wonderful story.

The question of whether the US is a Christian country reminded me of something my Islamic Law professor (a Muslim from the Sudan) told me when I served as his Research Assistant: “The US is the most Islamic country in the world. That is because in the US a Muslim is free to be the kind of Muslim his conscience compels him to be.” – (as opposed to being coerced by threat of violence into pretending to believe certain dogma propagated by governments or other groups in Muslim countries of the Middle East and southwest Asia.)

I wonder how some of the US’s more strident critics at your talk would have reacted to that quote?

14. Rashid the Political Officer - May 1, 2006

Enjoying your blog. I returned from the ‘Bad just before you arrived. Not the most fun post, but as you can tell, pretty interesting for a brother. Say hi to Megan for me, and tell her to stop pushing off trying to grab rebounds.

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