“There are barriers not just in winning hearts, but letting our own hearts be won”

 Farzana Marie is a poet, author, social worker and former Air Force offer. She heads Civil Vision International (CVI), an organization focused on positively influencing international relationships through connecting, informing, educating and inspiring. She is the author of Hearts for Sale! A Buyer’s Guide to Winning in Afghanistan. 

Ms. Marie served as Air Force Officer in Afghanistan for two years, between 2010 and 2012. Before that, she had worked with Afghan orphanages between 2003 and 2004. Her research focuses on Persian literature, especially Afghan women’s poetry. In conversation with Syed Zafar Mehdi, she speaks about her experience as soldier and social worker, her poetry, and what she thinks of Taliban and Afghan youth. 

Q. You served as volunteer in Afghan orphanages before being deployed as an Air Force officer in Afghanistan. How was the experience as soldier and as social worker?
A. When I first went to Afghanistan in 2003, I was 19 years old. I was probably very naive and trying to ‘change the world’. But I think being with those kids at Allahudin and Tahai Maskan orphanages changed me far more than it changed them. After I was commissioned as an Air Force officer, I volunteered to go back to Afghanistan as soon as I could. I was nervous, though, because I was afraid I would be stuck inside the base doing something meaningless and disconnected from Afghans.

I was very frustrated, especially in the first 6 months, with many paranoid restrictions. My deployment was supposed to end after those 6 months, but I was offered the opportunity to extend it. It was in the second year (under the great leadership of people who understood the importance of engagement) that I was able to participate in more significant work as part of the ISAF Anti-Corruption Task Force called Shafafiyat.

Q. In your book ‘Hearts for Sale; A Buyer’s Guide to Winning in Afghanistan’, laced with intellect and emotion, you urge Americans to come out of their fortified barracks and mingle with Afghans to win their hearts and minds. Why have they failed to do so in all these years?
A. What I saw when I was serving in Afghanistan was that many American men and women in uniform were in fact very eager to spend time outside and connect with Afghans. The policies and regulations that often prevent them from doing so largely stem from a system built on rewards that are not based on actual results or success. The system is based to advance careers, and thus treats deployments as ‘checking a box’ with the goal of coming home safe (with medals, of course).

The other problem is a misconception of safety: the idea that security is derived from high walls and heavily-guarded gates. In my experience, this is incorrect. The best source of security and safety in a place like Afghanistan is an ‘arsenal’ of deep relationships with Afghans. The best ‘weapons’ are language and culture, which are usually far better tools for navigating tense situations than bulletproof glass or the raised muzzle of an M-16.

Actually, you have to fall in love. It has to be real. And the mission you are fighting for, the mission you have left your loved ones behind for has to mean something. The short tour lengths, the high physical and mental walls, the mindless briefings disconnected from the realities of Afghanistan, the lack of understanding of the tremendous potential of Afghanistan’s future and how U.S. partnership can help secure that against the forces seeking to destroy it. These are barriers not just in winning hearts, but letting our own hearts be won.

The best source of security and safety in a place like Afghanistan is an ‘arsenal’ of deep relationships with Afghans; the best ‘weapons’ are language and culture, which are usually far better tools for navigating tense situations than bulletproof glass or the raised muzzle of an M-16

Q. In your book, you tell gripping stories of your engagement team’s 350 plus missions around Afghanistan. Which one was most memorable?
A. I think it was the trip to Panjshir Valley on the 10th anniversary of Ahmed Shah Masoud’s assassination just before 9/11. That day involved memories of so many kinds I love Afghanistan for: stunning natural beauty, hospitality of people, importance of remembering our shared history. A close second was an Iftaar dinner at Governor’s house in Herat with young leaders and friends from civil society in attendance.

Q. Your research primarily focuses on Persian literature, especially Afghan women’s poetry. As a poet yourself, what do you make of it? 
A. I feel very honored and humbled to be studying this. The enormously rich tradition of classical Persian poetry combined with the important and intriguing new material Afghan poets are producing today makes me feel very small and very excited at the same time. Understanding Persian poetry (and hopefully one day Pashto poetry as well) is a lifelong pursuit for me. I think what interests me most about the poetry of contemporary Afghan women is the strong impulse to address socio-political issues, the potential for poetry to be more than just a venue for expression, but actually a process to bring awareness and stir action. I am probably most interested in the unusual or striking images that I find as I read. For instance, in Somaya Ramish’s new book, A Season of Pomegranate Dreams
(Yak Fasl-e Khaab-e Anaar), there is a poem whose first line and central idea is: ‘load poems like guns’.

This gives us a lot to think about in terms of the power of poetry and its potential as means of ‘fighting back’ against forces that would seek to destroy, to oppress, or perhaps most significantly in this case, to silence.

Q. How does poetry wrestle with the conflicts and social issues of our time? As Iraqi poet Dunya Mikhail puts it, is poetry not medicine but an X-ray?
A. I think poetry (and art more broadly) can be both part of the diagnosis and the healing. Poetry is a layered language, but it also does a great deal of exposing. It can point to the wounds, identify the broken places which are often ignored or have been hidden beneath the defensive mechanisms of forgetfulness or willful ignorance. Once these places are spoken back into the light, we can begin confronting them more clearly. Poetry is about finding new ways to see, and I think in this sense, it is an important part of confronting the issues of our time, especially in conflict. I think poetry can help us see the way forward in that too.

Q. How do you rate Afghanistan’s new breed of leaders? Do they present hope and optimism?
A. Afghanistan’s young leaders give me such exuberant hope. I have the great privilege to be connected with many visionary young Afghans who I am convinced will shape their country’s future in positive and inspiring ways. These are the leaders who are constantly thinking of helping those in need. These are the leaders who are not afraid to stand up to a corrupt official, who are voting or running for office, who stand in peaceful protest, who plant trees, who make courageous art and music. Through their actions and words, they choose to be a part of creating the future they want to see for Afghanistan.

I have the great privilege to be connected with many visionary young Afghans who I am convinced will shape their country’s future in positive and inspiring ways

Q. In the wake of withdrawal of international forces by the end of 2014, do you think Afghan forces will be able to take control of things?
A. I think there will still be a residual force to continue training the Afghan forces beyond 2014, but I think the Afghan police and army have been taking tremendous strides and are capable of rising to meet this challenge. To me, it is not so much about equipment and particular skills. Those things are important, but I think the determining factor in how successful the ANSF is at meeting the challenge of Afghanistan’s enemies is leadership. The Afghan troops are facing a psychological battle, which is intensified by the high number of physical casualties they have been suffering. They need inspiration and they need leaders who have integrity and see rank as an opportunity to serve rather than rule.

Q. What are the major challenges in negotiating with Taliban? Why did Doha talks fail?
A. Negotiations have to begin on some kind of common ground, however small. Usually in peace negotiations, part of that common ground is a desire for peace. Unfortunately, it appears that the sponsors of Taliban in Pakistan do not actually want that. Another foundational element of the necessary common ground in negotiations with the Taliban is acceptance of the Afghan constitution as the law of the land. In the political theater performance in Doha, indications from the raising of the Taliban flag to the ‘Islamic Emirate’ sign made it clear that the Taliban are not yet willing to accept a government other than one of their own making, under their own terms, even if they have to continue to kill Afghan civilians by the hundreds to get it.

I think there will still be a residual force to continue training the Afghan forces beyond 2014, but I think the Afghan police and army have been taking tremendous strides and are capable of rising to meet this challenge

Q. What is the story about your name, which you got as a gift in 2003 and has become a part of your identity now?
A. Farzana was the name my first Afghan friend, Zulekha, gave me. This was in California, before I first went to Afghanistan, and I was trying to learn some Dari. “You need an Afghan name,” she said.”Oh, I would love that! In Kazakhstan they called me Fariza,” I said. “Ok then, you can be Farzana,” she said. And it stuck.

Q. “Light beckons! Come, come to your senses”. These words in your beautiful poem Memento Mori sound ironical, almost mocking at all the entities that have turned Afghanistan into a bedlam. Where do you see Afghanistan ten years down the road? 
A. I think what we see determines what we do, and how hard we work for it. I see Afghanistan in 2024 with strong civil society, independent women, development in industry, access to education and healthcare, thriving art and dying Taliban.

Source: Afghan Zariza (http://afghanzariza.com/2014/03/13/these-are-barriers-not-just-in-winning-hearts-but-letting-our-own-hearts-be-won–interview)

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About Zafar Mehdi
Maverick journalist, irreverent rebel, travel freak, cricket junkie, reluctant fundamentalist, student of life, dreamer, believer.

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