Peace Corps Writers
Review

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Lessons from Afghanistan
by David Fleishhacker (Afghanistan 1962–64)
DF Publications, $13.95
154 pages
2002
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  Review by Peter McDonough (East Pakistan/Bangladesh 1961–63)
 
  MORE YEARS AGO ore years ago than I care to remember, when I was sharing quarters with a number of other Peace Corps Volunteers at the Comilla Academy for Rural Development in Bangladesh (then East Pakistan), the sweeper, a young man whose job it was to clean the hard dirt floor of our bungalow and assist the cook in various chores, came to us with an anguished look. Someone had told him that the world might be round rather than flat. “Which is it?” he asked. The cosmological implications were staggering. “If the world is round like an apple,” he reasoned, “would it really be night on the other side of the world when it is day here?” None of us was sure how to handle the question. Finally, one of my colleagues, who was something of a wise-acre and never in contention for sensitivity-of-the-year award, said, “Well, you know, the world is neither round nor flat. It’s shaped like a banana!” I don’t recall the exact reaction of the sweeper, except that he sank even further into dismay.
     Lessons from Afghanistan, David Fleishhacker’s memoir of his Peace Corps days in Kabul from 1962 to 1964, is full of stories like this, though most of them have a kinder lilt. A teacher of English as a foreign language, Fleishhacker found that his “pattern practice” pedagogy, which aimed at getting students to grasp the underlying structure of the new idiom, ran smack up against the Afghan habit of rote memorization. Here is the exchange that rivals the maddening, hilarious Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first” routine:

         I held up a pencil. “Is this a pencil?”
         “Yes, teacher,” they chorused. And some brave students would add, “Yes, teacher, it is a pencil.”
         I held up a green pencil. “The pencil is green. Green . . . sabz.”
         “The pencil is green.”
         “Is the pencil green?”
         “The pencil is green.”
         “Is this a green pencil?”
         “Yes, this is a green pencil”
         I held up a red pencil. “Is the pencil green?”
         “Yes, teacher,” they responded.
         “No,” I said, “the pencil is red. Red  . . . soorgh.”
         “The pencil is red,” they responded, confused but agreeable.
         “Is the pencil green?” I asked.
         Now I had created total confusion. “Yes, teacher. No, teacher. The pencil is green. It is red. It is not red.” They tried any answer at all to appease me. “This is a red. This is not the green.”

And so it went, even if the mutual frustration evident in this tale was often relieved by one or another inadvertent success. There is also a sympathetic rhythm to the book. The tumble of anecdotes is sustained by Fleishhacker’s pervasive respect for Afghan folk culture and his feel for the poignancy of its survival in the face of perennial foreign intrusions — the country is more of a crossroads than a coherent nation — and now in the face of modernization.
     This is a later-day version, without the condescension, of the adventure-travel genre that the British used to produce under titles such as With Pipe and Notebook: Through the Filth of Jamshedpur. If there are flaws here, they lie in the bland nostrums and truisms (“Politics does, on occasion, lead to war.”) that detract from the charm of simply wrought, perceptive stories charged with powerful memories.

Peter McDonough is Professor of Political Science at Arizona State University. He is author of Men Astutely Trained: A History of the Jesuits in the American Century and is co-author of the recently published Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits.
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