Afghans fight to keep peace

November 15, 1996

Balkh University in Mazar-e-Sharif is an oasis of peace in war-torn Afghanistan, solid on the outside but ramshackle on the inside.

When the extremist Muslim Taliban forces seized Kabul in September the teaching corps at Balkh University in north Afghanistan were called in by the local warlord, General Dostum, and told not to panic. Women should continue to attend university and there would be no compulsory growing of beards for men, he said.

Panic has since given way to a sense of comedy over the Taliban's "worse-than-medieval version of Islam", to use the words of Jamal Nosar, a 23-year-old student of English. But there is general agreement at the university that if the Taliban did get north of the protective Hindu Kush, there would be much they would want to change.

Balkh University has a law faculty which is attempting to combine Western and Islamic law. The majority of its women students follow a moderate Islamic dress code and its new Islamic faculty does not exclude the region's minority Shi'ah Muslims. But the Taliban is not perceived as the main problem. Balkh University in Mazar-e-Sharif, just an hour south of the old Soviet border, is now the only fully functioning university in a country ransacked by war.

The various degrees of Islamic dress worn by the women students at the university are perhaps a reflection of the political turmoil of the last two decades. The Islamic Revolution of 1992 put an end to a Soviet-backed government which ruled for 13 years and allowed girls to wear skirts and go out with their heads uncovered.

"We were said to have to wear trousers and scarves after the revolution," said English student, Izabel Ahmadi, "the government told us to and we understood it was because of the cultural situation. Anything else would have been too unusual for people."

Some students still wear the full burqa, most just cover their heads, often letting their scarves down during seminars.

Teachers are keen to emphasise that the Soviet period has not had a lasting influence on education in Afghanistan and that the European influence, dating back to King Mohammad Zahir Shah's rule between 1933-73, has. English is the first foreign language. The country's degree system is similar to Britain's - four years for a BA and two more for an MA.

The university now has only 25 students of Russian. Rector Eztalluah Amed, a graduate of Moscow State University, said: "The Soviet influence did not survive the fall of Dr Najibullah in 1992.

"Moscow introduced compulsory history of the Communist party into the Afghan university curriculum and this was replaced by the culture of Islam after the Islamic Revolution in 1992."

Dr Amed taught at the Polytechnical Institute in Kabul, set up with Soviet help, before moving to Mazar-e-Sharif in 1993 to escape the factional fighting.

The law faculty copies a curriculum based half on the French system and half on the shariah which Kabul University was teaching before the Taliban closed it. Dean of the law faculty, Knamoyra Nimati, explained that her department trains the lawyers, procurators and diplomats and the new Islamic faculty trains the judges.

"The law faculty teaches international, economic and criminal law and part of the latter involves some study in the Islamic faculty. Teachers of the Koran likewise teach in our faculty," she explained.

One future judge, Aminulla Keliwal, 25, said with a smile: "We take from the shariah what coincides with Western law. When it doesn't, we leave it out."

Forty per cent of students in the Islamic faculty are women, but they will only handle domestic disputes. The students explained that women were "too soft-hearted" to order punishment.

The new law and Islamic faculties have not yet produced graduates and Knamoyra Nimati admitted there was some confusion over teaching. "Students and teachers don't quite know what style of Islam to adopt. For over a decade there has been no real law in Afghanistan, in different regions different laws were adopted along with the gun," she said.

"There is a big problem with the interpretation of the Koran," said Izabel Ahmadi. "We need to show the real face of Islam, that it emphasised knowledge and is not just a set of dry rules."

After 1992 there was an attempt to make teaching of Islam more orthodox, by having new books published in Pakistan to replace books the new leaders thought were the Russian method.

But the Taliban is not an option, says Dr Sultanshar, dean of the Islamic faculty, whose first words to me were: "Look, no beard!" His faculty, teaching Sunni Islam, does not exclude the region's minority Shi'a students and devotes two terms to Shi'ite Islam. About 35 per cent of students at the university are shi'ites, he said, and 40 per cent of the Islamic faculty's 150 students are women.

"We observe Islamic law, but are open to new achievements. Women can drive cars if they want. We have a law saying both men and women have the right to work," he said. "The Prophet Muhammad's first wife was a business woman", he said, "but why don't the Taliban know that? Because they are taught far from civilisation. They are not living in the 20th century and I therefore do not regard them as a threat."

The university's main problem is the massive influx of students from war zones, especially Kabul, and from General Dostum's six provinces where there is barely an education system. Over five years student numbers have quadrupled to 6,000, but the university has no computers or photocopiers, and has an acute shortage of books. The medical faculty, which has 900 students, has little laboratory equipment.

General Dostum is credited by the teachers with bringing to his region something of the atmosphere of peace, and for taking an interest in education. He had the two new law and Islamic faculties built. He built new hostels to house women who had fled Kabul and had been living in containers. Large portraits of him adorn most offices, including the rector's, and the streets. But there is a 10pm curfew and most of Dostum's budget goes to the war effort.

The problem of books is most acute in the medical and law faculties, but is generally hindering teaching throughout the university, according to the head of the English department, Abdul Qudoos Qeteh.

"I spend hours writing everything on the board and get the students to copy it all, so that they have some kind of reference material," he said.

Wages are low and sometimes do not get paid at all. Qeteh earns $8 a month and does two extra jobs. He came to Mazar-e-Sharif from Kabul in 1993, when fighting reached the university walls.

Balkh University depends on donations of books and journals by universities abroad and has had help from higher education establishments in Liverpool, Germany and the United States. The Afghan diaspora in the US has promised computers.

The university's rector said he may have to start turning students away.

"Before the Taliban took Kabul, pupils from the city's lycee were asking us if they could come here on finishing school, because prospects here were better than in the war-torn capital. We introduced an enrolment exam. The roads from Kabul are closed now, but we expect more students any time and have stopped counting."

There is also a shortage of teachers and little or no teacher training provision. Attempts were made to reopen Kabul University in 1994 "for propaganda purposes" after all the fighting, the rector said, but many teachers had already fled to Pakistan and the US. Some came to Mazar-e-Sharif. But for 85 students in the English department, there are only four teachers.

The modern, Soviet building housing the university, set up only ten years ago, presents a solid image on the outside, and a somewhat ramshackle one on the inside, with makeshift doors and a shortage of furniture. But its role as a ray of hope is reflected in the abundance of enthusiasm among both teachers and students.

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