An essay on Open Eyes and Mind, while “Walking the Walk”

This is a guest blog by my good friend, Zok.  Zok is an interesting character, a person who has lived through the break up of the former Yugoslavia, and expert on ethnic relations, a talented geographer, a gifted photographer and enthusiast of single-malt Scotch Whisky.  He is also a fellow midwesterner, by choice, which in and of itself, endears him to my heart.

One of my favorite stories is by the much-maligned Rudyard Kipling; in his story “Riki Tiki Tavi” he states that the Mongoose family motto is “Go and Find Out”.  Zok embodies this philosophy (and the courage implicit), and true scholarship cannot be accomplished from Ivory Towers or library stacks. Geography, like other social sciences is overpopulated with theorists, bureaucrats and “me toos” who really contribute little to expanding the body of knowledge.

Without further ado, here is Zok’s contribution:

Lessons From Afghanistan: Study With Open Eyes (and Mind) And Walk The Walk

Rather than viewing and accepting Afghans as some alien, perhaps extraterrestrial species,        our team merged ourselves into their culture as much as possible.  Armed with the methods and techniques of geographical analysis (because everything occurs in space and time!), we focused on fieldwork—original research and information gathering—that revolves around understanding the cultural landscape, the human imprint on Earth’s surface.  We cannot rely simply on computer screens and GPS data to learn about the world!  Other than for Drew’s occasional tendency to drive treacherous mountain roads in a suicidal manner, the benefits have been great.


Doing fieldwork where it matters.

Cultural Landscape

Cultural landscape documents people’s activities: technological, economic, social, and political. All one needs to do is to look and attempt to understand.  Yet, as some geographers have noted, to most Americans the landscape just is; it represents something without practical meaning.  It’s the “stuff out there,” instead of a goldmine of freely available information that needs to be understood through deductive reasoning.


Learning from people, learning from land.     

Landscape represents an archive, a record of “What is Where, Why There, and Why Care.” To the unskilled eye it means little, despite its potential to provide answers to many questions.  In a war environment, however, time is of the essence and learning from looking can save lives.  

Instead of spending hours talking to villagers about what crops they grow, one can instantly benefit from looking at fields (rotation hasn’t changed much in the past couple of centuries anyway). 


Onion and cannabis. Staple and cash crops combine to help an Afghan farmer.

The same goes for construction materials, political messages, price of land, or any other important aspect of local lifestyle.  Most importantly, in Afghanistan like elsewhere (e.g, Northern Ireland), the landscape teaches us about ethnic neighborhoods, the core areas and the periphery, as well as social and physical boundaries.


Rebuilding Afghanistan one brick at the time.

Breaking the Boundaries of Intellectual Convenience      

Our approach was that of an assumed uphill battle. We needed to break away from the shackles of intellectual convenience and open the shades of conventional wisdom that drive decision making.  Many people, it seems, are far more comfortable obtaining and manipulating facts than they are in understanding concepts.  By so doing they fall far short of learning the reality on the ground.  This, of course, contributes to a very limited, and often grossly incorrect, view of existing conditions.

For example, even after a decade of experience in Afghanistan, many westerners continue their obsession over Afghan tribes.  Yet two-thirds of Afghans (Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and the list goes on) do not practice tribal lifestyle at all.  The list actually narrows down to the Pashtuns, the vast majority of whom could not tell you more about themselves than could a basic Wikipedia entry.   

Over-romanticized notions of preserving human groups as “living museums” have played a detrimental role in the western perception of Afghanistan.  Still, that cannot stop the western social scientists and cultural advisors who serve our military, diplomats, or anyone else, of wanting to be the ones who can teach the Pashtuns about their own code of honor—Pashtunvali (as, apparently, the non-Pashtuns have no honor to worry about).

The consequences of not understanding Afghanistan’s people and culture, as well as the trends and processes involved in its development, can be troublesome.  For example, the widely referenced CIA World Factbook gives some interesting ethnic and religious statistics.  For religion it cites (2012) 19% Shia and for ethnicity 9%  Hazaras.  Yet there is no doubt that over 90% Afghanistan’s Shia population are ethnic Hazaras, thus you draw the conclusion who is getting short changed.  Something is missing.  And when people confine themselves to the packages of intellectual convenience something will always be missing.


What is missing is the understanding of culture change.  Afghans have not been “fighting for centuries,” as the media often broadcasts.  Afghans have fought fewer wars than has the United States.  Its periods of peacetime, in fact, have lasted much longer than anywhere in Western modern history.  Just as American Indians prefer houses over tipis or wigwams, Afghans live in houses, rather than caves.  The bestselling car in Afghanistan, as is in the United States, is Toyota.


At the end of the day…

A nation whose population is nearly fifty percent under the age of 15 is bound to be a nation that looks to the future. Every young person we engaged in conversation, among the hundreds we interacted with of all ethnicities, always expressed his/her concerns about the future, never about the past! 

And that is what our job in Afghanistan encompassed—fieldwork, cultural geography, interacting with people, and providing accurate information about the country and its human mosaic.  This type of research and information gathering cannot be done on a computer screen or employing data from a satellite in geostationary orbit.   


I hope you enjoyed Zok’s message.  What is difficult to express is the frustration of working with Westerners whose primary goals are most often contrary to helping Afghanistan to succeed.  I appreciate greatly that Zok felt moved to contribute.





About hotmilkforbreakfast

I am a researcher, a writer, a former soldier, an academic and a lifelong learner. All text and pictures are copyrighted and are not to be used without express permission of the author.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to An essay on Open Eyes and Mind, while “Walking the Walk”

  1. Pingback: An essay on Open Eyes and Mind, while “Walking the Walk” | hotmilkforbreakfast

  2. CJ Vali says:

    Great post! Another problem I see with the common misconceptions of outside cultures from Americans and other westerners is that those with the power to change our opinions of these cultures and educate the people who have never been there have no intention of doing so. The 24/7 media is handicapping our culture by focusing so much on the negative aspects of EVERYTHING, or cramming things in our ears that just plain don’t matter, meanwhile causing people who are completely misinformed about other cultures to continue criticizing them or become even more misinformed by them. Either way, being on the ground in these places, or communicating with unbiased people who are, is the only way to truly know what’s going on.

    • Thanks for the good words. It is up to us to try to make the difference, I think. It’s kind of like droppers of water against the ocean, though.

    • Zok says:

      CJ, I agree. Nearly everything I hear in media is extremely negative. Not just Afghanistan, but other places. For example, I don’t remember the last time I heard anything positive being mentioned about Africa. There are many positive stories out there, but they cannot break through that sea of negativity.

  3. C.F.Gritzner says:

    This is cultural geography at its very finest! Thank you Drew and Zok! If geography can be defined simply as the study of “what is where, why there, and why care,” these posts do an outstanding job of making Afghanistan a “real” place, rather than the place about which we see, hear, and read in the media. I look forward to the next installments!

    • Thank you. I hope Zok also has an opportunity to respond to these as well.

    • Zok says:

      That’s just it, sir. As your brother once said, in reference to those who choose to superficially study places through various gadgetry, they may “know where things are, but don’t know how they got there or what is their significance.” His statement illustrates very well why knowledge gaps about Afghanistan’s people and culture still exist, even after us (ISAF, etc.) being here since 2001.

  4. Sumantha Das says:

    Seeing is indeed believing. In our media-driven dystopia, Zok’s entry is a welcome change to usher-in our moral conscience toward appreciating how life, afterall, is universal and how landscapes quietly reveal the possibilities of renewal. As someone who has been teaching geography, I greatly value Zok’s “shout out” to the more traditional albeit proper geographical inquiry—that fieldwork alone prevails. After all, when the electricity is turned off, no million dollar GPS equipment or any other computer device will reveal landscape, culture, and sense of place as a basic camera and a notepad. More specifically, I appreciate how Zok single-handedly advances Edward Said’s “Orientalism” narrative by his own “living museum” argument; that culture is not an inanimate vestige of archaic nostalgia, but a living, breathing testimonial of our lived experience. While self-proclaimed zealots in ivory tower spend hours theorizing and post-theorizing on the cultural “other,” Zok brings the highest philosophical tenets of human inquiry through his landscape approach in cultural geography. I look forward to seeing more updates from Zok and of course I enjoy reading Drew’s entries as they give voice to the millions in Afghanistan who are otherwise commodified by American media as an “uncivilized” tribal population who apparently all end up becoming terrorists. You guys help unmute an entire generation of Afghanistan, and for that you deserve national and international recognition. Best wishes to you!

    • “You guys help unmute an entire generation of Afghanistan, and for that you deserve national and international recognition.”

      I wonder how I can fit that on a resume? Seriously, this blog is a platform, from which we’d like to do more of this kind of primary research.

      Thank you for the wonderful words.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s