Teaching culture to the National Guard
With American military troops constantly being deployed to the Middle East, Sulaiman Nasseri '12 and Khaled Wardak '13, both natives of Afghanistan, spent two days this February in Bangor, Maine, teaching senior leaders of the Maine National Guard about Afghan culture. The leaders will deploy to Kabul in mid-March with a better understanding of the beliefs, customs and foundations of Afghan society.
"Afghanistan is a country [that is] rich with culture and traditional values, and people consider their traditions and culture to be sacred and very important," Wardak said. "So if the soldiers have an understanding of the culture and are considerate about certain values of the culture, it will win them the trust of the local population, and that is the most important factor that is missing right now between the two parties."
An awareness and understanding of Afghan culture will help the soldiers "avoid some cultural misunderstanding and will save some American and Afghani lives," Nasseri said.
Through intensive discussions and role-playing situations, Wardak, Nasseri and three other Afghan students, including Qiamuddin Amiry '09, stressed the importance of respect for elders, women and honor in Afghanistan. For example, "a man should not enter a house if a woman is alone there," Nasseri said. By knowing simple information like this, the American soldiers will be able to avoid unnecessary disputes during their time in Afghanistan. However, the Maine National Guard leaders "learned how to deal with difficult and tense scenarios if they do emerge," Wardak said.
Over the course of two days, the students and soldiers addressed and clarified certain common misconceptions that Americans have about Afghani culture and vice versa. "Some of the [misconceptions] were actually really funny," Nasseri said. "Because they weren't true."
Among these stereotypes was the belief that Americans "don't know a lot about other cultures," Nasseri said. Some of the soldiers admitted that they thought Arabic is spoken in Afghanistan, though Afghanis actually speak Farsi. However, Wardak said that he "learned that American troops are not really as arrogant as the local Afghanis perceive them [to be]."
The soldiers were "very interested and very engaged" in their lessons, Nasseri said. "They learned a lot."
Ultimately, both sides agreed that "we have more in common than we have differences," Nasseri said. "We are all humans...both Afghanis and Americans want to live in peace."
This type of cultural training program for military officials is one of the first of its kind and Wardak believes that it was "very productive."
"I talked to the organizers of the event and told them a couple of times to continue this training, and [that] if they need any kind of help, I will be more than happy to be a part of it," Wardak said, and Nasseri agreed. "I hope that this type of program continues in the future on a broader scale," Nasseri said. "By now we have discovered the importance of this training for Afghan civilians and American soldiers."
Due to the United States' high level of involvement in Afghanistan, Nasseri believes that all Americans should be interested in learning more about Afghan culture, not just members of the military who are deployed to the region. "It is very important for American people to try to know something about [Afghanistan], because what you hear on the news gives you a completely different impression of the country, because you hear all these bad things. But that is not all what is happening in Afghanistan."
While not everyone can attend cultural training sessions with Afghanis, Nasseri said individuals can gain basic knowledge of the culture simply by watching movies or reading books about Afghanistan.
Nasseri said his best and easiest advice is, "Just pick a novel about the country and read, and that will give you a better impression of what's happening."