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Teachers and Students - Topic: Change

By Jheri St. James

     There was once a man who was a champion wrestler. He had mastered 360 holds and tricks, and used one every day of the year. It so happened that he was fond of one of his students, and taught him all his holds, except one. He kept on postponing the day when he would teach him the last trick.

     The boy grew in strength and skill, and no one among his contemporaries was able to challenge him. One day he boasted in front of the king: “My teacher is unchallenged only because he is older than me and because I respect him as my teacher. Otherwise my strength is not less than his and my skill is quite equal to his.”
The King did not appreciate this boasting and ordered a match to take place. They cleared the broad wrestling ground and gathered ministers, courtiers and sportsmen to watch.

     The boy charged out into the ring like a mad elephant. His master knew that his pupil was not stronger, so he used the 360th hold, the one he had never taught him. The boy did not know how to counter it. He was beaten. His master raised him with both hands above his head and smashed him to the ground. The crowd cheered.

The King congratulated the champion and ordered a robe of honor to be given to him. He reproached the boy saying, “You were ill-bred enough to dare to challenge your teacher and now you see how hollow your boasting was.”

     The boy answered, “O lord of the word! He did not overpower me with his strength but rather because of a trick, which he never taught me. Today this one trick gave him the victory.”

     The King retorted, “It was just for such a day that he had kept his trick! Have you not heard it said ‘Never give a friend such power over you that if one day he tries to be your enemy, he can defeat you”?

     The teacher betrayed by his pupil said, “There is no such thing as loyalty in this world, or at least no one knows the meaning of loyalty. Whoever learned a trick from me finally tried to do me down”.

     One finds short Afghan wisdom stories like this one, entitled “Even Friendship Has Its Limits”, on the website www.afghan-web.com/culture/wisdom.html.

* * *

     In its 5,000-year history, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, has learned some tricks and more than a few lessons about the meaning of the word “loyalty.” This mountainous, land-locked country located in Asia has been shattered and nearly destroyed many times over, but like the wrestling teacher, found it always had one more trick to ensure survival. Afghanistan was conquered by Alexander the Great in 330 B.C., and thrived as the Kingdom of Bactria. The Arabs conquered Afghanistan in the 7th century and Islam took root. Genghis Khan and Tamerlane invaded, and Babur used Kabul as his base for establishing the Mogul Empire in India. Many presidents and prime ministers have been overthrown and replaced over the centuries of Afghani history. Right up to the present time, change has been a hallmark of Afghanistan. And yet there is a changeless aspect to this noble country as well.

One timeless landscape of Afghanistan

     Afghanistan has a rich cultural history of creating fine hand-woven Oriental carpets, music (played on instruments with names like daira, richak, zerbagli, surnai, tula, sarani, waj, sarinda, dhamboura, tambur, shashtar, rebab, dolak, dol), arts and crafts, and is home to many great poets, the most famous of whom is undoubtedly the revered philosopher-poet, Jalaluddin Balkhi Rumi.

“Who makes these changes?
I shoot an arrow right.
It lands left.
I ride after a deer and find myself
Chased by a hog.
I plot to get what I want
And end up in prison.
I dig pits to trap others and fall in.
I should be suspicious of what I want.”

     Afghanistan remains extremely poor, landlocked and highly dependent on foreign aid, farming and trade with neighboring countries. Much of the population continues to suffer from shortages of housing, clean water, electricity, medical care and jobs, but the Afghan government and international donors remain committed to improving access to basic necessities by prioritizing infrastructure development, education, housing development, jobs programs and economic reform.

Afghani Farmers

     This is a dramatic landscape. The high rugged mountains of the Hindu Kush cover three quarters of the country. The winters are extremely cold and the summers extremely hot. There is very little rainfall, but the Hindu Kush is a major watershed containing fertile river valleys. Agricultural products in the 25% portion which is fertile include opium, wheat, fruits, nuts, wool, mutton, sheepskins and lambskins. Textiles, soap, furniture, shoes, fertilizer, cement, hand-woven carpets, natural gas, coal, salt and copper are some of the industrial products. Afghanistan exports precious and semi-precious gems, including the mythic lapis lazuli, once called “Cleopatra’s diamonds” as it was one of the first stones ever to be used and worn for jewelry.

     Lapis Lazuli is one of the oldest of all gems, with a history stretching some 7000 years or more. The name lapis means “stone”. Lazuli is derived from the Persian “lazhward,” meaning blue. This is also the root of the English word “azure”. Lapis is used for sculpture, dishes, beads and jewelry. Later Egyptian burial sites dating before 3000 B.C. contain jewelry items of lapis. Powdered lapis was favored as a cosmetic eye shadow and in later years was used in ultramarine paints. The most prized lapis is a dark, nearly blackish blue, much deeper than turquoise.

     Royal blue lapis lazuli occurs in only a few major deposits around the world—Siberia, Chile and the rugged Kokcha Valley in Afghanistan. The original location of this mineral is the Sar-e-Sang deposit in Afghanistan’s remote Badakhshan district, one of the oldest mines in the world. While other deposits of lapis are known (small amounts in Colorado and in Burma), none are of importance when compared with Afghanistan. The route to the lapis mines in the Kokcha Valley is long, tortuous and dangerous. Marco Polo wrote, “There is a mountain in that region where lapis lazuli in the world is found. It appears in veins like silver streaks.” The lapis is mined on the steep sides of a long narrow defile only 200 meters wide with peaks that rise above 6000 meters. Just as they were over 50,000 years ago, the blue stone nodes are transported on donkeys down to the valleys in the summer months.

Lapis Crystal in Marble collected by Pierre Bariand

     The elusive Mr. Abdula Ackbar of Laguna Niguel, California, collected our soil from Afghanistan. As we are able to garner more of his personal story, we will add it to this journal. Thank you, Mr. Ackbar. In the meantime, learning about change seems to emerge as the theme in our Afghanistan journal entry. Recently Laura Bush visited the capital of Kabul in Afghanistan for the first time to promote the education of women in this ancient country. The First Lady’s visit coincided with two U.S. grants for education, totaling over 21 million dollars, to go to The American University of Afghanistan and the International School of Afghanistan. Both grants enable U.S. style education to be available to (female) students in that country.

     We are all students and we are all teachers. To live is to learn and to live is to change. Every country has poetry, music and warfare. The soil of Afghanistan contains the elements of dyes used in rugs, the inspiration for poetry, literature and music, and the geology that creates lapis lazuli—in many parts of the world considered the stone of truth and friendship, reputed to bring about harmony in relationships. Common Ground 191, where soil is the medium of cultural exchange, may finally be symbolic of what Art can do to teach the world something about peace, a topic requiring truth, friendship and change.

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