musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Afghan Students Debate. I Judge.

Efhamullah started softly. He methodically made eye contact with everyone in the room while he praised Allah and welcomed his adversaries. Then he looked at me.

"I admit that Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world" he said before pausing, I'm assuming for effect. "But this corruption is not caused by Afghans. This corruption is caused by foreigners implementing projects."

He was still staring right at me. Almost smiling. Smug. Confident.

Fridays in Kabul are usually dull. After looking forward to sleeping late all week, the prospect of waking up with nothing to do is usually daunting.

Not yesterday.

That's because the Afghanistan National Debate Tournament started yesterday. By some random coincidence I became a judge, despite the fact that I have only cursory knowledge of and experience with formal debates.

The topic (or 'motion' in debate-speak) dealt with an imaginary issue that, in Afghanistan, has at least some basis in reality: should international donor projects be awarded only to Afghan NGOs, companies and universities?

The two sides (government vs. opposition) were to be represented by 8 university students representing 4 different institutions from around the country. (In all, 20 universities participated in this year's national tournament.)

Efhamullah represented the government. Acknowledging that corruption indeed plagued his country, he rhetorically and convincingly presented arguments (including the assertion that people like me are responsible for the corruption in his country) in favor of Afghan-izing development projects. He handled opposition questions with ease. He spoke clearly and confidently. At one point during his 7 minutes I stopped taking notes just so I could watch the spectacle.

Although I agreed with practically nothing he said, Efhamullah handily won the session with the highest individual score. Although I was impressed with all 8 (especially the brave young woman who acted as the Deputy Prime Minister), his delivery, style, and command of the issues was unmatched by his fellow debaters.

Pretending to know what I was talking about, I gave feedback to the group after the session. Slow down. Try not to read your points verbatim. Don't be combative. Yelling does not make your arguments stronger.

Much to my surprise/delight, Efhamullah was smiling at me during my mini-speech. Gone was the smugness of before, replaced by a respectful and genuine-looking grin. Leaning forward in his chair, his brain seemed to zero in on my words. Maybe he didn't really believe what he had said... maybe he was just a really convincing debater (politician?)... maybe the strong handshake he gave me on his way out was actually his most sincere action of the day.

On the way home, I couldn't help but think that I had just met the future President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.