x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Forbidden Lessons in a Kabul Guesthouse: an education in charity

In a compelling memoir, Suraya Sadeed recounts setting up her children's charity in Afghanistan. But, in light of the scandal enveloping Greg Mortenson's philanthropic efforts in the same region, do we expect too much of our heroes?

Suraya Sadeed, founder of the charity Help the Afghan Children, centre, negotiates the delivery of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan. Oxygen / Getty Images
Suraya Sadeed, founder of the charity Help the Afghan Children, centre, negotiates the delivery of humanitarian aid in Afghanistan. Oxygen / Getty Images

In 1996, Afghan-born American Suraya Sadeed took a walk through Kabul, the city of her birth, through war-torn streets where leafy trees lent a tiny touch of humanity.

But in an instant, even that respite turned ugly. "Look up," whispered a woman passing in the street. "For God's sake, look up and see."

Sadeed did as she was bidden, and recoiled. Hanging from the tree branches were scores and scores of severed human limbs, rotting and grey - amputation had been the Taliban's punishment of choice for anyone daring to break their rules.

Sadeed was learning fast about the barriers confronting her, she writes in her compelling new memoir, Forbidden Lessons in a Kabul Guesthouse. A one-time political refugee turned estate agent in the United States, she returned to her native country in 1993 to found a charity, Help the Afghan Children. Her mission: to establish health clinics in refugee zones and remote villages; and, in dark basements across Kabul, to set up 17 girls' schools hidden from the Taliban.

To achieve her goals, Sadeed variously took on the Taliban in Kabul, the mujaheddin in the northern provinces, and violent, trigger-happy teenagers along the borders.

"The world's media had lost interest in Afghanistan," Sadeed writes of her years getting her charity up and running, and mourning the sudden death of her husband. "Afghanistan was a closed and forbidden land. No aid workers were working inside; it was too dangerous for them to do so."

Fast forward to now: Afghanistan is a few degrees safer and Help the Afghan Children has expanded into a thriving non-profit organisation, educating 20,000 students along the way. Nevertheless, giving aid to Afghanistan remains a risky business, and not just because of the warlords who operate in that divided land.

Risky, because, more than ever before, such efforts (particularly in the US) attract an enormous amount of public scrutiny, prompted by guilt over civilian casualties, by growing frustration with the lack of definitive results in a costly war, and by the feeling that the death of Osama bin Laden should finally bring closure. Add to this the growing literary attention towards the suffering in that land, including bestsellers like The Bookseller of Kabul, The Kite Runner and many more lesser-known titles.

Finally, consider the recent brouhaha over the biggest of them all (four million copies sold), Three Cups of Tea, by the philanthropist/author Greg Mortenson, founder of the Central Asia Institute (CAI).

Mortenson, like Sadeed, is a respected activist for female education in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other developing nations. Both have attracted major funding from celebrities: Oprah Winfrey's foundation made substantial donations to both. And both philanthropists have spoken highly of each other. Mortenson, whose organisation claims to have opened 141 schools, even called Sadeed's one of his favourite charities.

But now Mortenson alone is at the centre of a scandal and two legal cases - as any book lover already knows. In April, 60 Minutes, the US television news programme and best-selling author Jon Krakauer (Into the Wild, Into Thin Air) alleged that Mortenson's most affecting stories about the founding of his charity were fictitious. In particular, Krakauer wrote in a scorching online tome, Three Cups of Deceit, that Mortenson never stumbled (as he claimed), half dead from a disastrous K2 mountain-climbing effort in 1996 into the Afghan village of Korphe, where he was nursed back to health, witnessed the dearth of education for village children, and pledged to build his first school.

"It's a beautiful story, and it's a lie," Krakauer, himself a $75,000 former funder of Mortenson's, told 60 Minutes. The programme also poked holes into another Mortenson tale of being kidnapped for eight days by the Taliban and found more than a dozen of Mortenson's "schools" being used to store hay and spinach - or simply nonexistent.

Beyond Mortenson's alleged embellishments came even more damaging findings, by the charity watchdog American Institute of Philanthropy. The institute's director, Daniel Borokoff, told 60 Minutes he had found "a troubling intermingling" of Mortenson's personal income from his personal appearances and the charity's public interest. Specifically, Mortenson's 2008 tax form - the most recent available - described $1.5 million, or 37 per cent of the charity's total programme spending ($4 million total) as being devoted to "domestic outreach and education".

In short the philanthropist spent a lot of charitable donations to promote his books, even chartering planes in the process. (Mortenson's response was that he stands by his Korphe story, was definitely detained against his will - whether his captors were Taliban or not - and needs to charter planes to "pack in many more cities" to raise money).

So what does Sadeed have to say about these questions that may ultimately cast a shadow on her own work? Not much at all. "I have no comment ... regarding CAI or Mr Mortenson," she wrote in a recent email. "We will continue to help Afghanistan children and youth, and I sincerely hope that the war ends soon," she added, non-committally.

That doesn't take away from the stories in her book, which often reads like a summer thriller. In an early trip back to her homeland, she wrote, for instance, she paused to admire a breathtakingly beautiful valley of flowers, only to learn that those red, purple and orange blossoms were the "Devil's flowers" - opium, whose by-product, heroin, fuels the Taliban cause.

She met an entrepreneur at the border selling beautiful marble coffee tables - which turned out to be looted gravestones. She saw wild dogs feasting on dead bodies on the roads of Kabul and those aforementioned limbs in trees. She saw hellish places, such as an orphanage where powerful men can "borrow" boys for horrid purposes, and refugee-zone "widows' camps", where men do the same to unattached women.

In one especially harrowing passage, she was flying blankets into an earthquake-ravaged zone in the Hindu Kush, in a helicopter whose pilot was high on hashish, and repeatedly tossing burning joints into the back of the craft - into the path of a steady fuel leak.

Alternately, Sadeed also met men she called good Taliban, who were scrupulously honest and well-meaning. She also met Taliban who bent the rules - sometimes comically. In one incident, she was driving out to a refugee camp with a ministry of foreign affairs official whose assistant popped a CD into a car player. Never mind the Taliban's rigid ban against music. "We are all human in this vehicle," the man declared defensively. "So let's have some music!"

Elsewhere in the book, Sadeed pays attention to the bigger questions plaguing her homeland. So ... "What was it about Afghanistan?" she pondered at one point. The British, the Soviets, the Americans - "What was it about this poor, blasted land that everyone seemed to want to fight their wars here?" And why as a taxpaying American herself was she helping to pay for those bombs? In a telling incident about the disconnect between East and West, Sadeed writes, she was expecting, just after the September 11 attacks, to have to shut down her organisation, because of prejudice against Afghans. In fact, a flood of donations arrived on her doorstep.

If US citizens are engaged by the prospect of helping the people of Afghanistan, even as their nation sends drones, perhaps that's not unfathomable. Three Cups of Tea was, according to the Moroccan writer Laila Lalami, a "thoroughly family paradigm": that "Eastern women are in need of Western saviours."

That's a bad thing, of course. Yet on the other hand, Lalami has also written that, "by donating money to the Central Asia Institute, people feel that, in spite of the fraught nature of this involvement, at least some good is being done".

And that's a good thing: finding something positive in all of this death and destruction. Sadeed's organisation, for example, inculcates its Afghan students with peace education because education, she writes, does "so much more to defeat the blind prejudice and hatred spawned by the Taliban, and bin Laden".

And she's right. But the question is posed how far she and all philanthropists will get in their mission, given the sudden scrutiny spawned by the emotions swirling around tales of terrorists from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Certainly, Mortenson is not an evil man - people still consider him a hero for all he's done for girls' education in that part of the world. And Sadeed is herself an incomplete heroine, considering the low rating Help the Afghan Children has received, three years in a row, from Charity Navigator, another watchdog, which criticised what it called the group's organisational inefficiency and lagging revenue growth.

What is it about Afghanistan? "We in the West must do more - much more - to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people," Sadeed writes. She deserves credit, and Mortenson does, too. So, in a way, do all of us who read these books, make donations, and debate about how to make that nation whole again.

Joan Oleck is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.