“But Why Afghans?”: Discovering Underlying Research Motivations

“Why Afghanistan?” people ask me when I tell them about my PhD research project. Depending whom I’m speaking with, I notice my answer varies. This is because this seemingly curious, innocent question comes with a baggage of assumptions, prejudices as well as critiques — not just towards developmental and humanitarian work by an outsider, but also of war, safety, politics and religion.

Finding an answer to “Why Afghans?” or “Why Afghanistan?” is like finding a reason for being, which in itself is an epistemological and ontological inquiry. Can one ever know?

I know I did not wake up from bed one day and suddenly exclaim my purpose in life. It was not a Eureka moment. Neither was it a “calling”, as some people term it. I didn’t seek a Higher Purpose (religious or otherwise) and receive a revelation, at least not in my conscious memory. The causes or reasons, for me, are never linear. They don’t always make sense, but they did. Somehow. Because I get bombarded by this question all the time, I feel the need to reflect on my cognitive processes prior to, and during, my research undertaking. This reflexive prose seeks to look at the tapestry from a critical distance while simultaneously identifying individual threads that have become interwoven. How? That’s what I intend to find out in this writing exercise.

1. Initial PhD Application: An Applied Theatre Project with Refugees

Having worked in schools and prisons in Singapore, I thought it was best to move beyond familiar territories if I wanted to further specialise in Applied Theatre. I did not want to be pigeonholed literally behind prison walls. It had been the most enriching years of my teaching career but to specialise in Prison Theatre (again) seemed a little too myopic, at least that was what I thought. I wanted to expand my horizons and see beyond our Singaporean shores.

Following very closely to Professor James Thompson’s work (as well as Professor Michael Balfour’s and Dr Jenny Hughes’) whose writing had evolved from Prison Theatre to Theatre in War Zones, I began to be interested obliquely in refugee concerns in war zones.

What would it be like to work in a refugee camp? I asked myself. I thought it provided me an appropriate platform to combine applied theatre, drama education and drama therapy philosophies and practices. So I made initial investigations, starting with statistics provided by the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

The screenshots are as follows:


Source: Afghanistan, UNHCR 2012 (“Refugees From” total = 2,664,436)


Source: Central Africa & The Great Lakes, UNHCR 2012 (“Refugees From” total = 891,802)


Source: East and Horn of Africa, UNHCR 2012 (“Refugees From” total = 1,957,294)


Source: Southern Africa, UNHCR 2012 (“Refugees From” total = 156,765)


Source: West Africa, UNHCR 2012 (“Refugees From” total = 326,732)

I remember counting the refugees from all the African countries in 2010 and discovered that the refugees from Afghanistan were appallingly close. In fact, I vaguely recalled Afghanistan having more refugees than all of Africas combined. I could have been wrong. So I rechecked my figures. Based on UNHCR’s statistics in 2012, the total number of refugees from Africas is 3,332,593 as compared to Afghanistan’s 2,664,436, a difference of only 668,157. Although my memory of numbers was not entirely accurate, I remember feeling shocked at the numbers. The entire African continent has slightly more refugees than Afghanistan as a country, an unnerving thought for me who has lived in relatively comfortable middle-class settings in an increasingly wealthy and prosperous country.

That probably sparked my whole inclination and interest in and towards Afghanistan.

Guilt? Not really.

But I remember being utterly disappointed that Singapore did not even have a UNHCR office to help refugees in Southeast Asia. I wrote to the UNHCR office in Malaysia as they had a vacancy then, but they only employed Malaysians. So the applied theatre project — regardless of target population — could not come to fruition.

Again, Afghanistan tugged at my consciousness. Of course, I had other strong political sentiments against the Bush administration at that time, but they were not explicit to my initial PhD application. In fact, when I submitted my application, I did not specify Afghanistan as my research site as I was not entirely confident that it was a possibility.

Meanwhile, I asked friends and sought advice from academics. As I explained my research intention, I articulated “Afghan refugees” as my starting point. I had to. Even if it was a vague possibility. I didn’t want to sound airy-fairy. Questioned about my methodology in this initial stage, I was already dumb-founded. Any further estimations towards vagueness would result in harsher comments from friends and academics.

Heryanti, a wonderful colleague and friend of mine, suggested Christmas Island, a former Singaporean offshore island that had been “sold” to Australia, which now houses refugees, some of whom are Afghans. Wonderful lead, I thought. Not too far from home.

And so, this was how it started.

2. Dr Wee Teck Young in The Straits Times, and Other Media Influences

Dr Wee Teck Young was featured in our local newspaper on 20th August 2010 (which can be found here). As a medical doctor, he volunteered with the refugees in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Pakistan since 2001 and finally found a sense of connection with a group of Afghan youths in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, where he started a youth peace movement (see his blog, Our Journey To Smile). It was an inspiring story. But more so, I felt like I knew him because he was 5 years (I think) my senior in secondary school. I didn’t know him personally then, but he was a popular youth leader in The Boys’ Brigade (BB) where we both had our training, akin to us being in the Boy Scouts. The BB is a Christian youth movement, and while youths do not have to be Christians to be part of the uniformed organisation, Christian teachings and evangelism are commonly practiced.

Even though I do not see my research as a “calling”, I do not deny that the Christian principles in missionary work/ evangelism have had its roots within the pores of my consciousness. Even though, arguably as an academic — or academic-to-be — I try not to let these influence my research, I suspect one cannot be entirely separated from an identity that had been formed in one’s formative years, especially by religious values.

Nevertheless, I was drawn to a documentary on Dr James Orbinski, titled Triage: Dr James Orbinski’s Humanitarian Dilemma. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work in Rwanda, Somalia and Congo with the Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). As if cognitively connected by psychic mindmaps and semantic webs, I suddenly remembered Patrick Swayze’s moving role as a humanitarian doctor (not by his volition) in the 1992 movie, City of Joy. Consequently, helping refugees became my primary focus  because Swayze and Orbinski showed a side of human compassion that moved me deeply. This motivation was finally cemented, methinks, when I watched the 2008 Afghan film, The Kite Runner.

3. Omar, my first Afghan Friend

As if on a Sherlock Holmes’ trail, I contacted Dr Wee (also known as “Hakim” in Afghanistan) through email but received no response. Coincidentally, he was returning to Singapore to give a lecture at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore (Bukit Timah campus) on 25th August 2010. The two-part lecture was titled ‘Taliban’ or ‘us’? A ground narrative from Afghanistan (Part 1), and An equal humanity is here (Part 2). In less than 19 days, I would be leaving Singapore for my PhD studies, so this golden opportunity to meet Hakim could not be let up. Naturally, I registered for the event.

I arrived early that day but sat quietly in the audience as he was talking with other members on the panel. I observed him respectfully from a distance, and cannot help but sense a very down-to-earth, compassionate man donned in a white tunic with a light blue scarf. Finally, he shared his experiences through a powerfully moving narrative with photographs. He also talked about his struggles and acknowledged the people in the room who had supported him, especially his parents.

During the Q&A, one man raised his hand, said he was an Afghan and was touched by the lecture. Omar was his name.

By the end of the session, I was speaking with Hakim’s parents and identified the anxieties they felt and probed how/why they allowed Hakim to go to Afghanistan. I told them I would be feeling the same kind of pressure, and possibly, objections from my Mom, and so wanted to know what else I could do to reassure my mother of my personal safety.

While Hakim was still busily entertaining others after the session was over, I introduced myself to Omar and explained what I was intending to do. He was an articulate young man and critically queried what I was doing. He explained some of the bureaucracies within the Afghan civil service system and the challenges I would face if I got there. Omar generously offered a hand — he said he had contacts — and told me to email him my proposal. Hastily, I drew up a proposal documenting the various ways to “apply” theatre in Afghanistan. I even said in my email to Omar:

All I want to do is humanise the situation there, and if possible, help the communities find a sense of hope again. In my proposal, you would notice that drama is used for personal therapy and healing, community engagement and capacity-building, as well as a platform for creative problem-solving.

The full proposal I submitted to Omar can be found here: EdChow_Sep2011_AppliedTheatreProgramInAfghanistan_PROPOSAL, where a screenshot of one page is reproduced below:

Reading this again in retrospection, I cringe, noticing the incredibly naive perspective I had adopted, peppered with a sting of arrogance in what I assumed would “help” the Afghan people. What an audacious claim!

Nevertheless, Omar became my first Afghan friend. We chatted online, despite weeks of internet absence. But as explained in my first blog when he hosted me in Kabul in December 2011, his willingness to shelter me and protect me at the expense of his own life shook me to the core of my beliefs: I needed his help more than he needed mine. He needed nothing from me. But I needed everything. I was incredibly dependent on him when I visited him — from food and water to accommodation, and from recreation to  transportation.

One night after our dinner in Kabul, he dropped me off at my guesthouse, which he did tirelessly everyday for two weeks (and if he was not free, he would arrange for his best friend to show me around). I told him I needed to buy an electric kettle to boil water in my room as I was still coughing rather badly from a cold I had developed before arriving in Afghanistan. The shopping mall was just a stone’s throw from my guesthouse in Sha-re-Naw. I wanted to walk there, but once he learnt that I needed a kettle, he drove me to the mall and accompanied me inside. He said the shops would not have what I was looking for, but he patiently walked with me to survey the shops that were still open. That was only one example of Omar’s immense love and care. He had also arranged meetings for me, so I could make contacts with local stakeholders, some of whom are very important civil service officials.

Omar opened the door to a culture I was not familiar with, and because of his friendship, hospitality and generosity, I am immensely indebted to him. He has a heart for his own people. I admire him greatly, and I want our friendship to continue. Maybe because my experience with an Afghan was special, I held on to a belief that I could “offer” something in return.

And maybe that was another step in my journey along this yellow brick road.

4. Heroic Research? Or Just An Academic Exercise?

Admittedly, there is something gratifying when people think I’m helping to “save” the world. It is a noble cause. I have had Mother Teresa as one of my inspirational Catholic role models while growing up, until I was alerted to the controversies around donations. According to Christopher Hitchens in The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, an (un)ethical question around her humanism was raised:

Did Mother Teresa raise and improve the quality of care — and possibly extend lifespan — in light of the donations pouring in from around the world, which became unaccounted for?

This is deeply problematic. Do I want to be associated with unethical practices? No.

Even if financial accountability were in pristine order, humanitarian “save-the-world” projects also run the risks of undermining the good intentions they started with, i.e.  harming the local economy. For example, the TOMS brand of shoes promotes itself as a “Buy One, Give One” project. For every pair of shoes one buys, the company donates a new pair to a charity organisation or developing community.

Criticisms around this entrepreneurial venture can be summarised as such:

“What’s wrong with giving away shoes?” you might be thinking. “At least they’re doing something.” The problem, we’ve learned, is when that “something” can do more harm than good. As Time recently noted, an increasing number of foreign aid practitioners and agencies are recognizing that charitable gifts from abroad can distort developing markets and undermine local businesses by creating an entirely unsustainable aid-based economy. By undercutting local prices, Western donations often hurt the farmers, workers, traders, and sellers whose success is critical to lifting entire communities out of poverty. That means every free shoe donated actually works against the long-term development goals of the communities we are trying to help.

(Source: Cheryl Davenport. See original article.)

For further reading, other criticisms on TOMS shoes include:
1. Good Intentions Are Not Enough: A Closer Look At TOMS Shoes (by an NGO, Good Intentions)
2. One For One? (by Nick Mangine)

I don’t think it was this reason that my research focus has moved away from an applied theatre approach — because I only knew about TOMS recently. Access and ethics clearance (see previous blog) were the main obstacles.

Heroic research also brings with it connotations of extreme sacrifice — limb or life. Do I want to lose either? Of course not. There is nothing glorifying to be martyred or maimed in the course of one’s research.

People had capitalised on this though, and have written memoirs of their war experiences. In the same way, commercialism and capitalism have prompted war tourism to flourish in Belfast, Lebanon, Colombia, Myanmar, and the like. In Performance In Place Of War, Thompson et al raise a few provocative questions around this practice, which I quote at length here:

Tours are a key area of contemporary cultural contestation in Belfast that simultaneously signify the hopes for the transition to peace and the potential of a return to conflict. As quoted earlier, Feldman describes performed practices that claim space and territory as reconfirming boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’; such an ordering of space makes violence against the other possible. It is important to ask, therefore, whether the tours make possible other kinds of relationship between self and other. Does the phenomenon of the tours in Belfast exemplify or replicate the common exploitative practices of post-colonial tourism — a presentation of a world for an external voyeur? Or do these tours repeat conflict narratives that seek to claim space and assert one particular history as the authentic history? Questions on what is being told, who is telling and who the audience is are important, as are questions on what is being concealed and revealed by the journey. In addition, questions about the impact of the tour on local culture and the ways in which the viewer, or tourist, is or is not implicated in the journey are important. The post-conflict scenario has opened up spaces for visits and journeys, and for narratives to be told to new audiences. However, this freedom does not necessarily mean that everyone is free to tell their story or that all experience is now available for narration: there are important silences to acknowledge, some perhaps necessary and welcome, others less so. (p.241)

In 2006, Forbes ran a list of the most dangerous travel destinations. Unsurprisingly, Afghanistan topped the list. They write:

From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, there are nations and peoples being ground under by oppression, terrorism, poverty and death. These are places where the rule of law is arbitrary, education is an after-thought and life is cheap.

However, none of that stops the employees of multinational corporations and nongovernmental organizations. They conduct business regularly in the world’s most dangerous countries. Of course, they do their research first, hiring risk-management consultancies to advise and train them before they travel. (Source)

So what am I doing? How can I remove the tag of “heroic research” in people’s minds? Am I exploiting the war situation, even for my own research on the premise of advancing knowledge? Am I being exploited if I become involved with the INGO machinery that profits from war, presumably and arguably, improving local conditions? Peacebuilding, social or transitional justice, human rights, capacity development and all the other lofty goals of many INGOs are “lofty” and are not unproblematic, as I have alluded earlier.

Ultimately, for me, and in my relationship with Afghans, it is about intention:

What am I in it for? What does partnership or collaboration entail? How will the local Afghans benefit from this research? Can there be important issues raised for the international community, and to what extent am I complicit with the war machinery in this venture?

I have made wonderful Afghan contacts, so to turn my back against what I had started is a betrayal, methinks, at worst. Or a non-commitment, at best. These questions, however, are necessary signposts to keep me on the alert, so I hold myself and the Afghan community I have become wonderfully acquainted with accountable. I trust I make right decisions. Well, sometimes even if they are not right, one just needs to make them right — at least in that moment. Courageously.

Now, isn’t that a paradox?

5. Current Inquiry: Empathy or Solidarity? Or Just Something Amiss?

Today, my research focus has morphed. In principle, it is not an Applied Theatre project with refugees. It is more a Performance Studies research with Afghan theatre practices, in and outside the country. To avoid the risks mentioned, both ethical and physical, my research in the last year had focused primarily on diasporic Afghan communities. Through snowball sampling and various points of contact, I have already identified a few cultural practitioners (Afghans and foreigners who do theatre-related work in Afghanistan or outside Afghanistan but are about Afghanistan), located key performances and films to be analysed, and had a few chapters in Dari summarised and explained in English.

Still, something was amiss.

Am I standing in solidarity with the Afghans? Am I empathising with them? What are the nuanced differences between “solidarity” and “empathy”? Can one stand in solidarity with them from a distance? Is empathy about being in the shoes of another and being in the muck, literally? How would the Afghan people view me if I were to research about them from a distance? Must I be there to show my commitment to the “Afghan condition”? Or is this a thwarted understanding of empathic research, or ethnography in general?

I remember reading Carolyn Nordstrom’s A Different Kind Of War Story, in which she criticised armchair journalists and academics who write and talk about war from a distance. If I were to be researching about Afghan theatre practices in the post 9/11 era, safely within the UK (which is possible, depending on how I would reframe the question focus), I feel that this approach is not entirely “authentic”. That may not be an accurate description, but how can I research on Afghanistan’s cultural practices if I have not even done my research within Afghanistan? That, in itself, is problematic for me. Like an ethnographer or anthropologist studying local customs and practices, I feel the onus is on me to complete the cycle of analysis: (a) within Afghanistan and outside Afghanistan; (b) by Afghans and non-Afghans; (c) about Afghans or Afghanistan.

In Emile Durkheim’s From Mechanical To Organic Solidarity, he writes (which I quote at length):

We need to put a stop to this anomie, and to find ways of harmonious cooperation between those organs that still clash discordantly together. We need to introduce into their relationships a greater justice by diminishing those external inequalities that are the source of our ills. Our disease is therefore not, as occasionally we appear to believe, of an intellectual order, but linked to deeper causes. We are not suffering because we no longer know on what theoretical idea should be sustained the morality we have practised up to now. The cause is that certain elements of this morality have been irretrievably undermined, and the morality we require is only in the process of taking shape. Our anxiety does not arise because the criticism of scientists has demolished the traditional explanation handed down to us regarding our duties. Consequently it is not a new philosophical system that will ever be capable of dispelling that anxiety. Rather is it  because certain of these duties no longer being grounded on reality, a loosening of ties has occurred that can only stop when a new discipline has become established and consolidated itself. In short, our first duty at the present time is to fashion a morality for ourselves. Such a task cannot be improvised in the silence of the study. It can arise only of its own volition, gradually, and under the pressure of internal causes that render it necessary.” (p.28, in Giddens and Suttons’ Sociology: Introductory Readings, 3rd edition)

OK. I’m still getting my head around Durkheimian solidarity, but the phrase “grounded on reality” resonates with me, reminding me that what is amiss in my research is my being absent in the field. At least that’s my justification for now.