Monday, April 22, 2013

The Greatness of Razia Jan

With the final days of our six-week trip here in Afghanistan quickly evaporating, I thought it was about time I wrote about our main character for our new film.  However, I read something recently that bent me in a way that a simple quote shouldn't.  But the events over the past week in Boston, coupled with the bomb scare here in Kabul (read previous post), my mind has drifted daily into thoughts about mortality, the big picture and how fragile it can all seem at times. 

"Life is a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved"

Tony Hawks with his legendary fridge
I recently came across this piece of spiritual dribble while reading the hilarious book Round Ireland with a Fridge that follows the journey of British funnyman Tony Hawks as he attempts to hitchhike around the circumference of Ireland with…you guessed it…a refrigerator.

Now the quote isn’t Tony’s doing.  Throughout his trek he invites well-wishers to autograph his appliance and this particular Hallmark moment came from a teenage girl in Ballyduff.  On a first read the line seemed really inspiring and almost motivated me to post it on Facebook coupled with a picture of some Californian hard bodies leaping into the ocean silhouetted against a magical orange sunset.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how much this philosophy flies in the face of all the people I truly admire.  My apologies to the young lady on whom this quote could very well be tattooed, but if she felt strongly enough about it’s message to share it on a strange man’s fridge, then I feel compelled to take her gesture to heart and respond to its poetic hug fest.

Amateur philosophy take 1:  Maybe this speaks volumes about the cynicism I’ve developed since putting a decade between me and my 20s, but I don’t think our journey here on this earth follows some golden path through a field filled with pixie dust and Keebler elves.  And I certainly don’t think that we are here solely for the purpose of satisfying some idealistic sweet tooth.  I believe we are born into what can best be described as a claustrophobic rain forest filled with a lot of crap that’s unfamiliar to us and somehow we’ve got to hack our way through it with a machete, blazing a trail that is uniquely our own.  And so while Ballyduff's spirited Irish girl is out there skipping through the  “mystery” of it all like some drunken Teletubby, there are a lot of problems to be solved.  Problems that lead to answers that lead to understanding that, with any luck, lead to contributing something to society.

All the people I most admire, including the people we’ve chosen to highlight in our documentary films, are all people who have seen the problems and challenges in this world and have at some point picked up that machete and carved a path where previously there was none.  This to me is the embodiment of what it means to “live”.  So sure, life is a mystery.  It’s something to both be mesmerized and frightened by.  But it also requires a whole lot of solving.  Finding answers within a landscape full of problems.  After all, the best part of a mystery is discovering the truth isn’t it?  I don’t recall a Scooby-Doo episode where the gang says, “Sure is strange about the old caretaker’s murder.  Ah screw it.  Let’s go to Bonnaroo.”  Here’s an analogy that I heard once that I think is worthy of Tony’s cooling device: 

"Life is like a foreign film minus the subtitles.  Even without clarity you can still make some sense of it if you’re willing to pay attention and be involved." 

(Who knew innocent quotes from Irish teenage girls would be one of my pet peeves.  Also, is it a faux pas to put quotes around an italicized phrase??  Somehow it feels like wearing a sweater over a jacket.)

filming with Razia handing out free food in Kabul
Now, to the point:  One of the incredible benefits of working on documentaries for a living is that for a brief time we get to attach ourselves to other people’s greatness.  We arrive on the doorsteps of our subjects in awe, humbled and a bit starry-eyed at what is typically an extraordinary human being, engaged with the world in a way that makes you question your own contributions to humanity.  But rather than take the proverbial look in the mirror (there will be plenty of time for self-reflection when some cranky nurse is changing my adult diaper in 40 years) I prefer to keep looking forward, straight through a lens and on towards a point that shines brighter than most.

Here in Afghanistan we’ve been filming with an extraordinary woman named Razia who started a girl’s school in a village where previously one did not exist.  If you’ve kept up with the issues facing this country over the past decade or so then you are well aware of what a herculean task this is.  Schools have been under attack in Afghanistan where terrorists have made it a priority to deprive girls of an education.  Just two days ago 74 girls fell ill after poisonous gas was released into the air at a school in Takhar Province, and this comes just 3 days after a similar attack at a girl's high school in Talugan.  These attacks are unfortunately not rare, 185 documented attacks in 2011 alone.  Girls have been maimed by acid, had their drinking water poisoned as well as attacked with the conventional methods of guns and explosives.

In fact, the same day that Razia opened up her own school for girls in 2008, terrorists attacked a school on the other side of Kabul with hand grenades killing around 100 girls.  But rather than be deterred, such acts only strengthen Razia's resolve.  Now in her school's 5th year, she has charged forward and added students at such a pace that this year they are building a 3rd floor to accommodate the swell of girls.  She's under no illusion that they proceed without great risk, but it's a risk that is essential to the future of Afghanistan.

Razia with students at the Zabuli School

Afghani born, Razia came to the U.S. in the early 1970s to study.  She raised a family on the southern shores of Eastern Massachusetts and spent her free time involving herself in a multitude of community efforts.  With her son Lars graduated from University in the states, and the Taliban driven from Kabul, Razia turned her attention to the country of her birth.  In 2008, after serious fundraising and a lot of Afghani men trying to stand in her way, she opened the Zabuli School in the small rural village of Deh Subz, Afghanistan.  Beth and I traveled here in 2009 to shoot a short film about the school to be used as a promotional tool for the Razia’s Ray of Hope Foundation with plans to return and make a feature film.  Four years later we are back.  Five weeks in and there aren’t enough words to describe Razia’s efforts in the face of such intolerable conditions.

students at Razia's Zabuli School for girls - Deh Subz, Afghanistan
Though the school is the biggest part of her story, greatness like Razia’s isn’t measured in the large accomplishments alone.  As was the case while living just south of Boston, Razia’s giving bleeds through the very fabric of her being.  Case in point, the other day Razia informed us that she was making a massive amount of bread stuffed with a sort of oatmeal and raisin filling to be distributed by hand to the needy of Kabul (and the police because there’s a little politics in everything isn’t there?).  This, we found out, is a regular occurrence of good will towards her fellow countrymen, not a salient act setup for our benefit.

So we filmed as Razia and her trusty sidekick Zia prepared the food and then joined them in a car ride around the city to hand out the warm meal.  Such a simple gesture that took all of about an hour to complete but speaks volumes about the character of a woman that seems to have no ceiling in her compassion for mankind.  One morning of charity gone unnoticed by most.  A miniscule liner note in a lifetime of giving that she performs without a shred of self-congratulation.  All these acts of kindness throughout her life may only register a ripple in the great ocean of need, but as history has shown us, if you create enough ripples you might just cause a wave.  With just days to go on our trip I am in awe, I am humbled and I am a bit starry-eyed at the greatness of Razia Jan.

I guess the Irish teenager and I do partially agree about life with one slight variation: 
 "Life is a mystery to be lived, and a problem to be solved"

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