It has been over 3 years since I’ve posted anything on this blog. I write private remarks on my Facebook account about my life in Afghanistan, but the politics and culture of this country are so complex and nuanced that I do not feel confident enough to publish commentary on most of my experiences here, even on a personal blog.
What I do finally feel quite ready to write about is my experience with the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF), as both an administrator and a graduate student.
I will start at the beginning.
Part 1: Working at AUAF
For the sake of full disclosure, I have to document my experience as an employee at AUAF (which did not end well). Anyone wishing to skip directly to my experience as an MBA student should wait for Part 2, to be published tomorrow).
In 2012 I came to Afghanistan for the first time, as a tourist, to visit a journalist friend. On this trip I visited AUAF, met with the Communications Director, and interviewed him for a now defunct online news site called Essential Edge. My piece was published (I will link a PDF of the text here, since the original article no longer exists online), and AUAF management was pleased.
I returned to Jordan, my home since late 2009, and got back to my life working remotely for a PR agency in Dubai. My work then was horribly tedious; most of my time was spent editing banking website text for Search Engine Optimization (SEO). I was also trying to break into journalism, but the more I learned about the industry the less appealing it looked. Thinking back fondly to my summer trip to Afghanistan, I decided to contact the AUAF Communications Director and ask about any communications-related positions that may be opening up at the university in the near future. This led to a successful application for the position of Media Relations Manager, and on 29 January 2013 I arrived in Kabul to start working for AUAF.
I am going to try to summarize my employment experience at AUAF as succinctly as possible. Overall, I loved working with the students, but the atmosphere in the administrative wing was toxic. I shared an office with a woman who I would describe as a genuine bigot; our office was a rallying point for bitter American staff to casually chat about how stupid the students were, how lazy they were, how barbaric Islam is as a religion, and how much they hated working at the university in general.
There was one elderly woman in the administration – the head of print publications who ‘designed’ AUAF’s yearbook using colored paper and scissors – who once made a comment like, ‘How could a Westerner marry an AFGHAN?!’, in a tone of complete disgust. Another topic of gossip for Team Racism was the relationship of an American expat woman in Kabul with an Afghan man, who they referred to as the “mud-hut lover”. Keep in mind, these were well-travelled White Americans who would probably describe themselves as ‘multicultural’ and ‘progressive’.
So, what happened? In short, I shot myself in the foot at every opportunity possible. When the elderly racist hag in my office couldn’t manage to do her own job without excessive assistance from my end, I made sure to write her a sharply worded email . . . which was, of course, immediately forwarded to the university president (her close personal friend). When a member of Team Racism started spreading rumors about me having a criminal record, I angrily printed out a copy of a clean FBI background check I undertook before moving abroad. I dramatically tacked it up on a pin board behind my desk . . . which naturally made me look like a crazy person. By the time my immediate supervisor and mentor at the university, Vice President David Roberson, retired and returned to the US, there was no one left in the administration who was willing to say anything positive about me.
Soon after Roberson left, my office mate filed a complaint against me with HR, for printing out my travel photos and posting them on my side of the wall in our shared office. The complaint was validated with an order for me to move out of the administration wing into a small empty classroom. In my heart I knew the end was nigh.
At the end of the month I caught a flight to Dhaka, Bangladesh, to meet an old friend who was working as an aid worker. On my first night in Dhaka, I saw a detailed comment criticizing the university in the comments section of a positive article on AUAF published in The Atlantic I completely lost my composure. For weeks I had suspected that a disgruntled faculty member named Nemat Sadat was posting anonymous online critiques of AUAF (I was very familiar with his writing ‘voice’ as editor of the faculty newsletter), and all sense temporarily left my body as my fingers typed up a public comment accusing Nemat of writing the critiques. Within hours I was getting emails from the university president ordering me to delete my comment. Horrified at what I had done, I frantically tried to delete my own comment and quickly found that it was not possible.
When I tell people this story, they usually ask if I was drunk or on drugs when I wrote this public online accusation against Nemat Sadat. I was neither, but I was certainly not in a good place mentally. I had spent months in World War I style attrition warfare with hostile administrators and faculty. Every day I was going to work wondering what kind of bullshit I was going to have to face that day. When I arrived in Dhaka for my vacation I was at the breaking point, and I broke.
A month after I returned to Kabul from Bangladesh, I was asked to resign from AUAF. There was nothing to be done but fall on my sword. They offered to pay for a flight back to the US, but I demurred. I had moved off of the university’s staff housing months before, and I was fast becoming an expert at navigating Kabul on my motorcycle. I was an ex-Marine trained in reconnaissance with years of experience living and traveling in the Muslim world. Kabul, to me, was the last outpost to the frontier. It was and remains the most attractive place that I could imagine living.
I told AUAF that they could save that flight money for something else. I allocated 24 hours to feel sorry for myself, and then I started looking for work.