Friday, January 29, 2016

The Dove and the Eagle

By Eisha Sarkar
Published on Pax Populi on 29 January 2016

The great thing about working at Pax Populi is that you not only have beautiful cultural exchanges with your student in Afghanistan but also with your fellow tutors and peers. Most of the members on the team come from different countries and diverse academic, professional and cultural backgrounds with a wide variety of interests. Once such person I met on this team is Kirthi Jayakumar, Pax Populi's regional coordinator in South Asia. Kirthi is based in Chennai in south India while I live in Vadodara in the western state of Gujarat. The two places are culturally as different as Russia and Italy, just to give you an example. And yet, in spite of our different backgrounds, we have much in common: our love for art, writing, teaching, music, peace and Persian. 

When I got to know that she has authored a book called The Dove's Lament, I had to read it. It took me from one country to another around the world and brought to life the people who are caught in conflict but are often reduced to mere statistics. It's a compelling read. But what really captured my attention is Kirthi's dove artwork on the cover.   

As a fan of ornithology, I always look out for the symbolism of birds in the media, literature, music and arts. The dove and the eagle are my two favourites. One is the messenger of peace, the other of strength. While browsing online, I once stumbled upon this passage from The Golden Pigeon written by Indian author Shahid Siddiqui:

"What would you like to be, an eagle or a dove?" Babur asked with a smile.

"A dove, a Shirazi pigeon, as my father Azizuddin Khan wanted me to be," I replied.

"Pigeons are more powerful than eagles. They can fly faster, they have more endurance, greater stamina. Their vision is as strong as that of an eagle, but they can never be the kings and masters," Babur said, as if he were weighing my options. "Eagles are hunters and pigeons are romantic lovers. What would you like to be, my dear Shiraz?"

"I am not a killer; I cannot be an eagle. I am a romantic lover like you and would prefer to be a pigeon."

Babur's laughter shattered the silence of the full moon night. "You consider me a pigeon and not an eagle, a romantic lover and not a ruthless conquerer and empire-builder. Have you not read your history, my dear boy?"

"I have read your heart; it is that of a dove, not an eagle."

During the next session with my student Jami, I shared this passage with him. He had earlier mentioned that the eagle was his favourite bird. I teased him, "So Qasem Jami, are you a kabootar (pigeon) or a baaz (eagle)?" "I am a dove!" "Really?" "Yes." I smiled.  

Monday, January 25, 2016

Five Sisters

Posted on Pax Populi on 25 January 2016

By Eisha Sarkar

As a tutor with Pax Populi, you bond not just with your students but sometimes with their families. Muhammad Qasem Jami and I had only started our sessions for the Intermediate course, when I asked him if he could get his five sisters to Skype with me on his day off. He agreed.

I got a text message from him on a Friday morning about the 'appointment' with his sisters. I was so excited that I logged in half an hour before the allotted time. Then Jami called from his cellphone. Dressed in a white t-shirt he walked me through the courtyard in front of his house with white walls, pillars and arches.

Jami kept telling me how happy he was to Skype with me while I eagerly waited for his sisters to come in front of the camera. And then the moment arrived. All five of them, together! I was speechless! Beautiful girls, some wearing their headscarves, lining up to greet me with “Hello, how are you?” I responded with, “Salaam! Man khubam (I am well).” It was magical.

He introduced his sisters one by one: Frahnaaz, the eldest of the sisters and a year younger than him, Friha, 23, is studying Fine Arts at the university, Freshta means “angel” is 20 and has just finished her high school, Nadia ,18, who is still studying at high school and the youngest, 12-year-old Sahar, who studies in elementary school.

Then Jami introduced me to his mother, Shaymaa, a housewife and his second youngest brother, Unis, who studies in second grade in elementary school. “So should I call you Eisha jan?” Shaymaa asked in Dari, which Jami translated to English. “Of course!” She blessed me for teaching the eldest of her ten children.

Five Sisters: Oil crayon on paper 8 in x 10 in

It was time for their lunch so the sisters gathered giggling and laughing and waving goodbyes, leaving me awestruck. I tried to map their faces, the eyes, when Sahar decided to turn away from the camera. The image stayed with me. I created a piece of art with oil crayons called Five Sisters. I now have them with me.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Graffiticking: Mixed media on paper

I have always been fascinated by graffiti on subway walls, of how a piece comprises so many layers of spots, splashes, stains, textures and paints created over many years - some glue that didn't come off, some bill or notice that became a part of a piece of art, a few dribbles of paint here and there (not out of carelessness but of the fear of getting caught) and so on. In this piece, I tried to reproduce those textures, layers and colours through mixed media on a stray piece of calendar paper.

Saturday, January 23, 2016


My Afghan student, Qasem, shared with me his artist-sister's Fariha's drawings of women. I was surprised by the bold stances, straight backs and shoulders of the headscarved women she sketched. I was inspired to do my own version in bold colours and Zentangles. Here it is in oil crayon, sketch pens, markers and colour pencils.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Virtual Classrooms That Proffer Education And Peace

Well, if you can't make the papers, then make it to the papers! It has been a while since I have written something for the mainstream media, which explains my excitement about being featured in a story in English-language Nepalese newspaper, The Rising Nepal. This is a story about Pax Populi, a peace-through-education initiative under the umbrella of the Massachusetts-based NGO, Applied Ethics, Inc. founded by Bentley University professor, Robert McNulty. Enjoy reading it! 

Virtual Classrooms That Proffer Education And Peace 

Kirthi Jayakumar

Two young women are conversing online, using special video conferencing software. One lives in Chennai, India, while the other one is in Kandahar, a city in war-ravaged Afghanistan. Curious about what the girls would be chatting about? Well, this is not a teenage gossip session but a virtual English class. The programme that brings them together is called Pax Populi, the non-profit wing of Applied Ethics, an organisation based out of the United States of America.
While the plethora of its volunteer tutors, who happen to be ordinary citizens with varying professional qualifications and backgrounds, comes from all parts of the world, a chunk of them are Indian. In fact, the Indian team comprises eight committed individuals, from cities such as Ahmedabad, Chennai, Kolkata and Vadodara, each of whom spends a couple of hours a week helping their students to not just master the finer grammatical nuances of the language, like how to use proper tenses, prepositions and adjectives, but also giving them easy public speaking tips. The classroom goes online using the Big Blue Button video conferencing software that helps connect tutors and tutees with ease.
Although the tutors are given a defined curriculum to administer, they do have the autonomy to execute it creatively. Pax Populi collaborates with a Kandahar-based institution, the Kandahar Institute of Modern Sciences (KIMS), as well as educational institutions in Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan, and Herat in the western part of the country. Students from these institutions are linked up with various tutors to go through an intensive 12-week training programme to improve their English. Many of them have a functional understanding of the language, and often require assistance with sharpening their skills.
Sharing her experience of reaching out to young people in Afghanistan, Shrija (name changed), a tutor from Chennai, says, “I have had the chance to teach three students so far, and it has been an extremely rewarding exercise. Those of us who have volunteered as teachers are part of this programme because of our greater desire to serve the cause of peace. We are given a set curriculum that we tailor to our student’s needs. I can truly say that every session is a beautiful experience.”
Nidhi Shendurnikar, an independent researcher with interests in politics, peace building, gender and popular culture, echoes the same sentiment. The Vadodara girl elaborates, “When I first heard about Pax Populi, I was intrigued by the idea of having an online model for peace education. At the same time, I was curious to learn more about Afghan culture. I took up this work with great enthusiasm because I felt like I had a duty towards these brilliant young people from Afghanistan who deserved better life opportunities as much as we do. I saw this as a chance to get inspired by their resilience and courage. I have not been disappointed in my expectations.”
It has been established without the shadow of a doubt that education does contribute significantly to building peace, and eventually in the breaking down of barriers. While it does indeed create more literate people, it also creates a culture of sensitised individuals built on a state of mutual understanding, respect and equality.
Writer, educator and designer Eisha Sarkar, another Pax tutor living in Vadodara, explains, “I have been a volunteer tutor with Pax for three months now and I thoroughly enjoy the activity because it has given me the opportunity to sample the rich culture of Afghanistan from the comforts of my home. My student, Qasem, is a 26-year-old teacher of from Herat who speaks English, Dari, Farsi, Tajik, Pashto and Arabic. He and I have managed to communicate with each other in English, Dari, Farsi, Urdu and Hindi, demolishing barriers of ethnicity, race, religion and gender. If that's not rewarding, I don't know what is."
Shrija agrees with her assessment and reflects on the same ideals, “Very often, we consider education to be only about literacy, but it is really much more than that. Though we teach English, we spend a lot of time with our tutees and invest time in understanding each other’s cultures and to build values of empathy and respect for the diversity we each represent. It is very moving to share something from your side, and to look at your own world through the eyes of someone living in a country that has known more war than peace. One of the biggest talking points has been Bollywood among young women, and cricket, among young men. One of my student’s favourite films is the Shahrukh Khan starrer ‘Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi’, and another student of mine just loves actor Kajol!”
If the teachers are so thrilled with this interaction, imagine the reactions of the students on the other side. Shabnam Manati Khadija, a student from Kandahar, says, “Pax Populi is a global peace-building programme. It links people from different cities in the world and gives boys and girls a chance to get valuable, quality education. As a student with Pax I feel very happy and fortunate. It has gotten the chance to improve my English skills without stepping out of my hometown. I have the most brilliant teacher, and she isn't only a teacher, but my dear sister. The one thing that really makes me interested with this programme is that it enables me to be a peace-builder. As a human being, I love peace and I love working for peace. This effort has allowed me to fulfill my dream of working for peace building through social collaborations.”
Aslam Watanyar, a student and the coordinator for the programme at KIMS, adds, “As a student, this online programme has really been helpful for me as it has supported me in my endeavours to improve my English. I was always motivated by my teacher, who was honest and a very powerful educator in the programme. I learnt many things from her especially the various aspects related to her culture, tradition, religion. We even spoke a lot about cricket!”
With the Internet rapidly growing as the next big work space, the online space is certainly proving to be highly efficacious. Using the net, and connecting via video and audio conferencing, India’s tutors for Pax Populi have been successful in bridging the one-hour time gap between India and Afghanistan. On occasions, the internet does play truant, but it isn’t something that throws a spanner in the works for the classes that progress undaunted.
Unconventional classroom
The unconventional classroom and teaching media does not reduce the effectiveness of the lessons. As Sarkar says, “I have been teaching for over seven years and the idea of a virtual classroom has always appealed to me. Whereas one-on-one teaching is relatively new to me I am glad Pax Populi allows for interactivity with the student through video, audio and chat. Though it cannot match real-world contact, teaching online is the next best thing especially because you can share your skills with people thousands of miles away.”
-- WFS

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Dove and Eagle

"What would you like to be, an eagle or a dove?" Babur asked with a smile.

"A dove, a Shirazi pigeon, as my father Azizuddin Khan wanted me to be," I replied.

"Pigeons are more powerful than eagles. They can fly faster, they have more endurance, greater stamina. Their vision is as strong as that of an eagle, but they can never be the kings and masters," Babur said, as if he were weighing my options. "Eagles are hunters and pigeons are romantic lovers. What would you like to be, my dear Shiraz?"

"I am not a killer; I cannot be an eagle. I am a romantic lover like you and would prefer to be a pigeon."
Babur's laughter shattered the silence of the full moon night. "You consider me a pigeon and not an eagle, a romantic lover and not a ruthless conquerer and empire-builder. Have you not read your history, my dear boy?"

"I have read your heart; it is that of a dove, not an eagle."

- The Golden Pigeon by Shahid Siddiqui 

Friday, January 15, 2016

“Teaching you, heals me.”

The challenges of moving countries twice in less than two years can leave you drained physically and emotionally. As much as you like being a nomad, sometimes, when you find a good spot, you just want to settle down and rest. I had just done that in Australia, when I had to suddenly move back to India. My mind wasn't at ease and I kept looking for things to do to escape my surroundings. And so I joined Pax Populi.

I thought if I met people and learnt about their struggles in a war-torn country, I might feel better about my situation. At least I didn't have to run away from home the way millions of Afghan refugees did over the last four decades. What I hadn't imagined was that I would get the most optimistic person I had ever met as my student, Jami. I wanted to hear about the horrors of the war played up by the media, he introduced me to the beauty and poetry of Herat.

We struck a deal: I would help Jami better his spoken and written English and he would teach me a bit of Dari and Farsi. We chatted about everything - monuments, treks, love, romance, marriage, relationships, Rotary, donations, domestic violence, South Asia, poetry, art, destiny, luck, French, German, Bollywood, America, degrees, universities, TOEFL, schools, friendship, religion, politics and food – using a combination of English, Farsi, Dari, Urdu and Hindi. When Jami did not understand a word I used in English, I would tell him the corresponding word in Urdu and then would ask him if the same word was there in Farsi or Dari. Not only did his English get better but also I realised that my knowledge of Urdu and Farsi wasn't as bad as I thought.

Jami introduced me to his favourite singer, Ahmed Zahir. In the 1960s and 70s, Ahmed Zahir was known as the Elvis of Afghanistan. The man even looked the part! During a session at the online Pax Populi Academy, Jami kept singing Zahir's song, Ay Jaan-e-man AsiratI loved the tune and tried to learn the words of the song after the session. I recorded it and then sent it to him on Whatsapp. He was surprised. Though there were a few mistakes in the pronunciation, he loved the effort I had put in to try singing a Dari song.

For most of us, singing or listening to a song is no big deal. But for someone who had to live without music under the Taliban for more than a decade, it's too precious to lose again. Jami and I started a dialogue with music – American, British, Australian, Indian, Pakistani, Afghan, Iranian and even Korean. These daily exchanges helped me overcome my depression. I told him, “Teaching you heals me.” He said, “It heals me more.”

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid

I joined Pax Populi in October 2015 to teach English to Afghan students. Kirthi Jayakumar, Pax Populi's regional coordinator, connected Jami and me with an email to coordinate our schedules. In response, I sent him a polite, “How are you, Jami?” He replied, “I am fine and happy.” His answer made me smile. He then asked me if we could become friends on Facebook. I said, “Yes.”

A person with a mind as curious as mine will seldom be satisfied with browsing profiles. And so Jami and I chatted on Facebook:
Eisha: Isn't Jami a poet's name?
Jami: Yes it is.
Eisha: If you don't mind, may I ask you what your native tongue is?
Jami: Dari
Eisha: Do you know any Farsi? I am asking because you're from Herat.
Jami: Yes, my Farsi is as good as my Dari.

In order to figure how proficient he was in English, I asked Jami to send me his brief profile. What I got were a few well-written paragraphs. I thought, “Why does he need English classes?” We chatted even more. By the time Kirthi introduced us formally, we knew about each other's educational, professional and cultural backgrounds.

During our first formal session at Pax Populi Academy, we talked about ourselves, our families and our countries. We discovered that we share our love for horses, travel, peace, literature, poetry, music, education and films. “You don't sound like you're a non-native English-speaker,” he noted. I responded, “Four generations in my family have been speaking English. The English landed in Bengal in the late 1700s. We've had plenty of time to learn the language.” He laughed.

Jami shared his experiences of travelling in India in 2013, of how his English improved by communicating with English-speaking Indians in Bangalore (Bengaluru now) and Delhi. Since he works as a translator in Herat, I asked him to share with me one of his Dari-to-English translations. He sent me one he wrote in college: A portion from the famed Persian poem about two lovers, Laila and Majnu. He read it aloud in his American-accented English.

Finally, I asked him why he wanted to take up such a course, for he was proficient in English and he could get into writing, publishing or blogging. He was thrilled but said that he knew his limitations and wanted to work on his vocabulary. “I don't know too many big words. I want to be able to use big, complex words.”

Unsure at first, I threw caution to the wind and told him what I tell my first-year students of journalism and communication studies in India, “You must KISS.” He was perplexed. “Excuse me?” I typed out the letters on the academy site's chat window, “KISS: Keep It Simple, Stupid.” Laughter. And then he said, “Oh my god, I would never have guessed! Keep It Simple, Stupid. I am going to remember this KISS forever."

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Tawazun (balance)

A mug of coffee,

Dark, unsweet

Aftertaste of memories.

The music on Spotify,

A Novellette:

Schumann's piece!

A multitasking woman

Juggling her patience

What's become of me!

I read the line,

"To be or not to be."

Hamlet's soliloquy.

A hard day's work

This gloaming retreat

Tawazun: Balance.