Book Review: Fayez, Sharif. An Undesirable Element: An Afghan Memoir. Ed. Matthew Trevithick.* Foreword by Ryan Crocker, Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan. Berlin: First Draft Publishing, 2013. 81 pp. Paperback ISBN: 978-3-944214-18-4.

Reviewed by June Grasso, Boston University

Dr. Sharif Fayez, American-educated Afghan scholar and Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban Minister of Higher Education, has almost single-handedly rebuilt a system crippled by years of war that not only devastated the country’s infrastructure, but also nullified personal, intellectual, and academic freedom. This brief but eloquent memoir traces Fayez’s travail as he was forced to flee his homeland that was being “bombed to oblivion” (30) by the Soviets, while his Kabul University colleagues were disappearing, never to be seen again, following the 1978 coup instigated by Hafizullah Amin, an old classmate at Columbia University. Facing certain death, Fayez escaped to Iran.

Having fled the communists in Afghanistan, Fayez found himself in a country blighted by the terror of brutal sectarian warfare and run by the fiercely loyal Revolutionary Guards of the Ayatollah Khomeini, whose government glorified martyrdom and death. It was in Tehran during the horror of the Iran-Iraq War that Fayez was deemed “an undesirable element” by the Iranian government because of his reputation as an iconoclastic Muslim educator. He was allowed to leave. Decades later, after he had won numerous international awards for his work in higher education, Fayez recalled that he wished he could have kept an even more prized possession—his exit paperwork with the heading: “An Undesirable Element To Be Deported As Soon As Possible” (46).

Fayez rejected the narrow-minded extremism that characterized the policies of Iran’s Islamic Republic, Afghanistan’s Soviet-controlled communist regime, and its replacement, the Taliban-controlled Islamic Emirate, a sponsor of international terrorism. Living as an expatriate in the United States when the Taliban ruled, he was an outspoken critic.

He explained,
I was not interested in hearing someone attempt to explain the rationale behind their public executions and massacres of women and minorities. I was not interested in hearing a defense of why schools and universities had to be closed. I was not interested in their exclusively ethnic Pashtun nationalism, pursued at the expense of Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic heritage. I was not interested in hearing why the burqa had become mandatory for women. (56)

Instead, he wanted for the Afghan people what he had experienced in the West—a “normal, predictable life,” where his children had been able “to pursue their passions without issue” (62).

The Taliban’s defeat in 2002 brought with it a new Western-sponsored interim government for Afghanistan under the leadership of Hamid Karzai, who afforded Fayez the opportunity to pursue his vision for renewing Afghan higher education. One goal was to model at least part of a new system on the private, independent universities in the United States where he had studied and taught. First, however, coping with the stark reality of post-war conditions, Fayez needed to fix the basics, rebuilding the physical structures of old public universities that had been the targets of Taliban assault and opportunistic looting. Perhaps more challenging was his fight to restore what he considered the essentials of higher education that had been in place in Afghanistan before recent conflicts. He immediately fired unqualified, politically-connected administrators and faculty, replaced ideology-based curricula with the liberal arts, and ended male-only education. He asserted that he became particularly militant about the issue of co-education because he faced overwhelming resistance, even from Afghan-Americans, to allowing boys and girls to study together. He tried to transform Afghan universities into the kinds of places he remembered from his youth, characterized by “fairness and equality” (72) and the intellectual freedom his generation of educators had taken for granted.

Fayez’s next task was to realize what he called his “biggest dream” (78), to establish an American University of Afghanistan, similar to those in Cairo and Beirut, to entice an international, multi-disciplinary academic community to Kabul, where classes would be taught in English. Even his staunchest supporters in Washington suggested that he had gone too far. In 2014, nearly 2000 students studied at the university; thirty percent of them were women.

Fayez remains determined that a bright future for the Afghan people lies in the success of a rigorous, expansive, and liberal educational system that will eventually spread to all parts of the country and produce new generations of open-minded leaders. He is cautiously optimistic that the specters of intolerance and extremism will not return, despite problematic global political conditions. Only time will tell if he is correct. The reader will find his memoir uplifting in its optimism, but also unsettling because the perpetrators of past violence against education are alive and well, both within and outside the porous borders of Afghanistan.

*A note about the editor:

Matthew Trevithick (CGS, ’06; CAS, ’08) is now co-founder and Director of Research at the Syria Research and Evaluation Organization in Gaziantep, Turkey. Previously, he served as Director of Communications at American University of Afghanistan for four years. In September 2014, Matt was awarded Boston University’s Distinguished Young Alumni Award for his outstanding humanitarian work in Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan.

A decade ago, Matt sat in my Social Science classes not sure what major to pursue or which direction his career path would take. A bright, creative student, he combined the study of International Relations with a four-year commitment to B.U.’s Varsity Rowing Team. He was a silver medalist in the 2008 Head of the Charles Regatta. Today, he is the head coach of the Afghan National Rowing Team. He is also a prolific writer on issues concerning the people living in the conflict zones of Southwest Asia.