6 Things You Should Know about Teach for Afghanistan

Teach for AfghanistanIn an effort to improve access to quality education, many countries have drafted talented young graduates to serve as teachers in areas that are underserved. Today, this model is taking off on a global scale due to the efforts of Teach for All, an international nonprofit that has spent the last decade working with local partners to connect motivated and inspiring teachers with students in some of the world’s most disadvantaged countries, including Afghanistan. Read on for six facts about this organization and its local affiliate, Teach for Afghanistan.

  1. Teach for All is a global network with local roots.

Teach for All believes that meaningful and sustainable change needs to be led by people rooted in their culture who understand the unique challenges and opportunities facing youth in their own communities. That’s why Teach for All doesn’t bring in teachers from elsewhere, but works with local partners to recruit and place community-oriented educators who themselves have experienced the inequities that they aim to address in the classroom.

  1. Teach for All supports teachers so that they can support students.

Teachers are most effective in the classroom when they have received comprehensive instruction and training, something that is not always the case in countries or regions with struggling postsecondary education systems. Teach for All supports participants by offering training and ongoing coaching opportunities so that teachers have the opportunity to develop the skills and knowledge that will enable them to contribute to their communities.

  1. Teach for All spans six continents and 46 countries.

Teach for All has network partners in countries ranging from Argentina and Armenia to Uganda and Ukraine. Since each one is locally led, there are some differences between networks. However, all of the partners share a commitment to a number of key program principles—such as accelerating alumni leadership and driving measurable impact—and to some common organizational design features that include building public and private sector partnerships and ensuring diverse representation and inclusiveness.

  1. Teach for All networks share five core values.

In order to maintain a sense of cohesiveness and shared purpose when working across borders, Teach for All networks are guided by five core values: a sense of possibility, or the belief in the potential of all children to realize their aspirations; a dedication to being locally rooted but globally informed; a commitment to constant learning and continuous education, reflection, and improvement; diversity and inclusiveness, which seeks to ensure full participation from people of all backgrounds; and interdependence, which recognizes our shared humanity and interconnectedness.

  1. Teach for Afghanistan is led by a former Teach for India volunteer.

school children

Rahmatullah Arman, the CEO of Teach for All’s global network partner Teach for Afghanistan, was first introduced to Teach for All as a volunteer in Pune, India, where he pursued postsecondary studies after having completed secondary school in Kabul. While at the University of Pune, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations and a master’s degree in international human resources management, Arman ranked among the highest-achieving students and earned a number of national and international awards at various conferences and debates. After completing his studies in 2011, Arman returned to Afghanistan, where he served in several positions with government and private sector organizations. Eventually, however, he was so inspired by his volunteer experience with Teach for All—and so dismayed by the state of his home country’s education system—that he became determined to bring the organization’s mission and model to Afghanistan.

  1. Teach for Afghanistan’s first cohort was comprised of high achievers.

In 2013, Rahmatullah Arman launched Teach for Afghanistan with the support of Teach for All. At that time, Afghanistan was still struggling to recover from decades of civil conflict and challenging reconstruction. At the time, 3.6 million children were not attending school and 75% of students had dropped out by the age of 15. Moreover, half of the country’s teachers lacked qualifications. Despite this, Arman said in interviews that he was inspired by the hope and determination that he witnessed, such as schools crowded with students even though there were no chairs or desks, and families risking explosions or other security dangers just to take their children to school.

In the face of all this, Arman was determined to provide the children of Afghanistan with not only an education, but a high-quality one led by Afghans themselves. In order to achieve this goal, he set high standards for the first cohort of Teach for Afghanistan participants. Applicants were required to have a degree with marks of at least 75%, as well as communication skills and leadership experience. For the 80 available positions, Arman received 3,000 applications. All of the applicants fulfilled the criteria, and the majority were graduates of Afghan universities.

A Look at the Fascinating World of Traditional Afghan Dance

Attan, the national dance of Afghanistan, is a fascinating art form rich in history and ritual, but it is not a performance that many people outside Afghanistan ever get the chance to experience. Read on to learn more about this beautiful and captivating cultural tradition.

What are the origins of Attan?

Attan originated as a traditional folk dance of Afghanistan’s Pashtun tribes, which make up the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Some experts identify the dance as an ancient pagan ceremony dating back to as long ago as 2000 BCE. At this time, the dance had no particular organized form; rather, it was simply made up of random steps and movements performed to the fast beating of drums. As the centuries went on, the dance form evolved into a Muslim ritual performed mainly by soldiers as a way of getting closer to God before leaving for battle or departing on other missions. Today, Attan is an organized and cohesive dance form that is an integral part of Afghan culture. People perform the dance at all kinds of festive occasions and social gatherings, such as weddings, family parties, and new year’s celebrations.

What does the dance look like?

The basic form of Attan is a group dance performed in a circle; the dancers follow each other round and round in the circle, starting with slow steps that gradually speed up as the dance goes on. Other movements include spins and turns and hand clapping. The dance is intensely physical and can be exhausting, continuing for hours and generally ending only when no dancer is left on the floor. Many Afghans report that it is not uncommon for dancers to faint during a long Attan performance. There is no limit to the number of people that can be part of the circle: sometimes an Attan performance will have just a handful of dancers, and sometimes there will be hundreds of participants in the same circle.

What do the dancers wear?

It is common for Attan dancers to wear traditional regalia when participating in the dance. For men, this often means the thick wool hat known as the pakol and the wool vest called the waskata. During more formal occasions like a marriage, suits and ties are often worn. Women do not usually perform Attan publicly, but on private occasions, they typically participate in the dance wearing brightly colored dresses, often adorned with tiny mirrors that symbolize light.

What music accompanies the dance?

Because Attan is a highly rhythmic dance form, percussion instruments play a very important role in controlling the movements of the dancers. The drum most often used in Attan performances is called a dhol: a double-headed barrel drum with a low, deep, and very resonant sound. Other instruments which can be used to accompany Attan are the tabla, a single-headed hand drum traditionally made of clay with a top of goat or calf skin; a kind of flute known as the zurna or surnai flute; and the 18-string, lute-style instrument called the rabab.

What are the different types and styles of Attan?

Attan has evolved over the centuries into many different styles and types, each one usually associated with a particular Pashtun tribe, region, or ceremonial event. A sampling of these Attan styles includes:

Kabuli Attan—Male and female dancers perform the Kabuli Attan to the beat of a drummer. The form of the dance is a repeated sequence of two to five steps followed by a clap while facing the center; the hips and arms tilt to the left and right, and the wrists perform circular twisting motions.

Wardaki or Wardag Attan—This form of Attan does not include clapping, but involves plenty of twists, turns, and wild spins. The male performers of Wardaki Attan often sport outrageous mustaches and grease their hair to highlight it as they spin around. Wardaki Attan is often started by the leading men singing a song while slowly moving in the circle; as the pace of the dance picks up, the singing stops.

Kochyano Attan—This form of Attan is associated with the nomadic Kuchi people, and its depth and complexity has been attributed to their far-ranging lifestyle, which brings them into contact with many different cultural influences. Women often perform Kochyano Attan for occasions like childbirth or new year’s celebrations; men often perform it with their long hair hanging loose. This form of Attan involves lots of spinning and squatting movements, and handkerchiefs are frequently used as props to accompany arm movements.

Khattak Attan—This martial style of Attan can be traced back to the period of the Moghul Empire, when soldiers performed it while carrying their weapons. Khattak dancers today display extraordinary physical fitness, performing the five-step spinning routine of the dance while holding as many as three swords at once, either crossed behind the back or held out to the side.

Spotlight on the Role of Music in Afghan Culture

Positioned at the crossroads between the Indian subcontinent, central Asia, and Iran, Afghanistan has always been something of a meeting and mingling place for different cultures. Almost every aspect of Afghanistan’s own cultural heritage, from the country’s cuisine to its architecture, reflects this long-standing influence of different traditions, and its music is no exception. Read on to learn more about the role of music in Afghanistan, including a history of the country’s musical development and a look at some traditional Afghan instruments.

What role does music play in Afghan culture?

Afghan music

Image by World Bank | Flickr

The meaning of music in Afghan culture is more narrowly defined than it is in the Western musical tradition. In Afghanistan, traditional music is always secular rather than religious; it is primarily an instrumental form with only some use of the voice; and while it is sometimes performed by amateur musicians, the main performers of traditional music are professional musicians.s

It’s important to note here that what differentiates a professional from an amateur musician is not professionalism or skill, but the birthright and level of musical education that come from being born into a family of musicians. In this sense, being a professional musician is a hereditary concept in traditional Afghan culture. What this means is that many things that would be considered music by a Western audience, such as lullabies for children or folk songs, are not thought of as formal music by many Afghans.

This is not to say that folk songs and regional melodies are unimportant in Afghan culture. On the contrary, Afghanistan’s diverse regions have a rich history of folk music that has been profoundly influenced by the musical styles, genres, and instruments of their neighbors, including Iran, China, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. For example, the folk music of western Afghanistan is very closely related to Iran’s folk traditions, while many of the folk songs in northern Afghanistan are sung in Tajiki, Uzbek, or a mixture of the two languages.

Music in Afghanistan’s recent history

Afghanistan’s long-standing musical history covers a wide spectrum from simple folk songs on one side to court musicians playing in the classical music tradition of Kabul on the other. This changed, however, in the mid-20th century. Young students who were exposed to Western music began bringing some of those instruments and styles to an Afghan audience. The period from the 1950s to the 1970s has become known as a “Golden Age” of music in Afghanistan, when a unique style mixing classical Afghan and regional folk instruments with Western instruments was developed by musicians playing for the national orchestra on Radio Afghanistan, the government radio station that served as the unifying voice of the nation during this period.

During Afghanistan’s conflict years, which began with the Soviet invasion in 1979, many musicians fled the country, and music was widely banned. Recently, however, Afghanistan has been experiencing what many are calling an “International Age” of music. Afghan artists and the general public alike now have access to international music through the Internet, satellite radio, and television. At same time, they are rediscovering their musical heritage and reviving traditions that date back to the Golden Age of music and beyond. A wonderful example of this new musical tradition is the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), a school specializing in music training in both Afghan and Western traditions, led by an international faculty.

An inventory of traditional Afghan musical instruments

Part of ANIM’s mission has been to revive the use of and appreciation for traditional Afghan musical instruments. These include:

The rabab or rubab—The national instrument of Afghanistan, the rabab or rubab is a type of double-chambered lute carved from a single piece of wood. A membrane covers the hollow bowl of the sound-chamber, and there are over 20 strings, including melody strings, drone strings, and sympathetic strings. Traditionally, the rabab is made from mulberry or rosewood, the membrane is of goat skin, and the strings are gut strings, although nylon is now more commonly used. The origins of the rabab can be traced back to the 7th century in central Afghanistan; the instrument is featured in many folk songs and classical melodies, and is often referred to as the “lion of instruments.”

The ghichak—This two-stringed fiddle has a body made from a large metal tin, giving the instrument a distinctive sound. Played with a horsehair bow called a kaman, the ghichak is popular in Afghanistan’s central and northern regions.

The tula—This wooden flute is one of the simplest instruments in Afghanistan’s musical tradition. Its frontal plane features six finger holes, while a single thumbhole is located on the dorsal plane.

The tabla—The principal percussion instrument in traditional Afghan music as well as in classical music from northern India, the tabla are a pair of hand-played wooden drums that can be tuned to different precise pitches.