Armed With Books

Professor Zaher Wahab travels to war-torn Afghanistan to help rebuild higher education. 

Each year, Professor Zaher Wahab travels to his native Afghanistan to help rebuild the educational infrastructure of the war-torn country.

In just a few days, Zaher Wahab, professor of education, will leave once again for Afghanistan. He admits to feeling “a little apprehensive.” He has returned to his homeland every year since 2002, staying for months at a time to consult for the ministry of higher education and for a U.S.-funded project to improve graduate-level teacher education.

But over the years, things have only gotten more dangerous. In 2008, more than 4,500 people–nearly half of them civilians–were killed in Afghanistan. Wahab himself is a potential target for insurgents because he’s helping the government, so he and his colleagues require bodyguards and an armored SUV when venturing outside their fortified compound. He never visits his mother, brothers, or sisters who still live in the village where he grew up, for fear of making them targets, too. (In fact, he instructs them and other relatives there to tell people he’s “working in a bakery in Pakistan.”)

And the violence shows no signs of abating. As he prepares for this trip in February 2009, Wahab learns that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has informed Congress that Afghanistan is America’s “top overseas military priority.”

Is he worried he could be killed? “It does cross my mind,” he admits soberly in his Rogers Hall office, pausing a moment. “But I like the challenge,” he resumes affably. “I want to make a difference.” He gestures toward the books, videocassettes, and stacks of papers lining the wall opposite his desk. “I like theory, intellectual discourse, and ideas. But I also get very claustrophobic in academia. I need to get out there–to experience and do something.”

A Long Route

Zaher Wahab, 65, has lived most of his life in America. He was born in a small Afghan village called Kunsaf, about 100 miles from Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. In his youth, Afghanistan was poor but at peace. His father was a self-taught cleric, teacher, and farmer; his unschooled mother raised 13 children. Both were big believers in education.

Wahab excelled academically from an early age. He earned a spot in a Kabul boarding school at age 11, where he had to learn a new language, then received a scholarship to the American University of Beirut. There he met professors who were “so bright, challenging, supportive, and charismatic” that he aspired to be one.

He then earned another U.S.-funded scholarship, which paid for a master’s degree at Columbia. Afterward, taking advantage of a special 99-days-for-$99 Greyhound ticket, he spent a summer touring potential sites to earn his doctorate. He settled on Stanford, and graduated with another master’s degree (in anthropology) and a PhD in international development education in 1972. Shortly thereafter, he joined Lewis & Clark, and he has been with the college–specifically what is now the Graduate School of Education and Counseling–ever since.

Challenging Tomorrow’s Teachers

Most students first encounter Wahab in the teacher education program’s required Foundations of Education course. There, in writing assignments and classroom conversation, he asks provocative and probing questions that force students to consider unsettling questions of power, privilege, and culture. “I remember the very first question he asked us,” says Ken Libby MAT ’09. “He walked into class the first day and asked, ‘So what do you think about America?’ The room was dead silent. No one really wanted to speak up.”

“I like theory, intellectual discourse, and ideas. But I also get very claustrophobic in academia. I need to get out there–to experience and do something.”

“We have a different relationship with him than with any other professor in the program,” adds Laura Hindley MAT ’09. “We are simultaneously fascinated and frustrated. And it’s precisely because he forces us to be in that really hard space of sitting with one of his questions and not knowing how to respond to it.”

Not everyone appreciates the encounter. Some students have left Wahab’s classroom in tears or anger. Those who enjoy the experience in Foundations of Education often enroll in one of his other courses, which currently include Race-Culture-Power, the Middle East in Global Perspective, and an examination of the late Brazilian educational theorist Paulo Freire.

Many see Freire’s influence in what and how Wahab teaches and how he lives. Freire’s most famous work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed,  endorsed an approach to teaching that recognized education as part of a world with socioeconomic and historical injustices. He emphasized engaging in dialogue in the classroom, taking informed action to make a difference, and educating and empowering people from groups that were marginalized and dominated by others.

“I think what Zaher offers is authenticity about Paulo Freire’s worldview,” says Paul Copley, instructor in education and a friend. “And that worldview includes pedagogy and politics. Neither Freire nor Zaher believes that politics and education are distinct; both say they need to be seen together in terms of dominance, race, and class.”

Books by Freire and other cultural critics–such as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, bell hooks, Arundhati Roy, and Eduardo Galeano–line Wahab’s office shelves. He says those people inspire him and give him hope. “My entire life has been … a struggle against the established order.”

Struggling Against Odds

That struggle, according to Wahab, began at birth. He was the family’s first male child, which in Afghan culture meant inheriting an enormous responsibility. It was up to him to make sure all his extended family was provided for. He resisted his father’s wishes that he become a cleric, choosing instead to pursue a modern education in Kabul and abroad. He intended to return to Afghanistan, but after the Soviets invaded in 1979 and his younger brother was “disappeared” by the new regime, he decided to remain in America.

Since then he’s done his part from afar, sending dozens of relatives to school in Afghanistan, Pakistan, England, and the United States. He adopted six of his nieces and nephews and brought them to live with him in America and attend school in Portland–including Lewis & Clark.

Now his struggle is one against war, poverty, corruption, despair, and incompetence: to transform his war-weary country through education. And, at the same time, to challenge aspiring American teachers and fellow Americans to see the world a little differently.

A ‘Multiplying Effect’ for Education

Afghanistan’s education system, like the country itself, is in shambles. Wahab points out that the country invests only $40 per child annually on the equivalent of K-12 education; the United States, by comparison, spends about $10,000. Only half of Afghanistan’s school-age children even go to school–and for many who do, school is a tent or a tree-shaded spot with a few hours of lessons.

Yet the need for better education is urgent: 45 percent of Afghanistan’s population is 14 or younger. A 2006 Oxfam study said the country faced a shortage of more than 52,000 trained primary school teachers and would need another 63,000-plus in the next five years to keep up with enrollment. “I believe upgrading the knowledge of those who train teachers will have a multiplying effect,” Wahab explains, “and eventually we’ll have a cadre of good teachers and instructors throughout the country.”

In early 2002, he answered a call from Afghanistan’s interim minister of higher education to help rebuild the system. Since then, he’s helped computerize the university entrance exam, devise a credit system, and found the American University of Afghanistan. He’s also acted as a liaison between the government and big donors such as the World Bank. In 2006, he helped the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, launch a program to improve the ability of Afghan teacher-education universities to produce qualified secondary school teachers.

“We are simultaneously fascinated and frustrated. And it’s precisely because he forces us to be in that really hard space of sitting with one of his questions and not knowing how to respond to it.” “Kabul is a filthy, crowded, intriguing, besieged, chaotic, militarized, criminalized, and dangerous city. When it is dry, there is dust mixed with human and animal waste everywhere; but when wet, there is filthy mud up to your ankles almost everywhere.”

Wahab is critical of U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan and advocates for replacing the U.S.-led military force with U.N. peacekeepers; separating Afghan insurgents from al-Qaida jihadists; treating terrorism as a crime; and making massive investments in education, agriculture, health, mining, and transportation.

Benefits to Lewis & Clark

The benefits of Wahab’s work to Lewis & Clark and to Afghanistan go both ways. He noted at a lunchtime presentation to his campus colleagues in January that many of Lewis & Clark’s programs, ideas, and practices “had a lot to do with inspiring Afghanistan’s first master’s-level teacher education program.”

And his work in Afghanistan has inspired his students here.

“He used Afghanistan as an example quite a lot,” says Annarose Pandey MAT ’06, a high school social studies teacher in Beaverton. “Especially when talking about the structural role of education in society. I think his experiences were very tied to the theories we were reading about every day. Here’s this guy who was not just reading books, but actually doing what he was talking about, and that garnered a whole lot of respect.”

Students also admire his commitment to community. His village school in Kunsaf now has a floor, a well, windows, latrines, and a well-stocked library, thanks to his largesse. And for the last 13 years, Wahab has mopped floors and served meals once a week at the Goose Hollow Family Shelter in Portland.

“Whether people like him or hate him, agree or disagree with him, everyone absolutely respects him and admires him,” says Peter Vaughn MAT ’06, one of his former students. “He inspired me to do more.”

 ‘That’s Why I Go’

It’s not easy to have a foot in two cultures, Wahab says. He says he feels deep compassion for Afghanistan, profound admiration for American principles and ideals, and gratitude for the taxpayer-funded programs that brought him here. “But I object to the military-industrial-congressional-media complex and America’s aggressive imperialist posture.”

All in all, he finds the back-and-forth “rejuvenating.” And he’s accustomed to working overseas: he’s led study-abroad programs in eight different countries–including Sweden, Nicaragua, and China–and he’s taught in Egypt, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan during four Fulbright scholarships.

“Someday Afghanistan has to become a normal country or disappear from the map. The only hope is to educate people. That’s why I go, hoping against hope that someday this person in front of me will think differently.”

Wahab will return to Kabul this fall, continuing his work to advance education. “I do want to make a difference in the world,” he continues. “It’s my moral and intellectual responsibility. The destiny of a people is at stake.” 

Dan Sadowsky is a writer for Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian agency based in Portland. Photos in Afghanistan courtesy of Zaher Wahab.

To view a slideshow about Wahab’s work in Afghanistan, visit