Gregory Crouch is the author, most recently, of the World War II flying story “China’s Wings: War, Intrigue, Romance and Adventure in the Middle Kingdom During the Golden Age of Flight.”
Amid the despair that wracks so many parts of the Middle East, hope flickers in the western slums of Kabul in a school called Marefat . Funded largely by tuition payments from Afghanistan’s poorest people, it’s the finest school in the country. Graduates have won scholarships to Brown, Tufts, Northwestern, Harvard and others among the world’s most prestigious universities. In “The Last Thousand,” journalist Jeffrey E. Stern brings us the inspiring story of Marefat and its remarkable founder, Aziz Royesh. The book is a paean to the power of education and its potential to peacefully revolutionize a violent nation.
Stern focuses on the experiences of six people profoundly affected by Marefat and on Royesh’s increasingly frantic search for a way to secure the safety of his students and the stability of his school as time counts down to the departure of foreign combat forces from Afghanistan. Stern, a former Marefat English instructor, describes his close friend Royesh, one of Afghanistan’s Hazara people, as small and “physically unimpressive.” According to legend, the Hazaras descend from 1,000 Mongol soldiers left behind by Genghis Khan to secure his Afghan conquests. As Shiite Muslims in a mostly Sunni country, they have been persecuted by Afghanistan’s other ethnic groups for centuries.
Like many Afghans, Royesh came of age through combat. Stern tells us that he earned the nickname “Teacher” as “a fifteen-year-old holy warrior” in the 1980s because “he’d read so many books on so many different subjects that he could challenge the elders fighting alongside him.” Wounded in a massacre that drove many of his people from Afghanistan, Royesh recovered in a Pakistani refugee camp. Realizing that the best way to serve his people was not through war but through education, he founded the Marefat School in an unused camp basement.
Traditionally, Afghan children learn by rote memorization. Royesh saw little value in that. He wanted his school to teach kids “not just to memorize but to think, and not just to think but to act.” He insisted that at Marefat, “nothing was exempt from interrogation,” and having come “to consider women his country’s last best hope,” he placed special emphasis on educating girls.
When the U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban, Royesh moved Marefat to Afghanistan, first to spare rooms in his home, then to makeshift buildings in a barren desert west of Kabul. Filled with politically active students and liberal ideas, the school thrived, eventually taking in 4,000 students. A Hazara slum sprang up around it. “Soon,” Stern writes, Marefat “was not just a school, it was a forward operating base from which Aziz nudged his community toward his own hopeful way of thinking.”
Unsurprisingly, Marefat’s progressive and Socratic principles aren’t always welcomed by Afghanistan’s conservative population. Royesh and his school have collected enemies both inside the Hazara community and beyond. “People were threatened by Marefat, and sometimes they threatened it back,” Stern writes. At first, Royesh went into denial over the impending departure of foreign forces from the country. He couldn’t believe that the foreigners would “leave behind an enemy still growing in strength, one with a grudge against . . . him and his students.” As he told Stern, “This is a place where more than ninety percent of the people want the international community here.” Events finally forced Royesh to recognize the inevitable and to acknowledge the extraordinary vulnerability of his school, an unarmed institution “in a country where everyone is armed.” Attempting to secure its survival, Royesh threw himself into the cauldron of Afghan politics.
“The Last Thousand” is an extraordinary tale that is hopeful and uplifting but also conveys a sense of impending doom. Unfortunately, the way Stern tells the story is distracting. Most of the book is an effective intimate third-person narrative, but parts are told through jarring switches to first- and second-person perspectives, and Stern tips in and out of the present tense throughout the book, apparently to punch up its immediacy. Also, more carefully tying the narrative into the chronology of modern Afghan history would have provided a reader more insight.
In the final pages, Stern tells us that “Marefat endures,” despite the conservative, reactionary and traditional forces arrayed against it. Stern’s commendable work underscores the United States’ awful strategic decision to invade Iraq and lose focus on Afghanistan, the place where America and the United Nations had a legitimate casus belli. “The Last Thousand” leaves Marefat, Royesh, his beloved students and the Hazara people where they have been for centuries — precariously perched in a violent and unstable country, their futures uncertain. Our sympathies and our hopes are with the Afghan uncle who left his young niece at Marefat at the beginning of her first day. “Sacrifice yourself for this school,” the uncle implored the girl, “because you cannot find a place like it anywhere in the world.”
By Jeffrey E. Stern
St. Martin’s. 325 pp. $26.99