DEH SUBZ, AFGHANISTAN  –– Children line their bench-style desks, patiently alert, chatting softly. A teacher reviews last minute lesson plans and writes a greeting on the spotless blackboard. At the schoolyard gate, visitors gather in the sun. They wait for honored guests, watch last-minute preparations and direct the occasional car to a parking spot out of the way. The mood is festive and happy. It’s the first day of school, a day to be celebrated with song and speech––so the barrels of the Kalashnikov rifles are pointed to the ground.

Kalashnikovs.  In Duxbury, a band of men armed with assault rifles attending the opening of an elementary school would make the national news. But the Zabuli School for Girls isn’t in Duxbury. It’s in Deh Sabz, Afghanistan, a gritty town of 1,000 families on the outskirts of the capital city Kabul. Out here, standing among men armed to the teeth is calming, not frightening. It means that security is strong. Fear comes when standing among men who have turned their attention toward you, and you can’t see their weapons. More unsettling, perhaps, are the moments when you can see their weapons and the barrels are pointed up. That’s when they’re ready for action.

More unsettling, perhaps, are the moments when you can see their weapons and the barrels are pointed up. That’s when they’re ready for action.

But Opening Day for the Zabuli School had no such problem. On this glorious day the Kalashnikov rifles are pointed to the ground. The gathering of notables, teachers and more than 100 girls went off smoothly.  The elementary school for girls is fully recognized by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Education, and jointly sponsored by the Rotary Club of Duxbury, along with Mrs. Frieda (Zabuli) Madjid, the Zabuli Foundation and the extraordinary fund-raising skills of Razia Jan, an Afghan native and Duxbury businesswoman.

The biggest problems of the day were the delays waiting for officialdom to arrive and a ribbon that refused to stay in place for the cutting ceremony. In the end, the Zabuli School for Girls was up and running. The waiting was worth it.

Opening day

“Sah!  Sah!  Sah!”

The greetings ring out from the children, cheery, confident, almost brusque.  It’s the shortest form of “salam alaikum,” the traditional Muslim greeting of peace.  It’s too informal for anyone but children or the best of friends.  The hardscrabble poverty of the village is obvious everywhere but in the demeanor of the children. They pass in and out of the school compound while workmen add finishing touches.

The morning air heats up in the sun, but the shade is cool inside where the girls wait. Most arrived an hour or more ahead of schedule. They range in age from four to about 12, in size from peanuts to strong young saplings. All are dressed in their best, and the older ones wear scarves over their hair. A few wear the standard schoolgirl’s outfit, a black long-sleeved dress and a white scarf. They can be seen by the hundreds in Kabul.  In Deh Sabz, these girls have attended schools elsewhere and are now transferring to the Zabuli School, closer to home.

“Until we completed our approvals,” Razia explains, “these girls couldn’t transfer. They needed permission from their other schools, and that couldn’t happen until this one is official.  Oh, my mind is spinning!  So many details!”

Two girls, the principal’s daughters, wear stunning traditional outfits. They will greet notables at the door in traditional style with trays of sweets and candied almonds.

Boys, too, flow in and out of the building, brothers of the girls waiting patiently in the classrooms. They move with boyish authority, supervising, curious about everything. All are pleasant and bright.

A madrassa, a religious school for boys, stands directly across the street in a village mosque.  Just as there had once been a maktab (general education school) on the site of the new Zabuli School, the old mosque and its Islamic school are integral parts of the village community.  I wonder how the madrassa students and staff would react to this new school for girls so nearby.

“Oh, we’ll have to see,” Razia replied, with just a hint of worry in her voice.

Afghanistan’s reputation for arch conservatism and male-dominated families peels away in the schoolyard and surrounding neighborhood. These aren’t oppressed children. They’re as bold and bright as any and more polite than most. They swing through the schoolyard, boys and girls navigating around the armed guards as if they owned the place. They do.

To be sure, the girls attending the Zabuli School are sisters of the boys at the madrassa, all from Deh Sabz. Islamic education in schools recognized by the Afghan Ministry of Education is not to be compared with the fundamentalist schools found across the border in Pakistan. If the cheery lads slipping in and out of the Zabuli School on opening day are any example, there should be no problem. They seem to approve.

The children’s manner is a paradox viewed through western eyes. Afghanistan’s reputation for arch conservatism and male-dominated families peels away in the schoolyard and surrounding neighborhood. These aren’t oppressed children. They’re as bold and bright as any and more polite than most. They swing through the schoolyard, boys and girls navigating around the armed guards as if they owned the place. They do.

A straggler waits through the morning, neither joining the others nor leaving. A girl of about eight is a little dusty, wearing play clothes rather than school-day best. Hers is the only sad face in the building.  She won’t be staying for school. Razia stops to engage her and sends her off with the principal’s husband.

Women on the Move

The Zabuli School project started about two years ago.

“I’ve known Mrs. Karzai for years,” Razia Jan explained.  “She was on her way to an Islamic women’s conference in Istanbul, and she met Aziza.”

Zinat Karzai is the wife of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and Aziza Mohamad Dauod is an Afghan woman who runs Niazi Road and Building, a Kabul construction corporation.  As Afghans will, the two got to talking. Aziza was looking for a worthy project to help Afghanistan’s recovery, like a school for girls on the site of a historic school building, now in ruins after 30 years of warfare. The problem was to find a way to pay for it.

Aha!  Zinat just happened to have a friend (Razia) who had been looking for a worthy project for the Duxbury Rotary Club as was the Zabuli Foundation and Frieda Madjid, the widow of Abdul Madjid Zabuli. He was a founder of the modern Afghan state. Rather than foist a school onto a random town as a form of social engineering, this would restore a school that was once an important center of the community.

Razia would add to the reliable coordination, linking the two women’s ideas to private American funds and fundraising, and the private Afghan funds of the Zabuli Foundation through Frieda Madjid. She is known in Afghanistan as Fareeda Zabuli.

In the days following the September 11th attack, Razia Jan had managed tireless relief efforts to bridge the gap between the needy children of Afghanistan and American troops fighting to find Osama bin Laden and to overthrow the Taliban stranglehold on Razia’s country of birth.  She started with blankets for rescue workers in New York and commemorative quilts for the fallen heroes of the World Trade Center.  She moved on to scarves for our soldiers in the field.  Then, through the U.S. military’s Operation Shoe-fly, she sent more than 30,000 pairs of shoes to the children of Afghanistan.

A simple tailor and dry cleaner on the outside, on the inside Razia had the passion, vision, and rich networking skills to turn Zinat and Aziza’s dream of a school in Deh Sabz into reality.

A simple tailor and dry cleaner on the outside, on the inside Razia had the passion, vision, and rich networking skills to turn Zinat and Aziza’s dream of a school in Deh Sabz into reality.  And so the project began.  With surprising speed, and a major financial boost from best-selling Afghan author Khaled Hosseini, the ground was broken for the new school in a well-attended little ceremony.

Razia told us about the groundbreaking from the podium of the Duxbury’s Performing Arts Center as she introduced Khaled Hosseini for the first of two fundraising events.

“All of the men who had worked on the project and men from the community had come, but none of the women.  I told them, next time, I want to see all of the women,” she said.  “And none of you!”

Her charming jest must have worked with Afghan men as well as it did in Duxbury, because the school’s building proceeded smoothly.  Despite a delay for the coldest, snowiest winter in recent years, the building progressed as planned.  Curious Duxbury residents could watch the progress at the Web site – thezabulischool.org – and the most curious could learn that even the apparent vandalism on the outside wall was part of the process. Workmen grew tired of fielding questions about the project, interrupting their work. They painted words at each side of the gate.  Instead of a vandal’s epithet, the tags say “Maktab,” the Dari word for school.

Men Waiting

On opening day stragglers are met in the shadows of the main hallway and funneled to their particular classroom. They’re not late. They’re just not as early as their sister students.  No fluorescent glare jars the eye. The electricity is off but sunlight floods from the windows and makes every room bright. No one expected electricity today.

Outside the front door, sun and stifling dust combine to wash all but the brightest colors into a pastel gray. Men fuss in the heat over plans and techniques to clear the dust from the broad new steps, spraying them with a hose.  Others fiddle with a carpet, so that guests and girls can wipe the newly-created mud off their feet before entering the school.

“One thousand families,” Abdul Rahimi repeats, waiting in the sun. “Can you imaging the difference to this town?  That’s how many families live near here. And with six or seven children each. Just think.”

Rahman, and his son Jawid, run the Afghan American Corporation, designers and builders of the school.  Their name lives forever on the school’s dedication plaque. Today, he stands with pride – bursting, actually – as the project nears its opening climax.

“The foundation is strong enough to add another floor,” he says, pointing to the concrete footings.

“Oh, let’s make sure we can do this first,” Razia cautions.  “Let’s see how this goes.”

Abdul Rahman Rahimi would love to add his views to the succession of speakers expected.  Sadly, he will have to share them personally.

“The program is set,” Razia says.  “We can’t change it now.  It’s too late.”

Abdul is right to be proud of his gleaming white building. A January, 2008 survey taken by the Ministry of Education reports that some 3,500 school buildings have been completed nationwide in recent years, but that 40 percent of Afghanistan’s schools still have no buildings at all.  Many students meet, in fine weather, in the shade of former buildings, under trees or wherever they can. In foul weather they can’t meet at all.  The Zabuli School’s building is sturdy and roomy.

The country’s schools suffer from 30 years of war and neglect.  The numbers in the survey seem staggering: “Nationally there are 22,728 toilets available at school facilities. Of these, 3,374 require rehabilitation. There is also a need for 28,805 new toilets.”  It’s more personal in Deh Sabz, where the splendid toilet building was finished in the nick of time.

“Classes won’t start for another day or two,” says Razia.  “We have to let the concrete in the bathrooms harden.  Hundreds of kids – you can imagine.”

“Classes won’t start for another day or two,” says Razia.  “We have to let the concrete in the bathrooms harden.  Hundreds of kids – you can imagine.”

The floors are hard, but the concrete has not yet cured.  In the dry heat of spring, it will take one or two more days. But the reviews from visitors are uniform: the toilets are beautiful. And the sinks! Everybody loves the sparkling sinks.

In the main building, a little library is clean and bright.  Tiny stacks of Ministry-approved workbooks cover a bit of the shelf space. The classroom shelves are empty. Word from the Ministry is that all the approved textbooks will be sent to the school once new copies are printed. Money is not yet available for the job. There is a computer room at the school, but internet access from Deh Sabz will take time.

The approved library of texts includes everything for an educational foundation for grades one though 12. One title catches the eye: Mantiq, a class with levels from grade seven through 12, junior high and high school. In Dari it means “common sense.”

The Zabuli School – like all Afghan schools – is required to teach both Dari and Pashto.  Historically, Afghanistan has long been governed by Pashtuns while the language of government is Dari.  Both languages will be taught here, along with English when a qualified teacher can be retained. Ministry officials are noticeably reassured when told that Dari and Pashto will find equal privilege in the curriculum.

Support for the Zabuli School is strong, and certainly committed. The January survey report underlined the difficulties facing this or any school in Afghanistan.  Half of the nation’s school-aged children are out of school, with significant gender and provincial disparities.  Today there are nearly six million children in school, and 35 percent are girls.  Five years ago, there were one million in school, and “almost no girls.”  While many girls today are starting school roughly on schedule, their older sisters have been caught in a gap. In Deh Sabz, this, too, is personal.

“We got permission from the Ministry,” Razia says, “to have a special class for the older girls starting at Grade one. They won’t be in class with the littlest beginners.  They’ll have their own class for a few months or a year to catch up to where they would have been.”

There are other challenges to the Ministry. Afghanistan is poorly mapped.  When data gatherers fanned out to all the schools, they took GPS readings for each one.  Street addresses would be meaningless without reliable maps.  While some 9,476 schools were surveyed, “deteriorating security” limited the data from 600 of them. But when Gulalai, the principal, was driven to the Ministry for the final paperwork for her school, her only concern was surviving the Kabul traffic and practicing the quieter arts of bureaucracy.

Speed Bump

The final days before the opening were unexpectedly consumed by this trip to the Ministry. Nation building means bureaucracy and bureaucracy means speed bumps.  Kabul has thousands of real ones in the streets, where Afghan drivers fly like the wind.  There are no traffic lights. Home owners and shopkeepers build their own speed bumps to gain control of their space. Like administrators around the world, Afghan bureaucrats find comfort in symbolic speed bumps, the forms, approvals, and signatures that they hope will build order into the chaos left behind by war.  In the weeks leading up to the planned grand opening, the Zabuli School hit a snag.

“They all came to the Ground Breaking a year ago,” Razia said.  “How could I know there was a problem?  Everything was approved, wasn’t it?  They gave us the go-ahead.”

Not so fast.  The Ministry that originally owned the land, Razia lamented, now said that it needed to grant permission for the school property to once again be a school.  They said it was their land.

“Without the approval, we can’t register students.  We can’t hire teachers, not officially,” Razia said.

She arranged a last-minute set of appointments at the Ministry of Education.

“If I needed to, I could call in the heavyweights,” Razia explained.  After all, Zinat Karzai was a friend, and pioneer of the project.

“But I don’t want to do it that way. They must do this themselves. I can’t be here forever, to solve every little problem. They have to learn to do it from the ground up.”

With only hours to spare, Razia and Principal Gulalai drive to the Ministry to seek the necessary signatures.

Razia adds her presence to the process. Gulalai handlesthe actual forms, feeding them to the appropriate administrators and answering their questions. She is, after all, the principal.  She’ll be in charge when Razia is gone. Razia grooms her by setting an example.

Gulalai carries herself with gentle grace. She is educated and capable, but she still needs to grow into this job, Razia believes.

“She’s young, and she’s very smart.  I know she will stay here, that the job will keep her here. But she must get...bigger. She can’t let the little things distract her. She can’t be seen as getting into squabbles.  She must be above all that. They must do what she says, and that’s it.  She has to be able to do this when I’m gone.”

In the final hours, Gulalai and Razia succeed. Signatures are obtained. Forms are stamped. The Ministry of Education approves this novel project. The Zabuli School for Girls can open.

A school re-born

The morning lingers.  The appointed time comes and goes, and the waiting continues. Ministers, clergy, and other such officials arrive, after all, on their own schedules. The girls and teachers make the best of it, with grace and patience beyond all expectation. Songs are rehearsed again. Frieda Madjid rehearses, too.  She pares her words to a precious few; her vivid blue eyes sparkle in the sun.

Sultan, a young Afghan on hand to serve as guide and translator, dives in to lead the girls in their rehearsal. His singing voice is beautiful.  The teacher welcomes his help. Maybe she’s being deferential. But then, he’s a handsome bloke at 19, and the little girls seem to like him.

Their singing is sweet as candied almonds.  Even a beginning student of Dari can hear a power in the song, and its listing of group after group from Afghanistan’s multi-layered life.  The prayers, official speeches, and cutting of the elusive ribbon are finished. Here’s what everyone hears, in Pashto, sung with joy and beauty:

This land is Afghanistan - It is the pride of every Afghan
The land of peace, the land of the sword – All its sons are brave
This is the country of every tribe - Land of Baluch, and Uzbeks
Pashtoons, and Hazaras - Turkman and Tajiks with them,
Arabs and Gojars, Pamirian, Nooristanis
Barahawi, and Qizilbash - Also Aimaq, and Pashaye
This Land will shine for ever - Like the sun in the blue sky
In the chest of Asia - It will remain as the heart for ever
We will follow the one God - We all say, Allah is great, we all say, Allah is great


“Land of peace, land of the sword,” the children sing.  These people know who they are.

“All its sons are brave.”  So, too, its daughters.  When they return for classes, day by day, the officials will be gone, the Kalashnikovs far away.  But the girls and their teachers will stand together, safe (God willing), in the heart of Afghanistan.

Gulalai steps up to her role.  She is personable with the children as she shapes the days ceremonies. She guides and directs them easily.  The ceremonies finished, she stands in the sun at the front door. All the VIP’s are gone. By class-rooms, groups of girls gather to her. Like bright fans arrayed around her on the steps, each group looks up to her, attentive to their final instructions and good-byes for the day. She tells them when to come back for the start of regular classes in a day or two. They scatter when finally dismissed, not before.

When they return for their classes, the girls of a thousand families will learn, too.  Deh Sabz will grow with their knowledge, drive and courage. You can see it in their eyes. You can hear it in their cheery calls as they scamper home, dismissed.

“Sah!  Sah!  Sah!” From the voices of girls with a future, “Peace!”

With a successful opening ceremony behind her, Gulalai seems more relaxed, more able to fill the space where she stands. The Zabuli School will be hers to run.  On the steps to wave good-bye, she seems taller. Bigger, Razia might put it. Graceful, not yet grand. She will learn.

When they return for their classes, the girls of a thousand families will learn, too.  Deh Sabz will grow with their knowledge, drive and courage. You can see it in their eyes. You can hear it in their cheery calls as they scamper home, dismissed.

“Sah!  Sah!  Sah!” From the voices of girls with a future, “Peace!”