The attacks committed on Sept. 11 left many Americans pointing accusatory fingers at Afghanistan, a country half-way around the world of which they knew little or nothing. Today, few individuals can claim to have a comprehensive knowledge of Afghanistan, and even fewer can profess the kind of understanding of its people and culture that comes from living there for five years. David Edwards, professor of anthropology, however, has done just that.
Esteemed as both an anthropology professor and an expert on the social, political and economic aspects of Afghanistan, Edwards was recently named one of ten Carnegie Scholars for his extensive research on one of today’s more carefully observed countries.
The 2002 Carnegie Scholars were selected by the Carnegie Corporation of New York for their innovative scholarship in education, internal development, strengthening U.S.democracy and international peace and security.
The selection process was extremely competitive: Edwards was chosen out of an initial group of 100 nominated scholars, 32 of whom were invited to submit project descriptions.
Edwards developed his interest in Afghanistan at an early age. His grandmother lived there and her stories greatly intrigued him. He earned his B.A. from Princeton University and his Ph. D from the University of Michigan. He went on to teach anthropology at Washington University and the University of Michigan before taking his current position at Williams.
Now, Edwards feels his background confers on him a certain duty as a teacher.
“As a college professor and an Afghanistan specialist, I feel I have a responsibility to educate both students and the public in my area of research,” he said.
Edwards traveled to Afghanistan for what soon proved to be the most valuable experience in his studies. He spent additional time across the border in Pakistan, gathering information from interactions with Afghan refugees and studying Islamic politics. He was there for a total of five years.
“Afghanistan still remains a largely misunderstood country,” Edwards said.
Since his time in the region, he has had the opportunity to shed light upon many aspects of Afghan culture that remain strange and unfamiliar in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks.
In the past year, his expertise has proven useful to publications such as The New York Times and news organizations like National Public Radio (NPR) and ABC Nightline, all of whom have called on him for information pertaining to Afghanistan.
Edwards has also taken the tales of his experiences to other cities and schools. In late fall of last year and the spring of this year, he traveled across the country giving talks about his work. He has been invited to give several more lectures in the next coming weeks.
He has also been busy writing several books, including “Heroes of the Age,” “Learning from the Swat Pathans: Political Leadership in Afghanistan” and most recently “Before Taliban: Genealogies of the Afghan Jihad.”
During his sabbatical next semester, Edwards hopes to continue his work on an original documentary film. But he adds that film production may not be easy, since it is now difficult to access certain places in the country.
“The filming will involve going to locations that display the before and after effects of the war,” Edwards said.
He wishes to concentrate on the consequences of the war there, as well as the results of militarism and the rise of Islam. Much of his research is based on a vast archive of videotapes, photographs, audiotapes and other documents collected by Afghan journalists. A project of the Afghan Media Resource Center (AMRC), the archive contains a wealth of information that covers a broad range of features, from social practices to political culture.
This semester, Edwards is teaching two anthropology classes: “The Afghan Jihad and its Legacy” and “Ritual, Politics, and Power.” His students are extremely fortunate to have some of the archive material available to use in their own reports.
Last year, two students used photographs from the collection in their term projects. One student even produced a short film.
“Hopefully, these resources will soon be available to students around the world via the internet,” Edwards said.
Using the material was not always easy.
“There were a few complications that occurred in translating the tapes,” Edwards said.
The 700 hours of video contained a multitude of different dialects, including Persian and Arabic. This past summer, Edwards was able to translate a portion of the tapes using his own knowledge of the Persian language and with the help of an Afghan student from the University of Chicago.
Edwards said he hopes to have these recordings, with subtitles, available on the internet soon.
If circumstances permit it, Edwards may have the opportunity to return to Afghanistan in the future to observe its fascinating culture and share his amazing knowledge with the rest of the Williams community.