It is now difficult to imagine Afghanistan any otherwise than at war. In the early 1970s, however, when Robin Varnum was serving there as a Peace Corps volunteer (1971–73), the country was enjoying an interlude of peace. Varnum was teaching English in a girls’ school, and since some girls were able to go to school in Afghanistan in those days, she hoped to help her students gain access to the kinds of opportunities that were available to other girls in other parts of the world. She admired the bravery of her students, and she took inspiration from the work of Dr. Khadija Akbar, the Afghan woman doctor who was running her community’s family planning clinic.
Afghanistan at a Time of Peace is a memoir of Varnum’s Peace Corps experience. She was stationed in Ghazni, a small city some 85 miles southwest of Kabul, and she served there alongside Mark, who was then her husband, and Juri, who was supervising secondary science education in the region and traveling frequently to remote village schools (and whose photos appear in the book). The three young Americans learned to speak the local language, lived the way their Afghan neighbors did, and came to see Afghanistan’s rich and ancient culture as nearly from the inside as outsiders ever can.
Ghazni in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, they learned, was the center of an Islamic empire that stretched from what is now Iran to India. Before that, it was the site of a thriving Buddhist community. Much of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage has been damaged, however, in the fighting that has now gripped the country for more than forty years.
Varnum and her fellow volunteers were in Afghanistan in 1973 during the first of what proved to be a series of destabilizing coups d’état, but none of them envisioned the chaos and conflict that lay ahead. Now, despite grieving for what has happened in Afghanistan, Varnum continues to hope that peace and the prospect of a brighter future can be restored to the country she came in her youth to love.
Robin Varnum’s other books are Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: American Trailblazer, Fencing with Words: A History of Writing Instruction at Amherst College during the Era of Theodore Baird, 1938-1966 and The Language of Comics: Word and Image.