Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Teaching Norman Mailer in Afghanistan

Academic journal article The Mailer Review

Teaching Norman Mailer in Afghanistan

Article excerpt

This essay recounts Prof. Chandarlapaty's experiences teaching at the American University of Afghanistan, where he is presently in his third year. 

THE PROJECT FOR TEACHING MAILER'S BODY OF WORK in a war-torn country that had expressed its hatred for virtually everything American was daunting and yet thoughtfully rewarding in the simplest of senses. I realized that my students, brave and often much more accomplished than my American students, had gone through none of the deep indoctrination with things American that I had found in many peoples of the world. Here were young adults whose inclusion in anything Western was limited to heavily censored Indian films that featured dancing and techno music alongside the obvious anchors of tradition. The exchange of ideas from places like Delhi or Dubai had favored their development of culture, and largely ignored American models of artistry that had first appeared in the 1960s.

But the greatest misnomer was the American: a symbol of prosperity and individual license that freedom had guaranteed. I understood from my teaching experiences in Afghanistan that this was a person who had bombed innocent people, captured and killed politicians and enemy combatants, and imposed his will upon poor rural folk while denying Islam its rule over its own people. My lectures on America's presence turned sourly negative: they had changed their pro-military stance and opined that it was time for America to leave Afghanistan for good, formenting crucial comments about a nation's sovereignty and questioning the rule of law from overseas.

Norman Mailer renounced the 1966 film version of American Dream and I came to the sudden realization that I was not able to make any choices concerning content. A heavily censored and in some instances textually inaccurate model would be the means for teaching gender and class conflicts in contemporary American culture. I had been rigorously advised by my supervisor to never entertain them with highly controversial content: I understood that the chapters of The Naked and the Dead would not have a strong meaning for them because the content was too distant and lacked the graphic intensity of their exposure to American soldiers and politicians. I decided to discuss the novel as a means of teaching literature, and discussed in class the novel's true content. To my surprise, the student response to American marriage, licentiousness, and polity was far from misinformed and reflected student awareness of the world beyond.As I prepared to screen An American Dream and The Naked and the Dead, I realized that I would have to give a much more broad coverage of Mailer as writer and international figure for their response to be meaningful. Still, I was pained with the important concepts for relating American anxiety and these were thoughtful. How does one represent the aching humanity of a person unsure of leading the world? How did one capture the real depth of the lingering personal trauma? And how does one explain one's doctrine of individual freedom to someone for whom it did not exist? It was then that I realized that Mailer, America's foremost mid-twentieth century writer, spoke of prosperity's trials and tribulations and the "first nation" identity, and that these qualities make violence and sex challenging for Third World readership. While obviously censorable, Mailer's graphic content and the loss of one's innocence were challenging concepts that allowed me to host the human spirit's truest agonies while possessing no working knowledge of the Islamic world. My initial appraisal was binary: Islam taught obedience in all areas of one's life, family, employment, and outlook, while the American diadem was constructed out of the machinations and gusts of choice. The converse would be telling of the Afghan response to critical sensing of identity: Shah Rukh Khan's depiction of Raj, the commissioned reporter, in My Name is Khan, was telling: "in this country (America) a Muslim is not even a human being" (My Name is Khan). …

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