Afgan Debaters Defeat Stereotypes at Shahjiwana Championship
“It was very beautiful,” Ali Aqa said of the 2013 Shahjiwana International Debating Championship held in Lahore, Pakistan. It was Ali’s first trip to Pakistan, and the international character of the tournament was unlike anything he had ever experienced. “I had not seen any Indian people alive, and I met them,” he said, “and I had a judge from Kashmir and another from the Philippines.”
Ali joined nine other Afghan university students who competed in the Shahjiwana Championship. Sponsored by ODSAO and APT, these Afghans formed the largest contingent of Afghans to compete in an international tournament.
Attracting top teams from Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan, the three day Shahjiwana Championship functioned as a de facto regional championship. All competitors competed in five preliminary rounds of debate on the campus of University College Lahore, sparring over welfare, blasphemy laws, the status of domestic workers, corporate hiring practices, and U.S. military assistance to Israel.
The top sixteen university teams advanced to elimination rounds. In the third and final elimination round, a team from Saint Stephens College in India bested another team from India and two teams from Pakistan to claim the title, and while no team from Afghanistan advanced to the elimination rounds, the Afghans who competed were not discouraged. Abdul Sherzai explained that he and his partner improved throughout the tournament. “We did better, I think,” he said. “For the first two rounds, we came fourth. In the last rounds, we came first, third, and first.” With seven points, Sherzai and his partner Ahmad Ramyar led the Afghan contingent, finishing fifty-fourth out of the eighty-eight teams that competed. The other Afghan teams finished fifty-eighth, sixty-fourth, seventy-second, and eighty-second respectively.
However, while Afghan teams were becoming better debaters, they were also overturning stereotypes. Faisal Peerzad, a student at Kabul University, explained that fellow competitors “came to me and talked and said from Afghanistan we never expected such people as you.” Instead of bearded radicals, we found students who were “almost the same like us.”
One Pakistani student said that after talking to a couple of the Afghans, her perspective changed completely. Once she would have been terrified by the thought, but now she wants to visit Afghanistan. Others voiced similar sentiments. Zubair Khan said that Pakistani students were telling him “we really love Afghanistan. We want to come to Afghanistan, but it is media showing Afghanistan” as a violent, intolerant place. Zubair hopes that he and his fellow Afghan debaters challenged that perception.
However, as they modeled the changing face of Afghanistan, the Afghan debaters admitted that Afghanistan is still a “backward” country that has a long way to go before it catches up with its neighbors. Rather than looking back and pointing fingers, though, they shouldered the responsibility to propel their country forward.
As Sherzai said, “Afghanistan. Who is Afghanistan? We are.”