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Seema Jilani Headshot

Crown Jewels or Spoils of War?

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When I go to London, where much of my family lives, I still enjoy walking the touristy grounds of the Tower of London, where Anne Boleyn was beheaded, where political prisoners' anguished carvings still remain in prison cells and where one can feel the ghosts of yesteryear. To this day, every time we view the Queen of England's crown jewels, my mother still has the same visceral reaction: "Can we have our Kohinoor diamond -- the one you stole from us, the one that now sits in your beloved crown -- back now?"

One person's proud history is another's tragic ancestral humiliation. The crown of England is a dagger that pierces my mother's heart, a remembrance of what was so brutally stolen from her -- not the jewels per se, but the dignity of her family tree. The Imperial Crown of England holds another phenomenal stone in its cross named The Black Prince's Ruby, which was mined in Badakhshan, Afghanistan. It found its way into the possession of the Prince of Wales in 1367. Queen Elizabeth II now wears it at coronations, knighting ceremonies, and yes, even birthdays. To wear the stone of a land that was raped, and of a people who were brutalized, at frivolous British pageantries whilst drinking tea (from India, no less) is the ultimate insult.

Many of the colonized people in the world share a belief: that when our colonizers leave, they intentionally leave behind a chaotic situation destined for more conflict, thereby ensuring post-colonial strife. The British left Kashmir's boundaries hazy, ensuring that Pakistanis and Indians would slaughter each other long after their departure. Afghanistan's intricate political history speaks for itself. Perhaps a more flagrant example is the fact that Afghanistan holds approximately 10 million land mines and Kabul is the most heavily mined capital city in the world.

Knowing all this, how should I approach my task as a a medical aid worker in Afghanistan -- to provide pediatric health care and train Afghan doctors at CURE International Hospital -- without becoming the dreaded cliched colonialist?

When I first told my mother of my medical relief trip to Afghanistan with CURE International, her resistance was expected. I possess a bad combination of titles: American, female, and doctor, not to mention that I have ethnic roots originating in the region, which adds risk given the inter-ethnicity strife. But my mother saw this trip from a much closer perspective. She was transplanted back to her childhood memories of family vacations in Northern Pakistan. The epic landscape of mountains dotted with pristine lakes, and pastures speckled with lazy waterfalls made it a stunning locale. She even recalled a trip the Khyber Pass, the most dramatic entry into Afghanistan, which traverses the Pakistani border, and is now rather difficult to pass. She was despondent at the thought of her faith being warped, and of such an enchanting country, with such charming people, being taken hostage by various military and political parties.

As I departed for Afghanistan, instead of lecturing me on security, she said, with some mix of a twinkle and tears in her eyes, "Don't forget to eat the pomegranates of Kandahar, if you can get them in Kabul. They are famous." Perhaps somewhat proud that I was trying, in my own way, to counter an imperialism of the past and heal people suffering from a military assault of the present, she sent me forth with, of all things, her nostalgia for Kandahar's pomegranates.

Being raised in a similar culture has prepared me for some of the ethnic subtleties, but there are scenarios that I experience which cannot be anticipated and which challenge me. I've decided the best way to approach my medical task is with a healthy dose of humility, and perhaps the colonialists, past and present, could stand to taste a spoonful of this as well. While I think I am here to "teach them", truthfully, I am the student who will be schooled, and who has the most to gain from the extraordinary Afghan people. Their lessons -- the lessons of a tough people -- are the real jewels of Afghanistan.

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