At Afghanistan university, disputed name turns into fighting word

Amanullah Hamidzai, chancellor of Kabul Education University, says of a compromise over the school's name, "You have to give something to get something."
(Ned Parker / Los Angeles Times)

KABUL, Afghanistan — If they could sit down together, the chancellor and the hotheaded student activist who helped shut down his university might find that they are not so very different.

After all, Afghanistan’s history has dealt both men harsh blows. But that same history also divides them. The older one, attuned to what was lost in decades of war, seeks stability at all costs; the student, knowing just conflict and chaos, has no patience left for the older generation he blames for the violence.

Now, that history has brought them into conflict, in the form of a late warlord turned peace negotiator whose name now graces what has long been known as Kabul Education University.


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In early October, Chancellor Amanullah Hamidzai strolled his campus alone as protests led by student Mohammed Yar and his peers brought the university to its knees. Hamidzai, a harmless-looking figure with his thinning gray hair and wide girth, pondered how to keep the peace.

“If a student is hurt, I don’t want to be chancellor of this university,” he said. “Before that, I will resign.”

As students like Yar called him weak and political leaders ignored his views, he wondered whether he was stupid to come back here from his comfortable life in Maryland. “It was my emotion,” Hamidzai said, shaking his head. “I am stuck now. I can’t live without this university.”

The chancellor’s crisis of confidence was unleashed by a surprise decision by President Hamid Karzai to name the university after ethnic Tajik warlord and former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was assassinated a year ago by a Taliban suicide bomber when Rabbani tried to broker peace talks.

Ever the diplomat, the chancellor is careful — he refers to Rabbani as “a controversial figure” — but he understands why his students dislike the late mujahedin leader whose men once shelled Kabul: He is one of the powerful people who helped plunge the country into endless war.

Even though many Tajik students expressed no love for Rabbani, the fact that mostly ethnic Pashtun and Hazara groups were demanding his name be taken down and boycotting classes sparked fights on campus.

In the second week of October, Hamidzai stood in the university courtyard as student activists blocked the campus entrance, Pashtun and Tajik students traded punches, and police hauled off protesters.

Hamidzai then accompanied a group of activists to the Ministry of Higher Education, where a compromise was put forward: Rabbani’s name would not be put on diplomas for current four-year students. But the school would be referred to as the Kabul Education University of Rabbani.

“You have to give something to get something,” Hamidzai says in a soft phlegmatic voice, dressed in his bright blue-striped suit and tie, like a nightclub promoter from the 1950s. “The students weren’t happy, but they accepted it. They went back to class.”

At least in part, Hamidzai is amused by the activists, who ducked meeting him in the days after they ended their university shutdown. But he also gets annoyed at the mention of some of them, like Yar, whom he calls “complicated.”

Yar, 35, has intense black eyes and seldom smiles. He walks with crutches because of a clubfoot he was born with. When he leans on his crutches to walk, it is almost like he is leaping hurdles.

Other students defer to Yar’s serious air. He says it is right for students to return to classes, but he vows they will hold peaceful demonstrations in the future. “We don’t want this name for the next generation,” he says to nods from his friends.

Yar, a Pashtun literature student, has no tolerance for his elders; he associates them with his country’s violence, corruption and ethnic and regional divisions.

“Our chancellor is very weak,” he says, calling him a hypocrite for not standing up to Karzai. During the rounds of meetings with government officials, Yar says, he walked up to the chancellor and recommended he resign. The chancellor fired back in a calm voice: “You don’t have any wisdom; you don’t have any knowledge.”

Yar has lived though Afghanistan’s darkest period. As a teenager, he watched warlords kill his friends and relatives in his home city of Kandahar. Unable to study literature under the Taliban, he ran a secret library. He wants to believe that his generation will prove different from men such as Karzai, Rabbani or the Taliban fighters.

“I am hopeful for the future of Afghanistan. It is in our hands,” he says. “The situation will be what we want it to be.”

Afghanistan’s painful past also scars the chancellor. At age 4, Hamidzai spent a year in jail after his father led protests against the king in his birthplace, the eastern city of Jalalabad. Much of the chancellor’s childhood was spent with his family in internal exile in the country’s remote west.

Hamidzai’s early trials taught him responsibility and he excelled, becoming a doctor and a professor at the university in Jalalabad and then working for the United Nations. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, he slipped out of the country, not even telling his brother, who was a general and chief of staff in the Defense Ministry.

But he always loved Afghanistan, and in 2004, the Afghan government asked him to return to Jalalabad to rescue his old college. He soon found the dangers that drove him away still very much present. Armed groups, angry at his efforts to shield the campus from politics, tried to assassinate him, including planting a land mine by his home and putting a poisonous snake in his room. Later, he moved on to the university job in Kabul, the capital.

In the nine years since he’s been home, Hamidzai has torn a retina and lost sight in his right eye. But he would rather dismiss the rough spells in Kabul with an old Pashtun saying or a joke. He’s as coy about his age — “I’m somewhere between 60 and 70” — as any regret he harbors.

Leaning back on a couch, Hamidzai says that when the school year ends in January, he may bow out. The uncertainty of 2014 and the departure of the Americans disturb him; civil war is too real a possibility. Besides, his wife and his son, a software developer in Maryland, worry about him.

Making light of his predicament, he quotes an old saying to describe his return to Afghanistan and his thoughts about leaving.

“Getting into a prostitution house is one shame, and getting out is another shame.”