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Promoting the Study of Afghanistan in Philadelphia’s Schools and Colleges

In spring, Zubairullah Hashmi, previously a fulbright scholar from Afghanistan, rejoined Penn’s
South Asia Studies Department to teach Pashto. Shortly afterwards, the South Asia Center, with
its mandate to promote the study of South Asia identified his expertise and put him to work. The
Center devised a plan to engage schools, colleges, and the local community, and charged Zubair
with progressing this. Zubair’s objective were not only to raise awareness about Afghanistan but
in the process, to dispel stereotypes relating to the place by presenting new information and
The program kicked off with an online presentation to the high school students at the Bodin
School. The event was coordinated through the Penn Museum, and formed part of its annual
programming for International Day. During his presentation, Zubair introduced the students to
Afghanistan, its people, its languages, and cultures.  
A few weeks later, Zubair presented in-person to a group of students at the Academy At
Palumbo, in South Philadelphia. The talk, like the previous one began with an introduction to
Afghanistan and its culture, and also covered food, music, and performance. He delighted the
students by sharing with them music videos of men and women performers, in traditional attire
and twirling to folk tunes, and suddenly this segued into videos of contemporary Hip Hop artists
dancing to Afghani beats. The students marveled at the parallels between the Afghani music
scene, and its western counterparts as represented on the stages of Berlin, London and New
“Our students and staff [] REALLY enjoyed themselves… many voiced how much they
enjoyed hearing and learning about the [guest’s] experiences and perspectives. One of our
main goals for the Diversity Day was to expose our students to a variety of people and
cultures and your workshop really helped us meet this goal. It's not always easy to connect
to teenagers, but your personal stories really helped our students relate to you and
appreciate the message you presented.”

—- Christy Chen, Chinese Teacher, Academy At Palumbo.

Zubair next turned his attention to supporting the professional development of teachers in
Philadelphia and the region. Schools and colleges have for some time sought to support teachers
to infuse South Asia-related content into their classroom. Towards these ends, Zubair did a
presentation to Moorestown School in New Jersey. The session covered language and literature,
and the development of literature from the mid-eighteenth century to contemporary times, and its
genres. He offered some analysis of modern writers’ works including the acclaimed Afghani
novelist Khalid Hossein’s The Kite Runner.  The book, a favorite among teachers, currently
features on the World Literatures curriculum. During the session, the teachers gained a new
perspective about the book—and through this developed some insights into the religious
sensibilities of the population. Teachers also learned that rather than the warm welcome the book
received on the international writers circuits, in comparison, in Afghanistan, the book’s reception
was, luke-warm at best.

“We enjoyed our session with Zubair Hashmi on the study of Afghanistan and its literature.
He framed his presentation with the question: What do you know about Afghanistan other
than what you learned from the media? He then proceeded to share information regarding
its geography, history, culture, and literature. Lastly, he addressed the commonalities in
our cultures and beliefs and brought home the importance of sharing this information to
build inclusivity and understanding.”

— Jackie Brownell, District Supervisor of English/Language Arts,
Moorestown Township School District.


Article by: Sugra Bibi, July 7, 2022.