Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Hosseini - And the Mountains Echoed

Not exactly a book about leadership, Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed is a beautiful book about human striving and resilience. Beginning in Afghanistan and moving through Europe and U.S.A., it charts the lives of a brother and sister who were separated as children when their father sold the daughter to a wealthy Afghan woman in Kabul. The Afghan woman, Nila Wahdati, is an illustrious socialite and poet in the days before Afghanistan became torn by war, invasion, and internal strife. Because she is non-traditional, she is looked up to by some and down on by others and her unhappy marriage and inability to conceive children herself causes her to seek fulfillment in acquiring Pari from a small, remote village of Afghanistan. Pari was too young to remember her early childhood and the brother (Abdullah) who loved her so much, but throughout her life Pari felt an emptiness that was unexplainable.

The title of the book derives from a story that Pari and Abdullah’s father told them as children about an evil div who periodically stole children from a village. Unknown to the villagers, the div was removing the children from poverty and strife only to be cherished and nurtured by the div in a distant and wonderful place. This story, and the anguish felt by a father in the story who sacrifices his son to the div in order to save the village and his family, is a tragic premonition of what Pari’s father did when he sold her to the adoptive mother, Nila. The father ended the story of the div posing the conundrum for a father contemplating giving his own child away – would it only be a “A coward who would see them all die rather than burden his own conscience?” Indeed, after Pari’s father sold her to Nila Wahdati, he lived a life burdened with sadness and regret.

The story continued with Nila and Pari staying in Kabul with Mr. Wahdati for only a short while until he fell ill, then moving to Paris where Pari’s life evolves into one of opportunity. Pari’s uncle Nabi (who secured the sale of Pari to the Wahdati’s) remained with Mr. Wahdati for the rest of his life, serving him and tolerating the ambivalence that was at the core of their relationship. Ultimately, Pari’s move from the Afghan village to Kabul, Kabul to Paris, placed her in environments in which she found purpose and an improved quality of life. However, the emptiness remained and eventually led Pari to seek out her brother.

Pari and Abdullah were reunited after the brother had advanced so far in his dementia that he denied she existed when Pari finally tracked him down in the U.S.A. After fifty-eight years of first not knowing and eventually seeking to find Abdulla, Pari reflected, “I remember almost nothing about him. What I remember, it is not his face or his voice. Only that in my life something has been missing always. Something good. Something…" In the end, Abdullah’s daughter and caretaker found a box in a closet labeled to "Pari” and gave it to her, upon which Pari finally resolved the emptiness in her life experience by recapturing something to treasure from the relationship with Abdullah.

Hosseni’s story is fictional but it reflects many of the struggles I’ve observed in my time in Qatar – wrenching struggles of separating families in order to survive, unfulfilled relationships restricted by repressive convention, mystery about one’s family and circumstances inflicted to protect reputation or prevent the transparent realization of lives shaped by forces that cannot be controlled. More than anything, And the Mountains Echoed reminded me of one of the lessons I’ve learned to treasure – withholding judgment in order to understand another’s journey.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

James Conlon (Ravinia Music Festival Conductor) on education

I've enjoyed my first summer living in Chicago, primarily because Chicago is such an amazing city for cultural arts.  We've gone to Grant Park free concerts, Ravinia Festival concerts, gone to the Art Institute of Chicago and many other things.  I am so impressed by the vision of Chicago and its many contributors and one of the most important is James Conlon, summer conductor for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for the Ravinia Festival.

In the program notes for the concerts we've attended, he commented on the importance of music for its own sake - not just for providing career opportunity for young musicians.  As I read the quote below, I couldn't help but think of the importance of classical music, and education, for its own sake:

"I am familiar with the charge that we should not be encouraging young people to play classical music because there are no employment opportunities, or at least fewer than there were.  I vehemently oppose this view on all levels, philosophical, moral and artistic.  First of all, art is art.  It is an end in itself; it is not a means to find a job.  One becomes an artist, in the best of cases, because of an existential inability to do otherwise.  In recent decades education in general has taken a turn, in my opinion, for the worse, with the full endorsement that education's ultimate purpose is to find a job.  Finding the right profession or vocation should be a byproduct, and a very important one, of education.  The opposite view, taken to absurd exaggeration, would imply that everyone should simply go to vocational schools, the earlier the better.  I think this is in opposition to every broad educational principle that has made America great.  I believe our ideal is and should be to rear an educated citizenry, with broad knowledge and, almost more importantly, a thirst and desire to continue educating one's mind for a lifetime."

Just interchange art and education and it works either way from my perspective.  This is at the core of learning about leadership - learning to thrive on the pursuit of knowledge and expression of one's deepest self.