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 perspectives.


The program kicked off with an online presentation to the high school students at the Bodine 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 York.


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 were 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 Afghan 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 writer’s 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.