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The Deconstructivist

Rectifying stereotypes in a post-9/11 world

By the time Nangyalai Attal ’23PhD graduated from high school in Wardak province, Afghanistan, he had walked nearly 20,000 miles between his childhood home and school. His pursuit of knowledge propelled him back and forth six days every week—for 12 years.

“My elementary school teacher would tell me, ‘I will make you wings and then you can fly to school,’” says Attal, a doctoral candidate in the College of Education’s international education program.

Even though a magical pair of wings never materialized, Attal continued to make his daily treks. His parents, who had no formal schooling themselves, reinforced the importance of education, and Attal and his siblings gained a deep-seated appreciation for critical thinking and debate.

In 1980s Afghanistan, however, education at home and education in the classroom could be diametrically opposed. At home, Attal experienced nonviolent religious edification. At school, he encountered “jihad literacy”—one that framed Islamic subjectivity and national identity in terms of violent opposition to the Soviet Union. As a young boy, Attal would complete mathematics exercises that asked students to quantify bullets and guns. Images of the “sacrificial warrior” pervaded school materials. The tension between these two learning modes became a touchstone for Attal’s future as an activist scholar.

“I have seen both the wild wild west and the wild wild east,” says Attal. “The media and popular culture, even some academics, are trying to portray ‘the other’ in perpetual enmity. But in fact, given that I lived in both (Afghanistan and the United States), there is a great deal to capture and celebrate.”

Attal’s research focuses on the intersection of ideology, nationalism, and education. Stereotypes of American exceptionalism and Afghan extremism have been perpetuated for so long, he says, that collective understanding between the two nations too often gives way to violence. Attal seeks to rectify this tension through educational activism.

That conflict becomes part of you.

—Nangyalai Attal

It wasn’t until he began his graduate work at UMass Amherst that Attal discovered that some of the textbooks he grew up with were funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The echo of Cold War politics in his lessons was no accident, he realized—American authors were lacing teaching materials with strong ideological terms.

With Bjorn Nordtveit, associate professor of international education, Attal is digging deeper into the emotional fallout experienced by Afghan children who grew up with these textbooks.

“Our identity bears the imprint of that curricula,” Attal says. “That conflict becomes part of you. There are even thoughts I’m still trying to deconstruct. Because of this, some of the people who are raised like that, they did not survive.”

Since 2013, Attal has lived and studied in the United States and Afghanistan. His experiences in both nations have resulted in a double consciousness of sorts, a frame of mind that enables him to validate the strengths of each nation’s educational system while interrogating their shortcomings. He explains feeling “a great responsibility to represent the identity of great Muslim scholars and offer a sense of mutual understanding grounded in scholarship.”

Despite the enormous challenge, Attal remains determined to tap into the spaces where he can expand possibilities through education in Afghanistan. “We have to stay engaged,” he says, adding, “I believe that a determined struggle always has a chance of victory. We must not turn back on the legitimate needs and aspirations of the Afghan people to live in peace and dignity.”

The social justice underpinnings of his work at UMass give him cause to remain optimistic about the future. “I came to realize that while our cognitive abilities as children are susceptible to violent distortion and negative influence by powerful institutions and ideological groups, our human capacity to persistently fight those wrong ideas is powerful,” Attal says.