The Last Thousand: One School's Promise in a Nation at War
By: Jeffrey E. Stern
Publication Date: January 2016
Reviewed by: Ellen Feld
The Last Thousand introduces the reader to a school in war torn Kabul, Afghanistan, that educates both boys and girls, and teaches them how to think and question the world around them. This school, Marefat, flourishes under the protection of the United States, but as the countdown to the “Outsiders” leaving draws close, those who cherish the school fear the worst.
The Marefat School is the brainchild of Aziz Royesh, a member of the Hazara (a minority group that has borne the brunt of too much racially motivated violence and discrimination). Aziz dreamed of building a school for the children of the Hazara, where children would learn to “question, criticize…sing, poke fun at one another, to protest.” In fact the name ‘Marefat’ means ‘knowledge’ but it also invokes other meanings – wisdom, education, intellect and awareness. Above all, Aziz wanted to educate a generation of students who would have a “...built-in resistance to the big men wielding religion like weapons, the ones who claimed to be descended from the Prophet; to any man who would demand reverence simply because he was standing on a podium.” (pg. 276) Indeed, Marefat would be, and did become, a very special place.
The Last Thousand follows the story of Marefat from its humble beginnings to the period when Afghanistan was thrown into years of war, its fairly peaceful years as the Americans secured the area, and then the troubled countdown as the Americans get ready to leave. The book introduces us to numerous people whose lives have been changed through their connection with the school. We meet a young married man, Nasir, looking for odd jobs to support his family, who gets a chance to work at Marefat and does all he can to stay at the school because he’s so impressed with the ideals it promotes; Ta Manna, an angry girl who lost her best friend to a suicide bomber and then struggles to come to terms with it during her time at Marefat, and the one who touched me the most, Najiba, a young mother who gets her children into the school and then through persistence and a tenacity that is quite commendable, gets herself into the adult education portion of the school.
Author Jeffrey Stern shows readers the profound effect Marefat has had on the community by closely following the lives of several people. We don’t just see Najiba’s life at the school but get a good look at her early life, how her father and husband treated her, how she desperately tried to teach herself to read, what she sacrificed to go to school and how learning changed her life. In short, we get to know those touched by Marefat quite well. At the same time, we learn about life in Afghanistan, the horrors and the triumphs, and that faraway place becomes more than just an obscure place on the nightly news. The text flowed nicely, making for an enjoyable, eye-opening read. While the last few chapters dragged a bit as Aziz fought to find ways to save his school as the Americans prepared to withdraw, overall it was an excellent read.
Quill says: The Last Thousand is a compelling read about struggles in Afghanistan and gives an awareness to what happens when the United States pulls out of a country it has held together for so long.