Helpfully White

Helpfully White: Nicholas Kristof and the Sultana Interview

I’m tempted to forget the greatness that is a Nicholas Kristof column. Here’s the top five “better” quotes from his last on Sultana, an Afghan girl.

I throw around the term “Helpfully White” a lot here on the blog and elsewhere. And for good reason: there’s a lot of the Noble Order of White Helpfulness running around. And sometimes a true luminary of the NOWH graces us with his presence here the graveyard of reasonable aid work

Today? That luminary is none other than Nicholas “It’s OK To Name Rape Victims If You’re Me” Kristof and his column, “Meet Sultana, the Taliban’s Worst Fear.” It’s a pretty standard NOWH treatment of women in Afghanistan: Sultana’s stuck behind the high walls of a compound, and somehow amidst all the yadda yadda war yadda acid threats, she’s lucky enough to be the star of Kristof’s work.

Here, then, are the five things I learned from that column. And the obligatory blogger commentary. Because I can’t help myself, I’m that much of a fan.

1. He cares about safety

One measure of the hazard is that I’m not disclosing her last name or hometown for fear that she might be shot.

But you are going to post a picture of her at the top of the article. And use her real first name. Because the Taliban who threatened to throw acid on her (according to the column) are all dead anyway and another shot of a girl in a burqua isn’t your style. Thank you for sticking with your vision.

2. Interpreters are the gold standard

Today her English is fluent, as good as that of some Afghan interpreters I’ve used.

Not possible that it’s better. Because “interpreter” means “English scholar” in both Dari and Pashto. Everyone who’s worked with Afghans knows this. Interpreters are always the most awesome.

3. Columnists are too important for facts

Sultana, now 20, says she leaves her home only about five times a year — each time, she must wear a burqa and be escorted by a close male relative — but online she has been reading books on physics and taking courses on edX and Coursera. I can’t independently verify everything Sultana says, but her story generally checks out.

Because he’s a columnist, not a journalist, there’s no reason verify facts. Or dig into why a woman in her early 20s only leaves the house…five times a year. Thanks, Nick, for not bothering us with a lot of facts or deeper insight. I’m not a great swimmer, so the shallow end’s just fine.

4. We should tap oil

Sultana reminds us that the greatest untapped resource around the globe isn’t gold or oil, but the female half of the population. Virginia Woolf wrote that if Shakespeare had had an equally talented sister, she never would have been able to flower — and Sultana is Shakespeare’s sister.

Neat parallels between women as currency (been done, lesser minds call that “slavery) or fuel, and since when can use their liquefied bones in a gas tank? Seems like we’re missing out on some alternative energy sources.

Enlightening to know that gold and oil are both an “untapped resource.” Someone should at least let the South Africans know. They might be interested in tapping at least one of those.

And to know after a Skype interview that you’re talking to Afghanistan’s answer to Shakespeare. We are worms who grovel in the shadows of the sun that is The Columnist. For this insight, O Kristof, we thank thee.

5. Taliban can tell Tony Robbins to “suck it”

The United States spends billions of dollars fighting terrorism by blowing things up; I wish we understood that sometimes the most effective weapon against terrorists isn’t a drone but a girl with a book.

The Taliban understand this: That’s why their fighters shot Malala Yousafzai in the head. If only we were as cleareyed as the Taliban about the power of girls’ education to transform societies.

I’ve wanted to be a lot of things. Fighter pilot. Truck driver. Christopher Robin. (That last one’s not recent. Or not too recent.) So I like to think I’ve got aspirations. And now I can add “as cleareyed as the Taliban” to the list.

It could be argued that said clarity meant that said Taliban thought it was OK to shoot girls in the head. Lesser minds would contend that it’s a bad idea to draw parallels between us and the Taliban for any reason unless you’re a hipster needing some life hacks for better beard growth.

Mr. Kristof, you sir, are the paragon of Noble Order of White Helpfulness virtues. Your unwavering commitment to the cause of all things Kristof  is an inspiration to those of us stuck in the cheap seats without the marvelous platform that is a regular column in the Times.

NOWH Logo (compressed)

Thank you for not bogging down your column with too many facts.  And for comparing a young woman’s English to that of a long-dead white bard. And for opening our eyes to the clarity that justifies shooting a young girl in the head.


Also published on Medium.