Former UN official opens Penobscot Reads

Posted Jan. 03, 2010, at 9:18 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A preface to the annual Penobscot Reads program was held Saturday afternoon at Bangor Public Library in the midst of a severe winter storm that forced libraries in surrounding communities to shut their doors for the day.

In its ninth year, Penobscot Reads is part of a national program in which community members read a particular book and discuss it for about four weeks. Penobscot Reads is scheduled to kick off officially with a tea at 3:30 p.m. today at the library. Related events are programmed throughout January.

About 15 people came to the library Saturday to hear Holden native Alex Smith, 31, of Boston, talk about his experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan over the past 10 years. Smith graduated from Brewer High School, Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and Westminster University in London.

He has worked for the United Nations in Afghanistan and the Sudan as a gender officer, initiating efforts to improve the lot of women in those countries. His experiences relate directly to this year’s Penobscot Reads selection “Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Fight Terrorism & Build Nations … One School at a Time” by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin.

The book details how Mortenson in 1993 wandered into a Pakistani village after a failed attempt to climb K2 in the Karakoram Range, the world’s second-highest mountain. He was so moved by the villagers’ kindness he promised to build them a school. Over the next decade Mortenson and his supporters built 130 schools, many of them devoted to educating girls.

Smith said Saturday that he had planned to be a filmmaker when he went to Pakistan in 2001 to work for that country’s version of public television.

While there, he toured camps of refugees from Afghanistan, most of them women and children. He made a short documentary “Afghanistan’s Hardships,” which was his senior project for his bachelor’s degree. It included interviews with Afghan refugees and representatives of the Taliban who were diplomats living and working in the United States.

He showed brief excerpts from the film Saturday and explained what some of the people in the film were talking about.

“Americans seem to be very concerned about the burqa,” he said after showing an interview with an Afghan widow in a refugee camp.

The burqa is the long garment worn by some Muslim women that covers them from head to toe. An oval-shaped section, usually made of loosely woven thread or netting, allows the wearer to see and breathe. Smith said most of the women he met wore the garment outside in public but removed it when they were in their own homes.

“Afghan women don’t mind the burqa if they and their children can go to school and they have access to employment and health care,” he said.

Smith said the keys to peace in Afghanistan are rebuilding infrastructure and educating the nation’s young people, boys and girls. Smith said he agrees with President Barack Obama’s policy of increasing the number of American troops in the country.

“I think it’s good that there are NATO and not just American troops there,” he said. “I’d also like to see some U.N. troops there so there would be more Muslim soldiers in the country.”

Smith said his experience in Afghanistan was “life-changing” and sent him in a new career direction that he still is pursuing. He is in his second year of law school at Northeastern University in Boston. Smith said Saturday he is in a four-year program working on a double major.

In 2011, he expects to earn his law degree and a master’s degree in public health from Tufts University in Medford, Mass. With his law degree, Smith said, he plans to work at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which prosecutes individuals accused of genocide and other war crimes.

As for his experiences in Third World countries viewed by most Americans as dangerous, Smith said the biggest dangers he faced were bouts of food poisoning and driving on unpaved roads in rural areas.

Smith’s parents are Ned and Diane Smith. She works for the library and volunteered her son to be part of the Penobscot Reads program when the book “Three Cups of Tea” was chosen. Ned Smith teaches history part time at Husson University in Bangor.

The first book discussion in this year’s Penobscot Reads series will be held at 4 p.m. Tuesday at the library. For more information, call 947-8336 or visit www.bpl.lib.me.us.

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