AIC Professor Emerita Recounts Pre-War Afghanistan in New Memoir

Robin Varnum

It is now difficult to imagine Afghanistan any otherwise than at war, but AIC Professor Emerita Robin Varnum has recently published Afghanistan at a Time of Peace, a memoir of her experience there in the early 1970s as a Peace Corps volunteer. Because one goal of Peace Corps service is to “Bring the World Back Home,” Varnum says she wanted to try to explain to interested readers why Afghanistan matters, what the country and its people were like when she lived there, and why she persists in hoping to see peace and the prospect of a brighter future restored to the nation she came in her youth to love.


AIC Professor Emerita Robin Varnum.


Varnum opposed President George W. Bush’s intervention in Afghanistan in 2001. Now, however, she is concerned about President Joseph Biden’s push to withdraw all U.S. forces from the war-torn country by September 11, 2021. She worries about what will happen to the Afghan people, and particularly the Afghan women, if the U.S. and its allies withdraw.

From 1971-1973, Varnum taught English in a girls school in Ghazni, a small city some 85 miles southwest of Kabul. Some girls did go to school in Afghanistan in those days, and Varnum wanted to help her students gain access to the kinds of opportunities that were available to other girls in other parts of the world. She also tutored Dr. Khadija Akbar, the Afghan woman doctor who ran Ghazni’s family planning clinic. Varnum now fears that if U.S. forces withdraw, Afghan women will again be denied access to education.


Robin Varnum with her eighth-grade students in a girls school in Ghazni, Afghanistan, 1972.


Varnum served in Ghazni alongside two other volunteers: Mark, who was then her husband, and Juris Zagarins, who is her husband now. Mark taught English in a boys school, and Juris supervised secondary science education throughout Ghazni province. The three young Americans learned to speak the local language and lived the way their Afghan neighbors did–without running water, without indoor plumbing, and with electricity only for five hours each evening. Juris and Mark were invited to a mosque to join in a celebration of the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday. Mark weathered an anti-communist riot at his school. Juris organized teacher-training workshops and applied successfully for funds with which to purchase a generator for the boys school. All three volunteers were invited to weddings, graduation ceremonies, and picnics.

The three came to see Afghanistan’s rich and ancient culture as nearly from the inside as outsiders can. Ghazni in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, they learned, was the center of an Islamic empire that stretched from what is now Iran to India. Before that, it was the site of a thriving Buddhist community. Much of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage has been damaged, however, in the wars of the past four decades. Varnum and her fellow volunteers were in Afghanistan in 1973 during the first of what proved to be a series of destabilizing coups d’état, but at the time, they did not envision the chaos and conflict that lay ahead.

Varnum based her book on two sets of letters: those she sent from Afghanistan to her mother and those Juris sent to his parents. The letters, she says, made it possible for her to write in detail about things that happened nearly fifty years ago. Varnum thanks her husband, Juris Zagarins, for helping her in countless ways with Afghanistan at a Time of Peace. The book is illustrated with his photographs, and he designed its cover.

Varnum taught English at AIC from 1993-2020, and from 2005-2016, she chaired the college’s English department. She has previously published three other books, two she wrote and one she edited. The three are:

Robin Varnum. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: American Trailblazer. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.

Fencing with Words: A History of Writing Instruction at Amherst College during the Era of Theodore Baird, 1938-1966. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 1996.

Robin Varnum and Christina Gibbons, Eds. The Language of Comics: Word and Image. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2001.