All cultures have fairy tales and folklore, stories that teach morality or emphasize the importance of not going into dark or dangerous places all by yourself. Some are so effective that they leave our siblings too terrified to go swimming in the ocean as kids, and, to this day, if I hear noises coming from under my bed in the middle of the night I’m high-tailing it out of my room and not coming back without some silver bullets or a wooden stake or a priest/rabbi/shaman or something. (What? Jaws and The Exorcist were what passed for fairy tales in my house growing up. Thanks, Dad.)
Like us, Afghans have myths and stories, legends and monsters. Overall, though, they tend to be a bit more superstitious than your average American. Not many Americans (openly) believe in fairies, dragons or headless horsemen. Until it’s dark anyway. And a whole lot of us still knock on wood or toss spilled salt over our left shoulders or even just say “bless you” when someone sneezes. They may be reflexive, but we still often do them.
Many Afghans, though, are pretty certain that the monsters of yore are still stomping around the earth. While out on a patrol with some local policemen, we came across this grave marker:
It was about 20 meters (about 65 feet) long. One of the policemen pointed at it and said, “This was a famous giant. He was almost 20 meters tall, that is why his grave is so long.”
“A giant?” I asked, perhaps a touch skeptically.
“Yes!” chimed in a second one. “As recently as 80 years ago, there were giants all over in this area!”
“Ah, so maybe just really tall people, like 2.5 meters (8-9 feet). That happens sometimes,” I replied.
“No, no!” a third guy insisted. “Not just tall people, real giants. This man was a small one at only 20 meters. Some were as tall as 30 meters (almost 100 feet)!”
I continued to be somewhat cynical, thinking they were pulling my leg and trying to suggest that if the grave marker was any indication of his size, he had been 20 meters tall, but really, really, really skinny.
Not only did my sarcasm fall on deaf ears, it actually insulted the Afghans. Before I knew it, I had a whole squad of Afghan police who were pretty angry and yelling at me. My interpreter, who had a university education and had lived abroad, was no exception–he was vehemently supporting them. As I stood there somewhat flabbergasted, one of my colleagues stepped in with our stories about giants, such as David and Goliath, and came across as much more open-minded. That mollified the crowd somewhat, and they explained that people’s grandparents had seen the giants and had told their grandchildren about them, so it must be true. In the end, the Afghans knew that giants had roamed the earth within living memory and nothing some disbelieving (female) American could say was going to change the truth.
In my defense, my interpreter later admitted that Afghans do get a kick out of misleading people, especially Americans, about goofy things like this, and had they been doing so, I would have earned super cool points for calling them out. It just happened that the one time I thought they were joking, they weren’t.
In addition to giants, I knew of one mountain nearby that was inhabited by a dragon, who flew around with a giant diamond in its mouth and would eat anyone who went up the mountain alone at night.
Not too far from that mountain was another one where evil dwarves lived, who would kill you if you went up their mountain alone at night.
(Lesson: don’t go up mountains alone at night.)
Last but not least are the djinn (no, they don’t grant wishes). In Islam, they are beings of fire created before humans. There are good djinn and evil djinn, Muslim djinn, Christian djinn and heathen djinn. And a lot of mischievous djinn. We can’t see them, but they’re everywhere, living under your stairs or in your garden or even your kitchen sink if you have one. And, like Americans and ghosts, most Afghans aren’t too troubled by djinn by the light of day. A good recitation of the first line of the Qur’an will scare them away, but once it gets dark…well, best not to take any chances.