It wasn’t always easy to earn people’s respect, though. Between being an American and being a woman, there were moments where just being me earned me a lot of vitriol. It’s not that I don’t understand where it comes from and not that I don’t think that some of it isn’t justified (triple negative anyone?)–for a lot of reasons, Afghans have every right to be angry at Americans. And while I don’t and never will condone dismissing someone based on their chromosomes, I get that the Afghan worldview, especially the rural Pashtun one, can be rather different than my own.
What took me aback, though, was how often it was the younger generation that was the most vicious. Sure, teenage males are always going to be hotheaded and combative and trying to prove their manhood, but in most places around the world, kids are the ones doing their darnedest to be hip and cool and use the internet and devour American pop culture and stuff. (Read about halfway down here–under 30′s love America. Caveat emptor.) But it turns out that kids can sometimes be far more conservative than their parents. Openly, anyway.
I was having a good time out in Paktika. I’d been in Afghanistan for a couple months and was slowly figuring out the tricks to interacting with people. On one trip out, we arrived in a village to find none of the men were around to talk, aside from one middle-aged guy watching his cows who told us that everyone was at a funeral. That was a pretty common excuse to get out of talking to us, but it was also just a pretty common occurrence, so it was always hard to judge.
Some other men eventually showed up, and while the Army guys talked to them, I hung out until some teenage boys came up to me. I asked them if they went to school (they did) and what they wanted to be when they grew up (engineers), and we just generally talked about life. They were a little stand-offish, so I let them take the conversational lead. Finally, one of the older ones who hadn’t spoken up previously, sneered at me and said they didn’t want us here. I asked if they meant us right now or the Americans in general.
“All Americans. Life was better under the Taliban.” Yowsers.
“Well,” I responded, “do you mean security was better or how was it better?”
“Everything. Everything was better.”
What struck me was the kid was at most 17. He’d probably been 8 or 9 when the Taliban was removed from power, so this kind of talk wasn’t coming from personal experience, but a whole host of other things that are even harder to combat.
Use questions, I thought to myself, they’re less of a challenge and more of an invitation that way.
“Everything? I don’t know. I heard there weren’t a lot of schools or clinics back then, right? And they might have been better at security, sure, but I thought they didn’t allow things like music or even flying kites?”
He stared at me for a long moment and then scowled. “What do you know? You’re just a woman.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that one. Fortunately, I didn’t have to. Before I could think of what to say, my interpreter jumped in, asserted his age-rank authority, and began to yell at the kid for insulting my honor and speaking like that to his elders, etc. The boy shrugged him off and wandered away. The others looked a little less certain, and some looked downright embarrassed, but eventually most decided to shuffle away too. My interpreter turned to me, looking depressed and disappointed, and apologized.
I was a bit depressed and disappointed myself. But silver lining and all…as we had finished our chat with the boys, the soldiers shifted their security positions, and apparently one got a little too close to the cows.
The cows started snorting and mooing apprehensively. Glancing at me and undoubtedly seeing the bummed out look on my and my interpreter’s faces, he got a twinkle in his eye, and shouted at the soldiers:
“Hey! Why are you scaring my cows? They’re not Taliban!”
He looked over at me with a mischievous little grin and I couldn’t help but laugh. Seeing that, he smiled warmly at me and waved. I’m not entirely certain what it all meant, but it meant a lot.