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It’s funny how one person can give you a lesson in both women’s lib and racism in the course of one conversation. Afghanistan is obviously notorious for its tendency to keep women closeted, but given that it has a pretty broad range of ethnic groups, you’d think diversity would be kind of the norm. I mean, sure, people from different ethnic groups don’t exactly get along in Afghanistan and some even speak different languages, but they should at least be used to people from different cultures living in the same country.

Well, except the Hazaras—they’ve been on the bottom of the totem pole ever since their ancestors lost control of the area. Which ancestors? They are supposedly descended from the Mongol Hordes that invaded in the 13th century (apparently there are genetic tests that confirm this). So maybe there’s not a lot of love, but at least they should have some acceptance of difference…

Anyway, so one day, I was sitting in a District Center in Khost Province with a Company Commander (who happened to be African American), having a chat with some local officials. One of the men we were talking to was a wizened old guy with wispy, white hair and a heavily wrinkled face. He was 80 if he was a day. I don’t think he’d been tall to begin with and the years had left him so stooped that he barely made it to my shoulder. His glasses were a good quarter of an inch thick, but for all that, his eyes were a clear and startling blue. He was intelligent and well-educated, having been a lawyer and a scholar for decades. He had a quiet voice and said little, but possessed a gravity that hushed the room when he spoke.He didn’t talk much during the meeting, though, being content to just listen. I did much the same. At the end, rather out of the blue, he turned to me and spoke up. All other conversation stopped as the room deferred to him.

“I am proud of you, young lady. You are here, so far from your home and your family. It is hard for men, but as a woman it is even harder. I hope that someday the women of Afghanistan can be like you, that they can serve their country and be brave and follow their dreams. I am proud of you.”

It was, perhaps, the most powerful compliment I have ever received, especially as it came from someone who could so easily have bought into the traditional system of keeping females hidden. In the ensuing stunned silence, he slowly stood and made his way toward the door, signaling that the meeting was over. We all rose without saying a word.

As he passed me, he looked at me and said, “And I really hope the Taliban never get a hold of you.”

I was taken aback for a second, but then patted the Company Commander on the shoulder and said that this guy and all those like him would take good care of me.

The lawyer squinted up at the Commander for a long second, staring intently at him until the Commander began to squirm a bit under the scrutiny. What the man said next took us all by surprise.

“But how can you even be from the same country when you look so different?!”

That again left everyone in silence, though this time because we were unsure what to say. Then the old man glanced back at me and I saw a mischievous twinkle in his eyes that reminded me of my grandfather. I grinned in spite of myself and when he saw that I got it, he started to cackle wildly, thumped the Commander on the chest, and turned and hobbled out of the room, still giggling to himself.

Thing was, it was funny because it was exactly what other Afghans would have thought and believed but been too polite to say. It made him laugh because he had shocked us, but also because he was mocking the racism and prejudices of his own people. In one conversation he had challenged his entire culture’s view of race and gender in a way that only an old, educated and slightly playful man could get away with.

It was simultaneously one of the most depressing and encouraging conversations I had.