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A few weeks ago at work (before Ramadan), an Afghan colleague of mine spilled an entire glass of water on his personal computer. He’s a young guy and can get quite heated at times, so I prepared for an onslaught of cursing. That’s what I would have been doing, at top volume. He just shook his head in an almost humorously bewildered, but also resigned sort of way–the kind of look you’d give a small kid who just got caught eating soap and looks really guilty about it, because, well, how do you punish THAT? My colleague carefully picked up his computer and turned it upside down, then strolled over and got some paper towels. All very nonchalant. Seriously, if that was me, the whole computer probably would have gone out the window, plus the offending glass that failed to hold the water effectively.

But Muslims, and Afghans in particular, can be peculiarly fatalistic at times. It is best captured by the idea of maktoub, which is an Arabic word that translates to “It is (or was) written.” Everything. It is the idea of predestination, that God/Allah/Horus/Zeus/Whomever already knows everything that ever was and ever will be. It is all part of a plan. It also helps give rise to the infamous Muslim phrase insha’Allah, which basically means in a very literal sense, “God willing.” Some Muslim theologists argue that the concept of maktoub doesn’t rule out free will, but the whole Schrodinger’s cat/observable universe/all-seeing, all-knowing Being/can-free-will-actually-exist-in-that-framework debate is a can of worms I won’t open here.

The epitome of fatalism that I’ve ever seen, though, was while I was on a mission in Afghanistan and my interpreter–who had become my adoptive brother–got a call from his family saying his father had died. I frantically started looking for ways to get him home (in Islam, you must bury the deceased within 24 hours), pausing only to stop by to console him. I mean, if my father died, I’d be beyond a mess. I had a dream once where he’d died and for several days afterward, I was not quite right. Not so my interpreter, who gave me a gentle smile to calm me down.

“Kat, it’s okay. I will stay here and help you finish your mission. My father lived a good life and he was sick. It is Allah’s plan, so it is okay. My family will be okay without me, so we will finish here.”

And he meant that. He was fine. No tears, no rage. He was as cheerful that day and the next as he had been before. And it’s not that he didn’t love his father–he’d talked about him often and the two were obviously very close. It’s just that there was no reason to lament or challenge the will of Allah. I didn’t know whether to admire that or feel sad for him.

That’s not to say that that this kind of attitude rules all the time or that Afghans (and Muslims elsewhere) don’t fly off the handle. Clearly they do get angry and violent about things. What makes me call it peculiar is that you never quite know whether they will take something calmly or if they will explode. It always seems to be the reaction you least expect.

Come to think of it, that’s kind of like my mom. When we were kids, sometimes she’d flip out over the littlest things, but when we’d done something we were sure was going to make her go absolutely bananas, she would turn into the coolest, chillest person you’ve ever met. (Love you, Mom!) It kept us on our toes. Ditto with Afghans, I suppose.

P.S. I sent my interpreter home as soon as I could anyway, to be with his family, which he did appreciate.

P.P.S. As far as I know, the computer never recovered.

P.P.P.S. My brother actually used to eat soap when he was a kid, so that wasn’t an entirely random scenario.