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.
The people of planet earth tend to disagree about a lot of things. From what to teach in schools to the best economic system to what we should have for dinner, we’re always fighting, arguing or just plain ole disagreeing. But if there’s one thing the overwhelming majority of us can readily agree on, it’s that politicians are slimy folk.
A while back, I wrote about one of the most corrupt men I have ever met–the Chief of Police of Diyala Province in Iraq. General Damouk. (See this post for more on him.) The short version was that he loved catch-and-release programs, where, as a strong political Shi’a Muslim, he would round up Sunni Muslims from his Province and throw them in jail until someone paid for their release. He was also fond of doing the same to Sunni politicians.
Some of the prisoners who got released, though, were actually in there for real crimes, just without enough evidence (or jail space) to keep them. In these cases, General Damouk would hold prisoner release hearings to let these guys go. When he did, he had to have signatures from himself, an American representative, a village elder to vouch for the prisoner’s good behavior going forward, and a local politician. I got to sit through a couple of these with my boss, and they were always loads of fun (note the sarcasm).
One particularly memorable day came in the late summer, just when Iraq was at its hottest. Even with a/c, it was warm in the General’s office. I was parked on a couch, already uncomfortable, when the token local politician plopped down next to me. It quickly became apparent that he was far more interested in me than in the proceedings.
That was not entirely unheard, but a couple of things made this instance a little less pleasant than most.
- Most Iraqi admirers just gawked. This one wanted to talk.
- It was Ramadan. During Ramadan, Muslims fast during daylight hours. When you fast, one of the unfortunate side effects is halitosis.
- Iraqis can often be close talkers. As in, inches-from-your-face close talkers.
- Having a mint or gum during Ramadan counts as breaking your fast. As a cultural advisor, offering a mint was wildly inappropriate, no matter how badly I wanted to (and I did want to, very, very badly).
The conversation went something like this, in whispers, when shushing failed to work. WHILE the prisoners are being interviewed in front of us, no less:
“Are you married?”
“Shh.” <He stares at me for a long moment.> “Ugh, yes.”
“Where is your husband?”
“Ah, well you should forget him and stay here in Iraq. We could find a better husband for you and you would live like a queen, with a big house and servants, a beautiful car, many vacations, and you would never have to work.”
“I rather like my husband. We should be paying attention.”
“Eh, it is not that important. But you, you do not know what love is. Here in Iraq, we know what love means. We can show you. Like now. Are you hungry? We can go get you something to eat. Though I cannot eat, I know you are not Muslim and I will still buy you some food to show you how we will talk care of you. What love is.”
<I shake my head and point at the prisoner.>
“Ah, that is okay. To show you what love is, I will go get you food, right now, so you can eat. That is lo…”
Without warning, a third voice cut in oh-so-casually at that point.
“If you do not stop hitting on my girlfriend right now, I am going to throw you in jail.”
I looked up to find General Damouk looking straight at the politician next to me with a mild expression on his face (and also now ignoring the prisoner who was left to stare back and forth at us all). The politician laughed, then nodded to the general and slid away from me with a grin. A somewhat nervous, forced grin. General Damouk stared at him a moment longer without saying a word and turned back to the prisoner.
The corrupt police chief had just rescued me from the slimy politician.
The worrisome part was that, in his own mind at least, he hadn’t been joking about any of it. But, admittedly, I felt a bit safer.
One final thought on corruption before I get off this topic for the time being. Afghans love to gripe about corruption. The moment they realize that an American is interested in talking politics instead of just asking where the Taliban are or where to build a new school, Afghans settle themselves into a comfortable squat (that doesn’t make sense to me either) and start laying out the reasons their politicians are terrible at their jobs. General inefficiency was one of the top conversations, but the winner was corruption.
To be fair, if you ask most Americans what they think of their politicians, they’re likely to tell you the same thing.
It was that thought that inspired me, one cold winter day, to tell the Afghan man I was talking to that Afghans weren’t the only ones in that boat. We were down in Spera in Khost, a district that didn’t exactly have a stellar reputation when it came to strong government leaders. As we hopped from foot to foot to keep warm, the man had complained about his government with the usual descriptions of excessive favoritism, nepotism, and extortion.
I replied by telling him about a recent case involving a corrupt judge in Pennsylvania that had affected my family directly. The judge had been conducting some shady business for years and had only just got caught. As I spoke, the Afghan man’s eyes got wide and his jaw fell open. That was not the image he had of American. He slowly started to chuckle.
“So you see,” I said, “America has corruption too. We’re just better at hiding it.”
At this, he threw back his head and laughed.
“Well,” he said as he calmed down, “it seems like Afghanistan is better than America because at least our politicians are honest about their corruption.”
This is one of my favorite jokes I heard while in Afghanistan. It says a lot about Afghans and the rather grim humor they apply to life. I’ve also heard it with an airplane, but I like the boat one better. If it doesn’t make sense…see my previous post. 🙂
An American, a Frenchman, a Pakistani, and an Afghan are all on a boat together. All of a sudden, the boat’s captain gets on the intercom and says,”We’ve hit an iceberg and are starting to sink. We have too much weight, so start getting rid of the heavy cargo.”
So the four men begin rummaging around the boat and throwing the heaviest things they can find overboard. After they’ve finished, they captain comes back on.
“Gentlemen, we’re still going down, toss everything overboard.”
The four men quickly get to work and start clearing out the boat, throwing everything that isn’t nailed down overboard. When they’re finished, they breathe a deep sigh until they hear the captain come back on.
“Gentlemen, it’s not enough. We’re still sinking. If there’s anything else you can find, please throw it overboard.”
They look around, but there is nothing left. They don’t know what to do.
Slowly, the American steps up, nods sadly, and pulls a packet of cigarettes out of his pocket. He says, “In my country, we have a lot of these.” And with some regret, he throws the cigarettes overboard.
The Frenchman is impressed by the American’s sacrifice and he steps up next and pulls a bottle of cologne out of his pocket. “In my country, we have a lot of these.” And with some regret, he throws the cologne overboard.
The Pakistani is also impressed by these sacrifices and he steps up next. But before he can speak, the Afghan grabs him and throws him overboard.
So, yes, we get the idea that Afghanistan is kind of a corrupt place. But really, with the lawlessness and the massive rift between the political elite and everyone else, what else would we expect?
I was part of a meeting that took place in a small village in Paktiya Province. It had been pre-arranged, so all of the village elders came out in force, as did every other male in the village, from age 5 to 85. The village was at the top of a small hill that had a cliff that overlooked the nearby river valley. In fact, it may have looked an awful lot like the village in the banner picture of this blog. As we walked up the goat-trails (easier said than done while in full body armor), the men laid out a giant cloth on the ground and a bunch of padded cushions that were upholstered in red fabric that read, “Japan!”
After the official meeting, we broke into small groups to just chat. I started talking with a man in his early 30s who complained bitterly of politicians doing nothing but hoarding all sorts of money for themselves, playing favorites with projects, and giving public jobs to their family members. Since there was an election coming up, I asked him why he didn’t run for office and try to change things.
He gave me a grin that was somehow proud and sheepish at the same time.
“Because I’d be even worse.”
I had to laugh and he laughed along with me.
Corruption not only happens, it’s expected. But why? Because power corrupts?
Well, partially. People are people, after all, whatever culture we may have been raised in. But there are some particularities of Afghanistan that make what we would call corruption a good idea.
First is the expectation of violence. When you’ve lived through 30 years of war and then combine that with a couple thousand years’ worth of empires marauding through your territory, stability is not exactly the status quo. You expect chaos. You develop a mentality of preparing for it. So to protect yourself and your family, you gather all the resources you can and hold onto them (not unlike zombie apocalypse preparedness). In other words, you become a hoarder par excellence.
And if you happen to get into a lucrative position, you take advantage of that and get as much as you can, be it a well in your backyard built by the Americans or a new road to your village or a whole bunch of jobs for your family so you can collectively stockpile as much money as humanly possible before this government goes the way of all the ones before it.
There’s another element to this, though too. Across the Middle East and Central Asia, honor and shame play a major part in society. Sure, honor is important to us all, but in these areas, honor is much more tied up in the family than it is in the US or Europe. If my brother or cousin or third cousin twice removed does something dishonorable, it doesn’t really reflect on me, but if I live in Afghanistan, my cousin’s shame is my shame. And shame isn’t just about being looked down on, but think Scarlet Letter levels of excommunication. If I am shamed, basic things like getting married, getting a job, etc. are jeopardized.
So to avoid situations like that, you work really hard to earn honor and prestige. Across the Mid East/Asia region there are various formal and informal honor codes that create systems for people to earn honor. Many are pretty similar across countries. Hospitality is a big element of them (to refuse it is to seriously insult your host). Another is protecting guests in your home as fiercely as if they were your family. A third is providing sanctuary, even to your worst enemy.
And charity is a big one (it’s actually a requirement in Islam). Charity is especially important if you are a powerful or wealthy person. If you have money (or tons of cropland or goats or whatever), you earn immense honor by sharing your wealth, most particularly with your extended family. It earns you loyalty, respect, prestige. It can make you into a Big Man/tribal leader/warlord/sheikh/chieftain/etc. It’s a pretty common pattern around the world. A leader is someone who shares his wealth.
It’s not so different in our culture, really. Every time I go to visit the undisputed matriarch of my family (my little Italian grandmother), she presses $20 into my hand. She has done so since before I can remember and it doesn’t matter that I’m now over 30 with an income that’s probably three times her retirement pay. I wouldn’t dream of refusing it. It’s what she does, a point of pride and, yes, honor. (Besides, if there’s any doubt as to where I get my stubbornness, let me assure you, it’s that side of the family.)
Where it becomes problematic in Afghanistan is when people who live by that ideal get into political power. Taking care of their extended family via what we would call favoritism and nepotism is, in their eyes, the right thing to do. You take care of your own. Period. It just happens that when you do that with public funds and positions, people tend to get a little persnickety about it. While admitting that they would do the exact same thing.
Don’t get me wrong, by no means does everyone do this. There are a lot of Afghans who believe the political system should be free of this kind of thing. They don’t play favorites, they don’t succumb to nepotism, they push hard for anti-corruption investigations and convictions. There just also happen to be a lot of people who have decided to do the best they can for themselves. And for those guys, when they help their people out, they consider it to be the smart, honorable, expected thing to do.
It only becomes “corruption” when you’re the one not getting a cut.
I know, dear readers, it’s been a while. I’ve been on vacation and hither, thither and yon. And now I am facing, as the TV tells me, a hurricane the likes of which the East Coast has never seen. Doesn’t bother me too much aside from the possibility of losing power, because I’ve regrown accustomed to warm showers instead of baby wipe baths. But it all reminds me of a joke I heard in Syria once, that just gets more cynically funny as things stretch out there. So before I lose connectivity…
(Oh, and I should preface this by saying that one way to call someone stupid in Syria is to call them Chinese. I didn’t make it up, nor do I condone it, it just happens that wildly inaccurate stereotypes exist in every culture.)
An international team of researchers were conducting a poll on people’s opinions of power outages.
Fist they went to an American and asked him, “What is your opinion on power outages?”
He replied, “What does ‘power outages’ mean?”
Next they went to a Chinese man and asked him, “What is your opinion on power outages?”
He replied, “What does ‘power’ mean?”
Finally, they went to a Syrian and asked, “What is your opinion on power outages?”
The Syrian replied, “What does ‘my opinion’ mean?”
So last time, I promised a story about Pacha Khan Zadran, the (in)famous man from the Zadran tribe of Paktiya Province. Here goes…
I first met Pacha Khan on a sunny day in October 2010. He had been invited onto the Afghan Army base where I worked to be congratulated by the Afghan Brigade Commander for winning the recent Parliamentary elections. With a bandolier strung jauntily over his shoulder and a turban gracefully adorning his brow, he nodded sagely at the Commander and staff, accepting their gracious and humble aplomb after his hard-fought battle for the hearts and minds of the electorate.
Welll, that may have been what he was envisioning, but it wasn’t quite the truth. He was, in fact, visiting the base to throw a man-sized temper tantrum. He did have the bandolier, though.
Pacha Khan Zadran’s deep history is a little murky, but he claims to have fought the Soviets as a mujahaddin, side by side with the likes of Jalaluddin Haqqani (founder of one of the more problematic sets of insurgents in southeast Afghanistan). But they’re not so close now, as he and Haqqani reportedly had a bit of a falling out after the Haqqanis tried to assassinate his son.
Prior to 2001, he was hiding out in Pakistan, where he was recruited by American forces after we arrived to help control the local population. With some American money and guns and some men, he basically set himself up as a local warlord in service of the Americans in the provinces of Paktiya, Paktika and Khost, helping us hunt down al-Qaeda members (okay, so maybe some of the targets were actually his political opponents he wanted the Americans to take out for him, but that’s reasonable, right? The Mafia would be proud).
The local population didn’t like him much and he did tend to lob rockets at them and put up “taxed checkpoints” (i.e. roadblocks demanding bribes) up and down the major highway, but he declared himself governor and the newly-minted President Karzai sort of acknowledged it, almost out of sheer amazement. He attended the Bonn Conference and the Loya Jirga in 2002 to help decide the fate of Afghanistan (where he declared support for the former king Zahir Shah rather than Karzai, who he never seemed to really like).
After a time, Karzai changed his mind and accused PKZ of murder, so Pacha Khan was ousted as governor and embraced his new outlaw status, generally making a nuisance of himself for everyone. He eventually fled to Pakistan again, was arrested there in 2003, and returned to Afghanistan in 2004. His punishment? He was allowed to run for Parliament in 2005 and won, going from warlord to governor to outlaw to member of parliament in less than four years. Though how he won in the same province where he launched rockets at the population is beyond me. And then, for some icing on the cake, his son was appointed as (and still is) a District Governor in that same province. Another son is a contractor and conveniently wins a lot of bids for work in that area…
In the fall of 2010, Afghanistan held its second set of elections for Parliament and Pacha Khan was trying to keep his seat. Lo and behold, he did not win. He was shocked. (The people of Paktiya Province, incidentally, were less than surprised.) Everyone loved him. (They didn’t.) Surely the only way he could have lost was if the ballots were rigged–it must have been fraud! (Okay, the elections were far from perfect near as I could tell, but he insisted over a million votes needed to be reincluded and if he lost by that many…)
So what did he do after being cheated out of his seat? He went to an old standby, got some men (hey, enough money and guns will buy a little loyalty), and threw up a roadblock to protest.
Civil society in action, right? That’s great! Except the roadblock was on a major highway that the American and Afghan Armies use daily. And that was why he had been “invited” to the Commander’s office, where he waxed from cool to quite vehement in declaring that he refused to end the roadblock until there was a recount and he was declared the winner. He was firm and unyielding and had the upper hand when it came to rhetoric. The American XO and I watched in amazement and amusement as he stormed across the room.
Until a relatively low-ranking, generally light-hearted and unassuming Afghan Battalion Commander leaned forward and said in a low voice, “Either you take that roadblock down, or I will.”
Pacha Khan stopped his pacing and stared at the Commander. There was a long, uncomfortable pause as the men stared at each other. Then PKZ grinned widely, saying that, of course, Army forces could go through anytime, it was only closed to civilian traffic to protest, but he would also let through anyone who needed to go to the hospital or anything like that. The Commander leaned back slowly, nodding, and suddenly everyone was all smiles. But we all knew who won.
After a little while, the barricades came down. There was no recount. PKZ lost his seat and little was seen of him afterward. For now.
I get asked this question a lot. Most people know that there aren’t many women in public in much of the Middle East of Afghanistan and the whys and wherefores are apparently a big to-do in the press at the moment due to an article that basically said Arab men hate Arab women. That’s a can of worms I don’t want to get into today, but as a foreign woman, it was actually easier for me to talk to local men than for many of my male counterparts
Because when you live in a culture where you don’t get to see a lot of women and then one shows up, everyone wants to see her. And talk to her. And maybe impress her. It was useful, though could get overwhelming. It either made soldiers uncomfortable (having so many people around), or it made them laugh.
In Afghanistan, I could draw a crowd like no one’s business. You’d have thought the bit of hair sticking out from under my hat or helmet was made of gold the way Afghan men and boys eyed it. They were always trying to clandestinely snap pictures of me and did everything the could to actually get in one. This guy was obviously very proud that he managed it:
And this next guy pestered my interpreter for days to get a picture with me–as if going through my Afghan, male interpreter was akin to asking permission of my father or brother and so made it all culturally more appropriate. My interpreter, normally very protective of me, decided he was harmless enough to let it slide:
I received food, scarves, jewelry, a flower and even an offer of 10 acres of land. And people would tell me all sorts of stuff. I sat down with a District Governor one day and in an effort to impress me, he told me stories about the local neighborhood that the soldier who worked with him every day had never heard.
Iraq has a more recent history and tolerance for women in public, but I still made a splash. The Police Chief Damouk mentioned previously had a pretty big crush on me. During a meeting one day, I got stuck sitting next to a Provincial Councilman, who spent the whole time ignoring the meeting and trying to convince me to marry him. I didn’t even know Damouk was paying attention until he said in a dangerously light tone,
“Councilman, if you don’t stop hitting on my girlfriend, I’m going to have you arrested.”
Girlfriend?! Umm…. The thing was, he meant it–both that he would arrest the guy and that he considered me his territory.
But before you scoff, remember that deployed soldiers are equally deprived of women. When I got back from Iraq, I was at a bar talking to some guys. One recognized me and started to laugh.
“I remember seeing you around the FOB. There was one day you were out running in a tank top and I watched one of my buddies stare so hard at you while he was walking that he ran headfirst into an a Stryker (an armored vehicle) and cut himself.”
You don’t even have to be attractive. Just being female is enough. It was all flattering at first, but there were moments where the idea of a burqa started to get appealing. Everyone stared all the time, and the rumors that made it back to me on the FOB about things I had supposedly done were fairly astounding. People (even our oh-so-modern American boys) would get jealous and angry and possessive and territorial, and it occurred to me that women’s lib in places where the lack of women is the status quo is severely inhibited by the fact that no sane person would want to be the first to step out into that kind of environment. It’s probably not too healthy for the men either.
But I got my own back. I was sitting on a couch in a District Center next to an American soldier when one of the Afghan Police walked in and just blatantly, open-mouth stared at us. It took me a second to realize I wasn’t the one he was drooling over. As this dawned on me, the policeman smiled shyly and said, “I like boys.” The look on the soldier’s face next to me was priceless and he grabbed my arm and insisted I was his wife and he liked girls. Not so funny now, is it, smart guy?
The other day, a friend of mine wound up having to take a ride in an ambulance to a hospital, where he stayed for a couple of days. Happily, he’s alright now, just on strict doctor’s orders not to exercise for a few months (how often does a doctor get to say that?).
Admittedly it can be expensive, but being able to dial 911 and get an ambulance to take you to a hospital and care for you on the way is pretty fantastic. (I should probably admit here that I speak as a former EMT.) And they’re another one of those luxuries we take for granted.
Am American Platoon, some Afghan police, and I were on a visit to an out-of-the-way district in Afghanistan. The local government offices stood empty as it had proved too dangerous for officials to work there, but the insurgents tolerated government-run schools and clinics to stay open (or perhaps the people were okay having no officials but refused to allow the insurgents to bully them into closing health and education centers).
While we were in the area, we decided to walk by the clinic and see how they were doing. An administrator took us on a tour, and it was impressive, especially for how remote the area was. They had a small but competent staff and fairly new buildings and lab equipment. One of their techs was actually doing some bloodwork when we arrived. Unfortunately, their female doctor had been reassigned some time ago. They also had a chronic shortage of medicine, so could issue prescriptions without getting them filled. As much as bureaucracy could be a nightmare, with no local officials, they had no one to turn to help to fill these gaps.
All in all, though, they were doing pretty well for themselves and it was one of the nicest and most self-sufficient clinics I had seen. They didn’t ask us for help, aside from relaying their concerns to the right authorities (impressive in its own right), but did admit that one of their biggest worries was their lack of resources to deal with pregnancies or serious injuries or illnesses.
“We’re just a small community health center, not a hospital,” the administrator told me.
“What happens when people need urgent or intensive care?” I asked.
“They have to go to the city hospital. It takes hours to get there even with a car–there are no roads, just the wadi. And that’s assuming there are no bombs in it. People with serious problems sometimes die on the way.”
“Wow, that’s rough. And there’s nothing you can do?”
He shrugged, then chuckled. “We used to have an ambulance that we decided to organize and that helped, especially for people with no car. But it got stolen about a year and a half ago and we never found it.”
He smiled to show me it was no big deal, then waved us into the next room. No big deal? I’d never even heard the word ambulance in Afghanistan before. And then to have it stolen? Just when you think you’re getting to know a place…