October 26, 2006
Today was the usual half-day of a Thursday. Our interpreter Hamid and I spent a lot of time waiting for meetings, and we worked getting the ANA troops paid for their convoy duty. I was the approving officer for four convoys, so they had to write up the approval letters, Hamid had to translate, and then I signed them all so they could get paid. The personnel officer was very happy that I was taking an interest in helping. Franz Kafka could not have written a more twisted and convoluted system than the ANA pay system, even he had a hangover, a toothache, and just had his leg gnawed off by a rabid hamster. Nothing is easy here. Falling off a chair requires three different forms, signed in blood, and approved by the Ministry of Defense.
Hamid and I had lots of time to talk, which he really enjoyed. I learned just how awful his life is. He is an earnest, serious man, 27 years old, and never gives the impression of being irresponsible, or not taking his religion and culture seriously. He lives with his mother and two brothers on a hillside overlooking the capital, and he says his house is very nice. It is conveniently located in relation to everything except work. He would love to have us over for a meal to meet his family and I would love to go, but I doubt we would be able to. No one knows he works for us except his immediate family. They don't want to get attacked by insurgents or angry neighbors.
Further questioning revealed that his house has only two rooms. It used to have four, but the house was divided and his uncle owns half of it now. He only has electricity for two or three hours in the evening, and so their house gets pretty warm. In the winters they have a wood-burning stove, but the house gets very cold. He loves eating at our chow hall because there is such variety. At home they eat a rice and meat dish that rarely changes from day to day. He does not like it very much, but the rest of the family does. I've seen Hamid wear exactly three different shirts in the five weeks I've known him. It's probably all he owns. He gets paid good wages by Afghan standards, but I know he supports his mother with some of that.
We discussed funerals, as Col R. and many of the ANA troops were heading to one. Death is common over here, and the life expectancy is in the upper 40s. Muslims are not supposed to cry at the burial, as it can send the dead person to hell (as best I understood Hamid on this point). Despite this, there is much weeping and screaming of anguish at funerals here.
He also told me that the police had just arrested a man who had been posing as a woman and hijacking cars, and kidnapping women. Men would pick him up, thinking he was a prostitute, and he would chloroform them and steal their cars. This whole thing was pretty amazing to him. So I told him all about America, sex-change operations, breast implants, transvestites, etc. I explained that when you live in a free country, there is a lot of weird stuff that can happen too.
At lunch we discussed his hopes in life. He would like to get married, but his mother must arrange it. First his older brother must get married, and that is in the works. The brother's wife will move in with them in the tiny house. He also explained that wives and mother-in-laws fight a lot, because sons must pay equal attention to their wives and their mothers. After his brother is married, Hamid may ask his mother to arrange meetings with a girl. However, Hamid must first go through all his cousins and tell Mom that he doesn't want to marry them. Then he can look to marry outside of his cousins. At this point he asked if we married cousins in America. I said in many places you could, but generally we did not. I tried to explain about in-breeding and recessive genes, but who knows how much he understood. I did make it clear that for health reasons it was usually better not to marry a cousin.
Hamid does indeed have a girl he is "impressed by." That is Afghan for "she's so hot!" He rarely gets to see her, but once his brother gets married, he can start hinting to Mom that she might be a nice girl to set him up with. Despite this, Hamid is very sad. He wants to get married, but it is at least two years off, and at 29 a good chunk of his life is over. Most of his friends are married and have kids. I told him lots of Americans wait until they are over 30 before they get married.
"Yes, but you can have sex any time you want. We must be married," he replied.
Well, I can hardly blame the poor guy for being frustrated. He's going to wait for marriage, and it's killing him. I told him that plenty of Americans wait until they are married to have sex, and we aren't all having nightly orgies. Plenty of guys never have sex (I suspect there is a significant number of guys so afraid to even talk to a girl that they never get to first base). Hamid gave me a look of skepticism, but I told him there are plenty of religious people in America, just as there are in Afghanistan, and they wait for marriage. I think he finally believed me.
I will close with a story he told me which is poignant and heart-breaking. I will write it as closely as I can to the way he told it, which was very moving. This was about his life in Pakistan, shortly before coming back to Afghanistan.
"Pakistan was so green, so beautiful. When it rained in the spring, it was warm and lovely. I remember once it was raining and I put on my raincoat, and my friends and I walked three miles in the rain to a cafe. It was dark, and there were lights everywhere, and they shone off the water, the rain, the streets. We sat and drank tea and watched the beautiful girls go by. But here in Afghanistan there is nothing. We must be inside by 8 PM. There is no electricity. There is nothing to do. I wish I could leave."
"Why don't you go back to Pakistan?" I asked.
"My family was with me there. Now they are here, and I must take care of them."
When Pakistan is your Garden of Eden, you know you are at the very bottom of what life has to offer.
Our day was over. He needed to go to the front gate to catch a taxi, and I walked him out. "Today was a very good day," he said. "I am glad we had so much time to talk. Normally we are in too much of a hurry. But I enjoyed it very much."
As did I, my friend.