August 13, 2008

Name: Old Blue
Posting date: 8/13/08
Returned from: Afghanistan
Milblog url: Bill and Bob's Excellent Afghan Adventure

I saw a picture the other day of a soldier and his terp having chai with a couple of Afghan men. The men were Pashtun; you can tell by the black turban with the tail hanging down the back over one shoulder. The turban isn't always black, but the tail is a Pashtun thing. Black is a standard color, but not a rule. This is my observation.

I've written before about having chai, but it's always been part of another story. I've always wanted to describe, in detail, the uniquely Afghan experience of having chai.

One of the key tenets of the Pushtunwali, the code of conduct of the Pashtuns, is hospitality. Hospitality is not just a Pashtun value, though. It is an Afghan value. It is shaming to be considered inhospitable, and as O and I discussed over the weekend, we have both been offered chai by families whose khalats we were either searching or had just searched.

We have both had chai served to us by Taliban, as well. A Talib will not kill you while offering you hospitality. It just isn't done. They may have been shooting at you an hour before, and they will be planning their next ambush even as you sit there with them, but they won't kill you during chai or while you are leaving immediately afterwards. A mile up the road is a different story, but not during chai.

More often, the offer of chai was not an obligatory gesture but a genuine expression of friendship and a desire to have relaxed conversation with another. Either way, refusal of an invitation is a delicate thing. While you may be excused for having to fulfill other obligations, genuine regret and thanks for the offer are in order. If there is a possibility of following up on the promise, a promise to accept the invitation at a later time is acceptable. However, this is not a "get out of jail free" card, but a promise.

Afghans expect you to keep your word. In America, it's a commonly used tactic to express regret and promise, with no intention of ever keeping that promise, to "get together another time." This is considered acceptable here, and actually more polite than saying, "I don't want to spend that time with you." That is not the case in Afghanistan.

Upon acceptance of an invitation, there is a bustle of activity as you are ushered to the place where the chai will be shared. While the offer is often given out of hospitality and chai will have to be made, very often they were already making chai and wished for whatever reason to share it with you.

Most often, chai is shared on a blanket or tablecloth type of covering placed either on the floor or the ground. Only in offices is there generally furniture to sit on, and the most important people have an office with furniture and another room which is usually furnished traditionally, with rugs and pillows around the periphery.

It is traditional to remove shoes before being seated; but when in uniform, the Afghans do not expect for one to remove boots. It is an option, though. The cross-legged position that they used to call "Indian style" when I was a kid is the normal sitting position. This position becomes miserable to an old guy like me about half way through the chai, and at that point positions other than supine may be assumed.

Weapons should be lain at your side with the muzzles pointed away from the center; a gesture of good will. Pistols should remain holstered. It is not appropriate to handle your weapons while drinking chai unless it is to make room for someone else.

If not present already, dishes of sweets and snacks will appear.

The candies are often individually wrapped toffees. I've had milk toffee, coconut toffee, strawberry toffee, and several other flavors. They are usually labeled in English and at least one other language. Often they are made in Iran. Some small candies are the bare minimum, but there are often other snack-type foods provided as well.

Kishmish (raisins) are a very popular snack to provide. Dried chickpeas and almonds are also pretty popular. Occasionally, there will be small fried noodles that are very similar to the chow mein noodles that come in a separate can when you buy the La Choy Chow Mein at the grocery store. Sometimes they are seasoned. These items are usually placed in a divided ceramic dish, while the candies are in a small bowl.

Most often, someone is playing the role of "chai boy." He will bring out the plates of snacks, always placing some of the snacks either in front of or very near the guest. There is usually more than one tray. This individual also brings the tray with the chai and cups in as well.

The standard chai cup is a clear glass cup like a coffee cup. The cups have widely varying levels of cleanliness. My tactic was to drink from the edge of the cup directly opposite the handle. The chai is always served to the most important people first, including the guest. Those of less importance are served last, and if there are not enough cups, they will wait until a cup comes available and is perfunctorily rinsed with chai.

Hence my sipping strategy.

Sugar is nearly always available, and its absence will bring a strong apology. When Afghans put sugar in their chai, they put sugar in their chai. There will be a layer at least a quarter of an inch deep left in the bottom of the cup after the chai is poured.

Chai is always served absolutely scalding hot. The chai itself is usually green, but sometimes will be black. It is made by putting the tea leaves in the pot and boiling the water, often on a burner sitting directly atop a propane cylinder. If they are making shiir chai (milk tea) the leaves are put into the milk directly and the milk is not quite boiled. The propane rigs are commonly referred to in American parlance as "haji stoves."

This is a bit of a misnomer, because anyone who is referred to as "Haji" is given a great deal of deference, as they have done the Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca; one of the Islamic duties. But to Americans, it is still a "haji stove."

Having chai usually requires at least 45 minutes to an hour.

Conversation must always start with small talk. It is considered very polite to ask about a man's family, but not to ask specifically about a female member of his family. To ask a man how his mother is doing is considered very rude. Asking about a wife or daughter is actually dangerous. Pleasantries often include a query as to the health of the family, and how various minor things about their life may be going such as things about their house, crops, or business.

Afghans have a lively sense of humor and truly appreciate jokes and laughter. Very often they will poke mild fun at each other, but will not shame another man. Chai is all about civil relaxation, and Afghans love chai.

Only after the small talk can any serious business be discussed. Often, though, the whole experience is simply about having chai together. The American equivalent would be meeting for coffee or a drink. Since Afghans do not drink alcohol, this is the closest to sitting on a bar stool with their buddies as it gets.

Americans like to get straight to the point, but the Afghans will nearly always make small talk first, just to get conversation flowing. Sometimes Afghans who have significant experience dealing with Americans will get to the point quicker. If a situation is fairly tense, the small talk will be brief.

I had many fairly relaxed moments drinking chai in Afghanistan. I had a few that were not. O and I shared a few chai stories over the weekend.

One of his had to do with getting into a TIC (Troops In Contact, or firefight) with a group of Taliban in the southern Tag Ab Valley who had shot at his group from a higher elevation and then fled in the direction of a village. He and his group of ANA reached the village some time later, intending to search for weapons and evidence of Taliban activity. They were immediately offered chai.

O is quite sure that some of the people serving him chai that day had been shooting at him shortly before.

One of my favorites is the day that I was sent on a mission into an area of the Tag Ab where I had not ventured before. I was the guy who was available to go. The reason was because we had reliable intelligence that Taliban had been in two houses and were possibly still there. They were there for discussions, and they were there to have chai.

This was my first experience going down a particularly miserably narrow alley-like road between the main north-south road in the valley and literally into the riverbed. We parked in the riverbed and the team from the 82nd stayed there while I and my terp accompanied the ANP alone while we walked a couple of miles to the target houses.

We reached the first target house and it was the home of the village Malek, a senior elder position in the village. We asked him about the visitors he had had that day and the ANP searched his house.

They found sixty rounds of 7.62x39 ammunition. AK ammo. In AK magazines. Not good. We detained him and took him and the ammo with us. We then moved a mile or so to the next house and after a search and protestations of innocence from the homeowner, we proceeded back to the district center. Upon my arrival the Wuliswahl, or Sub-governor, of Tag Ab, a man since replaced and who we believed was no doubt "dirty," requested the pleasure of my company. By name.


I entered his sitting room, carpeted with rugs and with pillows arranged around the periphery, to discover three other gentlemen seated whom I had never seen before. One vaguely resembled the man that I had only recently detained. The Wuliswahl ordered chai and bade me sit.

It turned out that two of the men were supposedly Maleks from neighboring villages and the third was the detained Malek's brother. The whole point of this chai was to dissuade me from taking the Taliban-friendly, ammunition-hiding Malek in to the temporary detainee-handling facility we had established at the north end of the Tag Ab Valley.

There were still small talk and solicitations as to my health. I asked how their villages were doing. This was brief small talk. They had an agenda, and they really didn't wish me good health anyway. If they had been able, they would each liked to have killed me; but this was chai. We were dancing an ancient dance.

We drank chai and they expressed themselves thoroughly; alternately asking for and demanding the release of the Malek, vouching for the detainee's character, and asking that we let him go in their custody so that they could bring him in the morning. This part went on for quite some time.

I countered their points with discussion of the finding of prohibited ammunition, his need to set an example, and our belief that he had hosted Taliban for chai in his home. They refuted those claims, his brother offering to let me burn his house with his family in it if his brother had Taliban in his home; a dramatic portion of the dance.

They spoke of his honor, his honor in the eyes of his village, and of their honor-bound duty to seek his release.

Finally, I told them that I understood that it was their duty to come and seek his release, and that they had done their part to uphold their honor.

I told them that I am an askar, a soldier, and that my honor depends on me following my orders. They agreed; that is what askare are supposed to do. I asked them civilly, as I sipped the opposite side of my chai cup, if they were asking me to dishonor myself. The four men assured me vociferously that none of them would ever ask me to dishonor myself.

I thanked them, as I rose to leave, for understanding that my orders were to bring the man in, and I thanked them for not asking me to violate my orders and dishonor myself. I excused myself, bowing slightly with my hand over my heart in the Afghan way, and shook each of their hands mumbling, "Tashakur, khud hafez."

They wondered how that had gone so awry, but the civility of chai provided a safe situation for us all to speak our peace and attempt to negotiate. I still get a chuckle out of the outcome of that discussion, though. Through all of that, voices were never raised. That's chai.

Some of my most unique memories of Afghanistan involved chai.

My first chai was something that I stumbled into quite by accident. In April of 2007, the ANA were practicing for the annual parade in Kabul. It is a big deal, involving a lot of practice. We went to visit them at the area of Kabul where they were staying during this. The team chief and several officers and the Sergeant Major were all escorted about on a tour of the Afghan temporary camp that had been set up, looking at tanks and armored personnel carriers and the like as they wandered about.

The Maniac and I were left watching the humvees while the others were off being feted.

Americans always draw a crowd, and some of the soldiers from the tents nearby began to drift over and try to communicate with us. We noticed that they had M-16's. Their captain, who spoke limited English, asked us to show them how to disassemble and reassemble the rifle.

The rifles had been issued to them for the parade. The Afghan soldiers had no idea if they were going to actually work with these weapons.

I showed the captain how to do it, the soldiers gathered around the front of the vehicle watching intently. The captain would not try it in front of his men, however. Maniac started working with individual soldiers, showing them the same thing and encouraging them to try it themselves.

The captain asked me to chai. Since I could hit his tent with a rock from the vehicles, I accepted and wound up experiencing chai for the first time. I also experienced heavy sugared cream that you dipped into with nan for the first time, but that's a different story altogether.

It all happened in the shadow of ruins built by Alexander the Great.


Afghan chai has nothing to do with coffee shop spiced tea drinks.

"I'll have a double mocha chai latte with just a hint of Madagascar cinnamon..."

But chai is more than the tea. If an Afghan ever offers you chai, take him up on it. Chai is an experience; a hospitable, civil experience that is done nearly the same way anyplace I went in Afghanistan. It's a distinctively Afghan experience.

And they're not supposed to kill you while you're having chai with them.


"And they're not supposed to kill you while you're having chai with them."

Most definitely a Very good thing!

welcome home old blue.amazing things rituals.the r+r center in nam was shared by troops from all sides. i have 2 active duty-a doctor who's done afghanistan and iraq. a son who did all of centcom, including 3 months reconstruction work in kashmir after the earthquake [engineer].he's currently handling projects in sadr city and new baghdad.i was a grunt. they've both caught shit in is strange.rituals help a little. nice writing.

Always time for combat, but taking time to talk over Chai sounds like the best way to meet one's enemies, the other ones are too quick and violent. Nice picture, Alexander couldn't do much with Afghanistan either.

What a wonderful post! If the rules say; you must be polite and talk to your enemy for three quarters of an hour, there has got to be away to make things work. A moment of grace when everthing stops for tea could be a real tool for dialogue. Do U.S. officers offer chai and play by the same rules?

Great post. Thank you. This whole chai thing reminds me of when my mother was tutoring and mentoring Japanese students at a University here in the U.S. in the 1990's. They respected her enough to ask her to take part in a Japanese tea ceremony. It was an honor, and she knew it. As she described it to me it was all highly ritualized and formal, an ancient tradition much like chai. My point is that these small rituals can lead to greater understanding. My hope is that Afghanistan will be able to form a stable democratic government just as Japan did after a bitter and bloody war. God bless.

Your posting about the chai ritual was a fascinating look at a piece of Afghan culture. Thanks!

I agree, this was a really great post and I enjoyed reading it just now over my morning coffee. I learned more about their culture than I would have in any newspaper. Thanks for taking the time to write and share it.

I agree, this was a really great post and I enjoyed reading it just now over my morning coffee. I learned more about their culture than I would have in any newspaper. Thanks for taking the time to write and share it.

It's nice to see that hospitality is so highly valued in the Afghan culture. It seems to have fallen largely out of favor here, but perhaps we'll see a resurgence in the coming decades. We can hope...

I have never heard anything like that before. It's so crazy to think that people who were trying to kill you five minutes beforehand would be offering you a relaxing time of tea and toffee. And they don't even poison it! It seems like a nice tradition, and a good way to negotiate calmly and effectively.

What a fascinating and informative piece on an aspect of Afghan culture that I was completely unfamiliar with. It was a gratifying read, reminiscent of the kind of cultural background stories from around the world that I love to hear on NPR. Thanks for sharing your experiences with the rest of us!

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