Sunday, May 14, 2017

Kabul: Sometimes It's the Little Things... (part 10)

During a staff meeting one day, my Afghan colleagues were explaining how Afghan women aren’t without power (as many people perceive) and how inside the home many rule the roost with an iron fist.  They illustrated their point with a story.

My colleague, TJ, joined his wife for lunch one afternoon.

As the meal commenced, the food wasn’t to his liking.  TJ continued eating, not wanting to offend, but he eventually made the mistake of opening his mouth.

“Dear,” he said, “the food is a bit salty today.”

At this point, according to his version of things, a firestorm erupted, and his wife spent the next 20 minutes punching him into submission.

All the Afghans in the room, men and women alike, broke out laughing, and sensing it was OK, the Americans joined in after a moment’s delay.

One of the Afghan men then offered a small clarification.  “This is not the way in the whole country,” he told us, still chuckling.

“If the food is bad in the countryside, the husband beats his wife,” he continued, “but if the food is bad in Kabul, the wife beats her husband.”

“Only in Kabul is everything reversed.”

Once the “beating protocol” was clarified, the American laughter tapered off, and the Afghans kept going, unapologetically.

Soon an awkward silence settled over the conference room, and I started to wonder if we should have laughed at all.  Sure the story was comical, but at the end of the day, violence is violence, no matter who plays the role of aggressor.


There is constant construction on the Embassy compound, and one day after work, I was walking by an excavation project.  The area was surrounded by fencing, which was draped in green privacy screening, and three guys were standing just inside the fence.  Night was falling, and the light meant to illuminate the dig site served another purpose as well:  It silhouetted the three gentlemen by the fence perfectly.

Normally this would not have been so entertaining, but as I was walking by, one of the guys flipped the hard hat off his colleague.  This earned him an elbow to the ribs, and soon the three men were jostling around in a routine that would have made the Three Stooges proud.  I only watched for a few seconds, but I left with a smile on my face.

It also reminded me of a similar event from the year before that involved some window-washers.  As they perched on rigging outside our offices, we were instructed to draw the shades, which once again created an interesting silhouette effect.  The men worked with the sun at their backs, and their squeegees and whatnot dangled from their belts between their legs.  The resulting shadows were nothing less than obscene, and office after office, people were in hysterics at the images dancing across the window shades.


The first days back at work after a vacation are always the same.   Everyone gives you the old, “welcome back!” and you find yourself repeating your holiday highlights a few dozen times to people who probably only prompted you to be polite.

When I say, “everyone,” of course, I mean my friends and colleagues.  After my recent vacation, though, I was surprised at the people who welcomed me back.  In addition to the usual cast of characters, some of the cafeteria workers welcomed me back as did some of the American guards and even one of our Nepalese Gurkhas.  These are people I see around and say hi to, but I don’t even know their names.

The most touching of all, perhaps, was one of the janitors in my building.  I greet him in the hallways nearly every day, and whenever I ask him how he is doing, he always places his hand on his heart and simply says, “Thank you, sir.”  I found this to be peculiar at first, as he was not answering the question.  I came to appreciate later, though, that he was expressing his gratitude that I took the time to inquire about his well-being.  The answer, it seems, wasn’t important; only the gesture mattered.  He also doesn’t speak English well, so his trademark “Thank you, sir” served to acknowledge the question while simultaneously avoiding further conversation.

In any case, the day after I returned, I saw him in the hallway.

As always, I asked him how he was doing, and for the first time ever, he changed the script.

“How is family?” he asked me in his shaky English.


Wallyworld said...

I really enjoy reading these snippets of your "everyday" life in Kabul.

Anonymous said...

Chris, Your stories give me a great sense of "everyday" at your post. Thank you for sharing them. D.

Ollie and Floyd said...

It's always wonderful to read your posts - I especially enjoy your perspective on the meeting of cultures. Stay safe and keep writing!