Saturday, March 15, 2008

Afghan food, Afghan pride

An Afghan general recently told my boss that an Afghan values three things above all else: food, sleep and gossip. (From my limited reading on Afghan culture, I thought that Islam, personal pride and revenge also were highly prized, but I'm from Indiana so I won't countermand the general.) I was glad to hear that food is a priority, as an abundance of good vittles ranks near the top of my own pyramid of needs. If I were free to roam off our secure base to explore the local cuisine, I might be able to comment more on the Afghan fare; but currently I'm pretty much restricted to Kellog, Brown and Root's American food in the dining hall as I checked with the security folks here and they quickly denied my request to organize a convoy for a tour of Kabul's kabob shops. But the value of food to the typical Afghan does help explain my first encounter with Tajib, the custodian at my office.

As I have no opportunity for formal language training here, I have taken to asking the guards and housekeepers, who are available pretty much 24/7, to teach me a few phrases in Dari. To a man, they have become quite excited when I, an American, express interest in something other than ESPN and the number of days remaining on my tour. In fact, most of them begin spouting phrases that I "must know, sir" so quickly that I don't have time to write them down. Usually there is an order to the vocabulary they toss me, but when I asked Tajib for the Dari equivalent of "How are you?" he quickly replied "chatur hastee, but sir you must also know of the health of man and for food. Sir, you must know carrot, zardak, and milk, shir. Milk!"

I didn't want to tell Tajib that I am over forty years old and what I need to be able to communicate is "Please direct me to the high fiber cereal," as I did not want to hurt his feelings or insult his personal pride; and I know he now considers me an ally as now every time he passes by me in the office, which is about 50-75 times daily, he utters with a smile "Mr. Ron!"

And even though the general didn't list pride among his top three Afghan values, I know it is important to men here; and I fear I may have inadvertently challenged the pride of my groundskeeper, Khirlal. I happened upon him my first full morning in Kabul when I was roaming outside and looking for the person designated as laundry man for my building. That position is quite an entitlement, from my perspective, as the going rate for washing and ironing a standard American military uniform is $3; and by my calculations a man would only have to wash and iron a dozen or so uniforms each week to earn an income exponentially greater than that of most other Afghans. However, the idea of washing and ironing must not strike Khirlal as work suitable for himself, as when I asked if he was my laundry person he gave me a glare that would have been appropriate had it been 1980 and I an invading Soviet infidel. But he did direct me to Suninal, who gladly took my uniform (that held about three pounds of Kuwaiti sand) and my money. As I departed I asked Khirlal, whose English is decent, to teach me the Dari equivalent of "thank you" and "good day" which he did with a smile but at such a pace that I didn't comprehend that Khirlal was not part of a phrase but his actual name (as to that point I had not learned what he calls himself).

I didn't have a problem that morning as I thanked Khirlal for his instruction and made my way to the office, but I was taken aback the next day when he approached me as I left my building and asked me directly, "Do you remember my name?" A quick smile will get you out of a jam most places on this planet, but apparently not in Kabul, as when I continued to smile and said nothing Khirlal gave me another glare, and this one would have been appropriate had it been 1980 and I an invading Soviet infidel who had recently torched his village.

Then -- and it stunned me for a moment until I clearly recalled that I had introduced myself the previous day -- I caught him looking at my nametape! I was in uniform, so my surname was embroidered above my right chest pocket and he had to read it before he said solemnly, "Willy, my name is Khirlal."

Well, I have pride as well, so I continued to smile and said "You cheated!" as I pointed to my name and then left him with "Salaam, Khirlal!" He looked at the end a bit nonplussed by my brazen retort. I like to think that now we both have a better understanding of each other.

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