Tuesday, September 9, 2008


I lived in southern California for eight years and learned a few things about protecting myself during an earthquake. I know that you are supposed to take cover under a protective object if a quake begins, or better yet leave a building that is shaking in a temblor. Recent events lead me to conclude that the typical Afghan training for earthquake safety is a bit different, as a few days ago when I felt the floor beneath me suddenly begin to sway, the Afghan military officers who surrounded me made no movement to duck underneath the heavy table in front of us; nor did they break for the door. Instead, they looked at me with effusive smiles, and the officers who spoke English simply said “Earthquake!” with faces full of excitement and anticipation such that I haven’t seen since the last time I was on a rollercoaster with my young nephew Davey Boy.

The Afghan officers’ response was in keeping with the cultural notion of inshallah, which means God-willing and attests to the Muslim belief here that your individual fate is truly in the hands of God; and marks as foolish any personal attempts to evade the will of God. I’m not sure what the Almighty had planned for me during the earthquake, but I was pretty confident that as soon as the ground began rocking, I received a direct message from God instructing me to promptly get my ass out of the building. But a friendly Afghan colonel next to me put his hand on my shoulder to indicate that I should stay seated; so I was forced to subscribe to inshallah myself for a few minutes.

I had encountered the concept of inshallah before in another predominately Muslim country: Turkey. Just a few days before I arrived on a visit to an uncle working in the city of Izmir on a highway construction project, a Turkish laborer had fallen into a pool of water that unknowingly was charged with electricity due to a faultily wired pump working to drain the liquid. An American supervisor found the Turk not breathing and with a poor pulse, so he disconnected the pump, pulled the victim from the water and began administering CPR. To the amazement of all the Americans nearby, the Turk responded: He regained consciousness, and was pronounced healthy and fit after an extensive evaluation and short stay at a local hospital. The other Turks, however, were not impressed with the CPR performance or their countryman’s recovery. “Inshallah,” they claimed, indicating that God simply willed the recovery; and why was this American-construction-supervisor-turned-paramedic so proud of himself?

I never heard a comment from the Turk who survived due to the CPR. Apparently God instructed him to find employment elsewhere, as he never returned to the construction site.

The building that I felt rock during the quake here is a model of Eastern Bloc architecture and engineering, built in the 70s by the Soviet Union. Once the earthquake began, I remember thinking “This shack is coming down and fast!” but such a reactionary conclusion failed to acknowledge the sturdy Afghan construction found throughout the country. It’s not unusual to encounter remnants of a wall that would still be completely intact had not Genghis Khan’s mob assaulted it with the Mongolian equivalent of a Stinger missile sometime around the year 1250. Many buildings here are the products of masons who were absolute masters of their craft. Even the mud brick homes that look as if they will simply melt away in the near future are quite stout. The medical office building in which I withstood the earthquake had been upright more than thirty years, a testament to its structural integrity as it surely has withstood several earthquakes yet remains standing. In fact, the rule in Afghanistan is that, in the event of an earthquake, it’s much better to be in an older, tested building than a new structure that may not have had its girders rocked before.

The earthquake announced itself a bit differently from the few I have felt in southern California. I first noticed slow, smooth undulations of the earth. Then a brief pause interceded before the ground shook more violently for 10-15 seconds. After the initial action, I could swear I felt a series of delayed tremors, but then I realized that I was sitting in a rickety chair barely able to hold my girth; and what I thought were after-shocks were actually my own anxiety-induced spasmodic gyrations that had converted my contorting seat into nauseating carnival ride akin to the Spinning Teacup I rode as a kid whenever Drago Amusements came to the Kokomo Mall parking lot.

News reports gave the earthquake a 5.6 rating on the Richter scale, although it’s difficult to ascertain the magnitude of a quake in Afghanistan as the country has no agency to monitor the events. The epicenter was located approximately 100 miles northeast of Kabul, but thankfully no serious injuries or damage occurred. The earthquake reminded me that the geotectonic plates beneath me continue to move and ram each other, creating not only earthquakes but the grandeur of the nearby Hindu Kush mountains, the Korakoram range in Pakistan, and the remainder of the Himalayas beyond. I’m hoping the plates don’t engage in any more aggressive jostling for position during my remaining time here, inshallah.


Dorothy said...

holy san andreas fault! glad your rickety chair at least held up long enough for you to realize what was going on. we miss you and are getting Sleepy Hollow Place ready for your next visit!

Anonymous said...

Who is your new boyfriend?