Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Christmas in Kabul

I had not smelled incense in awhile, so I was delighted when I saw on the makeshift altar at Christmas Eve mass the familiar censer. I hadn’t expected the priest here to travel with such an extensive array of liturgical implements. The sight reminded me of my Catholic grade school days when I served as an acolyte for parish funerals. Not only was I excused from class for the duties, but I got to prepare the hot coals that elicited the thick, fragrant smoke when the presiding priest spooned incense into censer after I brought it to the altar. In fifth grade, I was relieved of these duties when another acolyte and I set a rug ablaze just off the altar in the sacristy as we were a bit overzealous on the number of charcoal disks that we set to burning in the censer, and a few fragments of red hot charcoal fell to the rug. Even after that embarrassing fiasco, I still look forward to a mass with lots of smoke.

The first whiff of incense smelled wonderful on Christmas Eve, but then I noticed my throat felt even more irritated than usual, and I was suppressing a cough. Air quality in Kabul is poor at best, especially in the winter. Kabul sits in a valley surrounded by mountains, and when the chill air of winter arrives it restricts all the particulate matter floating over Kabul from moving anywhere. The poor population of Kabul burns anything to keep warm – wood, cardboard, tires, plastic – adding even more particles to the pollution. So the air often looks and smells toxic. We don’t help the situation at my base in the middle of Kabul as we have two barrels in which we openly burn all sensitive documents. What I realized was that the incense smoke at the mass, although it served as something of a comfort scent for me, was exacerbating the reactive airways disease I think I have developed the past few months.

Luckily for me, the good father presiding set the incense aside soon after the mass began, and I regained my comfort until it came time to kneel on the metal hut’s concrete floor. I really thought we’d just sit in our chairs during the periods of the mass when traditionally you kneel, as normally you aren’t expected to press your knees onto cold concrete. But perhaps it was appropriate that I mortified my flesh (specifically my patellae) in this manner while in Afghanistan, as the Afghan year is 1387, a date in the Christian calendar when such pursuits were more common.

The priest at this base is known for his scholarly approach to preaching, and he gave an interesting historical account of the origins of the day December 25 as the date Christians celebrate Christmas. In the first few centuries after the death of Jesus Christ, if Christians celebrated Christmas it typically was during the months of April or May. In fact, the birth of Jesus was not even a universal celebration among early Christians, who usually were too busy avoiding persecution to stage a birthday party. Eventually, though, once the Christians were able to worship somewhere other than a hidden cellar, Church leaders decided that the birth of Jesus should not only be a feast, but a celebration during the darkest time of the year, as Christians believe Jesus brought light to a dim world. There doesn’t seem to be a consensus among scholars as to why the date December 25 became the standard for Christmas, but the day does provide the requirement of being relatively dark (and cold, in many places, including Kabul), and also is a turning point in the season when light begins to fill more of our days. (I’m not sure what scholars have to say about present-day Christians residing in the southern hemisphere, who are able to adjust to Christmastide during their warmer months, just as they can tolerate the winter and summer Olympic games coming to them off-season.)

I thought as the priest spoke that my Christmas was not the darkest period of this year for me. That would have been the Thanksgiving holiday, when I was suffering through an extended layover at Bagram Air Field, the sordid details of which you can review in my two previous blog entry. In contrast to Thanksgiving, Christmas Day in Kabul was a jolly good time. The weather here was beautiful: sunny (with reduced smog) and temperatures in the low 50s Fahrenheit most of the day. The dining hall served the same meal for both lunch and supper, which didn’t bother me at all as it was similar to eating a large early dinner followed by leftovers in the evening, the tradition among my family. And the food was pretty good: freshly sliced roast beef, turkey, ham and all the traditional fixings. The only disappointment was the virgin eggnog.

My roommate, Matt, and I have been in the habit of playing horseshoes and smoking cigars every Friday afternoon, as that is our one day off each week. Until Christmas, I was undefeated in the pit, but unfortunately I missed a medal in the horseshoe tournament Matt organized for our office. That didn’t dampen my holiday spirit, however, as the entire base seemed more festive than usual, as is appropriate. Everyone has been enjoying treats and gifts from the innumerable care packages sent by friends and strangers alike. I’ve received everything from an indoor basketball hoops that plays stadium rock (“Na-na, na-na-na-na, Hey!”) to Asian shrimp crackers (a favorite of mine).

The Army also brought onto the base for the day two horses and two camels. A few people rode the camels, but most of us just took photographs with them and their Afghan handlers (one of whom was a boy no more than ten years old), or at most briefly sat atop one of them. A trip to Qatar and a local camel market there earlier this year taught me that camels are loud, smelly and obstreperous animals. The camels’ Christmas day appearance at my base confirmed that lesson. Those beasts do NOT like people sitting on them. They don’t even like people coming near them, it seems, as one camel spit at a friend of mine when she got close to it. Later in the day, at the horseshoe pit, after she told me that she was glad none of the spittle landed in her hair, I inspected her head and had to tell her that she was carrying around a few crusty streaks of dried camel saliva in her otherwise lustrous hair.

I avoided the horses, as I don’t know how to ride them and feared being thrown into the side of a metal Conex box should I attempt to navigate one of those animals through the base. I don’t think the United States military awards the Purple Heart medal for equine-induced traumatic brain injury sustained during leisure time in a war zone, and I envisioned a ride on a horse as producing nothing but pain and embarrassment. I did watch several other more daring folks ride the horses, a few of whom had impressive equestrian skills. However, the animals identified immediately the riders who hadn’t a clue what they were doing atop them, and those riders simply held on as the horses trotted and dashed according to the animals’ whim. One Afghan interpreter had a horse rearing back dangerously on its hind legs, and the smile on the Afghan’s face was really a grin of fear, as the horse appeared to be ready to buck him off the saddle. We notified the physician on duty that he should be ready for some unconscious people coming to him with closed-head injuries, but reportedly everyone walked safely away from their encounters with the animals.

When I told my niece Isabelle about the camels here for Christmas, she astutely noted that they would be more appropriate on Epiphany, the Christian celebration of the wise men arriving in Jerusalem on camels. She's correct, of course. In fact, I don't think camels are mentioned in the story of the Nativity until the wise men rolled into the Holy Land; but when I inquired at the command headquarters I was told that Tuesday, January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany, would be a normal working day.

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