Are they curious? Suspicious? Friendly? Commercially motivated?
I’m sitting cross-legged on a large carpet surrounded by a room full of textiles.The tea comes nonstop and, soon, Mohammed’s wife prepares a large spread of beef, rice, veggies, naan and yogurt. I don’t get to see her because in this culture, women are usually invisible to non-family.
Getting into the exigencies of the American occupation/ intervention with Afghans is a challenge as English is limited.
I am having trouble with names. Nadeem is an Afghan Army second lieutenant. All of the Afghans I meet are very supportive of and grateful for the American presence. Some of that is not to be trusted, as they are either being gracious or unsure about my intentions. But it’s also safe to say that Kabulis generally, 1) appreciate the security provided by the American presence and are concerned about losing it; 2) appreciate the hundreds of billions in cash spent in the country; 3) aspire to American prosperity, technology and (certain) freedoms. And even devout Muslims enjoy American movies for all their excess and gratuitous titillation. Nadeen in particular seems to value the training and support he has had from American troops. His English is not bad.
Mohammed, the shopkeeper, is from Mazar-i-Sharif in the north. That was the the city which spelled the beginning of the end for the Taliban, as Northern Alliance fighters and U.S. Special Forces, combined with aerial bombardment, cleared the city post 9/11. Mohammed invites me to go to Mazar with him this weekend. We talk it over and I mention my preference for staying in Kabul and his nephew Hussein decides Mohammed’s lack of English would make the trip problematic.
There are now five members of the extended family sitting in our circle, including Mohammed’s thirteen year old son (Hamad?). While we are talking about the Taliban and their interpretation of Islam, Mohammed suddenly comes up with a new idea.
“Take my son,” he says. Hamad sits by dutifully, as his father declares his future. “Great idea,” I laugh.
“Take my son back to America with you,” he says Hussein. “I have five sons. You can have him.”
I’m deciding whether this is cute (sudden endearment for an American guest), sweet (all I have is yours) or something else.
“He’s not joking,” says Hussein with a stern look. “He’s serious.”
Navigating between Don’t Offend Your Host and Don’t Encourage Child Abandonment, I offer, “But you’ll miss him, Mohammed.”
Mohammed, dressed all-white in a dishdasha and headdress, middle-aged and thin, with a permanently chill demeanor, emulates the landing of an airplane with his right hand. Hussein translates, “He says he can visit every two years and call often.”
“Skype,” I say, before realizing I’m encouraging this….
“Yes, of course, Skype,” says Hussein cheerfully.
I do a quick calculation. One keffiyeh, one Uzbek hat which I’ll give to my daughter, one very warm Afghan hat, a charming young man and a load of carpets, lots of tea plus a lavish lunch with the family. Fifteen bucks. I’m off to a good start.
But before you start thinking what a delightful father I would make for an Afghan boy, I should share my near double homicide from the day prior.
There I was minding my own business in Share-i-Naw park, admiring the USAID-funded improvements, and enjoying the strollers, backgammon players, soccer match, nappers, foot bathers and urban park enthusiasts, when two young boys approach.
“One dollar, mistah,” says the bolder of the two, “you give me one dollar.”
I have been approached, often, by beggars, and it’s heartbreaking. Former soldiers with missing limbs, women in burkas, insistent children. I plan to give often but don’t want to attract a crowd and don’t want to be stopping and opening my wallet in the park. So, no, this time, I’ll pass.
I have met insistent panhandlers in the States but these two kids were unrelenting. I was concerned as we became quite the center of attention. Allow me to briefly lay out the chronology of events.
First encounter, insistent pleading for money, one carrying dated American and Dari magazines, the other packs of chewing gum. They’re cute, but, sorry, kids, not this time.
Five minutes in. They are following me, not taking no for a answer. Easily fixed. I stop, and squat to their height, and communicate no, not this time.
00:10 OK. They’re persistent. Hey, they’re in need, I empathize, I almost admire their playful poking and pleading, but I’l easily lose them by strolling quickly and ignoring them.
00:15 People are watching. This is not good. And, no, they’re not endearing, they’re obnoxious. I take out my phone and start shooting pictures, something I’m told not all Afghans like. One of them covers his face and flees.
00:20 I walk intently to the center of the park and sit down next to a guy in his thirties, in business attire. I figure he will either shoo them away or they will get intimidated. Now, an old woman in a black burka with a gouged-out left eye comes up to me, saying something about rape, and puts her hand out. As does a younger woman, gesturing to her baby, suggesting the baby is deformed in some way. An old gentleman in a tattered sport coat, sensing an opportunity, wanders over and asks for money, while the kids are getting more insistent, not less.
The man on the bench, whom I deemed my savior, is now saying, “A dollar?” As if, to say, just do it. If I do, I wonder about the consequences. So, I don’t, and walk away quickly. The kids follow.
00:35 I stop to watch a soccer game and they hover. “One dollar, mistuh. One dollar.” It’s now a game to them. They want to annoy me and they likely believe I will kick down with some cash sooner or later.
00:45 I walk out of the park. Surely they will not follow. But they do. They have now started a new fundraising method, poking me, pulling on my clothes, and running away. I chase them a few times, then realize I am encouraging them.
00:50 There are books lined up along the park fence, and I stop to look for an English Koran. And to engage with the seller so that he will shoo away the kids as they interrupt the transaction. But there is no seller. I ask the adjoining merchants and no–not their stuff. Eventually, a young man comes by and says these are his and no English Koran, but tomorrow he can bring me one. The books include translations of “Tony Robbuns” and Brian Tracy books. Cultural imperialism. I think, What answer exactly do the Taliban have for Tony Robbins?
01:00 I decide to walk across the street. Surely they won’t follow me across the street. They do. Walking across the street here is hair-raising. Cars Do Not Stop for pedestrians, or for each other and it’s nonstop mayhem and honking. New York got nothing on this place for aggressive driving. I go into a couple of shops and they wait outside, then continue their assault.
01:10 I wonder. If I chased them into the traffic before they had time to gauge the speed of the oncoming cars….
01:15 Really, what is so wrong with hitting children? In many cultures, it’s quite the norm. And they are endangering my safety and one of them just threw a stone at me. It would be self defense! I begin to notice alleyways where I might lure them in and throttle them with no one watching.
Then, finally, I enter a heavily guarded hotel for some tea and lose them.
I am a great lover of children. Oh, Hamad is on the right next to his Dad. Pretty cute, huh?