A Very Islam Christmas
25 December 2008
Hey Santa Baby,
Things are going okay here in Afghanistan. I’ve spent much time learning about the culture and Islam; one of my responsibilities here as a chaplain assistant is to work with the locals who live on the FOB, so I often meet with the interpreters during my down time.
The interpreters have welcomed me with open arms, excited that I’m taking the time to befriend them in a way that most soldiers don’t care to. I’ve grown closest to the interpreter who is assigned to the ministry team; he goes by the nickname “Rambo Three,” in reference to the third Rambo installment that focuses on the 1980s conflict in Afghanistan.
But that’s not to say I haven’t gotten to know the other interpreters, most of whom are roughly the same age as me. They’ve learned to call me Danger because they wanted to call me what my friends call me; they’re always trying to make me feel comfortable around them. Whenever I walk into their little hut, I announce upon entering, “Natersade! Khatar injast!” In Dari, that means, “Don’t be afraid! Danger is here!”
In the Afghan culture, when you enter someone’s house, you’re offered chai tea, and you shouldn’t decline it. Unfortunately for me, I detest tea, and the mugs they use aren’t washed well as I can see lip marks from the previous person who drank from the cup (a real nightmare for someone with OCD). The first time I visited Rambo Three’s hut, he asked me if I wanted some tea, and I politely refused. He looked more disappointed than a Chicago Cubs fan in October, and so I asked, “Am I being rude because I did not accept your tea?” He looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Yes.” Since then, I’ve not declined their tea or their dirty mugs, learning there’s no such thing as a “polite refusal” in Afghanistan.
Also noteworthy is the Afghans’ take on affection. The people here aren’t afraid to hug and kiss and hold hands and even lay their head down on one another’s thighs. An American would quickly classify such behavior as inherently gay, but upon reflecting on their attitudes toward one another, it seems Afghans are just more affectionate to one another than Americans are, regardless of gender. Yet, as much as I recognize this as a cultural thing, don’t expect to hear any stories of your boyfriend kissing any Afghans.
Sitting down with the interpreters (who we call “Terps” for short), I’ve found they have a particular fascination with writing acrostic poems in English (in the Dari language, it’s impossible to create an acrostic poem because all their letters flow into one another, somewhat similar to our cursive writing style). Though some of the Terps’ adages don’t make a lick of sense, I can’t help but smile as I read their poetry:
WHAT IS A FRIEND?
WHAT DOES LOVE MEAN?
Land of sorrow
Ocean of tears
Valley of death
End of life
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF PEPSI?
WHAT DOES FAMILY MEAN?
WHAT IS A WOMAN?
Window of paradise
Origin of life
Model of patience
Academy of manners
Nearest of heart
Besides spending time with the local Terps, I’ve also had brief moments of limited interaction with the Afghan soldiers. FOB Lightning is home to an ANA boot camp, the Afghan military’s first step in training how to fight against terrorists. At the same time, it’s speculated that a few Taliban have infiltrated the ANA, and so when you walk by a formation and look into the eyes of an ANA soldier, and he shoots back a glare of contempt, you can’t help but wonder if you’re but a few feet away from a terrorist who wants your head on a platter.
One of the other responsibilities I have is to meet with the local mullah. That, too, has been eye-opening. We often talk about politics, culture, terrorism, and religion in order to better the already-successful relationship between the American forces and Afghan leaders. I asked the mullah if he believed that there were terrorists within his own ANA troops, and he said he can’t be sure, but if he found one in his ranks, that Taliban member would be executed within hours of his discovery. On the flip side, if the Taliban were to somehow take control of Afghanistan again, then every Afghan who ever helped Americans would be killed: every interpreter I’ve met, every ANA soldier, every peace-preaching mullah, and every remaining freedom fighter within the country would be hunted down to be hanged.
Doesn’t it seem contradictory that the 2% of the population that hates Americans could eventually control the other 98% that appreciate us? Well, you’ve heard the phrase, “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” For many, the fear of a Taliban resurgence outweighs logic, so if there was an atmosphere that suggested that the “good guys” were losing, many locals would pledge allegiance again to the Taliban in fear for their lives.
Speaking of the atmosphere, I’ve found that there exists a violent ambiance to this place. I don’t know if it’s just my mindset, or if it’s a seething unholiness that’s indelible to Afghan soil. But just the other night, I dreamt a dream that felt so real, I was sure it actually happened:
I lied in my bed feeling less-than-lucid, the state of mind you get when you have trouble discerning if you’re really sleeping or not. I calmed my heartbeat to a steady pace, controlling my breathing.
Thud, thud. Thud, thud. Thud, thud. Thud, thud. Thud, thud.
Without warning, a mortar crashed on the opposite side of my hut, blowing our quarters to bits. I could barely open my eyes, but it was just enough to see a limp arm from the corpse of CH Fardpot. I was pretty sure that everyone else in the hut had been killed in the explosion, and the fact that I wasn’t also dead was a miracle in itself. Unable to move, I closed my eyes and waited in what used to be my bed, hoping help was on its way.
Just as suddenly as the mortar had crashed on the hut, my eyes opened and I gasped for air as I realized I’d just been dreaming. I put my hand on my heart.
TH-THUD. TH-THUD. TH-THUD. TH-THUD. TH-THUD.
I pray that, if I ever have to endure such a tense experience, that I’m ready for it. If I find myself in a situation where enemies are dropping shells on my head, may God grant me the strength to overcome my fears to make the right decisions.
A small group of us banded together today to form the Lightning Tabernacle Choir – a tandem of soldiers, airmen, and sailors – to sing carols in an attempt to help quell the constant tension on the FOB. But as I send this, the sun is setting on my Christmas while it burns brightly over yours; it’s time to trade back my Santa hat for my field cap. And even though I miss America incredibly so, and I miss you all-the-much-more, I know God has me exactly where He wants me. There’s so much peace in that. It’s difficult to have a bitter Christmas in that sense. I have no pity on my situation, and I would request that you don’t either.
Thank you, God bless, and have a merry, merry Christmas. Remember, Jesus was born in humblest of circumstances to be a servant to this world; let’s strive to mimic His meekness.