Monday, October 31, 2011

Can I Get You More Rice? Or Perhaps an AK?

In perhaps my deepest dive yet into the realm of the surreal I found myself at the crossroads of two seemingly contradictory elements of the Afghan experience - hospitality and violence.

I was thoroughly enjoying a delicious and seemingly bottomless plate of rice, flatbread, chicken, and spicy soup (without fish), with a charming man with the gentle demeanor, twinkling eyes and snowy beard of Santa Claus and having a good laugh over a popular Afghan topic - firearms.

Looking out windows made of plastic wrap, because the glass had been blown out 2 months before during an attack by suicide bombers, my friend was joking about how he was glad the U.S. soldiers who had been present weren't more heavily armed at the time as they probably would have shot the compound guards instead of the intruders (who had used a time-honored ploy of dressing as Afghan police). Then his demeanor turned more serious and we waited for the translation, which turned out to be the story of how his own weapon was destroyed in the fire that followed the attack. Fortunately for me, he was looking at my military colleagues who had more instinctive empathy for the loss (and who immediately understood that the weapon in question cost about 6K - or more than many houses in Afghanistan). I was still wrapping my head around the idea that Santa was accustomed to packing heat...

Then the conversation turned to my taste in weaponry, and I explained that was not allowed to carry a weapon. This revelation produced the customary gasps of dismay and sympathy. Undeterred by a policy so foreign I'm not sure he even beleived it to be true (it is) - my solicitous host immediately offered with total sincerity to obtain an appropriate weapon for me. Surreal and tragi-comic as it was, the spontaneous generosity and concern was touching, and made for one of the highlights of my tour so far.

For the record, I declined politely and said I would borrow one from the governor if the need arose, since he is apparently now in the habit of having both the local favorite AK 47, and the standard US issue "long arm" M4 rifle. My military colleagues have also been looking out for me - and make a habit of carrying a handgun that is "battle bling" at best, but is really nothing but extra weight on a pack that can weigh up to 100 lbs already.  However, it is an accessory I am authorized to borrow if lead starts flying. I'm not sure if I am more appreciative of the extra effort they make for me, or the implication that they seem to trust me to avoid a "friendly fire" incident. Also for the record, my goal and expectation is to never find myself in need of a loan.

Lest you feel there is no hope left when guests are set at ease by the presence of firearms, I also had a pre-lunch with an Afghan general (I love that it is impolite to turn down offers of food).  When asked his age (not by me), he said, "I am 58, and have been fighting for over 40 years, but I will be young if Afghanistan can have peace".

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