I stood in a hangar with hundreds of others this afternoon. There were the doors open to the airfield and the cloudless haze-blue sky and the sounds of aircraft outside above the hushed murmur. I stood with the small group I knew, surrounded by others we saw in passing or lived nearby or talked to or dined with, but apart from the occasional hug or pat on the shoulder or back, there was still the Western reserve — maybe appropriate, given the official nature of the event — but still entirely different from the emotional intimacy I’ve learned to expect from the Afghans.
That’s been the thing that’s been hardest for me to learn here. Americans are schooled to sublimate our emotions, and I think those who work for and with and in the military moreso than most, although academics do it as well. When Americans work, we work. We’re blinkered by our on-task orientation, our email screens, our lesson plans. With the Afghans, I certainly didn’t understand that the first thing to do was to sit down and have tea, and that the second thing to do was to sit down and have tea again and perhaps talk about one’s family, and that what was most important was the respect and shared common feeling and emotional well-being of those with whom one would meet and talk and perhaps, eventually, work. I got more mileage here — perhaps fittingly — out of a five-minute story about my brother’s wedding than I did out of hours of discussing ideas about teaching, pedagogy, and writing.
That extends here in strange ways. Greg Mortenson has seen bad press lately for the apparent lies and corruption connected to the projects he’s written about in Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools. Rory Stewart and Sarah Chayes talk about the apparent widespread acceptance of corruption in Afghanistan, and about the cavalier attitude toward some ideal of truth. I’m sometimes finding something similar. Afghans are amazing orators, especially when it comes to matters of pathos. What matters here is how you and your interlocutor feel about something: the facts are flexible. Questions of timeliness, validity, procedure, accuracy, cost, and accountability are all often secondary to the felt bonds of the social relationship. More than anything, the reciprocal ties of sociality are key.
It’s taken me three and a half months to start figuring that out; to start knowing that in practice. There are its corollaries: you respect the people you work with. As an American, you don’t argue with someone. You don’t make someone lose face. You accept someone’s hospitality. And if you’re going to build what you came to build, you can’t do it with weapons, or wearing body armor in your day-to-day interactions.
All of that has left me feeling unsettled, still, especially this afternoon in that hangar, when those bonds of the social were as quiet and solemn and solid as they were in our Western way, with those words about the enthusiasm sometimes forced and the determination with hearts sometimes heavy, and those words about having given the last full measure, and one by one people would stand at the call of their names until a name was called and no one stood, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another, and another.