Sunday, September 12, 2004

Letters from Afghanistan

My friend from college writes more on her experience in serving her country and our new found allies in Afghanistan:
Dear friends and family,

I hope you’re well – happy and healthy. Thank you for all the emails of concern. I’m quite touched by them. But you can rest easy that life here is not as crazy as it seems. I’m not dodging rockets, sporting bullet proof vests, or crouching in bunkers.

In fact, as once explained to me, it’s more the poverty that I’m struck by. Dirt roads, free flowing sewage, and beggars in burqas mark the landscape more than any signs of fighting or instability.

Amid the poverty is juxtaposed this surreal richness that adds an element of humor if not irony to the experience. Take my new home for example. Located in one of the nicest neighborhoods, I live in a complex that contains two houses and an annex that in total can comfortably accommodate eight people. In order to comply with UN standards, the complex employs four guards; a cleaner or two; and a house manager. As the only “Dari” speaker, I have the task of managing the workers, so I find myself bossing them around to “pick up this” and “clean up that”. Though tiring, I’m quite amused by this role as it confirms the colonial nature of my existence here. Of course, by virtue of speaking the local language, the colonial aspect is marginally diminished but I like to compare myself to the mulatto, who neither fits as subject nor colonist but desperately strives for the latter. I only await the day that I cease referring to the staff as “people” and instead start complaining about “the help”.

But the real richness comes in the form of Pakistani trucks that illegally export Afghan timber and import AK-47s. These trucks serve as my new obsession as they are the most beautiful machinery I’ve seen in my life. While the vehicles are typical of the region (poor, old, polluting…), the designs and colors the artists paint on the truck is incomparable: Intricate floral scenes and geometric shapes with beads and dainty chains adorn the trucks, such that they jingle when driving past. Everyday, I commute past customs where the trucks pull over for their routine inspection, and I longingly gaze at the masterpieces that block Kabuli traffic – a magnificent way to start the day!

Perhaps the most surreal aspect of my life is the gym I attend regularly. Housed in the Coalition Forces compound, the gym is fairly modest by US standards, with a dozen or so aerobic machines cramped in a small room with questionable circulation. Most of the trainers are military, as demonstrated by their crew cuts and “Army” t-shirts. But just in case I had my doubts, they enter the gym with their weapons. So as I sweat away the kabobs I shouldn’t have eaten, my fellow exercise enthusiasts take off their holsters and set aside their machine guns. I’ve fancied talking to them but am afraid I will say something horribly offensive, thereby warranting them to shoot me, and in my exhausted state, I figure its best not to take any chances.

Though I have so much more to share (like stories of my old roommate who unpacked his gun outside of my bathroom or the random text messages I receive to rejoice and praise Allah), I see I have written quite a bit for one letter and so I will end this now. Thank you again for supporting me in this fixation of mine of Afghanistan.

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