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How do you greet someone you know?

  • Handshake
  • Embrace
  • Air kisses
  • Stoop to touch their feet
  • Fist bump
  • Wave
  • Nod
  • Put your hand to your head as if to touch your cap
  • Put your hand on your heart
  • Say hello
  • Ask how they’re doing
  • Ask about their health, family, and family’s health

What about for someone you don’t know?

I’ve seen all of the above at some time or another.

Every culture has different norms. Often there is a complicated set of norms depending on who the person is, their status, their relation to you, where you are, when you last saw them, who else is there, and how much time you have. These norms can vary from one family to another (who hasn’t been good friends with or dated someone whose family interacted differently from their own?)

Greetings are a huge part of Afghan culture. In the U.S., we would nod to someone in the hallway, give a blanket hello to the folks in our office in the morning, or give instructions for our destination to the cab driver. But here: take time. Take lots of time. Not just with your friend who you haven’t seen in awhile. Take time with every single person you interact with. (Note: the only exception I’ve heard of to this rule is migrant or road construction workers, who aren’t noticed at all.)

A typical Afghan greeting interaction goes like this –

You Ask: Hello. Good morning. How are you? How is your health? How is your family? Are you well? Is life well? Is your family well?

They Answer: Thank you, I am well. My family is well. Good morning. God is good. Very well, thank you.

When you get into the car, you greet the driver with a complete greeting before he asks where you want to go. When you walk into an office, plan to walk up to every single person in the office and have this interaction. It doesn’t matter if it is your own office and you see them every day. Greet each person individually. Every day. Quick run into the Grocery store, be prepared to properly greet the clerk who checks out your 2 items.

This is so ingrained here that when a cell phone rings during a meeting you will hear the cell phone owner answer with: Hello, Good morning, How are you, and How is your health all before the other person has a chance to respond with why they called (completely irrespective of the fact that the person is talking on a phone in the middle of a meeting).

I asked you what is the difference if you are greeting/meeting someone for the first time. Well, here, it makes no difference. You go through the entire spiel. And it should be noted that no where in that spiel do you mention your name, ask for their name, state where you’re from, indicate how you know them, or declare your purpose for this meeting. Those are pretty irrelevant. And I’ve had plenty of introductions where I never heard their name nor gave my own.

Let me also say that for someone just trying to learn the basics of language it can be challenging to learn so much so soon (especially because there are many different ways of asking/saying essentially the same thing for a greeting). But once you make a good greeting with an Afghan, you’re in. Once you can do that, additional language has a lot less added value. If you’re coming to Afghanistan (or anywhere in the Middle East), learn to greet properly.

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The U.S. constitution provides for the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. The Afghan education system has varied substantially through the years, but currently the constitution takes a far-reaching approach: “Education is the right of all citizens of Afghanistan…” and then it goes even further, “…shall be offered up to the B.A. level in the state educational institutions free of charge by the state” (Article 43).

Students here don’t pay for anything. They don’t pay for credits, books, food, or even dormitories. The only two things that I have found that they must pay for are the entrance exam for college, should they wish to apply, and their official diploma, should they wish to have a copy.

There are private schools (with typical private school fees). Some of them may actually be more competitive and better quality than the public schools, but they tend to be more fraught with people buying their grades. The government doesn’t have any way to regulate them so students of private schools end up out of the system, which can be a problem if they want a government job in the future.

In the past, I have talked with friends (some of whom have had education provided very cheaply or others who have debated whether to fund their children’s education). Most of them believe that when young adults don’t have to pay for things they never really understand and appreciate the value of those items. Obviously, each person is different, but at a general level, what do you think? Does this mentality apply to education? Should it be an inalienable right?

At various times, we have to stay in our guest houses. Right now it is for the Kabul Conference. I can only liken it to bad weather shutting everything down in the U.S. (such as Snow-mageddon this past winter in DC). The difference here is that we can’t go outside (or even play in the snow). We are always under a lot of restrictions, and as soon as you remove those limited freedoms, cabin fever sets in very fast.

We work during the day, dealing with the crappy internet that may one day be improved (insha allah). And, we entertain ourselves after hours by cooking (no staff in the house these days so we’ve taken over the kitchen, also no food delivery this time), watching movies and the news, listening to music, and trying not to get on each others’ nerves. I’m thankful for the other 10 people living in my house, who help keep things interesting.

One of my favorite things about being here are all of the interesting discussions I am part of. Discussions may be with my counterpart, his team, the guys in my office, my house mates, our guards, or any number of other people I work and interact with. I’ve always appreciated good conversations, and with so many different people and cultures interacting, it makes for a lot of interesting dialogue.

One day at lunch we discussed the differences in how things are expressed by different languages, including Dari, Pashtu, local languages, Russian, Persian, and, of course, English. Language has a huge impact on cultural norms from how to say hello to asking to borrow a pen (for example in one of the local languages, if you were to ask for something that the person didn’t have, they would respond by saying how shameful they are, but they would never actually say no.)

Another day, my translator was having trouble finding a word in Dari for different functions in Microsoft Word, such as adding bullets to text. Many of these English words have no equivalent. So he used the Dari word for bullets that go in a gun (a common enough word for a country at war for the past 30 years). Often, the English words become more common than the Dari words (for example, “motorwan” is the Dari word for “driver,” but everyone simply says “driver” in an accented way).

This leads to a discussion about whether I know how to drive…women were not allowed to drive here for many years, and even now, few know how. And the idea that I own a car is quite a big deal. And this leads to how in Afghanistan (and numerous other countries) there are actually 3 genders. There are men. There are women. And then, there are foreign-women (that’s me!) Men do business, tend their finances, walk on the street, drive cars, shake hands, argue loudly, and talk highly of their abilities. Women stay home and take care of their children, take basic positions (such as cleaner, receptionist, etc.), give their money to their families (either husband or parents), are timid and speak poorly of their abilities, and often go out with male escorts or at least their children. And foreign-women are just that. Foreign. They can do everything men can do (like shaking hands vigorously as a sign that you’re strong). On some level, they are treated and respected like men (that’s the unwritten expectation), but at the same time, men and women are continually surprised that the foreign-women don’t conform to their idea of a woman.

A discussion may start about translations, but then it becomes more about learning about cultures, assumptions, and everything else.

Of course, we still talk about movies, sports, security rumors, office politics, and other petty annoyances. 🙂

This week was my brother’s birthday. Thanks to major advances in technology it was easy for me to make the traditional phone call to wish him Happy Birthday. (And luckily, he knows to answer calls from strange numbers.) During our chat, he mentioned that it’s still difficult for him to understand what I see on a daily basis. So this post is meant to provide some everyday scenes from around Kabul.

Note: I am almost always inside a vehicle (when not inside a compound), which means that camera angles and window smudges make for poorer quality pictures, but I think you will appreciate them nonetheless. And, as always, click on the picture for a larger image.

furniture shops and homes on TV Hill

Family crossing the street

Family crossing the street - Cross the street at your own risk.

whacha doin'

whacha doin'


over the mountain

Over the mountain - Because of threat of landslides, the mountains around the city are not allowed to built on. These houses are illegal.

Palace

Palace - This is the Darul Aman Palace. The woman to the far left is in a burka. They can be in a variety of colors, but 95% of the ones I see are that standard blue color.

Since I arrived here, we have had a couple new people join our house. All of these new people have a lot of international experience, which means they’ve got great stories. And, I’m only too happy to explain to them Kabul or Afghan-specific things, like where to get things, how to do certain activities, or how the government is structured.

Last week, a new adviser joined my team. She is in a completely different place when it comes to her expectations for this work. She uses a lot of technical terms and consulting speak, which I know the locals don’t fully understand. She expects to use all of her consulting toolkit (documents, templates, strategies, etc.) She worries about being at meetings 15 minutes ahead of time (truthfully, I still have trouble with this, but while I try to be on time, I never expect the meeting to begin at that planned time–it’s all Afghan time…Insha’Allah). She expects to get through a long list of items in an hour meeting, where we might get to item #2. She expects all of the offices to have air conditioning (so she comes in a suit). She expects to leave meetings with clear action items and for those items to be done by the next meeting.

Honestly, I could go on and on about her expectations and how completely off the mark they are from reality. It’s interesting because in some ways I can see how far my expectations have changed in such a short period, but in other ways, I know she simply didn’t have basic preparedness.

Also, the addition of this person is particularly challenging for me because I am the one who brainstorms and strategizes with her. So I am often the one having to give her examples of what I’ve seen (such as trying to convince our counterpart that he must check his email at least once a day) in order to give her a reality check.

Since I’ve been here, the things I see and do are simply part of life. One day, I might see a father bicycling on the traffic-strewn road while his 3 yr old son calmly holds onto him from behind. Another day, I see a cart with bags of vegetables being pulled by a mule, and at a second glance, I realize that the young boys sitting among the vegetables aren’t actually driving the cart, no one is. The mule just plods along the road, having memorized the route. And another day, the traffic might be so bad that my driver takes me “over the hill” along the deeply rutted dirt road, which switchbacks through illegal mud huts, where I see both the Kabul skyline and women with children hauling water up the hill in every size container you can find.

Those are everyday occurrences, and I revel in being fascinated by such simple things. I try to put off the inevitability of feeling these are everyday sights and sounds.

It’s similar to my experience of moving to Washington, D.C. Everyone is going about their daily lives, and everywhere I looked I saw beautiful, historic buildings, homeless men pushing carts, and government officials going to work to do important things. And then some days, I would purposely play the role of tourist so I felt free to gawk and revel in it all.

Surprisingly, there are attempts to bring tourists to some areas of Afghanistan. I recently went to a cafe, which had a several page color brochure for what to see and do in one of the Afghan provinces. It was really well done, including key phrases in the local language, historical significance of the region, descriptions of the types of people living there, various hiking routes, a map, and when to go (particularly important since there are really only 4 months out of the year when it has both good weather and passable roads).

However, due to security concerns my day-to-day is pretty tightly restricted. No bus hopping or hiking adventures. But today, we had a field trip, which took us to the Kabul Museum. At one time, it had quite an impressive collection. Now the most impressive thing to me was the pictures of the building after bombings compared to what it is today. The collection included a lot around Buddha, and the flower garden (including the ancient train engine) was beautiful to walk around. Here are a few pic from the little touristy excursion.

Original museum wall carvings

Coupling up

Roses, train engine, ruined buildings

Additional security posted for our touristy excursion

It’s a big holiday in the U.S. Most people have a long weekend, and they will spend time with friends and family at picnics, BBQs, and firework shows.

Here, it’s another work day.

The Canadians celebrated their independence on Thursday at the Canadian Embassy. And many expat Americans will do the same tonight at the U.S. Embassy.

Afghan Independence Day is celebrated August 19th, which is when we have the day off, to celebrate independence from the British. The British relinquished their control over Afghan foreign affairs by signing the Treaty of Rawalpindi on August 8th, 1919. And like most National (and religious) holidays, it has been moved to accommodate different political issues. (The primary one is to be distinct from its neighbors: India celebrates on Aug. 15th, and Pakistan celebrates on Aug. 14th.)

Personally, I miss watching fireworks, but I’m all to happy to avoid any explosions here.

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