Friday, March 29, 2013

The Old Man / Kabul Dinner Party

I've realized that if I'm going to keep a blog I'm going to have to start carrying around a small notepad to write down the pertinent information.  I have a notoriously bad memory particularly when it comes to names.  I've even been known to refer to my wife as you know...that girl that lives in my condo?  We have the same last name?  Anyways, this is just fair warning to anyone that donates a few minutes of their day to read these entries.  They will at times be severely lacking in the details.

The old man & me at the house in Kabul
The other night we were fortunate enough to be invited to a dinner party.  A gathering of about a dozen individuals who have somehow, like us, found themselves here in Afghanistan.  Now, before I get to the dinner let me introduce you to the "old man".  We did not give him this nickname by the way.  It was already established well before our arrival.  His real name is Khabir.  The old man has a wife and four kids and spends the majority of his day taking care of the house we are staying at.  Seeing as I'm spending more time here at headquarters than anyone else, he and I have gotten very used to the presence of one another.

Of course neither one of us has any clue as to what the other one is saying...the old man speaking in his native Pashto language and I in my Connecticut-accented English, we have gotten very creative in trying to communicate with one another.  Our conversations are brief and very animated complete with wild hand gestures and awkward dancing about that to an observer would resemble a game of charades by two people having seizures.  To his credit, the old man at least attempts to use English which is more than can be said for me and my inability to remember anything in another language.  (True story:  In high school I received a passing grade in my 2nd year of Italian that I did not deserve, but not before my teacher announced in front of the class, "I'm passing you only because I'll be damned if I'm going to go through this crap again."  She was great.)  So the old man's attempts at speaking to me are much appreciated and usually consist of broken English words surrounded by Pashto which results in sentences that almost sound familiar to me.  For example, the other morning when he pointed to the sky and uttered, "Jonas boobs lift from woof box."  I looked up and in happy agreement pointed and said, "yes...Jonas boobs."  No matter, we get along great.

view from the balcony outside my bedroom
Darul Aman road...unusually quiet

Now, in order for us to get to this dinner party, we merely had to cross the street in front of our humble abode.  Simple right?  Unfortunately, that road contains two medians and what appears to be about seven lanes of traffic (there are no lines in the streets to define this).  Seeing as the traffic here resembles the chaos that ensues following a NASCAR crash, and that this is after all a war zone where the nighttime seems to be when the bad people get their day started, we opted to drive.

The old man opened the gate for us and we drove ten minutes North to a spot where there was a break in the median so we could cut across traffic.  Razia (the main character in our documentary and our host here in Kabul) has mastered the art of inching her way through the onslaught of motorist and somehow manages to avoid a dozen or so potentially life-threatening wrecks as we make our way across the main drag, just before turning South on the far side of the street.  As we approached the side road that will lead us to the dinner, Beth and I let out a little gasp as there waiting patiently for us on the corner was the old man.  He seemingly appeared out of nowhere like a ghost hitchhiker in a Tales From the Crypt episode.  Apparently while we were driving, the old man took the direct route on foot playing Frogger with the Kabulian speedsters, risking life and limb to personally lead us to our destination.  A sweet gesture.

When he saw us approaching he darted off down the side street beckoning us to follow.  We obliged and drove after the old man in hot pursuit.  He ran directly in front of our headlights giving the impression to anyone watching that we were attempting to run him down and end his sixty or so years on this Earth.

The Old Man with son Samir
As I marveled at his ability to dart through the streets, dodging the large stones and shin-deep puddles that blanketed the dirt road, it occurred to me what a survivor this guy is.  Afghanistan has been in the midst of conflict for around forty years.  And through all the air raids, car bombs and gun fights, through all the various occupations from the Russians to the Taliban, despite all the hardships this place has known, the old man has somehow survived.  As I watched him in our headlights running with the determination of a prize fighter training for a bout, I imagined younger versions of the old man running through the streets of Afghanistan dodging bullets and bombs and Toyota pickups carrying Taliban enforcers.  A fleeting shadow in the backdrop of skies lit by war and streets filled with despair.  Uncatchable.  Unstoppable.  The old man.  Somehow surviving where so many could not.

Arriving at the door of our destination, the old man waits with us and makes sure that the hosts of our dinner party are alerted to our arrival.  He then points at the door and in his English/Pashto mix says something that sounds like, "peek at ear with salad tongs."  With that he was off running again.  Back through the dark side street and back across the intolerable traffic.  I have no doubts he’ll be at the house when we return.

For some reason we didn't bring a camera with us to the dinner party, and I of course can't remember anyone's name that I haven't known since the 1990s, so to aid me in telling a quick story from the night I'm going to use the cast of the Love Boat to refer to our wonderful dinner hosts.  I've named them below so you can play along at home.

Isaac, Gopher, Doc, Captain Stubing, Julie & Vicki
We were greeted by Captain Stubing who was an Iranian businessman, recently married and currently involved in a convoluted lawsuit involving some crooked Afghani businessmen and Gopher.  Doc is a Producer for television and he tells us about 4 or 5 different jaw-dropping stories he has filmed involving everything from a Taliban mass grave to a woman who was sentenced to death by stoning, and somehow survived the actual stoning!  I couldn't help but think how valuable it would be to have this tale in your arsenal for any story-topping-Joe you may encounter;  "Yeah...well one time I was sentenced to death and survived a stoning by the Taliban."  No one could top that...ever.  And lastly there was Vicki, a Columbia University teacher working on her dissertation.  A pretty eclectic group.

The folks at this party couldn't have been more welcoming and entertaining.  However, my favorite story of the night came from Isaac and Julie who are engaged and dealing with the fun that goes along with breaking the news to your families that you are entering into an interracial marriage.

Isaac is a German-born Iranian and Julie a wholesome Christian from Denmark (I smell a sitcom!).  Julie, like Doc, is also a TV producer while Isaac is here with his brother and a host of others embarking on some business ventures in Kabul.  So that's the setup.  Julie entertained us with stories about how her family reacted to the news of the pending marriage.  Apparently they didn't take it well initially.  She said they never used the word terrorist but she imagined their brains were conjuring up images of Isaac that resembled a cross between Ayatollah Khomeini and Borat.  But after finally meeting Isaac and his family her parents quickly were on board and accepted the engagement wholeheartedly.

Julie's grandmother however was a tougher egg to crack.

Her grandmother had fallen ill and Julie went home to Denmark to be with her in her final weeks.  After two weeks of sitting at her bedside Julie bent down to say her final good-byes.  Tearfully she spoke to her grandmother and the two exchanged beautiful words between one another.  Just as Julie was about to move away from the bed having felt she had said everything she wanted to say, her grandmother grabbed her by the sleeve and pulled her in close.  "Julie", she spoke in a low voice as Julie awaited the final words of wisdom from her beloved grandma.  "Don't ever marry a man with brown skin.  He will kidnap your children and take them to Mecca."  The last words of a life-long relationship between granddaughter and grandmother.  How touching.

Weeks later Julie would be sitting at a cafe in Istanbul with her mother having tea, enduring an endless conversation about what to do with the foreskin of Julie and Isaac's unborn male child.  Although Julie reminded her repeatedly that she is neither pregnant nor married, her mom continued.  Distressed over her mother's obsession with her unborn child's genitalia, I told Julia to inform her that in Iranian culture it's the job of the bride's mother to circumcise the infant in the back of a moving donkey cart.  She says she'll consider my advice but doesn't see how that will help.

Hours later we were back home safe and hanging with the old man.  It really felt great to know that such a beautiful, engaging and strangely normal night could be had in Kabul.

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