Ramadan is entering its final week and the holy day of Eid is beginning. The people here in Kandahar are much more observant of the traditions of Islam than anywhere else I’ve been. The fast is a true one, no drinking of water, eating of food, or smoking is allowed during the daylight hours. People go to work, but everything tends to trickle off into just a drizzle of activity by late afternoon. However, like any generalization the individual experience is much more different.
I’ve been working on the base like mad lately. Our company is constructing concrete pads for prefabricated buildings. As I have quickly learned, even a “small” foundation requires a tremendous amount of gravel, sand, and concrete. All of this must enter through the base checkpoint that varies in attention to procedure and intensity according to who are the guards on duty. However, as an American, my citizenship is the one thing that gets goods inside with the least amount of difficulty.
Our gravel supplier is a little square man named Kabir. During the Soviet occupation, he lived in Moscow for more than three years as a university student. “Three and a half” as he always corrects me. The fact that he lived in a modern city and saw something more than the backwardness of Afghanistan he holds very dear.
After a few days of working together, I questioned the cubic measurements he gave me for a particular load of gravel. He stood up straight and looked me square in the eye.
“I am an educated man! I lived in Moscow for three and a half years! Educated men do not try to lie or cheat. But now in Afghanistan, these illiterate and uneducated men are in charge. You cannot trust them.” As he talks about the warlords, the busy mustache bounces emphatically and his nostrils flare.
“These generals! What have they ever done besides hold a gun? They have so much money and no knowledge! Not like in America!”
I add no comments. But I’ve since learned to measure each truckload and have Kabir read off the number (with my assistant looking over his shoulder).
We joke in bad Russian. He’s apologetic for being out of practice and uses his quaint Russian with a little hesitation. I laugh and chat along with my terrible grammar and construction-worker profanities slipping out.
“Next time you have a little drink, you will invite me along, won’t you?” he asks with a little rise to his eyes.
“Of course,” I assure him, “We’ll sit down, share a bottle or two.” As all Russians euphemize a good vodka session, I tell him, “We’ll have fifty grams together.” Any ex-Soviet worth their medals knows that 50 grams of a shot quickly becomes 500 grams of a bottle.
“I remember my student days,” Kabir smiles. “I sat with friends, a little vodka, a little music in the park,” he leans in with a wink, “And let’s not forget the Russian girls!”
The procedure for getting the gravel delivered into the base seems straightforward. The gravel delivery is scheduled and announced to the base operations. Upon arrival, the gravel is escorted inside the base and taken to a secure searching location. The drivers are searched and sent to the side, and the K9 units are called out to sniff the cars for explosive residue. When the cars are clean, soldiers search the vehicles and then escort them into and out of the base. As with any long procedure in Central Asia, this never works out perfectly.
The biggest impediment to the entry of vehicles is the two warlords of the area. One is President Karzai’s brother. Major General Gulali lives in a house that I’m sure he considers imposing, but has been nicknamed Kentucky Fried Chicken by the soldiers on base. I don’t get called to meetings at the General’s residence, but drive by each day and smile at the appropriateness of the unofficial name.
For all the help the warlords were in getting rid of the Taliban, they have an elaborate system of revolving monopolies for all business on base. The US military purchases materials, rents cars, and hires workers through the two “generals”. Every week Major General Gulali and Major General Sherzai sit down and decide who gets the gravel contracts that week, which workers get the fence construction work, and who gets to rent the bulldozers. My initial market research quickly discovered that the Army pays about 75% on top of everything.
In order to keep our costs low, we’ve arranged side deals with the suppliers, brought in goods directly from the city, or run around the “official” contacts provided by the U.S. military contracting office. It’s good for us, but for Kabir, he has to sneak into the search zone, meet us a kilometer outside of the base, and be driven in personally by the American—me—to avoid problems from the militia that watches the main gate to the base.
The Mafia-ness of these rackets may be justified on a national political arena. There is something to be said for keeping the country peaceful through flowing dollars. But it does nothing at all for the little guys in the marketplace. After a while, sneaking around the militia guards and other local agents has come to seem like standard operating procedure.
Kabir—with his formative years spent out of the country—has greatly enjoyed our daily business interactions also for the chance to have a drink of water during Ramadan. He has been eager to come in for a single truck in spite of the expense of time. Once the bomb-sniffing German shepherds have failed to find anything but sand and rock on the trucks, Kabir jumps into my cab.
“Where is the water Mr. Jett? You know I am very thirsty!” He smiles and looks around the floor. I hand him a bottle of water.
Kabir cracks it with fervor. Then, like a passenger sneaking a slog of whisky in a moving car, he leans down to slurp up gulps before any locals spy him. The militia guards are small potatoes compared to the Ramandan peer pressure in Kandahar. Kabir legitimately fears physical injury if he’s caught breaking the fast during this month. I wish I could lend him my foreigner status for these weeks. He was never the kind of person meant to abstain.
Once he’s had a swig or two of water, a rising tone builds up in his accented Russian.
“Mr. Jett, you know I need one more thing!”
“Yes, Kabir?” I feign puzzlement as I feel the single cigarette in my pocket.
“Did you bring a cigarette?” he looks at me with pinched eyes and a tight mustache.
“Kabir,” I say, “you know I don’t smoke. It’s bad for your health.”
Agitated, “But you know I do! I ask you to bring me a little cigarette!”
I fumble around, watching as his eyes bounce from pocket to pocket as I pretend to search.
“Oh, I don’t know if I brought one….”
His face crumbles.
“Here we go!” I shout and hand him the forbidden tobacco.
“Ah! Thank you Mr. Jett!” He lights it and holds the burning Korean cigarette below the dashboard. His smoking reminds me of teenagers smoking behind the high school, severe inhalations and attempts to blow the smoke downward so that it’s too dispersed to see. Just like high school, the illusion fails.
After this routine, he sits back in the shiny blue outfit and maroon vest he always wears. The relief of a tested man shows on his face. Only ten more days to go. I know he’ll be calling me tomorrow morning to see if I need any gravel delivered.
This past Sunday I went in to the city ostensibly to purchase steel reinforcing rods for our project. Handing over $17,000 in cash seemed to be worth doing myself, but the real motivation was to get out of the insular airbase environment for a while.
Our company has three employees who handle procurements from the city. Abbos is an Uzbek I’ve worked with before and trust with any sum of cash. We also have a Pashtun buyer, Amin, from the north and Muchtabo, a taxi driver hired for the two months of this project. Muchtabo told me his friends call him ‘Fido’. We had a quick discussion of American culture and pets before I reverted back to calling him by his full name, Muchtabo.
We drove into the city of Kandahar in the early afternoon. The desert steppe was just starting to catch the sun’s shadows. The highway from the airport into town gives a great perspective down into the basin of Kandahar. Stark and jagged hills surround the area. It rains, or drizzles, about a dozen times a year here and greenery is sparse. Driving through the western part of town, the ex-Taliban president Mullah Omar’s house can be seen. It’s a low white compound lying across a shallow hill, not the impressive citadel I was expecting to see.
Rickshaws dive in and around the traffic. All of the trucks are painted with luscious landscape scenes and veiled women with beautiful eyes. Chains hung from the bumpers with dangling triangles of sheet metal chime in the stop and go of Afghan streets. Men and boys dodge trucks and a few women in full blue veils cling to the storefronts. A busy intersection in Afghanistan is a cacophony of horns, screaming and frustrated traffic policemen, and the background jingle of the cargo trucks.
We got to the steel rod salesman’s office right on time. I wore my Afghan clothes, took off the sunglasses, and was passing myself as the Uzbek businessman in town for a little business. We tucked into the office with glass windows to the street. In the taxi outside, our driver laid back dozing between his bursts of text-messaging on his cell phone. $25,000 in cash lay in my bag next to him.
The Persian flowed past me and I attempted to catch what glimmers I could. Aside from the basic numbers and a noun or two, I was lost. Looking around the office, I could see what is a striking and yet common sight. Multiple posters of multiple candidates for the recent presidential election were pasted on the walls. It seems the novelty of the election and the quality of the prints outweighed the convention of only supporting one single person. To truly express a political allegiance, people tape the portrait of the preferred candidate on the inside of their car’s windshield.
The owner of the business had no right arm. As I looked at the walls to keep myself from being too bored from the heavy business negotiations on the phone in Pashtun, I saw a very gruesome picture montage that clearly related to the Taliban.
A young woman held a pair of bound, severed hands. A man had a raised cane up clearly about to strike the veiled woman in front of him. A bloody corpse lay face-down in the sand. A child looked on with grief as a crowd stoned two people in a square. I turned back in my seat feeling a little colder. I looked at the company owner counting money with his left hand and suddenly had a lot of questions I would never ask him.
We left the shop after only two hours, relatively short by Central Asian standards for business meetings. I was prepared to go home, but Muchtabo our driver told me, through my Uzbek interpreter, that he was inviting us to be guests at his home to break the Ramadan fast. Going to a near-stranger’s home for a meal that could make me sick in the ex-capital of the Taliban –I agreed in a heartbeat.
We drove through the town pulling away from the main streets and getting into a clearly more residential area. Abbos was talking at me the whole time, but I couldn’t pull myself away from the window. Children ran around in the swirling dirt. Too young to fast, they didn’t recognize the steady uptick of activity as people began to pull away from the sluggishness of late afternoon. Riders on bicycles, bread hawkers, and taxis all swarmed down the tiny streets brushing against the mud walls of the houses. Every single person had the first cup of water and a hot dish of the day firmly fixed in mind.
We pulled up to an alley that fell away thirty degrees towards an open ditch. I thanked the low sling of the Toyota station wagon for hanging onto the road. Muchtabo raced ahead of us into the house. Abbos looked at me, “He is going to tell the women to get in the back.”
Abbos continued, “Pashtun people are like Uzbeks, very hospitable. They say ‘A guest is a gift from God.’”
Muchtabo bounced out the door and led us inside the house. Two pieces of fabric hung across the open door – a veil for the entryway. We caught a glimpse of the mud brick courtyard and were ushered into the guest room. As is the custom, the doorframes were lower than a person’s height. This is done to ensure that no one accidentally forgets to pay respect to an elder inside the room. To enter, everyone bows their heads as they come in.
We walked into the thin tall room and sat on the cushions on the floor. Only the stray hair bow and cosmetics in the corner betrayed a female presence in the house. We sat down, relaxed, and prepared to break the fast. Muchtabo went out to relay a stream of orders and to play with his two children a bit. He came back in with an ashtray and a pack of cigarettes. As he lit up I laughed.
“You have a cigarette before a glass of water?” I asked.
Sheepishly Muchtabo nodded yes. He reached out to offer me one.
I passed on the proffered cigarettes and took a glass of water. Muchtabo nodded at me and said something to Abbos.
“Mountain water,” said Abbos. “It’s from the hills here, straight from the spring.” It was cool and perfect.
Then the rice came. Large steaming piles of Basmati rice with a little sauce on top. This was accompanied by a dish that smelled wonderful and looked like Collard greens. That seemed to be the extent of the feast. As everyone began to pull food forward, I figured that this was a simple household and I should be happy that they invited me in.
I started to eat, and was suddenly overwhelmed by the stream of food. Spicy cucumber dip, grilled and spiced chicken, steaming meatballs with chickpea sauce, a plate of sliced vegetables, soft and hard roundels of bread, and a tray of sodas were placed all around the eating cloth on the floor. I was a bit stunned, but began to do my part.
The food was excellent. I hadn’t fasted, but I was hungry and this was delicious. After a month of eating frozen food shipped into the military base, the delicate flavor of fresh vegetables was incredible.
There was no dinner conversation; breaking the fast is not something to be done over witty comments or interesting discussion. It’s serious and we ate. I sat back, stuffed with more than half of my meal still in front of me. The crispness of the chicken, the spice of the pilaf, the tang of the sauces were all exceptional. It was one of the best meals I’d ever had, more so for being in this simple mud house.
We lay on our sides; I tried to express how good the food was with my three applicable Persian adjectives. The host, Muchtabo, was very forgiving of my accent. Then he stood up, which I thought was the cue to leave. I started to straighten my long Afghan shirt when a tea tray was shoved past the curtain. We all got a cup and curled pastries coated in honey were set in front of us. Freshly made that day, the hollow pastry broke and honey spilled out onto the tongue.
We would leave soon, but for now we drank our tea. The fast had been broken and all were grateful.
After teaching English in Uzbekistan from 2002- 2004, Jett Thomason set off to visit the rest of the republics of the former Soviet Union. Since then, he’s worked in Afghanistan and Iraq and traveled extensively throughout Asia and Europe.