The television set was brand new. I could tell from the half-ripped purchase label on the corner of the screen. A dozen plastic roses in a vase sat on top, making the TV the most decorative -- and expensive -- item in an otherwise bland living room. I wondered if the set was a gift from the Americans. Afghan Colonel Jawid Osmani*, my host and the occupant of the room, is himself fond of giving gifts. But he is fonder of receiving them.
A couple of weeks ago, Osmani, a grinning, white-bearded "religious cultural adviser" for the Afghan National Army had invited me and my colleague, Staff Sergeant Justin Boeck, to his quarters for a farewell dinner. Boeck and I would be leaving the base the next day. We'd been reassigned, along with our unit, to a different mission at another camp close by. For the last four months, we had worked with Osmani on reconstruction efforts and humanitarian assistance projects in Paktya Province of which Gardez is the capital. To our disappointment, we have failed to get much done, partly a result of the unimaginably complex bureaucratic web the coalition has weaved here over the last eight years.
This was not our first dinner with Osmani; he'd invited us before. But I never enjoyed them. Neither I nor Boeck were good at small talk, so we hoped the conversation would be driven by our interpreter, Lafik, and another American trainer, Rick, who had also been invited. Before Rick showed up, Boeck, Lafik and I lounged silently on a long dusty sofa, sucking on sugar-coated almonds and Turkish taffies.
Osmani presided over the gathering from a metal folding chair. The television's volume was turned all the way down, but Osmani watched the program intently as if he were the only one who could hear it. A ticker in the national language Dari scrolled left to right along the bottom of the screen while images flashed by in a continuous five-minute loop: General McChrystal giving a speech, Afghan police standing around on a road, body bags being zipped up, an Afghan policeman having a bullet removed from his lower back, President Karzai giving a speech, Afghan soldiers marching ceremoniously through a square in Kabul, a ribbon-cutting at a non-descript building. This was the nightly news in Afghanistan, courtesy of Voice of America.
Although dressed in his pressed military regalia, Osmani had removed his plastic dress shoes and socks at the door when he arrived minutes earlier. Now he picked at his crusty toes as he narrated each image on the screen to Lafik, who translated. But I wasn't listening. I was fixated on Osmani's feet, gnarled toes at the end of pale, hairless legs.
"My legs hurt," Osmani said dryly, noticing my stare.
I don't why I was so uncomfortable with Osmani. In the U.S. Army's campaign to train and fight alongside our Afghan counterparts, American soldiers are encouraged to accept -- indeed, to embrace -- our hosts' particular cultural mores, no matter how bizarre or repulsive we find them. I personally have always prided myself on my ability to slink quietly in and out of environments that are alien to me. Back home in New York, Molly and I share friends from all over the world. I've lived in France, Germany and for a short time in Russia, where I always relished opportunities to experience some new aspect of those cultures whether it be unfamiliar foods, radical topics of conversation or just watching the local news. Even in Iraq, these sorts of experiences somehow made my tours almost worthwhile.
Yet in Afghanistan, it's different. Maybe it's because I am here on the Army's terms now, and not mine. And maybe it's that eight years after arriving here, the United States has little to show for the loss of so much American blood and treasure. Whatever the reason, I can't help but feel revulsion toward the whole society. I've come to resent the way many Afghan civilians make demands of us Americans with a confident air of entitlement. I feel sorry for the millions of enslaved women here whose status in society is one notch below livestock. (Chickens and goats roam the squalid streets unmolested, a freedom rarely extended to Pashtun women.) I'm uneasy when sex-starved Afghan soldiers make subtle overtures to me through gazing, lustful eyes, an occurrence whose frequency has surprised me.
I recognize that Afghanistan, like most cultures, is not a monolith. I have met many good men here who in a different time and under different circumstances I might be happy to serve alongside. But it's been eight years, almost a decade. At this moment, I simply can't think of another society less worthy of our sacrifices.
It was another 15 minutes before Rick and his own interpreter arrived. Together, we sat down at the long particle-board dining table, which I noticed was of the same design that we Americans use for our desks and conference tables at our own base not far away. Another gift, I thought. Osmani has been awarded two U.S. Army Bronze Star Medals, for what actions no one seems to know. He performed the Haj to Mecca last year, paid for with U.S. taxpayer dollars. His entire living room was furnished by us. The only thing missing was a porcelain toilet in the lavatory. This colonel, it seemed, like the rest of his countrymen preferred doing business with the old hose and hole.
As I politely started in on my portion, gristle and all, conversation finally got under way. As usual, it began with Osmani talking about himself. Did we know that he had spent several weeks last year at a training program for foreign military officers in Norfolk, Virginia? We did.
"Isn't dat where tobacco come?" asked Lafik, trying to keep the conversation alive while directing it away from Osmani.
"Yeah, it is," I said. "In fact, for years my family has run its own tobacco farm in North Carolina, just across the border."
"What does dis name mean, Virginia?" Lafik asked me immediately, not even translating what I'd just said to Osmani.
I hesitated, wary of being drawn into a topic I did not want to discuss with Osmani or other devout Muslims present. I shot a glance at Boeck and Rick seeking approval, but neither seemed to think anything of it. I put down my fork and cleared my throat. Osmani continued to shovel mutton and rice into his mouth with his fingers, chasing it all down with a glass of warm, sour milk.
"The state is named after England's Queen Elizabeth the First," I said. "She's known as the 'Virgin Queen', hence Virginia."
Osmani looked up from his plate stunned, having apparently understood what I said. (He spoke better English than he ordinarily let on.) A stern, commanding look came over his face, one I'd never seen before. He looked me direct in the eye as he spoke in Dari.
"In our country, it is customary that boys and girls who marry be virgins," Osmani said. "This is our custom."
I wanted so badly to roll my eyes, but I nodded politely. "Yes, sir," I said.
I was distracted briefly by the television, which I could see playing just beyond Osmani's shoulder. A Hazara soldier was being treated in a Kabul hospital for shrapnel wounds from a Taliban IED. There always seem to be a disproportionate number of Hazaras featured in the news here. As the country's most oppressed ethnic minority, I wondered if there was an effort in the national media to emphasize Hazaras' contribution to the building of a new Afghanistan.
"This is not the way it is in America," Osmani continued, as a voiceless General McChrystal reappeared on the TV screen behind him. "Here our women must be virtuous or they are ruined. In our hospitals, it is even possible for women to have surgery that makes them virgins again."
"Jesus," I thought, almost choking. If the food hadn't ruined my appetite already, then the image of what third-world medical procedure might be necessary to re-flower a woman surely would have. Osmani looked positively smug, pleased at his country's medical ingenuity.
At the end of our final dinner together, Osmani presented Boeck and I with two small parting gifts. The first was a pakul, a kind of hat most notably worn by Ahmed Shah Massoud, the hero and revered commander of the Afghan Northern Alliance who was assassinated by Al Qaeda two days before 9/11. The other was a scarf. It was a nice gesture, and I immediately felt bad not having something for him in return. Then again, he had plenty.
“Mujahedeen,” he said with a smile, despite my discomfort. Everyone laughed.
I turned around with that stupid hat on my head and looked at Osmani. What could I say? I was his guest.
"Mujahedeen," I said.
*Some of the names have been changed out of respect for their privacy