Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Admittedly Annoying Habits from Afghanistan

A brief catalogue of annoying habits reinforced by eight months in Afghanistan:

1. Negative: Eight months with the military has wholesale eradicated the word "no" from my vocabulary and replaced it with "negative."

I will concede that this is a speech habit I coveted prior to my assignment with the U.S. military. It's a phrase that sounds very martial, which is similar to sounding rugged, only more so -- and since I have crafted an entire internet dating portfolio around appearing to be rugged, picking up the phrase "negative" just seemed to be the next logicial step, not dissimilar to talking enthusiastically about camping or pretending to have an interest in rock climbing. I had made some inroads into picking up the "negative" habit in Beijing by spending inordinate amounts of time hanging out with the Marines, drinking cheap beer and talking about push ups. At the time, though, I was still generally capable of saying "no."

Now that the vocabularic transformation is both complete and seemingly irreversible, I recognize that it just makes me sounds like a twit.

I will say that "negative" is a small step up from "nay," which is Urdu for no and which I used consistently upon returning from Pakistan. While "negative" at least implies some sort of military background, "nay" just indicates that you're big into Dungeons and Dragons and spend your spare time hanging out at Renaissance Festivals, likely while wearing a tunic and carrying an unsharpened sword -- that is, the opposite of the rugged look I'm going for.

2. Inshallah: At this point in my life, I am fully incapable of referring to any future event without throwing in an Inshallah, Arabic for "if it be the will of Allah."

I've consistently used Inshallah in lieu of "hopefully" since I've lived in Pakistan, but living in Afghanistan has reinforced a very specific feeling of impending doom you get if you don't use it -- like omitting it will cause something terrible to happen. (At one point after leaving Pakistan, I casually threw out an Inshallah at my parents' house, and my mother asked what it meant. "If Allah wills it," I told her. "Dakota," she replied icily, "I would like to remind you that we are Catholic").

Of all my annoying habits -- and I will concede I have many -- my consistent use of Inshallah is the one that most bugs the Godfather. "What time is the Ambassador's plane supposed to land?" he'll ask. "9:30 Inshallah," I'll reply, and he'll take a deep breath and get that exasperated look that indicates that dealing with civilians is his cross to bear, and grit his teeth and say -- "the scheduled time of arrival is zero nine thirty hours, whether Allah wills it or not. This is an Inshallah-free PRT. Zero nine thirty."

"Right," I'll rebuke him. "Zero nine thirty Inshallah."

3. Touching your heart: Shaking hands is an uber-mandatory part of Afghan culture, and every meeting begins with a long procession of people entering the room and shaking the hand of everyone present. If you shake hands and you really mean it, you finish the shake by using that same hand (always the right hand) to touch your heart while bowing slightly from the waist.

If for some reason you can't shake hands with someone -- for example, if they're the opposite gender and by extension touching them with your grubby male paws would be wildly inappropriate, or if their hands are full of AK-47, or if there's like a tiger pit or something in between you and them -- then it's perfectly fine to acknowledge their presence by making eye contact, smiling, touching your heart as above and bowing slightly.

Likewise, if someone offers you something you have to turn down (a lunch when you're pressed for time, for example) -- you can't actually say "no thanks" -- the no is rude, and besides you might slip up and say "negative, thanks," although mercifully that word has not yet invaded your Farsi vocabulary. Instead, you just say "thank you" twice (preferably in a slightly dismayed tone of voice), shake your head lightly and repeat the chest-clutch/bow routine. Offer declined, problem solved, off to the races.

After eight months in Afghanistan (and a year in Afghan Farsi classes before), I am incapable of acknowledging another human being without touching my heart -- even if we've only made eye contact and haven't actually shaken hands.

The Italian Colonel on my base has made it clear that this habit freaks him out ("I am not Afghan, you need not do this -- people will think you are too much Afghan now"). Lieutenant SemperFit, the PRT's Physician's Assistant, has informed me that clutching your chest is known in medical circles as Levine's Sign, and is one of the hallmarks of a heart attack; he invariably asks if I'm feeling ok and if I have any crushing pain in my chest radiating into my left arm.

(Lieutenant SemperFit is the PRT's well-built and vaguely exercise-obsessed P.A. who was previously seconded to the Marine Corps as a medic -- known in the Navy as a "corpsman." He's also a raging conspiracy theorist and has sworn never to eat Afghan food out of a persistant fear of being poisoned. I told him he's missing out -- the Afghan food I get off base is easily the best food available in Farah. "Right," he responded in that tone of voice indicating that he thinks I'm in idiot. "Till they poison you").

I was aware that the heart-touching thing was getting out of hand, but I didn't realize how deeply ingrained it had become until I dropped anchor in Zambia, where I've been heart-grabbing/bowing like a madman. Unexpectedly, though, it appears that Zambians make the same gesture. It is unclear to me if doing so is innately Zambian or if they're just responding to me, but I've gotten a lot of hands-on-heart in response. And a thanks-plus-clutch-plus-bow has actually been consistently enough to get rid of both taxi drivers and child beggars, two of the developing world's normally most persistant annoyances.


Dakota said...

I feel like I know my snarky friends well enough that I need to pre-empt the comment that I'm using "hopefully" incorrectly. I started to consistently correct myself, but then decided it was too obnoxious, even for me. So... that's that.

Donna said...

Have you had to greet people across a lot of tiger pits over there in Farah, then?

I, too, have started inshallahing people whenever I speak. Tragically, I am also still handing people things with two hands - a leftover from my China days. I am beyond culturally confused. Fortunately for me, I'm happily married, which means the only person I have to worry about annoying has already signed on the "better or worse" line, and he's stuck with me now. In fact, I think I'll start using the phrase "negative" with him, just to make sure he's truly committed.

Inshallah you will find true internet love despite all of these annoying habits of yours. Perhaps you should consider making your profile into a wiki so we can all vouch for you?

Mark Sieffert said...

Quick question: in a previous post you mentioned never having been to the market in Farah. My heart sunk. That's where I, as a hypothetical tourist, would go first. But then in this post you mention eating Afghan food. Do you avoid the market in the city for security's sake and eat local food while out in the countryside?

If you ever do get to the main market in Farah, please post lots of pictures.

Hope you're enjoying Zambia. CeCe and I seem to know half the returned PCVs from there, including one who's doing his best to become Zambian. Sounds like a lovely place. Feel free to post about that too.

Nomads By Nature said...

Three years in Oman and being married almost 16 to a former US Marine has combined to give me all three of these 'Afghanistan post' habits. (four if you count the bowing as a separate one from the heart touching) Then add the head bobble from Sri Lanka (reinforced by Indian and Sri Lankan nationals living in Oman),and the two handed turn over for gifting from there and China. When we finally get back to the states I fear I will freak a few of the neighbors out.

Charlene Kwon said...

Hi Mark,
I wanted to write you a comment while I was thinking about it. Afghan Plan and Orwell's Diaries are both in my Google Reader and sometimes you appear next to each other and I read both blogs in a row and it reads kind of seamlessly. Here's the blog if you're interested: http://orwelldiaries.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/24-3-41/

Thornburg -> Orwell seems oddly appropriate.

Serenity said...

LOL :D That was funny -- especially your mother's reminder that you are Catholic! :p

hannah said...

Oh man, I've got 2 and 3 down already. Can't wait to pick up the first one!! I've used inshallah on the CG at my current post... despite his four tours in Turkey and one in Afghanistan, he still glares at me and informs me that God does not care about the minutia of his daily schedule.

Hannah Harrison said...

RPCV from Zambia here. Just found your blog - it's fabulous and makes me very excited to take the FSOT in June. Afghanistan and Iraq are the top of my imaginary bid list right now.

Zambians also touch the heart, usually with an open palm, as a sign of respect if/when shaking hands isn't appropriate or practical. I'm sure you looked very normal to them, as they also do a little bow/bob thing when greeting.