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.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

On Wandering

In unrelated news, on the 13th of March, I flew to Zambia (via Dubai and Nairobi) for R&R. I'm headed to Namibia on the 20th, and then down through the South African Wine Country to Cape Town, from where I fly home on April 4th. More from me... eventually.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Law and Order: Farah Edition

The military's got a thing for Task Forces. My small base alone hosts four of them, and even after eight months here, I only kind of know what they're each tasked with. There's task force Southeast (which works roughly southeast of here), Task Force South (which confusingly doesn't work south of here -- that's the no-man's-land of Nimroz Province), Task Force 45 (God only knows), and Task Force Arrow ("Straight Arrows!"), which took over for Task Force Fury ("Fury from the Sky!") and which disappointingly is an infantry unit and uses neither crossbows nor other medieval weaponry, despite their name.

The sheer number of task forces in this country is equal parts overwhelming and ridiculous. A buddy of mine at a PRT in the East got fed up with it and declared himself and his fellow civilians to be Task Force Mongoose, allowing him to say things like, "uh, why wasn't Task Force Mongoose invited to this meeting?" We at PRT Farah have yet to declare ourselves to be a Task Force, but now that I think about it, that probably needs to happen.

Last week, PRT Farah hosted Combined Joint Task Force 435 -- CJIATF 435, if you will -- which is is tasked with overseeing detentions in Afghanistan (they took over for Task Force 82, according to their wikipedia page, and do you see how this Task Force thing is out of control?), and is headed by Admiral Harward, a three-star out of Kabul.

Here's the thing: two or three weeks ago or so, I was up in Herat hobnobbing with the good people from an entirely different and unrelated Task Force named Task Force Shafafiyat, who also sometimes go by the English translation of their name, "Task Force Transparency." (Irrelevant sidenote: I myself would romanize the word transparency as "shifafiyat," with an i and not a in the first syllable, but I was gently corrected by Kabul on the spelling and now have to choose between the Embassy-preferred but clearly incorrect spelling, or buck the trend and go with what I know to be correct and by extension have others think that I'm wrong; I have devoted more time to this dilemma than you would think humanly possible).

TF Shafafiyat, as you might guess, focuses on government transparency, and is headed by General H.R. McMaster, a charismatic and outspoken one-star with a shaved head and a forceful personality. He was intensely engaging and he was memorable, and that's not something I say lightly given the number of painfully forgettable PowerPoint presentations I've had to sit through during this war. (The now-famous spaghetti-as-war-diagram chart shown to McChrystal was not a random outlier; "this war will be won through better and more complex powerpoint slides," I've heard said sarcastically).

I have an obscenely bad memory for names and faces, but McMaster's strong presentation coupled with his appearance (wiry, muscular frame and shaved head) stuck in my mind. I was consequently quite surprised when Admiral Harward, the three star from CJIATF 435, stepped off of his C-130 at Farah Airfield and turned out to be identical to McMaster.

Seriously, look me in the eye and tell me they aren't identical.

So General McMaster Admiral Harwood and the rest of TF 435 showed up to come to Farah to talk about rule of law, the physical infrastructure of Farah prison and other related topics. They had come in part because of a report that was written about Farah's general Rule of Law conditions, and I had contacted the Embassy in a huff to ask for a copy, annoyed that someone was writing about my beloved province without having the courtesy to run it by me first. The Embassy responded, attaching the report to a quizzical email that gently noted that I had in fact written the report in question, in late November. And even though it was certainly mine -- I recognize my own sentence structure, even in dry reporting cables -- I to this day have no recollection of having typed it out.

So TF 435 showed up and was whisked up to our conference room for a discussion on rule of law. I had prepped myself by studying the report I had supposedly written (I considered sending myself a kudos on its comprehensiveness), and the meeting went fine. In reality, though, it was just a warm up for the big field trip of the day, which involved taking the Admiral to the Farah prison, both to see the facility itself and to take a gander at the $985,000 extension that the PRT is funding to ease overcrowding.

Farah prison was the site of one of the largest jailbreaks in Afghan history, which happened just before I arrived in July of last year. Some 20 Taliban members bribed the guards to smuggle in explosives, blew the doors off their cells and escaped into the rugged districts of Northern Farah; other Taliban members had staged simultaneous attacks on police checkpoints to draw the police away and provide cover for the escapees. Visiting the Prison had been on my to-do list for some time, though other things always seemed to crop up when the PRT's rule of law guy (First Sergeant McGruff, a 30-year veteran of the Michigan police department with a gruff, no-nonsense bearing) was headed that way, and I was excited that the Admiral had finally given me an excuse to get there.

We hadn't told the warden or anyone else that we were coming until the morning of the visit, so when we showed up an hour after phoning them, we were quite surprised to learn that they had arranged a ceremonial brick laying for us on the site of the extension, with a few cinder blocks written in ribbon and ready to be layed down. (I went back to the prison a few days after the visit on other business, and saw that rather than cutting off the ribbon, the Afghan contracting company had just cemented them into place as they stood, ribbons and bows still festively intact).

The Admiral had arrived in advance of the Godfather and I, and we hustled to catch up; he was already inside the prison when we approached the gate. "You can't go inside," the guard told us. "There's some Admiral in there."

"Right," I responded, pointing to the haf-dozen military people with me. "He's ours. We're with him. We need to get inside."

"You can go inside later. There's some admiral in there now," he responded. My translator took over and explained the situation in hurried Pashto, and the guard glowered at us suspiciously but ultimately acquiesced. "No weapons inside," he told us. The Godfather had a pistol on him and stayed behind; I and the other visiting military headed in.

Heading in required crawling through a 3-foot high door made of rusty iron and secured with enormous bolt locks. The door and the crawl space after it were low enough that you had to go on hands and knees, and the final entrance to the prison was another metal door with a similar fastening schema. The walls on the other side, in the center of the prison courtyard, were 20 feet high and made of smooth concrete; when the door slammed shut behind you, that was it: if they didn't want to let you leave, there was no way of getting out.

I felt like I was in the Shawshank Redemption. It was kind of terrifying.

("If a riot breaks out, hit the deck before they start shooting and stay still till you think it's over," McGruff had told me. "It's a god damn kill box in there, and the Afghan guards on the wall aren't going to differentiate between you and them.")

I had assumed that there would be no riots while we there, that the Admiral would take a brief tour of the facilities and then we would bolt. But he had come with his Afghan counterpart, the national-level Minister of Justice, and when I came in, the Minister was addressing the crowd of detainees in fast Persian; from what I could pick out, it sounded like he was berating the detainees ("you are here because you deserve to be here"), and the crowd was not responding well, shouting at the Minister in Pashto and generally looking rowdy.

I've said before that my fight-or-flight response is keyed squarely to flight, and the whole thing left me with a rising sense of panic and an ongoing, head-turning and slightly desperate search for an exit; my instinct was to inch towards the door, but that seemed futile given the 20-foot walls ringed with armed guards. There was, in short, no avenue of escape. The whole scene -- dusty tents in the courtyard flanked by rows of drying prison laundry, and nothing but to look at but motivational slogans and a small patch of empty blue sky -- seemed to designed to eradicate hope.

"Can you even begin to wrap your mind around how much misery there is in this place?" one of the Admiral's aides asked me. "I really can't," I told him.

The Minister finished speaking, took a few questions ("I am an innocent man, and everyone knows it; why am I here?" and then more heartwrendingly, "I was told that I would be released when I turned 70. I'm 72 now; when will I be released?"), and then we high-tailed it out.

The Governor told us later that he thought it foolhardy that we entered into the center of the prison with so many obscenely dangerous criminals wandering around. Commander Killjoy later mandated that no U.S. personnel are allowed to enter the inner courtyard in the future ("It really is a kill box in there"), making our visit possibly the last by USG representatives. All things considered, I can't say I'm sad I don't have to go back.