I saw all fourteen of their eyes on me. Most gazed out from above noses wrinkled by smiles and even the expressionless ones seemed open to my whimsical appearance in a small room full of mattresses off a lonely backstreet in central Afghanistan. A single lightbulb hung from the ceiling, but the room was illuminated by the last threads of sunlight weaving in through the bars on the window. Naeem sat on my right side.
"They are here for you," he said.
These men were refugees that lived much of their lives in Pakistan and now lived together in a small commune to do construction work in peaceful Bamiyan. They were building a midwife training center. Naeem was tall and handsome, clean-shaven but for a light goatee, and had the kind of face that could place him anywhere -- I hadn't noticed accent after a handful of words of introduction and suspected, in a flash of conspiracy, that he was an undercover American. I tried to think of a hand sign only Americans would know, a secret Westerners Salute, but a scan of my mental Walker, Texas Ranger database turned up nothing. I tried another crafty tactic: "So, where are you from?"
"Kabul," he said.
I hadn't been hiding anything either, even if I wasn't a stereotypical "English," their descriptor for Americans, Brits and Aussies. Naaem described this character, one that would arouse the wrong kind of curiosity on the road from the capital: "Big, big body... big and fat... and white. Blue eyes or green eyes -- red faces." Anything but a superfecta of these qualities and a refusal to dress locally will earn travelers safe passage to Bamiyan.
Naeem translated for many but spoke for most, and someone turned off the television for us to question each other further rather than listen to mostly dispiriting news through static in Urdu. "Tonight you will be with us," he told me in much the same way as a Roman orator reads a state proclamation, or an oracle relates a prophecy. Hospitality is never in question in the Bamiyan Valley. If there is a guest, there is a meal, there is a bed, there is every frill the hosts have denied themselves.
"We will bring you something special that you'll like it," Naeem said. "Wine, or something like this?"
I never asked if they had access to alcohol or if they would even drink it, but I certainly didn't want to find out by sending them on a dangerous Grey Goose chase. Here, an offer implies no possession, it merely evinces the willingness to give. I never once questioned that willingness, but I didn't want to push my luck.
We became simpler people. The man with an angular face and ebullient blue eyes, who had met me outside and saved me from a pack of excited children with stones in their hands, spoke in a quiet voice. "Take tea?" This man's name was Osama Latif and I responded to his offer by mispronouncing a phrase my Pashtun tailor friends had taught me in Abu Dhabi for just such an occasion: "Kataso skay, bya malahum raorey" (If you are drinking tea, then bring some for me also.).
For an hour we talked about each other. I solicited information with stealthless drones ("Is there any cultural difference between Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns?" Answer: "No.") They took a very different approach, appraising my character from the looks on my face, the way I sat and the way I moved. They found information in the way I reported the opinions of my compatriots, with my tone, perhaps, as the only gauge of my consent: "What do American people think about the Taliban?"
Men shifted on the mattresses and leaned in from the walls. I summoned every ounce of the diplomatic evasiveness that got me through college political science papers and said that "The Taliban supports a way of doing something that allows for methods that are inhumane..." No one spoke. These men were no supporters of the Taliban, dependent as they were on the protection of this politically advanced province from militant onslaught. But, in terms of ethnicity, as Pashtuns in Afghanistan, these men fell into the group the Taliban claimed to represent.
"Afghans that are Persian think it's the Pashtun -- they're afraid," I added.
Naeem was nodding. "Persian people think Pashtuns are the Taliban. Here I'm Pashtun and I'm scared of Taliban." This was the constant paradox of their lives: every vestige of Pashtun culture -- clothes, facial hair, language, skin color, the nationality of their passport -- these separated them from their Western contracting colleagues. So what they could change they did within reason, but beardless and Pashtun, they became typical subjects for Taliban interrogation.
"That is not Pashtun," said Osama Latif, denouncing extremism. In his mind, he belonged to an ethnic group defined not only by common language; his group was founded on ethics, too. Just as any loyalist might condemn with the word "un-American," Osama Latif repudiated the Taliban for their rejection of those basic truths. He went further, describing the militants' real common trait: "'Same cap and hat, now we're Taliban'," he mocked. "When he goes on vacation, he goes to Pakistan." I put aside making jokes about what a Taliban vacation would be like to listen to his underlying message: We deny their ethnicity and we can deny their nationality -- they have only their hats.
Here in Afghanistan, they put the blame on "Pakistan." In Lahore, two men told me the terrorists were coming from India. In northern India, I'm sure, they will say extremists come from the south. In the south, they undoubtedly come from Sri Lanka. And if Sri Lanka ever faces another terrorist threat, they may well accuse evil creatures that rise from the sea to tyrannize the innocent.
And so banished from the world of sense and reason, the Taliban are relegated to the one scrap of territory they have left: the domain defined by ridicule. Naeem asked me what I would do if the Taliban caught me, but spoke before I could try to answer seriously: "You fuck the Talib that's killing you!" The Taliban were now the butts of jokes, destined for naught but sodomy deep in the minds of all but their closest supporters.
As it turned out, Afghans work blue. Every once in a while, Naeem would tease the Khandahari man opposite me, Khial Meer, who wore a look of unflappable calm all evening.
"In Khandahar, you sleep with your back against the wall," Naeem joked with a big grin. "You know what they say over there? 'Allah save everything, but wall save butts.'"
I asked to record them recounting jokes in Pashto and they turned fearful. They reckoned that if I were ever in danger, if the American government were to be looking for me, they would find records of these particular men... joking. (Earlier Naeem had excitedly run in with knives when I asked if we could pose for a picture with them pretending to kidnap me. The others convinced us it was a bad idea.) It didn't worry me that they had implied the possibility of my abduction -- you can't land in Afghanistan without first imagining and rebuffing worst case scenarios -- but I noticed again how powerful humor could be.
That night we ate thick beans and yellow rice with the warm Afghan bread that is baked flat, punctured with hundreds of ornamental holes. A much older man with a gray beard down to his breastbone joined us on the floor. "The leader," Naeem stated proudly. The man finished eating and turned up the volume on the news; tanks rolled around somewhere in the north, no reports of violence from the south. Naeem wiped his fingers on the bread.
"You're Muslim?" he asked.
I saw no grain of malice in his eyes, but that I had steered him into uncharted waters -- he was perfectly unaware of the close kinship of our traditions.
"We did chapter one," I said. "Christianity is chapter two. The Qur'an is chapter three -- it's all the same story."
It wasn't the most eloquent exegesis of Abrahamic scripture, but it felt like a start; I wanted only to avoid presenting my traditions as somehow more valid. "Honestly, I don't really believe any of it," I shrugged happily.
I mentioned Adam and Abraham, Ibrahim, and won brief nods from the crowd. The man from Khandahar agreed with every word and told me so in Arabic. We hadn't gotten terribly far in our conversation, but we had opened the forum -- and with that, the call to prayer sounded and the men dispersed to perform their ablutions.
Naeem is a twenty-four year old engineer with a degree in road civil engineering from Polytechnical University of Kabul. I know this because we are now friends on Facebook. When I returned home, he had sent me this message: "khial meer say hi to you and says that i miss you and says that why you didn't spend a night with me AHHAHHAHAHAHHA JOKING......"
It seems all is still well in Bamiyan.