While I had a few small successes with my writing, it was always clear to me that I wasn’t very good at it. I remember weird snippets of things like taking a long rambling bunch of paragraphs and cutting them into disassociated blocks. I jumbled them up, so stoned at the time that I thought I could randomly pull them out and they’d miraculously form a coherent story. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out how to approach composing a tale with a legitimate beginning, middle, and an end. The task seemed insurmountable to me. I suppose that should have been a clue.
With graduation looming, I grasped for a plan. I’d taken to saying if you were a very good writer, you could make anything interesting. If you were not, you better have something interesting to say. I applied to Peace Corps in hopes it would give me time to write and something to write about.
The application asked about geographic preferences. I envisioned some dusty African village where women walked around without covering their sagging breasts. But I didn’t care where they sent me. I’d just finished James Michener’s wonderful book “Caravans” which made Afghanistan sound like the cruelest place on earth. So rather than tell Peace Corps where I wanted to go, I told them where I didn’t: Afghanistan.
Several months later, I got a letter from Peace Corps congratulating me for being selected to serve six months hence in the South Pacific island Kingdom of Tonga. Several months after that, I got another letter saying, ‘Whoops – you won’t be going to Tonga after all, but if you’re willing to wait an additional six months, we can get you into (wait for it) Afghanistan’. What was I going to do? It wasn’t like I had another plan. I shrugged and took to the deal.
Afghanistan was not what I expected it to be. Sure, there was the unimaginable cruelty that Michener described, but there was also a stark beauty to the country and a regal majesty to those who live there. And the period during which I’d arrived – the first weeks of 1978 – was one the most peaceful moments in the history of that war-torn country.
If Afghanistan failed to conform to my image of the country, my concept of Peace Corps was even further off the mark. I’d mentally prepared for physical deprivation and mental anguish. Instead, we were taken from the airport to the poshest part of town. I was dropped with three others at a lovely two-bedroom house with a small sunroom looking out on a garden courtyard. A houseboy stoked our pot-bellied stove while a cook heaped our plates with Kabuli Pulao.
I had my first cultural awakening on a downtown Kabul street. The road was lined in three and four-story buildings. The snow on these buildings had accumulated into two feet of frozen slush. Groups of men worked to crack the slabs with heavy spikes. They pushed the ice blocks to the edge and pitched them to sidewalk forty feet below.
From a safe distance I watched the ice explode against the ground in a spray of fist-sized chunks of shrapnel. But it wasn’t the concussive force that floored me. It was that none of those walking beneath the fusillade even bothered to cross the street.
When I asked my cross-culture teacher about it later, he said it was an expression of their faith in God. They believe God preordained the course of their lives. If He intended for them to be hit by falling ice, then it was His will. They stuck to their path in homage to Allah.
‘Culture’, our shared values, is all encompassing. It includes everything from the profound – like a shared belief in God – to the superficial. On the superficial end, I was playing chess in Kabul – not well, but often. I’d seen lovely chess sets in many of the shops, most carved from vibrant local stone. I went into one shop and asked the price. The merchant gave a price that, while reasonable, was well beyond what my three dollar daily earnings would allow. I looked further around the shop and spied a small bag of plastic black and white pieces sitting on a black and red checked paper board. “That one,” I said. “That’s all I really need.”
“That one!” he exclaimed. “That’s the most expensive set in the shop.”
“That cheap little plastic one?” I demand.
“That ‘cheap little plastic one’ is the only plastic chess set in all Afghanistan!” he replied. “And it comes from the U.S.!”