02 February 2009

Afghan courtesies marvel jaded Yank

Kabul has its pleasant contradictions. On one hand, the city and the nation is a war zone, plain and simple. On the other, the people I have met so far both on and off campus are remarkably warm and outgoing, eager to exchange greetings with strangers like me, but everyday courtesy runs deeper than that.

For example, I went into a bookstore with another faculty member. He found a collection of short stories by Afghans written in English, went to pay for it, and realized he had forgotten his wallet. The store owner said, no problem, take the book ($12) and give me the money the next time you are downtown. I find it hard to imagine a similar occurrence with a foreigner in a U.S. city of six million.

On the crowded streets, money changers convert currency freely, often carrying around huge stacks of foreign and local currency. I asked a local driver why they felt safe. He said there is virtually no street crime against locals. He said if someone robbed a money changer, the people nearby would probably chase down the thief. I told him in the States that people might be more likely to run away from thief, claiming they saw nothing.

Several days ago, I got a haircut from a local barber. There was one man ahead of me, but he indicated I should go first because I was a “guest.” When I was done, I asked the barber, with the assistance of a colleague who speaks Dari, what I owed him. Whatever you want, as long as you are happy with haircut, he replied. Now, I’m sure he would have quite unhappy had I not paid for the haircut, but the custom , which is apparently widespread, was a lovely surprise.