EXCLUSIVE TO THE ENTERPRISE
once again be destination for tourists
Seven tips on living and working in Afghanistan
August 12, 2010
Editorís note: Lt.
Robert Thelen of Oconomowoc is serving a one-year tour of duty in
Afghanistan. On a monthly basis, he will update the Oconomowoc
community on his actions and the happenings in Afghanistan. You can
read his letters exclusively in the Oconomowoc Enterprise.
By Lt. Robert Thelen
Special to the Enterprise
Afghanistan is a place like no place I have visited before. Before
the Soviet takeover, the nation was a popular destination for
European college students who wanted to travel back in time and
backpack across untouched wilderness.
Now, after 30 years of war and
strife, as well as a heated insurgency, the country is far less
desirable to visit. It is my hope, however, that some day, people
can once again visit and experience Afghanistan and its culture for
all it is.
Here are a few hints that I have
discovered that will give you an insight into this interesting
Tip No. 1: Donít talk about
business. In Afghanistan, the foundation of every relationship is
trust, and trust can only be earned after long conversations about
nothing. Sitting around a table, drinking chai (Afghan tea),
discussing everything from philosophy to family to sports is the
first order of business. There is no formalized way to enter into
business; it just happens. To start on business too soon will be met
with a cold attitude and hurt trust. Enjoy the chai, enjoy the
conversation and enjoy the company.
>>view slideshow of Thelen's pictures
Tip No. 2: Get rid of
the bubble. In Western culture, we have a personal space of around 2
feet to 3 feet. Our lives revolve around this space. We have all had
that close talker in our lives that you just know is too close, and
it kind of creeps you out. In Afghanistan, everyone is a close
talker. Your bubble is destroyed. At first, it may freak you out,
but, after awhile, like everything, you get used to it.
you will see regularly are two men holding hands. This, in America,
usually denotes sexual orientation; in Afghanistan, it is merely
friendship. The ďman kissĒ and the ďman hugĒ are normal greetings.
To thrive in Afghanistan, you donít have to hold hands with your
friends, but you do have to at least tolerate it.
Tip No. 3: Itís all about
the family. Every day, my partner, Col Basir, will ask the same
three questions, in English: How are you? How was your night? How is
everything. It is the beginning and the end. When I asked a few
Afghans that I advise, why some Afghans farm and harvest opium, they
responded, ďIt is because they need to provide for their family.
They would harvest wheat or beans, but the irrigation was destroyed
by Russians and Taliban. They must provide food, clothing, housing
and education, and opium is a way to do that.Ē
The ties of a family in Afghanistan
are far stronger than those in America. It is not uncommon for the
sons to never move away from home. They will merely build a new
house or room next to their current house and start a family. When
the parents get old, they (their children) take pride in taking care
of them. Afghans donít have Social Security, but they do have many
children who take care of their parents, so most donít need it.
Tip No. 4: Be social and be
friendly. Every Afghan that I have met has been kind and friendly.
They have wanted to know everything about my life, friends and
family. They all assume that because I am 27, that I have three kids
and have been married for a decade (false), so they want to see
pictures of my family.
It is against their culture to
be rude. They will wave, want to shake hands and talk any time they
see you, be it the first encounter of the day or the fifth. If you
are sitting alone, they will sit next to you. If you look sad, they
will try to cheer you up. I have had complete strangers walk up next
to me and start speaking to me in broken English. It is expected, in
Afghanistan, to be kind to strangers and, in every encounter thus
far, it has been true. (Note: If they view you as hostile to their
family or property, they will not treat you with such kindness. In
actuality, they view revenge and defense of honor equally as
necessary as kindness to strangers.)
Tip No. 5: Learn to eat with
your fingers. In Afghanistan, silverware is a waste of perfectly
good metal. Everything can be eaten with your hands (minus the soup
- they do have spoons). The key to eating with your fingers is to
use the naan (afghan flat bread) and press the rice against the
sides of the bowl, pinch, then eat. It takes some practice, but it
is a rewarding culinary experience. Be aware though, never finish
all of your food. The host wants you to leave stuffed and anything
less is an insult. If you leave with an empty plate, he will feel
like he has let you down, so when he sees your plate almost empty,
he will heap another scoop of rice on your plate. Only when you are
so full that you cannot eat another bite will he accept that you are
Tip No. 6: Use compliments
sparingly and play down gifts. In Afghanistan, if you compliment
someone for the shirt they are wearing, it means that you want the
shirt and they will take it off their back to give to you. I made
the mistake of complimenting a soldier on his sunglasses. Moments
later, he put them in my hand. When I tried to refuse, he put them
in my pocket (kind of an awkward moment). In the end, I had to put
the sunglasses on and wear them back to the B-hut. The next day, I
bought him a pair and tried to give it to him, but he refused (and I
didnít want to put them in his pocket).
I asked my
interpreter why he would not take it, and he gave me a tip: tell him
that it is small and nothing, and he will take it. So, I told the
Afghan soldier that the glasses were worthless and if he did not
take them, I would probably throw them away. He took them with a
big smile on his face. Afghans donít care about things as much as
they do about relationships. Always remember this.
Tip No. 7: Afghanistan is a
beautiful country; look around! Being in a war zone, it is easy to
get lost in the daily grind of it all. But, every now and then, I
will look out over the village to the mountains, and I see a
magnificent country that rivals the views of the Rockies. The skies
are so dark at night because of the lack of cities and lights that I
can see more stars here than even in Montana. The people are kind,
the food is great and the chai is always flowing.
I know that the vast majority of
the reading audience will never come to Afghanistan, but I hope that
these tips gave you a better understanding of the complex society
and a kind, full-hearted people.
I mentioned last month in the Enterprise, there is a great
need in Afghanistan. We can train and advise the Afghan
military and police forces all day, but, in the end, this
nation belongs to the next generation. Through my travels, I
have seen poverty on a scale that I did not know was
to win this war, it goes beyond standing up a military; we
must sway the local populace away from Taliban influences
and toward the central government coalition.
can help in this effort. Oconomowoc can help win at least a
few hearts and a few minds.
Operation Outreach - Gardez is an organization that I have
started that will be a conduit for aid from the states to
local villages. My combat adviser team will start it, but it
will not end with us. We are in need of goods, not money.
United States has a lot of money, but a gift from a family
in the U.S. is worth more than an equal amount of cash. The
thought behind a gift, in Afghanistan, means a lot.
items in need are below, as well as the address to mail it.
Mail via USPS. Use the slowest, cheapest method. It will get
here the same time as priority. Ask about how to fill out
the customs forms, and include a return address or a short
note inside. My team will personally write you back and tell
you where your gift went and how it was received.
So, Oconomowoc, will you help out this cause?
supplies (pens, pencils, paper, rulers)
supplies (paper, crayons, markers)
(as basic as possible, no batteries needed, etc.)
books (lightly used)
books (OK if it is in English, but very basic)
(lightly used or new); mostly for children, but any size
(lightly used or new); no logos, not even Packers or Badgers
-basic baby supplies and toys
-basic medical supplies
APO AE 09364