Letters from Afghanistan 




Past Letters

Airman to provide inside look at Afghanistan
Airman makes his way to base in Afghanistan







Nation could 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 culture.

>>view slideshow of Thelen's pictures
from Afghanistan

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.

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.

Another thing 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 your family?

Family 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 done.


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.

Dear Oconomowoc,

Like 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 possible.

For us 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.

You 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.

The 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.

The 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? 

Tashakur (thank you),
Rob Thelen

Items in need:


school supplies (pens, pencils, paper, rulers)
art supplies (paper, crayons, markers)
toys (as basic as possible, no batteries needed, etc.)
picture books (lightly used)
children's books (OK if it is in English, but very basic)
shoes (lightly used or new); mostly for children, but any size

clothes (lightly used or new); no logos, not even Packers or Badgers (sorry)
-hygienic supplies
-basic baby supplies and toys
-baby blankets
-basic medical supplies

Mailing Address:

Robert Thelen
FOB Lightning
APO AE 09364