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Salaam aleikum

 

A recent anecdote: I was dissolved in tears at the end of “The Kite Runner.” My friend Tessa and I were probably the last ones out of the theater in Denver.  Some folks were still milling around in the lobby as Tessa went to the bathroom.

First paperback edition book cover
The Kite Runner. First paperback edition book cover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A man who had sat a couple of rows in front of me made eye contact a couple of times.  I was just trying to pull myself together. I felt so fragile and still  on the verge of tears. But this guy approached me and said, “Salaam aleikum.”

Wa aleikum salaam,” I replied, “Have you been there?”

He said he was seven years old when his father took the family to Kabul. His father worked for USAID as an engineer. He said he could tell I was affected deeply by the movie, and he sensed that I had a story.

He told me he had seen the kite contests in the winters.  I was so addled, I failed to get his name or give him mine. So we parted ways in the parking lot, and I doubt I’ll ever see him again. But it was comforting to meet him and to say good bye (ba aman I khoda) in Farsi.

 

 

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John Kennedy, good man, Peace Corps

Logo of the United States Peace Corps.

Logo of the United States Peace Corps. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They loved their king.  He was respected and revered.  When the king went by, my brother and family were just honored they could see him.

That’s our king!

They knew nothing about our president in 1972.  The one president they did remember from the US was John Kennedy, and that was because he sent the Peace Corps over.  My father had named me Esmeri Jon, which meant Dear Lion, almost like you would say Papa-san, a term of endearment.  That was Jon in Farsi and Esmeri meant Lion.

He asked me what my name meant, and I figured here’s my chance to score a goal and I told him that Bob meant lion.

The few words that my father was able to say in English, he said “Esmeri Jon, John Kennedy, good man, Peace Corps.”

That was another life lesson I learned, that when you offer people it would pay dividends years later.  I considered a career in international relations when I came back.

Afghanistan flag

Well, Dave, you’re going to Afghanistan.

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Steve: So then when you decided and you actually did the paperwork and all that, how did your parents feel about it?

David:  I think they were pretty cool.  I think they were pretty encouraging.  My parents in general, with regards to things like sports and general interests, tried to be fairly neutral.  I think there was a philosophical decision, that they’d seen a lot of parents pushing kids this way and that way.  They kind of had a hands-off.  But the fact that they had been involved with AFS, I think, was a tip to me that they were interested in that kind of bigger world vision.

 

So I think the big shock really was when I found out I was going to Afghanistan. Glossy World Globe

 

Steve: What was that like? When you found out?

David:  I still recall mom calling me at school, so it would have been at Scottsdale High.  I had a mes sage, “call your mom,” or something.

 

I called and she said, “Well Dave, I found out where you’re going.”  And I said, “Woo!  Where?”  And she said, “Afghanistan.”

 

And I think my first reaction was, “Well, where’s that?”  And then she said, “Well, you know I had to look it up, too,” and she described it to me, you know, like it’s west of Pakistan and east of Iran, you know, south of the Soviet Union or something.

So I ran.  I seem to recall hanging up and running to one of the school rooms to look on the globe, and it was just breathtaking because I — I mean, I just assumed that because most AFS students go to Europe or Latin America, that’s what I would do.  So I was kind of, I guess, dumbfounded.  That would be the word.  But excited.  I thought, whoa, I mean, it would be exotic to go anywhere, but to go there was completely unexpected.


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Remembering the Buddha statues of Bamiyan


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Bamiyan was awe-inspiring.  We were driving up in this van on a curvy road.  You could see the side of this mountain for 45 minutes, and closer you realize there are these monstrous statues of Buddha carved out and these holes on either side of it, praying rooms or monastery rooms, where you could climb up stairs carved in stone and pray and reflect.  We westerners wanted to go to the top and stand on the head.  The front part of the head had been sheered off by a previous assault by one of Genghis Khan’s family relatives.  The Afghans have repelled every major invasion that had happened, including (after I left) the Russians.

In one of the cities we visited before we went to Bamiyan, it was a ghost town.  This was one of two haunting experiences I had in Afghanistan.  The city was reduced to rubble, but you could, if you stared at it, figure out where streets were and buildings were.  The city had revolted against Genghis Khan’s cousin/nephew’s son and killed them.  The army came through and said let nothing be left living in this valley, and to this day no one has moved back into this valley.

 

NPR: Bit By Bit, Afghanistan Rebuilds Buddhist Statues

NPR: Bit By Bit, Afghanistan Rebuilds Buddhist Statues

 

As I was standing there, I know I was hot and I know it was a hundred, I can swear I could hear voices of kids running up and down the street.  I could hear all the sounds I heard in Kabul around me as if I was being transported back to that time.  I can’t explain it.  It’s never happened since.  Nobody put that thought in my head, but I had vision.

Bamiyan, having that baked into the back of my consciousness, it was not a religious experience, the awe and magnitude of it.  Here I am with donkeys and water buffalo and this thing that was created a thousand years ago, this monument to another culture’s religion.  The air was cool.  It was so fresh to be out of the city.  It was a wonderful experience to move from Kabul to the countryside, the harvest was going, the ground was very rich…

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[Listen to the haunting experience and the rest of the story]

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Why are you destroying Vietnam?

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This was, I would say, a kind of a turning point in my life.  I can’t believe how often I come back to this moment.

Some of my brother’s friends came over.  We’d sometimes do homework together.  I didn’t go to school much because of the language problem.  But we realized that the universal language was math, and so we’d do algebra together.

It was an amazing thing to realize we can talk this language. Again these guys of course were so intrigued. And I was like, you know, a Martian or something.

So one day I remember these teenage boys sitting there asking me: “Why are you…”  I mean, I heard it personally, but I don’t think they were saying it personally — it felt like it was.   “Why are you destroying Vietnam?

Vietnam war memorial

Vietnam War Memorial, Image via Wikipedia

Now they were saying this out of a tremendous respect for America as a kind of utopia, again unrealistic.  They just thought it was paradise.  They wanted me to explain, because it didn’t quite connect with them, that we would be raping and pillaging Vietnam.

Well of course I had no idea then why we were there.  I don’t know thirty years later why we did that.  I mean, at least no good reason that I’ve ever heard.

But I remember just suddenly being horrified.  Subsequently I think part of my horror was, oh my gosh, these guys are completely vulnerable to larger powers, whether it’s the United States or the Soviet Union.  They have no defense.  This was the first time in my life when I began to sense what that might feel like, that there are a lot of folks out there who, you know, are at the whim of these larger powers.

Soviet troops withdrawing from Afghanistan

Soviet troops withdrawing from Afghanistan, Image via Wikipedia

Of course, little did I know that nine years later the Soviets would roll in and

there was nothing they could do.  Then we come in and there’s nothing that they can do.  And I don’t know if any Americans can imagine what that must feel like.  We have Canada, we have Mexico, we have the Atlantic, we have the Pacific — we are so insulated.

But I think these young men, they had an intuition about this strange kind of global reach that some of us have, and it puzzles and frightens them, I think, and rightfully so.

Anyway the faux pas was, and you can see this happens to me from time to time: I started to cry. I thought, “How in the world am I gonna answer this question?”  I have no idea why America is doing this, and it’s horrifying to me.  I think I just sort of reached a breaking point.  I started to cry.

Well, that was like the worst thing that could happen.  When you have a guest in the house in the Middle East, if your guest becomes unhappy, that’s the worst thing possible.

So I’ve been haunted ever since about what must have happened to those boys.  I mean, were they beaten or something at home because they supposedly had made me unhappy.  I just always have been haunted that they may have been punished for that.  I was probably so caught up in my own distress. I just remember it was like, uh-oh, something went really badly wrong here.  And it was like the boys just sort of disappeared.

I think maybe somebody in the family said, you know, this is one of the worst things that can happen, to cause a guest distress.  The guest is supposed to be treated with honor and kept happy.  That was a tough moment.