Saturday, March 16, 2013

Risks, Danger, and Welcome in Afghanistan

My ex took Uzbek the first summer we were dating. He was never that good at it (at least not that I could tell), which isn't super surprising, considering it was an eight-week class. But once he met my uncle and they bonded over a fascination with that region of the world, my presents from my uncle took a particular bent. A mask, an antique rice steamer.

Between the two of them, I began to develop a fascination with the region, as did my mom (who was planning on taking a fabric trip to Uzbekistan, and who I believe is still obsessed with yurts). A fascination that was only strengthened by this week's book, An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan by Jason Elliot, which is part travel memoir, part history book.

I tend not to be good at reading these type of books. I start them with grand expectations. Hopes that I can live vicariously through the author, get a glimpse into a different world. And then I start. And I get bogged down, and I lose motivation, and I never finish.

BUT that is part of what this project is about. So when I felt like putting down the book, I plugged through. There is a lot of history included in this book, and while I enjoy history, at times, it turns into "and then so-and-so did x," and my eyes start to glaze over. That is not to say that I didn't enjoy the book. There are some truly beautiful scenes, and I long for the day that the region is peaceful enough that I can go without giving my parents a heart attack. The people, their culture. There were moments in the book that made me wish that we could be more like that. Elliot receives so much welcome; he shows up in strange towns, knowing no one, at most having a letter of introduction. And the only occasion where he is not welcome is because of westerners and their culture and lack of trust. The thought of a place where guests are revered, where someone showing up unexpectedly is not a problem or an inconvenience, but a gift, is alluring. A place where people have no reservations about giving others the best.

Throughout, the danger is prevalent. It is a part of the narrative, almost becoming a character in the story. Kabul is under constant attack while Elliot is living there. Driving around the city at night, they go through checkpoints which include having guns pointed at your head. Everyone seems armed. Rockets hit around the city, destroying buildings and lives. There are parts of the city he cannot go, there are limits to where he can travel in the countryside. At one point, he attempts to travel through the center of the country, and while he makes it further than many recommended, he stops when he is told that the next part of the journey would result in his death. "Even a chicken would be shot going through there." (Approximate quote, since I am too lazy to try and find the real one.)

And the danger leads to something in the book that really struck me. Sometimes I feel like I'm coasting through life, waiting to meet someone, get married, have kids. Then my real life will start. I've talked to other people who feel the same way. And Elliot addresses this, saying during his time in Afghanistan, he felt truly alive. Whether it's because of the risks of driving on perilous roads through the mountains, the knowledge of possible death, the lack of material goods, he seems to live every moment in a way that is difficult from a cushy, but stressed-out western perspective. What can we learn from both his experiences and the Afghan way of life, and how can we translate that into something that works for our culture?

Myself, I will try and be more open to surprises, and more generous with the guests in my life. And possibly, push my self to live as though I am "sucking the marrow from the bones of life."

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