What Americans Can Learn from Afghans

News & Politics

TALOQAN, AFGHANISTAN -- You don't have to be in this country more than a few minutes to understand what an entire presidential administration hasn't figured out from behind their faux cherry desks in D.C. -- the last thing this country needs is yet more bombs. Bombing is redundant; death by airstrike too pointless to be cruel.

God must have been in a pisser of a funk when He created this geographic left-over between Central and South Asia. Not only did He stick the Afghans with the world's hottest deserts and its coldest mountains, He gave them just two natural resources: rocks and dust. Finally, just because He's both ornery and omnipotent, He gave them neighbors who hated each other so much they wouldn't touch each other with guns and knives -- they let the Afghans do it for them, to each other.

All posturing in Bonn aside, it's impossible to imagine how Afghanistan will ever be able to unify behind a single political ideal, much less put aside their AK-47s in favor of road-paving equipment and textbooks. Foreign interference only adds to the body count, while cultural shortsightedness spawned by millennia of warfare virtually guarantees that the Afghans will never get their act together. Afghanistan remains a primitive, tribal agrarian society with values and infrastructure straight out of the 12th century. "We should nuke this whole country and start from scratch," a New Yorker named David told me over fatty kebabs at the bazaar. And he's a libbie, toiling for a couple of NGO charities here.

Nonetheless, we Americans could learn a lot from the Afghans and their medieval society.

Even the most well-traveled visitors here are instantly struck by the extent to which Afghans help one another. To some extent it's self-motivated; helping to push someone's truck out of a ditch gets you moving sooner if you're stuck behind it. But the truth is that everyone jumps to the assistance of anyone who needs it without being asked. If you drop a heavy load, a dozen men will rush up and offer not only to assist, but to carry the item themselves. And no, they're not grabbing your wallet as they do it.

As you read this, you're thinking that Americans also help each other out in a pinch. But we don't. If we lived like Afghans, you'd stop the instant you saw a broken-down vehicle on the side of the road. So would the car behind you. Afghans don't need an auto club; they have each other.

The tribal system, so detrimental to building an effective multiethnic state, offers tremendous support to people struggling to survive in impossibly difficult times. My translator Jovid's rented adobe-walled box on the outskirts of town here, which would normally house six people, is currently home to 15 people. Three, an old man and his two children, are refugees from nearby Kunduz who walked here after an errant American bomb destroyed their neighborhood. Four more are distant relatives who moved in after four years of drought made farming impossible. And the rest are orphaned children, not even distantly related to Jovid's family. The orphans are from the neighborhood, their mothers starved to death after their husbands died in battle. There are few orphanages in Afghanistan; there's no need for them. "Someone just takes them in," Jovid replied when I asked him what happens to most orphans.

Just to be clear, Jovid's family is desperately poor. Still, it never occurs to them not to feed another mouth.

After years of reading about a country rigidly divided between a Tajik north and a Pashtun south, in which the Christian minority was ordered by the Taliban to wear identifying badges "for their own protection," I was astonished to discover an altogether different reality. Uzbeks, Daris and Pashtuns not only tolerate one another, they almost all speak each other's languages and partake of various elements of their cultures. Tajiks wear Pashtun clothing, Uzbeks eat Turkmen food and Tajiks marry Uzbeks. While Americans live in strictly-segregated, monochromatic cities and neighborhoods and can't even stand to hear the same music, Afghans of all ethnic stripes live side by side in a truly blended nation.

This partly explains why yesterday's Taliban soldiers can shave their beards and trade their turbans for Hindustani caps to join the Northern Alliance. The jump from a Pashtun to Tajik dominant culture isn't hard for Afghans to make. Afghans make war all the time -- it's what they do best -- out of loyalty to a commander or warlord. But they don't shoot each other merely because of the color of their skin. We Americans, who most assuredly know better, do.

And while we've all been treated to vague tales of the Afghan tradition of hospitality to strangers -- mainly to explain the Taliban willingness to eat American lead for their guest Osama bin Laden -- it's something you have to experience personally in order to fully appreciate. To be offered a meal in a home here means that you'll be treated to a spread worthy of Thanksgiving dinner by people who can scarcely afford the minimum caloric intake to get them through the day.

When an emergency arose that required me to go out into the night (Afghans never go out after dark due to the armed rapists and brigands roaming the streets) my hosts insisted that a car and armed driver be found to take me. Armed to the teeth and willing to risk their lives had I been attacked, they accompanied me to my destination. It was only days later that I inadvertently discovered that they had paid $50 -- more than a year's salary -- for that car.

Crisis, as New Yorkers rediscovered after Sept. 11, brings people together. If Afghanistan is someday blessed with peace, one hopes that it won't lose the powerful bonds that kept its people going through the worst that life has to offer.

Ted Rall, the cartoonist and columnist, is covering the Afghan war for The Village Voice and KFI Radio in Los Angeles.

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