The Afghans
By Louis Martin

Greg and I began our talks about George Orwell on Wednesday, the day I moved into Caulaincourt Square Hostel in Montmartre (A Friendly Conversation). We continued on other topics the rest of the week. On Thursday, two guys from Afghanistan moved into the room. Now here was an opportunity for sparks to fly but it did not happen (Paradise Lost).

Siar and his friend were on Spring break and were down visiting Paris for the first time. They are both studying science at the university in Berlin. They will graduate with Masters degrees and return to Afghanistan in 2013. With their educational credentials beefed up, they will continue doing what that have been doing: teaching at various locations around the countryside in Afghanistan.

And now is the time, I think, for a little background: This was just after the Kandahar Massacre had occurred. If there were ever a time to hesitate saying that I was from the United States, this was is it, but I soon did. They weren't shocked—there was no sneering, no scoffs—and soon we were talking about the American presence in Afghanistan. Regarding the massacre, there were pretty sure that it involved more than a single soldier flipping out. A few days before the massacre, threats had been made against villagers in the area following a roadside bombing—the usual story.

"There were people who saw helicopters," said Siar. "They also saw other soldiers on the ground."

The reports were mixed, however, and it was hard to tell what the truth was.  Some reported seeing helicopters and other soldiers, others didn't.

But my new roommates did not seem to be bitter or personally pointing the finger at me. I also asked about the American presence in Afghanistan in general.

"Has there been anything good about it I asked?" They hesitated a moment, then said no.

"They were going to build a dam," said Siar, "but they built it in the wrong place to do us any good."

I was not surprised by their response.

Siar filled me in on Afghan history, talking about the kings and a period in Afghanistan history when it was a place of enlightenment, culture, and learning; then he talked about interference by foreign powers, including the Soviet Union and the United States backed by NATO.

He then told me a personal tale that seemed to summarize the state of things these days for Afghan people and himself. It is the epitome of the phrase, "can't win for losing."

He works for the university—not the government, he emphasized—and is shuttled around to various regions on teaching assignments.

About a year ago the university got him a ride on a NATO helicopter to a remote region. He shaved his beard before the ride, thinking he would look more compatible with the NATO image. The ride went fine until he got off the chopper and started to make a call on his cell phone.

Suddenly there was gun pointed at his head by a German soldier. The soldier told him to drop the cell phone. The soldier thought he was using it to photograph the base to help the Taliban attack it. Siar dropped the phone in the dirt.

He tried to explain the situation, that he was a teacher with the university on assignment ... The soldier did not understand. Siar speaks good English, but he did not speak any German at that time.

He tries to explain again but the soldier only half understands or buys his story. The soldier orders Siar off the base and tells him he will shoot him dead if he sees him again.

Siar leaves, then calls the university. They tell him they are very sorry and wish him luck finding a ride back.

For his return trip to Kabul he arranges a ride in a private car. But he is worried. Ground transportation is mostly controlled by the Taliban. On the way back, a Taliban vehicle pulls in front of the car and stops it. This is during Ramadan. They question Siar and ask him why he has no beard. He tells them he is growing a fresh one for Ramadan. They are skeptical.

"And have you been praying and fasting?" one of the asks.

He assures him that he has.

He shows them his ID and says that he works for the university, not the government. It is dangerous to work for the government and even more dangerous to work for the military. He does no translation work whatsoever, he tells them. It is very dangerous to be a translator in Afghanistan these days.

They spot the word "Washington" on his ID. They don't like it, and Siar himself does not know exactly why it is there. He explains it as best he can.  In the end it does not look like they plan to release him.

He tells them, "If you don't let me go, you are going to have to cook me a very large dinner. I am very hungry from praying and fasting all day." He lets them know it is their duty as Muslims to do so.

In the end they let him go.

We have a lot of other conversations over the next week. They are two very gentle, considerate guys, and they treat me like a brother, confiding much. When anyone is sleeping in the room, they always whisper. They don't drop things on the floor and slam the door. How rare that is.

And what a contrast to the attitude of Luciano, who has very little basis for disliking me. The United States is no real "skin off his back." For these two, the United States is not just "skin of their backs" but a constant threat of death and destruction. But I think they sensed that I was a person of a kindred spirit. Better to go after a real enemy than someone who is sensitive and thinks much as you do. Yes, why make enemies out of people who are not your enemies? And if you do encounter a real "enemy," maybe it better to try to convince or convert them, or at least understand them, before you try to kill them with bullets or false arguments.