30 Days in Afghanistan – Dinner Conversations

I feel the room getting smaller, I want to find an excuse to leave. Why did I decide to show up? I’ve managed to stay away from all invitations since I got here, and now here I am in the middle of a dinner I’m dreading. I’d rather be at the dinner from last night, with Mirwais the driver, and Reza the security guy, locals. Around the table, more than a dozen of my co-workers, are enjoying food, drink and conversation. A young Pakistani, from the firm invited me, he wanted to have a dinner for the new folks on the project, and I got the invitation. I hesitated, but decided that I’d already missed two dinners, and should show up this time. I regret the decision.I’m not one to judge others, I believe that we are responsible for our own destinies, we charter our own path, and it’s difficult enough without others telling us what they think. But just because I think we are our own masters, doesn’t mean I’m comfortable in circles that down turn in the same direction I’m used to. I’m in Kabul, Afghanistan. Actually, I’m in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan – and across and beside me, people are beginning to get drunk. Muslims are getting drunk.

Between a saint and a sinner, I’m like most people, I fight my demons, but when I’m closer to being a sinner, I will try, as I think most people do, hide my vices. I’m ashamed of them, I try to do them incognito. But here in front of me, is a man, named after the prophet, a director with the firm, toasting to the group, and to my right is another Muslim from Iran, also a director, and the young Pakistani who invited me, all enjoined in the delight of drink. The first director who is from Egypt, is now mimicking a belly dancer, and the women around the table are giggling. He’s re-enacting a dance from another recent dinner, where he apparently displayed this skill for the group. He’s shaking his pretend breasts, it’s all a great big laugh. I’m mustering a half smile, and sick to my stomach.

I don’t want to be here, I want to be with the local Afghani’s I had dinner with last night, the ones who talked about their families, and of the provinces they came from. Mirwais from Parwan, the driver, in his early 30’s, complained about working for a month straight with no days off. Reza, from Bamian, not married yet, the quiet one, only talking when spoken to. Both complained about the low wages. We enjoyed local fare, they introduced me to “mantu”, an entree made with flour and minced meat. Kebabs, rice and dough, a drink made with yogurt, we ate and shared the meal, and left nothing on the plate. Enough to fill us.

I look around the table, food is abundant, there’s half eaten plates, and cans of Heineken, glasses of red wine, and the conversation’s getting louder. After what seems too long, dinner ends, and I make a excuse, and get up to leave. I pay $20 for my meal, an exorbitant amount in Kabul, the night before I paid for 3 meals for the locals and myself, for less than that. I feign interest for another invitation to an upcoming party at the Iranian director’s new house, where he assures me, there’ll be plenty of beer, he’s taken care of it all. I mention to the host, the young Pakistani, that he should consider wrapping up all the left over food, and offer it to the guards, back at the compound. The lady next to me raises her eyebrow. I know that the food won’t make it out the door, I hope that the restaurant will not throw it out.

I left America, I’m in Kabul, in the midst of millions of Muslims, and I feel more alone tonight than I did in the 2 weeks I’ve been here. I get in the company car, an Aussie joins me, we are driven back to the compound. I get the feeling that he’s one of the few at the dinner that may be sharing my paradox of feelings, I realize, he was also pretty quiet over the dinner. Tomorrow, I’ll pretend I had a great time. I make a resolution to not let myself go through this again, while I’m in the country.

The Author had worked for foreign services at Afghanistan.

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