I am in the airport. Our friend Guennadi is arriving. Our first friend to visit us, ever, in Afghanistan. Family have visited, but this is different. It is a great encouragement.
Like last week, I have managed to slide into the baggage collection area. This time was more difficult, I used a combination of stealth, bluster, patience, force and friendliness. At the first gate, I was told no, but I took back my ID card and kept walking, calling out over my shoulder, ‘I am going in!’ Fortunately I was not answered with a bullet between the shoulderblades. At the second gate, I had a conversation with the guard, where I started gruff and got friendly, and he waved me on. The third gate I got stuck, and the guard there was adamant I couldnt go in till the plane landed. Confidence, persuasion, friendliness and gruffiness were all useless. But eventually he went away and I walked in, unopposed. At the last gate I just walked in closely behind a bunch of foreign security personnel, and I tried (hard, but unsuccessfully) to look muscly, tough and as though I had a concealed weapon on me.
But here I am. I am the foreigner who sneaks in regardless.
The baggage area is filling with people arriving from Dubai. I see Kim, an old friend from Mazar. Lots of security personnel. A very tall, tough looking soldier. Harrassed looking Afghans. Then Ghen arrives. Wonderful. We embrace and move to the luggage carousel to wait for his bag.
In front of me a crew cut, well built guy is wearing shorts. I am taken aback. Shocked is too strong – foreigner’s behaviour has ceased to shock me, pretty much. But I am certainly taken aback. To wear shorts here, is like going out in your underwear. Worse than going out in your underwear. It is utterly disrespectful to Muslims, and to Islam. And there are some of us who live here, learning the language and the culture and trying to be students of this nation, and all the while trying to counter the myth that all Westerners are irreverent, rude, crass, Baywatch-watching, sex-loving, bible-toting, pork-eating, beer-swilling infidels. So to us, or at least to me, seeing someone so obviously be insenstive, obnoxious and offensive and not care a whit about it is painful and upsetting.
In my early days, I would have just spoken to him. I used to be like that – I have confronted people all over the place, intervened in fights, conflicts, asked people to calm down, to step down. I have earned scorn, derision and ridicule as a result. So I think i should keep quiet.
But I can’t. If I say nothing, as others have said nothing, then maybe no one will ever say anything and he will go on, blithely, overtly, perpetually offending people, in this nation and his own.
A colleague joins him – it looks like a senior colleague. This gives me perhaps a way in. I edge closer, and excuse myself:
‘Excuse me, I was wondering, errrm, if that is your colleague there?’
‘Yes sir’. Already his tone sounds suspicious. I push on, trying to find a soft way forward.
‘Ahhh… well, please don’t take offence, but I was… you know this is Afghanistan – maybe it would be better if he was wearing long pants. You know, just to not cause offe…’
I don’t even get to finish. Not my most eloquent perhaps, but then I felt somewhat nervous about confronting (even gently) a guy wearing at least two sidearms.
‘No sir. No. I am not going to tell him that. I am not going to ask him to take off those shorts. Maybe I should ask you to roll down your sleeves’. (I am wearing long pants, long sleeved shirt, with the sleeves rolled up to below the elbow, and boots. Pretty modest, by most assessments.)
I don’t respond to his barb. Maybe I should give up. I don’t.
‘I’m just thinking of how it can be perceived. You know, we talk about winning the hearts and minds of the Afghans, and…’
‘You’re offensive. If you think… I’m not going to ask him to wear pants when my boys are getting blown up. Hearts and minds. I am not talking to you.’ He holds up a open hand in the classic, ‘STOP’ gesture. His voice has an edge to it.
I leave it. I have said what my conscience asked me to say. I hoped by approaching his colleague, rather than the man himself, it might take some of the heat out of it, or that maybe, being the senior person, he might be more attuned. But I see that this man believes he needs no instruction, no learning. He cannot hear anything from me. I nod and move back a few paces.
Ghen’s bag comes, and we leave and walk out into the warm Kabul air.