Buying a hammer, reprised.

As mentioned, Wonderful Wyoming, in the middle of Mazar-I-Sharif. Note also the fake antique-y carvings, apparently dug out from the ruins of Balkh.

From this shop, the one with the smaller red traffic cone outside, in the summer of 2000, I bought a hammer.

It was an intensely irritating and confronting experience, and made me think long about violence, hurt, rage and reconciliation, and what we do with our anger. I wrote a piece about it, subsequently published anonymously in a magazine. I have reprinted it, below. Anger and its ugly relatives are more and more common in this country, and yet no one is really talking about how to deal with it.

Buying a hammer.

A provoking encounter the other day. I have been looking for a hammer, a nice heavy hammer with a good handle. Most of the hammers I see here have big heads and crummy handles, held on with bits of nail and glue and they look like at the next big swing the head would fly off and bury itself into your neighbour’s wall or even your neighbour himself. So, finding a little shop on the east side of the Rouza and seeing it had pukkah hammers, I was delighted. 1.7 lak *, not a bad price. I looked it over, pulled the head, twidled it around, much to the amusement of the shopkeeper, who said smilingly – ‘Its strong! You can’t break it!’

I said, ‘No, it looks good, but if it does break, I’ll bring it back and you can swap it’ and he said, ‘Yes, yes, of course. It is 2 lak, but for you, a guest, 1.7’.

So I bought it. Took it home. Told Julie about it. Ate lunch, thinking about my nice new hammer. Hit my first rusty bolt with it, trying to loosen it. Put the claws under the bolt and pulled, and ping! the claws snapped.

I went out later in the evening to get meat and mandarins, and so I went back to the shop too. I just put the pieces on the bench and told the shopkeeper what had happened. It was very apparent that he soon realised he was reasoning with a fool. Anyone could see that the claws had broken – but not the head. It the head had come off, he would replace it – ‘without question! But this is the claws – how could you fix this? You can’t replace this!’ I said, ‘Yes, you could and what’s more, you said you would.’

It would be hard to describe the excitement that ensued. The conversation had begun reasonably enough, but soon it just escalated into a whole new dimension. The shopkeeper began remonstrating loudly with me, his partner and everyone else in the area. Anyone who came it was told the story, persuaded of the facts, asked for a verdict, dressed in robes and put in the judge’s seat. “I was a foreigner, it was ridiculous, I should be giving him money, not him giving money to me. What could he do with a broken hammer – you couldn’t sell that for 10,000Afs”.

In the microsecond when he drew breath, I interjected,  ‘Yes, you could sell it – there are plenty lots worse than that at the second hand bazaar’, to which he said, ‘That’s absurd! You want me to go to the second hand bazaar! I’m a shopkeeper! You go to the bazaar. This hammer’ – he held it disdainfully – ‘this is from China! Of course it will break. If it was from Pakistan, or even better, Afghanistan – then it would not break. See my hammer ‘ – he pulled out his own wooden-handled, creaky-looking nail-banger – ‘This hammer would never break’. It looked like a stick with an iron potato stuck on the end. Nothing to break, I thought. He was still going: ‘If you sell me a car and I drive it, and have an accident, can I bring the car back and you pay for it? Can I?’

‘Give me 1 lak then, that’s all. Finish it’, I said.

‘A lak! A lak?’ Another round of haranguing, wringing of hands, impassioned pleas and shaking of fingers. A lot of it was beyond my infant Farsi, but the meaning was always clear. Finally I said, ‘Ok, give me 80,000Afs. That’s less than half. Half your responsibility, half mine’. He just wouldn’t budge. ‘Shame on you’, he said. ‘Shame!’

He wrapped up his case with an angry flourish and turned to serve less obstructive customers and I stood there, raging, and thought about it. To leave with the hammer would be frustrating. If I demanded the money and refused to budge, I could probably eventually maybe get 50,000Afs, and feel rotten and angry and win a lifelong enemy. So I took out my wallet and took out 30,000Afs and put them on the counter, with the bits of the hammer.

I said, ‘You said, Shame on me. You said I am the foreigner, I should be giving you money’. I said ‘I am a Christian, and you said this cost 2 lak originally. I am giving you the full price. I am giving you money. I am upset, but Jesus said we should be good to one another. I do not think you have been good to me. May God be with you.’

So then I got back in the car and left. No hammer, no money.


* This was before the currency was revalued. The Afghani was so inflated then, that everything cost hundreds of thousands of Afs. The term ‘lak’ – common across Asia was used to denote 100,000. $1 was about 140,000 Afs.


So, on this recent trip back to Mazar, I went into the shop. The same shopkeeper was there. We chatted a while, I looked at his jigsaws and drill bits. I am sure he did not recognise me. I don’t think my actions back then meant much to him, then or now. I doubt my response lead him to view God, forgiveness or reconciliation much differently. Back then, I simply realised it was the right and the righteous – the graceful – thing to do. I still think that, and in this country which increasingly affords so many opportunities to build and hold anger, I wish more people were thinking and acting similarly. Well, I have had plenty of furious moments here. But I aspire to be a person who defuses anger, who shows grace.


‘Be not content to merely look upon atrocities’: an explanation

This time tomorrow night, we should be flying to Dubai. A few days later, we should be landing in Kabul.

Given recent events, several friends have commented, and I am sure many others have wondered, about the wisdom of returning to live in such a country. The reasoning is something like that such move, if not unwise, is at least dangerous and possibly irresponsible, particularly given that we have three kids.

Well, maybe. But let me assure all the readers of this blog (and I know all four of you), that we have considered this decision. Not only us. The agency which is sending us, TEAR ( has considered also, considerably. So much so that it was not until three days ago that we got the final go ahead.

But TEAR aside, Julie and I have long discussed this move, and the possible ramifications. We have done the math years ago, and recently again. We are well aware that this time in Afghanistan could end unhappily, as could any of our previous times (and some of them did conclude with some major grief). But a bad ending is not sufficient criteria for turning aside from this journey.

‘When Christ calls a man, he bids him “Come and die” ‘. Thus said Bonhoeffer, and while he meant it in a spiritual sense – that is, the death of one’s private ego and aspirations – I think he also meant it literally. And as it turned out for Bonhoeffer, it was a literal and a spiritual command. I suppose it could turn out that way for us. We are ok with that. Shouldn’t anyone of faith be ok with that? Jesus, whom I follow, called people – anyone who listened – to abandon security and safety and the protection of their own life. Heck, we are going to die anyway, and who says my life is so tremendously significant that I ought to fiercely protect it? ‘Ahhh’, you say, ‘but you have children now. Fine to go and die for your dreams, but what about them?’ Good point. For what it is worth, the kids are very happy to be going back to Afghanistan. They are looking forward to the TVs on the plane, they tell me. And if I tell them to live lives of committed faith, but fail to do so myself, isn’t that some kind of hypocrisy?

That is not meant to sound trite, or cheap. It is simply that it is easy to turn away from atrocity and hardship: that is in fact the mantra for modern living – ‘take it easy, enjoy, relax, you deserve it.’ This is a particularly powerful message as you get older, when you are supposed to be settling down and end your youthful adventuring. ‘Let someone else go to Afghanistan’, is a message we have heard many times in the last months.

When we got married, Julie and I vowed to try to live lives of simplicity, pilgrimage and community. We have failed in lots of ways, but I think we are still mostly going the right ways. Now that we are parents, the equation has got more complicated, and it involves things like ‘responsible parenting’, but responsible family life was never meant to trump radical family life (thanks to Michael Duncan, and his excellent book, ‘Discipleship, Development and Pain’, for that notion).

I think what I am trying to say, is that if I follow Christ, then I have to be prepared to follow him anywhere. And I should be prepared to show that to my kids, my peers, my family. Afghanistan is not exempt. That doesn’t make God a tyrant and my faith onerous. I could say no, Julie could say no, and Jesus would be cool with that. But we are saying ‘yes’. As the Afghan proverb says, ‘Trust in God, but tie up your camel’. We will trust in God, and avoid men with guns.

A few days of silence

Sorry for the silence. We are back in Australia. It is not an easy transition, and we are lying low. Many people are very happy to see us, and we are happy to see old friends too, but that does not make this place home. ‘home’ has become a layered concept. It is not Perth anymore, it is not Kabul, nor Mazar, nor the other places we have lived. It is not the friends we have, nor where our family are.

I guess where I now feel most at home is a place where I am part of a community with shared goals and hopes. Being part of a committed group of people, all oriented towards a similar goal. Living closely with people in a life and with a lifestyle where we feel tangibly, daily, viscerally, the urgent needs of people who are poor and marginalised and suffering. And where we try to do something about those needs.

It is going to be hard to build such a community here in Perth.

A few days back, Dave asked me how I could be missing Afghanistan and why I was so ambivalent about being back here. It seemed to him from most of my writings that I was generally not happy living in Afghanistan. It was a good question.

My answer then was trite and a bit clever. My more reasoned response now, is that being happy is not really that relevant. Happiness is not a sign to me of doing what is right. Happiness has nothing to do with following the call of my conscience and my faith. I would rather be unhappy and faithful than happy, any day. Happiness ranks very low on my personal priority scale.

That said, it is quite happifying being here in the bush in SW Western Australia for a while. But I know within a month or so, I will be pining for blackouts, cold showers, suicide bombs, crap roads, the wail of the azan and the smell of the sewer. Pining for a life more miserable, but infinitely more meaningful.

More Kabul weirdness

I was sitting at N’s house this morning, where a group of us had gathered to do what followers of Jesus often do, church. Since some time now we have not met in the large building where we used to meet, as it poses too great a security risk. Now, we vary times and locations, meeting in small groups across the city.

I sat on the toshak and look across at the person next to me. She had a German bible. She also had a sidearm. I guessed she was military. Not a particularly brilliant piece of logic: while there are a lot of international civilians here who have weapons, they are pretty discreet about them. I watched as she read her bible and followed the message, which this morning was given by a visiting Irishman.

Guns and bibles. Guns in church. Guns and Jesus.

Not sure what to make of that. I have never knowingly sat next to an armed person in church before. And I happen to be committed to non-violence. Not the kind of non-violence often wrongly construed as standing by while your children are hurt, but an assertive, intervening pacifism. I believe that war represents a failure of imagination and an abandoning of creativity, and that violence must be met with an equally determined, committed and powerful force. But many, maybe most Christians don’t think like that. Most, if you press them, allow for justifiable self defence, aggressive self defence, just war (whatever that is) and so on.

I went away wondering about it all. What could I say to her? Should I say anything? Should followers of Christ be police (for this is what she was; part of the German police training force here). Should Christians ever take up a weapon? Christ, as I read him, as I see him, abdicated the use of violence. He saw that the way to win, was to allow your enemy to show, through their use of violence, their weakness and brokenness. Such brokenness, made public, shames the enemy and forces him to negotiate, to examine himself, to change (I guess this wouldn’t work with the profoundly psychotic and disturbed… restraint might be the only option there?). I have tried to follow this pattern, imperfectly, since I decided to follow Christ some 18 years ago. It has seen me injured a number of times. One person tried to strangle me. Another struck me to the ground. I have stood between men with knives in their hands and I have gone and had tea with the drug dealer in our street, in an attempt to win him. It is a lot harder to do this than to use force. Force is quick, blunt and effective in the short term. But it never succeeds ultimately: every war, every occupation, the life of every person who once used violence shows that.

I didn’t feel very warmly towards my gun-carrying sister. I made some joke about her later, which neither she, nor the others present found funny. We need police, I know that. And to say that followers of Christ cannot be police is ridiculous. Have to think some more about this.

Power trumps process: a reflection.

I am at Kabul airport. Again. So long I have been coming to this terminal. For years it hardly changed at all: girders hung broken and deadly from the ceiling, huge holes riddled the roof, exposed wires and pipers snaked through the building in an electrician’s nightmare. It was dark and cold and horrifically inefficient. But the people who worked here were fairly friendly. There was a timeless old man who emptied the bins, a foul huddle of steaming toilets and a pirate crew of guards and flight staff and lounging Mujahideen/ Talibs/ policemen. It was a good metaphor for the country as a whole. The guards and officials were resigned, cheerful and nonchalant (the Talibs were always surly). People smoked in the non-smoking areas, spat on the floor, slept slumped over like bags of spilling wheat, and entire families camped out for long periods, days or weeks perhaps, waiting for their flight. You could drive right up to the airport and sometimes right to the place when you were leaving, and when you arrived, you got out of the plane and walked through the building, where an immigration guard might or might not look at your passport. Bags were piled in a big heap out on the tarmac, and you simply collected yours and wandered off.

The last few years, Kabul airport has undergone a transformation. From being a broken, dysfunctional, welcoming place, it has slowly grown into the semblance of a functioning terminal. Walls have been repaired. People no longer spit on the floor. The no-smoking rule is enforced and people who want to suck on a cigarette have to go outside. There are security checks: a raft of them, a stupid, ineffective line of checks that do nothing to promote security, but do a great deal to produce irritation and delay. And the guards and police and officials are gradually becoming officious, arrogant and unhelpful.

I don’t know whether this change is to do with attitudes of policing learned from the foreign forces here: a good cop is a tough, aggressive cop. Or maybe it derives from the huge inequalities that every day here grow greater: those who can exercise power do, because any power people have can perhaps be translated into gain or favour. It might be to do with feeling powerless and once again, eternally poor. Poor and disappointed that the peace dividend of the US invasion of Afghanistan has been so meagre. Problems or issues here used to be mostly resolved with a conversation and a compliment; these days the impartial rule of law does not work, but neither is there a unbiased professionalism. And so little and ever less of the old manners remain, where tolerance, forbearance and a reliance on people to do the right thing were the norm. So we are somewhere in the middle: not the application of law, but not the absence of it. Instead, law is applied gratuitously, randomly, according to whim, mood, ethnicity, bribe, relationship, favour obligation. It is intensely frustrating.


At the airport this morning I stood in the queue and watched a woman and her daughter stack up over 140kg of luggage on the check-in scales. The official looked at it, and advised that a excess baggage fee of $120 was payable. The woman summoned a senior looking man in a suit, and whispered a name to him: Shekib. The man nodded, the bags were loaded, the mother and daughter went on their way and no fee was paid. Later, when I checked in, I was asked to produce my foreigners registration card. We all have to have these, and I don’t mind this, it is common enough in Asia. The original rule was, that every time you left Afghanistan, you surrendered the card, and on re-arriving, went and got a new one. That way, the Afghan Government could keep some record of the numbers of foreigners living and operating here (at least I suppose that was the idea). If this rule was systematically applied, I would be quite happy. But it is not: when my parents left Kabul, no card was required at all (just as well, as we hadn’t bothered to get them); when my friend Guen left, he had to surrender his. When we left to go to Kenya, they glanced at our cards, but said we could keep them. Often there is no one to take the cards. Sometimes there is two men, deep in conversation, and they wave you through. This morning, a truculent and stubborn official demanded I surrender mine. ‘ But I am coming back in a week! I am not leaving Afghanistan, this is just a short trip for work! Three weeks ago you let us keep them!’

Predictably starting such a conversation was pointless. And equally predictably, I got angry and he got angry. Then I calmed down and try to placate him, and he told me to go and have a good journey. I asked for my card back, and he again told me to go. Then I got angry, he got angry, and after a few more idiot orbits of this miserable encounter, I gave up and went through the gate fuming, telling the official he was crazy and unhelpful. ‘You’re a dog’ I heard him say, from behind my back, as I walked away.

Not a feel-good moment. But I have lots of not-feel good moments here in the last few years. I think it is because I don’t function well in this limbo of sometimes-law, sometimes not.

Later, after the card incident, I stood in another queue and watched as a large, powerful minister or Government officer and his flock of assistants jumped the queue in front of us all, and simply walked through all the semi-final security unchecked, unharried, unharrassed, and I again felt angry. I find it hard to not let such abuses of power bother me. Partly I am jealous and want such privilege for myself, but largely I loathe the self-serving use of such privilege and despise the way power trumps process.

Elsewhere in Kabul, friends of mine are at the moment dealing with a landlord who is attempting to break a housing contract struck by the landlord’s grandfather. The present landlord is using every dirty trick, including threat, force and bribery to get the lease declared void, and he probably will win. If he doesn’t win in the courts, he can simply throw a hand-grenade over the wall, and my friends will have to vacate the property anyway: two weeks ago, he arrived at the property with two trucks full of armed men, and attempted to seize the building by force. He has resorted to tactics and pressures that we can never use: if we do, we immediately lose any moral authority, and what’s more, we lose the fight as well. You cannot win against such a mindset.

I don’t know. Maybe I should end my time here. I used to love this place and the people. I functioned really well here in the anarchic, desperate, difficult days of the Taliban. Since the fall of the Taliban though, the rest of the world has gotten involved here, and I have found it increasingly hard to love and respect this place and the people. Afghan police now drive like the US military convoys, and have taken, I notice to wearing dark sunglasses. Afghan officials, who were once poor and desperate, but didn’t really stop you from your work, are now essentially out for themselves: two days ago, I was at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs. In partnership with the IOM (a UN entity), we had submitted a proposal to help improve the rehabilitation and care processes of Kabul’s safe houses. There are only a few such shelters here, and the abused, trafficked and beaten women who find their way there are truly in need of real help (e.g., the recent story of a raped girl in Bamiyan who was taken to a cow shed and held down while her brother cut her open with a razor and performed a c-section abortion. No anaesthetic, and she was sewn up with potato sack twine).

Qazi Fouzia, the Deputy for Laws at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs told us that neither Hagar nor the IOM could not work with any Afghan-run shelter, period. She tapped her high heels against the floor, and continued: ‘…the shelters are Afghan’s business; you cannot do this work. You have no protocol. But,’ she said, smiling, ‘we do need new tables, chair and office furnishings here. Actually, we need a new office.’ My eyes rolled in their sockets and involuntarily I found myself shaking my head, but I still smiled back. If she, a woman, has so little heart for the poor women of this country, just what is the point? In the old days, officials would ask for a pen, a book, an English text. Now they want 4WDs and airconditioners to sweeten the deal.

Some people tolerate this kind of stuff much better than me. They have a larger capacity for putting up with other people’s bullshit. The abuse of power, the selfishness, the corruption of laws, the opportunism – it riles them less. I get riled, I get angry. But getting angry here only wins you enemies. A person I know, when he left here for the last time, shook the dust from his feet as he boarded the plane at this same airport. He was recalling the Biblical example, where such an action indicates that a place has rejected light and chosen darkness. That was his opinion; wrong perhaps, but that was how he felt. I don’t want to leave here feeling like that. I want to leave here with my love intact.

It’s life, but not as we knew it.

We seem to be settling into a new rhythm. A narrower orbit, a satellite run between office, home, the bazaar, and a couple of other locations – the kids school, a friend’s house. It is a tight leash we are on. But no evidence of insanity yet (but being ducks, we cope well with long division. And Samson was, after all, asking for it. Did I tell you we saw Amadeus? It.)

We’ve had a colleague out here this week. An agency we have worked with before, TEAR Australia, who have supported us here, have been tracking the security changes, and asked if we wanted some professional security input. We welcomed the chance. And so Rob has come out for 10 days to do hostage training scenarios, personal security, avoiding abductions and so on. Most people seem to be finding it useful, a good opportunity to think through fears and events and speak about them.

Rob and I went for a drive this afternoon out to the old Kings Palace:

No, that ventilation on the roof was not intended.

As we drove back, I asked Rob about his life and work. He’s an interesting man and has travelled and worked in some tough places. I suspect though that this environment, and more than that, our lives here (that is, the community of people we are part of), perplexed him somewhat. Why live here, work here, for long periods, years, on no salary? He gave his own answer, ‘You are pretty special people’. I have heard that response before. It isn’t true, not in the sense he meant it. 

I don’t know how to explain it well, or succinctly. We came here because we believe in humanity. We are not motivated by money or status, power or security. We believe that the normal things of life – schooling, water, enough food, access to justice, recompense for work, freedom from fear and war, rest – are the birthright of every person. And that is why we are here. We explain our beliefs and the actions that arise from these beliefs – coming to live and work here, low profile and unrecompensed – with reference to our relationship to Jesus Christ, his life and example.

But many people who do not share our faith believe these things too, and act similarly. We are not at all unique in what we do. So I think it must be true, that many people understand core truths of life, even though they may not link them back to any faith or spirituality.

I think we can all hear, if we listen hard enough. If you want to see, you can.

Jesus drove the Humvees

Years ago now, centuries ago, worlds ago, in 2001, eight workers with SNI, (a fairly evangelistic organisation here in Afghanistan –  which also did very good shelter work), were arrested by the Taliban. They were imprisoned. A week or so after that, all the other Christian/ faith-based organisations were kicked out of Afghanistan. A week or so after that, was 9-11.

I know that there are a few people who read this blog who are people of faith, and others who probably aren’t, but what I guess that all 10 of you have worked out that I am a person with a sort of faith (albeit a fairly uncertain, muddy, what-is-going-on-here? kind). I expect that you all know as well, that many of the excellent NGOs around the world were started by persons of faith. The Red Cross. OXFAM. CAA (now OXFAM in Australia). Christian Aid. CRS. Mercy Corps. And so on. They didnt start these NGOs because they wanted the beneficiaries to think or believe or act like they did, but because they believed that humanity had intrinsic, inherent value. They were humanitarians. 

My point is that not all Christians, or followers of Christ (as I prefer to call myself) are interested in religious tyranny or building theocracies. Some of us are here out of a commitment to take Jesus seriously, when he tells the folk around him to speak up for the voiceless and work with the powerless. To live like human life, everywhere, mattered. (Of course, faith based aid workers have never had a monopoly on doing good, and they have sometime had a strong suit in the doing-bad section too).

But, the agency I worked with in 2001 was an agency which took Jesus seriously, in the same kind of way.Life mattered, regardless of the individual’s persuasions. Anyone who wanted to evangelise took their business elsewhere, and that was ok too, though some of us were still uneasy. We just didnt share their assumptions. As it turned out, some of the SNI people imprisoned by the Taliban had been with my agency, but left, in order to be more free to ‘do the Lord’s work’.

Well, late August 2001, and we all got kicked out. All the agencies that looked, sounded or smelt Christian. We lost millions of dollars of plant and property. Projects were shut down, doors slammed shut, bags grabbed, as we were all given 72 hours to leave the country. Our Afghan staff went into hiding and were scattered to Iran, Pakistan, as the Taliban came hunting them, simply for working for us. We personally lost our entire home and contents, and a lot of irreplaceable stuff that we never got back and it has hurt ever since. Friendships I had made never recovered. It was a hard, pointless time.   

Sometime after the US invasion, the SNI workers were rescued. No doubt, they had had a bad time too. It can’t have been fun. But – they went home. And then, they became celebrities. Some of them met President Bush, some met our Prime Minister (I would have taken the opportunity to strike the man). They wrote books, they spoke at hundreds of conferences, some of them were paid tens of thousands of dollars for exclusive scoops. Two of them released an album. They were real celebrities. They survived the most evil people on the planet, the Taliban.

We survived them too, and meanwhile, we slowly went back to Afghanistan and picked up the pieces. We – the workers of my old agency, and others – paid a high price for their evangelistic enthusiasm. We, and countless other national and international staff. It took me years to regain my confidence. It was horrible and the smiling blitheness with which some people refer to that time as ‘God’s plan’ for this country makes my eyes smart with tears, and my gut recoil.

But as a result of that assumption, that it was Jesus driving the Humvees, there are here today, many people who continue to claim that it is God’s time for Afghanistan, that it is a harvest time. These people tend to work with agencies that are known world-wide for crusading evangelism, and as a result, these agencies have different names which they work under in Afghanistan. Some of their workers come here for short times only. But some are here for years, and have a fantastic commitment, to culture, to language and to service. Some of them do reasonable development and health projects. And they are nice people.  They also teach the Scriptures, pray in public, and win converts. (Interestingly, such agencies also often have pretty strong ties to the military. They take military funding. They use military resources. They get together for special national days and eat lunch together.) 

But this country is not a liberal democracy. This week, a 23yr old journalist had his death sentence commited to only 20 yrs imprisonment for  ‘blaspheming the Prophet’. Apparently. His actual crime? Sparking debate about the role of women in Islam, using downloaded resources. This is not an untraumatised country, where ordinary people have the chance to learn to tolerate and protect minorities, promote diversity and allow dissent.  It is an emotionally traumatised place, where fear, intimidation, bigotry and superstition still dominate. This country is not a pluralist society. Last year a bunch of South Koreans came here, believing it was God’s time, and several of them were killed. It is not liberal nor democratic, it is not free from trauma, and it is not pluralist, and someone will pay a high price for those who think so. We paid a high price in 2001, and yesterday, Gail paid the highest price. For her own actions, or the actions of others, I am not sure. But in this country, in these years, someone is always paying a high price for other people’s evangelistic fervour, ideological zeal and mistaken assumptions.