A Day

Six days of the week, I’m up at 0445 or 0545, depending upon whether I’m ambitious enough to make it to the gym or lazy enough to roll over in my bottom bunk for another hour’s sleep. I’m in one of seven tiny shower stalls in the men’s washroom by 0550 and dressed in my desert camouflage uniform and cap and sand-colored boots and walking down the road past the airfield and the International Joint Command headquarters to KBR Dining Facility #2 by 0620, where I’ll wash my hands at the automatic faucets over the stainless steel trough before scanning my meal card and taking a plastic tray and paper plate to the line, where I’ll get a bowl of oatmeal with some milk and a bowl of fruit cocktail mixed with fresh watermelon and plain yogurt, and sometimes half a danish. After breakfast, it’s back to the barracks to brush my teeth with bottled water — the wash water isn’t potable — and pick up my kevlar helmet and body armor and head downstairs to the vehicles. I usually ride in one of the two up-armored SUVs that always travel together, but our group has two mini-vans to travel in as well, though only the SUVs go outside the wire.


Most days we don’t go outside the wire. Instead, we follow the perimeter road around the airfield through and past multiple separate gated checkpoints with armed guards, stone walls and Hesco barriers and concertina wire and machine guns on one side and concertina wire and Kabul traffic on the other. The drive takes less than half an hour, long enough to see the Afghan day workers waiting to get through the biometric identification at the gates, to see how thick the haze is over Kabul, to pass the truckers huddled around cookfires beside their blankets and brightly colored and decorated rigs on the side of the road and the half-built apartment buildings and the pack of wild dogs and the mine-clearing operation with its earth-mover and lone ambulance and woefully under-armored Afghans. The perimeter road is part paved and part potholed dust and gravel, mud and enormous puddles now in the rainy season. I’ve gotten used to the smell of Kabul, which is mostly the tang of diesel mixed with other scents of burning — plastic, sometimes cooking, woodsmoke — and kerosene, with a usually faint but omnipresent sour note of sewage.


Much of the time, the building we work in has the same smells, though less intense. The bathrooms have straddle-style squat toilets with faucets and pitchers of water beside them for flushing. We work out of a few shared offices on one hallway that we share with the Turks and our translators; my own desk is next to the window in a long, narrow room that has six other desks and paint-peeling walls and books and maps and office supplies scattered everywhere, a reflection of its its transient nature, I suppose. The building is wired partly on the inside, with steel sleds suspended two feet from the ceiling carrying electrical and communication cables, and partly on the outside, with other wires going in and out windows and up the side of the building to a hodgepodge of dishes and antennae on the roof. Our internet is via satellite from France, and goes down as frequently as the power. Stray cats roam in and out of the building, begging loudly, but too cautious by experience to get close to humans. When some aspect of my job calls for me to communicate with students or faculty who don’t speak much English — my Dari is still limited to a few words and phrases, though I’m trying to learn in my off-time — I’ll go across the hall and ask for help from the translator assigned to me, S., who I was somewhat surprised to find is female.

I’m still figuring out what my job is, but one of the biggest components is the intercultural negotiations, including the gender concerns. From what I understood of Afghan culture and the reach of purdah, I would not have anticipated being assigned a female translator. If we are among students or those not familiar with S.’s role, she is required to walk behind me, and she may never enter my office or I hers without another male present, preferably Afghan. S. (not her real initial) assists with the English language proficiency testing that we use to place the students who study English into the appropriate courses, and she’s very good with the students and doesn’t take any foolishness from the males fresh from the far rural provinces who have never seen women outside the home. I was told there was an incident once where several such new students subjected her to verbal abuse, calling her a whore for the Americans, but it was quickly shut down. The expressed assumed consensus was that the students were beaten. S. has also translated at meetings for me, as when I had to request information via the Dean from the heads of departments about levels of academic qualifications among the faculty.


Getting that information required asking S. and other translators to translate a spreadsheet with spaces for names, numbers, and levels of qualification in the discipline taught into Dari, distributing it and answering questions about it, receiving versions of the spreadsheet back from the department heads, translating them all into English, and then doing a considerable amount of interpretive work to figure out what their responses meant in terms of levels of academic qualification. The next step in that project will be to flesh out the information given about faculty on those spreadsheets and centralize it into a single faculty roster with names, contact information, departments, academic sub-specializations, qualifications, and current status: this is apparently the first time such information has been drawn together in such a way (I assume, or else it would have been together in some coherent form to simply hand over to me, rather than chasing everything down all over again, as I’m doing), and it’s no small task, with faculty sometimes going by one or two or three names, and sometimes no contact information or only a vague notion of where they currently are or when they are projected to return.


The same holds true for the students who come in for testing. “This country has an identity problem,” one advisor likes to say: they don’t have the established and thoroughly systematized state bureaucratic apparatus of Western nations that makes it an easy matter for us to put names to faces and attributes in education’s administrative space. Usually, the students will have some form of identification card; sometimes it matches the names on our rosters, sometimes not. Sometimes they will go by one name, sometimes two, and to clarify we will ask them for their fathers’ names as well, to which a few from the far rural provinces will write down “Paderjan”: “Dear father.” I’ve met a few foolish American soldiers who are eager to rhetorically frame such behavior as emblematic either of stupidity or of contrariness, but it’s neither, of course: in the perspective of a student from Ziak, Badakhshan province, the idea of a bureaucratic apparatus of names and numbers and the possibility of similarly-named people being confused is beyond experience. Few students have any familiarity with standardized testing, and even those who do have encountered it under a model of oral memorization that results in a perpetual whisper during testing as students vocalize to themselves the choices they write. The answers they write are in response to a Defense Language Institute (DLI) 1970s-era curriculum oral comprehension test (some of the questions test their knowledge of 1970s idiomatic expressions) that we use because DLI is where part of the funding for instruction comes from, with the purpose of figuring out what their level of expertise in English is so that we can place them into the appropriate classes.

Although I have misgivings about the tests we use, it’s what we’ve got to work with, for now. Even the notion of placement is unfamiliar to many of the Afghan faculty: in the past, students working at a variety of ability levels were placed together in the same class, and the instructor was expected to cope to the best of his or her ability, to the point where some students were in classes where their own facility in English exceeded that of their instructors. Next semester, students will start to be grouped according to ability in classes, in the same way that a French I course in an American university is different from a French IV course. They will also for the first time depart from the homeroom model and move by major and section from classroom to classroom each class hour, a significant logistical undertaking at an institution where no records are networked, and classroom assignments and student registrations are still hand-jammed and cross-indexed with pencil on printed-out Excel worksheets: solutions are planned, but they’re a ways in the future, and working here can remind one how much labor and innovation is aggregated in the technological-administrative history of the Western institution of higher education.


That holds true for almost every aspect of what I’m doing, from textbook ordering (in the intersections of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Defense, American procurement systems, contracting, and negotiating funding, I’m told it can take upwards of four months to get books, and there’s a textbook order from July 2010 that as far as we know still hasn’t arrived) to faculty hiring (there are complicated intersections among DLI, the Joint Command’s training division, and the Afghan Ministry of Defense as to who pays for faculty to do English-language training as distinct from faculty who work on education in English language and culture, and who pays to educate and train those faculty). Much of the ambiguity I’m trying to capture here comes from my own ignorance, and remedying that ignorance has itself been the primary challenge I’ve been trying to overcome since arriving here. I’m only now starting to pull things together so I can do the daily and weekly work of holding mentoring and professional development sessions with the various faculty here in conjunction with my DLI counterpart and making sure we don’t interfere with each other’s responsibilities, assessing faculty proficiency in order to be able to make recommendations as to which ones should be sent to the U.S. for further training or schooling, helping the department leadership and faculty to make sure the curriculum holds together in a fashion that is at once sufficiently accessible and sufficiently rigorous for the student body we’re working with, and making sure that the curriculum does what it’s expected to do even in an environment where things like outcomes statements are puzzlingly foreign concepts.


Much of my mornings are spent getting my head around those concerns and trying to reconcile various documents, emails, records, and conversations, or walking to faculty offices to talk things over and get a sense of how things work, often over chai or tea, always with the informalities — family, health — before the work. And I’m still trying to figure out how to ask the Afghans what they want, what would be most helpful, what they would like to see happen, in a way where they won’t defer or ask me what I think, in a way that might move forward past some of the إن شاء الله (insha’Allah) sense that seems so prevalent here, even though I know doing so detracts from my ethos and makes me just another hasty American, too tunnel-visioned by taskings and emails to observe the tactful proprieties of how civilized people act, to watch who sits where, who listens to whom.

We Americans get at least some of that right, I think, those of us who go, when we eat lunch with the Afghan General and his staff at his table. There are rituals: the highest in rank on the American side sits with an interpreter closest to the General, with his Afghan staff and the Turkish advisors arrayed similarly by rank on the other side. (I wonder what significance it might have that we sit to the General’s left.) We each take tissues from the boxes on the table and wipe our silverware and plates, and then serve ourselves from the large bowls of clear greenish soup with noodles and chickpeas and carrots, and then from the platters of seasoned rice and naan and the bowls of stewed chicken or lamb, and there are usually plates of stewed vegetables — potatoes or turnips or carrots or cauliflower — and beans as well, and the best fresh plain yogurt I’ve ever tasted, lumpy and tangy and cool. Everyone eats right-handed, of course, and I restrain my left-handedness by resting that hand in my lap for the entire meal. The food is far better than at the KBR dining facility, and the Afghans are amazing in what they do with rice. People bring their own bottled water: nobody drinks from the solitary pitcher and glass of water on each side. We eat swiftly, to be finished peeling and eating slice-by-slice our oranges and delicately spitting seeds onto our plates before the General finishes with his, and then he turns both of his hands palms up and we all stand and turn outward and place our right hands on our chests and nod our thanks as he passes, and as we follow him back to the academic buildings for the afternoon’s work, he’ll wave and shake some of our hands.


Afternoons tend to be more of the same, although because of the Afghans’ schedules, I often find myself able to devote more of my time to putting together all the information I’ve gained from the morning’s meetings and conversations and emails when I’m not helping out with the language testing. In that sense, afternoons are my metacognitive times when I find myself able to get some distance and do some abstracting, trying to manage the quadrifold problem of integrating what I’ve learned about what previous academic mentors have accomplished in their work with the Afghans with my sense of what the Afghans want to accomplish, matching my own knowledge of curriculum and administrative and pedagogical planning to that loose framework, figuring out how to best negotiate responsibilities and implementation and pose it to the Afghans in a way that might secure investment or buy-in, and then ensuring that proper long-range resources are in place so all that effort doesn’t simply dissolve away once we depart and the next team comes in. Making sure it sticks is the part I’m most worried about: I’ve got enough trust in myself and the good folks I’m working with to know we can arrive at some pretty good solutions for most of this, but it’s all too easy in a place with such a short history to just pretend that it’ll keep on having no history and starting over with new sets of good ideas. That’s a particular worry given the upcoming move in late summer of the entire facility to Quargah, and the accompanying implementation of the plan to issue every student a computer: just the logistics of securing and issuing those computers will be sufficiently chaotic, I’m sure, to make it easy to set aside curricular and pedagogical concerns with computers. I’m anticipating I’ll be spending a lot of long hours on those concerns come April and May, but still with the maxim from T.E. Lawrence on my wall and in my heart: “Do not try to do too much with your own hands.”


We try to depart campus before the sun goes down: once it gets dark, the Afghan guards at the checkpoints are more likely to raise their weapons when a vehicle approaches, and they’re unsettlingly casual in their habit of resting their fingers in the trigger well. I’ll drop my body armor and kevlar and backpack in the room and usually try to get straight to the dining facility between 1730 and 1800 because it gets crowded fast. Unfortunately, the longer I’m here here, the worse dinner seems to get: a choice of entrees, marked according to varying degrees of fattiness, all overcooked; chicken is usually the safest choice, but the Sri Lankan staff does biryanis and rice/meat dishes well, as one would expect. Vegetables are almost always overcooked to mush, and are the one aspect of food that makes me miss home the most. The salad bar consists of iceberg lettuce, soft tomatoes, and brown cucumbers, and we’re limited to one piece of fruit per meal. Desserts are usually some sort of cake and jello or pudding or fruit mousse, artificially flavored. The food is certainly sufficient to live on and far more than some people have, and I’m grateful enough to have it, though it’s quite clear KBR was the low bidder for the dining facility contract and has no intent of not making a profit. While I’m out, if I’m on my own I’ll occasionally stop by one of the morale and welfare tents. One is a plastic-and-steel clamshell with video games and movies and such, but the other one is much nicer, an actual fabric tent with a bar inside that’s a really nice space, soft fabric walls and ceiling and warm lamps very much contributing to the tent feeling, and there are couches and pool tables and free Internet, and it’s relaxing to hang out in when there’s not karaoke or reggae/house club night going on, but the near-beer they serve only makes the real thing and a real bar seem more distant. Much more often, my end-of-day routine is to read at least an article’s or chapter’s worth of scholarship or Afghan history before bedding down in my quiet bunk, as I’m getting ready to do this quiet night in the barracks, and tomorrow is Jum’ah.


Goodnight, reader.

A Day

3 thoughts on “A Day

  • February 17, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    Thanks for sharing this. I’ve been much more impassioned about taking what we do as writers and educators seriously this semester, and you have played a part in that growth. Many thanks.

  • February 20, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    I’ve just been catching up on your blog. I didn’t realize you were deployed overseas–stay safe, keep doing good work, and learn lots from the experience. Thanks for sharing your stories and thoughts.

  • February 23, 2011 at 12:15 am

    Going to Ju’mah and great chow hall food. I (un)fondly remember veggies cooked to mush, one piece of fruit (if it wasn’t canned peaches or pineapple), jello, pudding, dry cake. Sounds like your experience is rather amazing. To me you seem, at times, like a guy who has most of the answers. This experience demonstrates that most of the time we don’t even know the questions. The definition of humility I love is “teachable”. Jeff says to me, “There is the stuff we know, the stuff we don’t know, and the stuff we don’t know that we don’t know. The point is to minimize the stuff that we don’t know we don’t know.” Keep up the good fight brother, insha’Allah.

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