In Afghanistan. We are the tourists.

The Tourist is PassiveImage by B Tal via Flickr

Air Force Reserve Major Richard C. Sater was activated for a one-year tour of duty in support of the war on terrorism in May 2003. He was initially assigned to 4th Air Force, March Air Reserve Base, California. In September 2003, he deployed to Afghanistan for seven months in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, assigned first to Combined Joint Task Force 180 at Bagram Air Base; and later to Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan, Kabul. He kept a journal during the deployment, from which the following is extracted. On the civilian side, he has been a college professor of English and the arts and a classical music announcer for a National Public Radio affiliate station.

Notes from a JournalAfghanistan, 11 Sept 2003-7 Apr 2004 was published in War, Literature & the Arts Journal (public domain material). Richard C. Sater is currently a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force Reserve.

I know nothing about their calendar. But then, so much of the culture here remains absolutely foreign to me.

We are the tourists.

We employ local Afghan men to work on our posts and camps. Hundreds every day, skilled (carpenters, masons, electricians) and unskilled. They work always under guard, a bored junior-ranked soldier or airman seated close by to keep an eye out for sedition. But there is none. The men need work and, in exchange, endure our ignorance.

Bearded black, swarthy, as thin and hard as want, their utter commonness in Afghanistan still seems exotic to me. They wear the traditional loose-fitting robe called a khalat and equally loose-fitting trousers that match; a rolled felt hat, a pakol; a patterned square scarf, and a fringed wool blanket that serves as cloak and protection from dust and winter’s instructive cold.

I can’t even speak to them beyond “salaam,” which equals hello, and “tasha­kor,” approximating thanks. The men will return my gaze but rarely my smile.

I watch them; they regard me with similar curiosity. Sometimes, guilty, I will show them my camera and raise my eyebrows, a mute question. May I? They shrug, nod. My greedy machine snaps the images with more clarity than I can decipher when I view the pictures later, each worth a thousand untranslatable words.

Their faces reflect the bewildering hard times they live in. They could be a hundred years old or a thousand, though many of those I see are probably younger than I. These are handsome men, dignified men, resigned to traveling a hard road. We have pledged something better. Schools, clinics, clean water, jobs, a stable and safe country, a viable national army that will protect it. The men mark the days—twenty-four hours by anyone’s calendar—and wait for us to keep the promise.

No amount of book-learning will fill the chasm between what I understand about this place and what truly is.