Bridging the Cultural Gap ... One Brigade at a Time
by Nemat Sadat
It seemed like an ordinary day of post-September-11 air travel. I departed Boston for Chicago, where I changed planes for an obscure destination: Killeen, Texas, 65 miles north of Austin.
As I stepped off the airplane in O’Hare, I heard, “Mr. Sadat, we want to speak with you.” Three men dressed in dark suits pulled me to the side of the jet bridge. One of them introduced himself as being with the FBI. He peppered me with questions. “Where are you from? Where do you live now? How old are you?”
“I was born in Kabul, Afghanistan. My family sought refuge in America in 1984, escaping the Soviet-Afghan War. I’m 28 years old.”
The lead agent inquired further about my family.
“My family lives in San Diego and I live in Boston.” As the passengers and crew deplaned, the agents asked what my parents do for a living.
“My mom is a childcare worker and hair stylist, and my father, who once served as an ambassador, is now a taxi cab driver.” The irrelevance of the questions forced me to interject. “Excuse me, I want to know the purpose of your questioning.”
Maintaining a blank expression, the lead agent replied, “One of the passengers saw you reading literature about Afghanistan and reported it as a threat to the flight attendant. That news was passed to us. Where are you traveling today?”
I shook my head. “I’m going to Ft. Hood to deliver a graduate-level seminar to the military.”
“What is the seminar about?”
I teach graduate seminars on Afghanistan to soldiers deploying to the region. I expressed the irony that the slides I was leafing through were intended to help America succeed in the Afghan mission not pose a homeland security threat.
When they ask my qualifications, I answer, “My proficiency in Dari and English proficiency and undergraduate degrees in International Business, Near Eastern History, and Middle Eastern Politics.” The FBI agents huddled briefly before telling me that my story added up and that I was “Good to go.”
After my release, I wondered how, if these professionals mistook me for a terrorist, could I possibly be successful in cultivating cultural competency in our men and women in uniform? Yet the prolonged counterinsurgency, now in its seventh year, will not turn around until the military’s deficiency in cross-cultural understanding is resolved.
Cultural competency is crucial because misunderstandings of Afghan culture by American soldiers have exacerbated the resurgence of the Taliban. It has also derailed any sort of full-fledged nation-building process. Cultural intelligence training has been offered since World War II, but since Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, the military’s budget for language and cultural awareness has grown significantly, reaching $181 million in 2007. Culturally aware soldiers serve as a “force multiplier” for their commanders in military terms. Obtuse soldiers are likely to prolong the fighting.
A Wal-Mart Suit
After I arrived at the Killeen airport, I waited at the carousel to claim my suitcase, but it hadn’t made the flight. I was told it would be delivered after my presentation.
A retired colonel escorted me to the hotel but promised to take me to a local Wal-Mart so that I could buy a new suit. As I checked-in, I heard snippets of policy discussions about Afghanistan – other faculty participants had also arrived. The time away from the seminars is the only chance we have to discuss foreign policy. We are not allowed to engage soldiers in discussions of current policy, since they are in no position to change it. The other faculty presenters included personnel from the U.S. government, academia, NGOs, and the Afghan Embassy in Washington D.C.
At Wal-Mart, while trying on the grey suit, I thought about past seminars, which ranged in size from 20 to 450 students, since starting this role last January. Tomorrow’s group would be about 220 soldier- and service personnel. The soldiers tend to view this effort as a training exercise rather than education. Yet my goal for the next three days would be to help them understand the nuances of Afghan history and culture. For me, this wasn’t just a drill.
In the morning, I arrived at the lobby before the departure time, since I would be the first presenter. If I am even one minute late, the retired military colonels either snicker or tell me I need to discipline myself. I usually attribute my nonchalant take on punctuality to my Afghan background, but that never seems to work with them. When I arrived downstairs, I learned of a change in plans. Vice President Cheney had made a surprise visit to welcome some troops coming home from Iraq, and as a security precaution, no civilians were allowed on the post. The presentations were delayed until the afternoon and would be held in a nearby chapel, of all places.
Finally, in the afternoon, we drove off. Most of the bases I have visited are actually reminiscent of Afghanistan – military posts flanked by barren mountains or desert – but Killeen was greener and didn’t resemble my poorly irrigated homeland. The car parked in a dirt parking lot, and we rushed into the high-ceilinged chapel.
As the first presenter, I broke the ice. I’ve learned that helping soldiers recognize their own cultural influences and identities makes them more willing to think openly and respect Afghan norms. It took me a minute to get into my normal groove. I wondered whether the audience noticed my replacement suit.
I have also struggled my entire life with a stuttering problem that used to prevent me from completing sentences without mumbling. The most challenging part of growing up an Afghan in a white American world was in school or earlier jobs in my career when my questions or thoughts came across as irrelevant or silly and were easily dismissed. Not having my ideas heard only exacerbated my stuttering. Dealing with this past, I now consider speaking to a group for hours at a time a personal coup. Something shifts in my head, sometimes, and I suddenly want to regurgitate more words per minute than humanly possible, or I flashback to a moment when I was teased, and my stuttering kicks in again. Within minutes, though, I realized that the soldiers were eager to learn. The problem dissolved.
My biggest concern is maintaining credibility with the audience members. Steering clear of seeming elitist or too Americanized is a challenge when speaking about the dynamics of life in a rural village. My Afghan-American heritage can either help or hurt me, depending on how my presentation is perceived. My parents grew up in middle-class households in Kabul, and I’ve only heard and read folklore about such exotic places in the hinterland.A Headless Goat
I began by throwing a few softballs. I explained how a national from Afghanistan is an ‘Afghan’ – neither an ‘Afghani’ which is the name for the currency, nor an ‘Afghanistani’ which is someone from any of the other six stans (such as Pakistani). They got it very quickly.
Leaving my podium and walking down the aisles, I talked about the geo-strategic relevance of Afghanistan. I explained how the demise of the silk trade between Europe and Asia, after the discovery of the New World and the emergence of maritime powers, caused a huge change for one of the richest countries, the entrepot of the Old World. I also described how, in the nineteenth century, Afghanistan became part of the strategic “Great Game” between Imperial Russia and British India.
A soldier asked, “Other than terrorism and drugs, what makes Afghanistan important now?”
“It serves as the gateway to Central Asia’s vast oil and gas reserves,” I say, “it has the largest refugee population in the world and is encircles by nuclear-armed powers.” The soldiers, even those who lack certain skills in geography, nodded.
The most crucial aspect in a cultural talk about Afghanistan is explaining the unique way that pride and shame function in its society. Cultural competency in Afghanistan cannot be obtained until the soldiers understand the role of Zan (women), Zar (wealth), and Zamin (property), as well as how these core values have the power to incite blood feuds in Afghanistan. The Jirga system, an assembly of tribal elders, serves as the traditional venue for settling outbreaks of violence among Afghan tribes. Another soldier stood and asked,
“So, if we accidently kill civilian bystanders, what is the Jirga process?”
I nodded at him as he took his seat. “First, you have to acknowledge the wrong. Soviet arrogance and cultural ineptitude about is why tribal Afghans despised their occupation. Second, you must help restore the honor of those affected. Finally, you compensate for the damage done.”
I then talk about the traditional Afghan sport of Buzkashi. I say, “The goal of a player in this prestigious game is to grab the carcass of a headless goat or calf while riding on a horse, get it away from the other players, and pitch it across a goal line or into a targeted pit. Buzkashi is the ancient but less-refined predecessor of polo.
A soldier raised his hands, “I don’t understand how learning about this sport is relevant to understanding Afghan history and culture.”
I explain, “Buzkashi shows the machismo-dominated culture of men jockeying for power in physical terms and also symbolizes Afghanistan’s politics,” I explained. In this sport, only one can win – you have to forge short-term alliances with cousins or friends, but the booty ultimately goes to just one man – the rest are left on the sidelines with nothing.”
Afghanistan vs. Iraq
Frequently, I see a clear split between soldiers who have served previous rotations. Those who have been in Iraq often assume that the religious divide between Sunni and Shiite there also serves as the major tension point in Afghanistan. It’s not.
[Soldier asked] “How is our involvement in Afghanistan so different from Iraq?”
"The major source of conflict in Afghanistan is the tribal system,” I said. The average Afghan sees American and NATO forces as liberators, whereas Iraqis view Americans as an occupying force that’s out to plunder the country’s resources. Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, was a secular country moving towards extremism, while Afghanistan under the Taliban was a fundamentalist state shifting towards modernity. By a show of hands, how many of you have seen The Last Samurai?” I asked.
Most in the audience raised their hands.
“So, you know about the conflict of rural versus city. Ultimately, the industrial center defeats the villages. Well, that’s been the story of almost every country in the modern era except Afghanistan, where every such attempt has resulted in backlash by the tribes.”
The soldiers who have not served in previous theatres are insensitive to the meaning of cultural awareness, but once they gain a basic understanding, they benefit by revising some of their preconceptions about Afghans. Common questions often follow: how was the Taliban created? What are the untapped natural resources? What about marriage? When those questions are framed in ways that portray Afghans as subhuman, it’s my job to explain the meaning of cultural relativity.
Towards the end of this, for example, one female soldier asked, “How should our boys be prepared to deal with homosexuality? Is it true that all Afghan men are gay?”
I’ve heard this before, but it still makes me bristle. “Sexual orientation in Afghanistan,” I said, “does not exist as in the Western concept of identifying yourself with labels such as ‘straight’, ‘gay’ or ‘bi’. Afghans engaging in homosexual acts would never consider themselves ‘gay’. It’s a rite of passage in certain tribes and everyone is expected to marry and procreate. If you encounter this problem, then you should explain your preference and your mission in the country.”
Another soldier asked, “So, is marijuana against Islam?”
This is laughable, but I keep a straight face. “I’ve been talking to you about the $4 billion export opium trade, which translates to an $80 billion street value. Afghans know drugs are morally wrong, but they are desperate, and the drug industry in Afghanistan is like a national factory. You’re heading to the world’s opium paradise, so get ready to deal with it.”
The minute I finish my answer, the crowd chuckles. They start to chatter, and one of the program facilitators gives me a bewildered look. To bring the lecture back to proper military order, I ask for the next question.
Do’s and Don’ts
At about the midpoint of the talk, a noticeable transition occurs. The soldiers’ questions sharpen, focusing on how cultural factors might affect tactical decisions. One asked in February, “How should we conduct a business meeting, and what if our Afghan counterparts are complacent in reaching negotiations?”
“Afghans like to build relationships before they ever sign a deal,” I answered. “Don’t act like a pushy American by bullying them around. It takes time to gain support, but you will need the consent of the local populace to succeed.”
I talk about the Durand Line, the 100-year treaty imposed by the British in 1893 that divides the Pashtuns between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Afghanistan is landlocked and has not relinquished claims over its lost territory. This is why Afghan nationalism poses such a threat to Pakistan’s existence. Another soldier asked, “Is the Durand Line just a Pashtunistan issue or do other ethnic groups—Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks—hope Afghanistan will reclaim those lost territories? How will Afghanistan get those lands back?”
I feel proud when they ask such questions. It’s the same rush of approval I feel every time I hear other faculty presenters expose the truth about Pakistan and express their bias by making remarks like, “Pakistan is an artificially made-up country,” or “the root of the name Pakistan, Pak, means ‘land of the pure’ but nothing could be further from the truth.” No matter how many times I hear these witty comments, I humor myself as if it were the first time it was proffered.
But then it’s back to the basics. Even though I include a written appendix describing customary DOs and DON’Ts with all my presentations, I am always asked about cultural taboos.
In February, a soldier blurted out, “So what’s the most offensive way to violate table manners?”
"When Afghans see Americans blow their noses in public,” I said, “especially during mealtime, they find it grotesque and wonder and these people are here to advance our culture.”
The prime objective of the American government is to “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghan people, but I have come to realize that my presentations are more meaningful that that. Providing these kinds of education could protect an individual soldier’s integrity or life.
Growing up with my dual heritage has been tough. I’ve never been quite fully Afghan or American, but since I began participating in these seminars, I have stopped taking my background for granted. I see it as an asset that can be useful to others.
The military measures the impact of the cultural training and whether it has paid off when the number of violent incidents is reduced and a tacit consent is established. My reward is more than just monetary compensation or a sense of doing my patriotic duty as a citizen. I carry a strong sense of survivor’s guilt after safely escaping to a better life while my country people still endure disease, hunger, opium addiction, refugee camps, terrorism, war, and abject poverty. This unrelenting thought is unsettling to me. That’s why I have pursued higher education and hope to use the power of knowledge to counter ignorance and extremism.
Helping our American military achieve Afghanistan’s needs is a not a bad place to start. My mom, Wajiha Sadat, says, “My husband sacrificed his life serving Afghanistan, so when Nemat talks about returning to the homeland to help build the country, it scares me. I am grateful that he is proud of his heritage and is capable of teaching others about his cultural roots.”
My family wants nothing more than for the American military and NATO allies to succeed – not only in safeguarding our adopted lands but also in praying for a better future for the devastated homeland we left behind.