Greg’s War Story: Biting off more than I can chew
Anthropologist Greg Cabrera spent 17 months in Afghanistan as an embedded academic with the military, supporting social science research and analysis as part of the Human Terrain System. In his second story here, he gets more than he expected out of meal with a local respondent.
In Afghanistan, hosts treat their guests as a gift from God. One of the principles of Pashtunwali – the way of the Pashtun – is hospitality, and a host must protect and treat his guests with the highest form of respect in order to preserve his cultural identity. An interview in Afghanistan is not a one-hour/gift-card-honorarium/thank-you-for-playing experience. Rather, it is a large chunk of your day, 4-5 cups of chai and maybe a meal if you are welcomed kind of interview. This was apparent from my first interview in Afghanistan.
After my interview with the local police chief in northern Kandahar, I was treated to a cultural meal with my interviewee and another soldier. The soldier worked closely as an advisor and assisted me with the introduction to the interview. The police chief was a proud host and he asked his men to prepare a special meal for us. As our interview came to a close, the men began rolling out mats, bringing in dishes, and placing large pieces of flat bread on the floor for us to consume. Typically, in this rural area, meals were eaten by hand from shared plates while sitting on the floor.
A typical meal consisted of rice, animal fat and a vegetable. Meat was consumed on occasion, usually to impress a powerful individual. This meal consisted of okra cooked in animal fat with rice and naan (or flat bread). “A nice treat,” I thought to myself, and a great opportunity to understand the cadences of daily life over a cultural meal.
The solider who was working with me raved about the okra, telling me how good it was and that the local police grew it in the back of the building in a small garden. Sweet!
Ready to dig in, I grabbed a piece of naan and ripped it into a smaller, user-friendly piece. I took one bite and immediately noticed a strange and somewhat hairy texture. Attempting to be as inconspicuous as possible, I moved my head to the side and pushed it out with my tongue. I examined it and noticed what appeared to be a lock of animal hair, dark brown and grey, either from a rodent or canine. In Afghan culture, dogs are considered unclean and are not welcomed inside the home. Although, part of me wished it was from a dog and not a rat. I pushed forward and avoided embarrassing my host. I moved on to the rice. The okra did not look very appetizing, so I tried to avoid eating it. However, my host asked why I was only eating rice, and the soldier next to me said I had to try it because it was so tasty. Oh alright! I dove in. I ate until I was full, and concurred that the okra tasted great in the goat fat.
Making small talk, I thanked the police chief and his men for the food and chai. We talked about security challenges for the district and government, and some next steps in increasing the security bubble through checkpoints and army forces. This was good information that I could use for my analysis. As we said our goodbyes and thanked our guest for his warm hospitality, I walked outside of his compound and the soldier pointed at the garden where the okra was being grown.
The small plot looked somewhat haphazard, not incredibly well maintained. I thought nothing of it until the soldier walked away and I saw a young man walk toward the okra, squat, and urinate on the small plot of okra. Great, he was urinating on the okra they were using for human consumption!
Perhaps, the most valuable lesson I learned was to stick to the rice. In this context, I was able to share firsthand the lived experience of Afghan policemen, and how they generated hospitality with whatever they have despite it forcing me to sacrifice my bowel system and notions of cleanliness in my home country. If I had raised the issue or appeared disgusted, I would have risked losing the relationship and opportunities for future interviews while offending my host in the process. I wonder at what point do researchers draw the line when cultural experiences make us too uncomfortable or even sick? How do researchers cope with experiences that test the limits of cultural sensitivity?