In order to travel to my Safe House from Camp Eggers, I have to walk through the camp’s multiple checkpoints manned by security forces from various countries. There’s a hierarchy of trust involved with the security forces. Think of it as concentric rings with the most trusted forces in the inner ring protecting key assets. Those forces in the inner circle include US and NATO MPs and FPs (Force Protection -- essentially augmentation to the Military Police). The next ring out includes forces from the Coalition here supporting the International Security Augmentation Force (ISAF). These troops include the Mongolians I wrote about previously. The next ring out is manned by Filipinos and Gurkhas. These guys provide entry point security. They frisk all the local nationals entering and leaving the camp and check everyone’s entry badges. The outer ring is manned by trusted Afghan security personnel contracted out by the Ministry of the Interior.
Our vehicle pick-up/drop-off point is located at the North Gate of Eggers where there is a checkpoint manned by Afghan security forces. At the end of the day, there are always a few Americans hanging around this checkpoint waiting for their drivers to pull up and drive them home. Most of the Afghan guards have no English speaking ability and generally there is no interaction with them. There are a couple of exceptions, however.
One guard that I’ve become friendly with originally approached me with a language book asking me to help him understand some words and phrases. I helped him then and still do on occasion. We converse in basic conversational English and he always seems to improve in his comprehension and use of words. A couple of these guards aspire to become translators, a much better paying job, and I don’t mind helping these guys along in their quest. Guards make no more than $200 a month. Translators probably make $350 or more. It’s a quantum jump in pay and a much better lifestyle.
Any Afghan carrying a book, unless he picked it up off of the street and is carrying it for fire starter, automatically is placed in the 95th percentile of the “educated elite” in this country. Any Afghan capable of speaking English, broken as it may be, is in the 96th percentile. Any Afghan who can open a book written in English and read a paragraph or two is in the 99th percentile. Illiteracy is a plague in Afghanistan. It’s the one factor that could cause our efforts here to fail.
Yesterday I received a book in the mail. I was carrying it with me to take it home. [I guess that puts me in the 5th percentile in America] Because it was starting to snow, I put my book on a ledge under the roof of the guard shack. One of the Afghan guards picked up the book, opened it, and read the first paragraph of the introduction. Not bad! He thumbed through the photographs in the center of the book, stopped, and pointed to it and told me it was a picture of a minefield. I had to see what he was looking at. He was right. My Boy Jack? is about the story about the hunt for the body of Lt. John Kipling, Rudyard’s son, who died at age eighteen at the Battle of Loos in 1915. The guard noticed the field where the trenches were and immediately recognized it as a minefield. Afghanistan has millions of mines in its fields from previous wars. Most of these guards were involved in the battle against the Russians during their occupation and/or were involved in the anti-Taliban fight in 2001. They all know minefields. There’s a number of Afghans on post missing limbs who most likely learned some hard lessons.
After discussing minefields with this guard, he turns to me and tells me that he listens to the Americans speaking to each other while they are waiting outside the checkpoint. He then asks me, “What is thiiis word, boohlsheet?” “What does it mean?” “All Americans use this word.” I had to laugh. I was actually surprised that he didn’t ask me what the “F” word meant. He’s right. All Americans use this word, and others like it. Between the military folks and the contractors here, there is no shortage of colorful language. The vast majority of the contractors here are retired military or have military experience and we all talk just like we did when we were in uniform.
So, I tried to explain. I tried “nonsense,” but I saw the confusion on this guard’s face. I tried “bad,” but that really didn’t define it. I tried “not good,” and decided to stick with that definition. Since it was snowing, I used this as an example. “This snow is bullshit” I exclaimed. The guard emulated my pronouncement to a tee (including the arm swinging). I remembered the Dari word for snow -- barrf (my transliteration; roll the Rs like in Spanish). “This barrf is bullshit,” I continued to exclaim, arm swinging included. The guard picked up on that immediately. “Thiiis barrf iis boohlsheet!” I heard him yell to some stunned Americans walking his way, as I climbed into my SUV for the short trip back to the Safe House.
I felt somewhat satisfied knowing that I’ve helped spread some American enlightenment to another benighted corner of the world. One of my many contributions to our Global War on Terrorism.