[4 December 2009]
There are lots of books about Afghanistan.
You can be swept up in the fictionalized lives hauntingly rendered by Khaled Hosseini (The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns), delve headlong into the intricate political and military relationship between the US, Pakistan and Afghanistan (Ghost Wars, Descent into Chaos, Charlie Wilson’s War), explore the origins of Al Qaeda (The Looming Tower), get historical perspective on Afghanistan before the 1979 Soviet invasion (Louis Dupree’s definitive Afghanistan), or be jolted by the bold war journalism of Dexter Filkins (The Forever War). But if you’ve ever wondered how you yourself might experience Afghanistan, then the book for you is The Khaarijee by J. Malcolm Garcia.
When Garcia first travels to Afghanistan as a journalist soon after 9/11, he has just recently left a 14-year career as a social worker, working in the trenches of US homeless shelters. It is only his second time reporting overseas. A definitive kharrijee, or “outsider”, between 2001 and 2007, Garcia makes six reporting trips to the country, varying in length from two weeks to four months. The book is interspersed with poignant, artfully-told tales of the Afghans that he meets in his quest for the next article. But The Khaarijee is primarily the accessible, genuine, personal story of how this particular outsider navigates life in a poor, war-torn, and politically volatile country.
In many ways, Garcia’s previous profession unwittingly prepared him for his new life in Afghanistan. On his first day in town, he and a veteran reporter, Jonathan, look for a driver to bring them to the home of a photographer they are supposed to meet. Garcia has a bad feeling about the driver that Jonathan chooses. When they realize the driver has no idea where they are going, Garcia feels a smug sense of satisfaction “that after all those years of working with dope fiends…I can spot a bullshitter. I may be green, but I know ghetto”.
As a social worker, Garcia also learned how difficult it is to help people, and that providing help can sometimes do more harm than good. What he quickly realizes is that, halfway across the world, the challenge is the same. And in Kabul, the scale of the suffering is overwhelming:
Every day, desperate men, women, and children swarm me when I step out of my car. Their calloused hands clutch my pockets, fingers scrambling over my clothes, reminding me how as a social worker I would park blocks away from work so I would have five or ten minutes of peace before homeless people saw me and swarmed around me demanding help before we even opened.
Although Garcia says his job in Kabul does not involve helping people, he can’t stop himself from trying. As Christmas 2001 approaches, he decides to give a pound of rice and some cooking oil to a poor family. He brings his gift to a family living in a destroyed office building on the outskirts of town. But what is intended as a goodwill gesture quickly turns ugly.
Many more family members live in the building than he thought, and the women begin fighting over the meager supplies. He is mistaken for an international aid worker, and the family tells him bluntly that he has not brought enough food. Then, he is shown to a back room, where a woman has a swollen broken leg that has not been treated; her foot has turned black. The family begs for medical help. “You are kind, but the rice is not enough,” they say, as they begin punching and kicking him. Garcia’s driver pulls him out of the melee to safety. “I should have known better”, Garcia writes. “But what should I have known? That people suffer and even in the smallest way I can do nothing”?
Garcia answers his own rhetorical question through his actions, and his response is that no, he can do something. He gives money to a poor widow, even though he knows that means more widows will show up outside his house the following day. He rescues a dog from a dog-fighting operation and nurses it back to health. He takes five war-orphaned shoeshine boys under his wing, giving them money to go to school and eating dinner with them once a week. These relationships become difficult, however, when he has to leave Afghanistan after his reporting trips end. Garcia feels he has let the boys down; the boys feel abandoned.
Garcia’s partner throughout his reporting and personal escapades is an Afghan driver and translator that Garcia names “Bro” because he can’t pronounce his real name, Khalid. Every day, Bro picks up Garcia and asks simply, “Where do we go”? It is this friendship that is highlighted in the book’s subtitle. After the incident with the rice and oil, Bro tells Garcia tersely, “You will not help any more poor people today”. Yet, a few years later, it is Bro that throws himself into helping the five boys with their homework and watches over them when Garcia flies back to the States.
Each time Garcia returns to the US, he finds fitting into life there difficult. People ask about his experiences in Afghanistan, but don’t really want to hear the answers. He can’t stop worrying about the five boys. He misses Bro. Read this heartfelt book and you will understand why Afghanistan has changed him. How would it change you?