Mazari Sharif is a much smaller town than the capital of Kabul. Farming and the production of hash and opium remained the source of income in the region. Fields surrounded the town but the cool spring weather kept any planting in limbo.
All that remained of the city were the tall mud walls slowly eroding away. While walking around this ancient ruin I looked from a section of the clay barrier down into the non-existent remains of the city. A camel caravan, with ten or fifteen beasts of burden, used the city barriers as a windbreak while camping overnight. Nothing remained indicating any life ever existed at one time in the enclosed compound.
On one of my photo outings I discovered how dangerous being a foreigner could be in Afghanistan. The event unfolded while returning to the hotel after a walk outside the village. When a traveler finds him or herself in a situation, with the potential to become ugly, remember to maintain a cool head and take the path of least resistance.
I happened to be turning a corner on a rutted road on the outskirt of a residential part of the city. Approaching me were two women, surrounded by their children, after a day of shopping. The Burqa or outer garment worn by the Afghan women hung, pulled back over their heads, revealing their faces. The tent like garb covers the entire body of a woman in Afghanistan and is never removed until she returns to her home.
The women must have been near their houses and were not expecting a foreigner to be coming around the corner. They quickly pulled the Burqas back over their faces and were again hidden from the outsider approaching them. Only a small net in the Burqa, around the eye sockets, remained as an opening. The small breach enabled the women to see and breath while walking.
The mothers seemed angry with me for having observed their exposed head and face. I could tell by the tone in their voice, when they passed, the event was a major taboo. I kept walking.
Twenty feet separated me from the group of shoppers when rocks began hitting the ground near my body. The young boys, accompanying their mothers, prepared to defend the family honor by stoning the infidel. These boys were not much older than eight or nine. Lucky for me their aim sucked. I turned around to face them and thought about making a charge.
It is times like this one must realize,
“I am in a foreign country and I better be sure I make good decisions.”
Instead of rushing at the children like a crazed Oakland Raider fan hoping to scare the crap out of them, I kept walking away, doing so while increasing my pace. I needed to lengthen my distance from the young boys. Eight year olds attempting to make their first honor killing could become quite nasty.
The children did not follow nor did an incensed adult male come running around the corner trying to complete the stoning attempt made by the young rock throwers. I still needed fifteen minutes before reaching the safety of the hotel. Once inside the hotel wall I relaxed. I left the next day on the bus back to Kabul, feeling lucky to tell the tale.
The lesson here is for all of us who travel to foreign countries. Just because a culture has customs different than ours, we are only in their country as visitors. If a country needs to change then it will have to come from their people to be real change, not some judgmental visitor wondering why the rest of the world cannot be just like their country. I have visited over 30 countries in my travels and this lesson alone has allowed me to enjoy different cultures to their fullest and still come out unscathed.
Jeff Crimmel Bio: Jeff Crimmel is a retired teacher who has been teaching Special Needs students in California and Arizona for 23 years. He moved to Arizona with his wife Suzanne from Sebastopol, CA in 2000 after they visited the Southwest in 1998. The National Parks of Zion and Bryce Canyon inspired Jeff to take his photography hobby into a professional level for 6 years while living in Flagstaff, AZ.
In the summer of 2009, after retiring from teaching, Jeff decided to write down his nine years around the world journey from 1970-1979 after his two daughters kept asking about how he met their mother in India and what happened during that time.
After Living Beneath the Radar was published, Jeff and his wife moved to Phoenix in 2010 for a year and finally in the summer of 2011 made their way to the small community of San Felipe in Baja where the author wrote two books, Learning to Love the Peso, and Centavo, a Dog From Mexico. The fourth book, The 60’s; If You Remember It You Didn’t Live It is in the process of being written. (If I can remember anything.)
Learning to Love the Peso is the documented account of moving to Mexico and all the steps needed to make the move and how to best make the adjustments in such a move. It is well documented with an “How to” index at the back of the book. Also the author dispells the news America has been sending to the public in the states about Mexico being a war zone. The truth is only possible with a visit to this culture and experience it for yourself.
Centavo, a Dog from Mexico is based on the true story of a street dog in Mexico who was picked up and brought back to the states. It is the account of the life changing move by Centavo, making all the changes going to the States from Mexico. The author and his wife were making similiar adjustments moving the other way and living in Mexico.
The author seems to have found a new way to express himself in the world and through his humor and insight there should be more to come.
You can find Jeffrey on Twitter @Livingbeneath, on his website and connect with him on Facebook.
Sonia Marsh Says: Jeffrey, you send us a very important lesson: we are only visitors in another country and have to respect their traditions and not attempt to impose our own. Accepting the way others live is sometimes very difficult for us, however, as you mentioned, It has served you well in all thirty countries you have visited.
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Sonia Marsh says
You are so right about understanding foreign cultures and not imposing your own way of doing things in another culture as you’re a visitor.
I learned the hard way about that in Belize.
Lady Fi says
What a great attitude… we ARE indeed visitors when we travel.
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Doreen Cox says
It would be an honor to meet up with you on any world adventure. The respect that you show for other cultures’ customs encourages me to also respect those different from me in our country. Thank you for posting on Sonia’s blog, else I might not have ‘met’ you!
Fabulous story and fabulous lesson for us all!!!!!
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I think that it was a tough lesson to learn and I admire the fact that you kept your calm. I simply don’t know how I would have reacted…
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Penelope J. says
What a dramatic incident! It illustrates the huge difference between our Western and other cultures. I’m glad that you were able to see recognize the danger of eight year olds defending their mothers’ honor.
I agree that American visitors abroad – and people here – often have a judgmental attitude that why can’t the rest of the world be like us? Your story shows how it was a matter of honor for those women to wear a burqa, and the veil or similar cover is probably used by more women worldwide than in the smaller Western hemisphere.
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Sonia Marsh says
Thanks to all of you for leaving a comment for Jeffrey. I appreciate you reading his story, as I know he does too.
Carol D. says
I don’t understand: the women made the terrible mistake of pulling back their burqa, and YOU got attacked. It must have been an awful thing for you to go through. Thanks for the testimony.
jeff Crimmel says
Thanks for all the comments. Most of my Gutsy stories happened in Afghanistan in the 70s. I have another one but at a later date. “Living Beneath the Radar”
George Hoxie says
I liked the story. Heck your comment applies to everyone, every place all the time not just foreign places. It is hard not being directive and fixing. We need to give everyone their space and not assume we are God knowing all the answers.
Jill Reinstadler says
Great story, Jeff! How easy it is to forget our status as visitors and make judgements about customs different than our own.
jeff Crimmel says
Thank you all for your votes and comments. If the count hold up I may get a years supply of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Isn’t that right Sonia? Anyway thanks again for the support from everyone.
Sonia Marsh says
I think we can arrange that Jeff. Are you a fan of Ben and Jerry’s?
jeff Crimmel says
Thanks for all those who voted for my story and I hope it leads to them wanting to read “Living Beneath the Radar” the second edition. More pictures and a longer book