John Patten
Photos from Afghanistan

    We had a two-day training in assessments for staff in outlying hospitals, for their data collection in the
    larger nutritional surveillance project. It was at the central hospital and the toilets there are trying hard to
    make me forget all about the Kasungu bus station in Malawi, which was previously number one on the list. I
    didn’t know how it could possibly get worse, but I guess more cleaners have been hired away by the
    foreign NGOs, and now the whole hospital only has one. A pigeon had made his home in one of the
    cement stalls, and while I was thinking that this looked a lot like the prison from that French Guiana island
    prison movie (Serpico? Or was that the NY cop? Was he in a French island prison off the coast of Brazil?),
    I looked at the pigeon while I was taking a leak and we both exchanged that knowing glance that this was
    all he could find. Poor guy. In any case, my thought was interrupted when some unseen person spit a
    huge green bilious lugey through the dirty curtain of the bathroom onto the middle of the floor. Now I
    remember, I think this was the cell for Papillion. The hallways, despite the bright sunlight outside, looked
    like subway tunnels of long ago with the very dim bulb hanging in the hall over the choking crowds. We
    had our trainees go to the clinics to find healthy kids to practice measurements on and I found them taking
    meningitis patients out of their beds! They did not understand why I was so horrified as they twisted arms
    into place to measure arm circumference or take weights and heights. Ethics is not just a class!


    There was a two-minute, rolling and powerful earthquake at the close of business today. Like we need this
    too? I just swept the damn place. I was sitting in my new office in the basement, in my shaking chair,
    thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” If the Earth is due for an asteroid hit, it is going to be here, right
    here in the North. At least my gut seems to have adjusted to the water and other things. Forget that sissy
    Lomotil crap, wherever you travel, you should immediately have a big glass of tap water. Sort everything
    out from the start. The gut needs practice like everything else.

    So I’m reading the Koran, right? (the accepted Rodwell translation, which is as close to acceptance of a
    non-Arabic version that will be tolerated, if then. Although with the counterfeit markets here I won’t be
    surprised if I find the Dennis Rodman version). I thought it was good to know because I just don’t argue
    with enough people in my daily life already. I really wanted it to be a book of tolerance and all that, but so
    far, I’m finding that Mohammed was pretty ignorant, violent and anachronistic (I found my thesaurus in one
    of my book boxes) in his placement of bible events, people, time periods, and scriptures. So if God was
    dictating the text, he must have been getting over a weeklong bender at the beginning part and had
    damaged his short-term memory. There are a lot of passages directly contradicted by later passages,
    which may prove my point that God was serious when he made the pot plant. I’m only through the first few
    Suras though. I hope it gets better. I have the learning version, which gives a lot of the history beforehand,
    and I’m sorry, but I don’t see Jesus hitting people on the head with pickaxes to get them to believe (he left
    that to the Crusaders, those fun guys of the Inquisition, and my first grade homeroom teacher). If
    Mohammed had been born today he just might have been locked up at San Quentin. Out of all the
    Meccans at the time, he could only muster a few dozen followers. It loosely reminds me of that Dire straits
    song on the street corner, “Two men say they’re Jesus, one of them must be wrong!” If things had gone
    just a little bit differently, the decadent Mecca could have still been a swinging spring break destination.
    And his actions in Medina! Ok, I’m sounding pretentious. I don’t know what happened. Maybe they got on
    his last raw nerve. They also persecuted the small population of Jews who were living peacefully there at
    the time. Those folks just couldn’t get a break. Later, more converts were due to convenient political
    alliances, and was more about markets than religion for some. Just like that South Park cartoon where
    Santa Claus fought Jesus (who won that one?), they should do another one.

    I wish we could discuss these issues critically, as there seems to be little of that, other than arguments
    based on emotion and posturring. I have a lot of friends there now who are very dedicated in their practice
    of Islam, but the countries themselves are completely intolerant if a person has a different faith and wants
    to practice it. At least in my country they are really free to do so, sensational journalists aside. More
    thoughtful passages on the topic follow later. However where I diverge from many Muslims is their belief
    that this is all above critique or even humor. Many Christians continually discuss and critique both their
    religion and it's practitioners in the modern world. That doesn't mean we know better.

    Now, this is sacrilege in today’s political climate of non-thought (there is nothing that should not be
    questioned and discussed), but one has to take into account many of the individuals who believe in Islam.
    They are very separate issues and we have to make a distinction. Many of the people here are again very
    nice and pray more and are more reserved, thoughtful and earnest than most Christians I know. The Islam
    that makes westerners nervous is not the daily one of the people here. With regular folks it could almost
    be synonymous with over the top hospitality. I don’t like to get people started though. It seems a very
    absolutist and intolerant perspective, that these are God’s words directly and we have nothing to say
    about it, at least in present-day practice. I’ll continue to read and get back to this when I have thought
    more about it. Then I’ll revisit this and cringe at my analogies.

    I’m also reading the New Testament for comparison. I started with Revelation because I wanted to see how
    it ended. Now that’s a screwed up book. Uh, God, if you come back, please don’t say you told us
    everything and we just didn’t listen. Have you read page 568? Can I get a clarification here? We can’t
    even translate a one-page nutrition survey form from Dari to English without screwing it up. The book went
    through, what, seven translations before it got to English? You know, sometimes I just want to go to work
    and have a Diet Coke and not worry if I am drinking of the strong wine of immoral lust of the seven heads
    and ten horns causing plagues and bowls of God’s wrath across the prostituted land. There’s so much
    sexual imagery that I don’t know on a Friday night if I should rent a blue movie or just read the New
    Testament. I really just want to pay off my student loans right now. Sallie Mae’s wrath currently has more of
    a sense of immediacy. They can’t find me here, but sooner or later she’ll send her goons with axes to
    repossess my education. And what’s with sending Mohammed 600 years after Jesus? Can you see a
    potential for confusion? I’m positive God is not as insecure as the various books lead me to believe. Not
    even one person falls at my feet in a given day to sing my praises (believe me), and I’m not too chuffed
    about it. Although in the UK, I think chuffed is a good thing, so it can go either way.


    I’m going on one of them there helicopter survey things for the World Food Program that I questioned in a
    previous entry. After I agreed, I saw the fine print at the bottom of the information sheet, “Please be aware
    that not all mission locations have been cleared for mines and/or unexploded ordinance: Proceed with
    caution. Gee thanks. If there was anything that ever should be a candidate for the LARGE BOLD PRINT
    with flags and whistles, that should have been it.

    Three out of four interviewees that I had on the schedule for today did not show up. Maybe they got a
    better offer from all of multi-national corporations in Mazar. “The bus broke down” is a reasonable and
    ready excuse in many situations however. Just as long as it’s not used to explain why we can’t get the
    computer to work. One guy did show up at the end of the day, but I didn’t recognize him because he was
    about 30 years older than the picture on the application. Applications here also have ethnic background,
    age, sex and marital status, because they unfortunately impact where a person can go in the field and with
    whom. There seems to be a lot of ethnic tension around the provinces that I don’t understand yet. I won’t
    hire doctors from the hospital or local NGOs though because the drain on local structures from the UN and
    foreign organizations is a real problem in decreasing the local capacity here, which really should be
    supported. I still have no staff because of it though. It’s understandable that people go for the money, but
    we have to find ways to support the local systems instead of having things deteriorate further and have
    more pigeons lodging in more bathrooms.


    Hey, so there’s like, still a war going on, no? I found out because I found a five-dollar short-wave radio in
    the market and realized I’ve had no news for a month. I was out back swinging in my hammock. I wouldn’t
    want anyone to be marching on Mazar with me still sitting here trying to figure out how to get the diesel
    dust out of my heater. I hate having to come to the door when I’m in the middle of something. There is
    factional fighting about 40 km away though, that has more of an ethnic base, not Al Queda related. I was
    just thinking that I’m glad there’s no alcohol around here. If the Budweiser trucks rolled in each week, all
    these guys with the weapons might be talking like Billy-Bob, saying that, “Somethin’ just got to get blowed
    up if we got all this ammo and nothin to do.”


    Many of the foreigners here (and not the Afghans, most of them like us) love to spout anti-Americanism
    and it’s getting on my nerves. I don’t like some of our foreign policies either, but still. The French especially
    like to get started in on it. The ones here are annoying the hell out of me. They like to disagree with
    everything just for the sake of it, and because something’s not a French idea. They haven’t had a good
    idea since Cheesewiz (or was that our adaptation?). Our country’s better because our cheese comes
    wrapped in individual slices. I read Les Miserables, and by God those folks have not changed at all since
    then and they dog us? The best way to describe their humanitarians here is pinched, irritable,
    uncooperative, argumentative, and pasty due to all the cigarettes and expresso and not much else (I saw
    the meeting table). Coordination between agencies means can you give me a ride back to the office? If
    you want to know the French opinion on anything, find out the US opinion and do the opposite as a matter
    of course. I should probably just say I’m white-African, just so all their baggage regarding the US doesn’t
    have to impact a meeting before I even open my mouth. Other agencies say an American accent is not
    good in their eyes?! I’m no flag-waver, but they make me want to be. If it wasn’t for us they’d be planning
    their next Octoberfest right now! Yeah! I’m thinking of boycotting french fries, french toast, and possibly

    Ok, ranting over. Actually, I love the French even if I don’t know exactly why. Maybe it’s because they strike
    over those brutal 35-hour work-weeks, with two hour lunches and only two months holiday per year. Or
    because some restaurants close for lunch. Or maybe it’s really me that’s the dick. A lot of the MSF guys
    are really cool and humanitarian writings in French are not considered enough in the humanitarian
    dynamic, which could really contribute. There are some good things that can be gleaned from their
    experience if more of us actually read French. Plus, some of the women are rather quite attractive, but
    look at me with the same face they would make if the cheese had gone off. The English think everything is
    either brilliant or dodgy, the Irish women especially like to say fuck a lot and dress inappropriately, and
    seem to have bought up all the surplus blue toenail polish, and the Dutch think all of us are screwed up
    and can sit back with a satisfied smile, but it may be easier to sit back and judge if you don’t have to make
    regional geo-political decisions. They had their fingers in so many pies over the past few centuries
    anyway, but hardly anyone seems to notice or mind at this point. Now they’re just that place with coffee
    shops that don’t sell coffee, only pot (nothing like walking into a room with 21 tables, with 21 individuals
    sitting at them with a look like they were just lobotomized. Uh, excuse me, sorry, can I get a decaf latte
    here?), and they’re busy trying to keep from sinking into the ocean, so we can cut them some slack. My
    hypotheses may not hold up to critical scrutiny, but I definitely feel better. Sometimes thoughts need to be
    voiced aloud to see one’s own folly.

                       PREVIOUS                                                                                                        NEXT