Afghan food is not hard for Americans to like. It’s basic and hearty: beef, rice, tomatoes, cucumbers, and lots of okra. OK, the okra takes getting used to, but rarely was the food spicy or exotic—you could be pretty sure you weren’t going to eat goats’ eyes or something that smelt like turpentine. And you could absolutely depend on stacks of fresh “naan”–oven-baked flatbread that tastes great I don’t care who you are.

The Camp Parsa baker and naan oven.


So, it wasn’t the fare that made Americans reluctant to eat with Afghans, it was that the meals were prepared under such medieval sanitary conditions–oh the stories I could tell! Most Americans found ways to avoid eating with Afghans for fear of dysentery or food poisoning, but ETTs could not afford that luxury. Eating Afghan style was part of our métier, and we braced ourselves to sacrifice our stomachs to the cause. In my year in Afghanistan, though, none of the 100 or so Afghan meals I ate made me sick. Lucky, lucky, especially because eating with my counterparts and local nationals paid big dividends. In Afghanistan, nothing is settled until it gets settled over a meal.

Imagine two hours of back-and-forth discussion of an issue with an Afghan counterpart. You say what you say, he says what he says, but you are still far apart.  No resolution. No commitment. No movement. No plan. No nothing. Meal time comes, with an invitation to dine “on the Afghan side,” as we liked to say. Eat, eat, talk, talk, eat, eat, talk, talk. You understand a third of the chatter, whatever the interpreter can fill you in edgewise. But from experience you know what’s going to happen, so you bide your time. More eat, eat, talk, talk. Finally, at meal’s end, your counterpart confides, often as an aside as you are walking out the door, “Oh, about that thing you want to do. We’ll start tomorrow.  No problem.”


4 Responses to “Naan”

  1. j Says:

    This isn’t peculiar to Afghans, is it? At the business school we hear alot about this type of cultural gap between us and latin culture, asian culture… seems like it’s us Americans who are peculiar in our expectation that business can be done without personal connection and time spent over a meal, drinks, and non-work talk. We’ve got a prof who blogs about this type of cultural differences in business protocol:

  2. Peter Molin Says:

    We Americans don’t know how true these things are until we live through them–and are sensitive to what’s going on. I learned the lesson somewhat in Korea, but the point was really hammered home in Afghanistan.

    I enjoyed poking around the blog–the prof is a fellow Berkeley grad!

  3. James Brizzle Says:

    What J said is absolutely correct. It is in haste that we make business in America. Bare basics are deeply regarded as sacred, and important moments. Such as that of eating and sustaining. If you went your entire life without drive-thru’s, grocery stores, and delivery services. I think you’d appreciate sitting down for a meal that will carry you until the next. This makes absolute sense in my mind.

    Without risk of sounding like an Animal, I personally scarf down my food (not horrifically, just consistently) I’ve never seen ‘eating/surviving’ as a place which discussion is needed (though everyone around me has always done so). So I don’t talk. My meal is generally complete by the time the ‘talker of the table’ has finished 1/3 or 1/4 of their meal 😛

    You noted you had stories to share on the cleanliness and conditions of how their/your meals were prepared. If this isn’t the appropriate blog to post them on, I encourage you to make another blog for such talking, I’d be interested to hear!.

    Cheers, and thank you for the post, I’ll be back-reading/posting now that I’ve found this site.

  4. petermolin Says:

    James–thanks for reading and posting! I hope you find a few more interesting things to comment on. I’m thinking about how to handle those hygiene issues–not sure right now how to present them, but I’m sure I’ll get to them soon enough. -Pete

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