By David Hartmann, Afghan veteran
It’s really not derogatory at its basest meaning, infidel. One of my favorite quotes from my Wahid, one of my regular interpreters during my Afghan tour, came at the end of a particulary long day. “You know, you guys are good infidels, I like you,” he said.
I have a box of things I brought home from Afghanistan. There is nothing too dramatic in there, some trinkets, patches and other memorabilia. When held, some items crack open a short story that plays out in my head. One of those the treasures inside is a Bible. It’s not large or decorative. It’s green. Softbound, it’s a pocket-sized version. I did not take it to Afghanistan, but rather, I brought it home. It was a gift that came with some lessons.
I deployed to Afghanistan in 2003 as an Army engineer officer. For several months I was the facility engineer for a new Afghan Army base. The job was akin to acting as manager to a large campground that was being transformed into a permanent 8,000-man fortified compound. At that time, our third-world Persian combat zone played a logistical distant second to the “other war” going on in Iraq.
I worked some on the new construction and some training the Afghan Army. But 80 percent of my role was the operation of the new facility – its barracks, dining facility, equipment maintenance buildings, roads, gates, towers, ranges, power plant and water supply. There were several teams of foreign civilian contractors with wildly varying levels of competence and experience. They were my crisis management team as various areas of the new base broke, leaked, collapsed, plugged, fell off or caught fire. For a couple months, we worked long days and nights with them only seeing my fellow American troops when I cleaned up or took time to exercise.
One contractor crew superintendent was an Egyptian gentleman named Mahdi. He was a civil engineer, like me, and was put in charge of a crew of local Afghani laborers. Mahdi also seemed to grasp the daunting level of his charge and realized how haphazardly the base camp was being constructed, how its schedule was dreadfully out of sync with any realistic schedule that might allow real quality control. I did facility triage providing a prioritized lists of breaks, leaks or flames and Mahdi did his best to assign crews to the crises.
I pitied Mahdi because I knew that he knew what a proper new facility should look like. He understood the plans and specs that showed the base everyone started to build. We both knew the place would never get there during our time on watch, if ever. Take away a master mechanic’s tool set, give him a Leatherman and a hammer, tell him to rebuild your engine and you’ll see the look Mahdi wore daily.
On the other hand, Mahdi’s Afghan laborers were usually as happy as clams. They had hope, paying jobs, and nobody threatening to cut off their heads. Most of them had never even turned a door handle so anything with four walls and a roof was a palace. Initially, they could care less that the power was off more than on, that doors fell apart and that the equipment supplied to kitchen staff burst into flames. Mahdi and I each played our role. I passed along the chewings given by the brass and Mahdi promising repair schedules we both knew were pure fantasy.
I grew to consider Mahdi my friend, as I believe he did likewise. One day over lunch, Mahdi turned quite serious and began looking around, shifting in his seat. I was waiting for him come clean with some horrible scheduling setback or grand excuse. Instead, he asked, “Can I ask you something?”
I replied, “Sure, I’ll answer if I can.” Friend or no friend, this guy was a third-country-national and we both knew there were some types of information I simply couldn’t give.
“Are you a Christian?” he asked.
I blinked and before I could think about why he might be asking me this, out came the answer, “Yes, I am , my whole family is.”
Mahdi relaxed a notch or two and then said “I am, too.” He had something he wanted to give me. Holding a bible in his hand he said, “Please take this, I found it in a hotel room in downtown Kabul.” It must have been left there by the previous person and he said “I cannot keep it; it is not safe for me to have this.” Mahdi did not want to hide it or throw it away. He wanted to give it to someone who would take care of it, another Christian.
“Most of the guys I work with, are not and, well, it’s just not safe,” Mahdi said.
Taliban or no Taliban, even with Afghans smiling and waving at our convoys in the streets, I knew that many of the locals did not appreciate foreigners crawling all over their country. We were still deep in Muslim territory. They put their best foot forward to the Americans and did truly appreciate us booting out the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Though, left to their own vices and their own sense of time, it could still be ugly.
Like with many countries, there are fanatics, many of whom use a twisted interpretation of one religion or another to justify their actions. Combat zones attract the worst of the worst; carpetbaggers with Kalashnikovs. I had the luxury of being backed up by the American military. Mahdi was an unarmed civilian working for infidels and spending his evenings in the rough part of one of the world’s roughest places. I told Mahdi, “Absolutely, I’ll take it and take care of it. I have my Bible with me already but will gladly take another. Maybe I can find someone else I can give it to.” Thanking him, I tucked it away in a pocket.
We didn’t speak any more and I didn’t think much more about it at the time. I was mainly relieved to be able to take a little stress off a friend. We finished our lunches and went back to the daily grind.
Later that night I checked the book thoroughly to ensure it wasn’t a bomb or bug. It is what war does to a person.
Not much later Mahdi moved on and I moved south to the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team. Since, I have occasionally paused at the gravity of that gift. I realized its significance to me both as a Christian and an American.
Many soldiers who worked regularly with the Afghans had a second set of nametapes, in the local Dari language in backwards, swooping Arabic print, sewn onto our hats and uniforms. Most were the informal version of what most the interpreters called us, “Captain Mike,” “Sergeant Chris,” and so on. I was known as “Engineer Hartmann.” I’m proud of my rank, my name “David” and family heritage. But, I thought it prudent to not wander around the former hub of fanatic Islamic extremism with the name of a great Jewish king sewn to my chest. The fact that King David had pretty much the same role in Islamic history as he did in Christian history might be lost in a fanatic’s eyes and trigger finger. Call me paranoid.
Mahdi was smart, he understood that “coming out” as a Christian in his setting, even to his colleagues, would likely not do him any good and could even jeopardize his safety. Like me, I think Mahdi understood that part of being Christian is about not hiding your faith and was a little ashamed.
But he also understood that coming home safely to his family to continue being a father and husband would be in everyone’s best interest. In that short conversation that day, I sensed that Mahdi felt that giving me that Bible was a compromise between his faith and his security. But it has proven a lesson to me that I cherish inside my box with other memories. I’m somewhat ashamed that I have not yet given that Bible to anyone else. I like to dig it out every so often, touch it, smell it, and remember one of the good stories of that year as the bad ones fade.
It’s hard to describe, but I think the best adjective for that gift is refreshing. At that point in my 12-month stint, I had faced more trials than I had expected and prepared for. Most soldiers leaned on each other as much as we could while still projecting and protecting the Superman persona expected of officers. Getting that Bible unexpectedly from Mahdi gave a little boost of energy I used to help cope with the surrealism that my tour had become.
Separately, the event showed how good we have it in America and how drastically different most of the world is compared to our safe and secure backyard. I was in a country liberated by the full might of the U.S. Military. At the time, it was considered the “safer” war to those who even understood there were two wars ongoing. A U.S.-installed president sat in a palace less than two miles from Mahdi’s hotel. Kabul’s streets were patrolled by American-trained Afghan police and Afghan Army. The U.S. State Department was mentoring the fledgling government on how to be a democracy.
Here, in America, most people think nothing of proclaiming our faith freely. It’s likely that most Americans have never seen nor heard a firsthand account of violence against another person based purely on religion. Even fewer would even dream of participating in violence somehow intertwined with religion. In many parts of the world, that is not the case.
David Hartmann served as an engineer officer in the Army and Army Reserve from 1994 to 2006.