28 May 2011

The ties that bind

Arriving at the office the other morning, I was surprised to find one of my local national co-workers had beat me in.  This was unusual, to say the least; it was solidly two hours before he normally comes in, even without the on-going troubles at the ECP.  When asked about the early arrival, he sighed and blamed his father, who apparently needed to borrow his car for the day and had dropped him off early.  Fair enough, I nodded, and didn’t give the matter much more thought until the topic came up again in conversation (apparently; ‘twas in Dari) when everyone else arrived at the normal time.  They were as taken aback as I had been, given that Nadeem lives just outside of Bagram and has the longest commute.  When he explained, it set off a bevy of commiserative grousing. 

Now, I’m no stranger to disagreements with parents – my mother and I had wars when I told her I was taking a job in Afghanistan, for example – but their shared persecution complexes seemed a bit much.  So I teased them about turning their parents into millstones.  No, kushtimada, they chided me, you don’t understand.  Parents are, for all intents and purposes, directly below God on order of devotion and much more demanding in their whims.  Family ties have long been the basis of this tribal society, but my urbanized friends chafe at the traditional model.  In the hinterlands (Kabulis, I’ve found, are remarkably classist), supporting your parents makes sense; the family jointly tend the livestock or farm or keep a small shop.  But in the bright lights of the big city, standards of filial obligation rise shockingly.

The guys warmed to their subject, bandying examples back and forth.  Abdul, for instance, purchased a brand new car for his father, even as he continues to take the bus.  In Nadeem’s case, the car is ‘his’ only in that he maintains it.  Most often he serves as his father’s chauffer.  The long-suffering Nadeem was even made to drop out of the military academy because he was the only literate, readily employable family member (the rest of his siblings are girls – quell horreur! – and therefore cannot take a job, regardless of ability).  Farid, a recent addition to the office, had put off the transfer from the oft-shelled Salerno to Kabul as long as he reasonably could, because now that he is here, his parents are fixated on finding him a suitable wife.  Another linguist only ever turned to employment with the Coalition because he was forced to leave the faculty of law to get married at the tender age of 19.  It is no secret, of course, that many Afghan children are obliged to be married at even younger ages for the financial benefit of their families.  Appallingly, inexcusably younger ages. 

Parental entitlement does one cease when one gets hitched.  If anything, it actually seems to worsen.  The newly-wed Ajmal lamented that he is still expected to kiss his parents before his bride, lest they throw the couple out of the house.  It was pointed out to me that majority of linguists, though married, name their fathers as the insurance beneficiary, not their wives.  Where a father is not available, Afghanistan being a country of widows and orphans, linguists generally select the next viable male relative, such as a brother or cousin.  It is presumed that these responsible men will care for any womenfolk left behind.  My attention was caught by one linguist who listed his mother as his beneficiary.  In was distinctive in that he knew her given name only as Mother.  I was somewhat delighted by the child-like nature of it, though I suspect that the insurance vendor would be less-so.

The consequences for insufficient deference are severe.  One might not only lose a home, as Ajmal worried, but his entire external support system.  Extended family is where ones turn for help in hard times, and suitably vexed parents will not hesitate to defame errant offspring to the entire tribe.  Honor thy father and mother, or they will see you ostracized.

The tremendous pressure to provide for one’s family (which can be taken to mean the entire extended tribe) explains, to a great extent, why corruption here is so endemic.  It’s reciprocal system that, when locally applied, can create and strengthens community bonds.  Essentially, if I give you a ‘gift’ to help expedite the processing of my son’s Tazkira, you’ll give my cousin a break on the bride price so his son can marry your daughter.  However, as both my colleagues and this intriguing article by Lawrence Rosen suggest, the social cohesion created by such expectations of ‘gifts’ breaks down when expanded to an urban setting.  They become de-personalized and exponentially more exorbitant.  No longer reciprocal, the gift system morphed into straight bribes.  Moreover, I rather imagine that the billions of external money suddenly dumped on the economy didn’t help.  It was only a matter of time before mutually supportive nepotism devolved into sheer kleptocracy with corruption rampant according to anyone’s definition.