It’s really not derogatory at its basest meaning. One of my favorite quotes from my whole tour was when Wahid, one of my regular interpreters, said at the end of a particularly long day, “You know, you guys are good infidels, I like you.”
I have a box of things I brought home from Afghanistan. There is nothing too dramatic in there, some trinkets, patches and other memorabilia. Some items, when held, crack open a short story that plays out in my head.
One of the treasures inside is a Bible. It’s not large or decorative, it’s a green, softbound, pocket-sized version. I did not take it to Afghanistan, but I brought it home with me. It was a gift…a gift that came with some lessons.
I deployed to Afghanistan in 2003 as an Army Engineer Captain. For several months I was the facility engineer for a new Afghan Army base. This was akin to acting as manager to a large campground that was being transformed into a permanent 8,000-man fortified compound/campus. I worked on some new construction and some training of the Afghan Army. But probably 80% of my role was operation and maintenance (O&M) of the new facility, its barracks, dining facility, equipment maintenance buildings, roads, gates, towers, ranges, power plant and water supply. I had at my disposal several teams of foreign civilian contractors of wildly, even comically varying levels of competence and experience. These guys were essentially my crisis management. The initial construction crews and materials left much to be desired. At that time, our third-world Persian combat zone played a logistical distant second to the other war in Iraq. Those teams helped me keep a handle on the various areas of the new base that broke, leaked, collapsed, plugged, fell off or caught fire. For a couple months I worked long days and nights with them while only seeing my fellow troops when I cleaned up or worked out.
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. He also seemed to grasp the daunting level of his charge. He realized how haphazardly the basecamp was being constructed, how its schedule was dreadfully out of synch with any realistic schedule that might allow real quality control. That meant the O&M crews had a full plate. I did facility triage providing him prioritized lists of breaks, leaks or flames. He did his best to assign crews to the crises. I pitied him 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 out intending to build. But we both knew this place would never get there on our 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.
His Afghan laborers were usually happy as clams. They had hope, paying jobs, and nobody threatening to cut off their heads! Most of them had never even operated 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, doors fell apart, and the equipment supplied to kitchen staff burst into flame. But even some of them seemed to come around to the fact our ship, while not sinking, was not the steely sleek vessel the U.S. had set out to build.
Mahdi and I each played our role: me passing along the chewings I’d get from the brass, 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 and 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 TCN (third-country-national) and we both knew some types of information I simply couldn’t impart upon him.
“Are you a Christian?”
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. “I am too. I have something I’d like to give you. Will you please take this?” He held out that Bible. “I found this in my hotel room in downtown Kabul. It must have been left there by the previous person. I cannot keep it; it is not safe for me to have this. But I don’t want to hide it or throw it away. I’d like to give it to someone who will take care of it…another Christian. Most of the guys I work with, are not and…well, it’s just not safe.”
I understood. 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 all these other foreigners crawling all over their country. We were still deep in the heart of Muslim territory. They put their best foot forward to the Americans and did truly appreciate us booting out the Taliban/Al Qaeda show. But when left to their own vices and on their own time, it could still be ugly. Like with every country, there are fanatics, many of whom use a twisted interpretation of one religion or another to justify their actions. And 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 the infidels spending his evenings in the rough part of one of the world’s roughest places. I told him, “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. Thank you.” 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. That night I checked out the book thoroughly, ensuring it wasn’t a bomb or bug. That’s what war does to a person.
It wasn’t much later Mahdi moved on and I moved south to the Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team. But I paused on several occasions to ponder the gravity of that gift. I realized its significance to me both as a Christian and an American.
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 of us 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 back yard. Here 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. Likely 99.99% of Americans have never seen nor heard 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.
Sidebar…many of us 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,” etc. 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 safe to his family to continue being a father and husband would be in everyone’s best interest. I believe the Man Upstairs will understand and forgive a little mortal weakness in the interest of stacking the deck to come home safely.
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 of 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. But maybe by writing with this story, I am giving that Bible away.
David Hartmann served as an engineer officer in the Army and Army Reserve from 1994 to 2006. He currently lives with his wife and three children in Colorado while working as a civil engineer.