Menu Close

Ugly Peace Corps Volunteer

Afghanistan. The closing years of the reign of Mohammed Zahir Shah, deposed 17 July, 1973, who lived in exile north of Rome, Italy for 29 years. Next door in Iran there reigned Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, Shahanshah (not just Shah, but Shah of Shahs). Overthrown 11 February 1979.

Jami Masjid, Herat, Afghanistan

In 1971, I passed muster for Peace Corps service in Afghanistan and was flown to Kabul for training in country. 

Wow.  I was hungry and something like desperate to get to the exotic land that I had visited in the novel Caravans by James Michener.

For the next two months we volunteers were tutored in Farsi, and oriented by Corps staff and Afghan officials and academics. One Afghan gentleman was treated, regrettably, to the soles of the shoes of one of the volunteers. He had put his feet up on a stool with the bottoms pointing at the hapless refined man who made no notice of this. After the talk, a training staff mentor mentioned that in this culture, to show the bottom of your shoes to someone was a very rude thing indeed to do. Pity the offender had not been informed of his mistake while the guest was talking. Many years later, our dear president Bush was treated to this indignity in Iraq when a man threw both his shoes at Bush. But the president ducked. Pity.

Our living quarters were in Kabul residential neighborhoods. Then, two by two, we were let loose on our own to travel the country for a week. I buddied with a fellow volunteer and we traveled day and night by bus to Herat, mostly siting upright with the Afghans. Once in the night, sitting across from me was a man who wore a necklace of string woven with short twigs neatly spaced. I got brave and asked in English what this was. He answered candidly…“I’m sick.”

In Herat we settled at a hotel. One evening I took a walk and came upon a shop that was closed up. But there was an out-of-this-world blue light coming through the windows. Being the brave adventurer that I was, I approached the shop door and I was admitted. Within, there sat a group of Afghan men surrounded by the blue glass cups, dishes and bowls that Herat glassmakers are famous for. Whatever light from lamps there was in the room ignited the air with a lapis lazuli light. The men were playing instruments. They welcomed the traveler, and I sat and thought that I must be dreaming.

But another dream thing that happened in Herat was not so nice. My traveling friend and I found our way to the Jami Masjid of Herat, the great mosque. It held a  sweep of paved courtyard enclosed by arcades, colonnades, galleries, porticos and the Qibla, the niche showing the direction to Mecca. 

From where we sat in the shade of a portico we could see what looked like a well. It was midday. We were dried out and exhausted by the heat, and thirsty, very thirsty. I had put on my version of a turban to protect against the heat as is the custom. Am I going to be in a Moslem country and not wear a turban? 

All at once a young girl carrying buckets arrived and traversed the court yard. No one seemed to be there now but we three. The girl went to the well and soon had drawn water that she was pouring into the buckets. The sight of the water shimming in the sunlight caught me off guard and the thirst of my animal nature took over. I mindlessly rose and headed for the well. I got there and before I knew what I was doing I plunged both my hands into the bucket of crystal liquid. The young girl screamed out, turned and ran to the exit. Shocked awake, I felt terrible. No one came to protest my action.

I had violated a sacred ritual of humanity’s home life. I had intruded as a clumsy farang. Over the years I have been haunted by what can only have been a very frightening and insulting incident in the life of the young girl and her family.

Arthur Panaro, Afghanistan, 1972
Photograph by Adrian Panaro

1 Comment

  1. Elissa Rogers

    Interesting outcomes to not be aware of culture practices can cause 🤔 such problems. The traditions and cultures we grow up with are taken for granted but are so foreign and strange to one outside.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *