Most “war stories” start out “There I was, knee deep in hand grenade pins, and…”. Everything after that is totally mythical, mystical, and is seeking a payoff in the form of a shot of whiskey or a beer (if you’re only airborne).
Imagine my surprise to hear a ‘war story’ of someone’s experience in Afghanistan regarding language. I’ve known this guy for over 20 years, known two of his wives, know his kids, we have many shared experiences, so I have no doubt this story has been embellished only a little bit.
When I was operating out of Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan in 2004, one of my jobs was to meet with Captain D, a US military officer who was the liaison to USAID, whose main project at the time was construction of the massive Ring Road, a highway that linked the entire country.
Once or twice a week, I would convoy down to Kabul to meet up with Captain D, who had an SUV and an Afghan local national driver assigned to him. One of the driver’s duties was driving Captain D and me to Kabul International Airport so we could helo out to one of the Ring Road base camps.
Finding a competent Afghan driver was apparently a challenge, because it seemed like every time I linked up with Captain D, he had a new driver. I can attest that driving around town with one of these guys behind the wheel was usually a death-defying experience.
Finally, after weeks of Captain D having one new driver after another, he apparently found a driver capable of lasting in the job for more than a week. The driver was competent enough, but spoke no English and was a little bit on the goofy side. Giving him directions involved pointing and waving. Whenever someone would say something to him in Dari, he would nod vigorously, laugh, and say, “Okay, boss”.
I heard Captain D’s interpreter refer to this new driver as Harum Zadeh, so whenever I’d get into the vehicle, I would say, “Salaam, Harum Zadeh.” On exiting the vehicle, I would say, “Tashakor, Harum Zadeh.”
Normally, the only people in the vehicle would be Captain D, the driver, and me. One day, I brought along my own interpreter, a kindly older gentleman who grew up in Kabul but had moved to the States decades ago. When the driver brought us to Kabul Airport, and Captain D and I exited the vehicle, I turned to the driver and said, “Tashakor, Harum Zadeh.”
As expected, the driver laughed, nodded vigorously, and replied, “Okay, boss!”
I noticed my interpreter had a stunned look on his face. As he got out of the vehicle, he took me aside and asked why I was upset with the driver. “Then why did you call him that?” he asked. “I just thanked him, and said his name,” I countered. My interpreter laughed. “Harum Zadeh is not a name! It is the Dari word for ‘asshole!’”
I thought those of you living and working in the information environment could use a little levity.