I arrived in Kabul in February 2007 with a couple of skateboards under my arm and an intense interest in making new neighbors with people who, at the time, seemed to have such a bad reputation. I was optimistic. “How bad could Afghans be?,” I asked myself. After all, I’d travelled to 43 countries prior to arriving in Afghanistan and had yet to find a people that I didn’t like.
I looked around for places to skate so I walked a lot, catching taxis and exploring as much of Kabul as I could. Afghans are easily the most hospitable and polite people in the world, so I grew accustomed to being offered tea and food by complete strangers. I kicked it with all kinds of people in the bazaars, carpet stores, carpentry workshops, police checkpoints and wherever else seemed interesting.
A couple weeks after I arrived in Afghanistan, I found out that foreigners don’t generally hang out with the locals. But none of the people I met in Kabul gave me the impression that I was putting myself in danger. There were plenty of foreigners who told me that I was nuts for skateboarding with the local kids, but I decided to trust my instincts. The Afghans I had met were friendly, inquisitive and fun-loving, while the foreigners were mostly paranoid, arrogant, and uncomfortable in their surroundings. I had become a rebel simply because I had insisted upon interacting with my neighbors.
A lack of trust and lost sense of reciprocity holds many aspects of society back in Afghanistan. This exists not only between foreigners and Afghans but also between Afghans themselves. The dominant ethnic groups—Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara—hardly ever mix with one another. Community-mindedness that crosses ethnic lines is sadly a rarity. Considering the ongoing conflict and social dislocation you can’t really blame them though. The Afghans have gone through a lot and even after visiting the country for more than six years, I've found it’s still a tall order to get the Taliban to try skateboarding or invite new neighbors over for dinner.
I have a good friend in Kabul, an American named Zach who is a magician. He overcomes complicated governmental processes by doing magic tricks at each of the checkpoints and offices that he needs to navigate. He shares his passion for magic with the checkpoint guards or bureaucrats, throws in a joke or two and the next thing you know he has the correct rubber stamp on the form. Clever stuff.
If we can do it in Afghanistan, you too can build meaningful and beneficial relationships with people with whom you may have very little in common. The key, I think, is timing, having something to share, and keeping a sense of humor. If what you are sharing is a passion of yours, it’s even better. The excitement evident in your eyes when you share a passion breaks the ice and puts others at ease.
I have met so many different types of people in Afghanistan through my passion for skateboarding: street working children, embassy officials, military contractors, Afghan government officials and even some Taliban holidaying in Kabul. Any time I get them on a skateboard, within minutes I have made friends or at least an unlikely connection.
If you think that you have nothing at all in common with your neighbors, I would encourage you to think again. As I’ve learned in Afghanistan, there are way more similarities between us than there are differences. I look forward to meeting you.
Hang out with your neighbors on the last Saturday of April (a day we're calling "Neighborday"). Click here to say you'll Do It, and here to download GOOD's Neighborday Toolkit and a bunch of other fun stuff.