November 30, 2003 - PCOL Exclusive: Glimpses of Afghanistan: A Country Director looks back on the 1960's (Part 2)

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Glimpses of Afghanistan: A Country Director looks back on the 1960's (Part 2)

Caption: We had rather few African-American volunteers in Afghanistan in the mid 60's when I was there. One of the few was a sociology major from the University of Chicago, Bob Washington, who worked in a rather small village. One day, a mullah arrived from Jordan. Somehow, the two met and got along fabulously. I imagine it was because they were the only two intellectuals in the village and despite their differences, could actually discuss things as they paced up and down the main street. It remains in my mind as one of those encounters that the Peace Corps is famous for. By the way, he told Bob Washington that 90% of what the local folk believed was in the Koran was actually mythology based on nothing more than local lore, djins, supernatural creatures, etc.

Read and comment on this exclusive story written for "Peace Corps Online" by Walter Blass about his tenure as Peace Corps Country Director in Afghanistan in the 1960's. Part 1 appeared in our October issue of PCOL. This is Part 2 of a two part series. Read the story at:

Glimpses of Afghanistan (Part 2)*

* This link was active on the date it was posted. PCOL is not responsible for broken links which may have changed.

Glimpses of Afghanistan (Part 2)

When I took a course in abnormal psychology in college, I learned about Freud’s discovery of a syndrome he came to call "hysteric conversion" As he experienced it, it was when a woman patient came to him with some physical disability which had no conceivable cause in disease, trauma, or a congenital source. With his famous ‘talking cure’, he eventually formulated the theory that they had experienced some severe sexual trauma ( incest, rape, seduction ) or at least had imagined it, and because it was so shameful, they could not acknowledge it but ‘converted’ the shock into a truly physical problem such as not being able to walk. Freud only treated women with this problem and so he named it ‘hysteric conversion’.

In my time in Afghanistan, I found myself with four such cases, all of them men. Each had gone to the Peace Corps doctor, a Public Health physician sent by the Service to serve only the volunteers in Afghanistan because medical services were so primitive, if they were available at all. The doctors ( there were two different men in my time there) both certified that there was no physical explanation for the disability ( two could not walk, one could not raise his arm, and one could not speak ) but that this was a serious psychiatric problem that required the volunteers to be sent back as medical evacuees. Eventually, I figured out that it was clearly a ‘fear of failure.’ Not merely were these young men taxed beyond their limits by the demands of the environment, but unconsciously they were aware that once sent back, they would immediately be drafted and probably sent to Viet Nam. "Mr. Blass, if there’s anything wrong with Volunteers below the neck, I know what to do," one doctor told me, "but if it’s above the neck, I’m not trained for that. That’s your problem!"

- - - - -

When I first arrived in Afghanistan there were more than 50 peace Corps nurses working in hospitals in all the major cities. Within a few months, however, they started to quit in droves. " I can’t take it anymore," one told me. "I came here to help, but instead the Afghan doctors are chasing me all around the OR., there are no clean needles, no alcohol, the autoclave doesn’t work, and they let the cholera vaccine spoil in the open air instead of refrigerating it. Send me home!" I warned them it would cost them $ 575 if they quit voluntarily. "I don’t care," they said. One nurse who complained vigorously about her Chief Nurse ( an Afghan male nurse) called him an s.o.b. I remonstrated by asking if she never found that to be the case where she came from in East St. Louis. "No!" she answered me. So I gave her 20 ¢ in American money and asked her to send me a postcard at Christmas reporting on what she found when she came home. Sure enough, a picture of the arch above St. Louis showed up a few months later in which she said, yes, it was just as bad in Missouri, and she wished she were back in Afghanistan.

Peace Corps Vaccinators in Afghanistan

- - - - -

My predecessor had become aware that male vaccinators were not allowed into the women’s compounds and thus could not vaccinate women and children. He asked PC/W for a group of female vaccinators to be recruited, but not necessarily from traditional age volunteers, and he specified that their training be as rigorous as possible. Some 50 or so trainees were told to come to the Experiment for International Living in Putney, VT. No address was given and no directions. Some never even made it. Those that did found themselves trucked to Canadian border Francophone villages, dropped off one by one with a $ 5 bill and told to make themselves useful in public health, and return by themselves 5 days later. By the time their training was finished only 21 women came to Afghanistan. They were wonderful, even when the local Khan stood in front of the village and told them the vaccinators had already been there. "Oh," they asked, "you let the men vaccinate the women and children?" "No, not necessary. If give vaccine to men, everything all right." They stuck it out despite the heat, no showers for three weeks, hardly any real relatedness to their patients as they gave 3,000 doses of vaccine a day. When they would return from one of these trips, they were just like the submarine crews I used to pay when I was in the Navy: absolutely out for a wild time on the beach! But by the time I left, the Afghan government had actually recruited Afghan women to accompany the PCV vaccinators.

- - - - -

"Take that chadoor off," the PCV urged her counterpart in the travel bureau where they worked. "My husband threatened to divorce me if I did that," the Afghan woman replied. "Oh, don’t take that seriously. Besides which you have a job, you have an income, you don’t need to act like a slave to your husband," the PCV replied. The Afghan women, enthralled by the advice of the American, did what she suggested. The husband promptly did divorce her, the volunteer went back to the States, and the travel bureau fired the now-unattached woman. Mores may change, but not as quickly as we foreigners might wish…..

- - - - -

"Did you hear that two of our nurses were buggy-whipped in Pul-I-Khumri last week," our Associate Director burst into my office one day. Shocked and determined to get to the bottom of this, the Desk Officer from PC/ W, a Group II volunteer who was still fluent in Farsi, and I drove up to this textile town, just on the south side of the Salang Pass, an 11,000 ft altitude tunnel built through the Hindu Kush mountains by the Russians as part of their foreign aid program where this outrage had been committed. We started at the Governor’s Palace, built on an old Buddhist Stupa. "I’ll hang the man who did this as soon as he is caught," the Governor, a Yale-educated economist told us. " But why did he do it," I asked." I’ve been in this country long enough to know such things don’t just happen, there must be some proximal cause." The Governor admitted ignorance. We stopped at the nurses’ house next. " Look," I said, "help us to figure out why this happened. That’s the only way we’ll possibly prevent it from happening again. Tell us minute by minute what you did every day these past two weeks, from getting up in the morning to brushing your teeth at night." Within 20 minutes, one of the nurses lit up and exclaimed "I know what did it! There was this German PCV (Entwicklungsdienst) who stopped by around 4:30 PM one afternoon for tea, and we had such a good time talking, he only left at 9 PM, long after it had gotten dark. I bet all those tongues were just wagging as to what happened with one man and two women!" I quietly passed the word around, emphasizing the ‘Caesar’s wife’ aspect of the female volunteer, and it never happened again.

A picture of Bob Pearson (Afghan 1) and Walter Blass speaking with Gov. Yusufzai about the buggy-whipping of our nurses.

- - - - -

As part of my interviewing technique with volunteer-trainees, I passed out 5" x 8" cards with a typical ‘situation’ which they might encounter in-country. The Desk Officer, Bob Pearson, a former Group II volunteer helped me construct them. "What would you do in these circumstances?"

You’ve had a tough year in your high school class. The police chief’s son was in your class and he was not merely disruptive, he really flunked the course. And he didn’t care. He knew you’d never give him a failing grade. Indeed, the principal saw the grades you turned in, and quickly came to remonstrate. "If you flunk that boy, I will lose my job and there will never be another Peace Corps volunteer in this school. The Police Chief will see to that!" What would you have done ?

Or, You have just coached the winning soccer team in the all-Kabul League. The kids are triumphant and the captain has just toasted you with a magnificent speech and a glass of milk. He hands you the milk glass. Of course, you know how dangerous that liquid can be in this country: undulant fever, TB, amebiasis, hepatitis, you name it, you can catch it from milk. What do you do not to disappoint the players, their parents, the invited guests, and yet not ruin your life?

- - - - -

It’s just a field of sand surrounded by a broken low-lying wall, perhaps a mile square. It’s Balkh, the oldest city in the world according to local archaeologists. It’s right outside Mazar-I-Sharif, the major city near the Amu-Daria (Oxus) River, which is also the Afghan-Russian border. My wife and I walked through the enclosure, saw a camel train laden with merchandise cross near us just as the sun set. It was a scene that probably took place in an identical fashion four thousand years earlier. When you come from the United States, only the rivers are as old as this site. My wife started reciting Shelley: " My name is Ozymandias, king of kings/ Look on my works, ye Mighty and despair!"/ Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away." It teaches you a little humility when you’ve come to change the world.

- - - - -

Ron Lucas sat in the office looking dejected. "I can’t stand teaching any more. I’ve got to do something else. Will you transfer me?" He’d done the best he could in a very difficult situation. I could empathize. "Well, find yourself a Afghan who’s willing to have you work for him, and the job change is yours," I said. Two weeks later a much happier man came by. "I’ve gone to work in the poor house/insane asylum. It really needs someone. The men stand chained to the wall, surrounded by their own excrement. No education, no recreation, no exercise. It’s just like the insane whom Charcot saw in Paris in the 19th Century that I studied in Psych class. I can change that!" I was mystified how he managed that, knowing how unchangeable bureaucrats can be the world over. Then Ron explained. "Oh, yes, the Director was quite unenthusiastic. That is until I spoke to my roommate, Alex. He goes skiing with the Crown Prince, and the latter is the Royal Benefactor of the institution. A word from him, and I had the job!"

- - - - -

The Group IX mid term conference was coming up. By then they were not a happy group, though no one had quit. The political situation in country was worsening after an exposé in a Pakistani paper stating that the CIA had funded all sorts of groups surreptiously including the Asia Foundation with whom Peace Corps frequently cooperated, and that all the Ministers in the Prime Minister’s Cabinet were beneficiaries of those funds. What could I tell them? Why were we here? What could we expect to accomplish under such circumstances? First, I passed out copies of Albert Camus’ "Sysiphus" Then I composed a brief essay which melded a book I had read a few years back On the Theory of Social Change by Everett E Hagen with stories which the volunteers had told me of their own experiences in promoting social change. I can’t say it turned the mood of the conference around, but things did improve in the following year. I told the PCV’s they were there as role models, especially the women and the way the guys treated women, whether as husbands or just as guys. It was an alternative model, I suggested and an important one for the Afghans to see, to see respect for women, for women who walked around without the chadoor, who worked with men and kept their respectability, who could even bathe a naked male patient on a hospital bed and keep her honor and integrity. Was that ‘cultural imperialism’? In the light of what’s happened since, and the ‘rejectionism’ of modernity by the Taliban, I don’t know…….

Peace Corps Volunteer conference in Afghanistan in the 1960's

- - - - -

She was a paradigm of the New York woman: assertive, voluble, critical, smart. "You don’t know much, do you?" she told me. "Do you know what’s going on among the students at the university, what the police are planning to do, the restlessness among the crowds in the bazaar? Have you spoken with the Embassy people ? What about the Interior Ministry? You staff people never get the picture, do you?" I measured my reply "I’d rather be taken for a fool than a spy," I replied. In fact, I did hear rumors of what she referred to, and I had lived in Afghanistan long enough to notice subtle variations in the mood of the bazaar. At the same time, I was very conscious that Peace Corps was not an intelligence gathering organization and that much harm would result if it gained such a reputation. Already I had remonstrated with the military attachés of the Embassy who would drop in on volunteer households in the provinces with a bottle of gin under one arm and a whiskey bottle under the other, asking ‘hey, you guys wouldn’t happen to have a bed for me, would you?’ and then quiz the volunteers all evening. Likewise, the Political Officer of the Embassy was once after me to tell him whether it was true that students at the university were arming for yet another confrontation with the police. I had to threaten him that I would drag him into the Ambassador’s office for a lecture about keeping the Peace Corps separate from his bailiwick, and then he accused of endangering American lives in Kabul. My volunteers might see me as a fool, but knowledge was power and I was not about to divulge what I knew.

- - - - -

It was exceedingly embarrassing. One of our volunteers had fallen flat on his face at an Embassy party after apparently drinking too much. Taken to the Dispensary, it turned out that he was high on hashish long before he started drinking. I called him in but specified that he come to my house and not to the Peace Corps Office so that his privacy would be maintained. However, I informed him that I was terminating his service and sending him home. What he did in private was none of my business, I told him, but ingesting that much dope and then drinking his way to inebriation in public was too much: as the English would have said a hundred years earlier, ‘you can do what you like unless it upsets the horses or gets into the papers.’ He was in tears as my 12-year old daughter burst into the living room on her lunch hour where we were talking and saw him. I told her later to be very quiet about what she had seen, but he was furious. So furious that 25 years later, at a reunion of his Group, he refused to talk to me.

- - - - -

Hazaras were the Afghan equivalent of African-Americans after the Civil War: free but dirt-poor, abused by the dominant racial groups, clearly marked by their features. Hazaras were the descendants of the Mongols who had invaded Afghanistan under Genghis Khan in the 10th Century and now were at the bottom of the social structure. One day, as I looked out on the street from my office, I saw that a policeman was harassing a Hazara seller of oranges by kicking his donkey so that the sacks of oranges would spill on to the dirt street. A PCV was in turn yelling at the policeman to leave the poor Hazara alone. I could see the confrontation coming, and called to the volunteer to come up to the office. But not before the donkey bucked under the assault of the policeman and did indeed dump all the oranges to the ground. The PCV was furious when he arrived on the second floor, but I was relieved that I had prevented what could easily have become a ‘cause celèbre’ between a Peace Corps volunteer and a policeman. My sympathies were certainly with the Hazara and the PCV, but a public confrontation between police and Peace Corps was the last thing I wanted to see. Still, the injustice rankled and there was little I could do about it.

- - - - -

The scene was pitiful. A 16-year old mother lay in the bed covered with smallpox sores and her one-year old baby lay at her feet, similarly infected. We were in the hospital in Jalalabad where our six Volunteer doctors taught medical students. The husband of the young woman had a tiny teaspoon in his hand and was feeding her a few drops of water at a time, the only palliative that he could give her and the baby at that stage. "Will they survive," I asked Dr. Kelly, the crew-cut blond American who stood watching with me. "Very probably," he answered." They’re tough, these Afghans, and provided neither she or her baby get dehydrated, they’ll pull through. Just last week we had a case of a Kuchi woman who had a breech presentation and couldn’t deliver her baby under a tree as her caravan stopped. We helped her deliver her baby, and then she insisted on walking out. We refused but in the middle of the night, she grabbed her day-old baby and ran after the rest of the caravan. That’s toughness!"

Smallpox victim in Afghanistan

- - - - -

Dr._______was a pediatrician from Greenwich, Connecticut, 72 years old with a shock of white hair on top of his 6’3" frame. "Why do you want to come to Afghanistan", I asked him in the interview at the training site in Texas. "I practice in a part of the States where it really makes no difference whether I am there or not; American kids who are well fed and loved will recover from darn near anything; besides, there are loads of pediatricians there anyway. I want to go somewhere I will really make a difference." I was delighted and welcomed him and his equally mature wife to the program. A year later we talked on the street where he and his colleagues had organized an outdoor lab to diagnose parasites in the village population. "So, have you made a difference," I asked. "A little," he answered. "We’ve turned the statistics around of women who got Tetanus ( Lockjaw) after childbirth from a 75% death rate to 25% by a radical protocol of tracheotomy, muscle relaxants and artificial respiration. Also, we’ve told the women to recycle the eggshells not into chicken feed, but into soup stock so they would recuperate the calcium they lose by having ten pregnancies one after the other. It’s not enough, but it helps."

- - - - -

" Will you give me a chit to go to the hospital with my daughter," our servant asked me. "What’s wrong with your daughter," I asked. " She’s had diarrhea for three weeks." "Why didn’t you ask me right away, then?" I replied. "Oh, she’s only a girl. I thought I would wait to see if she got better, but she didn’t." A few days later I asked him how she was. "Oh, she died. It was too late," he told me.

- - - - -

The colonel’s wife was at a party with a number of Afghan guests. Her husband was the Military Attaché to the Embassy and she was an avid horsewoman and loved to go riding in the hills surrounding Kabul. This time, however, she’d had a problem. "Tell me, Doctor," she asked someone. "Why would children throw pebbles at me while I’m riding my horse. It doesn’t sound like the ‘Pushtoonwali’ ( Afghan code of hospitality ) I was taught to expect in Afghanistan. A slow smile crept across the doctor’s face. " Ah, Mrs.____, I’m afraid that they didn’t teach you something about Afghan superstitions at your famous school. You see, the picture small children have of a witch is a blonde woman on horseback. Perhaps that’s why they were so aggressive." He kindly refrained from adding that if she just let her hair grow out, the problem would go away.

- - - - -

The Peace Corps driver, like most of his profession, was a skilled improviser. Time after time when you climbed the switchbacks leading to the Salang pass, you’d see drivers of 18-wheel semi’s with their transmissions completely disassembled, repairing the clutches with chewing gum and other substances. This time, it was the old jeep and it stalled on the Kandahar highway, at night. He lifted the hood, pulled out a match, and looked around. "Isn’t that dangerous, " I cried. "There might be some gas leaking from the tubing!"

- - - - -

"Not to worry, Sahib. It is written in the Book when you or I shall die. Nothing we do can change that. I will fix it."

Barbee Bridge

- - - - -

A group of Uzbeks stood around at the Kabul airport, waiting for their connecting flight from Tashkent to New Delhi and henceforth to Ceylon (Sri Lanka.) I went up to them and introduced myself, figuring that learning something new was a good use of otherwise wasted time. They were delighted to talk, even in broken Farsi which none of them knew well. But male bonding immediately took over. "You see, we are going to Ceylon because we have done well on our collective farms. But we have a woman in charge of us, and she knows nothing but Russian. It’s shameful! " I was not clear whether they meant it was shameful that she spoke neither Uzbek or Farsi, or that they minded being shepherded by a woman. When we landed in Delhi, they asked me for help in filling out the strange Landing Cards. This time they left no doubt where the shame lay…..being escorted by a woman was simply not manly, but then they wanted to see the ocean and be warm in the winter. Perhaps that made all this folderol worthwhile.

- - - - -

Janice, my wife, came home from her trip to Greece in a terrific outfit I had never seen before. It was a red miniskirt, a similarly colored waistcoat, and a sleeveless jacket to match. "Where did you get that?" I asked her as we walked away from the plane. " Your friend Christine gave it to me as a parting gift after we had traveled together for a week visiting all the classic mythological sites. Don’t you like it?" "I think it’s great. Fits you perfectly." When we walked into the house, however, the cultural gap between current American fashion and Afghan modesty loomed very large. Anwar, our cook, was very fond of my wife and her continued effort to learn Dari in her colloquies with him. But this time, he was both speechless and his eyes turned away at all the bare flesh, knees, thigh, shoulders, arms. He did not know where to look. Finally he said " Salaam, Memsahib. Welcome back" and he dashed into the kitchen.

- - - - -

Our best high school teacher was out sick with the runs. Since this happened just shortly after Group IX arrived and we had not yet assigned everyone, I thought Alex von Wetter would possibly do. I called him in,told himto go see the sick teacher and hoped for the best. Late that afternoon the principal of Habibia high school called.He couldn’t praise Alex’s performance enough. " It’s almost as though he was even better than your regular PCV," he said. So I called Alex in and asked him how he had scored so well. " Well, it’s just like acting in Hollywood which is what I did just before I came to afghanistan. You read the script, you try to imagine yourself in that posistion, and then you act!" I burst out laughing, and now having taught MBA’s for the past 15 years, I’m still laughing at the accuracy of his observation.

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