Wednesday, 19 January 2011

POV: Omid And Why We Will Never Win

Photo © Michael Kamber- Courtesy The New York Times
Michael Kamber is a well known New York City-based freelance writer and photographer for The New York Times. He worked in West Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean, covering conflicts in the Ivory Coast, Congo, Liberia, Haiti, Afghanistan and Iraq. Apart from frequently-published photo essays in The New York Times, he also authors a journal of his Afghanistan experiences. Its entries began in December 2010 and appear on the newspaper's LENS blog.

His latest entry -along with over a dozen of his excellent photographs- is on yesterday's LENS blog under the title of Deeper Into Fathomless Afghanistan, and reading Michael's journal entries, I was compelled to leave a comment on the blog.

Here's one of the entries in Michael's journal that prompted my comment:

He writes:

Beside me, an Afghan, clearly an interpreter, introduces himself in accented English as Bob.

“What’s your real name?” I ask him.

“My name’s Omid. But on the first day at this job, the sergeant asked me my ‘terp’ name. I told him: ‘I don’t have a terp name. My name is Omid.’

”Omid is too complicated for us to remember,’ he told me. ‘From now on, your name is Bob.”

My comment on the LENS blog:

"It's too bad that the guy who uttered this insulting and ignorant nonsense to the interpreter hasn't realized that he's insulting Omid by his stupidity and arrogance. What if the roles were reversed, and the Afghan was to tell a Robert that this name didn't roll off his tongue easily, and he'd be called Mohammed from now on? How would Robert feel?

Omid's is entitled to be proud of his name...it probably has a long lineage...and since we are occupying his country, we ought to show immense respect to those who risk their lives for a few dollars a day and work with the US army. Learning how to pronounce their names is the civil and respectful thing to do. Omid is not a stray pet adopted by the sergeant.

My hat's off to Mr Kamber for quoting this and other statements in this piece...i'm sure he's as dismayed as I am by them."

Reading the other entries added to my long standing pessimism; we will never win. When we are unable (or unwilling) to respect people who help us by risking their lives, we will gain no allies unless we abet their corruption. They, in turn, view our presence in Afghanistan as a cow to be milked, and eventually will stab us in the back.

Another thing. Just look at the expression of the Afghan in Kamber's photograph above this post. He's holding a copy of a Chicken Soup For The Soul given to him by a well-meaning US charity. Who dreamed of sending a collection of "inspirational" platitudes (and in English) to Afghanistan? I obviously can't speak for this Afghan, but I bet he looked at the book with amusement, and eventually guffawed with his friends at the naivete of the Americans.

Chicken Soup For The Soul to change Afghanistan? The mind boggles.

Addendum:  I've received a few emailed comments on this post.

One from a frequent reader of this blog who suggests that my post came across as anti-military. That's incorrect. I am anti-war...especially wars that are unnecessary like the Iraq war, and those wars that devolved into aimless havoc and propping an unsupportable government, like the war in Afghanistan...and the least we -and our military- can do is respect those Afghans or Iraqis who work for us, at the risk of their lives.  I'm hopeful the individuals depicted in Mr Kamber's journal are the exception.

The other email comments from a handful of readers agreed with my point of view.