Courtesy of Cpl. Radek Polanski
Benjamin Tupper is a captain in the Army National Guard. His upcoming book is Welcome to Afghanistan, Send More Ammo.
Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Getty Images
Afghan men learn how to use a cell phone at Kabul's Post Office in Afghanistan, April 23, 2002 . An Afghan-U.S. telecommunication joint venture set up mobile phone capabilities in the Afghan capital and began expanding out to other cities and towns in 2002.
Afghan men learn how to use a cell phone at Kabul's Post Office in Afghanistan, April 23, 2002 . An Afghan-U.S. telecommunication joint venture set up mobile phone capabilities in the Afghan capital and began expanding out to other cities and towns in 2002. Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Getty Images
My interpreter Hameed was sitting in my hooch, waiting for me to finish a document that he would translate into Dari. His phone rang, and his face lit up when he saw the incoming number.
I could hear the voice of a young woman. I assumed it was his sister. But he was blushing, and smiling from ear to ear. He told me a young woman had randomly called him the week before. She was a complete stranger who had been dialing phone numbers, hoping a young man would answer. When Hameed did, he was more than willing to participate in her dial-a-date game.
At first, she wouldn't tell him her name. Not because of shyness, but because in Afghanistan, single men and women don't interact. At all. But after minutes of anonymous phone conversation, with no chance of ever meeting, Hameed and his mystery woman declared themselves boyfriend and girlfriend.
We all know love when we see it, regardless of our cultural lenses, and Hameed was knee-deep in it. He literally skipped with joy. As a sign of the seriousness of his commitment to her, he exclaimed with pleasure that he had spent over $20 on phone calls in the last week.
I asked him what they talked about. It was nothing bordering on love and romance. They talked about their day, and their plans for tomorrow. Yet in an Afghan context, this bland conversation was pure titillation.
What could the future hold for Hameed and his girlfriend? Maybe their telephonic romance could blossom into an exchange of email addresses. If they were really adventurous, they could send cell-phone photos. But these seemingly innocent acts would be a great risk to the woman. In Afghanistan, such harmless communication would be seen as a violation of family honor, with real and severe consequences.
Hameed received calls from his girlfriend for weeks, but the frequency decreased. With no chance of developing the relationship further, he became resigned to the fact that his cell-phone tryst had run its course. Hameed returned to the grey and draining life of daily combat patrols and tedious document translations. His girlfriend either lost her phone privileges, or moved onto a new anonymous phone number.
But while it lasted, Hameed was a man in love, a million miles away from Afghanistan's war and poverty. In a war-ravaged land, it is better to have loved and lost an anonymous partner on a cell-phone than never to have loved at all.