Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2005 | Features

The Cost of Bread in Afghanistan

By Alleen Nilsen

It sounds funny in retrospect, but when my husband and I and our three children moved to Afghanistan in 1967, that country was considered one of the relatively few where a linguist could get acquainted with a different culture and a different language without endangering his wife and children. As part of an AID (Agency for International Development) contract team, my husband, Don, would work for two years to establish an English language program at Kabul University.

As it turned out, Don’s job as a linguist did not change as much as did mine as a wife and mother. Instead of stretching a student budget to pay the rent for married student housing, I was suddenly moved into a big two-storey house that came complete with terrazzo floors, furniture handcrafted to look like the pictures in a Sears catalog, and three servants—all men because women were not allowed to work outside of their homes. Siddiq was our cook, as well as our translator. Xanalea was our dishwasher and general cleaner. Juma was our gardener.

My adjustment to having three servants was my biggest challenge. Having grown up with “the great American work ethic,” I was sure that one servant would be plenty. In fact, the only reasons I could conceive for having even one servant was that the house was bigger than any I had ever lived in; we had to fetch our drinking water from the deep well at the American Embassy; I could not imagine myself shopping anywhere except the American commissary, which sold mostly canned food and toilet paper; and—at least until our shipment of goods came from the United States—our clothes and household linens would have to be washed in the bathtub.

Juma’s only duties were to sweep the sidewalks and the patio and to bring in wood for the fireplace and kerosene for the stoves. During the summers, he tended the scruffy lawn in front of the house, too, but this hardly seemed like a full-time job. Since there was nothing but dirt and mud behind the house, we decided Juma could improve the landscaping there. Siddiq arranged for a couple of donkey loads of bricks to be delivered, and we carefully demonstrated to Juma how he could lay them out. He seemed to understand, but day after day, the bricks sat untouched. We would do another demonstration and Juma would nod enthusiastically, but still there was no action. After a week or so, we woke up to hear little tapping noises coming from the back of the house. We smiled and congratulated ourselves on our good management. At last, Juma was laying the bricks.

Alas, when we went out to tell him how pleased we were, we discovered that Juma had “subcontracted” his job, bringing in two men from outside to do the work. Of course, we were expected to pay the men, since Juma worked for something like a dollar a day. After a while, we caught on that the servants were protecting their economic system when they refused to do work “outside” their specialty.

We paid Siddiq the equivalent of $1.50 a day, while Xanalea received $1.25. Such wages were standard, though each of these men had extended families to support. The tremendous inequities between the way our small American families lived and the way the large Afghan families lived did not go unnoticed by the servants. To equalize matters, they felt justified in taking things home with them. Whenever we saw an Afghan man pedaling an overloaded bicycle, we’d jokingly guess which American family employed him.

Most of the time, we could be fairly complacent about such “sharing,” but it was nevertheless frustrating when the electricity would go off and we would discover that the servants had taken the batteries out of the flashlights. I recall the day I had the Cub Scouts over for a carpentry project, only to discover that all the nails had been stolen.

The second year we lived in Kabul, I took a job teaching at the American International School of Kabul, which meant none of us was home during the day. It wasn’t long before the American woman who lived across the street reported that Siddiq’s wife came nearly every day to visit. From her upstairs window, she would watch Siddiq come to the gate and give his wife either a piece of charcoal to hide under her chaderi (what the media calls a burka) or a flat detergent bottle that our neighbor suspected was filled with kerosene.

Because she had shared her observations and told everyone about our lack of “proper supervision,” we succumbed to social pressure and fired Siddiq—only to hire him back a month later. Not only had we endured a month of bad food from an unskilled cook, but Siddiq came visiting and begged for his job back. When we said, “But you steal things,” he looked around our living room and, while pointing to the chandelier, said with a kind of despair that I still remember 35 years later, “I do not even have an electric light in my house.”

During our years in Afghanistan, we never felt in control of the economic system. We had no idea what things should cost, but we were expected to bargain. My skill in Farsi was so marginal that I could manage the numbers only from one to ten; then I had to skip by tens to 20 and 50.

We learned that many Afghans viewed us as the kind of royalty they knew from an old folktale. In that story, a king on safari stops to eat in a desert village and is charged the equivalent of $25 for an egg. When he protests, “Surely, eggs can’t be this scarce!” he is told, “No, but kings are!”

Our solution was to have Siddiq do all the shopping, for which he regularly extracted a commission. Every few weeks, we would engage in sly discussions trying to find out just how much extra he was earning through these commissions.

Our most memorable discussion came after we sent Siddiq to buy us two loaves of whole wheat bread, or nan. The dough is rolled flat with a bristled rolling pin that leaves holes for ventilation. Every neighborhood had a small bakery shop where people could buy this bread or, as was the custom with most Afghan families, could send their own dough to be baked. The secret to the crust and the reason the bread couldn’t be baked at home is that the rolled-out dough had to be slapped up against the sides of a cement pit with a hot charcoal fire at the bottom. As soon as the bread baked, the dough would pull away from the wall of the pit and the attentive baker would quickly catch it with a fork before it fell into the coals. The loaves of nan resemble snowshoes in shape and color. One of our favorite sights was to see children walking home from the bakery with these big flexible snowshoes drooped over their heads.

After we had been in Afghanistan for a few months, we asked Siddiq to go and buy us two loaves of nan. Other Americans had told us that it tasted wonderful with peanut butter and honey, which we could purchase from the American commissary. When Siddiq returned with the bread, he gave us back so little change that we questioned him about the price. He pretended he didn’t understand what we were saying.

Determined not to let him get away with such a trick, Don and I marched ourselves across the street and down to the bakery to stand in line with the neighborhood children. We intended to buy ourselves a loaf of nan and thereby learn its price. We were almost at the front of the line, when out from the bakery came a young woman all excited to see Don. She was a student at Kabul University and was overjoyed that her teacher had come to her father’s bakery. When we told her we had come for a loaf of nan, she brought out two loaves.

“How much is it?” we asked, holding out a handful of coins.

“Oh, for you, nothing!” she insisted.

“But just tell us how much,” we begged.

“A gift! A gift!” she repeated.

We returned home thoroughly ashamed of our suspicions. In the 18 more months that we stayed in Afghanistan, we never learned the price of a loaf of bread.