Personal Note:

Friends tell me I need to give more of a sense of Afghanistan through the lens of my personal experience there. There are many of these personal incidents, but there is one that is often on my mind, mostly because there is so much news, every day, out of the middle-east. In addition to meeting a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer who became my wife and the mother of my three wonderful children, the incident I'll describe here has also become a big part of who I am, and why Afghanistan has always been an important part of my life.

I worked my way through college doing summer jobs on highway and dam site survey crews in Alaska's bush. After giving me some training in cadastral surveys as part of the country training program the Peace Corps eventually tagged me as a field survey advisor, and assigned me to the cadastral survey program recently set up by the Afghan government. Along with the Peace Corps, equipment and support for the program was also provided by the US Agency for International Development

Cadastral surveys are used to establish land survey control systems. The surveys start out by taking star shots on high ground. They end up by setting the survey corners on real properties scheduled for eventual sale and development. They are done in the US by the Federal Bureau of Land Management. For guys or girls who like the feel and experience of mountain tops, wilderness, and rugged territory in general, working on a cadastral survey field crew is the very best kind of job.

The Afghan program was based in the city of Khandahar, about 300 miles southwest of Kabul. Afghan field survey crews did their work all over the country. In my time as an advisor, I worked with Afghan crews in the northwest around Herat, in the area south of Ghazni, north of the Hindu Kush mountains around Kunduz, and as far southwest as the Iranian border.

The incident of interest here happened in the southwest corner of the country in a small town called Chakhansur. Chakhansur lies very close to the Iranian border. The Afghan survey boss in Khandahar needed to talk with some of the community leaders. He and his driver had to drive down by TravelAll, and he invited two of us PCVs to ride along.

An hour or so out of Khandahar, our driver suddenly turned south off the paved road that connects Khandahar and Herat. He turned where there was no road, and no signs to tell where we were, or what direction we should take. The driver simply headed across the desert. Obviously, this would be no ordinary road trip. …but, then again, nothing is very ordinary in Afghanistan.

After another hour traveling over raw desert we began to see what appeared to be the ruins of buildings in the form of collapsed walls mostly covered with blown sand. As we drove further the extent of these ruins grew to extend as far as we could see in all directions. We continued south through the ruins for what seemed - in my memory now - like hours.

After the Peace Corps, I found out that the ruined city we had passed through was one of several cities founded by Alexander the Great in his campaign to conquer the Persians; a campaign begun more than 330 years before the time of Christ.

At the end of our drive south, we arrived at Chakhansur in the evening, and checked into a local tea house / hotel. After a typical dinner of rice, mutton, tea, and unleavened bread we went upstairs for sleep. Sleep did not come for awhile, though. The bugs and fleas were so bad in the mattresses and bed clothes that we had to move up to the roof.

There, in the cool and silent night air, we slept until early dawn. As the sky turned light in the east, we were suddenly awakened by a muslim singing a beautiful call to prayer from the top of a nearby minaret. The singing was clear-voiced, and devout. I was not then, and am not now, a religious person, but to hear this at breaking dawn, in this silent place hundreds of miles across deadly deserts from even a hint of civilization was, frankly, an inspiration. It was even - a surprise to me then - an impulse to faith.

In Islam the call to prayer occurs five times a day. At the call a devout muslim will, wherever he is, unroll his prayer mat, orient it and himself to face Mecca, get down on his knees, then bend forward with his hands out-stretched, and touch his forehead to his mat. Returning upright, his hands open-palmed cross his chest, his face upturned, his eyes closed. This happens several times.

In my experience, there is no more physical or powerful expression of faith than this daily devotional act occurring across the planet. Our muslim fellow-travelers on the roof were no exception to this devotion. I and my fellow PCV were dumbstruck.

I was reminded again of the power of the call to prayer on a trip to Egypt in 2005. There, a friend I was visiting took me to the top of a minaret in the muslim section of Cairo. We were about 150 feet above the streets. There was only room for the two of us at the very narrow top of the minaret. We could see across Cairo all the way to the Pyramids 10 miles distant. The mid-afternoon call started quietly in isolated neighborhoods, then rose quickly in intensity until the sound was almost deafening. At the top of our minaret, the impact was intense, and overwhelming.

In Chakhansur the next day, as we met with some of the city leaders, a caravan of camels crossed through the city on their way north. Several of the men mounted on the camels were armed with automatic weapons. Bandoliers of cartridges crossed their chests.

These were not uncommon images in the south of Afghanistan, though men in the caravans were not usually so heavily and so visibly armed. Our Afghan survey supervisor told us that caravans going to, or arriving from Iran are normally well and visibly armed. - Jerry Smetzer, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer - Afghanistan, 1968 - 1969.