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An American’s Ramadan in Kabul

Fasting with my Afghan housemates during the Muslim holy month had a profound effect on our friendship.

Gracia Lam

I didn’t set out to be a Lawrence of Arabia type, solemnly trying to observe all the local customs and wearing the local clothes, but I have grown quite close to the Afghans I live with. So much so that I got inspired to fast with them during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. I committed out of solidarity.

When I arrived in Afghanistan two years ago, as a civilian hired to film military operations, I ate, slept, and worked next to US and coalition soldiers. I grew close to them during daily life, and sometimes under fire. Now that I’m freelancing and living with Afghan taxi drivers in Kabul, I feel the same camaraderie with them.

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I’m not a Muslim  — I’m a white New Englander raised as a Christian — but I respond to the deep spirituality of many Muslims I’ve encountered. It is something to see a well-dressed businessman lay his prayer mat down near a street sweeper and both men bow their heads to the ground. It is tragic that often only violence and misogyny are associated with a religion that I’ve found startling in its humanity.

Given the long and costly conflict, I don’t blame Americans for not appreciating Afghans or Muslims in general. My experiences here have forced me to change. First, I worked with fearless Afghan interpreters and cameramen who treated me like a brother and watched my back on dangerous trips. Later, while filming a documentary, an Italian outdoorsman and I got stranded in the snowy mountains of Badakhshan in the north. Over five days, Afghans took us into their homes and fed us, then guided us out.

The latest eye-opener was coming to live with these characters, the taxi drivers. Behind the wheel, they’re highly competent but insane. One of my favorites likes to do hand-brake turns in busy intersections, laughing as police shout and shake their AK-47s. He and the other drivers would make great fighter pilots. They have the reflexes and the spunk.

I moved in with them over the winter, renting a room in their house. But I didn’t want to buy wood for a separate stove, so I slept and worked in the common area with them. They loved it. They made fun of my bad Dari and my attempts at sitting cross-legged. Though I tend to be moody and solitary, living in the common area forced me to be social. It probably did more for me than any private therapy could. My Dari improved.

Now when I am out late and unaccounted for, they call to check on me. My expat friends joke: “Jeff, it’s your family calling.”

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My housemates know I’m not rich, but when I have money, I help. One driver is building a house for his family piecemeal, and I’ve paid for half the door. I made him promise to inscribe my name on a small brass plaque as a donor, and he has laughingly agreed.

Over the past month, I was amazed at how much my fasting meant to my housemates. It went deep that a khaarijee (an outsider) would not eat or drink from around 3 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day. When guests came over and we all sat cross-legged around iftar, the evening meal, my housemates nodded my way and said, “He is roza grifta — he has been taking the fast,” and the newcomers looked at me with regard.

Most of the time the conversation at home is all merciless joking, but about a week into the fast, the young men said something serious to me and had one of the English speakers among them repeat it, so I was sure to understand: “Since you respect our culture, we respect you.”

Friends back in the States ask for insight into Afghanistan, and what I can offer with certainty is that I have found good Afghan friends.

Jeff Holden is a freelance videographer based in Kabul. Send comments to connections@globe.com.

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