Lost in Translation

A cautionary tale of rebuilding in a Muslim country.

In November 2001, while bombs were dropping over Afghanistan, the Episcopal bishop of New York heard that at least one Afghan mosque had been destroyed in a U.S.-led assault. He invited church members to work with our Muslim neighbors in Flushing, N.Y., to help rebuild a damaged mosque north of Kabul. The “mosque project” was a small pre-emptive strike by a few New Yorkers of Episcopalian and Afghan Muslim extraction against a Samuel Huntington-style “clash of civilizations” on the one hand and the hollow ring of President Bush’s laudable words about religious tolerance on the other. It was also an interfaith effort at reconciliation that ended up having more potential religious, cultural, and logistic pitfalls than your average USAID road-construction venture.

Two years later, charged with completing this project, I learned firsthand some things aid workers and private contractors tackling much larger tasks already know about the paramount importance of humility and agility in being “helpful” abroad. During a negotiation session with our Afghan building contractor one hot afternoon in Kabul and a subsequent visit to the mosque itself I realized that mosque-building and nation-building are not for the flat-footed or fainthearted.

As happens with construction projects, our honeymoon with Mr. Fayaz, the mosque contractor, was short-lived. Before my trip to Kabul, the last anyone had heard from him had been in the winter of 2002, when the mosque officially opened. While Mr. Fayaz’s low bid and pious enthusiasm had initially impressed our interfaith partners at the Masjid Hazrat-i-Abu Bakr mosque in Flushing, at the ribbon-cutting ceremony in February the building was only half finished. We learned third-hand that Fayaz had argued with the mosque leadership. Construction stopped even before the minaret (from which the call to prayer is made) or hand-washing well were complete. The following summer the bishop allowed me go to Kabul and persuade Mr. Fayaz to finish the job.

Accompanying me on this long-awaited rendezvous was Wahid Omar, my translator. A tall, bespectacled Afghan-American, Wahid had left Afghanistan in 1978 at 19. As a young man in Kabul, he had regularly delivered fresh clothes to the Soviet prison where his father, the former minister of health, was imprisoned. One day a guard handed him a note urging him to leave the country at once. His father had heard that the Soviets were drafting young Afghan men into the army. Wahid quickly fled with his brother. Now he had the unenviable responsibility of shepherding a group of public-spirited Americans around his shellshocked home country. When Wahid showed us his former house in West Kabul, next to the ruins of a movie theater where he’d watched John Wayne movies in the ‘70s, I imagined myself taking foreign visitors around the skeleton of Rockefeller Center.

When I finally caught sight of the heavyset contractor waiting impatiently for our arrival, I rushed to the guest house door to greet him. After a few moments of sullen silence, Mr. Fayaz rallied and welcomed me to Afghanistan, flinging the corner of his dirty shawl back over one shoulder, placing his callused right hand over his heart, and dipping his head faintly in the graceful way that Afghans acknowledge one another. We walked inside and, sitting cross-legged on cushions, began a difficult conversation.

Producing $7,650 worth of small bills from my travel belt went a long way toward clearing up the basic misunderstandings about work and payment expectations. But what about this problem of communication with the mosque leaders? I asked. My question unleashed a staccato torrent. The locationposed big obstacles. Fayaz said it belonged in the front of the mosque, but elders were telling him it must go in the back.

Images of tedious but intransigent vestry arguments over the proper height of pews came to mind. Was this a congregational power struggle? Mr. Fayaz admitted it was, and that the elders didn’t even agree with one another. Worse, the local mullah, a cleric with spiritual responsibility for the Quarabagh community, had little sway—”He does what the elders want,” said Fayaz. Construction couldn’t continue until the placement of the minaret was decided.

Attempting to be diplomatic, I asked if there were any way for the elders to feel like they were in charge, but for the mullah to make the decision. “Yes,” Mr. Fayaz snorted, waving a dismissive hand. He would tell the elders that the “American engineers” had come to town and decreed that the minaret must be in front of the mosque.

I plowed on, trying to shift our talk from positions to interests. What was the real reason the elders wanted the minaret in the back? “Would it really be the end of the world?”

Wahid Omar hesitated and looked at me in a way that suggested he hoped I didn’t want him to translate that. When I insisted, he went ahead—and was once again assailed by an animated tirade from the contractor. Finally, Wahid turned to me and said, discreetly, “He has his own way of dealing with things. Afghans only understand power. We will talk about it later.”

After we waved Mr. Fayaz on his way, Wahid explained the contractor’s solution to the problem of the elders’ quarrel. In addition to telling the fabricated story about the American engineers, he would pay each elder 120 Afghani. This sum, the equivalent of less than two dollars apiece, would make the problem disappear. The mosque would get its minaret.

I wanted to see the mosque’s progress for myself and the following day ventured 50 miles north of Kabul to the truck-stop-sized town of Quarabagh. Within minutes of our arrival, a crowd of white-robed students, or talib,and older men gathered to inspect us. As we sat on a pile of rugs laid out for us on the mosque’s concrete porch, the crowd’s attention shifted again, to welcome a striking figure with jet-black hair, a beard, and dark glasses, pulling up with his entourage behind us.

It was Ostad Barakatullah Salim, the blind religious teacher whose recitations of the Holy Quran are famous around the Muslim world and whose presence at the mosque lends legitmacy to our efforts. Ostad Barakatullah, although a traditionalist, teaches men and women in his madrasah. After seating himself between Wahid and me and assuring us that our good deeds would be remembered  (“There is neither Christian nor Muslim in God’s eyes”), Barakatullah invited me to speak. Surrounded by the rapt talib, we embarked on an interfaith dialogue that touched on the dangers of extremism within both our traditions, the understanding of Jesus in Islam, and the openness of the Prophet to other religions of the Book.

Fifteen minutes into our discussion, I recalled a meeting with the Afghan Commission on Human Rights whose mission was to educate women and their husbands about the rights of women in the Quran—a life-risking venture in the provinces. I asked Ostad Barakatullah how Afghan Muslims were practicing the Quran’s instructions for equal education for men and women.

He had a lot to say on the subject. In Islam, women have three rights of inheritance while men have only two. (Later, I learned he was referring to girls and women being able to inherit from fathers, husbands, and brothers.) Also, strict rules in the Quran  forbid husbands from casually divorcing their wives. “In Islam,” Barakatullah concluded with feeling, “women are treated with respect. They are not treated like toys or hung up on walls and then trodden underfoot.” I assumed he was referring to the pin-ups you see on auto repair shop walls or bus stop advertisements.

I couldn’t resist. “Might there be a time in the future when there might be more Afghan women at gatherings like this one?” I asked. A few smiles crossed the faces of the gathering. Next to me, Barakatullah’s assistant nodded. Wahid wore a stony expression that promised later discussion.

Barakatullah himself, upon hearing the translation, straightened and replied vigorously, sweeping one hand around the assembly. “Afghanistan is a very poor country. Some of these people here earn less than one dollar a day. Everyone here,” he gestured to the audience, “has taken time out of their day to come and welcome you. The women are not here because they are very busy helping their husbands reconstruct the country. For now it is enough that we have one woman.” Smiles again. It was a thinly veiled reproach, one that noted the indelicately close proximity of a large cash donation with an implicit reproach. Though I felt chastened, all was not lost. At the conclusion of our discussion, as he was being helped to his feet, Ostad Barakatullah leaned over and added, “Of course, if you want to, maybe you can help build another mosque for women.”

For conservative Christians who doubt that the church should reconstruct mosques abroad while its own houses of worship lack weatherproof roofing, the fact that we have no plans, as yet, for a second mosque in Quarabagh will offer scant comfort. One reconstructed Afghan mosque is more than enough. For others, however—some Episcopalian New Yorkers, our interfaith partners in Flushing, and the people of Quarabagh who now have a concrete example of Christian-Muslim cooperation (one that they can worship inside)—the project successfully embodies hope of interfaith reconciliation. And for still others—secular professionals who rebuild nations, not mosques—here’s some faith-based advice you may already know: When you go in where angels fear to tread, step lightly, honor your translator, and remember that you are a stranger in a foreign land.