America as the 21st Century <i>Elysium</i>: An Afghan Comparison

Elysium is for Damon, and the millions of other people living in grinding poverty and chaos on earth below, a place of unobtainable tranquility, hope and salvation. And that is exactly what I came to see America as after a recent trip to Afghanistan where I had the grim task of working for a U.S. government agency tracking Taliban suicide bombers and their targeting patterns.
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I first began traveling to Afghanistan soon after the 2001 liberation of the country from the Taliban and, despite the extreme dangers, poverty, and lack of development, came to love this war-torn land and her people. My journeys there gave me tremendous insight into the land of stunning landscapes, warm hospitable villagers, and a rich history. While many Americans see Afghanistan in one dimensional terms as a land of the Taliban, IEDs, opium barons, misogynistic mullahs and warlords, I came to see it in three dimensional terms as a land of ancient castles, colorful tribesman, majestic snow-capped mountains and archaic ways that -- for someone who grew up in the land of Walmarts, cookie-cutter suburban McMansions, takeout food, and strip malls -- seemed to come straight out of the Old Testament or an Indiana Jones movie. In Afghanistan I found the sort of hospitality one rarely finds in the more advanced nations of the West as impoverished villagers slaughtered their only goat to create a banquet to welcome me to their village and invited me into their humble homes. Having said that, every time I left the country and began my long flight back over Iran to my home in Boston, I did so with a certain sense of relief. For unlike the Afghans, I could always leave that colorful dangerous land and return to the safety of my own safe, modern homeland. Whether it was the tension of traveling in a warzone or dealing with the primitive conditions in one of the world's must undeveloped nations, I always felt as if I had managed to be beat the odds and get away safe and sound every time I got out of Afghanistan unscathed.

Arrival back in Boston after weeks of eating rice pilaf and naan bread with my hands, using fly infested outdoor holes in the ground for a toilet, seeing poverty on a level found only in sub-Saharan Africa, hearing the occasional suicide bomb go off in downtown Kabul, making sure you didn't inadvertently walk into an ever present minefield, or simply living in temperatures above 100 for weeks straight without air-conditioning, was like entering a different world. It was almost like entering Elysium, the orbiting world floating above impoverished 22nd century earth in the new Matt Damon Hollywood thriller. In the movie Elysium an elite few live in a futuristic, orbiting paradise where even life-ending cancer can be beaten with advanced medical technology, while the rest of humanity suffers below them on earth in poverty, ill health and misery. In the movie, Matt Damon attempts to escape primitive earth and enter the ultimate cosmic "Gated Community" of Elysium to get a cure for his terminal cancer.

Elysium is for Matt, and the millions of other people living in grinding poverty and chaos on earth below, a place of unobtainable tranquility, hope and salvation.

And that is exactly what I came to see America as after a recent trip to Afghanistan where I had the grim task of working for a U.S. government agency tracking Taliban suicide bombers and their targeting patterns. After visiting a country that had the equivalent of a large scale Boston bombing on a weekly basis, the sense of security I found the day after my return while walking through Harvard Square was surreal. In a matter of hours I had left Matt Damon's 22nd century poverty-ravaged earth and entered the futuristic paradise of Elysium.

In Afghanistan I was a six foot, blond hair, blue eyed kafir (infidel) who stood out like a sore thumb, despite my disheveled beard and shalwar kameez robes, and my job certainly made me paranoid about lurking suicide bombers and ever present Taliban terrorists. But in Harvard Square the greatest threat I faced came from mothers clumsily pushing hi-tech baby prams that cost as much as an average Afghan's yearly salary (which in 2004 was a mere $70 a month, i.e. less than I made as paper boy in high school) and the honking horns of cars that cost much more than an Afghan would make in a lifetime. Taking in the sight of young Bostonian girls freely walking hand-in-hand with their boyfriends in short summer skirts (instead of fearfully walking under the protection of a mahrem -- a family male, the only males Afghan Pashtun women can be caught with in public -- while wearing a burqa) made me realize just how blessed we were (especially females) by the security, liberties and advancements we have that most of us here in Elysium-America simply take for granted.

The average Afghan girl by contrast is married off (often to be the third or fourth wife to an elderly man) at the age of 15, shortly followed by her first of many childbirths. From there her she will be confined to the women's quarters of a clay-walled house, often without electricity, in a Godforsaken Afghan village. One has only to see the famous before-and-after pictures of the Afghan girl who was photographed for National Geographic's cover in 1985 and then again in 2002 to see how living in the harsh conditions in Afghanistan aged an average Afghan girl.

As becomes apparent, Afghanistan has none of the amenities and advances we here on Elysium use to stay young and healthy.

As for anti-aging creams and sunscreen to prevent cancer and wrinkling, not to mention antacids, braces to correct poor teeth, baby safety seats for cars, automobile air bags, comfortable insoles for shoes, diapers, Band Aids, Rogaine for receding hairlines, heart pills etc. -- forget it. When an Afghan gets sick there are few hospitals to go to seek care or ambulances, especially in remote areas where most of the population lives. Typical cures for illnesses in out-of-the-way Afghan villages range from drinking chicken saliva blessed by a mullah to an amulet to keep the evil eye away. I once met a young Afghan man who told me his 17-year-old wife twice had a miscarriage while driving off-road in an SUV through the rugged mountains to reach a hospital 35 miles away. Such run-of-the-mill Afghan tragedies certainly contribute to make the average life expectancy of an Afghan 48 years, whereas here in America it's 78, almost an additional lifetime.

In Afghanistan I regularly saw Afghan children as young as 6 or 7 working in the fields to help their family survive in this harsh land where every mouth needs to work to be fed. The average Afghan looks 10 or more years older than his American equivalent from years of working in the harsh sun (Afghans don't have the luxury of occasionally tanning themselves to improve their looks), the stress of living daily in what has been a deadly war zone for more than three and half decades, and most importantly, poor diets. I still remember the excitement on my Afghan host family's faces when the father announced that we would be having meat (chicken in this case) for the first time that month to celebrate my visit. For someone who never even contemplated the option of not having access to something as basic as meat, the joy on the children's faces was heartbreaking.

Then there are the medical issues. As in the Hollywood satellite planet of Elysium, when an America gets melanoma skin cancer or appendicitis (or needs a hip replacement for that matter), they get immediate medical attention in some of the best facilities on 21st century earth. I myself once injured my back in car accident that would have left an Afghan crippled and in excruciating pain for life. Unlike my Afghan equivalent, however, I was able to get my herniated discs quickly operated on and sent to months of insurance-covered therapy, including working out in a fully equipped, air-conditioned gym with a trainer and swimming in a heated Olympic pool, to make sure I healed perfectly. The last thing you want to do is get into a car accident in Afghanistan and find yourself in need of having your spinal column operated on in order to walk again as I did in America.

Speaking of walking again, I was always struck by how many children I saw in Afghanistan were missing a leg from having inadvertently strayed into a landmine field left over from one of the country's wars -- which have been going on continuously since 1978. The horror of having a leg blown off is a daily threat for Afghan farmers whose lands are saturated with land mines. For Americans such tragic war conditions are abstracts seen only on television sets that take place in miserable third world countries (the Boston bombing, America's first terrorist attack since 9/11, being the only exception), not a daily fact of life as in Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. In Afghanistan it is all but impossible to meet someone who has not lost loved ones (plural) in the endless wars that have cost this people 1.5 million lives during the 1980s Soviet invasion and tens of thousands more since then in the Afghan Civil War, the Taliban conquest, and the War on Terror. At times it seems as if the whole nation is either in grieving for the dead or has varying degrees of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The only benefit I found from living in Afghanistan is that Afghan teenagers were less worried about school sports, problems with dating (dating is not allowed), popularity, acne, being caught underage drinking, their parents not understanding their need for their own space, etc. compared to their American counterparts. Most Afghan teenagers I met were thrilled (if they were lucky) to have been given the chance to attend a primitive elementary school and learn how to read and write.

But the thing that struck me the most about Afghans was, for all these traumas and disadvantages, how the small things in life made them genuinely happy in the ways that many Americans who lived far faster, wealthier, blessed lives are not. I have never found a people more aware of the joy of a healthy child birth, a day off from working in the fields to celebrate a wedding, the thrill of meeting their first foreigner, or simply having a warm meal with meat on it on special occasions. Of all the peoples I have come to know in my travels in Eurasia, from Ireland to India, none seemed to have been as happy as the Afghans I came to know and love.

This is a lesson I have tried to keep with me, especially on my "bad days" in America. For those of us blessed by the lottery of birth to have been born in late 20th/early 21st century America, where the average literacy rate is 99 percent (Afghanistan by contrast has a rate of 28 percent), we should pause next time we moan about how expensive a Starbucks Frappuccino is, or worry about our "muffin-top" bellies from eating too much and not working out enough, or get angry at the line in the buffet at The Olive Garden, or crushed by the fact that our favorite dancer got voted off of television's Dancing with the Stars. For the first step to not being spoiled like the 22nd century denizens of imaginary Elysium is recognizing how good we got it here in the very real country of America.

For photographs of average Afghans taken in my journeys across Afghanistan see my website here and choose Field Research.

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