Down in the valley, they call me "Engineer-khan".
Afghans have a system of formal and informal titles that are based on things as various as elder/younger relationships, social standing, and religious accomplishments. The titles are suffixes to the name.
"Jan" means "sweet" or "dear". You would call a younger person this, or a friend. It's a term of endearment.
"Saheb" is just about equivalent to "mister" or "sir". Used as a symbol of respect for a person of authority or social standing. In some instances, it's a light token of obeisance. You would call a bureaucrat, policeman, or your boss saheb.
"Khan" is a term of great respect. A khan is a powerful, and, usually, rich man. You call a village elder "-khan", regardless of your relative social standing. You call a Fortune 500 CEO -khan. You call the President (Wulasmushir) "Wulasmushir-khan". You call your grandfather "Grandfather-khan". You might call a younger person or a person of lower social standing "khan" as a very gracious compliment, but it wouldn't be habitual, more along the lines of "Good job, Malang-khan." A one-off deal, to let them know that you really mean it. Khan is not a term tacked on as flattery, as saheb often is. The feeling is that to do so would debase the value of calling someone who really deserves it a khan.
There are others, of course, and some that are prefixes, like "Pir" (a hereditary saint) or "Hajji" (one who has made the pilgrimage to Mecca). But I of course never rated any of those.
When I first showed up, as far as they were concerned, I was just tejerbat. Translator. Simple. Back then, I was just "Haq-saheb" when they wanted something, sometimes "Wror-jan" to the youngsters as we got a little more familiar and I learned to carry around a pocketful of peppermint candy. I think my attitude threw a lot of them for a loop - I was a rare American who managed to be neither condescending nor patronizing. My patience grew to Buddha-like proportions in the daily struggle not to succumb to their naked ignorance and manufactured inscrutability. I was willing to take as long as it took, willing to get into the minutiae, willing to understand what they really meant and not just what they said. Willing to drink their endless shitty tea and ask all the right, ritual questions about the livestock and the kariz and the well and the new grandson and the unseasonably stiff wind and the livestock again and...
One day, Barmal said, "Haq-saheb, tikra saree ye, deyr tikra saree."
Mr. Haq, you're a very clever man.
The blatant flattery can only mean he wants something. There's very little of what Westerners consider tact in this culture.
"Na, baba. Tsunga da fikr ye?"
Hoho, no way Jose, what makes you think that?
"Deyr tikra ye, tsok mekanik po shwei?"
No, you're very clever. Do you, uh, know any mechanics?
"Na. Tsa pa tsanga shwai?"
No, not offhand. What's going on
So it turns out, the generator in the village had shit the bed, and now, Barmal said, they had no way to charge cellphones or study Koran at night. Read between the lines and realize that they had no way to power their 10" black and white TV to watch the decade-old WWF rebroadcasts that beam across the border from pirate TV stations in Pakistan.
"Kuma dowal genreitar?"
What kind of generator?
This was the least helpful while still non-evasive answer possible. The Stan brothers are awash in shoddy, counterfeit, and bootleg Chinese goods. There's a reasonable chance that the generator in question was actually a slightly modified second-generation copy of a 1970's Suzuki dirtbike engine. Having never seen it, I could only recommend that they clean out the fuel lines and replace the spark plugs. The gas they use is dirty and sometimes cut with kerosene.
Turns out, I was a little more tikra than I thought. The juice flowed, the wrestling showed, and all was good in the village called Mohamadkhel. Aside from, well, the usual problems inherent with being in Afghanistan.
A week later, making the rounds, distributing starlight peppermints both shna and sur, the children were calling me "Mekanik-saheb". No more "Dear brother". I was no longer (just) some easily-swindled guy with a magazine pouch full of candy. I had Fixed The Generator when none of the other men could. In fact, did you hear?, hoarse whispers, giggles, He never even looked at it, he just knew what was wrong!
Now, mind you, nicknames are absurdly common among Afghans. I was called "Palwandi Saheb" for a few weeks because some of the ANA had seen us grabassing around doing hand to hand drills, and were so delighted by hip tosses, among other things, that they decided to call me "Mr. Wrestler".
So, for a good while I was Mekanik-saheb to everybody. One day I was asked what my job was, "pa faudz ki" in the army.
Now. Here's an aspect of Afghan culture that is often infuriating. The person asking me this question knew the answer. Tejerbat. I'd been there for months, doing the same things every day. Like children who never tire of the same story, Afghans will rehash the same topics over and over and over and over and over again.
So rather than intentionally derail the question - which I did that sometimes, as a sort of retaliation for making me repeat myself - with a ludicrous tangent, I just told him,
"Na. Tejerbat na ye."
No. You aren't a translator.
"Tsunga? Wali Pashto habarawalam?"
Oh yeah? Then why am I speaking Pashto to you?
"Na, mohim na dai. Engineer dai."
That's not important. You're an engineer.
"Tsunga engineer yam? Ma fikr wokr che mekanik-saheb nomeighm."
How am I an engineer? I thought I was called Mekanik-saheb.
"Na. Loy gran mekanik dai. Engineer dai."
No. You are the grand high Pu-bah mechanic. You're an engineer.
So, it turns out, between fixing the generator by magic, troubleshooting a few shitty old Corollas, and explaining the blowback mechanism of an M4 carbine with stick-and-dirt-diagrams when asked "How does it work?", I had become credentialed enough to advance to the title of Engineer.
Now, engineers, real ones, are immensely respected in Afghanistan. Think the kind of respect that a Doctor got in 1950s America, and you're headed the right direction. Engineers, you see, build things. Roads. Dams. Powerplants. Factories. The kind of things that spell progress, that are a ray of hope in a world that is sometimes self conscious of being backward and uncivilized.
I guess they'd started calling me "Engineer-saheb" after we helped put a new stone bridge over a little ditch outside the gate one day, just for something to do. We had some leftover mixed concrete from another project, and of course there are rocks everywhere. The bridge wasn't even intended for us, nor would we ever use it. It was just an improvised job to keep kids from the village having to slog through the sewage trench when they came to stand at the fence and beg for water bottles and pens, and a decent workout heaving around some big rocks.
But I think the "khan" part came after how many months of making sure the MREs that the day laborers got were halal (the supply clerk didn't give a shit, he'd feed them ham and eggs - I got in a few arguments with him), helping the Doc teach them to boil their water to reduce cholera, teaching the children to read and requisitioning stationery and pens from "big supply" when we couldn't get a grant and the NGOs were too scared to come up that far into the mountains.
I was a Khan because those things, those little things, were a display of immense and benevolent power in a place where having enough food to eat three squares a day meant you were well-off.
I was a little shocked the first time a white beard called me Engineer-khan. The term "white beard" (spingheri) is not an insult, and is in fact a term of great respect. If you live long enough to have a flowing white beard, you are by default one of the toughest and wisest dudes around.
Spingheri Nasim-khan wanted me to help build a bridge across the top end of the valley, to make it faster to move herds across to the next village over. This kind of project was absolutely out of my purview, or even that of anybody I could directly ask. I told him that I didn't think that was possible, and he clapped me on the shoulder and said,
"Ooah, poh shwam. Khapa na keighm, poh shwam che yau saree, au d dai saree watan, kalakala haghei dwa zra larei. Dagha tsunga taso delta yast."
It's okay, I understand. I'm not upset with you. I understand that sometimes, a man and his country have two different hearts. That's why you're here in the first place.