MarySmiths’Place – Travels in Afghanistan (2)


Cocooned in my black nylon, slithery, stifling burqa I retreated into a review – it was certainly not planning – of what had brought me here. Adult life had begun in a dull, but safe job as a junior bank clerk in South West Scotland. Numerically dyslexic, it was highly improbable that I would have ever fulfilled my mother’s ambition to have a daughter become one of the first women bank managers and after a boring year I left to hitch hike around France and Italy with a boyfriend.

Back in Britain we settled in Blackburn, Lancashire where I tried a succession of jobs from being a nanny to making car components before landing a job with Oxfam. It was a job I loved and would probably never have left had not the mini-bus driver taking our pool team to a match in Blackpool not been going to Pakistan. Somehow during the course of the evening it was decided I should accompany the wife and sister of a friend of the mini-bus driver when they returned to Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, to see their family.

While there, I visited the Marie Adelaide Leprosy centre and was deeply impressed by the work I saw being done there. In conversation with Dr Pfau, the dynamic German sister who had worked for over 25 years on the leprosy programme she suggested I stay on for three years to set up a health education department. ‘But,’ I pointed out, ‘I don’t have any medical qualifications.’

‘We can teach you what you need to know about leprosy. If you are not a doctor, that’s all to the good. You won’t use incomprehensible jargon when you tell people leprosy is curable.’

‘I have a job in England,’ I ventured. Dr Pfau shrugged. She’d made the offer and saw no reason to discuss things further. I came home but couldn’t settle back into my previously much-enjoyed life and a few months later returned to Karachi, armed with a three-year contract, wondering what I’d let myself in for.

While I was working to establish the health education department Dr Pfau, galvanised by the number of leprosy patients coming from Afghanistan seeking treatment, was encouraging young Afghans, mainly from the central region of Hazara Jat to train as leprosy paramedics with the aim of setting up a sister organisation across the border. A number of the students, such as my ‘son’ Hussain, came to me for help with their English. Our lessons continued outside the classroom as we, all foreigners in Pakistan, explored the city, took camel rides on the beach at weekends, ate Baloch ice creams at Clifton, rode the bumper cars at the fairground and haggled for bargains in the bazaar.

When my three-year contract came to an end I signed on again, this time to work for the new project in Afghanistan. Hussain, newly qualified as a leprosy/tuberculosis technician had already returned to his district to start the process of opening a clinic. I’d been delighted to learn he was to meet me in Quetta to accompany me across the border. I hadn’t bargained on Moh’dullah being a second escort.

A slight, wiry little man, whose sharp-faced features reminded me of a weasel, he worked as a driver for a small field hospital close to the site of Hussain’s clinic. When the French doctors, and people who funded them, pulled out because of security issues the men who had worked as translators decided to continue and, through Dr Pfau, had received some interim funding. Moh’dullah had come to Pakistan with a list of medical supplies the hospital needed.

In the meantime, I kept meeting other foreigners who wanted to talk about cross border travel and work in Afghanistan. This was a big mistake. All expatriates in Quetta – regardless of how remotely connected with Afghanistan some of them were – had a compulsion to dwell on dangers and disasters. Talk, conducted in conspiratorial whispers, was of arrests at the border, robbers on the road, kidnappings, spy charges, inter-Party fighting and bombing raids. Discussion of departure dates, routes and destinations was taboo, which made me wonder just how anyone could ever organise a trip. Keeping the upper lip suitably stiff was not helped by Moh’dullah’s attitude. ‘Hussain,’ he informed me, ‘is too young for this work. He does not understand the dangers.’  He handed me the burqa.  ‘You will need to wear this for the journey. It is better if no one knows you are a foreigner.’

‘But,’ I protested, ‘Hussain says the same driver took Jon and Dr Pfau to the border earlier this year. Why do I have to pretend to be an Afghan woman? He knew Dr Pfau was a foreigner.’

‘The situation is different now,’ he replied. ’It’s more dangerous.’

Why had I been so feeble, not protested more strongly? The simple truth was that after listening to so many horror stories from other foreigners I was scared of what might be ahead. Once we left Quetta I would have to rely on this man I barely knew to escort me safely to my destination inside Afghanistan. Deciding it was better not to antagonise him I’d sulkily donned the odious garment. Instead of swirling to my ankles it stopped short mid-calf, the headpiece was too tight, constantly sliding round so that the net visor was inevitably around my ear. I did not look remotely like an Afghan woman.

We had left Quetta at four o’clock in the morning. Moh’dullah, as befitted his self-determined status, sitting in the front passenger seat of a Toyota pick-up while Hussain and I bounced around like rag dolls in the back. We were soon coated in thick, greyish white dust, which clung everywhere. ‘Are the roads in Afghanistan like this?’  I asked.

‘Oh, no, they are much worse,’ he replied, rolling his eyes expressively as his head collided with the roof. By the time the driver stopped to allow me to emerge for a much needed trip behind a bush I was able to play the part of Hussain’s old mother to perfection – cramped limbs refusing to straighten, forced me to adopt a shuffling gait.

The view had been mostly of desert and scrub, bleached colourless by the fierce sun. Climbing mountain passes we had gazed down corkscrew bends to dusty valleys where herds of sheep and goats grazed on goodness knows what. Apart from the small boys who herded the flocks we’d seen no other signs of life, except at the occasional police checkpoints. Each stop was a nightmare. I had no passport, no papers, and no permission to be roaming around so close to the Afghan border. Only once did the officials give more than a cursory glance into the back of the Toyota. I felt my heart stop as he indicated that Hussain and I should get out. In a flash Moh’dullah had leapt out of the passenger door, beckoning the policeman to one side. I had no idea what was being said but moments later I heard the door slam and the welcome sound of the engine start up. Hussain had shrugged. ‘Probably just wanted some money,’ he explained. ‘Don’t worry, that was the last checkpoint before Chirman.’

It was already dark when we reached the border. I was too exhausted to care our hotel room was a vegetable store and flopped thankfully onto a thin mattress on the mud floor amongst the sacks of potatoes. ‘Tomorrow night,’ Hussain assured me, ‘you will sleep comfortably in Jaghoray.’  If I had not been so tired I might have reminded him he’d forgotten to add the essential Insha’Allah – God willing – to his statement.

MarySmith’sPlace – Travels in Afghanistan

As some of you already know I spent a number of years in Afghanistan and have written extensively about my experiences in both prose and poetry. No More Mulberries is a novel set there and Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni is a memoir based on the final three years I spent in Afghanistan.

I have come across the diaries I kept and bits of writing I’d started so this and future posts is by way of a prequel to Drunk Chickens. It begins back in 1986 when I first crossed the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan.

First instalment:

It felt like I had been asleep for only minutes when an insistent hand on my shoulder shook me awake. Hussain was discernible only as a dark shape, denser than the surrounding blackness. There was urgency in the whisper that accompanied the shaking, ‘Time to go. The bus is leaving. Be quick – and don’t talk.’

‘What time is it?’

‘Three o’clock.  Come on.’

Rummaging under the blanket I retrieved my burqa, a tortuous garment that Robert Byron, in Road to Oxiana described succinctly as “a beehive with a slit on top.”  Still befuddled with sleep I tried to pull it into place, Hussain’s impatient sighs making me fumble more than usual. Now was clearly not the time to mention he’d told me we’d be leaving at six o’clock, not three. Snatching my travel bag and an armful of bedding he hurried out, leaving me to stumble along behind him in the dark.

We were catching a bus to Afghanistan – from a place called Chirman, somewhere on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. Hussain muttered something about Moh’dullah, our travelling companion, having reserved “one whole seat” for me in the ladies’ section. I was still pondering the implications of one whole seat – were half seats for children or perhaps for really small people? – when we came within sight and sound of the bus. An ancient, dilapidated vehicle, which couldn’t possibly take us more than fifty yards, was surrounded by a very vocal mob rioting outside the front door. Staring stupidly at the seething mass, my footsteps slowed – I’d seen buses set ablaze by more restrained crowds in Karachi. With a helpful shove Hussain propelled me into the midst of the mob, which instantly closed around me, preventing any escape other than by moving forward. Seizing the handrail I began to haul myself up the steps. The weight of bodies pressing from behind sent me sprawling in an ungainly heap across the laps of several women already seated.

From somewhere towards the back of the bus Hussain’s voice called out in Dari, ‘Oh, mudder, inja beyee.’ (‘Oh, mother, come here.’) Where? I peered in the direction of the voice but as usual the burqa’s net visor had slipped round my left ear and I could see nothing. With ferocious determination I gracelessly clambered over several women, trampling a great many children underfoot until I reached my “son” – and my one whole seat.

I was still trying to pull my veil straight when a large woman clutching a small child and an enormous basket forcibly jammed me against the window. It was a remarkable manoeuvre for I had sincerely believed the seat to be barely big enough for me – now we were three. When Hussain noticed the problem he took immediate action, haranguing the woman who, with admirable aplomb, totally ignored him. He next turned his wrath on the woman’s husband who yelled back vociferously, as did various observers and the driver, all clearly on the side of the trespasser. Finally Moh’dullah entered the fray demanding to know why the driver had sold half of my seat twice when he knew the whole seat had already been paid for. The driver looked sheepish as everyone began to shout at him, the woman was evicted and squashed elsewhere and I sat, cringing with embarrassment, for once grateful for the burqa hiding my blushes.

Two hours later, during which time the engine had kept up a headache-inducing thrumming, the last of the passengers squeezed in. With a terrific yelling of ‘Y’Allah’ and ‘Bismillah’ the bus shuddered into action. I sneaked a look behind to check where Hussain was sitting. With the exception of the four benches for women at the front, most of the seating had been removed to allow the entire rear portion of the bus to be loaded with sacks of sugar and salt. On top of these, surrounded by their personal belongings, sprawled the men, in considerably more comfort than the women herded together in front. The narrow bench seats, apparently designed for pygmies, contained ten women, their children and a great many bags and baskets. Hussain winked encouragingly at me.

As the sky brightened I peered through the grimy piece of windowpane, anxious for my first glimpse of Afghanistan – foolishly surprised that the scenery was exactly as it had been in Pakistan. The road was a dirt track through a desert wasteland. In the distance a line of mountains, barren and bleak, broke the skyline. An occasional herd of donkeys looked up curiously before continuing to graze amongst the few straggly shrubs in the desert.


Being the only woman wearing a burqa made me the object of curiosity. As I was soon to discover, very few Hazara women ever do wear it, preferring to preserve their modesty with the chaddar – a large piece of printed fabric about the size of a bed sheet draped around the head and shoulders. With a judicious flick, born of long practise, a woman can conceal her face just as effectively as with a burqa. A single eye peeps out from within the folds so she resembles some sort of benign cyclops gazing at the world. In the privacy of the bus, ignored by the men behind them, none of the women bothered even to cover their faces.

It was obviously considered strange I was not joining in as the women shared out bread and fruit, keeping up a continuous flow of chatter. An attempt was made to break the ice with the offer of a banana at which point Hussain, sitting immediately behind me, intervened explaining I was very ill and they shouldn’t disturb me as I needed to sleep. I squirmed beneath the burqa, ashamed of the deception while one woman stared hard at me. Finally, she nodded, nudging her neighbour and shaking her head as she made some remark I didn’t follow. Later, Hussain whispered, ‘She said it’s true you’re very sick because she can see you are wearing eye glasses.’


Unable, despite wearing my eyeglasses, to see much of the passing scenery, forbidden to talk, read – or smoke a much-needed cigarette – I dutifully closed my eyes. Sleep would have been welcome but every jolt of the bus slammed my knees hard against the wooden seat back in front of me and bounced my head off the window. Inwardly I swore at Moh’dullah and his insistence on my ridiculous disguise – and at my own spinelessness at accepting his strictures. A journey, which would have been uncomfortable but nevertheless fascinating and exciting, had I been able to join in and talk openly with the women, was turning into some kind of grim endurance test.

MarySmith’sPlace – Granny Black & the Old Bridge House

In a previous post about my summer as a museum attendant in the Old Bridge House, Dumfries, I showed our Victorian dentist’s surgery, which you can read here. This time, let me introduce you to Granny Black who was a resident for over forty years.

Granny Black

Granny Black

In the early 1900s, the council divided the building into two, three-roomed flats. The three rooms consisted of a bedroom, kitchen and parlour. There was no electricity, running water or sanitation. The latter was probably dealt with by emptying the contents of chamber pots into the river. Fresh water was certainly being piped into the town by then so drinking water would have been available, possibly from a nearby standpipe or  a well.

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Dressing table in the downstairs flat

Annie Black (nee Lind) and her husband, John, moved into the first floor flat around 1910. Annie was illegitimate and worked as a farm hand before she married. They had six children, including one set of twin girls.

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We know very little about John Black. He’s been described as earning his living as a ‘jobbing painter’ – guessing this means painting houses rather than pictures. The only other things we know about him is that he liked to drink – his grandson James Murray said it was his greatest talent – and that he died after an accident when drunk. Outside the building are large sandstone ‘skite’ stones, put in place when the house was built to protect it from being struck by wagon wheels. John Black fell down drunk and cracked his head on the skite stone. This may be why the couple only had six children at a time when families of ten were not uncommon.

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Cradle and child’s high chair

Annie, or Granny Black as she became known, worked as the local midwife. She also laid out the dead. A number of visitors of the museum told us their grandmothers or great aunts did the same job, attending to both the beginning and end of life.

Granny Black and her downstairs neighbour went together every week to the public laundry where she always had the use of the best tub. She could also have a bath as above the laundry was the public bathhouse where people could pay for soap, towel and half an hour’s soak in a hot bath. She also liked to sit in the doorway to the flat and knit while watching the world go by – she would have known everyone and everything that went on in the area.

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The laundry and public baths on the right, sadly, demolished as is the swimming pool pictured on the left.

She died around 1955 at the age of eighty-six. After Annie passed away the council made the decision to turn the building into the museum it is today.

Her grandson, whose mother was one of Granny Black’s twin girls, James Murray remembers going to stay with his grandmother in the Old Bridge House. He is professor emeritus of applied mathematics at University of Washington and University of Oxford, known for his authoritative and extensive work entitled Mathematical Biology. What a leap in two generations. I am pretty sure Annie Black made sure her children did their homework!

MarySmith’sPlace – Visiting Neverland

Today a friend and I went to Neverland, that magical island which was home to Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. We were visiting Moat Brae in Dumfries the garden of which J M Barrie maintained was his inspiration for Neverland. As it was Doors Open this weekend, entrance to the house and garden was free and we were amongst hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors taking advantage of this. Normal entrance fees are £6.50 for adults, £5.00 for children aged five and over and £2.50 for toddlers.

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The exterior of Moat Brae

In 2009, owner of the historic building, Loreburn Housing Association planned to demolish it and build affordable housing on the site. An action group was formed to save and restore the building and garden and it has now opened as a visitor attraction and a National Centre for Children’s Literature and Storytelling.

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The dining room can be hired for events

Moat Brae, which takes its name from the motte or earthwork castle which once stood on the site, was designed in 1823 by local architect Walter Newall for Robert Threshie, a local solicitor. He lived in Moat Brae with his family until 1841 when it was bought by Mrs Babbington, a minister’s widow followed by, on her death in 1863, by Henry Gordon. This is where the J M Barrie connection comes in for Henry Gordon’s two sons, Henry and Stewart, attended Dumfries Academy where they became friendly with James who was living with his older brother Alexander, a schools inspector.

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Peter Pan

The boys spent many hours playing in the gardens by the river. Barrie wrote later: “When shades of light began to fall, certain young mathematicians shed their triangles and crept up trees and down walls in an odyssey which would long after become the play of Peter Pan. For our escapades in a certain Dumfries garden, which is enchanted land to me, were certainly the genesis of that nefarious work.”

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The house passed out of private ownership and was for many years a private hospital and nursing home. In 1914 it was purchased by the Royal Scottish Nursing Institution and was given the title Moat Brae Nursing Home providing a private facility for surgery and medicine and also respite care for the elderly. Later, a businessman from Paisley bought it but was unable to secure the funding he needed to turn it into a themed hotel and sold it to Loreburn Housing Association.

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It is a beautiful house, possibly better appreciated when it is not full to overflowing with excited children and harassed parents. Plenty of activities are available for children in the various rooms including staging a play with scripts available, creative spaces, and lots of things to see and do. The garden is lovely but I have to admit I didn’t feel the magic. Children were obviously having a great time playing on the Jolly Roger. Part of me couldn’t help thinking (grumpy old woman coming to the fore) J M Barrie didn’t need a whacking great pirate ship to feed his imagination.

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Peter Pan flew round the room and also Tinker Bell, which I couldn’t capture. One little girl had a total melt down, floods of tears, every time Tinker Bell flashed by.


MarySmith’sPlace – O is for Old Bridge House #OpenWide

In A-Z of Dumfries: Places-People-History, each letter of the alphabet has its own chapter and O is for Old Bridge House in Dumfries, where I have been working as a seasonal museum attendant this summer.

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The kitchen – no sink as there was no running water when it was occupied.

Dating back to 1660, and built into the structure of the 15th century Devorgilla Bridge, it is the town’s oldest domestic building. James Birkmyre, a cooper (barrel maker) built the sandstone house as both his family home and workshop. The town council of the day, worried about his house blocking the bridge insisted the front of the house did not protrude beyond the line of the bridge parapet. He doesn’t seem to have taken much notice of such planning restrictions.

Seen from the bridge, the building looks as though it is only one storey but from the back it can be seen there are two and in fact, when it was built, there was a lower floor which is now beneath the level of the ground. Over the years the house has been an inn, possibly a secret meeting place for Covenanters (using the principle of hiding in plain sight?), a family house and two council flats (more about that in another post) before eventually being turned into a folk museum. Most of the six rooms are crammed with artefacts depicting every-day life from the last couple of centuries.

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Recognise items here?

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The school room/toy room

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The scariest doll ever!

One room is filled with Victorian dental equipment. I really hate going to the dentist. When I was five or six years old I was thrown out of the school dentist’s caravan because I wouldn’t stop screaming. The fear has remained ever since, exacerbated by being given gas before having teeth removed because the dentist said my jaw was too small to accommodate all my second teeth. I still remember the horrible smell of the gas and coming round thinking I still had to endure the ordeal, despite spitting blood everywhere.

You can imagine how I felt about having to show visitors the Victorian dentist’s surgery in the museum. All the equipment, including the dentist’s foot-operated drill, the stand for the gas canister, the cabinets full of false teeth, the pliers and the chair, were donated by the son of a dentist – Dr Dykes – who had a practice in Dumfries.

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Sorry about the reflection in this pic – those are teeth.

The smell of dentistry assails you as you enter the room. One visitor asked if we had a special spray to make it smell that way but, no, we don’t. The odour has seeped into the fabric of the red velvet chair – red velvet, I heard my colleague inform a tourist, disguised the blood stains.


Countless people have stood in that room over the summer telling me their personal horror stories of the dentist. School dentists in the 1950s have a lot to answer for with regard to the state of population’s (of a certain age) teeth. Jane was treated to the story of a woman who even remembered Dr Dykes. One Christmas Eve, aged twenty-one, pregnant and suffering from toothache she called on him. She remembers him putting the gas mask over her face and when she came round it was to find he had removed not only the troublesome one, but all her teeth. She said she went home and cried all night. He probably believed he was doing her a favour.

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The Chair

At one time, people were given the removal of all their teeth as a wedding gift or a twenty-first present. At one time, children were paid to have healthy teeth extracted. At one time, soldiers lying dead on the battlefield had their teeth extracted for use in dentures. We often shake our heads and mutter that the ‘progress’ we make in many areas of life does not always make things better but in dentistry things have definitely improved.

I still hate going to the dentist – have an appointment today for a check-up so didn’t sleep well last night and the horror stories I’ve heard over the summer are not helping. Does anyone else remember the school dentist coming round in his caravan? Or the smell of gas?