MarySmith’sPlace – #Afghanistan (6)

Over the next few days there was a flood of visitors – uncles, brothers, cousins, friends – coming to welcome Hussain. And, they all wanted to meet the foreigner making me feel like I was some prize specimen of wild life discovered under a rock.

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Not ‘my’ village but typical of villages in Hazara Jat

The most frequent caller was ‘Engineer’, who owned a pharmacy in Sangi Masha. A student of engineering in Kabul he had returned to Jaghoray when the Russian occupation began. His family were wealthy landowners but farming life did not appeal to Engineer. He became a translator for the French medical teams in Qolijou hospital. After a few months, deciding that his medical knowledge was sufficient, he left to set up his own clinic in the bazaar.  Later, he opened a pharmacy – an even more profitable concern, since all his patients bought the drugs he prescribed from his shop.

He insisted, despite my protests, on calling me Dr Mary, describing for my benefit many of his more complicated cases. When not discussing his patients’ case histories he asked endless questions about my life in England (explanations that I was from Scotland went unheeded), about my educational qualifications, what I thought of Afghanistan and how did I find the people?  I found him exhausting. He would appear at all times of the day and I once found him at six-thirty one morning, drinking tea while Ismail checked his blood pressure. Only his huge ego and irrepressible good humour matched his hypochondria. As he was such a big person in the community the rules of hospitality meant that whenever he appeared we all had to stop whatever we were doing to entertain him. Fortunately, the novelty of my foreign status wore off and he began to call less frequently.

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Hard work – collecting fodder

Our landlord, Gul Agha, was an occasional visitor. I was surprised to find that the major landowner in the area was a young man barely into his twenties. When his father had died recently Gul Agha had inherited considerable wealth, but, Ismail confided, not the respect shown his father by the community. This he would have to earn and many of the older generation were sceptical about his ability to assume his father’s position. They considered him too young and impetuous. His father had rejected any political allegiance but Gul Agha was a member of Nasre, and always to the forefront of any skirmish.

Whenever he came to visit, clutching his Kalashnikov and attempting to look as mean and moody as his youth would allow, he would greet me perfunctorily. His conversation – invariably about fighting – was always directed to Hussain, who, goggle eyed with hero worship, hung on his every word. He struck me as a rather humourless young man, overly concerned with his fighting prowess about which he boasted incessantly. I was surprised when he issued an invitation to visit his gardens.

His orchards were a short stroll through the village. When Gul Agha talked about his fruit trees he made a much more favourable impression than when boasting of his escapades as a mujahid.  He was clearly knowledgeable and spoke with pride of how his father had introduced new varieties of apples to the area. As he talked he reached out constantly to touch the knurled tree trunks and I felt if he would only throw away his Kalashnikov and concentrate on the land he would be a much happier person.

Sitting beneath an apricot tree, letting the hum of conversation flow over me, I felt pampered as Gul Agha’s brothers, Hazrat and Najib, vied with each other to bring me bowls of the choicest mulberries, almost-ripe apricots and huge bunches of roses. It was, I thought, interesting how Gul Agha seemed to understand I was going to be impressed more by his knowledge and love of fruit trees than his prowess with a Kalashnikov.

A sudden peal of thunder, followed almost immediately by a torrential downpour ended our picnic and we ran for home. And it really did feel like home. The long journey to reach here was – almost – forgotten. The few days of settling in, meeting Hussain’s family and neighbours had been lovely but I knew the holiday was over. It was time to start work and next day we had to travel to the field hospital to collect all the medicines for Hussain’s clinic.

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Hussain and Ali Baba enjoying mulberries – my favourite fruit.


MarySmith’sPlace – Write On!

I’m delighted to be co-tutoring with novelist Margaret Elphinstone on a three-day residential creative writing course in November. I’m especially pleased that there are only a couple of places left on this one.

IMG_0001 (Custom)Based in a converted coach house at Durham Hill in the village of Kirkpatrick Durham in Dumfries & Galloway, the course runs from November 19-21. Topics include character creation; plotting; the role of narrative voice; dialogue and writing from personal experience. Maragert and I are flexible, though, and can provide workshops tailored to the specific needs of the course participants. Time to discuss their work with us is also a key component of the three days.

Over the last few years we’ve met dozens of keen participants on the courses and as quite a number of them return we must be doing something right – it can’t all be down to fabulous food, glorious countryside and the chance to meet the resident llamas! Can it?

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MarySmith’sPlace – Travels in Afghanistan (5)

We pulled up outside a flat roofed, mud built house, its window frames painted a cheerful blue. Here we would live and work until the permanent clinic, already under construction, was complete. Three people hurried out and I was introduced to Ali Baba, the clinic chowkidar (watchman) who, in halting English made a little speech of welcome to which I replied in hesitant Dari. Baqul, the cook, grinned, shook hands and disappeared to organise tea. It was some weeks before I learned that his given name was Ali Ram, and that every time I called him Baqul I, along with everyone else in the village, including his children, was addressing him as “Old Man”. The third member of the team, Ismail, the field assistant, needed no introduction as we had met in Karachi.

Standing at the highest point in the village, the house looked over a view of golden wheat fields beyond the edge of the village whose houses were spread out in a large semi-circle around a central well. Orchards of mulberry, apricots and peaches had roses blooming between the trees and all around rose the mountains, their peaks piercing a brilliant blue sky. I could just catch the musical sound of a mountain stream rushing over its stony bed and, from further off, the tinkle of goat bells was accompanied by the reedy piping of the goatherd. I fell in love.

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Hussain when in a good mood.

Through a doorway on the left of a hall was a large room, barely half the mud floor concealed under striped gilims. A few mattresses and a pile of bedding made up the sole furnishings. Light flooded the room from the huge windows on two walls. This was the staff room. The kitchen, by contrast, was gloomy, the only light coming from two tiny windows set high up in the wall. In one corner Baqul already had a bucket of water for our baths simmering on his wood burning stove. Half the room was used for storing firewood, tools and kerosene. A small area, partitioned by a head high wall of loose stones was the bathroom. An assortment of gilims covered most of the floor of my room and a small metal folding table had been placed, with a folding chair, below the window.

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Hussain dreaming of a Toyota – but making do with a donkey!

By the time Baqul announced the bath water was ready I had unpacked. Noting the gaps between the stones of the makeshift partition in the bathroom were used as shelves – here a razor, there a tube of toothpaste, here a bar of soap – I selected spaces for my own toiletries and began to feel quite at home. Two buckets, one of steaming hot, the other of cold water sat side by side on a plank of wood supported by two stones. Next to the buckets was a round metal bowl with which to pour the water over me. I later discovered the original purpose of this water pourer. Whenever someone washed his hat – the round, white cap, sometimes embroidered, worn by almost all men in Jaghoray – the damp headgear was stretched over the bowl to retain its shape while it dried.

Refreshed by my bath, replete with mulberries and tea, I lounged on a mattress, idly chatting to Ismail, planning walks on the mountains and generally behaving as though I was on holiday.

Hussain, returning from his bath, announced: ‘We need a planning meeting.’ Not a holiday, then.

Medicines and equipment for the clinic had been despatched earlier from Quetta in Pakistan and were now awaiting collection at the field hospital, close to the bazaar in which we’d stayed overnight. We would have to unpack, check and count everything as well as making the house ready for use as a clinic as soon as possible. Hussain’s major concern was that work on the new building proceeded quickly.

‘It means,’ he pointed out, ‘I shall have to go to the building site often. If I don’t go the workers will go slowly.’ I nodded. Made sense. He continued, ‘Which means I need transport.’ I nodded again. It was true; the work couldn’t be done effectively without a vehicle for fetching and carrying and, later, for leprosy touring work. However, until the Programme Co-ordinator, Jon, arrived later, we did not have money to buy a vehicle. Even then, there wouldn’t be enough to buy the fancy Japanese make after which Hussain hankered.

‘Until Jon arrives you’ll have to hire a jeep as and when necessary. When he brings money you should be able to buy a decent second hand Russian jeep.’  My encouraging smile was met by a petulant scowl.

‘I don’t want a Russian jeep, some old thing which will be always breaking down and needing repairs.  If you want me to do my work properly you should buy a proper vehicle – like a Toyota.’  This wasn’t a discussion about how to carry out the work effectively, but about status symbols and image bolstering.

‘Hussain, we don’t have the money to buy a Toyota. Use what funds Jon will bring to buy a good condition Russian jeep and maybe we can include an estimate for a better vehicle in next year’s budget.’ Still Hussain was mutinous, ranting about how useless Russian vehicles were, always breaking down, using petrol which was more expensive than diesel. Finally, having worked himself into a tantrum, he stormed out.

Ismail and Ali Baba looked as uncomfortable as I felt. I shrugged, ‘I think the meeting has been adjourned. I’ve brought coffee – anyone want one?’ This met with approval, especially from Ismail who’d developed a coffee addiction while in Pakistan. He made it with such quantities of powdered milk and sugar it resembled a hot coffee milk shake.

Hussain re-joined us and was soon smiling though I suspected it was only a temporary truce and was uneasy at this stubborn and childish aspect of his character. As daylight faded, Ali Baba lit the pressure lamp, known as the gaz. Before the curtains were drawn red lights arced across the night sky. ‘Are those what I think they are?’  I asked apprehensively.

‘Tracer bullets,’ replied Hussain nonchalantly, good humour completely restored by my alarm. ‘Hisb-i-Islami is on that mountain. They just fire off rounds from time to time to remind people they are there. Sometimes there is fighting between the parties but not now.’

The Soviets had left Afghanistan in February, five months earlier, but President Najibullah, considered by many to be their puppet, was still in power in Kabul. The mujahideen were not finding it as easy as anticipated to dislodge him. Although Jaghoray and neighbouring Malestan were free districts, meaning they were held by the mujahideen, the Provincial capital, Ghazni was still under Kabul Government control.

Apart from Hisb-i-Islami drawing attention to themselves on their mountain top there were several political parties in the area: Nasre, Seepa, Nezhat and Ittehadia. The latter had once been the party of most influence and power in Jaghoray and had been the protectors of the French organisation Medecins sans Frontiers who ran the field hospital. They had also been instrumental in re-opening schools in the area, eliciting financial support from Germany, but corruption amongst the party leadership eventually eroded its credibility. Occasionally, parties had tried to form a coalition but no alliance had been long lasting. Now, Nasre was indisputably the strongest party in the area, their nearest rivals in fighting strength, Hisb-i-Islami, having been routed in the last skirmish a few weeks before.

‘But what do these parties fight about here?’ I asked. ‘I thought the mujahideen were all fighting against Najibullah’s Government around Kabul and the other big cities?’

Ismail replied, ‘Everything here is a different from Kabul. The parties here are too busy fighting each other to fight the Government. In Bamiyan, the parties are more organised, they want to work together, but not here.’

Baqul began to gather up the tea glasses and I headed for the latrine some yards away before retiring for the night. The air was pleasantly cool, the village silent. From one or two houses a faint light flickered, otherwise there was total darkness. I risked breaking my neck on the uneven, stony ground as I gazed upwards in wonder.

Hussain was waiting in my room. ‘I brought you a lamp,’ he said indicating the paraffin lamp he’d placed on the floor. ‘Keep it on the floor, not on the windowsill – in case they shoot at us from the mountain.’  I laughed, then realised he was serious as he checking and double checked the windows were closed. ‘You must be very careful here. This is not my village. I don’t know the people so we don’t know who we can trust.’

Although I was sure he was exaggerating the risks, he looked so solemn I hid my smile. I was too tired to stay awake worrying about possible dangers, whether real, or imagined only by Hussain. Busy days were ahead.

If you are enjoying these instalments from my first journey to work in Afghanistan you may also enjoy Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni which covers the last three years of my time there.



MarySmith’sPlace – Travels in #Afghanistan (4)

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Taking sheep to pasture

The additional weight of our armed guards made the bus even slower. I felt I could walk faster. Eventually, I dozed. The bus juddering to a stop jolted me awake. From outside I could hear yelling – it didn’t sound friendly. I peered through the window, spotting the tail end of a jeep blocking the road. Convinced we’d been ambushed, I turned to seek advice and comfort from Hussain only to discover he’d disappeared.

Before total panic paralysed me I heard his voice calling from the back of the bus, ‘Oh, Mudder, beroon beyee.’ (‘Oh, Mother, come outside.’) As I started to climb over the seat in front, thumping an unfortunate woman round the head with my bag, he called again, telling me to head for the back of the bus.

Changing direction, stumbling and staggering over bundles, tripping over shins and trampling on feet, I fought the terribly British urge to apologise to everyone I inadvertently assaulted in my scramble to the rear door. I paused. There were no steps. My exit became even less dignified as I launched myself into the arms of Moh’dullah, who deposited me swiftly on the ground. Hussain was by now beside himself with impatience. ‘ZootZoot!’ he ordered. (‘Quickly! Quickly!)

Chi shud?’ I stammered. (‘What’s happened?’) Without wasting time on further speech Hussain pulled me towards the back of the jeep, telling me to climb in and sit down. Surrounded by half a dozen grim faced mujahideen, bristling with Kalashnikovs, I sat, petrified. Hussain had vanished again, as had Moh’dullah. Were we all being kidnapped – or just me?  One of the men asked his neighbour, ‘Dari mefahmad?’   (‘Does she understand Dari?’)  They knew I was a foreigner. I knew this stupid disguise wouldn’t fool anyone. It was a kidnapping.

Hussain and Moh’dullah staggered over and crammed our baggage and themselves into the jeep. Immediately the driver sped off. Hussain turned to me, huge, happy grin lighting up his face, ‘Now we are safe. These people are our friends. They are taking us to Jaghoray, to Sangi Masha bazaar.’ For the first time in my life, I truly understood the cliché as relief flooded through me.

‘How did they know we were on the bus?’

‘They stopped the bus to collect money – a sort of road tax to provide security against bandits. Moh’dullah told them about you and they offered to take us to the bazaar.’  Grinning again, he added, ‘You can lift your veil now.’

Suddenly feeling ridiculously shy about uncovering my face in front of so many men, I reluctantly raised the veil to find all the mujahideen were staring fixedly at some point six inches above my head. Cool, fresh air blew on my face. I turned to smile at Hussain who remarked, ‘You’ve got dry skin hanging from your lips. It looks disgusting.’

It was dark when we reached the bazaar of Sangi Masha and, although the village was only another hour away, the driver would go no further. ‘They’re afraid Hisb-i-Islami might fire on them from the mountain,’ explained Hussain. I wasn’t going to argue with what seemed to me an eminently sensible reason for halting our journey. Hussain and I were ushered into a room above someone’s shop. I could barely stay awake long enough to drink the tea someone brought. The moment I stretched out on a mattress on the floor I was asleep.

It was already bright and sunny when I awoke the next morning to find Hussain pacing the floor. Tea and fresh nan had been brought to the room. He’d already organised a jeep to take us to Sangsuragh. ‘The driver is waiting,’ he said pointedly and I swallowed my tea, shoved the hated burqa, which I vowed never to wear again, into a bag and wrapped myself instead in a lightweight chaddar, which hid my hair but left my face uncovered.

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Goodbye burqa – hello chaddar

The driver roared off through the bazaar.  My first impression was of being in the middle of a set depicting the trading post in a Wild West film. The long, straight, dusty road was congested with heavily laden donkeys which skittered in alarm as our jeep careered recklessly through them. Outside the small shops ran a narrow raised pavement but the horses, which should have been fastened to a hitching rail, had been replaced by Russian jeeps, and instead of six shooters citizens toted Kalashnikovs.

Leaving the bazaar, passing the shell of a rusting Russian armoured personnel carrier, the jeep bounced along the worst road I had ever experienced.  Huge boulders lay all around, interspersed with deep potholes and the occasional irrigation channel which ran across the road to the fields. The painful hammering my body was taking was, however, more than compensated by the spectacular scenery.

Great rocky, jagged peaked mountains soared skywards, small cultivated fields of wheat gleamed like gold behind hedges interwoven with tiny, white and pink wild roses. Enormous clumps of wild lavender growing on the rocky ground at the foot of the mountains added their perfume to air already scented by roses and sunshine and clover. As we drove past a large graveyard where stones leaning at crazy angles marked the resting places of past inhabitants of the village the driver slowed. He and Hussain indulged in a moment or two of somewhat theatrical “tss, tss, tss”, accompanied by much sorrowful head shaking. I thought perhaps someone close to them had recently been buried but learned, later, this was the usual performance of Jaghoray people when passing any graveyard. The cassette of love songs or dance music which was invariably played at full blast would be silenced the moment a graveyard was approached. The occupants of the vehicle would raise their hands, palm upwards in prayer – especially alarming when the driver removed both hands from the wheel.

A sharp incline brought us to the village of Sangsuragh.

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Hussain on the pass between Jaghoray where his clinic would be and Malestan where a clinic was already established.

MarySmith’sPlace – Travels in Afghanistan (3)



A cheer from the passengers roused me from my reverie. Five hours after leaving Chirman we were finally stopping at a roadside chaikhana (tea house). Moh’dullah found us a secluded spot under a mulberry tree where we could drink our tea undisturbed, even allowing me to stretch my vocal chords a little although a cigarette was still out of the question. Apparently, so, too, was blowing my dust-clogged nose. As I raised a paper tissue Hussain hissed, ‘Not here, not in public! You must never blow your nose in public in Afghanistan.’ I sniffed and turned to watch what our fellow travellers were up to.

In a small, shallow stream running in front of the chaikhana, groups of men washed, preparing to pray. Women, their minds on more earthly concerns, washed their children, or rinsed out soiled baby clothes which they spread to dry on flat stones and branches of nearby trees. The realisation that I was actually in Afghanistan – without having been arrested on the border – caused such a sudden bubble of happiness I laughed aloud, earning a disapproving look from Moh’dullah.

When the signal came to move we learned that one of the trucks in our convoy had developed an irreparable mechanical fault, so its passengers with their belongings were divided between the remaining vehicles. Our bus protested loudly about its increased burden and, after barely an hour, ground to a shuddering halt. The driver disappeared under the bonnet. Loud banging issued forth, as though the poor bus were being severely beaten for its recalcitrant behaviour. Satisfied he had taught it a lesson the driver revved the engine and, triumphantly we lurched forward again. The bus, however, was elderly and, as the road became ever steeper, it faltered more frequently.

Each time it stalled on a gradient the driver reversed to the bottom and the men clambered out. The driver would rev the engine furiously and suddenly rush, full tilt, at the incline. The women grasped the backs of the seats in front of them, rocking themselves backwards and forwards in a rhythmic frenzy until, on the final forward thrust, as the driver accelerated they released a united chorus of ‘Y’Allah’. And it worked. The men re-joined us at the top of the slope and we limped on again. Evening approached and perhaps the women had grown tired from their exertions or perhaps the old bus had simply had enough for one day but it refused to tackle another hill. Despite desperate banging and tinkering under the bonnet it was clear that we were not going any further that day.

Hussain escorted me from the bus, far enough from the other passengers to allow us to talk. ‘I am sorry but what can I do?’ He looked pleadingly at me. I shrugged, assured him spending the night on the bus was no problem, nothing to it, like going on some sort of spiritual retreat with no dinner, no tea, no talking and no smoking – just the sort of adventure I enjoyed. He peered through my veil, trying to decide if I was going crazy or just cross. While I crouched behind him, puffing a surreptitious cigarette, he continued to make reassuring noises. ‘We should reach Angoori by lunchtime – this time tomorrow we shall be in Jaghoray.’ Once again he forgot to say Insha’Allah.

Back on the bus I fell asleep immediately and, surprisingly, slept deeply until shortly before dawn. Seemingly refreshed after its night’s rest the old bus fairly lurched along until we reached Maqoor, an untidy, straggling place, whose dismal appearance the bright morning sunshine could not improve. As I started to move, Hussain whispered urgently, ‘No, you better stay here for now. This place is dangerous. There are many Pushtoon and they are not friendly to Hazaras. I’ll bring your tea here.’

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At first, I enjoyed the luxury of stretching out on two whole seats but I was impatient for my tea and by the time Hussain reappeared, over an hour later I was irritable. As I gulped the tea he informed me I still could not leave the bus. ‘There was fighting near here yesterday and the Commanders say we cannot travel any further today. The drivers are meeting with them now to try to persuade them to let us continue, but, well, maybe we can’t go until tomorrow morning. I’ll come back when I know more.’

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Slight cheat here as tyhis was taken on a later journey, at Bamiyan.

‘I can’t stay on this bus until tomorrow morning,’ I raged. Actually, it’s impossible to rage in a barely audible whisper. It came out as a petulant whine. Hussain made a hurried exit.

It was becoming unpleasantly hot and, under the burqa, I was sweaty and sticky. I dozed. I awoke, glanced at my watch. Another hour had passed. Where was Hussain?  I tried to escape back to the oblivion of sleep but was too hot and thirsty. My head itched and I longed to tear off the burqa and scratch frantically but a couple of old men were stretched out, apparently asleep, behind me. I longed to blow my nose. My lips were dry and cracked. This, I decided was not much fun.

Hussain appeared. ‘Are you all right?’ With a big smile, he thrust half a cold nan at me. The smile did it. I exploded – quietly, of course. ‘No, I’m not all right,’ I hissed. ‘I’ve been stuck here for bloody hours, it’s like a furnace under this stupid burqa, and I’m thirsty and I…’ I stopped as I heard my voice rising and felt tears pricking my eyes.

Hussain poured a couple of inches of water from our precious water cooler – precious, not for the water, but for the clinic’s budget wrapped in plastic at the bottom. ‘Have a drink,’ he urged. ‘You’re dehydrating.’

I hissed, ‘Get me out of this bus or I’ll go mad!’  Hussain looked stricken. Scared as he was that someone might realise I was a foreigner if seen outside, he realised if I had hysterics the whole of Maqoor would soon know it anyway. Reluctantly, he agreed. ‘Come on, keep your head down, and don’t talk.’

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Bamiyan mujahideen defences

Still snivelling, blinking back tears and feeling ridiculously guilty, as though the whole situation was somehow my fault, I kept my eyes dutifully downcast. We picked our way over piles of mud bricks, climbing over the low walls of various building projects until we reached the end of the bazaar. Glancing down, the piles of human turds around our feet reminded me of my own immediate problem. Hussain indicated a nearby wheat field, ‘Go over there, but be quick,’ he snapped. He was angry – with me, with the situation, with his own helplessness and fear and I trotted off, without further argument, through the waist high wheat.

Shortly after I was returned to my prison the drivers were given permission to continue the journey. As there was still some uncertainty as to whether or not we were about to drive into factional fighting on the road ahead we were provided with a group of armed guards some of whom perched on the roof while others squashed themselves in amongst the bags of sugar. Although not relishing the thought of running into fighting it seemed preferable to remaining in Maqoor and as we pulled out I longed to join in with the resounding chorus of ‘Y’Allah’, which burst from everyone’s lips.