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.
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.
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.