Islamic rules, and the traditions of the country, dictate that hospitality is shown to guests. People, therefore, felt obliged to invite the foreigner round for dinner. Some would have felt easier fulfilling their obligations had I been a man, unsure as they were of the etiquette in dealing, on a social footing, with a foreign woman. Hussain, and usually, at least one of the others from the clinic would accompany me to the dinner party – mehmani.
Some men would greet me with a handshake, although often this was the merest brushing of palms – as though the touch of a woman may necessitate some kind of decontamination procedure to be carried out later. I soon made a policy decision not to offer my hand unless the man offered his first after several embarrassing situations in which I would extend my hand, realise that the man did not want to shake it and withdraw it, just as good manners forced him to extend his. We looked as though we were attempting a badly synchronised performance of Pat a Cake.
There was always tea before the meal, with fancy sweets – the imported variety always referred to as “choclat”, although there was rarely a hint of that substance in them. Once the tea was poured everyone would greet each other all over again. ‘How are you? How is your life? How is your house? How is your family? Is your life good? Are you well? May you never grow tired.’ These people saw each other regularly, and were more than likely to have met at least once that day already. At first, I could only mumble and stumble my way self- consciously through the ritual – my responses never quite coordinating with the queries, never knowing when, or how, it was all going to end.
After tea the long, embroidered cloth would be laid on the floor, at which point everyone shuffled forward into place. Several young boys of the family served as waiters sitting at strategic intervals behind the diners, watching carefully, ensuring that plates were constantly replenished. The main course would be either korma – stew – of chicken and potatoes with rice, or shurwa – the liquid in which the meat or chicken had been cooked. Into this soup we would throw pieces of broken bread to soak up the liquid. The host divided the meat into equal portions, surreptitiously watched by all his guests, each anxious to receive his full share. A simple salad of raw onions and tomatoes was a usual accompaniment, along with small dishes of subzi, a green vegetable similar in appearance and taste to spinach, and bowls of yoghourt.
In some houses each guest had his own plate; in others, there were several, large communal bowls around each of which four or six diners would gather. If there was chicken, a game was played with the wishbone. However, the person with the larger piece was not the winner, eligible to make a wish. Pulling apart the wishbone symbolised an agreement between the participants – an agreement “to remember”. From then on, if one of the contestants tries to hand something to the other, the second person must say ‘I remember’. If he forgets and takes the object offered to him he loses, and must pay a forfeit. This may be something previously agreed, such as a chicken dinner. Or, it might be whatever possession of his the first person was holding out, be it radio or a handkerchief.
At the end of the meal a prayer of thanks would be offered, often catching me unawares still gnawing at a chicken bone. More tea followed with the young waiters, sitting by the teapots, anxiously watching for signs of an empty glass. The only way to avoid drinking a gallon of tea was to place one’s hand firmly over the empty glass, signalling enough. Conversation became a little more animated after dinner, often centring on the activities of the various local political parties: who was having falling out with whom, who was planning a takeover bid. An effort would be made to include me in the conversation. ‘’Afghanistan chator ast? – How is Afghanistan?’ they would ask.
I would reply, ‘Afghanistan khele khub ast – Afghanistan is very good’.
They would respond, with much head shaking, ‘Afghanistan khub neest – Afghanistan is not good.’ Similarly, when they sought my opinion of the people, I would reply diplomatically that the people were very nice and I liked them very much. At this, they would laugh uproariously and inform me that the people of Afghanistan were very bad. I could never think of what else to say after that, denial on my part simply led to repetition on theirs. The ordeal would come to a sudden end when, at a given signal, invariably unnoticed by me, everyone would abruptly get to their feet and leave.
My friendship with some of the women continued. As well as Fatima, there was Kulsom and her twenty-year-old daughter Latifa. She was a beautiful young woman, and didn’t she know it. Somehow succeeding in appearing provocative even when cocooned in her chaddar she was an outrageous flirt. When she walked about in the village or across the fields to the orchards, various young men would appear to exchange greetings with her. She would tug demurely at her chaddar but her flashing eyes were full of mischief.
At harvest time, the area outside the clinic was levelled for the harvest to be threshed and farmers worked there all day, guiding the bullocks which pulled the heavy wooden threshing machine around and around. And every day Latifa appeared bringing a jug of water for the thirsty workers or some fruit after their mid-day meal. She stayed to chat and joke with them. The big window in our living room would become all steamed up as the clinic staff, and visitors such as Engineer, feigned great interest in the threshing. At the same time they were critical of her “free” behaviour. I berated them for their double standards, but to no avail.
None of the women came to my room, maintaining Hussain would be angry with them for disturbing me. I assured them this was not the case. One evening I had decided not to go to a mehmani and moments after the staff left, in trooped the Fatima, Kulsom, Latifa and Sughra, with tiny Amina tagging along behind. They had decided to come and keep me company. Before long another couple of women arrived, eager not to miss out on anything.
I offered tea but Fatima firmly insisted they would like coffee – having heard from Baqul about this delicious alternative to tea. With the addition of large quantities of sugar and plenty of powdered milk they obviously found it to their liking. Latifa asked to see my photographs and they were soon poring over family snapshots and studying postcards of sheep, cows and scenes of rural Scotland. One of the women turned most of the photographs upside down to study them. When she suddenly realised that she was looking at an inverted sheep she hastily turned it the right way up, darting a look of embarrassment at me as she realised her mistake. It was always the familiar they appreciated most, the things with which they could identify, so farmland scenes were enjoyed while pictures of strange houses containing peculiar furniture were largely ignored.
When we had exhausted the photographs, the women turned their attention to Latifa, teasing her that soon she would be married. Latifa was blushing furiously as she protested, ‘I am never going to get married – never.’ She ended the discussion by flouncing out of the room, amid much laughter from the other women. At the sound of the men returning, my guests rose to leave, still wiping away the tears of laughter. Sughra and I rolled our eyes at each other in incomprehension of what, I assumed, had been the ribald comments made to Latifa on the subject of her marriage.