Friday is the Islamic equivalent of Sunday and therefore a holiday from work. Outings were occasionally organised and I agreed enthusiastically to a suggested fishing trip. Gul Agha, for once leaving his Kalashnikov behind, and his young brother, Hazrat, now one of my English students, accompanied us.
The surprising absence of fishing tackle was explained when we reached the river and Gul Agha and Hussain began to attach fuses to several home-made bombs.
Explosive had been packed into small plastic medicine tubs and, once the fuses had been lit, these were hurled into the river. The dull explosions were followed by a mini tidal wave. The men jumped into the river, screaming and yelling with delight as they grabbed for the fish which rose, stunned, to the surface.
When I told them about the heavy penalties paid by poachers caught in similar activities at home they fell about laughing.
It was a scorching hot day and the water looked invitingly cool. After a while, I began to untie my trainers. ‘What,’ demanded Hussain, ‘are you doing?’
‘I thought I’d have a paddle.’ Recognising the mutinous expression on his face I sighed, waiting for the explosion.
‘You can’t go in the water! If it was just me and Ali Baba then it would be no problem, but Gul Agha would tell the people in the village. Everyone would talk. Our women do not go swimming.’
‘I don’t want to swim, just dip my feet in,’ I protested. I looked at the cool, shallow water of the river flowing gently past the willow trees then I looked at Hussain’s face, and reluctantly began to retie my laces. Cooling down would not be worth the resulting sulks.
After the fish had been harvested, Ali Baba and Hazrat collected fuel for the fire while Gul Agha, assuming the role of chief cook, unpacked frying pans and cooking oil and bundles of nan wrapped in cloth. Soon the aroma of frying fish was making us all hungry. The fish, a small fresh water trout, were cooked whole, fried until they were crisply edible on the outside with beautifully tender flesh inside. I put my concerns about the lack of ethical fishing practices behind and tucked in.
As we wandered back to the jeep, carrying the remainder of the fish threaded onto thin sticks, we passed a farmer leading three donkeys towards the river. Hussain said, ‘The donkeys get very hot and tired in this weather so the farmers take them to the river. They love to stand in the water to cool down.’
‘I see,’ I remarked, ‘only women have to suffer in this heat. They work as hard as any donkey, but the donkeys get better treatment from the men than the women do.’
Hussain maintained a stony silence throughout the return journey. At home he said, ‘Gul Agha asked why you were in a bad mood. I told him you wanted to go in the water and he said it was no problem. He said you are accepted as a family member by everyone here. Then I asked him if he would allow his sister, or mother, to go in the river. He said no.’
It was my turn to be silent – I simply couldn’t think of any more to say on the subject.
Another outing was for a shooting competition. The target, a large green cloth about the size of a double bed sheet, was spread out on a mountain across the valley. From our position it looked very small to me.
Firing commenced. After each shot little black figures, like animated stick people, ran about around the target. One of them would jump up and down, waving its arms to indicate where the shot had landed. On several occasions the little figures jumped up and down even more vigorously, bringing to the notice of the marksman that a shot, off target, had landed uncomfortably close. I sat under a walnut tree slowly growing deaf and trying to show some enthusiasm when someone succeeded in hitting the centre of the target.
Someone suggested I have a go and I took the Kalashnikov gingerly. I lay down, wriggling into position. As I peered doubtfully at the target someone suggested I just shoot and not bother to aim. I insisted that I must have something to aim for, but preferably something a little larger – closer to me but further away from those little stick figures.
However when someone suggested I simply try to hit the next mountain I felt deeply hurt. The suggestion I required an entire mountain as a target seemed to cast rather too much doubt on my marksmanship. I handed the Kalashnikov back to Gul Agha without firing a shot.
I would like to think I refused to shoot because of high moral principles regarding the use of weapons as playthings but I fear I simply did not want the embarrassment of making a complete fool of myself. What if I had missed the mountain?