By the time we reached Naoor the landscape had changed. Gone were the jagged rocks and boulders and rugged mountains of Jaghoray, replaced by sandy desert. Sayed drove along tracks made by other trucks; tracks which zigzagged across the plain in a bewildering manner. Everything was bleached and dry, the only patch of colour the hazy blue of a lake, at the foot of a distant line of mountains on the far horizon.
Bellowing to make myself heard above the noise of the music I asked the name of the lake. Sayed gave a chuckle, the only sound of humour I had heard from him so far, and bellowed back, ‘No water there.’
Did he mean it was a mirage? Not having the vocabulary to ask, I gazed at the strip of blue, wondering if I was being teased. Sayed suddenly, with a surprised exclamation, pulled the truck to a stop. When the dirty, dusty, bleeding face of Khudadad rose to the level of the cab door and grinned toothily at me I wondered briefly if this was another mirage. He launched into voluble explanations in Dari, occasionally interrupting himself to say, in English, ‘I am sorry sister, very sorry.’
Sayed nodded and grunted saying little in reply to the proffered explanations, revving the engine, impatiently indicating Khudadad should climb in.
Khudadad squashed in beside me, scrubbing at the dust and blood on his face. ‘I am very sorry, sister, really I am sorry.’ He scrubbed some more. ‘I promised Jon I would take care of you on this journey – really, I am very, very sorry.’ Resisting the urge to shake him until the flow of apologies stopped, I waited until he was sufficiently composed to tell his story.
While returning on his motorbike after the wedding, he’d collided with another motorcyclist. Neither was hurt, and no damage was done to either bike. Unfortunately the other motorcyclist was a mujahid. Being knocked off his bike sorely wounded his pride. He’d demanded money. ‘His bike was not broken. Why should I give him money?’ Khudadad grumbled. The mujahid had a Kalashnikov, Khudadad did not. He got locked up in the jail.
‘I could not sleep. I was worried about not getting back to Qolijou. At five o’clock the Commander, my friend, came to the office. When I told him the story he released me. I jumped on my motorcycle and drove very fast to catch you. I fell off just before Sayed stopped. Really, sister, I am very sorry, very sorry for all your trouble.’
‘Khudadad, you are the only one who has had any trouble. Please, please, stop saying you are sorry.’
With difficulty, he swallowed his apology and to change the subject I asked him about the lake, still visible. He shook his head, ‘No, no water, it just looks like water. Naoor is a very strange place; it makes everything look big when it is small and small when it is big.’
I had no idea what he meant until shortly afterwards I saw a train of camels walking some distance ahead of us. I was astonished when we drew near to see that the camels had shrunk, and were in fact sheep. Khudadad grinned at my amazed expression. I was sure there must be a scientific explanation involving the landscape and atmospheric conditions – or something but I simply nodded in agreement. Naoor was indeed a strange place.
When we made our lunch stop Khudadad made arrangements for his motorcycle, which had been tied on top of the truck, to be left for collection on his return journey. I waited in the truck for him. Sayed, obviously relinquishing all responsibility for me now that Khudadad had appeared, had already gone off with his men. By the time we entered the chaikhana, they were already emptying their plates. Khudadad ordered the hotelier to bring our food quickly.
As the plates were being cleared I broached the delicate subject of needing to go to the toilet. Khudadad leapt instantly to his feet, once again apologising profusely, and led me around the corner of the chaikhana. Having checked that the ‘toilet’ – the piece of land at the back of the building was not already occupied he retreated to stand guard. Sayed had the truck started up when we returned.
Shortly after leaving the bazaar Sayed exchanged places with his son. He was obviously a novice, made increasingly nervous by his father’s wrath every time he crashed the gears. At last, Sayed dropped off to sleep and his son relaxed. Maybe it was tiredness which caused his bad temper, I wondered to Khudadad.
‘No,’ he said, ‘it is fear. There are many bandits on this road. And sometimes the other Parties make problems at checkpoints. Sayed is with Harakat which has no power in this area. He is always very nervous when out of his own area.’ I was glad to be reassured I had not, inadvertently, upset the man in some way.
It was a relief to reach the end of Naoor and again approach mountainous, more interesting, terrain. The flat, dusty landscape was depressing, as were the visible signs of the poverty of the area. The crops on the small patches of cultivated land were stunted and sparse. Women were harvesting the wheat one stalk at a time. The children, dressed in rags, all looked malnourished. They either waved, or threw stones at the truck, depending on their feelings.