Autumn 1989 somewhere between Yakolang and Lal
Juma Khan, the truck owner joined Khudadad and me for tea in the guest room. He was accompanied by his elderly wife whose eyes were filmed by cataracts. Pointing to his wife’s eyes he asked what could be done; did I have any medicine to make her see again? My heart sank. I was going to be a very disappointing guest.
I shook my head, explaining only an operation would help. The nearest hospital where such surgery could be performed was Kabul. We all knew, without further discussion, that Juma Khan’s wife would end her days in darkness. More patients from the village arrived for consultations – children with eczema, children with scabies, malnutrition, diarrhoea. The picturesque rural scene I had seen as we arrived disguised the poverty, ignorance and disease in the village.
Apart from a couple of doctors of doubtful qualifications in the bazaar of Yakolang no other medical facility was nearer than our clinic in Lal. Some years ago, an American Government funded mission group had built a hospital in Yakolang. It had been closed, even before the Soviet invasion, amidst rumours of spying and proselytising. I had seen the modern buildings as we drove through the bazaar earlier and, faced with so many children for whom I could do little to help; I wondered why one of the many aid organisations working in Afghanistan did not re-open the much needed hospital. Our organisation was tiny, but where I wondered were Oxfam, Save the Children, the UN agencies? Khudadad answered, ‘This place is too far from Pakistan. They don’t want the bother. It is easier for them to help in the nearer, Pashtun areas.’
Although he spoke in English, on hearing the word “Pashtun” Juma Khan’s wife let out a long wail of anguish followed by a voluble speech full of anger and grief. Khudadad explained, ‘This family are originally from near Jaghoray, but the Pushtoon took their land and forced them to move. Many, many families lost their lands at that time and moved here. The land is not good and farming is hard. They will always hate the Pushtoon people. That is why the Hazaras must have some power when there is a new Government.’
It was quite a speech from Khudadad and the emotion in his voice was clear. ‘When did this happen?’ I asked.
‘During the time of Abdur Rahman Khan,’ he replied. ‘They will never forget.’
Abdur Rahman Khan ruled from 1880 to 1901 and is known for uniting Afghanistan after years of fighting when the Durand Line was being negotiated with the British Raj. He also forcibly removed thousands of Hazaras from their lands which were given to Pashtuns. Thousands of Hazaras were killed, raped, sold into slavery and many thousands more left Afghanistan for Iran, Baluchistan (in what is now Pakistan). The Governor of Baluchistan reported to the foreign department of India that he believed Abdur Rahman was intending to exterminate the Hazaras.
Even though she was not even born in the days of Abdur Rahman Khan’s rule I understood Juma Khan’s wife’s anger and grief. At home in Scotland people still talk about The Killing Times, as though they took place a couple of decades ago. It was a period of church conflict in the 17th century.
The rest of the party soon arrived for dinner. More tea was served. Having seen the tea consumption of the average Afghan, I fail to understand why the English are considered to be a race of tea drinkers. Dinner was “sheer brinj” (literally, milk rice) and for me it was a first to see it served as a main, savoury dish rather than as a pudding. I watched to see how I was supposed to tackle the moulded ring of glutinous rice, surrounded a well of hot oil. As he dipped balls of rice into the hot oil, Khudadad muttered, under his breath, complaints about the fare.
I found it unappetising myself but, not surprisingly it was a filling meal and I soon felt that I had eaten more than enough. The driver bellowed a question which Khudadad translated, ‘He wants to know why foreigners eat like birds while Afghans eat like donkeys?’ I mumbled something about how hard most Afghans work compared to us puny foreigners, which provoked much laughter. I was amazed at how much food they managed to put away, especially as not one of them, even the giant conductor, was even slightly overweight. If the amount of food they consumed was impressive, the tea drinking which followed was truly awesome. Two enormous kettles containing several gallons of tea were brought, with a smaller teapot for the foreign bird.
As the guests talked and talked I grew more and more sleepy. I might even have fallen asleep had I not been diverted by the antics of a little mouse, scampering nimbly over the bedding and cushions round the edges of the room. Khudadad caught my eye and grinned when he saw what I was watching but no-one else appeared to have noticed, so engrossed were they in their conversation. At last, the driver upended the kettle. It was empty. Juma Khan immediately offered to have more tea brought and I smothered a sigh at the thought, but apparently the signal for departure had been given.
Khudadad had been unusually quiet throughout the evening, taking little part in the talk, and I wondered if something was wrong but he replied, ‘No, no. I was a little bored. They were talking about their business.’
While we prepared our beds Khudadad continued to talk, translating chunks of the after dinner conversation, delighted with the improvement in his English which enabled him to be so articulate. I lay down, but Khudadad carried on talking, making up for his silence earlier in the evening. When he had completed his run down of the evening’s discourse, which seemed to have been mainly about the price of goods and transport costs, he began on the political history of the revolution. I would have found this a more interesting topic but, unfortunately, at this point, his English failed him and he turned off the lamp.
There was a sudden scampering by my head as the mouse ran across the pillow, seeking his bed for the night. After a while, I realised he’d found it, inside my pillow case. ‘Khudadad, the mouse is inside my pillow.’ He switched on his torch and we took turns trying to dislodge the mouse, until the ridiculousness of the situation struck us and we both dissolved into helpless laughter. I chose a different pillow, leaving the mouse to his peaceful slumber.