Waras, Afghanistan – early winter 1989
A narrow defile between towering mountains led us out of the Kirman valley. There was no indication of a way out and I assumed there must be an opening at the far end, not yet visible. It took some time before I understood that the only way out was up – straight up. The track was almost perpendicular, and so narrow it was difficult to believe anything other than a mountain goat could have climbed it. Trying to reassure myself that horses are extremely sure footed, I sat, in a cold sweat, the reins loose in my hand allowing Zeba to do things her way. Whenever one or other of the horses in front stumbled, – which they did with alarming frequency – showers of small stones clattered down the mountain – and shudders of fear down my back.
The views from the mountaintop were superb, but I could only gaze in horror at the tortuous path, wondering how the hell I would ever get back down other than on my hands and knees. I was relieved when Ibrahim assured me the return journey was by a different route. The rest of the journey was straightforward and I was able to relax. Occasionally we rode through small villages but mostly we seemed to be the only people in the world. It was a glorious feeling to be a part of such a deserted, rugged landscape which can hardly have changed since the world was created.
Arriving at Ibrahim’s house I was confronted by a sea of faces and wondered how I would survive the next few days amongst so many strangers and if I’d ever learn who was who. I was invited to stretch out so that one of the young women could massage my aching legs. I submitted willingly. All Hazara women are experts at massage techniques – often able to massage away a blinding headache within a few minutes.
By the time we had eaten, and the whole family were sitting around with the inevitable after-dinner tea, my anxiety had evaporated. There was something about these people which made me lose my normal self-consciousness, especially about my poor language skills.
The biggest surprise was seeing so many women in the company. These were not women who sat unobtrusively near the door, whispering amongst themselves, allowed in by the men to look at the foreign guest. These women joined in the general conversation as equals, they laughed aloud, they made jokes and – second surprise – the men played with the innumerable babies and toddlers, who crawled and climbed from lap to lap. I understood about a tenth of what was being said but no-one made me feel stupid. Everyone laughingly competed with each other to find another way of phrasing the question or remark to aid my understanding.
I even found I could laugh at my own mistakes such as when asked what things I liked to eat I listed raisins – or, rather, I thought I had. ‘Man ishpish kheily khush darum.’ There was a sudden silence, followed by an explosion of laughter. ‘Chi guftam?’ – ‘What did I say?’ I had announced I enjoyed head lice very much. The word needed was ‘kishmish’, not, ‘ishpish’. I had a feeling I wouldn’t be allowed to forget that one.
After a day being shown round the valley by Ibrahim and meeting more members of this vast extended family the women immediately whisked me off to the smoke filled kitchen to talk, while they prepared the evening meal. The stove was a lump of moulded mud, under which a fire of wood and cow dung roared. The cooking pots sat over two holes on the top. Everything came to a fast boil when fuel was added to the fire; the flames allowed to die down to achieve a slower simmer. A hole in the roof drew the smoke out though only a tiny amount – the rest billowed around the kitchen making everyone teary eyed. At the bottom of the tandoor, which had retained heat from the morning’s bread baking, a kettle of water was kept warm, to be speedily brought to the boil whenever tea was required.
They found it difficult to speak slowly and our conversations involved many repetitions, with exaggerated mime thrown in to aid comprehension. I didn’t care. I was so delighted to discover how different they were from the women in Lal – no whining demands for medicines, a considerably greater degree of personal cleanliness, and an enthusiasm for life which bubbled over into laughter at the least opportunity. It wasn’t that they had easy lives either – they had the same long days of back breaking work, both around the house and in the fields as women elsewhere.
It seemed, too, they had more freedom than I’d seen before, as evidenced by the stories of love marriages. Hassan and his wife had fallen in love. When his family approached the girl’s family, they said she was too young. The couple should wait for a year. At the end of the year, though, her family still refused to allow the marriage to take place. The young lovers continued to meet in secret until, one day, they ran away together. For several days and nights they hid in a mountain cave. When they returned to Hassan’s father’s house the mullah was called to conduct the ‘nikah‘ or marriage service. The happy couple settled down, with the blessing of Hassan’s family.
Two weeks later, the new bride’s family called at the house, announcing that they too, now wished to accept the marriage. Her father suggested that Hassan’s family might like to pay the dowry that would, under normal circumstances, have been paid before the wedding. The family agreed, sending the requisite horse, sheep, goats, a donkey and cash. From that day on the girl’s family ignored her existence.
She was sad about the loss of contact with her family, but happy to be part of the network of strong female support formed by her various in-laws. Ibrahim’s own sister, Agha, had also married for love, unopposed by her family, although the man she married was not of their choosing. I liked this place and these people.