Lal-sar-Jangal, Central Afghanistan: November 1989
I was sorry to say goodbye to everyone in Waras.
My horse, Zeba had fallen hopelessly in love with Ibrahim’s and couldn’t bear to let him out of her sight so it was easy to keep up a good pace with Ibrahim leading the way. Any other horse coming between Zeba and her beloved was liable to receive a savage nip.
As we rode homewards I reflected on the differences between the people of Waras and those of Lal and Jaghoray and Sheikh Ali. They were poor, their area had even less in the way of medical facilities and no aid organisation had ever done anything for the people. Life was a struggle but they did not seem bowed by it. Their religious belief was strong, but not worn as a badge as in Jaghoray. No-one worried about playing cards or listening to music in public – and never at dinner parties did the guests ostentatiously offer their prayers en masse. People left the company unobtrusively, to wash and pray in a separate room or, if it had to be done in the same room, it was discreetly in a corner without interrupting the conversation carried on around them.
Ibrahim maintained that the people of Jaghoray and Sheikh Ali were much more fundamentalist because of the strong influence of Iran over the political Parties. ‘They give guns and money because they want to see Afghanistan become like Iran. That will never happen. The people here in Waras and in Sharistan and Daykundi hate the Iranians. They blame them for keeping the fighting going on.’
When I commented on how much more freedom the women enjoyed, he laughed, saying, ‘In Waras, we like women.’ I wasn’t quite sure how to interpret his only remark on the subject.
The staff at the clinic had been requesting English classes for some time and in my absence worked out a time table for the evenings – a rather ambitious programme which included anatomy, pharmacology, the reproductive system and English grammar. When I pointed out that, unless we gave up sleeping entirely, there weren’t enough hours in the day the programme was modified. I was to teach all medical topics in English, explaining points of grammar as and when necessary.
In fact the subject the staff most wanted to learn about was birth spacing. Ibrahim explained many people in the area would like to have fewer children – once they had sons to take over the land. However, people knew little about the contraceptive pill, believing it caused all manner of dangerous side effects. In the bazaar, a capsule was available which reportedly gave one year’s protection against pregnancy – several of the clinic staff had soon discovered the manufacturer’s claims were false.
Condoms could be purchased in the bazaar in Bamiyan. They were used as balloons and given to children as toys. Haboly said they would never dare suggest using condoms to avoid pregnancy; men would not accept their use. Despite the fact that they saw a number of cases of gonorrhoea amongst their male patients, no-one would suggest the use of condoms as a means of preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Nor did they even think of explaining to the patient that, unless his partner was treated, the infection would return. It was as if they just ignored how the disease had been contracted – Islam prohibits extra-marital and pre-marital sex, therefore it must not happen. These unpleasant infections must just come “khud ba khud” – by themselves.
Other questions concerned how the sex of a baby was determined, and was there nothing to be done to ensure the mother produced a boy?
During one session on how to teach a woman the correct usage of the contraceptive pill and on dispelling the myths about side effects Rahimy asked Haboly to translate a question. ‘Rahimy wants his wife to take the pill because they have enough children. He wants to know if there is not a pill he can give her to take only on the weekends when he goes home?’
I shook my head, ‘Sorry, he will have to trust his wife in between his visits home.’ Haboly looked faintly shocked by the blunt answer, but dutifully translated. Rahimy grinned so sheepishly I knew I had correctly guessed the reason behind the question. There was a further whispered discussion between them, with many anxious glances cast in my direction. Finally, Haboly turned to me and said, ‘We have another question.’ He paused, obviously nervous, but the others made encouraging noises until he continued, ‘After a man has sex he is tired and has to rest for some time before he can do it again, but a woman is not tired and can carry on. Does it mean women need more sex than men? Is this true in your country, too?’ Haboly stopped, watching me fearfully, as if expecting an outraged reaction to such a question.
After a moment’s consideration I answered, ‘If it’s true women need sex more than men – and men can’t continue their performance for as long – don’t you think there is something silly about men being able to have four wives, but women only one husband? Surely it should be the other way round?’
Haboly looked totally shocked. ‘Go on,’ I said, ‘translate.’ As he did so I studied the expressions on their faces. Ibrahim was the first to recover, and laughed aloud at the reply. The others joined in, finding the idea of women taking four husbands very entertaining. ‘So this,’ I asked, ‘is why Afghan men want to keep their women in purdah? In case she goes looking for satisfaction elsewhere?’
At the end of the evening Haboly said, ‘We hope you did not mind our questions. We never have the opportunity to ask these things. We did not mean to cause offence.’ I reassured him and retired to my room thinking how sad it was to live in a society which so suppressed any openness about sex and sexuality that grown men, all married with families, could sound like naughty school boys just discovering the facts of life.
Their favourite joke, however, made me realise men – from sexually repressed Afghanistan to liberated Britain, and probably worldwide – share the same “size matters” anxieties. The joke? A man was stung on the penis by a wasp. Driven mad by the pain he visited a doctor, pleading, ‘Do something to ease the pain, but leave the swelling.’