From Lal-sar-Jangal to Band-i-Amir, December 1989
We were almost in Yakolang before anyone remembered the sheep. When Jon unlocked the door, his gasp of horror made me fear the poor animal had expired. I peered in. It was still alive – bleating its protests at this unorthodox way of travelling. It lay flattened under a huge pile of bedding and a large box, its legs sticking out like a cartoon character. Jon shifted the bundles, and the sheep struggled to an upright position.
In the bazaar, Rahimy went off to buy fruit and other supplies, while the rest of us paid our respects to the Commanders at the Paygar. As it was in Yakolang the mujahideen had threatened to shoot Khudadad for using a torch, I was less than enthusiastic about the visit. The Commander gave Jon the usual bear-hug embrace. As a foreign female I was granted a cursory nod.
The Commander next turned to Zahir and his face froze in horror, his outstretched hand falling limply to his side. Not even his lifelong conditioning on showing respect and hospitality towards guests could overcome his revulsion at the idea of shaking hands with a leprosy patient. My heart went out to Zahir who, standing in the middle of the floor, politely continued the litany of greetings. The Commander finally indicated that we should be seated, and offered tea.
We refused, of course. It’s customary to wait until tea is offered a third time before accepting, with protestations about not wishing to cause the host any unnecessary bother. On this occasion, not even a second offer was forthcoming. The Commander didn’t want us to linger. Although I knew many people feared leprosy, because I spent the majority of my time with people who worked with leprosy patients, I had never before witnessed such a terrified reaction.
We collected Rahimy and headed for the lakes of Band-i-Amir for a picnic lunch. After following a rough track for a short distance, a sudden glimpse of the most vivid blue imaginable confirmed we were on the right road. We spent an enjoyable hour or so scrambling on the paths between the various lakes, rewarded for our efforts by stunning views. Each lake was a different shade. In some places the water, with barely a ripple to mar its mirror like surface, was of the deepest blue, in others, it was an equally brilliant emerald green, viewed from yet another angle, it was turquoise.
At the foot of the cliffs was a shrine built to Hazrat Ali, son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Here, Rahimy, Zahir and Ghulam Ali spent some time in prayer. It was to this huge stretch of water (two miles long and five hundred yards wide) with its supposed miraculous healing properties, to which Qurban’s father had brought the small boy, hoping to cure his leprosy. We left a donation with the caretaker, and shared some of our picnic with his grandchildren who had acted as our guides, leading the way along the paths.
Choosing a sheltered picnic spot by the side of the main stretch of water, we tucked into cold chicken and nan, thoughtfully provided by Aziz. To round off the meal, I shared out some chocolate. The taste and texture of it came as a surprise to Zahir and Ghulam Ali who had never tried it before. I noticed the latter slipping his piece surreptitiously into his pocket, either to enjoy later or, I suspected, to dispose of discreetly.
In the deep silence around us our chatter, and the clatter of thermoses and cups, sounded intrusive although I knew that, before the Soviet invasion, Band-i-Amir was one of the major tourist attractions in Afghanistan. Every summer, it was visited by thousands of Afghans and foreigners. They had trekked over the paths, admired the stupendous views, swum in the lake beside which we now sat (presumably warmer in the summer months) and enjoyed coffee and honey cakes in Aziz’s father’s coffee shop.
Aziz had often talked about the summers he spent in Band-i-Amir, helping his father. He’d enjoyed meeting foreigners from many different countries, picking up a few phrases in several languages. I wondered who’d taught him his most frequently quoted expression of “No money, no honey.” After the tourist season ended all the traders dismantled their tea shops and restaurants, leaving Band-i-Amir as unspoilt as when Hazrat Ali had miraculously created the series of lakes.
According to legend, a young man, whose wife and children had been imprisoned by the cruel Barbar, a king who ruled over the Hindu Kush, appealed to Hazrat Ali for help. The plan they made was for Ali, without revealing who he was, to be offered for sale to the king. Before he would agree to purchase this new slave, the king set him three tasks. One was to build a dam which the king needed; and in fact had 1000 slaves working fruitlessly to do just that. He also demanded a fearsome dragon be slain and, finally, that Ali be brought before him, in chains.
These tasks were no problem to Hazrat Ali. From the top of the mountain he threw down enormous chunks of rocks which created the Band-i-Haibat (Dam of Awe); with his sword he hacked off another slice of mountain to form the Band-i-Zulfiqar. Ali’s groom helped to create a third dam, and the 1000 slaves, motivated by such awe-inspiring activities, managed to complete their own dam, the Band-i-Ghulaman. Two other lakes, or dams, were formed – the Band-i-Panir and the Band-i-Pudina.
Ghulam Ali, Rahimy and Zahir were talking volubly amongst themselves about the lakes and the wonders of Hazrat Ali when I slid behind the wheel and started the engine. When I put the vehicle in gear there was a sudden silence in the back and, glancing in the mirror, I saw, with the exception of Ghulam Ali, the faces of the other two registered a mixture of absolute astonishment and terror. I said, “Don’t worry. I’ve seen it done. I’m sure I can learn quite quickly.” They quickly assured me they were not afraid, but it was some time before they relaxed enough to resume their conversation.