MarySmith’sPlace – #AfghanistanAdventures53 Foreign(Non)Diplomacy

Afghanistan, December 1989: Bamiyan, Sheikh Ali & onwards to Wardak Province

We’d enjoyed our day of playing tourists with very hospitable and friendly mujahideen

We returned to the French clinic to find Ghulam Ali, huddled under his patou, looking more miserable than usual. The room we’d been allocated was like a fridge, the promised stove had not materialised. Ghulam Ali was bored and cold and thoroughly fed up. Jon went off in search of someone to help, and soon a bukhari was installed and we huddled in a circle around it drinking tea, waiting for the temperature to rise. 

Shortly after seven o’clock the cook appeared to inform us dinner was ready and, indicating Jon and me, told us to go to the house. I pointed to our fellow travellers and asked, ‘What about them?’ The cook explained food would be brought to the room for the Rahimy, Zahir and Ghulam Ali, but Jon and I were expected to eat with the kharijee – foreigners.

He trotted out. Minutes later he returned and said, this time, in English, ‘Dinner is ready. You go to house.’

I shook my head, ‘No, we all eat together, here.’

The great Buddha of Bamiyan

Looking ruffled, he departed and we sat in an uncomfortable silence. I didn’t know what the other three were thinking about their exclusion from the invitation. Rahimy broke the silence to say, ‘If you want to eat in the house, it’s all right. We don’t mind.’ His hurt expression belied his words.

Before I could reply, the cook shuffled in bearing a tray with three plates of food. Setting it down, he was about to leave, when I remarked, ‘We are five people – there are only three dishes here.’

‘Your dinner is in the house with the foreigners. They have meat.’ He was sounding agitated by our steadfast refusal to go to the house, unsure if we simply did not understand his English, or were being deliberately obstructive. I sat down and began to eat from one of the dishes and the cook went out, slamming the door. He soon returned, with another two dishes, which he dumped unceremoniously on the floor before, shaking his head at the crazy behaviour of foreigners, he departed. We had no meat on our plates.

No Afghan host would invite people to stay the night, and then expect to eat with only a chosen few. I tried to apologise, explaining that in some organisations the expatriates and the local people tended to live separately, but Rahimy’s only comment was, ‘Foreigners are not all the same then, are they?’ I agreed this was true.

By this time Zahir was gasping and wheezing. At first, we were afraid he was having an asthma attack but he shook his head at our concern. Finding the ridiculous situation quite farcical he was giggling helplessly. Once reassured the dreadful sound was laughter, the tension in the room eased instantly and soon we were all laughing together.

Later, the foreign doctor appeared. ‘We wondered if you would like to join us for a drink?’ His eyes slid over the Afghans, coming to rest on Jon. The invitation was, once again, only for us. I indicated our friends.

The doctor shrugged, ‘You can leave them on their own for an hour, can’t you?  We don’t let our Afghans use the house.’ We explained we travelled together as a team, sharing everything, and, even before the doctor had left the room, Zahir, deciding the peculiar hospitality of foreigners was too funny for words, dissolved once more into giggles.

Next morning, Rahimy went to beg, buy or steal fodder for the sheep and leaving Ghulam Ali with the doctors, who were happy to operate on his toe, if not to allow him in their home we departed for Sheikh Ali. We made it in three hours.

We climbed up the steep path to the house, the sheep bounding ahead, none the worse for its journey. Hassan and Zohra were in the midst of preparations to go on leave; their first holiday for three years. The sheep, while a welcome gift, had to be rehomed until their return. Zohra and I had little time to talk but I asked about baby Sadiq, whose life had still hung so much in the balance when I last saw him. ‘Oh, he grew. He’s at home now, and his twin brother also survived. Even the grandmother finally began to accept my strange ways were sometimes right.’

We said our goodbyes in the evening as the family were leaving at four am. My cold which had started in Bamiyan was much worse so I was grateful our departure would be at the more civilized time of eight. I crawled into my sleeping bag feeling utterly wretched, awaking in the night, feverish, my head and face gripped in a band of excruciating pain. Jon dosed me with painkillers which allowed me to doze again but I slept fitfully and in the morning was no better. Jon, diagnosing a sinus infection, gave me antibiotics and postponed our departure. I spent the day swaddled in my sleeping bag, obediently swallowing medicines and innumerable cups of tea, feeling much too ill to enjoy the luxury of a day in bed. 

Next morning, although my sinuses were still painful and my teeth and jaws ached – even my hair hurt – I decided I was fit to travel. After breakfast we set off for Arif’s clinic in Day Mirdad in Wardak Province, expecting to arrive by late afternoon.

The sky was grey and heavy with snow as we began climbing the pass leading out of the valley. We were soon driving through a snowy landscape, and progress became ever slower as we carefully followed in the tracks of the trucks, which had preceded us. Near the summit, we caught up with the tail of the convoy, inching its way upwards on the treacherous road.

The snow had come sooner than expected, catching the drivers unprepared. They had not yet fitted the huge, heavy chains which allow them to grip the road in snow and ice and several trucks had already stuck fast in the snow and mud. 

Jon and Rahimy went to provide some extra muscle power to dig out the trucks. I persuaded Zahir to stay with me in the jeep, afraid the bitterly cold air might start off his asthma, and thankful women were not expected to shovel snow.

We gazed out at a forlorn and mournful landscape in which, apart from ourselves, there was no sign of life.

64 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace – #AfghanistanAdventures53 Foreign(Non)Diplomacy

    • I wasn’t even thinking about the toilet situation at that point because we assumed we’d reach our destination within a few hours. I really don’t do cold weather well, especially when I’m sick.

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  1. Standing in ones convictions is the ultimate act of bravery I think, Mary. You were a courageous woman then, and are still. I could not allow myself to be elevated amongst comrades either. What beautiful if bleak surroundings.

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    • Thank you, Sally. I could never come to terms with how some ex-pats coming to Afghanistan because they apparently wanted to help the people then kept those people at arms length. They never got to know them. It was miserable being ill just as the cold weather and snow arrived. I was remarkably healthy
      throughout the six-month trip and this was the first time I’d had anything wrong with me. Thanks for sharing. Big hugs back.

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  2. You are an incredible woman, Mary, to have endured all of this. I read your book and was blown away by the atrocities the women there had to put up with. How nice of you to stick with your friends. You are a true and supportive person to have as a friend. God bless you. Thank you for sharing this part of your life which most of us will never see. hugs xx

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  3. It sounds like a harrowing experience in more ways than one with you being ill, the snow and the not allowing Afghans in the house…But you coped admirably and with grace by not accepting the invitation to eat without friends and colleagues,,, Well Done, Mary 🙂 x

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    • Thanks, Carol. It certainly wasn’t fun and I don’t do cold and snow very well! I was shocked at the behaviour of the foreign doctors towards the people whose country they were living in and felt they showed a remarkable lack of sensitivity.

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  4. I never cease to be amazed at your strength, compassion, and wisdom. You have dealt with so much and not only survived, but empowered others also. Thank you for sharing.
    Healing thoughts and prayers are being sent your way. Your tales of this adventure will also be a great read.

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  5. Thanks so much Lauren. I didn’t like the way some foreign aid workers treated Afghans as poor souls who needed their benevolent help, rather than as equals. I was probably fighting a losing battle but at least I took a stand when I could.
    I saw your email this morning and will reply soon.

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  6. What an example you are to all, Mary! Good for you for not putting up with any nonsense. I know how hard it is to travel when you’re feeling unwell, and I can only imagine what it must have been like in those circumstances, so I take my hat off at you on both accounts. Thanks for sharing your adventures and for your example, Mary.

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    • Thank you for your kind comments, Olga. I have never accepted that we are not all equal and I hated that some foreigners seemed to think they were in some way better than their hosts. As for being unwell, I’d never had sinusitis before and it really hurt like hell. I think those few days were the worst in the whole trip. Things did improve! 🙂

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  7. Pingback: Smorgasbord Reblog – #AfghanistanAdventures53 Foreign(Non)Diplomacy by Mary Smith | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

  8. My goodness Mary. I’ve experienced sinisitus and I remember how bloody painful it was – and I was at home nursing my ailment while you suffered it in the desert! Oye! Just more of what makes you a Warrior Woman! ❤

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    • I know, Lucinda, when we were younger we just assumed we could deal with anything. I don’t think my bones would be so keen to sleep on a thin mattress on a hard floor nowadays! I’m glad to have my memories so when I can’t remember what I had for breakfast I can at least look back and remember some adventures 🙂

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  9. Staying with your friends was great, Mary! But honestly, as a woman in the midst of all these men, and their traditions it was indeed tough. Sometimes i think this are experiences from a very ancient time, and its horrible this is unchanged going on till today. Thank you for sharing, Mary! Enjoy your day! Michael – P.S.: Seems Scotland has less infections like the UK. Stay save!

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    • Thank you for commenting, Michael. Traditions change very slowly – and that’s true everywhere in the world – but at least I did always feel quite safe and that the men I spent time with would always look after me. It’s true, Scotland has fewer new infections than England though our numbers are also increasing. New restrictions came in today stopping people from visiting in houses. Though they can still go to the pub! How is it in Germany these days?

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  10. The photos accompanying your narration really bring home the hardships of that trip. I did appreciate the bit of levity in how you phrased this line: “Once reassured the dreadful sound was laughter, the tension in the room eased instantly and soon we were all laughing together.”

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  11. Kudos! So much to love in this. There’s the loyalty to the group that the hosts found so baffling, the sinus infection and the hurting hair (which would have had me in a blubbering heap), and then the snow… The photographs provide an idea of the situation but I’ll bet it felt even worse than it looked.

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    • Thanks so much for your lovely comments. I admit it didn’t feel great when I was ill, Alex, though I do feel quite proud of sticking up for our group. It was so cold, which didn’t help matters!

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