MarySmith’sPlace – When roads become rivers – back in Afghanistan

I thought I’d provide some random snapshots from my second tour of the clinics in Afghanistan, in particular some of the problems we faced while travelling. We left on May 01, 1990 in two vehicles. I was in the Mobile Team vehicle along with Dr Epco, a doctor from Holland who was going to spend several months in the clinic in Lal, Jon and Jawad, the driver from Hussain’s clinic. In the other vehicle, Moosa from the field hospital in Jaghoray was returning after finding an organisation willing to sponsor the hospital.

We’d only reached the border town of Badani when we had to hire a replacement jeep and driver because without four wheel drive, the journey would be impossible. Delays waiting for a new driver – who came highly recommended because as a former highway robbery he could guarantee our safety – coupled with a series of punctures and a leaking water tank meant it took almost four days to reach the Mazar Bibi clinic. The hole in the water tank was temporarily but effectively fixed by melting a plastic water jug to use as a sealer. When darkness fell the first night we discovered the second driver had no lights on his vehicle. In the bazaar of Shahjoi, there was no room in any of the hotels – the driver went home, Moosa slept in one jeep, Jawad and I in the other and the rest of the group under a tree. Around 2 am I was awakened by a persistent tapping on the window – two armed mujahideen were demanding car park fees. Jawad paid them and we went back to sleep.

Although travelling could be wearisome the constantly changing landscape makes up for it – from flat, scrub covered desert to rugged mountains to white rockscapes wind-carved into fantastic shapes. Large tortoises, recently awakened from hibernation lumbered across the road – ponderous but determined. The weather was glorious making memories of last year’s battles in the snow fade.

The snow, however, hadn’t finished causing problems for us – or, rather snow-melt, which had turned tiny trickling streams into raging torrents. The road to Malestan was closed so we had to go over the high pass on foot, helped by donkeys, one to carry our belongings and one for us to take turns to ride.

On the return journey, as we went through a village, Epco was riding the donkey. It suddenly put on a great burst of speed and galloped directly into a house. Epco is over six feet tall, extremely thin and at that moment, totally without control of his donkey, lacked any trace of the dignity expected from a foreign doctor.

From Mazar Bibi we headed off, north to Lal-sar-Jangal. In Naoor, where we had to spend a night sleeping outside it was still freezing, despite being the middle of May. We heard conflicting reports about the road conditions, with some people feeling we wouldn’t be able to cross the swollen rivers. We decided to try. At the first river, running high and fast, Jon waded through first to check the depth and solidity of the bottom, decided it was doable and we did it.

This checking the depth was something we all had to take turns to do. The water was freezing. One of my flip flops floated away, watched by a gang of kids who did nothing to rescue it. I threw its partner out the window later.

On one occasion, the road seemed to be quite good – until the first river crossing where it was obvious we couldn’t go through. Back in the bazaar Jon negotiated the hire of a truck on which to load our vehicle. This created great entertainment value for the local people but it worked and we were able to carry on.

In Bonshai (not sure of spelling) even the trucks couldn’t ford the river. Everything coming from the south had to be unloaded – wheat, rice, sugar – and carried across a narrow, ramshackle bridge to the waiting trucks on the other side. Jon measured the bridge, decided there were about four inches on either side of the vehicle and charge across before anyone tried to stop him.

It took seven days to reach Lal and just before we arrived at the clinic, we got stuck in mud. Qurban and Ibrahim came charging down on horseback like a miniature cavalry and lots of people turned out to help. They attached ropes to the front of the vehicle and hauled it out of the mud. We still had the river to ford and a line of men formed up in the water to mark the way for Jon to drive through. The final obstacle was a steep climb up the bank on the far side and again, the ropes were attached, the tug-of-war teams took their places and with much revving of the engine and churning mud and pulling on ropes we were safely up the bank.

The last few yards drive had something of a triumphal entry as everyone jammed into the vehicle or hung onto the sides as we drove – very slowly – to the clinic.

MarySmith’sPlace ~ Afghanistan Adventures#60 final journey

Afghanistan, December 1989 Jaghoray to Quetta

Suddenly, it was time to leave. The last few days were hectic, full of frantic packing and emotional farewells.

Dinner party

So many people were joining us on the journey to Pakistan that we needed two vehicles. The night before departure the clinic was overflowing with people and, desperate to escape the noise and confusion, for a few minutes, I persuaded Hussain to take a last walk on the mountain with me. Now I was leaving, he was full of remorse for all the times he had acted badly. 

‘Really, Mum, I never mean any of the bad things I say when I am angry. I know you are right when you try to teach me how to behave, and I don’t want to fight with you. It just happens. You will find a different Hussain when you come back next year, I promise.’ I didn’t hold out much hope the growing up process would take place within five months – five years, perhaps – but I accepted his promises in the spirit in which they were made. We returned to the clinic to find some floor space on which to sleep for the last few hours left of the night.

Jon, Engineer, Malim Ashraf

We left before light. I travelled with Jawad and Hussain in the clinic jeep as they accompanied us as far as the checkpoint on the far side of Angoori where, if all went according to plan, we would pick up a hired vehicle for the journey to Badani. As the sun rose, chasing the early morning mists from the mountains, the sky changed colour from pearly grey through pink to blue, and Jaghoray had never looked more beautiful. The politics of a small minority of people may cause us more trouble than in any other place we worked, but it was the place in Hazaristan I loved best. Well, I silently amended, maybe second best; after Waras.  

We were allowed through the checkpoint with no problems. In the Toyota, which Jon was driving, Rosanna was comfortably ensconced in the front seat. Malim Ashraf, the headmaster of one of the Jaghoray schools, one of his students and Sharif sat in the back.

Friends I still miss

I shared the hired jeep with Rahimy, Zahir and the driver’s mate. Saying goodbye was painful and for the first few miles I was miserable – but it’s impossible to maintain such a high level of emotional intensity when total concentration has to be given to hanging grimly onto one’s seat. As we bumped and jolted viciously over rocks and holes, I thought my battered body would be hurled through the open roof.

Gul Agha and Ismail in the summer days when first arrived

By the time we stopped for a break every muscle in my body was aching and stiff. Jon asked if I wanted to change vehicles but I said I’d carry on until we reached Tang-i-Chaddar, where we planned to stop for lunch. I regretted that decision when our jeep broke down, several times, before we at last limped into Tang-i-Chaddar.  Almost too tired to eat, I managed to swallow an egg and some nan before stretching full length on the floor, falling asleep almost before I had time to cover myself with my chaddar. I awoke to find the room full of thick smoke, coming from a fire in the next room. Rahimy was shaking me urgently, yelling in my ear that I should get out. Coughing and spluttering, we ran outside to gulp fresh air into our lungs.   

Typical road

I changed vehicles, to sit in the back of the Toyota with Zahir and Malim Ashraf.  As Jon is tall he needs the driving seat pushed back as far as it will go so, sitting immediately behind him I had no room to stretch my legs. Hour after hour we drove while I fidgeted, trying to find a comfortable position. Once, Zahir demanded in a loud voice why I did not change places with Rosanna, who’d claimed the front seat for her own. I shushed him, but if she heard his suggestion she ignored it. Darkness fell and still we drove on, Jon keeping close to the jeep in front. Eventually the driver stopped to admit that he had no idea where we were.

We only knew we were somewhere in the desert. Jon and the driver wandered around with torches, trying to find the track. The others set fire to the shrubs to try to keep warm as it was, by then, bitterly cold. We huddled round each bush as it blazed into life, holding our hands to the heat then, as the fire died down, someone would light another. The road had disappeared.  There was nothing for it but to stay put until morning. I persuaded Jon to pull his seat forward to allow me a little leg room, feeling extremely envious of Rosanna’s short legs and ability to ignore the discomfort of others. Surprisingly, I was soon asleep.

In the morning, we gazed at the desolate desert, dotted with fire blackened shrubbery. The ground was a maze of tyre tracks, one of which, we hoped, would prove to be the one for Badani. For a while we drove in circles, as we had presumably done the night before, judging from the number of tracks going nowhere, but at last the driver of the hired jeep drove off with a sudden burst of confident speed.  

We still had several hours ahead of us before we reached Badani and, after a loo stop, Jon suggested that some of us might like to change places. ‘I don’t think so,’ replied Rosanna. ‘I’m quite comfortable.’ 

‘I was thinking of the others,’ Jon said, but Rosanna nimbly leapt back into her place in the front passenger seat. Wimps that we were, none of us in the back, dared confront our formidable travelling companion and so condemned ourselves to suffering in silence all the way to Badani.  

We said goodbye to the driver, who could not continue any further into Pakistan in his Russian jeep, and looked about finding alternative transport for the rest of the journey to Quetta. Badani was one of those places which, before the Soviet invasion, barely existed, but had expanded rapidly when it became one of the main, unofficial, border crossing points.  Now there was a large bazaar, where money changers were trading openly and an International Red Cross Hospital. Trucks, buses and jeeps were travelling in both directions.

After breakfast, we hired a Toyota and Rahimy, Sharif, Zahir and I travelled together. Our driver knew everyone at the checkpoints and I noticed money exchange hands occasionally, once even a mysterious package.

At our lunch stop, Malim Ashraf kindly stopped me from taking a mouthful of meat to which still clung a large tuft of the goat’s hair. After lunch we discovered our driver had been arrested.  One of the people we’d driven past hitching a lift had been an out of uniform, off duty police officer returning to his post. He seemed to think the driver should have recognised his authority even dressed in civvies, and was incensed he’d not stopped.  Catching a lift in another vehicle, he had arrived at the bazaar, just in time to have him arrested.  

Jon rushed off to the police station to secure his release by apologising profusely for any unintentional injury to the policeman’s feelings. The driver, on his own behalf, slipped a little baksheesh into the outstretched palm of the police officer.  

At the last checkpoint at Pishin no guards were on duty and our driver didn’t stop but when, sometime later, we checked behind us, there was no sign of Jon’s Toyota. We turned back to look for them. The driver was reluctant to go all the way back to the checkpoint. If they had been stopped there, our arrival would only cause more trouble.  It was dark, when we pulled up in a small bazaar to wait, but our presence aroused the interest of the local constabulary and we were told to move on. Further down the road we stopped again. The road behind us remained ominously deserted and, finally, we decided to continue to Quetta to enlist help.

As the driver started the engine we caught the gleam of headlights behind us and, a few moments later, the Toyota pulled up behind us. Rosanna leapt out, eager to tell the story.  They had reached the Pishin checkpoint only minutes after us, by which time the duty guards were again at their post. They were waved through without a problem until one of the guards pointed out that Jon had a flat tyre. Realising it would look suspicious if he drove off without checking condition of the tyre Jon stopped and realised he’d have to change the tyre. The guards kindly lent a hand but, just as Jon was thanking them for their help, one of them, peering in the back of the vehicle noticed, for the first time, the Afghans.  

Their manner changed from friendly to officious and they started questioning Jon. The policemen insisted they stay the night until the D.C. arrived in the morning to decide what to do with two foreigners driving around with a group of Afghans, all emphatically denying that they had ever set foot on Afghan soil. Jon tried to convince them that they were all working for the Pakistan leprosy programme. Whether his story was believed, or the guards just couldn’t be bothered with the paperwork keeping them until morning would entail, and they were allowed to go.

We were nearly at journey’s end. As we rounded a curve in the road and saw the lights of Quetta twinkling in the valley below us I heard a collective breath drawn by my companions in the back who had never seen anything like it in their lives. Even Sharif who, as a small child had seen Kabul, and thought he had seen the world, was impressed. Zahir truly thought it was magic.     

After six months of pressure lamps and torchlight, and dark, dark nights in Afghanistan, I also thought it was a pretty magical sight.

MarySmith’sPlace ~ AfghanistanAdventures#59 Ghastly things and lovely things

Jaghoray, Afghanistan, December 1989

Mazar Bibi Clinic under construction 1989
Mazar Bibi Clinic as it is today

Hussain had taken Rahimy, Sharif and Zahir, to see something more of the area and I was writing up my tour diary when Habib, one of the translators who had defected from Qolijou, arrived at Mazar Bibi with a jeep full of patients. I explained Hussain would not be back until late afternoon. He asked if I would examine the patients. I pointed out he had more medical training than I but he begged me to at least look at the most seriously sick of the patients, a seven year old boy. 

The child was carried into my room, deathly white, gasping for breath, barely conscious. Handing me a stethoscope Habib explained, ‘First he complained of a sore throat then he started coughing and now he has breathing problems. His father brought him to us this morning but we are not sure what to do for him and hoped Hussain could help.’ The child was seriously ill. When I looked in his mouth, I could see a kind of grey membrane covering in this throat. Diphtheria?

I turned to Habib, ‘You must take him to Rosanna at Qolijou.’ 

He looked at me, miserably, ‘Can you not give him medicine?  I can’t go to Qolijou because Moosa and the others will laugh at us and say we are useless doctors who cannot manage on our own.’   

I was incredulous that his izzat, his pride, would prevent him from doing all he could for the sick child. I knew Moosa and his colleagues might not know what to do either – Rosanna was the one I was counting on. ‘He’s desperately ill. We have to get him to Rosanna.’ Habib suggested I take his jeep and go myself with the boy. We piled into the jeep; the driver, a woman, another man, two more children and the boy’s father, who had wrapped his son in a blanket and was cradling him, as gently as he could, in his arms.  

Before we were halfway to the hospital, the father tugged at my sleeve. He gestured helplessly, wordlessly, towards his son, and I yelled at the driver to stop. The boy had stopped breathing. I wanted to try artificial respiration but as I knelt down beside the boy, his father shook his head. His son had gone; there was nothing more to be done.

Someone spread a patou on the stony ground and laid the child on it. His father gently closed his eyes, weighting them with two small stones, and tied his big toes together. Feeling totally helpless, and angry at the unfairness of it all, I broke down and wept, walking hurriedly away from the little, dry-eyed group gathered now in prayer around the child. I returned to the jeep wanting to continue to Qolijou – desperate for some reassurance from Rosanna that there was nothing I could have done – but the father wanted only to go home to bury his child. We returned silently to Mazar Bibi. 

When I saw Habib, and tried to tell him what happened, I felt the tears overflow and run down my face. I hurried off to hide in my room. A few minutes later Habib entered saying, ‘It is not your fault. No one could have saved him. Now, will you please come and check the other patients, so that these people can go home?’

I checked the two children, who both had high respiratory rates and prescribed antibiotic syrups begging Habib to get them to Qolijou as soon as possible so Rosanna could examine them.

The woman came in and lay down. Grabbing my hand she guided it to where I could feel a large swelling, about the size of my fist, in her abdomen. She told me that, of the six children she’d had, only one, born four months earlier, was alive. Again, I could only urge her to consult Rosanna. Along with my feelings of helplessness, was an overwhelming anger that so many people should suffer so needlessly. The war against the Soviets followed by a civil war had never seemed so utterly pointless.

Fortunately, there were happier times to enjoy back in Jaghoray. Jawad’s brother got married and Jon and I were invited along with Hussain and Rosanna.

The bridegroom (Jawad’s brother)
Rosanna between me and Jon at the wedding. We were all given beautiful embroidered handkerchiefs as remembrances
A young Jawad

One day, Baqul’s wife, Fatima, from Sangsuragh where our temporary clinic had been, came along with other friends to visit me. It was lovely to see them again. I took them to my room, where they insisted on coffee, in preference to tea, before settling to tell me all that had been happening in the village since I left. 

Latifa was now engaged to be married, her mother had recovered from the injuries received when her house had been hit by rockets, Hazrat had been released, unharmed, after Hisb-i-Islami kidnapped him and several women had had babies. It was a lovely afternoon and I was touched they felt the bond of friendship strongly enough to face a three hour walk – each way – to see me. They complimented me on the progress I’d made in learning Dari and our conversation flowed more smoothly than when we first met. 

Of course they all wanted to consult the doctor while they were at the clinic, but only if I stayed with them and personally supervised any examinations Hussain wanted to do. We trooped over to the consulting room where I was astounded by the change that came over them. In the privacy of my room they had been totally free and at ease, allowing their chaddars to slip off, breast feeding babies without bothering to do up their buttons afterwards. In front of Hussain, they once more shrouded themselves completely, and from conversing and laughing together at an ear splitting decibel level their voices were reduced to a barely audible whisper. Gul Bibi even refused to open her mouth to allow Hussain to examine her teeth yet, whenever he turned away, she would catch my eye, directing seductive looks at Hussain’s turned away back, eyes rolling, lips pouting. At the explosions of mirth from the other women, Hussain would whirl around, by which time Gul Bibi would have once more disappeared into the all-encompassing folds of her chaddar. The more irritated Hussain became, the more the women enjoyed their fun, but I was thankful when at last, consultations over, I could escape before Hussain’s anger erupted.

After my last post a couple of Hazaras left comments, including a YouTube link to a video of Sangi Masha bazaar and the bridge which some years ago replaced the scary one. I was fascinated by how different the bazaar looks and completely amazed at the new bridge so much so I sent the link to Jawad to confirm it was the same place. He replied to let me know the person who made the video, Mehdi Ahmadi, ‘is a cousin of my children’. Worth watching – it’s under twenty minutes, the bridge is about ten minutes in. ‘Meeting’ young Hazaras who are finding and enjoying my Afghanistan Adventures and sharing their own memories in the comments brings me so much joy and makes me feel I am still very much connected to Afghanistan and its people.

Mazar Bibi Clinic in winter – such a glorious blue sky

MarySmith’sPlace ~ AfghanistanAdventures#58 ~ Skulduggery and spies

Jaghoray, December 1989

Nothing to do with Jaghoray – this is Jawad, one time driver, now programme co-ordinator, taken between Lal and Waras on a recent tour

Hussain had sent messages from Jaghoray, warning us against going there, because the translators at Qolijou were making kidnap threats. Mubarak said two of the translators, accompanied by several mujahideen had been to Malestan asking about our expected arrival date and future travel plans. There were rumours the hospital had been handed over to Nasre, who wanted increased funding for the hospital and our Toyota. We spent the morning in endless discussions and pointless conjecture.

Mujahidden

Finally, I suggested I go alone to see Hussain, who had a tendency to dramatise any situation, and meet the translators, and Rosanna, in Qolijou. If Rosanna believed the situation to be dangerous she and I would come to Malestan together and leave from there for Pakistan. If it was nothing more than the usual over-reaction I’d send word Jon should come to Jaghoray. Rahimy insisted he come with me. Zahir and Sharif promptly volunteered to accompany us. Mubarak arranged the hire of his brother’s jeep.

As Jon and Mubarak waved us off next morning, I felt like a spy being sent behind enemy lines on an intelligence gathering mission. A glance at my three companions – one fourteen year old youth who looked about twelve, one extremely nervous ex-mujahid, and one very deformed leprosy patient, who at least succeeded in assuming a suitably sinister appearance with his turban tail drawn tightly across his face – and I decided we more resembled actors in a farcical spoof. We hadn’t even a Kalashnikov or pistol, between us.

It was still warm in Jaghoray, the sun shining in a brilliant blue sky with barely a hint of winter’s approach. As we were ushered into the staff room in the Mazar Bibi clinic, only Hussain, with much rolling of the eyes and warning finger to his lips, indicated that anything was amiss. The others welcome me back with warming enthusiasm. Soon, though, Hussain signalled from the doorway I should follow him. He explained the translators knew we were withdrawing financial support and were planning to steal the vehicle and kidnap Jon until we agreed to fund their hospital. He was horrified when I said was going next day to Qolijou to meet Rosanna. 

Jaghoray’s jagged mountain peaks

The bush telegraph worked fast. Before the end of the day I received visits from the renegade translators who had recently opened their clinic in Angoori. They insisted Jon, Rosanna and I were in the greatest danger. Khudadad, my erstwhile travelling companion, still with the Qolijou team, arrived to assure me I was his sister, Jon his brother, and, of course, we were in no danger.

The bridge which terrified me

Next day, an unwilling Hussain took me to Qolijou where Rosanna was bursting to tell me all the news. When the defectors left to open their new clinic, there had been resentment on the part of Moosa and the others, but no open hostility until Dr Pfau’s visit. At a meeting with the remaining translators, she’d been asked about future financial assistance and said we couldn’t finance the hospital. She also told Zaman that the others, in Angoori, liked him and he was welcome to join them there, told Khadeem that he hadn’t enough knowledge for medical work, was too stupid to learn and should go home. To round things off she informed Moosa that he was a thoroughly bad and dishonest person, who did not deserve any help at all. Then she blithely left for Pakistan, leaving Rosanna trying to smooth ruffled feathers. The disgruntled translators had run to the Nasre political party saying we were closing the hospital.

Hussain – taken earlier in the year

Moosa assured me there was no kidnap plan but they did want to talk about the future of the hospital – a reasonable enough request, I felt, so I sent a message with the clinic driver to tell Jon to come to Jaghoray. I didn’t know Hussain had sent a contradictory message. Bewildered by the conflicting advice, Jon decided on a long detour, which would bring him to Mazar Bibi, without having to enter Sangi Masha bazaar.

Usually a two day journey, because of snow on the passes, and having to wait for someone to bring chains for the vehicle, it took four days. During one of his overnight stops, my camera and ten rolls of exposed film were stolen from the Toyota – something over which I still grieve and about which I remind Jon whenever he shows any inclination to play cloak and dagger games or doubt my judgement of a situation.

Out for a walk

While waiting for Jon’s arrival I attempted to calm Hussain’s mounting panic. He’d convinced himself that, if the translators found themselves without financial support, they would with Nasre’s help steal his clinic’s medicines and money. The building work was finished. The new clinic was very well run, and kept immaculately clean by Ismail, who was also responsible for the beautifully kept stock in the storeroom. Around twenty five patients attended clinic each day, and Hussain now had eighty leprosy patients on his case load. If the Qolijou problem could be solved, I would feel reasonably content with the work achieved in Jaghoray.

A meeting was called, attended by Commander Irfani of Nasre, Hajji Bostan, one of the party’s leading lights, the Qolijou staff with Jon, Rosanna and me. Moosa provided us with an excellent dinner during which nothing controversial was discussed and, only when the tea arrived, did the real talking began. Jon explained our initial support had been given, on a temporary footing when the French organisation left, on the understanding the translators looked for another organisation which could provide long term assistance. Leprosy work, which the staff at Qolijou did not wish to do, must remain our priority, and we already faced problems in finding sufficient funds for our work.

In reply, Hajji Bostan, ignoring all Jon had said, gave a long rambling speech recounting the history of Qolijou – which everyone already knew – and spent a full twenty minutes on giving flowery thanks for all that we had done. I squirmed at the hypocrisy of the man who, because we insisted on remaining independent, refusing to be under his Party’s control detested our organisation. He asked Jon to give a reply. He, in turn, added the necessary bit of soft soap by referring to the warm relationship which existed between us and the workers of Qolijou, how much they had done to meet the health needs of the people, how he hoped their fine work would continue – with the aid of an organisation better able to support them than we were.

I thought, soft soap and flannel having been lavished on both sides, we could move on to the business of discussing how they were to find such an organisation. Hajji Bostan took the floor and began to repeat all he had already said. As all the speeches were being translated I feared the proceedings would take all night. Noticing that Commander Irfani, who hadn’t said a word, was actually nodding off to sleep, I asked if I might say something.  

Commander Irfani opened his eyes. I said that, although we were aware of the struggles the translators had faced in the past and that our inability to continue funding presented yet another obstacle, this meeting was to discuss the future, not the past. I suggested we use the time to start making proposals to present to aid organisations, and talk about the ways in which we might be able to help the translators secure future funding. As Moosa translated, Commander Irfani straightened up, looking relieved that the tedious speechifying had at last ended.

Hussain and I enjoying dinner

I volunteered to help write up project proposals if the translators would give me the information required on the kind of work they were planning. After further discussions, made lengthier than necessary by Hajji Bostan’s continued interference, the translators agreed they would start a trial tuberculosis control programme. When I was back in Pakistan I would write up the proposal, one of the translators would bring completed budget figures and would be steered in the direction of as many likely organisations as possible. Commander Irfani seemed to accept the points Jon made about our inability to continue to finance the hospital and appeared satisfied with the outcome of the meeting. Only Hajji Bostan was far from pleased – he relished making trouble.

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.

MarySmith’sPlace – AfghanistanAdventures#52 legends, dragons & Genghis Khan

Bamiyan, Afghanistan, December 1989

Once on the main road, Jon tilted the passenger seat and dozed until I woke him to inform him I’d achieved fourth gear on the reasonably smooth road and the giddy-making speed of forty miles per hour.

We passed the turning to the Valley of the Dragon, named after the dragon-slaying feat of Hazrat Ali. It had been terrorizing the citizens of the area, wreaking havoc and devouring everything until the king made a deal with him. Providing the dragon was given sufficient sustenance each day, including, amongst other fodder, two camels and a virgin, he wouldn’t bother anyone.

Valley of the Dragon, near Bamiyan. Pic from Wikipedia

Understandably, many families were still upset by the way their daughters kept disappearing.  Given the task of destroying the dragon, Hazrat Ali, split it in two with his sword, Zulfiqar, leaving its dead body blocking the entrance to the valley. Blood and tears poured from its body and head. The illusion is retained by mineral springs trickling from the giant beast’s head, and the groans of the dragon can be heard at the place where Ali’s sword sliced the dragon.

It was late evening, and bitterly cold when we reached Bamiyan. At the hotel we were given a small back room to ourselves. Rahimy took the sheep for a short stroll down the street but couldn’t find fodder for it. It was singularly unimpressed by the dry nan it was offered and so went to bed hungry.

Shahr-i-Gholghola also known as City of Screams

There was a strong smell of sheep clinging to our bedding, but by then I was coming down with a heavy cold and was spared the worst of it. We huddled close together, under assorted layers of blankets and sleeping bags while we ate our kebabs. I was shivering when I snuggled into my sleeping bag, feeling wretched. Everyone else was equally cold and miserable, but in the morning we cheered up, after the hotel’s breakfast speciality. 

Our first task, before becoming tourists, was to find the clinic run by a French medical organisation. We hoped their doctors could operate on Ghulam Ali, thus sparing him the hardship of the long journey to Pakistan. There were two French doctors, one male, one female, on duty, and they invited us for coffee. A warm sun had banished the previous night’s cold and we sat in the garden admiring the late roses in bloom. A table was laden with goodies: breakfast cereals, jam, biscuits and drinking chocolate. Our hosts looked surprised when the three Afghans ignored the pot of tea, clearly brought for their benefit, and helped themselves to the instant coffee. 

On the summit of Shahr-i-Gholghola looking over the Bamiyan Valley

The doctors said they could perform the minor surgery on Ghulam Ali the following day which would allow him to return to his home before the road was closed by snow. When they heard we were staying in a hotel they invited us to spend the night in the clinic buildings. There was an empty room if we didn’t mind sharing it. We accepted gratefully, hoping it would be warmer than our room at the hotel. As Ghulam Ali was unable to walk far we left him sitting in the sunshine outside the room.

Rahimy let the sheep out for some exercise and fresh air. Finding food for her was still proving difficult but a man, who seemed remarkably unsurprised at the sight of a sheep being driven around in a Toyota by foreigners, kindly shared the fodder he’d just bought for his own five sheep. 

The first visitor attraction on our itinerary was the giant Buddha. I’ve already written about the visit HERE.

From there we drove through what had been Bamiyan’s ‘new’ city, built in pre-revolution times. The Government offices, hospital and tourist hotel, all of which must have been incredibly ugly edifices of concrete, had been bombed out of existence. We gazed up at the summit of Shahr-i-Gholghola, the ancient mountain citadel of Bamiyan. A mujahid yelled an invitation for us to climb up.  

Defending the city

We followed a well-defined path which twisted and turned as it rose steeply towards the top.  Just off the path some areas were roped off, like valuable exhibits in a stately house and, thinking one of them looked suitable to be used as a loo, well hidden from view, I was about to step off the path over the rope when Rahimy gave a shout of alarm. “Those are mined areas,” he explained. I decided to wait.

Three mujahideen welcomed us, as we rounded the final bend and, delighted in their role of tour guides, proceeded to show us around. We scrambled about on the earthworks, in between and over sandbags, all the while being given a detailed account of the battle which had forced the Russian troops to flee. Apart from the path up which we had climbed there was no other route to the summit, and seeing the awesome, sheer drop it was easy to imagine that whoever held that position must have felt reasonably safe.

Earthworks and foxholes, all part of the defence system

We stood drinking in the tremendous view of the fertile Bamiyan valley below us, until our guides led us to inspect the rubbish tip which was full of empty tin cans left by the Russian soldiers. The mujahideen spoke with such dismay and disgust about this environmental vandalism he gave the impression he thought the invaders should have had the decency to take their rubbish with them, or at least bury it deep in the mountain. 

Over tea, Mukhtar, the self-appointed spokesman, told us tales of another invader of long, ago: Genghis Khan. He and his army had surrounded the citadel of Bamiyan but the besieged inhabitants, despite dwindling food supplies, refused to surrender. The wife of the ruler, however, realising defeat was an eventual certainty and, not wishing to share the fate of her husband and his people when it happened, decided to negotiate with Genghis Khan.            

Slipping out of the palace one night, she secretly met with the Mongolian warlord, telling him of a secret water supply to the citadel and where its flow could be stopped. Once the water supply had been cut Bamiyan soon fell. Genghis, who was always hardest on those who withstood his forces for longest, ordered that every man, woman and child be slaughtered.  The king’s wife was suitably rewarded by Genghis – he had her publicly executed for her treacherous behaviour towards her own people.

MarySmith’sPlace – Reading tea leaves, first snow &chocolate eating mice. AfghanistanAdventures#50

Lal-sar-Jangal, December 1989

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One of the few friends I’d made amongst the women was Aziz’s elderly mother who visited me sometimes to chat over a glass or two of tea. Unlike most of the women, she did not hound me for blood pressure checks and injections – contenting herself with the occasional plea for aspirin.

Aziz’s mother – I never knew her first name and adopted the local custom of referring to her as Mudder-i-Aziz – Mother of Aziz – thought rather highly of her powers of prediction. In an effort to provide consolation over Jon’s delayed arrival, she would sit tracing swirling patterns in the dust with a forefinger. These she would study with the utmost concentration until able to pronounce, decisively, the date of his arrival.

The fact her predictions had, on each occasion, proved wrong, never daunted her in the slightest  She would simply try some other method of divination, including peering hopefully into her (not my) tea leaves. These were not read in the cup but would be dumped on to the staff room floor.

On the first day of December I awoke to find everything white with snow. After shivering my way to the latrine, I headed swiftly to the warmth of the staffroom where the breakfast conversation was about the weather. This snow I was told was ten days early and everyone was most indignant about it. Haboly said, ‘The snow doesn’t start in Lal until almost the middle of December. It never snows at this time.’

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‘What,’ I asked, ‘is the white stuff all around the compound?’

‘Oh, this is not real snow,’ he replied firmly. It certainly felt real enough to me.  However, by early afternoon, Haboly had been proved correct. The snow, real or imaginary, had all melted except for in those few corners of the compound the sun never reached. Haboly again assured me it was a false alarm.

The second false alarm of the day came when he rushed in to my room, shouting, ‘Jon is here. His jeep is coming up the hill.’ I rushed outside to stand with the others, in a huddle at the entrance to the compound. But when the jeep appeared over the crest of the hill it was not Jon’s. As everyone dispersed back to their various tasks I stamped off for a walk, holding back my tears. I thought over the situation and gave myself a good talking to about being such a wimp. Staying in Lal over the winter would give me the chance to do so much more than I’d been able to achieve. I would have companions whose company I enjoyed. I’d be safe. I told Ibrahim I’d decided if Jon didn’t arrive, I would stay.

Two hours later I heard the faint sound of a vehicle, still a long way off, but as this time no one came shouting excitedly into the room I ignored it. It was only when, on hearing a commotion outside, curiosity led me to peek out and discover Jon had arrived.

He had loo rolls and a big bar of Cadbury’s chocolate – not the ghastly stuff made for the overseas market, but the real deal. Next morning, I discovered the mice thought it was the most delicious thing they’d ever eaten.

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Jon was anxious to leave Lal as soon as possible because he’d heard snow was already making driving difficult. It was easy to pack my boxes, though saying goodbye to Ibrahim and Aziz and my students and Qurban was more difficult. It was a bitterly cold morning, still dark, when we loaded the Toyota and made our farewells. Qurban, looking utterly miserable, took me on one side to say he was sorry for his behaviour.   ‘Really, I do and say things sometimes before my brain has understood what will happen.  Try to think of some good things about me.’ I assured him I would. There was no time to say anything more. I wanted to go but hated to go.

Ibrahim, bless him, had the perfect antidote to the emotion-charged situation. He appeared with a gift he wanted us to deliver to Zohra in Sheikh Ali – a large sheep. By the time we had stowed the struggling bundle of wool into the back of the already overloaded Toyota, slamming the doors firmly on it, we were laughing again.

Rahimy, Zahir and our third passenger Ghulam Ali made themselves comfortable in the back seat, excited to be on their way. Actually, Ghulam Ali showed no emotion whatsoever. He was a leprosy patient who required some minor surgery to remove part of a bone from his big toe. On first meeting him I thought him rather a miserable character. Later, I learned his permanent expression of stony faced disapproval in no way reflected his feelings – damage to his facial muscles had left them paralysed. Even with this knowledge, talking to him was disconcerting, since his expression never altered.

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As Jon pulled away, it was with mixed emotions I waved to the little knot of people at the gate. Zahir who had never been away from home before, sat, almost quivering with excitement, gazing out at the slowly lightening sky. Although we had explained to him, and to his tearful mother, it would be at least two years before the necessary surgical procedures would be completed in Karachi he seemed undaunted by the prospect. He was the first to break the silence by asking questions about our journey – when would we reach Pakistan, which places would we visit on the way, would it be hot or cold in Pakistan?

Once everyone started talking, my own spirits rose. It was good to be on the road again – especially travelling in the luxury of a Toyota (no wonder Hussain had held out as long as possible for one) with a whole seat to myself. We agreed until we reached Sheikh Ali in two days, we would relax, and enjoy playing at tourists. Best of all, from my point of view, was the knowledge I could tell Jon to stop the car at once whenever I had to pee.

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MarySmith’sPlace – Winter approaches AfghanistanAdventures#49

Lal-sar-Jangal, November 1989

Lal scenery

Scenery at Lal-sar-Jangal

The first week of November was almost over. It had become extremely cold. The sun, though still shining brightly in a deep blue sky, barely thawed the iced puddles in the compound, before they again froze hard. My daily activities were interspersed by increasingly frequent trips to the latrine – some hundred metres from the compound – as I tried to combat the cold with copious quantities of hot tea.  Once I heard Qurban call to me through the dividing wall between the two loos, ‘Would you like your desk and chair brought out here? It would save you an awful lot of walking.’

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Escorting the bride to her new home.

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The bride is stopped at a barrier until a ‘toll’ is paid.

I’d finished the stock taking and was now spending most mornings working on reports, and in the afternoons I taught English to Qurban’s young brother, Bashir, and Khadeem, the cook’s assistant. Khadeem had leprosy, fortunately discovered in the early stages so he would have no deformities and would soon finish his treatment. His family were poor; his father a landless labourer. Qurban, rather than provide hand-outs from the social budget, had employed Khadeem to work part time in the kitchen. His salary, though small, helped his family survive and Qurban had also enrolled him in the local school.

Both boys were enthusiastic students but Bashir was brighter and quicker to learn. Khadeem, although he tried very hard, could never quite catch up, and sometimes Bashir teased him over his mistakes. After a while a third student surreptitiously joined us, sitting hidden in a corner, listening intently.

Zahir, a leprosy patient, not yet sixteen years old, had many deformities.  Not only had he lost his eyebrows, his nose was completely destroyed; only two holes appeared in the middle of his face. His mouth was contorted, and a hole in his palate created a speech defect which made understanding what he said difficult. He always wore a turban, its end pulled tightly across his face to hide his nose and mouth. When eating, he sat as far away from others as possible and, if strangers were present, he didn’t eat at all. His hands and feet were also deformed, the fingers and toes foreshortened. He was staying in the clinic until Jon arrived then we would him with us to Pakistan for reconstructive surgery.

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Zahir, keeping his face covered, en route for Pakistan and reconstructive surgery

Finally he plucked up the courage to ask if I would give him lessons. After Bashir and Khadeem’s class was over I spent another half hour with Zahir, who proved to be a willing pupil and quick learner. He had already absorbed words and phrases through listening to the boys, and before long had almost caught up with Khadeem.

In the evenings, after dinner and lessons were over, we often played cards. This helped to round out my vocabulary, which still leaned heavily towards things medical, though not my card playing skills. I frequently felt moved to apologise profusely to whoever had been unlucky enough to partner me. The problem was caused only partly by my ineptitude.  The biggest problem lay in my inability to cheat. The others, Aziz and Ibrahim in particular, gave the most obvious signals to each other, indicating which suit to play, or that they had just played their last trump card.  Even when I had learned the various signals – the slamming down with force of a card, the eyebrow scratching and ear tugging – I was quite unable to put them into practise myself, to the utter despair of my partner.

As the weather became ever colder, a heater was installed in my tiny room, reducing even further what little space there had been. The mice, I am sure were as grateful as I, for the warmth. The stove was a frightening contraption with a metal box, divided into two compartments. A tap opened to allow kerosene to drip from the tank to the second box and, to get it going I had to throw a lit match inside to ignite the fuel. Often the match fizzled out before anything happened and the temptation to peer inside before trying again was strong, until Ibrahim warned me people had been severely burned doing the same thing when the kerosene suddenly ignited with a whoosh of flames. By bedtime the room was beautifully warm but, apart from removing my socks I slept fully clothed, thermal underwear included, because within minutes of turning off the heater, a bitter chill invaded the room.

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General scenery

I began to worry about the snow arriving before Jon did, leaving me stranded in Lal for the winter. I didn’t think I could cope for long with the temperatures. Besides, I was running out of toilet paper, a commodity not stocked in the bazaar. Jon was already several days late and once the snow came I would be well and truly stuck. Ibrahim, Rahimy and the others were quite pleased with this thought, planning all kinds of teaching programmes, convinced they would be speaking fluent English by spring time. They seemed hurt by my lack of enthusiasm about the prospect of five, snowbound months in the clinic.

Every night, I’d retire to my room with only the mice for company trying to feel positive and hopeful. Maybe tomorrow, Jon would arrive? Hope isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when it isn’t realised and I’d be disappointed all over again at Jon’s non-arrival by the following afternoon.

I calculated by which date I must leave if I was to reach Bamiyan and find transport south to Jaghoray. If I did not meet Jon en route at least Hussain in Jaghoray would be able to find a way for me to get back to Pakistan. Rahimy was to go to Karachi for a training course so he could accompany me – Ibrahim also offered to come as a guide, as did Aziz.  Qurban was horrified to discover half his team was preparing to leave in a week or so, especially as he knew they would be unlikely to return before late spring. I promised I would only take Rahimy.

 

 

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Blue skies and mountains – landscape to fall in love with

MarySmith’sPlace – An Afghan Ceilidh AfghanistanAdventures#47

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The littlest girls were too shy to dance.

The days in Waras passed too quickly. I wanted more time in which to get to know better these extraordinary women. They worked hard, rising early in the mornings to milk the cows, send the flocks out to pasture with the small boys, on whom the role of shepherd inevitably fell, and feed the hens. Bread had to be baked in the tandoor, other food cooked and the clothes to be washed, house to be cleaned. Yet, they still were able to find enjoyment in life.  They were not as isolated as women in other areas, able to go off to neighbouring villages, and beyond, to visit relatives and friends. They laughed a lot.

I had been especially curious to meet Ibrahim’s wife, Zohra.  At the clinic when collecting details of each staff member, including names and date of birth of dependents, Ibrahim had joked that his wife was very old and he should look around for a younger one. Her year of birth was the same as mine. I had caused him some embarrassment by asking if he thought I, too, was very old. At thirty five years old, Zohra’s thin face was heavily lined. She had five children, the youngest still breast feeding. Since Ibrahim had often worked away from the village, returning infrequently, she had far greater responsibilities for the household than many wives. Seeing Ibrahim and Zohra talking and laughing together I was sure he was joking about taking a second wife.

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Cleaning sheep wool before spinning

Zohra, jokingly, complained about Afghan husbands and how much they demanded from their wives, but admitted Ibrahim was a good husband. Some Afghan men believe it is their right to beat their wives – Ibrahim strongly disapproved of such behaviour. And he did not mind tackling “women’s work”: cooking when guests were coming, washing his own clothes sweeping the carpets in the guest room.

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The dancers

Ibrahim had promised kebabs for our last evening’s meal and a large fire was built outside the house on which to cook them. Early in the evening I was surprised when a goat was led, bleating loudly, into the room. As he was taken around, each of the guests put out his hand, stroked the goats head, murmuring some words of prayer, before passing his hand over his face in the Islamic gesture of self-blessing. This, I realised with some unease, was our dinner being paraded around before it went into the cooking pot. Having been a meat eater all my life, it was not unease about eating the animal. What worried me was if it was still strolling around baa-ing at us, when we would finally eat dinner.

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David blindfolding Abbas for the game of ‘cor-jangi’ or blind fighting

There was, too, guilt at knowing how seldom meat featured on the normal weekly menu when, throughout my stay in Waras, we ate meat twice a day. I was afraid the family was bankrupting itself. When, I later returned to live and work in Waras for months at a time and was considered to be part of the extended family rather than an honoured guest, I shared the usual, everyday fare. The monotony of yoghourt and dry bread, bread soaked in whey and oil, or rice with perhaps a handful of sultanas or dried apricots added made me remember with even greater guilt the number of goats and chickens devoured on my first visit.

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David feeding the ‘khoroo’ – chicken.

Evenings were always great fun. The extended family would gather in the house of whoever was providing the guest dinner and after the food was eaten and tea poured for everyone, the entertainment began. It was like a Scottish ceilidh – without whisky. When I came back to work in Tacht-i-Waras my son loved the times we went to the village for the weekend and he could join in all the fun and games.

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I was writing down the words of the rhyme for this children’s game – wish I could find that notebook!

Caca Qurban (who sadly passed away earlier this year) organised the last evening’s entertainment, persuading the young girls to overcome their shyness and dance for me. These were accompanied by songs about marriage customs and dowries – and a slightly different version of the Jaghoray raspberry blowing.

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David bravely riding on the back of the ‘haiwan’ – the animal. First time he saw it he was terrified.

After the dancing the children played some of their local games. The ‘khoroo‘ or chicken was a child wrapped in a blanket with a beak with which to peck offered food. The ‘haiwan‘ or animal was child sporting a turban with a unicorn-like horn and large ears. Soon everyone joined in – the children shrieking with laughter, delighting in seeing their parents acting daft, reciting silly nonsense rhymes.

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I think this was some kind of memory game – anyone who recognises it, let me know!

The most frightening was the dehyo, with a cushion stuffed up his jacket and a homemade cardboard mask. Even though everyone knew who it was, our giggling response was nervous.

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The ‘dehyo’ – don’t know spelling. It was terrifying to us all!

MarySmith’sPlace – Afghanistan adventures#46

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.

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Looking down to the valley

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.

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Ibrahim’s village

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.

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Dinner – a banquet

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.

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Preparing animal fodder

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.

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Afternoon tea on a rooftop