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 -Sex talks and the wasp sting joke – AfghanistanAdventures#48

Lal-sar-Jangal, Central Afghanistan: November 1989

I was sorry to say goodbye to everyone in Waras.

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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.

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A wedding procession. The bride on horseback on the left edge of the photo.

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.

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Entertainment

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.

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I wish I could remember who he was!

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.

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Qurban in his clinic

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.

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Qurban in Lal clinic

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?’

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A buzkashi game was part of the wedding celebration. I was on horseback to watch, not take part.

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.’

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The only way to get a better view of the match