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.


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 – 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 -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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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

Afghanistan Adventures #17

Friday is the Islamic equivalent of Sunday and therefore a holiday from work.  Outings were occasionally organised and I agreed enthusiastically to a suggested fishing trip. Gul Agha, for once leaving his Kalashnikov behind, and his young brother, Hazrat, now one of my English students, accompanied us.

The surprising absence of fishing tackle was explained when we reached the river and Gul Agha and Hussain began to attach fuses to several home-made bombs.

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Attaching the fuses

Explosive had been packed into small plastic medicine tubs and, once the fuses had been lit, these were hurled into the river.   The dull explosions were followed by a mini tidal wave. The men jumped into the river, screaming and yelling with delight as they grabbed for the fish which rose, stunned, to the surface.

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Going fishing Afghan style

When I told them about the heavy penalties paid by poachers caught in similar activities at home they fell about laughing.

It was a scorching hot day and the water looked invitingly cool. After a while, I began to untie my trainers. ‘What,’ demanded Hussain, ‘are you doing?’

‘I thought I’d have a paddle.’  Recognising the mutinous expression on his face I sighed, waiting for the explosion.

‘You can’t go in the water! If it was just me and Ali Baba then it would be no problem, but Gul Agha would tell the people in the village. Everyone would talk. Our women do not go swimming.’

‘I don’t want to swim, just dip my feet in,’ I protested. I looked at the cool, shallow water of the river flowing gently past the willow trees then I looked at Hussain’s face, and reluctantly began to retie my laces. Cooling down would not be worth the resulting sulks.

After the fish had been harvested, Ali Baba and Hazrat collected fuel for the fire while Gul Agha, assuming the role of chief cook, unpacked frying pans and cooking oil and bundles of nan wrapped in cloth. Soon the aroma of frying fish was making us all hungry. The fish, a small fresh water trout, were cooked whole, fried until they were crisply edible on the outside with beautifully tender flesh inside. I put my concerns about the lack of ethical fishing practices behind and tucked in.

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Remains of the catch after we’d had our picnic


As we wandered back to the jeep, carrying the remainder of the fish threaded onto thin sticks, we passed a farmer leading three donkeys towards the river.  Hussain said, ‘The donkeys get very hot and tired in this weather so the farmers take them to the river. They love to stand in the water to cool down.’

‘I see,’ I remarked, ‘only women have to suffer in this heat. They work as hard as any donkey, but the donkeys get better treatment from the men than the women do.’

Hussain maintained a stony silence throughout the return journey. At home he said, ‘Gul Agha asked why you were in a bad mood. I told him you wanted to go in the water and he said it was no problem. He said you are accepted as a family member by everyone here. Then I asked him if he would allow his sister, or mother, to go in the river. He said no.’

It was my turn to be silent – I simply couldn’t think of any more to say on the subject.

Another outing was for a shooting competition. The target, a large green cloth about the size of a double bed sheet, was spread out on a mountain across the valley. From our position it looked very small to me.

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Shooting competition

Firing commenced. After each shot little black figures, like animated stick people, ran about around the target. One of them would jump up and down, waving its arms to indicate where the shot had landed. On several occasions the little figures jumped up and down even more vigorously, bringing to the notice of the marksman that a shot, off target, had landed uncomfortably close. I sat under a walnut tree slowly growing deaf and trying to show some enthusiasm when someone succeeded in hitting the centre of the target.

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Wearing my birthday dress and trying to look excited

Someone suggested I have a go and I took the Kalashnikov gingerly. I lay down, wriggling into position. As I peered doubtfully at the target someone suggested I just shoot and not bother to aim. I insisted that I must have something to aim for, but preferably something a little larger – closer to me but further away from those little stick figures.

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Going deaf under a walnut tree

However when someone suggested I simply try to hit the next mountain I felt deeply hurt. The suggestion I required an entire mountain as a target seemed to cast rather too much doubt on my marksmanship. I handed the Kalashnikov back to Gul Agha without firing a shot.

I would like to think I refused to shoot because of high moral principles regarding the use of weapons as playthings but I fear I simply did not want the embarrassment of making a complete fool of myself. What if I had missed the mountain?

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Regular readers may remember the birthday cake – I found a photo of it today.  The blue embroidered dress and waistcoat on my lap were birthday gifts.

MarySmith’sPlace – #14 Food & Friendship

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Harvest time

Islamic rules, and the traditions of the country, dictate that hospitality is shown to guests. People, therefore, felt obliged to invite the foreigner round for dinner. Some would have felt easier fulfilling their obligations had I been a man, unsure as they were of the etiquette in dealing, on a social footing, with a foreign woman. Hussain, and usually, at least one of the others from the clinic would accompany me to the dinner party – mehmani.

Some men would greet me with a handshake, although often this was the merest brushing of palms – as though the touch of a woman may necessitate some kind of decontamination procedure to be carried out later.  I soon made a policy decision not to offer my hand unless the man offered his first after several embarrassing situations in which I would extend my hand, realise that the man did not want to shake it and withdraw it, just as good manners forced him to extend his. We looked as though we were attempting a badly synchronised performance of Pat a Cake.

There was always tea before the meal, with fancy sweets – the imported variety always referred to as “choclat”, although there was rarely a hint of that substance in them. Once the tea was poured everyone would greet each other all over again. ‘How are you?  How is your life? How is your house? How is your family? Is your life good? Are you well? May you never grow tired.’ These people saw each other regularly, and were more than likely to have met at least once that day already. At first, I could only mumble and stumble my way self- consciously through the ritual – my responses never quite coordinating with the queries, never knowing when, or how, it was all going to end.

After tea the long, embroidered cloth would be laid on the floor, at which point everyone shuffled forward into place. Several young boys of the family served as waiters sitting at strategic intervals behind the diners, watching carefully, ensuring that plates were constantly replenished.  The main course would be either korma – stew – of chicken and potatoes with rice, or shurwa – the liquid in which the meat or chicken had been cooked. Into this soup we would throw pieces of broken bread to soak up the liquid. The host divided the meat into equal portions, surreptitiously watched by all his guests, each anxious to receive his full share.  A simple salad of raw onions and tomatoes was a usual accompaniment, along with small dishes of subzi, a green vegetable similar in appearance and taste to spinach, and bowls of yoghourt.


In some houses each guest had his own plate; in others, there were several, large communal bowls around each of which four or six diners would gather. If there was chicken, a game was played with the wishbone. However, the person with the larger piece was not the winner, eligible to make a wish. Pulling apart the wishbone symbolised an agreement between the participants – an agreement “to remember”.  From then on, if one of the contestants tries to hand something to the other, the second person must say ‘I remember’.  If he forgets and takes the object offered to him he loses, and must pay a forfeit. This may be something previously agreed, such as a chicken dinner. Or, it might be whatever possession of his the first person was holding out, be it radio or a handkerchief.

At the end of the meal a prayer of thanks would be offered, often catching me unawares still gnawing at a chicken bone. More tea followed with the young waiters, sitting by the teapots, anxiously watching for signs of an empty glass. The only way to avoid drinking a gallon of tea was to place one’s hand firmly over the empty glass, signalling enough.  Conversation became a little more animated after dinner, often centring on the activities of the various local political parties: who was having falling out with whom, who was planning a takeover bid.     An effort would be made to include me in the conversation. ‘’Afghanistan chator ast? – How is Afghanistan?’ they would ask.

I would reply, ‘Afghanistan khele khub ast – Afghanistan is very good’.

They would respond, with much head shaking, ‘Afghanistan khub neest – Afghanistan is not good.’ Similarly, when they sought my opinion of the people, I would reply diplomatically that the people were very nice and I liked them very much. At this, they would laugh uproariously and inform me that the people of Afghanistan were very bad. I could never think of what else to say after that, denial on my part simply led to repetition on theirs. The ordeal would come to a sudden end when, at a given signal, invariably unnoticed by me, everyone would abruptly get to their feet and leave.

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My friendship with some of the women continued. As well as Fatima, there was Kulsom and her twenty-year-old daughter Latifa. She was a beautiful young woman, and didn’t she know it. Somehow succeeding in appearing provocative even when cocooned in her chaddar she was an outrageous flirt. When she walked about in the village or across the fields to the orchards, various young men would appear to exchange greetings with her. She would tug demurely at her chaddar but her flashing eyes were full of mischief.

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The lovely Latifa – probably a grandmother several time over by now.

At harvest time, the area outside the clinic was levelled for the harvest to be threshed and farmers worked there all day, guiding the bullocks which pulled the heavy wooden threshing machine around and around. And every day Latifa appeared bringing a jug of water for the thirsty workers or some fruit after their mid-day meal. She stayed to chat and joke with them.  The big window in our living room would become all steamed up as the clinic staff, and visitors such as Engineer, feigned great interest in the threshing. At the same time they were critical of her “free” behaviour. I berated them for their double standards, but to no avail.


None of the women came to my room, maintaining Hussain would be angry with them for disturbing me. I assured them this was not the case. One evening I had decided not to go to a mehmani and moments after the staff left, in trooped the Fatima, Kulsom, Latifa and Sughra, with tiny Amina tagging along behind. They had decided to come and keep me company. Before long another couple of women arrived, eager not to miss out on anything.

I offered tea but Fatima firmly insisted they would like coffee – having heard from Baqul about this delicious alternative to tea. With the addition of large quantities of sugar and plenty of powdered milk they obviously found it to their liking. Latifa asked to see my photographs and they were soon poring over family snapshots and studying postcards of sheep, cows and scenes of rural Scotland. One of the women turned most of the photographs upside down to study them. When she suddenly realised that she was looking at an inverted sheep she hastily turned it the right way up, darting a look of embarrassment at me as she realised her mistake.  It was always the familiar they appreciated most, the things with which they could identify, so farmland scenes were enjoyed while pictures of strange houses containing peculiar furniture were largely ignored.

When we had exhausted the photographs, the women turned their attention to Latifa, teasing her that soon she would be married.  Latifa was blushing furiously as she protested, ‘I am never going to get married – never.’ She ended the discussion by flouncing out of the room, amid much laughter from the other women. At the sound of the men returning, my guests rose to leave, still wiping away the tears of laughter. Sughra and I rolled our eyes at each other in incomprehension of what, I assumed, had been the ribald comments made to Latifa on the subject of her marriage.

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Latifa (in green chaddar) helping pick over the harvested grain with women from the village