MarySmith’sPlace – AfghanAdventures#56 – caught in a bombing raid

To de-stress after completing Arif’s accounts we went shopping in Tezak bazaar, where I’d spent the first night on the road, when travelling north with Khudadad almost six months ago.

The teahouse gossip concerned a recent bombing raid on the bazaar. The Kabul Government suspected mujahideen base camps were close to Tezak. I was puzzled there was so little evidence of bombing raids and was told since the mujahideen had acquired anti-aircraft guns, bombers could no longer fly in so low. The pilots were forced to drop the bombs from a much higher height, sacrificing accuracy for safety.

I wondered how I’d feel if I were ever caught in a bombing raid. Apart from here in Tezak, where the men assured us there would be no bombing for some weeks yet (how could they be sure?), our travels never took us near places of any significance in the war. However, on my second time in Afghanistan the following spring, I found out.

We weren’t supposed to be in Sia Huq the day it was bombed. A broken leaf spring, which refused to be held together any longer with bits of wire and string, forced us to make the detour. Sia Haq, once a tiny village barely two hours from Kabul, had become a major transport depot held by the mujahideen

The repair job meant an overnight stay, yet another unscheduled delay on our journey from the leprosy clinic in Lal sar Jangal to Jaghoray, en route for Pakistan. We decided to kill time shopping for our evening meal. After weeks in Lal, which has no vegetables, except turnip, nor fruit the sight of mangoes had Jon, Mubarak and I, who’d lived in Pakistan and knew the delights of mangoes, whooping with glee. Juma and Abdul Hamid, neither of whom had ever been out of Lal, were unimpressed. 

Our enterprising landlord, whose rooms were full of truck drivers, had erected a tent on his flat roof for our use and there we dined on spring onions, tomatoes, yoghurt and fresh, hot nan washed down with tea. 

Mubarak and I in our rooftop tent

In the morning, Juma and Abdul Hamid were doing some last-minute shopping, Jon had gone to collect the repaired Toyota and Mubarak and I were chatting idly in our roof-top eyrie. We are talking, strangely enough, about how many airports there had been in Afghanistan before the war, when we heard the first hum of a plane, high overhead.  Not used to such sounds I commented, rather obviously, ‘That’s a plane.’

‘Yes,’ replied Mubarak, ‘It’s a jet.’  We sat looking at each other for a few seconds and then heard a whump and a bang.

‘Was that a bomb?’ I asked.

‘Yes.’

Looking towards the transport depot

And what did we do?  Did we get off that exposed rooftop, run for shelter? No, we moved to the edge of the roof for a better view, seeing people running here and there, yelling, and screaming. A great cloud of dust spiralled skywards, indicating where the bomb had landed. ‘No damage done,’ murmured Mubarak, ‘it only hit the mountain. Still, maybe we should move, in case there’s more.’

Where the first bomb dropped

We were gathering together bits and pieces, with what I thought of as admirable calm, when Jon’s head appeared on a level with the rooftop. ‘What the fuck are you two doing here? Get down! Now! There’s a shelter behind the hotel. Get going.’ So, we “got going”. The planes came back time and time again, always flying too high to be reached by the anti-aircraft guns, which soon fell silent. Of course, the higher the plane, the less chance there was of the bomb scoring a direct hit on the transport depot full of trucks and fuel supplies: which meant – not a reassuring thought – the bombs could land anywhere.

The shelter, cut into the side of the mountain was full to overflowing.  Although the men offered me a place I decided to take my chances out in the open, hugging myself close to the rock. Mubarak on one side of me was murmuring over and over, ‘What a country, what a country’, while Jon on the other, was still nagging me for not running for shelter at the first sound of the jet. 

Emerging from the bomb shelter as the sound of the planes died away
Heading back into the shelter as the jets returned

During a lull, we decided to head further up the bazaar towards the depot, with the intention of moving the Toyota to a safer place. The brain must have some kind of pre-programming, because although I’d never been bombed before, as another plane flew over, I was suddenly face down on the ground, practically kissing the dirt. You do it by instinct. Like in war films!  I felt strangely embarrassed when I rose to my feet along with everyone else in the street. Fear is so undignified.

We met a man being pulled along on a handcart. Blood poured from a smashed elbow and we could see bits of bone, gleaming white amongst the crimson. Taking him into an empty tea-house, Jon sent me to fetch the first aid kit from the Toyota. As I ran along the almost deserted street, chaddar flying, a man tried to stop me, shouting at me that it was dangerous. When I kept going he, assuming I hadn’t understood him, ran in front of me, arms outstretched, making aeroplane droning noises, going BOOM at intervals, repeating the words khaternak, khaternak – dangerous. With no time to discuss the situation I threw out the words injured and doctor. Satisfied, he nodded and let me go.

Approaching the depot I understood what he meant about dangerous. The place was an inferno. Trucks and barrels of fuel were blazing everywhere; great chunks of metal were flying in all directions. No-one was about. Spotting the Toyota, mercifully not burnt to a cinder, I suddenly pulled up short. I’d forgotten the keys. Stupid, stupid, stupid, I scolded myself as I moved swiftly towards it, wondering if Jon would think smashing a window was justified. Luckily, the blast had neatly taken out the front passenger windscreen and I was able to climb in and grab the first aid kit.

On the way to the transport depot

Back at the tea-house Jon was gently cleaning the injured man’s arm. He dressed the wound, gave him painkillers and his friends set off to take him to the clinic on the edge of town. We knew the arm would have to be amputated. The raid was over and people were beginning to return to their shops and businesses.

Jon went off to see about the Toyota and Mubarak and I returned to our tent. Juma was there, wide-eyed and in shock, but of Abdul Hamid, there was no sign. Jon returned saying we could leave in about an hour. We spilt up and searched the bazaar for Hamid.

A Commander came to see us. ‘Five people have been killed. We know four of them but the fifth we can’t identify. It might be your man. Can someone come and look?’

Jon went, returning white-faced. ‘The man they don’t know has no head. Can you remember what colour of shoes Abdul Hamid was wearing?’

‘Brown and white,’ I replied promptly. I’d thought the two-toned brogues were hideous.

‘OK. This man has black shoes. Had.’

It was another two hours before we spotted Abdul Hamid, wandering through the bazaar, totally disorientated. We never learned where he’d been – all he could remember was the first bomb dropping and then running, running, along with everyone else. 

At the depot

We piled into the Toyota to leave Sia Huq, travelling in silence as we each came to terms in our own way with had had happened.  After a few miles, Mubarak’s soft voice asked, ‘Did anyone remember to bring the mangoes?’ 

We stayed overnight near Tezak. None of us slept well. Knowing how frequently Tezak had been bombed in the past, it was not the most reassuring of places to be. When the sound of an aircraft was heard above us, I asked hopefully, ‘That’s a commercial plane, isn’t it?’ 

‘No,’ I was told tersely, ‘but they don’t usually bomb us at night. It is too dark.’ I decided that under no circumstances was I going to go out to the loo with a torch in my hand. Just to keep us on our toes, after the plane had vanished into the night, two mujahideen from different Parties, posted at the Paygar next door to our hotel, had a disagreement. They attempted to resolve it with a shoot-out, until the Commanders stepped in to reprimand them.

Two days later we heard the Government had bombed Sia Haq again – this time, almost totally destroying the bazaar. It was in retaliation for the mujahideen hanging two Government spied in their midst.

Jon looking a bit bloodied – but not his blood.

Poor Abdul Hamid, who had never been further than Bamiyan, took a long time to recover and remained nervous until we reached the Pakistan border. He was fated to be an unlucky traveller:  his first meal in Pakistan contained a large, well cooked, but decidedly off putting, cockroach. In Quetta, the office cook, house-sitting our house while we were on leave was murdered and being a stranger, Abdul Hamid was arrested and held in jail for two weeks. On his return journey to Lal, the vehicle in which he was travelling was stopped by bandits who stole all his money. He vowed never to leave home again.

MarySmith’sPlace – AfghanistanAdventures#55 – Pesky commanders, dentistry & an inside loo

l to r: Ashraf, Arif’s Field Assistant , Arif, and important people

Afghanistan, December 1989

When I requested a tour of the premises Arif led me up and down staircases and along passages and in and out of so many rooms I lost all sense of direction. From the guest room there were two exits, one leading through the kitchen down a flight of stairs to the storerooms below, one of which was filled with a supply of wood for winter heating. The second exit from the guest room took us along a short passage to the consulting room and the pharmacy. I was astonished to think this had been built as an average family home. Arif rented the premises from the owner who lived in Kabul with his family. He did say the landlord was a wealthy man, so perhaps his home was more splendid than average. I haven’t found any photos so I guess I didn’t take any – have included random pics for you to enjoy.

I particularly liked one of the upstairs rooms, which was empty and unused; a beautiful room with fret worked wooden designs decorating the walls and ceiling, arched alcoves in the walls. Sunlight streamed through two large windows which gave onto a view of the sloping hillside below us. ‘Why don’t you use this room? It is lovely,’ I asked.  

Arif agreed, ‘Yes it is a nice room but there is no heating and it is too cold. If we were going to stay here I would install a bukhari but as you know we are going to build a new clinic in Saydabad.’

The decision to move the clinic had been taken earlier in the summer. Arif was not from Day Mirdad and had faced difficulties in being accepted by the people who were suspicious of strangers. These problems had been made worse by the animosity between Pashtun and Hazara, both of whom came daily to the clinic. Frequent disputes arose as they waited in the compound to consult Arif. The Pashtun people did not trust Arif because he worked with Hazaras, and often went touring in Hazara areas to treat leprosy patients. The Hazaras were equally suspicious of him because he was Pashtun. There were no leprosy patients amongst the Pashtun in the surrounding district and they resented the clinic being closed when Arif went to his monthly tour programme to treat Hazara leprosy patients.

I spotted a staircase leading further upwards. ‘What’s up there? More empty rooms?’  

Arif replied, ‘The bathroom and toilet.’ Eager to see an inside loo and greatly intrigued as to what kind of plumbing system was used, I went upstairs. It was a hole in the floor, but the room had been constructed to jut out from the rest of the house so the waste dropped down a three storey lift shaft to a deep pit below. I’ve seen such arrangements in old Scottish castles.

Next morning Rahimy, bored with having no work to do, offered to help in the clinic. Jon frowned forbiddingly over Arif’s accounts. From time to time, Arif would take a break from his patients to come and see how things were going. As he became more manic, the more silent Jon became. The building estimates for the new clinic were too high, and Arif had already overspent on the work done. The difficulty in finding money from donors was explained and when I suggested he could perhaps manage with fewer rooms; perhaps an office and two guest rooms were not entirely necessary, he seemed agreeable to the suggested cut backs.

I was silently congratulating myself on how easy it had been, when he took the wind out of my sails. ‘Now it is winter the builders will not be able to work until next spring. You can go back to Pakistan and write your reports for the donors – I shall tell you many stories, sister, stories they will like – and get the rest of the money we need for the building to continue in spring.’

I repeated all the arguments and finally, the budget was reduced to an amount more or less acceptable to both parties, though I suspected we’d have the same arguments the following spring.

In the meantime, I was happy to hear Arif’s stories. Each month he travelled to one or other of the treatment points, established to allow patients from further afield to come for medicines. Once, on the way, he was kidnapped by a Party commander and imprisoned in a mountain cave. The commander and his men spent several days joy riding around in Arif’s jeep, almost wrecking it in the process. When Arif did not arrive at the expected time at the treatment point, the people began to worry about him, and when his jeep, mujahideen spilling over the sides, was spotted, they guessed what had happened. The villagers marched, en masse, to see the commander, demanding Arif’s release. The commander tried to persuade them it was in Arif’s interests for his clinic, medicines, equipment and money to come under the control of the commander and his Party – so they could ‘look after it’. The people insisted the clinic, the jeep and everything else belonged, not to the Party but to them. Sweeping aside the commander and his men, they released Arif from his mountain jail and carried him, shoulder high, back to the village.

Despite a tendency to tell stories which dwelt rather lovingly on his superior medical knowledge and his excellent public relations successes Arif was also able to tell stories against himself – such as his first tooth extraction. Not having any dental equipment other than local anaesthetic and dental cartridges, Arif sent his assistant to the carpenter to procure a pair of pliers. In the meantime, he prepared the anaesthetic. His patient, despite the pain his rotten tooth was causing, became slightly anxious.

‘Sister, it was dreadful. I forgot how hard gums are. When I tried to inject my patient the needle bent, just like this.’  He crooked his finger to demonstrate before continuing, ‘Most of the anaesthetic dribbled out of his mouth, so his lips went numb more than his gum. Ashraf brought the pliers and I tried to pull the tooth out. You know, Sister, I am a very small person – and that tooth was deeply rooted. It was a struggle. By this time, my patient wanted to leave, and tried to get out of the chair but I put my knee on his chest and pulled really hard. The tooth came out. There was a lot of blood, though, and the patient was not happy with me.  I did not charge him any fees for this service.’ Having been a lifelong coward in the dentist’s chair I could feel my toes curl as Arif told his story.

A butcher’s shop

Another commander objected to Arif working amongst the Hazaras and was trying to push him out of the area. When Arif was visiting a village on tour, he was asked to go to the home of an old woman who needed medical treatment. The woman had an eye infection which had caused her pain and distress for some time but it was easily treated. It turned out she was the commander’s mother. When Arif returned to check on the progress of her eyes, the woman asked if there was anything she could do for him. He explained the problems he was facing because her son did not want him to work there. She assured Arif he would have no more trouble and indeed, a few days later, the commander himself arrived at the clinic – bringing a gift of a chicken from his mother, and assurances that Arif could come and go and work freely in his area.

Bazaar scene

MarySmith’sPlace – #AfghanistanAdventures54 Winter travel

Afghanistan, December 1989, Day Mirdad

The delay meant we were a long way from our destination, when darkness fell. At the next check post the mujahid guarding the chain, tried to persuade us not to continue our journey. Jon thanked him, but said we must ensure our patients reached the clinic in Day Mirdad. The mujahid played the beam of his torch into the back of the vehicle. When he spotlighted Zahir, without his turban, he jumped back hastily and waved us on. Poor Zahir, for once, we were grateful for the terrified reaction he provoked.

At the next check post Jon tried the same story. The mujahid peered into the back, saw Zahir and said calmly, ‘Oh, a leprosy patient. Never mind, we can give you a separate room for him.’ Jon requested permission to speak to the Commander who opened the window of his office a grudging few inches. We watched as Jon talked, gesticulating occasionally towards the vehicle. We saw the Commander shake his head and give a brief reply. Jon tried again – the Commander slammed the window shut. We were not going to reach Day Mirdad that night.

We were directed through a gateway into a large, bleak compound. Crunching over the frozen snow, we reached our room, unwilling guests of the Nasre Party for the night. The room was frigid, my head was hurting and we were all cold and cross. A man came in to light the bukhari around which we huddled, morosely sipping tea. We had to ask twice for food before we were eventually served a quantity of greasy, grey liquid with a few pieces of very stringy, dried up meat. Not even Zahir could find anything to laugh about.

When I awoke in the morning I discovered I’d lain on, and broken, my glasses, my head was throbbing worse than ever and, when I learned, despite the fact we’d not exactly been willing guests, we were expected to pay for our board and lodgings I was furious. Determined to tell the Commander exactly what I thought of his shabby treatment of us I headed across the compound towards his office. Rahimy talked me down – otherwise we might still be there. With bad grace I climbed into our vehicle.

At least the day was crisp and sunny, which helped lighten the mood, as we headed towards Day Mirdad. We left the snow behind us, but it would soon catch up with us again, and we would have to complete the work in Arif’s clinic as quickly as possible. For Jon, it meant examining the accounts and handing over the money required for the running of the project through the winter months. For me, it meant interviews with Arif to collect information, statistics and stories about his work, to be included in reports.

Day Mirdad is situated between Pashto and Hazara lands. Arif was Pashto. Before the Soviet invasion had forced him to abandon his studies, he’d completed two years in medical college in Kabul. Arriving in Pakistan as a refugee, he somehow heard about the leprosy centre in Karachi, and was accepted as a candidate in the training programme. Arif and Jon had been class fellows in Karachi but were not close friends. As a Pashto, Arif could never accept coming second to anyone in anything, while Jon, south-of-England-born, had a similar arrogance. Somehow or other at the end of the training, each was able to feel he had done better than the other, and honours were even.  

As we approached the clinic the landscape became more desolate and barren. Grey, naked mountains rose on every side until it seemed there was no level ground anywhere.   Everything was on a slope; the buildings, the fields – tiny handkerchief sized patches of brown – the few trees growing sparsely here and there. Houses were hidden behind very high mud walls in which heavy gates were set. Occasionally we had a glimpse, through an open gateway, of the mud built homes, constructed like fortresses. Pashto women are even more jealously guarded than Hazara women who, by comparison, are allowed tremendous freedom.  

We drove through an imposing entrance into a large compound, on three sides of which was a two storey building. Arif came bounding down the steps to meet us, arms outstretched to embrace Jon in a welcoming hug.

Many are the tales of encounters between the soldiers of the British Raj and the fiery tribes from the Frontier Province, depicting the Pashto as tall, swarthy tribal chiefs, tangled black curls escaping from beneath their turbans, dark eyes flashing in challenge. Arif is nothing like those romantic heroes. Standing at barely five foot four he is stocky, has brown eyes which don’t flash particularly challengingly (well, maybe when angered) and a fair complexion. He is restless, excitable, unable to sit still for more than five minutes, and given to generous arm gestures when talking – which he does at great length and speed.

After embracing Jon he clasped my hand warmly, grinning, ‘Welcome, sister. I have many stories to tell you, but first we will drink tea.’ We followed him upstairs to the guest room which was large and sparsely furnished – a gilim which barely covered the floor and a pile of bedding. A Kalashnikov stood in one corner of the room, and when Arif saw me eyeing it, he rushed to give an explanation, ‘For protection, sister, for protection. When I go on tour Ashraf, you know Ashraf? My field assistant. He carries the Kalash – just in case. There are many thieves about, and maybe they think Arif has a lot of money because he works for a foreign organisation.’

We had stipulated weapons should not be kept on clinic premises by staff, a rule we suspected was frequently broken, although usually they had the sense to hide the thing before we appeared. I knew Hassan kept a Kalashnikov in Sheikh Ali, despite having made a big drama once about returning it to the local Commander. Now, he ensured we didn’t see it, but occasionally forgot, as when telling a story of being attacked by a wolf, which ran away when he fired his gun. He’d suddenly stopped talking as he realised he’d given himself away – then made matters worse by trying to say that he was just taking the gun home for a friend.  

If Arif felt he needed the protection of a Kalashnikov while on tour, often on foot, I felt there was little we could say against it but I could never really see the justification in having one in the clinic itself. If thieves broke in to steal the medicines, they would surely be well armed.  There would be a bloody shoot out which would most likely result in our staff being seriously injured, or killed – and the medicines would still be stolen. In this part of the world, however, men, from when they were still young boys, carried guns. It was expected. Only it used to be an old Lee Enfield which somehow seemed less of a killing machine than an AK-47 assault rifle.

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 – 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

 

 

MarySmith’sPlace – Back in the saddle! Afghanistan Adventures #45

I discovered some more slides, handed them over at the print shop – they say at least three weeks! Photos included this week, while relevant to the post are taken on different times.

three horses

Lal-sar-Jangal – early winter 1989

It was time for the trip to Waras which I was anticipating with trepidation. Not only would my equestrian skills be sorely challenged by two days on horseback – each way – but, so too would my conversational abilities. Although my Dari had improved, my vocabulary was very much women orientated. I wondered how far lines such as “Does the back pain come just before your monthly bleeding?”, “Does your bleeding come regularly?” or, “Is there any smell or itching?” would take me.

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Ibrahim’s brother, Hassan, arrived to accompany us on the journey and early one morning we assembled outside the clinic. All the staff, several patients plus curious onlookers gathered to watch our departure. My horse was a pretty little thing, brown with a white star on her forehead. Outwardly displaying a degree of confidence, inwardly belied by the nervous churning of my stomach, I mounted, waited for Ibrahim to adjust the stirrups, mount his own horse and give the signal, “Y’Allah”, to be off.

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He and Hassan trotted off. I stayed put. It was acutely embarrassing, in front of so many people, all much too polite to laugh, but who must have found the situation hilarious. On previous occasions, the horse had at least started out. After much kicking of my heels and frantic tugging on the reins, I had to suffer the ignominy of being led by Haboly for the first fifty yards, until the horse finally accepted that she was part of the expedition.

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Probably 1994 with son, David and ‘his’ horse

Despite having reluctantly agreed to carry me, there was no way that she was going to put herself out any more than was strictly necessary, and I could not coax even a gentle trot out of her. Resorting to the method used on our way to Haboly’s village, Ibrahim rode in front with Hassan close behind me, occasionally giving my horse a flick with his whip. After about an hour of this Hassan decided enough was enough, and that if he did not teach me something about riding, it was going to take us a week to reach Waras.

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He connected with horses like a horse whisperer!

His method was simple and direct. Riding up alongside me he handed me his whip with the command, ‘Bezi – Beat!’ Reluctantly I took the whip and, feeling acutely self-conscious, attempted to do as ordered but only succeeded in striking the saddle bag behind me. My second attempt connected with the horse’s rump. This so astonished her, she was galvanized into charging forward in a fast trot for all of a hundred yards. As she began to recover from this surprise action on the part of her soft-touch rider and slow down again, Hassan was right beside me yelling in my ear, ‘Bezi!’ There were a few more fits and starts but, at last, she understood, and accepted, that her novice rider actually meant business. She settled down into a steady trot. Flushed with success, I grinned my thanks to Hassan and patted the horse’s neck at which her ears pricked quizzically. I began to feel quite fond of her.

Ibrahim and Hassan sat loosely in their saddles, completely relaxed.  I felt like a sack of potatoes lumping around in the saddle, and with every step my spine connected with the wall of my stomach. Progress may have become speedier, but it was excruciatingly uncomfortable. When, after two hours of trotting, Ibrahim suggested a stop for tea I was extremely grateful. Dismounting gingerly, I winced as my cramped muscles protested, but the tea and boiled eggs revived me and when Ibrahim said, ‘We must go.’  I remounted, eager to continue. It was nerve-racking when everyone else in the chaikhana came out to watch how the foreigner rode a horse. To my relief she responded instantly to the dog calling sound, which means “gee up”, and trotted off beautifully. I loved her. I decided to call her Zeba, meaning beautiful.

We were to break our journey at Ibrahim’s uncle’s home in Kirman and Hassan rode ahead to alert the family to expect guests for the night. I watched enviously as his horse galloped over the flat grassland on which we were riding, wondering if I would ever attain such confidence and proficiency on a horse. Ibrahim rode alongside and showed me how to gather the reins in my left hand, Afghan style, my right arm, holding the whip, hanging straight down by my side. I felt that at least I was beginning to look the part.

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Never thought I’d be so comfortable on horseback!

The family had gathered outside to meet us. As soon as we were led inside Ibrahim’s aunt pounced on me and proceeded to massage my aching legs until the muscles relaxed and the pain melted away. Bliss. Later we played cards until dinner was served. Ibrahim never travelled anywhere without a pack of cards in his pocket. On this occasion he offered to teach me a new game but every time I thought I had grasped the rules, he seemed to change them.  By the time dinner arrived, I owed him forty five chickens.

I slept little that night, devoured alive by an army of fleas sharing my blanket. In the morning Ibrahim caught me scratching furiously at my ankles and asked, ‘Fleas?’

Not wishing to offend anyone by saying their bedding was flea infested I muttered, ‘Perhaps I got them from the horse.’

Ibrahim was shocked by such a suggestion, ‘Oh, no, the horses don’t have fleas. They must have been in the blanket.’ When his uncle appeared and was told about the fleas he apologised for my disturbed night, but otherwise seemed to take the philosophical attitude that flea infested bedding was just one of those things in life with which we must cope. I escaped outside to find some privacy in which to enjoy a good scratch at the bites in less accessible parts of by body.

MarySmith’sPlace – School visit and my first foreign language joke – Afghanistan adventures#43

Lal-sar-Jangal November 1989

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Pics are a bit random this week as I need to scan more. Yes, that is a telephone wire running across the countryside!

The headmaster had asked Qurban to bring me to see the village school. Although our organisation did not provide financial support directly to schools, we acted as couriers for donor organisations in Germany, delivering funds and sending back reports and funding requests. In this way we had quite strong links with several schools. The school in Lal had been open for several years and, although it was only for boys plans were in place to open classes for girls the following year, when new school premises had been built.

Ibrahim was to accompany us, for which I was glad. He, more than any of the other staff, had the ability to understand what I was trying to say, even when it was coming out all wrong.  When I had difficulties understanding something, it was Ibrahim who could usually find a different way to phrase things until the meaning was clear.  When we were ready to leave Qurban said, ‘You go on ahead. I’ll catch you up when I finish some work here.’

I followed Ibrahim out of the compound to where our horses awaited and Rahimy joined us, just before we reached the school, riding up sporting a magnificent turban.

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The headmaster, standing at the doorway of the school was clearly upset by Qurban’s non-appearance – having two lowly field assistants as guests, instead of the big “doctor” was an insult.  On behalf of Qurban, Rahimy apologised, delivering the message about him having ‘too much work’.  Ibrahim spoke to him in a placatory way. Finally, he shrugged and led us into the two-roomed school.

The boys could study only up to Class Five. When the new building was ready the students would be able to continue their studies further. At that time – 1989 – only Jaghoray had the means of allowing students to study right up to Class Twelve – the final year before higher education.

 

The rough mud walls were hung with work done by the children; a large colourful map of Afghanistan which showed all the mountain ranges and rivers, posters of birds and flowers, and the alphabet – both English and Dari. In the first room three groups of junior boys sat cross legged in a circle on the floor. I spotted Bashir and Khadeem giggling amongst their friends. The class had been rehearsing something to recite to their guest. Exactly what that something was, I could only guess – it was delivered in such a garbled rush. It may have been multiplication tables.

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Through a low archway, in the second room, the higher group were sitting, expectantly facing a blackboard. The headmaster chalked up a few maths problems and chose one or two boys to come and solve them. Ibrahim nodded approvingly by my side so I assumed they must have got the sums right and smiled encouragingly as the boys returned to their places.  I made a little speech, previously rehearsed with Ibrahim’s help, on the importance of education. It was greeted with a round of applause before I was asked to write the English alphabet on the board. I’ve never been very good at writing on a chalk board and I’m sure my efforts were a bit disappointing.

The headmaster borrowed “my” horse to warn the cook we were about to arrive for lunch.  We walked the few hundred yards to the teachers’ room, making a detour to inspect the progress of the new school building. It was going to be a fine building when completed and everyone was very proud of it. The teachers’ house was one large room in which they all ate, slept, prepared lessons and marked school work. It was already packed with mujahideen, including the two leading Commanders who, of course, must be invited to any special occasion. Books were piled around the room and each teacher had a locked tin trunk in which to store personal belongings.

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Pictures – the inevitable Swiss mountain scene and the little boy with the Kalashnikov I’d seen everywhere – and maps adorned the walls. Studying a map of the world I was incensed to discover Scotland had been depicted as part of England.  Ibrahim laughed when I muttered crossly about this to him – he’d already heard me explain to various people Scotland was not the same as England.

After lunch one of the Commanders asked about the point I had made regarding Scotland and England. ‘Do you mean the Scottish people are under the control of the English?’

Realising I was unable to fully explain the British political system, I agreed this was true. He asked, ‘Do the Scottish people not want freedom?’

By now, everyone was listening intently to the conversation.  ‘Many Scottish people want freedom from the English government. They want to have their own government in Scotland.’

‘Oh, I see – like the Irish?  Bobby Sands?  But I never heard of any fighting in Scotland?’

‘No, the Scottish people are trying to win their freedom through politics, through talks and agreements. They are not fighting with bombs and bullets. We don’t have Kalashnikovs.’

‘Why don’t your people fight? Can you not buy Kalashnikovs in your country?’

Laughingly, I replied, ‘I think nearly all the Kalashnikovs in the world are with the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Maybe you have some to spare, now that the Russians have gone?’

Everyone shouted with laughter. I felt inordinately proud my first attempted joke in Dari, delivered in public, had gone down so well. I was not quite so sure when, as we were putting our boots on by the door, the Commander drew me aside to ask quietly how many Kalashnikovs I thought would be necessary – and would Stingers be useful?

Girls at Asari School (Custom)

Schools for girls have opened since I was there