MarySmith’sPlace – lessons in cultural (un)awareness -Afghanistan adventures#44

Lal-sar-Jangal – early winter 1989

I’ve included a selection of random photos in this post.

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On the ride home from the school visit Ibrahim complained about Qurban’s absence, saying this was typical of his behaviour with the people in Lal. ‘He does not understand it is important to keep these people happy – the teachers, the Commanders, the Mullahs. If they are happy the work will go well but if we upset them they can make trouble for the clinic. They care about their position being respected and Qurban should understand this.’

I decided to talk to Qurban. He was unrepentant about not turning up at the school, ‘Ibrahim behaves as if he is in charge, always talking to the people at the paygar (local government office), being friendly to the Commanders.’

‘Qurban, it’s called public relations. It is important. If the headmaster is upset with you and complains to the Commanders they could make problems for you and for the clinic. It’s surely not asking too much to spend some time now and then to keep them smiling. They know you are in charge of the clinic, not Ibrahim, and if you don’t accept their invitations they feel insulted.’

‘So let Ibrahim do this work and I’ll do my leprosy work,’ Qurban shrugged.

‘That’s not the point. Ibrahim is your assistant.  The “bazurg” (big people) expect the most senior person to meet with them.’

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Since I was already steamed up about one issue, I continued, ‘Another thing, why do you behave so badly when we are together at mehmanis (dinner parties) – not speaking to me, acting like I have done something terrible. I admit I don’t always understand the customs – but if I make mistakes it would be better to tell me about them.’

‘I don’t have to explain my behaviour to you.’

I gave up and turned to leave but, as I reached the door he called me back. ‘Listen! Our people are very poor. Most of them can’t afford more than dry bread and tea – every day.  Some people can eat meat maybe once a month, others, once a year. They work hard on the land but there is never enough wheat for the winter. Do you know that sometimes in the winter the poorest people have to eat grass from the mountain, because they have nothing else?

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‘I want to help my people but I can’t put food in their mouths, all I can do is try to make them better if they are sick. Sometimes we give some money from the social budget to a poor leprosy patient who can’t work but there is not enough money to help everyone. Besides, many people who don’t have leprosy are even poorer. You have been here for nearly two months, you must have seen this for yourself?’

‘Yes, I have seen the poverty – although I have never seen people reduced to eating grass.’

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‘Well, it happens. People hope to be able to afford new clothes once a year for Nau Roz (Afghan New Year). It is the only time they can have something nice to wear. They wear the same clothes until the next year. These are my people, I work for them, and I really try to help.  ‘Then, a foreigner comes along and everyone wants to meet him, or her. They invite them to their houses, kill a chicken for them – give them as much meat in one meal as would feed a poor family for a week. The people make a big fuss of the foreigner; their hopes are raised because they know foreigners have money, and the power to change things.

‘Then the foreigner says we should teach them this and teach them that and not give so much medicine to them. The foreigner bashes away on her typewriter making reports, then goes away and nothing changes.’

He shrugged, ‘Sometimes it makes me crazy. I don’t have power like the Commanders. They are rich, maybe even as rich as you, but do nothing for the people. They demand respect without doing anything to earn it – and expect me to run around them telling them they are wonderful.’

Qurban finally ran out of steam and I sat, stunned, wondering how to reply. ‘I understand some of what you feel,’ I said quietly, ‘and I feel guilty about how much people spend to prepare a dinner for me but what can I do?  If I refuse their invitations they will be hurt and offended, won’t they?’  He nodded in silent agreement.

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I continued, ‘We work for a very small organisation. We can’t do much more than we are doing already. As we are not agricultural experts, we can’t teach the farmers how to improve their crops. We can only try to persuade other organisations to come and do these things. By visiting the clinics I can provide first hand reports for the donors, persuading them to continue their support. That is the way in which I am most qualified to help – by writing about the needs of the people. I am sorry that you feel my presence is such a burden on them.’

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Qurban smiled faintly, ‘Yes, the money is important. I suppose the occasional chicken is an investment – keep you happy so you keep the donors happy.’

‘The donors don’t count the chickens that are killed for me. They judge the success of the project on the number of leprosy patients you find and treat, the number of other patients coming for consultation and, of course, they are keen to see that we can work freely without trouble from political Parties.’

A few days later, the headmaster, with some of his teachers, paid a return visit to the clinic.  Qurban played the part of clinic In-charge and host to perfection, smiling, courteous, a role model for all future public relations encounters. The headmaster was extremely deferential towards him. When they left, I said to Qurban, ‘You see it is not difficult to keep these people happy. They were all very respectful to you.’

Qurban looked at me pityingly, ‘You don’t understand anything about the people here. They can very easily pretend to like and respect someone, but I know what they are thinking.  When they see me they think of leprosy. If people behave as though they like me, it is because they feel sorry for me. No-one sees the real Qurban so how can they know if they like or dislike me?’

I wished I had a degree in psychology, to help me understand what went on in his head – more importantly to know how to help him.

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MarySmith’sPlace -Back in the saddle, bribery and injections Afghanistan adventures#42

Lal-sar-Jangal, Hazaristan – early winter 1989

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Next day, Slowcoach had obviously decided to accept her fate and make the best of a bad job.  She kept moving, if somewhat reluctantly, until we reached the home of Qurban’s patient, Nasir – after four hours.

After we had eaten, Nasir produced some apples. They were so very small and bruised I, at first, assumed they were for the horses. But they were for us. Other than Khudadad’s gift of a melon, they were the first fruit, I’d seen since arriving in Lal. In the summer months, melons are available, brought from Bamiyan, but bananas, oranges, tomatoes are never seen. When Bashir had shown me his English ABC book I’d pointed to the picture of an orange, asking him the Dari word for it. He shook his head, ‘It has no word in Dari,’ he replied. I said there must be, but he insisted there was not. When asked, Qurban explained Bashir had never seen an orange in his life, and assumed there was only an English name for it.

Lal’s climate was certainly not suitable for growing much in the way of fruit. It is only warm three months in the year, the soil is poor, and few farmers have enough land to grow sufficient wheat for their needs, so even vegetables are rarely grown – a few potatoes and turnips. It was hardly surprising so many children in Lal suffered from a variety of health problems caused by poor nutrition. Feeling guilty about even thinking of giving Slowcoach my precious apple, I bit into it as though it was the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted.

Nasir brought his wife and children into the room to meet me. With the exception of the smallest baby – only a few weeks old – all the children had running noses and skin infections, head-lice and, possibly, scabies.

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 The healthiest child in the family.

I held the baby, the healthiest person by far in the family while Nasir, with Qurban translating rapidly, gave a prepared speech of welcome. This included a great many flowery sentiments about friendship, followed by references to his poor house, his poor family – ending with an outright appeal for money, for a job. He handed over a written application, setting out his case and asking for financial assistance.

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The dinner and the apples had clearly been an investment. Leprosy patients were able to apply to the social care budget for help if their economic situation, and any disability caused by the disease, warranted it. Nasir, however, owned land and was fit enough to work. Mumbling something about discussing the matter with the committee, I pushed the letter into my bag. I wished he had just asked me outright for a loan when we had met at the clinic, without the charade of the lunch party and overtures of friendship.

The following year, Nasir was given a substantial loan with which to buy supplies, in Kabul, to enable him to open a small shop in his village. He returned from Kabul wearing a very smart new suit, very little stock for his shop and the rest of the money had disappeared. A few months after this he put in yet another loan application – despite not having repaid any of the first one – this time it was refused.

Next morning, we left early to return to the clinic and, wonder of wonders, Slowcoach was quite amenable to a getting up a bit of speed, a sort of half jog. Just when I thought I was improving my riding skills, Qurban dashed my hopes by informing me the only reason the horse was prepared to go faster was because she was going home. By the time we reached the clinic I’d decided I never wanted to sit on a horse again – dreams painfully shattered by reality. I was horrified when reminded of Haboly’s invitation for the following weekend, another four hours of torture each way and, worst of all, I learned for the first time, that the journey to Waras would take two days on horseback – each way.

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In the meantime I carried on with the work I’d to do, including taking stock of medicines and equipment, a task often interrupted by the women who wanted to talk to me. Although I met dozens of women every day no friendships were formed between us as they were in Jaghoray.  Having always subscribed to the feminist principle that all women are sisters, I was appalled to discover I harboured extremely un-sisterly feelings regarding the women of Lal. Every conversation centred entirely round their determination to get medicines or money from me.  I felt guilty about my reaction to their constant whining and complaining, their shameless demands, and their dirty smell.

It wasn’t their fault I’d tell myself. I looked at every excuse I could think of – the relentless, grinding poverty, the annual pregnancies, the death of almost half of all infants before the age of five, the lack of education – but still I could not prevent the feelings of frustration, even disgust, as a woman clutched at my clothing, whining for a pejkari, an injection, for her sickly baby. I’d spend time trying to explain her child needed foods such as potatoes, green vegetables (though where she’d find them I didn’t know), yoghurt, eggs. The endlessly patient Rahimy helped to translate, but the woman would close her ears, continuing to demand an injection. Then, realising this mother desperately wanted her child to live I’d force myself to try again.

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I don’t remember where this was taken but it reminded me of when there was no worries about  lockdown hair!

MarySmith’sPlace – Afghanistan adventures#40

Lad-sar-Jangal Winter 1989

Qurban’s wife, Masooma, had taken their two daughters to Pakistan to visit her parents, who had not yet seen their grandchildren. She was expected to return with Jon when he came to collect me. In the evenings I sometimes joined Qurban in his room where we talked late into the night catching up on news.

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Qurban had spent much of his life in Karachi and was eager for news of friends there, and to reminisce about his days at the leprosy training centre and hospital. Although I had known Qurban quite well during his student days he had never talked much about his early childhood in Afghanistan. During one of our late night sessions he told the story of the horrors of those days when, at the age of about seven he contracted leprosy.

He had known of the disease as his paternal uncle had leprosy. In those days, people were terrified of leprosy, believing it to be incurable. As no-one understood its cause all kinds of misconceptions and myths surrounded the illness: it was a curse of God, a punishment for sin.  Qurban’s uncle must have done something dreadful to be punished in this way, a bad person, to be avoided. He had been ostracised by the community, forced to build his house far away from the village. He wasn’t allowed to pray in the mosque.

One day as Qurban was returning from the village school he and some friends had stopped to play in the river. A friend pointed to a light coloured skin patch on Qurban’s leg, asking what had caused it. Qurban hadn’t noticed the patch before. When his friend poked it with a sharp stick he felt no pain. In that instant he understood. His uncle had several similar patches with no feeling on his body. Qurban went home but said nothing to his family – hoping the patch might disappear as mysteriously as it had come.

Eventually he showed the patch to his father. ‘It was the first time I had ever seen my father cry. I didn’t know grown up men could cry. His tears frightened me more than anything.’   His father warned him to say nothing to anyone. They began a round of visits to doctors, healers, mullahs, wise women – anyone who might have the means of making the patch disappear. Nothing – not the ointments, pills nor injections, made the slightest difference.   Prayers, visits to nearby shrines and tawiz (a few lines of the Quran stitched into a cloth bag and worn as an amulet) were all equally ineffective.

Despite the misery and fear he felt while his parents searched desperately for a cure, Qurban was still a child, with a child’s resilience and enjoyment of life, delighting in leading his friends in mischief. One day he boasted that he could stick pins in his leg and feel no pain.  For a few minutes he had basked in the admiration of his friends at this strange and wonderful feat. Next day his world collapsed.

‘At first I didn’t understand what had happened. No-one at school would talk to me but I knew they were whispering things about me. After school, for the first time in my life, no-one would walk home with me. But a crowd of boys was following me. I wanted to run, but I kept walking normally. Suddenly a stone hit my back, then another and another and the boys were shouting “Leper, leper!”  Then I ran.’

Qurban’s school days were over, his childhood had ended.

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Band-i-Amir – one of the most beautiful places in Afghanistan

One day Qurban’s father took him to the shrine at Band-i-Amir. This chain of five lakes, or dams, is said to have been created by Ali, son-in-law of Muhammad (PBUH). The waters are reputed to have healing powers. Qurban was excited about travelling so far, convinced that this time, surely, he would be cured.

Wondering whether he was to drink the magic water or wash the patch in it, he heard a splash. Turning, he saw threshing arms and legs churning the water. A young girl, a rope tied about her waist, had been thrown into the lake. He watched, horrified, as she was finally hauled, gasping and spluttering back onto the bank. She lay vomiting onto the shore while the people surrounding her murmured prayers.

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Taking to the curative waters. This photo was taken in 2006 when I returned to Afghanistan

Convinced he would die Qurban became hysterical, begging his father not to throw him in the water. His father agreed that they should go first to pray at the shrine before Qurban underwent the “treatment”.  The child’s sobs attracted the attention of a stranger who paused and peered at the patch on his leg. ‘That is leprosy,’ he announced. ‘You will never cure it like that – better go to Pakistan. They have medicine for this. My wife’s cousin was cured there.’

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The shrine at Band-i-Amir I think that might be my son standing in the foreground!

Qurban had wanted to go immediately.  Not realising that Pakistan was another country, he couldn’t understand why his father, although excited by the news, did not seem particularly anxious to set off on another journey to buy the medicine. ‘He struggled for months to raise enough money for the trip,’ he explained. ‘And he had to make arrangements for someone to care for my mother and the land. All this time I hated my father because I thought he had decided not to go.’ Qurban paused, blinking back sudden tears, before continuing: ‘I was seven years old, quite a big boy, but all the way to Pakistan, I complained about being too tired to walk. My father carried me on his shoulders most of the way.’

Even when they reached Quetta their troubles were far from over. Many Hazaras had already settled in the city and they soon made contact with people from their own area – but no one had heard of a cure for leprosy. Soon they were caught up once more in a round of visits to doctors, whose prescriptions were useless and expensive. His savings soon vanished and Qurban’s father had to find work. Not far from Quetta he found a job as a coal miner; back breaking work digging for coal in a series of open cast mines and tunnels running deep into the side of the mountain.

One day their luck changed. They met a doctor who not only recognised Qurban had leprosy, but knew of the hospital in Karachi where it could be treated.  He wrote a letter of referral to a doctor there. Within days, Qurban and his father had made the journey to Karachi and Qurban had been admitted for treatment in the large Manghopir hospital on the outskirts of the huge city. His father left him almost immediately to return to Lal.

Qurban grinned, ‘The rest you know – school, training, marriage and back to Afghanistan.’   I realised, however, there was a great deal about Qurban I really didn’t know at all. Although completely cured of leprosy, the memory of those stones thrown by his school friends so long ago had marked him deeply. Those little boys, grown up now, had welcomed Qurban back into the community – showing him acceptance and respect. But Qurban’ feelings of insecurity and lack of confidence made him question what the community really thought of him.

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Qurban in dark glasses even with his family.

Convinced everyone who looked at him saw immediately, in his loss of eyebrows, the stigma of leprosy, he had affected the habit of wearing dark glasses at all times, even indoors. He suffered periods of moody introspection, which could last for days, during which he would talk to no one, followed by a sudden cheerful gregariousness. His sudden mood swings left everyone confused. Qurban admitted he could do nothing to fight off the black clouds of depression which descended on him without warning.

MarySmith’sPlace – Afghanistanadventures#39 – Learning who’s who at the Lal clinic

Lal October 1989

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After the excitement of arriving in Lal I experienced a sense of desolation when Khudadad left next day. Although we’d been travelling companions for barely two weeks, not only had I come to depend on him for so much – from ensuring I was well fed to finding a bed for the night – but I’d truly enjoyed his company. As the truck pulled away I stood forlornly clutching the huge melon he had given me as a farewell gift, waving until he was out of sight.

Stocktaking and updating the record cards of leprosy patients seemed such mundane chores compared to the excitement of travelling, never quite knowing what might happen or where we would end up. Having to begin all over again getting to know a new group of people none of whom, apart from Qurban, I had ever met before was daunting.

The clinic was a depressing place with dark, poky little rooms whose tiny windows allowed in hardly any light – a common design feature in houses throughout the area, to insulate them from the bitter chill in winter, when temperatures drop to -40C. Qurban had done his best to improve the appearance of my room, which was the size of a cupboard, by lining the crumbling walls with orange cloth. When I was in bed, a colony of mice staged athletics events behind the cloth, occasionally venturing out to scamper across the pillow. Qurban was negotiating over the price of a piece of land on which to build a new clinic, something I hoped he could accomplish quickly.

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Entrance to the clinic

I began to sort out who was who amongst the staff. Ibrahim was in charge of the dressings and injection room where he did the soaking, trimming and dressing of leprosy patients’ ulcers, as well as attending to other wounds and injuries. As two of his nephews had both been my English students in Karachi where they were trainee leprosy technicians, I happily accepted Ibrahim’s invitation to visit his home in Waras sometime, as I had promised the boys I would try to deliver their letters personally to their families.

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Qurban, his brother Bashir and a patient (name has escaped me)

I’d already been invited by Qurban to visit his family’s village and Haboly, the general medical assistant, was insistent that I must also visit his. Invitations quickly followed from Aziz and Rahimy and my social calendar was soon completely filled for all foreseeable weekends.

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Ibrahim on the camel on the right. Camels were rarely seen so far north

Rahimy had been a mujahid but retired from their service, cheerfully returning his Kalashnikov, to work in the clinic as a field assistant where he was paid a regular salary and was less likely to be shot at. Wounded in a skirmish, the injury had left him with a permanent disability in one hand. He was such a quiet, gentle person, demonstrating a genuine concern for the patients, it was difficult to visualise him in his former role of gun toting freedom fighter. Rahimy was to come with us to Pakistan to attend a laboratory technician course over the winter. The second field assistant, Juma, would then, the following summer, begin his training in Karachi as a leprosy technician.

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Patient on right and some of his family

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Me being maternal with a baby securely parcelled up so it didn’t wriggle

Every morning patients gathered early outside the gates of the compound. Many travelled for hours by foot, or by donkey – by horse, if they were better off. Some took two days or more to make the journey from remote villages and, most days, around fifty patients arrived to consult Qurban and Haboly. They arrived well prepared for a long wait, bringing with them kettles and dry tea and nan, along with fodder for the horses and donkeys. Children found new playmates with whom to pass the time, chasing each other amongst the groups of adults and around the tethered animals. The scene resembled a country fair and in fact, in the days following the clinic’s initial opening, one enterprising man had opened a temporary chaikhana to cater for the crowds.


In addition to these “general” patients Qurban had a case load of around two hundred leprosy patients scattered across his extensive control area. He had an almost equal number of registered tuberculosis cases. It was too much for one leprosy technician to cope with so Qurban was keen for Juma to start his training as soon as possible to lighten the load.

Tuberculosis patients caused the greatest concern because of the rate of absenteeism, and lack of personnel to follow up missing patients. The effectiveness of the tuberculosis drugs in some ways works against controlling the disease in Afghanistan – and other developing countries – because soon after a patient begins his treatment he feels well. Believing he is cured, he discontinues the medication. If he is being prescribed drugs by a private doctor the cost for the full course of treatment is prohibitively expensive and, understandably, the impoverished patient has other uses for his money. The biggest danger, when a patient stops taking his medicine before all the bacteria has been destroyed, is the remaining bacteria mutate into a new strain, resistant to those particular drugs.

When news spread a foreign doctor had arrived the numbers of patients, especially women, increased. Despite Qurban’s cajoling I refused to play at being a doctor. ‘In my country a person would be sent to jail if caught pretending to be a doctor. It’s too easy to make a wrong diagnosis or prescribe the wrong drugs. I’m happy to check female leprosy patients and talk to mothers about nutrition and family planning but I’m not going to pretend I can do anything more than that.’

Qurban laughed, ‘You are not in your country now. The people here are desperate for medical care. Anyway, everyone in this clinic is a doctor, even the cook!’ I’d heard the cook being called Dr Aziz but had assumed it was simply a term of respect. I hadn’t considered the possibility that he might actually prescribe medicines for people and was only slightly reassured to discover he confined his prescribing to aspirin and vitamins.

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‘Dr’ Aziz, the cook

We finally agreed I would do the stock taking, write my reports and carry out leprosy examinations on female patients. I’d be available to talk to women about nutrition for their children and for themselves in pregnancy, to explain how contraceptive pills should be taken or to teach a woman how to work out her fertile days. The dwindling number of female patients soon made it clear the women were not interested in hearing a foreigner talk about mashed potatoes and greens for their children, and had no magic drugs to make their babies strong and healthy.


MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan Adventures#31 Women’s health, women’s work, women’s place in the scheme of things

Next day, I spent the morning in the women’s clinic with Zohra. I was embarrassed at finding it difficult to understand the women who fired questions at me, making me feel my command of the language was still pitiful. In my defence, their accent was very different from that of Jaghoray.

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Besides those patients with diarrhoea or throat or eye infections, several women had come for ante-natal check-ups. Two had vaginal infections, one, a prolapse of the uterus; four wanted contraceptive pills while another desperately wanted to become pregnant. Most of Hussain’s female patients complained of a mixture of infections of eyes, throat or chest. Apart from the occasional woman who complained of burning urine, he rarely had any patients with gynaecological problems. Afghan women simply cannot discuss such intimate problems with a male health worker, never mind allowing a physical examination. A great many women suffer appalling health problems in silence.

Islam teaches that women should be modest in dress and behaviour but, somewhere along the line, this has been reinterpreted in such a way that modesty has given way to women feeling a terrible sense of shame women regarding their bodies and reproductive systems. The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), in his teachings, surely never intended women be denied medical help, nor be allowed to die before exposing the most private parts of their anatomy to a male doctor?

As long as the words of the Prophet continue to be interpreted, in the rural areas in particular, by illiterate misogynists, women will always be denied rights – and the west will continue to misunderstand the teachings of Islam.

The nearest hospital which could provide obstetric services was in Kabul, a journey which could take two or more days depending on road and transport conditions and whether there was fighting along the way. A woman needed a male escort but going to Kabul was a dangerous mission for young men who risked being press ganged into the Afghan Army.

In the afternoon Zohra introduced me to her neighbours, Gul Chaman and Fatima, who lived below Zohra and Hassan’s house. Since their husband, despite the protests of Gul Chaman, had taken Fatima as his second wife ten years previously, the two women had not spoken to each other. Gul Chaman, with her children, occupied one room of the house, Fatima and her brood, the other. A strict rota system had been instituted for conjugal visits – and for the use of the tandoor in which each wife baked the bread for her own family. Hostilities between the mothers did not extend to the two sets of children who played together, receiving comforting cuddles for scraped knees and bloodied noses from whichever mother happened to be nearer at the time.

Making bread

Bread straight from the tandoor. On the left fresh pasta called ‘ash’ I should maybe say this and the next photos are not from Sheikh Ali but from a different place on my travels.

When it was her turn for the tandoor, Gul Chaman showed me how she baked bread. As the heat inside the oven was tremendous she wore a long, very thick leather gauntlet on her arm.  She would reach right into the furnace to slap the prepared rounds of dough on the walls. When done, she hooked them out with a metal rod. The smell of bread fresh from the oven is one of the most delicious things in life.

Not to be outdone, Fatima gave a display of weaving the brightly coloured gilims and laughingly persuaded me to try my hand. I soon realised this was not a skill I could master – my inexperienced fingers proved to be all thumbs, and totally uncoordinated. It was slow, tedious work and even with three or four women working together at the long frame it could take a month or more to complete one gilim.

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Working on carpets

After clinic was over for the day, Zohra often had friends visit for tea and chat, but she admitted in the last year she had been out of the compound only twice, once to offer condolences when someone died and once to attend a wedding. I was unhappy when I realised I was expected to behave within the prevailing standards set by Hassan. When I mentioned going to see the bazaar the suggestion was swiftly vetoed, ‘There’s nothing to see in the bazaar, this is a poor village. If you need anything I can get it for you.’  It was the same whenever I enquired about Khudadad. ‘Don’t worry. He’s fine. He’s happy.’ Whenever I asked Hassan about transport he would tell me not to worry. Then he would embarrass me by asking if I was not happy in his home, was I not being looked after properly and was there anything I needed to make my stay more comfortable?

I was happy to spend time with Zohra listening to her stories about the work she did to improve the women’s health but there was really no work for me here and I was anxious to reach Lal.

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Spinning wool

Choosing a time after lunch, when I assumed Hassan had left on one of his undisclosed outings, I slipped into the guest room. Khudadad gave me a huge grin. ‘Where have you been?  When are we leaving?  I am very bored here!’  We managed about three minutes of conversation, centring mainly on the fact that Hassan seemed not to be trying to find transport to Lal and did not want Khudadad to wander about the village by himself before Hassan’s soft voice made me jump.

‘Is anything wrong?’ he asked, from just inside the door.

‘No, nothing. I just wanted to talk to Khudadad. I haven’t seen him since we arrived.’ Hassan sat down and I understood that he was not going to allow me to sit alone with Khudadad. As his guest I felt I could not make an issue of my freedom being so curtailed. Conversation rather dried up and, after a few moments, I rose to return to the family section of the house. I wondered if Hassan thought that, if left alone together, Khudadad and I would immediately fall on each other in an ecstasy of unbridled passion. What did he think happened when we slept in roadside hotels without a third person to guard our morality?

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Washing sheep’s fleece before spinning. 

One day, a beaming Hassan informed me he had arranged for a jeep to take us to Bamiyan, the following day. We were to be ready to leave at the usual setting out time in Afghanistan – four o’clock in the morning. It seemed a bit excessive. Bamiyan was only a three hour drive from Sheikh Ali – as did Zohra’s contribution of hard boiled eggs, chicken and dried fruits and nuts.

The driver never showed up. We ate the hard boiled eggs for breakfast and had the chicken for lunch and Hassan was very apologetic about it all and promised to look for another driver.


MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan adventures #21 – in which we go camping.

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When we arrived home, everyone trooped out to welcome me and I felt extraordinarily glad to be back, although there was an air of suppressed excitement about Hussain which made me wonder what was afoot.

Ali Baba and Ismail vied with each other telling me tales of the recent fighting. Throughout my stay in Malestan I had never heard a shot fired in anger, nor heard of any fighting. The three Parties in that district seemed content to maintain a peaceful status quo – or perhaps they shared Mubarak’s apathy for anything troublesome.

While I was unpacking Hussain asked, ‘Well, Mum, what did you think of Malestan?’  Before I could open my mouth, he proceeded to answer the question himself, ‘The people are not as educated as Jaghoray people, and of course they are much poorer.’

I replied, ‘Well, I admit Jaghoray is more prosperous but Malestan is peaceful – and the women are much more free, which I liked.’

Hussain snorted.  ‘Free? Free to work all day in the fields! Is that what you call freedom?  Our women don’t need to be field workers. Their husbands can provide for them; they are free to stay at home.’ I was still trying to formulate a suitable reply, hampered by my knowledge that in the UK in the 1950s and 60s some men did not want their wives to take jobs outside the home because it reflected badly on their ability to provide for their families, but Hussain had moved on.

‘I’m very worried about how slowly the work is going on the new clinic. Sometimes when I go there to check only one man is working, the rest have gone to do some other job. They know that we are too busy to supervise them. I think we have to move in now, and then they will work faster. What do you think?’

‘I think you’re mad. How can we move in? The roof isn’t on yet. Where would we sleep, where would Baqul cook, how could you run the clinic?  There isn’t even a latrine!’

‘We can build a latrine in a few hours and we can live and work in tents.’ He flapped his hand about airily, all problems solved. I knew there was no point in arguing.

‘When were you thinking of moving?’

He gave me one of his most engaging grins, ‘Tomorrow.’

I began walking towards the door. ‘Where are you going? Don’t be angry.’

At the door, I turned, ‘I’m going to ask Baqul for hot water for a bath – it sounds like I might not have the chance of one for a while.’

It was actually two more days before the move was made – two days of frenzied activity, begging tents, hiring transport and packing all the equipment, furnishings and medicines.  A large notice on the door stated normal clinic timings would be kept at the Mazar Bibi clinic.  It seemed a bit hard on Latifa who was scheduled to have her ears syringed the day we moved. She now faced a three hour walk to reach the new clinic.

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Saying goodbye to friends in the village was painful. Sughra spent the morning in tears. We all knew we would not see each other for a long time, despite the fact I would only be an hour’s drive away. For them, that meant a six hour round trip on foot – not possible for a social visit – and I understood that Hussain would be unwilling to bring me back to Sangsuragh very often. He could barely conceal his delight at leaving the village and moving into his own home territory.

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I have absolutely no idea what Hussain and and I are doing – obviously looking at something fascinating!

Excited as a boy scout on his first camping trip, he was eager to show me our new quarters.  One tent contained the medicines and was to serve as the consulting room. A smaller tent accommodated Baqul, his collection of pots, pans and other culinary equipment.  He was already busy, fussing over a primus stove outside his ‘kitchen’. The third, largest tent was our living and sleeping quarters and I was surprised, and delighted, to discover it was luxuriously different from my notions of roughing it under canvas. The well flattened earth floor had been covered by our brightly striped gilims, mattresses and cushions were arranged invitingly around the canvas walls.  A central flap converted the large living space into two sleeping rooms. The gas lamps hung from hooks, and even my bookcase had been set in place. Very ‘days of the Raj-ish’.

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Hard at work. The new clinic starts to take shape

The temporary latrine was a hundred yards up the mountain, offering a great view of the surrounding countryside.

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Temporary latrine

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Interior view

Baqul, by some feat of magic on his primus stove, provided a feast. After dinner we sat outside watching the moon rise from behind the mountain and tried naming the stars. The Milky Way was a broad band of white sweeping across the sky, and it was astonishing to see how many stars could be seen in Orion, which at home I picked out by his belt. Occasionally we would glimpse a shooting star. Jawad explained that everyone in the world has his or her own star in the sky and when that person dies his star falls down. I told how we wish on a falling star.

We sat talking late into the night. When we could stifle our yawns no longer we retired to bed. Ali Baba, Ismail and Jawad shared one room. Hussain shared mine, explaining that he thought I might be afraid to sleep by myself. I suspected the real reason was that there wasn’t a great deal of room left once the other three laid out their sleeping bags and blankets.

Hussain had been right – our presence certainly ensured the building work sped up considerably. Before long there was a roof on the consulting room, though patients had been arriving long before it was on – and another over the bathroom.

MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan Adventures#20 ‘What use are you?’

I was surprised when at nine o’clock Mubarak yawned, abruptly announcing it was bed time. In Jaghoray we’d still have been chatting or playing cards. I was awakened next morning, by someone knocking. It wasn’t even daylight. I hurried to fold up my blankets and pulled on my chaddar. I glanced at my watch – five to five in the morning! The knocking wasn’t my wake up call, but the first patient of the day calling to see Mubarak. Snuggling into my blanket again, I understood why he went to bed so early.

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By 6.30 we had breakfasted on bread and hardboiled eggs – so fresh they were very difficult to peel and were on our way to the clinic. A group of women signalled Mubarak to stop. I heard him say, ‘She’s not a doctor.’

He turned to me saying, ‘They’re on their way to the clinic because they heard a foreign lady doctor had arrived. They don’t believe me that you are not a doctor.’

I confirmed Mubarak had spoken the truth. The spokeswoman looked at me in some surprise then asked, ‘What are you if you are not a doctor?’

‘She’s a teacher,’ answered Mubarak and I nodded in agreement, but didn’t know how to reply to the woman’s next question.

‘Why are you not a doctor?’

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As we drove on I realised she had in fact been asking, ‘If you’re not a doctor what earthly use are you to us?’ I didn’t know if I had an answer, especially after a morning’s work in the stockroom, by which time it looked worse than before I had started. Mubarak would appear in the doorway every so often to gaze around mournfully, making it obvious he felt I should not be interfering in his clinic. I knew good admin systems would help with the smooth running of the clinics but I wasn’t sure I’d convince Mubarak.


By the end of the day I was looking forward to having a bath and changing into clean clothes.  The bathroom in Mubarak’s house had not yet been completed; there was no glass in the windows and with the sun going down, it was chilly. The half bucket of water with which I was provided had been warmed by the simple, economic method of leaving it to stand in the afternoon sunshine. At least the chill had been taken out of it and I did feel better to be clean.

Over dinner, we chatted and Mubarak told me he was lonely and admitted he would dearly love to be married. Soon after his return from Pakistan a date had been fixed for his wedding to a local girl. Sadly, before the marriage took place she had died of typhoid.

‘Have you thought about finding someone else?’

‘For a long time I have been friendly with my fiancée’s sister, and she also likes me. We want to marry but there is a problem. There were only two sisters in the family, no sons. The father is a wealthy man who owns a lot of land and when he dies all his land will go to his only daughter. For myself, I do not care about the land. I love the girl not her land, but the Mullah of the village wants her to marry his son.

‘The girl’s father likes me. He was happy for me to marry his other daughter, but now he is afraid to agree to my marriage with his second daughter. The Mullah has said he will make trouble for him if his daughter does not marry his son. So, I think maybe it is my fate never to marry.’

The stock room was showing some semblance of order but Mubarak, although approving the tidiness, was far from happy. A great deal of expired stock had been discovered and was awaiting disposal, but he wanted to hang onto it. ‘But you wouldn’t give it to anyone when it’s out of date, would you?’ I asked.

‘No, of course not but the people will become angry if they see medicines being destroyed. They won’t understand.’

‘Well, next time the programme co-ordinator comes, get him to take it away.’

He nodded. I made a note to tell the co-ordinator there would be out of date medicines to remove.

When it came to looking at the new stock register and learning the, very simple, system, he insisted Hassan Reza, his field assistant, be taught how to make the necessary entries in the stock book.

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Hassan Reza was delighted to be made to feel so important. He seemed a likeable lad, but according to Mubarak he was terrified of leprosy and refused to go on tour to visit leprosy patients. ‘Well, why do you keep him on? There must be plenty of young men who could be trained to work with you.’

‘It’s not so easy. If I sack him he might make problems for us with the political parties.’

‘Why should we pay someone who doesn’t work?’

Mubarak smiled his slow smile, ‘We don’t. I told him I could only pay him daily wages for the days he is on duty. Some months he gets paid hardly anything. I thought he would get fed up and leave of his own accord, but he still comes in from time to time.’

I explained the stock system to Hassan Reza who appeared to be listening attentively – then announced he wanted to come to Pakistan with me.

‘Whatever for?’

‘I want to be a doctor. Can you arrange for me to have training in Pakistan?’

I looked at him in astonishment. He had completed six years of schooling and if he truly believed he could simply go off to Pakistan and become a doctor, his general level of intelligence was not too high either.

Although Mubarak’s work with his patients was excellent his negative attitude towards administrative matters was becoming depressing. The team in Jaghoray was so much more enthusiastic about their work. Quite forgetting the tensions and problems Hussain could create, I began to look forward to my return. By the time Jawad arrived, I was packed and ready to go.

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MarySmith’sPlace – Temper tantrums Afghan adventures #15

When the Programme Coordinator, arrived from a tour of the other leprosy clinics scattered around Hazara Jat he brought with him the money to buy a vehicle for Hussain – a second hand Russian jeep. Rather foolishly I’d assumed Hussain, understanding the precarious financing of the project, would accept, with disappointment perhaps, this was a reasonable way forward. Hussain however, on the subject of a vehicle for his clinic, was beyond reason.


Hussain with his cousin before he came to Pakistan for medical training

An Afghan sulk beats a Scottish humph any day and Hussain was an expert. I couldn’t complain about lack of exercise as he, on numerous sulky occasions, asked me to accompany him on scrambles up and down the mountain – to ‘discuss things’. Incapable of participating in a conversation while puffing up a mountain, I would be forced to listen to Hussain’s latest round of complaints, mentally trying to prepare diplomatic, reasonable arguments for when we finally stopped.

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Hussain not long after returning to Afghanistan

An appeal to Hussain’s concern for his patients was often successful. It was encouraging that, no matter how bad his mood was, he never allowed himself to be anything other than professional in his medical work. Even on the occasions when he was not on speaking terms with me he always showed tremendous care and concern for the welfare of his patients. The day Hussain realised the cash for his vehicle would not buy a Toyota our route crossed an almost perpendicular cliff face. Creeping cautiously in his wake, I wondered, for a moment, if he was trying to terrorise me into agreeing to somehow find the money for his coveted Toyota. But he was totally oblivious to his surroundings and to any danger we might be in.

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By the time we had reached the safety of a plateau I was too angry to attempt further reasoning. ‘Stop behaving like a baby. You’ve been told you can buy a Russian jeep now and we can ask for money for a new vehicle in next year’s budget. What’s the point in going on and on it?

‘You keep telling me your only concern is to do your work properly but I don’t believe that any more. You want a flashy vehicle to show off in, driving round the bazaar, visiting your family, your friends, showing what a big person you are!’

His face registered total shock and I wasn’t sure whether he wanted to throw me or himself off the mountain, or simply burst into tears. Speechlessly, avoiding the precipitous route by which we had come up, he led the way back down the mountain. Miraculously, by the time we reached the clinic he had regained his good humour and accepted that for this year at least, there would be no Toyota for his clinic.

It was astonishing how he could sulk for days, being thoroughly obnoxious then suddenly flash a big happy smile to show it was all over. He assumed everyone around him would instantly forget and forgive the horrors of his black mood and barbed tongue. This time, I was not so easily placated.  It was wearying, struggling to get through every day trying to avoid being snapped at by a child monster. I demanded to know why he persisted in taking his anger out on me.

He fell silent for a few moments before replying, ‘You know my mother and father both died when I was very small. My sister-in-law looked after us but she was horrible to me and even worse with my little brother, who was only a baby. I had to protect him or she would beat him for any little thing he did wrong, even if he passed stool when he was too small to help it.  I had to do all the work, fetching water, looking after the sheep and goats. I did not mind the work, everyone must work, but my sister-in-law was always angry with me and beating me for no reason. When I remembered my mother I would cry.

‘Now, after years of being alone I feel that I have a mother again and if I can’t say everything that is in my heart or show my feelings to my mother who else is there? It’s not that I am angry with you; I just get in a bad mood because I am angry with other things and I want you to understand how upset I am. Sometimes I don’t know how to explain things.’


Ready to leave for Pakistan to train as a paramedic – less than three years later he was in charge of a clinic

His voice broke and I realised again how very young he was. I thought of how it must have been for that small boy growing up, never able to cry in his mother’s arms, never receiving or giving a loving kiss or hug, never given approval, having to keep his emotions buried deep inside him.

It was emotional blackmail of the first order – and I was suckered.


Hussain, newly arrived in Pakistan. In need of his mum.

Fortunately life at the clinic was not all angst and emotional trauma. My birthday was a happy occasion. I was allowed to sleep late and Hussain brought me coffee in bed. The others trooped in bearing cards and gifts. The grand finale was when Hussain bore in an enormous cake with an iced birthday message piped in lurid colours across the top. The baker had never before been asked to create such a thing but the finished product was a visual masterpiece which had been hidden for the last two days in the depths of the kitchen.

It tasted absolutely vile. I noticed, as I finally swallowed the last nasty mouthful of my slice, no-one else was keen to have second helpings. I think Baqul took the remainder home for the children.

MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan Adventures #13 #Babies

Although Hussain didn’t encourage house visits he could never bring himself to refuse, even though experience was teaching him the messenger’s ‘emergency’ was probably nothing worse than an indigestion attack. But there was always the fear that perhaps, this time, it really was a crisis.

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Shortly before dinner, one evening, a man arrived at the clinic to say that his wife was in labour and the ‘baby did not want to come out’. This threw us both into a panic. When visiting Rosanna, I had examined quite a number of women in various stages of pregnancy, but never had anything to do with actually delivering a baby. Before hurrying after the expectant father, we thumbed through the obstetrics books, trying to memorise relevant chapters.

When we were ushered into the house, none of the three women in the room looked pregnant, and for a brief, wonderful moment I thought the baby had been born. Instead, I was ushered behind a curtain and there lay our patient, looking a lot more calm and in control than either of us. I examined her, calling through the curtain to Hussain that as far as I could tell the baby was the right way round and the head was well down. ‘Ask how many babies she’s had.’

Hussain translated the question and the woman, smilingly held up three fingers. ‘Well, ask what problems she had with the other deliveries.’

Back came the reply, ‘No problems and all are alive and healthy.’ Mum-to-be smiled complacently. A strong contraction came and went. She nodded encouragingly at me.

‘What’s different about this time from the other times?  Why does she feel that the baby won’t come out?’ I asked, instinctively holding the woman’s hand as another contraction began.

There was a longer discussion on Hussain’s side of the curtain then he called, ‘You can come out now.’ As I emerged from behind the curtain he continued, ‘The woman says this time is like all the rest only her husband thought that as there is now a doctor in the village he should call us. We don’t need to stay, the women will help her and we are only minutes away if they do have a problem.’

I didn’t feel I wanted to be only minutes away from a delivery problem. Hussain glanced at me. ‘If I had a vehicle then we could take her to Qolijou,’ he said. I had to agree. Back at the clinic we resumed our study of the obstetrics book. Less than hour later the husband re-appeared to tell us that a healthy son had been born and both baby and mother were fine.  Hussain and I whooped with relief that we were not going to have to practise our non-existent midwifery skills after all.

Soon after this episode I did get a chance to participate at a delivery, fortunately under Rosanna’s experienced supervision. I’d gone to spend a couple of hours at Qolijou while Hussain attended to some work in the bazaar. ‘Come on,’ she said when I arrived. ‘You’re going to see a baby born this afternoon.’ She was just about to examine the very young woman who had been brought in early in the morning. It was her first baby and the girl looked petrified. Her contractions had begun the previous evening but when, mid-morning, they had stopped the family decided to hire a jeep and bring her to Qolijou. Rosanna had started a drip to induce labour again but the contractions were still very weak and infrequent. ‘It’s going to be some time yet,’ she said.

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A trip in this kind of jeep on these roads was almost guaranteed to kick start a labour!


Suggesting the family take the girl for a drive in the jeep she added to me, ‘Driving for half an hour on these roads should get things going nicely.’ Sure enough, when the little group – panic stricken wife, bemused husband, mother-in-law and confused looking aunt – returned the contractions were stronger and more frequent.

Although she had delivered countless babies Rosanna admitted she was slightly worried about this one. I found her in the delivery room, sitting on the floor, poring over her own obstetrics book. The husband was becoming increasingly nervous, making moves towards the door, but Rosanna encouraged him to make himself useful by gently massaging his wife.  Normally the husband is nowhere around for the delivery of an Afghan baby and the two women attendants at first looked shocked, then amused.

Hussain arrived to collect me but there was no way I was going anywhere until the baby arrived. He went off to take a nap.

It grew dark and lamps were lit. When Rosanna next examined the girl she said triumphantly to the father-to-be, ‘Your baby is on the way. Look, you can see the head – so much hair!  Now, you help your wife to push, encourage her.’

She turned to me. ‘When the baby arrives I’ll give it to you, don’t let the women get hold of it until I have finished. I’ll tell you how to tie the cord.’

As the woman pushed to bring her baby into the world Rosanna was there with her, pushing with all her might, puffing and blowing and panting until I began wondering which one of them would deliver first. Suddenly, the baby was there, yelling a protest at its arrival.   Rosanna told me how to tie the cord – giving me the chance to feel that I was actually doing something useful. As I tended to the baby girl, so beautiful but so slippery, I was overcome by awe at the miracle of new life coming into the world.

The father was totally bowled over by it all, the only father in Jaghoray if not all of Hazara Jat who had actually witnessed the birth of his child.

Only the mother seemed totally disinterested and we were afraid that she wasn’t happy because her baby was a girl and not a boy. Rosanna questioned the husband about this but after he had spoken lovingly to his young wife we saw her smile and he said, ‘O khush ast lekin kheley khasta shud – She is happy, but very tired.’ When the baby had been cleaned she was taken over by the two older women, impatient for their turn to participate and they expertly swaddled the child, binding her with a band of beautifully embroidered cloth.

The beaming father took his baby in his arms and invited Rosanna to choose a name and, after some thought, she decided on Gulzeba, meaning Beautiful Flower.

The only time the father lost his composure was when, the afterbirth having come away cleanly, Rosanna began to stitch up a small tear. He spoke excitedly to Iqbal who translated, ‘He is afraid that if you sew her up they will have difficulties in the future.’ When Rosanna explained what she was doing, promising that this was not a new form of family planning technique he relaxed again, looking rather sheepish. Rosanna and I returned to her room where we celebrated with a pot of tea and a biscuit.

On the way back to our clinic, I gave Hussain a graphic account of the birth to which he replied, ‘So now you can deliver all the babies in the village.’

I looked at him, aghast, ‘Not on my own, I can’t – send them to Rosanna.’

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The bridge of terror from a different angle

MarySmith’sPlace – Afghan Adventures #12

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Afghanistan’s amazing mountain scenery

It was through Baqul’s ten year old daughter Sughra and her mother Fatima I began to meet and make friends with some of the village women. Left to the men I would never have met women socially – maybe they didn’t view foreigners as being real women. Or foreign women as being real people.

Sughra often visited my room. She would rummage happily in my tin trunk, my few possessions an endless source of wonder. She questioned me on everything she unearthed, from supplies of soap and shampoo to notebooks and pens. She pored over a small album of photographs until she could identify each of my family members.

Her little sister, Amina, though at first nervous of me, was eventually won over by some old birthday cards to which she took a fancy. One day I made a string of paper dolls for her. She watched with interest as I folded the paper and cut the shapes. However, when I unfolded the paper and showed her how to make the dolls dance she shrieked in terror and ran for the door. Sughra, after carefully examining the dolls, scolded her and told her not to be so silly.

Fatima and I often met on neutral territory between our respective latrines, passing the time of day in friendly greetings. She always asked me to come for tea but I was hesitant, afraid my fluency in Dari couldn’t hold out for the length of time it takes to make tea. However, realising that yet another refusal might strain the shaky foundations of our friendship I finally agreed to visit.

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Just to show I was there!

The house was small, with just two rooms, both of which could fit easily into the living room at the clinic. The door opened directly into the first room – a kitchen and store. The second room provided living and sleeping accommodation for the family of seven. I understood why Sughra was so fascinated by my possessions – her family had none. A threadbare piece of what, once, had been a colourful gilim covered only part of the earth floor, while a small bundle of bedding in a corner constituted the entire furnishing of the room. On a small, recessed shelf a few medicines (no home was without a plastic bag of pills, syrups and tonics), embroidery materials and a small bundle of clothing were stored.

That first visit was not exactly a huge success. Fatima had invited several of her friends, and although none of the women were strangers to me, I became self-conscious, tongue-tied with embarrassment. There were many awkward pauses in our stilted conversation during which I would smile and smile, desperately trying to think of a topic my limited vocabulary would allow. Having exhausted the weather – what can be found to say on that subject when every day is warm and sunny? – I asked one little girl if she was going to school yet.  There was a stunned silence. In Jaghoray, in those days, girls did not go to school. They helped their mothers with housework, looked after siblings, or the sheep on the mountains. Their brothers went to school. Feeling extremely foolish, I resorted to praising the tea – which meant Fatima had to rush off to make more.

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Tea party


Despite the initial awkwardness I was soon comfortable enough to drop in from time to time to have a chat with Fatima. She was a plump, smiling woman in her early thirties – though age is pretty much a ‘guesstimate’.  When I first met her she was in her tenth pregnancy, still breast feeding Amina. Of her previous nine pregnancies, four had ended in miscarriage.  Two of her remaining children had Hurler’s Syndrome. The family was poorer than any proverbial church mice.  It was astonishing that she could still find anything about which to smile, yet Fatima was always cheerful, ready for a laugh. Baqul had taken Fatima to live in Kabul after their marriage. During the early 1980s all young, able bodied men were conscripted into the Afghan army but Baqul had no stomach for fighting and they returned to his village, to their tiny house, and small patch of land which could never provide for all their needs. No wonder Baqul had been so delighted when Hussain had agreed with Gul Agha’s request to employ him as the clinic cook.

Sometimes when I visited Fatima, some of her friends would put in an appearance. More tea would be made as they settled down for a good gossip. Following their conversation was often difficult and I frequently begged them to speak more slowly for me. They made valiant efforts to make me understand – using mime, bellowing in my ear (I thought only the English yelled at foreigners to make them understand) but try as they might, they could not slow down the normal speed of their speech.

Sometimes, in a party mood, they would dance. First, the dancers would pull their chaddar completely over their faces then, unable to see a thing, they would start to stomp. This stomping – there’s really no other word to describe it – had a “musical” accompaniment, a continuously blown raspberry. Perhaps the chaddar was worn as much as a protective device, to prevent the spectators being drowned in spittle, as for modesty. This rather graceless form of dance was performed at weddings, though never in front of men.  I thought it unlikely that men’s passions could be inflamed by viewing a performance so devoid of eroticism – but I kept my foreign opinions to myself.

Conversations invariably turned to women’s problems and my vocabulary increased greatly as we discussed stomach cramps, menstruation, contraception, pregnancies, morning sickness, breast feeding and children’s illnesses. I was soon disabused of the notion, based on their so careful concealment of every contour of their bodies and every hair on their heads whenever they were in public, that Hazara women were modest to the point of prudery. With surprising speed they would whip off items of clothing to demonstrate where the pain was.  Those who were nursing infants would produce enormous, milk engorged breasts without a hint of embarrassment, often forgetting to pop them back inside their bodices after the feed.  They made risqué jokes, full of sexual innuendo – much of which passed, disappointingly, right over my head.

Yet these same women would arrive at the clinic to consult “Dr” Hussain, and refuse to remove their chaddar. One particularly shy creature could not even bring herself to open her mouth to allow him to examine her teeth, which she said were giving her problems. They would giggle sheepishly, roll their eyes, but refuse steadfastly to allow much more than their blood pressure to be checked. Hussain was frequently driven mad by this behaviour but could never see that he and all other men were responsible for it.

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Hussain in the clinic – female patient reluctant, her son truculent!

Who was it who insisted that ‘mum’ pull her chaddar more securely round her when walking in the bazaar?