A boy's adventures in Afghanistan
[ places - may 02 ]
'Peshawar', 'Torkham', 'Khyber Pass', 'Kabul': triangular passport stamps on green pages now yellowed at the edges. On the picture page, a black-and-white mug shot of a young man with half-long hair and cow eyes, a poor boy's James Dean.
It was 1969 and we were in Afghanistan to sample as much dope and adventure as we could find without getting busted. We had two months. There was no question of taking any dope home. Our return flight to London via Kabul and Moscow touched down at Tashkent, where the legendary red-haired Customs woman who could sniff hash better than a police dog was on constant guard. Vultures, huge and black, circled in the sky as we drove from Pakistan through the Kyber Pass in an ancient Volga taxi. When we stopped and my companion slammed the door, the cab driver nearly died. It had been raining and the bang could have brought the cliff down. We negotiated many rock falls as we went.
Outside Peshawar, we passed through a road block at Torkham and entered the tribal area. Here, the control of Pakistan ended and the tribes ruled. Neither the Pakistan nor the Afghan governments (there was, then, a king) dared try to control the Pathans; here, they were Afridi, tall, thin, bearded brigands with a sense of style. In 1842, 4,5000 British with 12,000 Indian camp followers retreated in a blood bath along the route we travelled. Afghans swarmed over them. Only a handful survived.
Vultures soared in the thermals above Khyber; eagles too, and we saw hyenas and wild sheep. At Dera, a village before Jalalabad, we stopped for tea. The single street was the unpaved road from Peshawar to Kabul, with a board-walk pavement, two feet higher than the street, to raise it above the winter snow. Mud houses lined both sides, their awnings festooned with arsenals of hand guns, machine guns and formidable weapons for launching shells or grenades. They hung like bunches of bananas on market stalls. Outside, boys squatted over hand drills and vices, manufacturing barrels, firing pin and stocks. A few carpets and pashtun sheepskins were the only other items for sale.
We were -- as is usual everywhere between Sri Lanka and Nepal -- hustled to come into the shops, the owners extending handshakes or tugs of welcome. We picked one at random, entered via the narrow door, the only light source, and, in the half dark, sat on a couch.
Pleasantries were exchanged, and tea in small glasses, with much sugar. The owner produced a magnum-size handgun for our delectation, then a Luger, then a replica Biretta, then a Derringer ("...perfect for your trouser pocket...") and a gun like a fountain pen that fired .22 slugs.
We had no interest in guns. My companions were a tattooed Welsh adventurer and an English Sanskrit scholar, both men. The scholar and I were partners in a venture to ransack Afghanistan for antiquities and jewellery to sell in London at Sotheby's or Spinks. The Welshman, who knew Afghanistan somewhat, we had picked up on the way.
As we politely refused the weaponry, I was struck by a pungent vegetable smell. "Dope," I told the Welshman, "Where is it?" "All around you -- you're sitting on it," he said. Sure enough, peering into the half light, I saw that all around, stacked to the roof, were cakes of hash as big as truck tyres. Our 'couch' was giant hash cakes, wrapped in hides. The owner roared with laughter at my surprise. Now, as he tried to sell us a 50-kilo hashish take-away, his boy took a pipe with a bowl as big as a teacup, filled it, lit it and, puffing like a bellows, filled the hut with smoke. Did we inhale? Even Anne Widdecombe or Bill Clinton would have inhaled. If you didn't inhale, you didn't breathe.
Reeling back into the fresh air, we decided on sweet cakes in a tea shop. There, disconcertingly, three men in dresses, with five o'clock shadows, tried to catch our eye. Their kohl eye make-up had run, their lipsticks was smeared and their wraps looked like they'd slept in them. They were traditional transvestite entertainers, explained the English scholar, travelling minstrels and dancers, like the Bhauls of Bengal.
As we headed out of town, our Welsh friend, whose job was to take care of the bags, suddenly realised he'd left mine behind. This was serious; amongst its contents was my passport. Back we went but -- surprise, surprise -- the bag wasn't there. The cafe owner knew nothing. The transvestite threesome had left before we had, leaving us as the only customers but, somehow, the bag had spirited itself away.
While our Welsh friend yelled Sharia law and hand-amputation of the thief, the English man and I grew nervous as fierce-looking, armed Afridis gathered around. Happily, a tribal policeman, in half-mast trousers, turned up and took us to a mud-brick prison wherein a pleasant, educated police captain sat at a table, the only furniture. The cafe owner and boy was sent for. They denied everything but, upon being threatened, suddenly had an idea. The boy went with the policeman and, five minutes later, returned with a very old man, and the bag.
The old man, patently senile, sat playing with a piece of string as the bag was emptied and its contents, including my medicinal flask of whiskey, itemised and checked. Yes, I said, everything was there. Did I want to prosecute? No.
Driving out of town, we saw the owner and his boy jostling and laughing; obviously, they had shifted the blame to the dotty old man. But, as we neared the edge of town, with the road lined with big neem trees, suddenly a figure came racing from behind one of them and there was the old man, running beside my window, waving a pair of my socks. "Baksheesh, baksheesh!" he cried, meaning "Give me a reward for your socks..."
One night, on the road between Kabul and Mazar, the VW van we were driving blew all electrics and stopped. It was very cold. We waited for a passing truck to help us. As we sat shivering, the Welshman showed us an old trick. He lit the stub of a candle, and we sat around it. It was amazing how the single candle flame seemed to warm the darkness. A truck arrived just as it guttered out. We rode in the back, into Mazar-e-Sharif.