States of Consciousness

Kasol, Parvati Valley

High above Vashisht, in more ways than one thanks to the sticky black Manali hash, or charas, that is the main crop in this region – along with apples – I began musing about altered states of consciousness, as one does. It is everywhere, this stuff: technically illegal and yet widespread. Two old men in Kullu caps, like brimless kepi made of tweed or felt with colourful patterned material around the front, crouched on the steps of a shop and shared a chillum, a straight vertical pipe of charas, at nine o’clock in the morning. In the restaurant overlooking the square three Russians also smoked a chillum, with rather more coughing and gasping, and a Frenchman wearing a blanket rolled an enormous joint. When I went in search of the waiter for the bill he was puffing away too, and offered me some. I declined, went back to my room and was offered some more by my neighbour on the balcony. So it only seemed polite to accept. I’m a five hit wonder these days, upgraded from three hits in Goa, but this stuff is much more powerful. Less giggly than the Afghan hash (although we had just avoided being arrested, so were a little relieved), and really quite mellow. Anyway, the one place that is possibly even more famous for the quality of the charas than Manali is Parvati Valley. Which, coincidentally, is exactly where I am sitting at the moment. So, states of consciousness.

I’m aware that I have a fairly active brain. It’s usually ticking away like a hard drive, making connections, coming up with phrases to describe the things I see, putting things into words. Suddenly when high I become aware of how much is going on in my subconscious, like clicking the system processes tab on a computer to see what’s running in the background. I have extraordinary eyesight, or perhaps vision would be a better word. I see everything. A man walks across a rooftop 300 metres away on the other side of the village and I notice. I realised that from where I was sitting, overlooking the square from a perfect sniper’s spot, I had clocked every single person that was visible. Perpetually watchful. A cat flowed over a rooftop and down a wall in a streak of grey fur, moving so fast it appeared to be almost liquid. Two men on the rooftop far below leaned against the railing chatting, and then slowly turned round and saw me watching. So they got a regal nod (TM). I leaned back in my chair and heard the descending notes of a passage of Grieg’s piano concerto in my head as I did so. My hearing too had become acute – I heard a low conversation from the balcony in the adjacent block, and then a high pitched squealing, like worn brake discs on a bus, round and round – but it was one of the dogs in the village square yelping. There was a low melodic whistle from a mynah bird, and then two of them flew past below me, the white tips of their wings rotating like watching the arc of a kayaker’s paddle in the distance, tracing a figure-of-eight pattern through the air.

As darkness fell lights sprang up all along the valley, small golden pools of light climbing the hillsides and a vast expanse of blackness between them, a solid sheer bulk of mountain. Occasionally a small light would traverse from one bright pool to the other, like a satellite making a steady track across the night sky – except that it was the headlights of a car nosing its way carefully along the road. High in Manali. Lighting suddenly flickered in the distance and reflected off the snow-capped peaks, bringing them into sharp relief and drawing the valley closer round itself. It’s about shifting your gaze from things that are familiar, with their usual semiotic associations, to really seeing them out of context. You can search for the logical explanation to things – you know that the sound you hear is something quite mundane, but there’s something extraordinary in really hearing it. Likewise, looking at the people walking back and forth in the village square, one can see them all as a collection of individuals going about their random ways, but when you look at them from a distance you can see that the trajectories and traceries of the routes they take are as incomprehensible as studying a group of ants. The landscape is so vast, the mountains so high, that we are all dwarfed by it; it is a landscape shaped by forces that could only be called epic in their grandeur. The Vikings believed that giants lived in Jotunheimen, in central Norway. Thor once threw his hammer ‘mjolnir’ at the head of one giant in a fight, but the giant deftly moved a mountain to deflect the blow. The hammer struck the side of the summit and left a deep gash in the mountainside. Well you can see here the geological evidence of a landscape shaped by gods and giants. Or start to believe anything, really.

I was woken at 0630 by shouts of “Eh!” It can’t be the Russians, I thought. Doesn’t sound right. It’s a large group and they are all talking at once. It’s not the small group of Chinese – they were voluble enough over a bottle of vodka the night before, giving short, shrill nasal cries that were somehow unmistakeably linguistically Chinese, and the women shrieking with laughter so that it almost sounded like they were in distress or cries of pain. No, these were definitely Indians; although I couldn’t make out any of the words, the type of sound a crowd of Indians produces is quite different. Someone yelled out: “Oi! Shhh!”, which presumably woke up the remainder of the guests who had been asleep. I emerged bleary-eyed onto my balcony wearing white kurta pyjama and wrapped in my patoo blanket (the perfect garment, as far as I’m concerned), to find three Indian lads standing on my balcony overlooking Vashisht. “Morning,” I croaked, and made for the chair. They all turned round and inspected me. “Hello sar,” one said. I asked where they had come from, as the place was full of them – groups were running up and down the stairs, laughing and shouting. A bunch tried to get into the next room, which I happened to know was occupied, by pushing repeatedly on the door. I told them to stop: “Checkout is at midday. It is quarter to seven in the morning. That room is occupied by people who were asleep. Is this your first time in a hotel?”
“Yes sar. We are here for trekking. From school in Ahmedabad.”
“Well go and find a mountain to run up or something, and come back when I’ve had tea and a fag.”
“Where are you from sar?”
“London.”
“Ah! Manchester United!”
“Yes, near there I suppose. Now off you go.” They went.

Anyway, soon somebody blew a whistle announcing breakfast for them. They lined up with metal trays and were given a spoonful each of some yellowish liquid, another of some brownish stodge. There were no chairs in evidence, and no cutlery, but this is no obstacle to a group of hungry Indian lads who just spent all night on a bus – they spread out across the flat rooftop and sat down in little groups, eating with their hands. It’s quite admirably adaptible, really. I decided to check out early – I had to catch a rickshaw down to Manali Bus Stand, and from there, try and get a local bus in the general direction of Parvati Valley. The night before, stoned on the rooftop, I had contemplated the forthcoming journey with some misgiving: I knew it was going to be noisy, crowded, complicated, uncomfortable. But then I thought: where’s the problem? You’ve done it a hundred times before. Zimbabwe was where it all started for me, getting on African buses as a young man, totally out of my depth, standing out a mile as the only white. And every time I was helped out by complete strangers. Well in India it is exactly the same. A conductor walking round with a referee’s whistle announced “Kullu” to me. “Kasol” I replied. He beckoned me aboard a brownish bus and said, “This bus for Kullu. Kullu change to Bhuntar. Bhuntar bus direct to Kasol.” OK, perfect. I found a seat, but my backpack wouldn’t fit in the luggage rack. A man boarded with a bundle of planks and laid them in the aisle, so I did the same. But as more people boarded they found stepping over my backpack to be tricky, so the conductor pointed to the front and said: “put at front”. Carrying 16kg of rucksack on my head as the bus lurched through traffic, and managing not to tread on anyone’s feet or drop it on anyone’s head, I stashed my rucksack up behind the gear lever – a popular place for riding shotgun on short hops, as many people came to sit on it over the next hour. But before we left we had to undergo the ritual parade of the afflicted. First came a young girl, maybe 18, who placed a card before each passenger. It read: “These children are orphan and parent dum not speaking. Please help 5, 10, 15 rupees.” Oh gawd, I thought – please don’t wheel out a bunch of little orphans with big eyes. Happily she didn’t – her takings were decidedly poor. Then I realised a man was shuffling down the aisle of the bus on his bottom. I glanced, and saw a pair of tiny withered legs beneath him. But then I looked into his face, and saw a handsome young guy in his twenties with a determined jaw – a strong character. He looked me in the eyes with a sad half-smile, as if to say, “what can you do?” I could do ten rupees, which he accepted with a nod, and shuffled on.

As soon as we pulled into Kullu bus station I made for the booking office. “Bhuntar bus?” I asked, keeping it simple. “8886” he replied. This is the last four digits of the number plate, should you need to know. “That bus there,” he pointed. It was just pulling out. I made a run for it and having established Bhuntar with the driver, soon found a seat – the bus was half empty. The interior smelled like a flower shop, due to rose incense, and looked like one too – the dashboard had the most amazing dried flower arrangement: they hung from the ceiling, stood in vases on the dash, and swayed from the mirrors. There were also numerous small dolls dangling – they might have been angels, I couldn’t really tell – and the centrepiece for all this was a kind of rectangle of red lights like a Vegas casino which chased each other round in an endless blinking line. The conductor kicked off his shoes and leaned back, the driver put on his shades, stuck some thumping Bollywood dance music on the stereo, and we set off, with me grinning broadly. The last trip from Manali to Kullu had cost 45rs, this one cost 10rs, and was altogether more psychedelic. A policeman jumped on and took the seat ahead of me, reminding me of a time in a certain African country when the bag of marijuana I had stashed under my hat began to stink intolerably of silage in the heat, and wafted great dopey coils of herbal pong around the bus – coupled with little green streaks of sweat down my face. The policeman in the seat ahead on that occasion, bless him, had discretely turned a blind eye, or nose. But I had no excess baggage on this occasion, so I sat back and enjoyed the view out of the window.

Bhuntar was little more than a junction – there was no bus station to speak of – but the conductor pointed to a yellow bus that was just leaving and said “Kasol”. I had to run for it again, round to the back door. The new conductor quickly stashed my rucksack in the boot and beckoned me aboard. It was at this point that I belated realised that the bus was packed. Seriously packed. The door opened to reveal a press of bodies standing on the steps. I took one last look back at the road, and pushed in sideways. It took a few goes, but eventually I got in. The door slammed shut with me firmly wedged in a press of Indian bodies. Then the door opened again and two men looked up at the crush. One had two large cans of paint. “No way,” I said, and he grinned, and squeezed on in. Well, you’ve just got to go with it. Rush hour on the Tube can be pretty intimate as well. But this was definitely taking it up a notch. Someone was standing on my left foot, someone else on my right. I was in a full body embrace with a young man just in front of me with his back to me, and someone else was getting intimate with me from behind. At this point the conductor announced to me “35 rupees”. I couldn’t reach my wallet in my trouser pocket. I couldn’t even see my hand. A woman with a small baby on her back who had squeezed into the rear corner moved a few inches, which enabled me to retrieve my arm from three passengers away and get my money out. The young guy in front of me turned his head a few inches, saw a white face, and grinned in a kind of solidarity. I smiled back and rolled my eyes, apologising for the stage of perpetual frottage we found ourselves in. But it was OK,I thought to myself. I can handle this. Where’s the sense in being precious about it? It’s a cheap bus, and this is how people get around. I realised that I was jammed next to the speaker, which pumped out some classic Hindi film music, and which provided a distraction of sorts from the discomfort.

We hadn’t been going five minutes before we stopped again, and three more people got on. One had two large sacks of rice which went on the floor. The young guy ahead of me moved away and I got a new partner: a little old man in tweed jacket, felt Nehru vest, homespun trousers and kullu cap. In the front of his cap he wore a sprig of foliage similar to heather, which made him look a bit like a Fusilier. He had an imposing waxed moustache, and the rest of him looked like he had been carved out of a very gnarled piece of mahogany. In fact I saw this look several times on the bus: very prominent cheekbones, sunken cheeks, and a firm jawline. They look small, but tough as hell. Friendly, though. Less obvious staring than further south on the plains, and we were bonded by a state of mutual discomfort. One lad stashed his backpack on the rack and then turned to me and beckoned, asking if I’d like to do the same. This involved a musical chairs sort of routine involving four people, but eventually we got my small rucksack off me and it was passed over the heads of various people to be placed on the rack. We ground our way out of Bhuntar and up a steep mountainside. Yeah, this is alright, I thought to myself. The guy to my left doesn’t stink that badly. The bloke behind me obviously isn’t getting any ideas – there’s nowhere else he can stand.

Suddenly the brakes slammed on: we had met a truck coming round a blind bend. Turning my head I could see out of the window, to where the edge of the road dropped away into an enormous valley, at the bottom of which was a tumbling mountain river. The bus reversed. The conductor blew his football whistle, deafening everybody. The driver reversed some more, prompting furious whistle blasts from the conductor, who was hanging out the back door. I realised that the driver couldn’t see the edge of the road, which was a matter of feet away, and that we ran the very real risk of gently reversing over the edge and then presumably accelerating backwards down a half-kilometer of sheer cliff. More whistling, and the driver cottoned on, and engaged forwards again. Standing in a press of bodies, my nose being tickled by the plaited hair of the lady who was now in front of me, I thought: Yup – what can you do? Just go with it. It’ll be alright. I began to compose pithy and vaguely amusing obituaries for myself. About the best I could come up with was: “Still, he had an interesting life, didn’t he?” Happy with that. But my obituary was premature – we got back onto the road again. And by now I had entered a state of mind akin to cosmic fatalism, anyway. Just stop trying to hang onto control over everything, and let go. It’ll be alright.

It was. We made Kasol. I could tell it was Kasol by reading the Hindi script on the shop signs, which often have addresses, and this was backed up by the presence of two white guys with dreadlocks walking down the road. The main traveller hangout of the Parvati Valley. I wriggled my way to the door, which opened and spilled a half dozen people out onto the road, got my backpack from the boot, and watched as the bright yellow bus, packed to the roof, roared off in a cloud of diesel smoke. And I lifted my hand and waved goodbye to it. Another successful journey. Every landing you walk away from is a good one, the pilots used to say in the Second World War as they nursed their damaged aircraft back to airbases across Eastern England. Well every bus journey you successfully get off is a good one too.

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The Rabbit Ladies of Vashisht

Vashist – 28th April 2013

There were a series of loud thunderclaps in the night, and this morning the mountains were dazzling under a fresh cover of snow. But slowly the weather turned, and the cloud grew lower; soon it began to rain. It came down heavily all morning, causing the guttering to overflow and pouring jets of water off the slick wet roofs of the village. People retreated indoors and glumly watched the rain fall endlessly. I had to check out of my hotel by 1200, and made it 100 yards up the street to the World Peace Cafe, where I sat on the terrace along with three very cold-looking Israeli girls having lunch – aubergine masala and naan bread, which was very good. Realising that we were likely to be socked in by bad weather for most of the day, I made a dash for my new guesthouse at the top of the village – which just happens to be halfway up the hillside. You walk through the temple baths to get to the path leading up to it, which runs alongside local houses. I steamed up it in the rain with the backpack weighing me down – really need to remember the art of travelling light which I once seemed to possess, or perhaps I’m just unfit. I made the reception area, and then my room which was four flights of stairs further up, and with an extraordinary view of the whole valley before me. This place works out less than half the price of the last hotel, and is perfectly adequate, so I’m happy to stay for a while.

By evening the skies had cleared, and the sun glinted off the tops of the peaks, although it didn’t quite reach into the valley floor. Even after a few days here I still find the views astonishing; periodically I will just look up and take it all in again for a few minutes. There’s a definite chill in the air – quite a contrast from 40 degrees C in Delhi; it’s probably about 16 degrees C here in the evenings, although the sun is warm in the daytime. It’s a reminder that it is still only late April up here in the mountains, and that summer is some way off. You only need to look upwards to see the signs of winter, although the mountains surrounding the valley are so high that their summits are permanently snow-covered.

The sound of a dog barking in the valley at dusk. Woodsmoke on the evening air. A girl sits on the roof of the house opposite with a blanket round her shoulders, doing her homework. After a while she sees me looking and smiles. The lights are golden along the valley; they twinkle and shimmer gently in the darkness. And high up on the ridge, thousands of feet above the town, a solitary light is a pinprick in the sky. What can it be up there? A group of mountaineers? A shelter? A star? I remember what it feels like to be up that high, in a world of snow and steep slopes, of shattered rock and cold winds that clutch at you. Mountains always have that slightly ominous edge to them – perhaps it’s the chill in the thin air – a hint of mortality. Cloud descends and you are suddenly wrapped in a grey blanket where you lose all bearings; the landscape shifts around you. That range of jagged summits that was before you – suddenly it looms large to your left. How did it get over there? A huge gully suddenly appears ahead of you – and a doubt grows in your mind. Which way next? How do I get down? You cast around for a path, refusing to give in to panic. Eventually you pick a route, perhaps trudging across fresh snow. How deep is it? Does it cover a crevasse? I once crossed a saddle in New Zealand which involved having to jump off a large rock that would have been next to impossible to climb up again. I landed waist deep in snow, and got to my feet to follow a solitary line of footsteps that led across the ridge. It must be a valid route, I thought to myself, as someone had been there before. I trudged along, the snow squeaking beneath the soles of my boots, the air sharp and clear and the sun a white compass in a deep blue mountain sky. Halfway along the ridge the footsteps suddenly vanished. What was this? There was nowhere they could have gone – off to one side was a 4000ft ridge that dropped away steeply into space. They just stopped. A yeti, perhaps. But in New Zealand? I had no option but to carry on. It was with great relief that I came to the edge of the snowfield and stepped down onto bare grey rock. Down through the semi-tundra of the high mountains, soon I saw the first small saplings, and then crossed the treeline to enter a dense mountain forest where I had to squeeze between the branches, sometimes crawling on all fours, so thick was the brush. Eventually I found a trail, which became a proper path, which turned out to lead to an outdoor centre. And then you descend into a lush green valley in the sunlight with butterflies flitting about and birdsong in the air, and streams that tumble down the hillsides. And you feel like you’ve rejoined the rest of humanity, and are no longer in isolation upon the frigid heights.

The trick to living in a village is to take the time to slow down. If you maintain the relentless pace of city life you’d miss half of what goes on. Stay a few days and you start to see patterns emerging: the little puppy who gambolls around what passes for the town square here – which you could walk across in ten paces; the old lady who sits on the verandah every morning until the sun has warmed her enough for her to tackle the steps leading down to the shop; the bathers who undergo their assorted ablutions in the hot spring pools just next to the temple. To get to Dharma guesthouse you have to walk through the middle of the pools, through wisps of steam and a vaguely sulpherous tang. Waste water is carried away down the streets in small drainage channels. Women crouch at taps that spout piping hot water out to spalsh on the rough stone floor, washing clothes with scrubbing brushes. In the main pool men submerse themselves, then climb out, get soaped up and tip jugs of water over their heads, sluicing off the grime. They stand steaming and shivering in the chill morning air. There is a separate pool for the ladies, with high walls around it.

The local women head up from the valley floor each evening with baskets piled high with foliage for the cows which live on the ground floor beneath the houses. One carried the basket on her back fastened with forehead strap, and led a sheep on a short rope, which nibbled tentatively at any passing shrub that looked tempting before she jerked the leash and it trotted obediently along. Many of the women wear colourful patterned headscarves here, and their more oriental features give the place an almost Central Asian feel. Periodically one encounters Tibetans in the streets, nearly always grinning broadly; they must surely be some of the happiest people on earth, just judging by their robust good humour. The Tibetan influence is evident too in the menus around the village: momos – a kind of filled pasta, and thupka – noodle soup. Many of the workers in the guesthouses are Nepalese, and work in Goa in the season before the monsoon shuts the place down.

And then you get the tourists: the Indians from the great cities on the plains who waddle about wearing ski jackets and wooly hats, and the westerners, clad either in assorted items of trekking gear, or wearing bizarre ethnic garments like wandering sadhus. There’s something especially unedifying about seeing a couple of dreadlocked westerners wearing turbans and blankets, or the kind of baggy trousers that have the crotch at knee level, the sagging seat of which always reminds me of a toddler who has just taken a dump in its nappy. They are harmless enough if they just wander about in a stoned daze, but put them within a few yards of a set of bongos and they become positively antisocial.

I needed a haircut, and happened to notice a barber’s shop on the main drag, just down from the Lovely Laundry Service, who currently have possession of most of my clothes. I had handed the plastic bag full of laundry to a smiling old man who it turned out was profoundly deaf. “Ek, do, teen, chaar shirts,” he bellowed, and I smiled and nodded. “Paanch socks!” slightly louder. And finally, at tremendous volume, “EK JEANS!” Collect today? “TOMALLO” he yelled. What time? “EARRING TIME!!!” Morning? Evening? No idea. I’ll go back in the evening.

Just up from the Lovely Laundry was a man sitting in front of an old Singer sewing machine, of the kind that function purely as decoration in a certain high street chain store in the UK. My lovely Nehru vest, which earned me a compliment yesterday in old Manali (“You are looking a very smart gentleman. Where from your vest?” How much expensive?”) has been shedding buttons liberally. I asked the tailor if he could sew some more on, and make them strong. He took a large needle and some extra-strong thread, deftly threaded it through the eye and in a few quick stitches had replaced a button. I stood and waited while he did the remaining three, before presenting it back to me. How much, I enquired? “How much you like?” Well, I don’t know. Looks like a good job. Figuring a price of 10rs for a roti or a glass of chai, I gave him 50rs, which drew a shy smile of appreciation.

Up the hill a few doors it was a bargain at 80rs for a haircut – less than a pound – and he did a reasonable job of it, snipping away while chatting to various comers and goers in the shop. I asked him if he had many western customers, and he said not. “That’s because they’ve all got long hair,” I said, which he found so amusing he translated it into Hindi for the benefit of the other customers, causing much hilarity. After he was done snipping away he asked if I would like a head massage. I remember getting one of these from a nice girl in Thailand which put me into a trance and left me going “aaaaahhhhh”, so I said yes. But this was an altogether more vigorous affair. He scrubbed my hair back and forward for a while, and then began a strange kind of drumming on top of my head. He’d cup his hands and tap all over my scalp, then rap his knuckles across the crown. He rubbed my temples vigorously, then thrummed on the back of my neck, not hard, but with enough force to make me produce a sound a little like: “Ur ur ur ur ur ur ur” as my jaw bounced up and down. He then leaned me forward in my chair and drummed up and down the length of my spine, then took my arm, stretched it out, and firmly grasping my fingers, pulled them enough to make each knuckle crack. It left me slumped in the chair feeling wonderfully relaxed – enough to untie the knots in my neck and shoulders after the bus ride from Shimla.

One of the curious features of Vashisht is the rabbit ladies. These four ladies walk up and down the village square outside the temple entrance carrying large white rabbits. Enormous rabbits, actually. They have a curly white fur, a bit like a poodle. These are angora rabbits, and they are groomed for their fur which is then used to make shawls. It is one of the softest and best insulating types of wool that exists. The enterprising ladies, realising from the number of curious smiles they get, that people are generally fond of enormous rabbits, parade up and down with them collecting money for being photographed holding a rabbit. One tired lady plonked herself down on the steps of a shop, her rabbit burrowing its head under her arm. She absent-mindedy stroked its soft fur. The rabbits don’t seem to mind being carried around all day, and appear to be well looked after. There are worse things when you’re a rabbit, I suppose. But it’s a sad state of affairs where the only thing standing between a village woman and a life of penury is possession of a large white rabbit.

This is not perhaps the most curious feature of Vashisht, however. It was as I entered the village that I first saw the sign for fish foot massage. ‘Fish imported from Turkey!’ the sign advertised, thus highlighting the total insanity of what some people come up with. To travel all the way to a village in the Himalayas to have your toes nibbled by Turkish fish, in the name of beauty care (I believe the fish devour the dead skin, in a sort of piscine pedicure), is entering into the realms of the truly surreal. Of course some people may do it for pleasure. Who can say? It’s a strange place.

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The Last Resort

Shimla – Manali, 24th-25th April 2013

One of the intriguing things about what is essentially a rather small resort set in a sea of foothills, is that the British administration decided to move the entire seat of government every year from Delhi to Shimla with the onset of the hot season. It’s intriguing because it is so improbable a place – it would be like the government of the UK relocating every winter to Aberystwyth or something. There was the usual form of discrimination, in that ‘natives’ couldn’t set foot on the Ridge, along which the Mall runs, and where you can find Scandal Point – essentially just a viewpoint overlooking the hills where young ladies would walk demurely with an assortment of eligible young bachelors, and consequently get gossiped about. A series of staircases lead downwards from the Ridge to the native quarter – which I subconsciously dub the LFD, or Lower Fucking Depths – a jumble of bazaars and small shops which is more like the usual chaos one expects in an Indian town: wandering sadhus, hill people bent double under enormous loads fastened by a strap around their forehead, beggars, vendors, everything. It’s like a physical imposition of the social strata that formed the mental map of the Raj – and of course it still exists to an extent today. I imagine some pukka young English memsahib fresh off the boat inadvertently taking a wrong turn one day and finding herself in the lower fucking depths; the consequent flustered panic at having actually found herself in India would be worth recording. In fact it’s not an entirely unknown phenomenon today – I met a young guy travelling here who explained that he’d had to check his friend into hospital for a psychiatric examination. He was suffering from ‘India Syndrome’, apparently. Total mental meltdown. I suspect it is usually brought about by too much powerful hash, but I’ve heard of it before – people go to pieces. Of course this would be old news for the colonials: the expression “to go doolally”, meaning to go crazy, comes from the town of Deolali, where there was a mental asylum specifically for British officers who had gone off the rails.

Shimla’s been a good place to recover a bit. Mountain air, I suppose. Although down in the LFD it’s still pretty filthy. Himachal Pradesh is one of the best governed states in India: highest literacy rate after Kerala, most girls in school, low infant mortality, etc. and it shows: the women you see are gloriously independent, outgoing and self-possessed – quite different to the hidden away ladies of Afghanistan, trying to gain a modicum of independence despite a crushingly patriarchal system. The owner of one hotel I was staying in said that he had never once had to pay off the police in 40 years of living there – something that would be unheard of in Goa. There’s also a restriction on non-Himachalis owning property, so you get none of the enormous hotels disfiguring beauty spots put up with black money from Mumbai or even Moscow. The downside to this is that it’s like trying to impose a Swiss civic code on what is still essentially India. They’ve banned smoking in public places. So smokers convene furtively in the reeking alleys that lead into the Lower Fucking Depths. There’s a certain irony, in Shimla, to the fact that you can’t have a cigarette (200rs fine, apparently), and yet people still piss against walls, hoick and flob profusely in the streets, and chuck their garbage off balconies.

I’ve become a regular in certain places, so small is the town – and I’ve lost track of the number of times people have come over to admire the wireless keyboard that I am typing on, connected via Bluetooth to my iPhone. It is with some satisfaction that I tell them I am borrowing it from a friend in Afghanistan. I also get asked to take an awful lot of photos – I’m wondering if this is some sort of twee ‘capturing the moment’ experience of the kind that plasters the walls in Cafe Coffee Day: “Sit down over a coffee and have great times!” And they actually do it. Lol.

I’d had a cold since arriving, which meant that getting anywhere in Shimla was a struggle, since everywhere is uphill. I would totter gasping and wheezing into a place and collapse, trying to get my breath back for the next few minutes. I had booked a bus ticket on to Manali, which left at 8am from the New Bus Stand, some 4km out of town. Realising that I was in no condition to walk this with my large backpack, I enquired about a taxi to the hotel in the morning. Certainly, taxi no problem sar. It will come at 7am.
And how much will this taxi cost, I enquired?
“600 rupees, sar.” He pulled the kind of humourless grin that weighed up my banging head, dripping nose and heavy backpack, and came to the conclusion that I had no option but to pay what he demanded.
“600 rupees to take me 4km to the bus station? The bus ticket to Manali only cost 450rs. And that’s a ten hour trip!”
“Yes sar, but the taxi has to go around the town.”
“What, three bloody times? Forget it. Cancel taxi.”
I got an indifferent headwaggle. Grotty little ripoff merchant. So the upshot was that at 6am the next morning I loaded up like a mule and set off along the ridge, heading for the LFD. Steep staircases led downwards into the bazaars, all shuttered and deserted at this time of the morning. Only the occasional monkey was about, furtively sifting through garbage. I saw a couple of figures approaching: a local porter and a white tourist. “Good morning sar, how are you?” called the porter. I greeted him in return, and then said “good morning” to the tourist. The tourist looked away without speaking. “It’s alright, don’t be scared,” I told him as I passed. “You’ll get into it soon.” The slope curved sharply downwards, round a few switchbacks. It’s been a while since I did a steep descent with backpack, and I suffered a little from what the Japanese alpinists call ‘laughing knees’ – as well as the usual right hip doing its grinding thing. Not really cut out for trekking any more; too much, too young.

Eventually I came to the bus station. The ticket booths were all unmanned, there were no signs to anything anywhere, and I was immediately latched onto by a couple of young men who wanted me to go to ‘their’ hotel. I must say that you’d have to be pretty bloody stupid to choose a hotel based on a shifty tout in a bus station, but there we are. In fact all the touts I met in Shimla claimed to be Kashmiri, although how true this was I couldn’t say. And all developed the same whining sense of entitlement when I failed to take advantage of their services. And simultaneously failed to show any appreciation of my sense of humour: when one told me he had just signed up a foreign couple for a 12 day trek taking in all sorts of temples and points of tourist interest, I casually enquired whether it was their first time abroad. While this conversation was going on, buses were coming and going around us – all of them the kind of clapped out Tatas that do local runs. I asked one tout which was the bus I needed, and he said “not coming for one hour”. Had this been true it would have spelled disaster, as my Manali bus was due to leave from 4km away in the next 30 minutes. At that moment I spotted a lime green bus limping in to the station in a cloud of black smoke. The sign on the front was in Hindi, but I could read it well enough to make out the letters: “Nyu Bas Stend” – New Bus Stand. Shaking off the touts I leapt aboard and found a seat at the back. Ten minutes later it dropped me at a futuristic concrete terminal which was clearly still under construction. And the total fee for this trip? Five rupees. I mentally stuck two fingers up at the hotel and their 600 rupee taxi service. Although I was soaked in sweat from my backpack-laden descent into the LFD, and my nose was running like a tap once again, I hadn’t gone for the easy option. All I had to do now was find the right bus to Manali and sit on the damn thing for the next 10 hours or so.

In fact finding the bus proved surprisingly easy, as it was the only one with “Krishna” emblazoned across the front. The driver was just lighting some incense on the dashboard as I got on, and we chatted for a while about road conditions, the weather further north and suchlike. Having established his general competence, sobriety, sanity and so on, I took my seat. A few moments later a local woman carrying a baby girl got on, and took the seat next to me, plonking the baby on my knee as she arranged herself. The little girl looked around herself for a while, then slowly turned her head and looked at me. Despite being barely able to sit upright herself, I saw that she was wearing eyeliner and little earrings. She goggled at me with enormous brown eyes for 30 seconds or so, then a small pucker of concern appeared on her forehead, and she let out a tremendous wail. This did not bode well for the next ten hours. Any attempt by the mother, or grandmother, to shush her, failed. After five minutes or so, mercifully she decided to pick up the child and get off the bus again. Her place was immediately taken by an old man in tank top with a beige scarf wrapped around his head. Despite being only about five feet tall, he sat with his legs splayed so far apart that he took up half my leg space. I put up with this for a minute or two and then rather unambiguously pushed back. Having established my European standard comfort zone I was untroubled by him again for the next four hours. Another couple took the seat opposite, she in a gorgeous green sari, he in a blazer, stonewashed jeans and white trainers. It’s such an odd look, and has often mystified me – why so many perfectly straight Indian men choose to dress like Freddie Mercury impersonators off to a gay bar for the night. The moustaches don’t help, I suppose. In fact there’s a billboard I keep seeing which features a couple of moustaches on a beach, both wearing the kind of porkpie hats made famous by Popeye Doyle in French Connection, and one of the gents in question appears to be trying to tear the clothes off the other, who is managing to look shocked and rather coy at the same time. The other look, which is marginally more het but not much, features a sort of short-back-and-sides haircut, grey flannel trousers, hideous clumpy sandals and a tank top, inevitably with a diamond-shaped Argyll pattern. If you ever wondered what happened to all those hand-knitted tank tops that aunties kept giving as Christmas gifts in the 1970s, the answer is they all ended up in India.

Other random billboards I happened to see on the trip included an anorexic-looking westerner in skinny jeans and skinnier jacket, set to the backdrop of skyscrapers: the logo said “Get New Yorked”. This billboard was set overlooking an apple orchard through which a small brook trickled, a lush green scene idyllic in its pastoral perfection, with a ring of white summits in the background. Get New Yorked? No, please don’t. Really. Not when you are in a Himalayan paradise. This was topped, but only just, by a completely incomprehensible billboard featuring C3P0, the metallic robot from Star Wars, except he’d been artificially inflated to become impressively muscular, like he’d been pumping iron in the gym. I wonder whether he’d had his voice dubbed to speak a low, gravelly kind of Hindi too. Surely only a matter or time before he starts sporting a moustache as well. Cultural contexts. It’s all quite unintentionally hilarious.

As to the bus journey itself, let’s just say it was an ordeal that had to be undergone to get out of Shimla. I don’t think we encountered more that a couple of hundred metres of straight road the entire ten hour trip. It was one hairpin after another, crawling up long ascents in a convoy of the bright orange trucks that are the long distance workhorses of India, always with lavishly decorated porticos over the cab emblazoned with gaudy artwork, usually featuring some kind of bird, and assorted religious slogans in Hindi. Many have the kind of tasselled lengths of brocade flying from the wingmirrors that one sees swaying and dangling beneath the saddles of Bedouin camels. One had mudflaps above the tyres that carried the words: “Good” and “OK” – although that was just the nearside; perhaps the offside had “Not so good” and “Very bad”. We headed over a mountain range and dropped down into a subtropical valley lined from one side to the other with fields of crops in small strips; banana trees sporadically dotted the hillsides, and the temperature rose considerably. The uncle in the seat next to me made a small concession to the sultry heat by unwinding the scarf from around his head, but still retained his tank top – a rather fetching number in a colour I can only describe as dung brown. We passed through small towns where the streets were full of schoolgirls wearing the traditional local dress – tapering trousers, a long kurta blouse and a kind of stole draped over the shoulders and hanging down in twin tails at the back. They were extraordinarily colourful, each outfit in two colours that looked as if it had been tie-dyed: pink and lime green, purple and peacock blue, glorious yellow and a deep scarlet red. At one nondescript little town my tank-top sporting uncle got off, and his place was taken by a large man who resembled a rather dim labrador, since his jaw hung gormlessly open and his tongue hung out. I decided to retreat into my own filter bubble and plugged in my headphones, stuck on my shades and looked out the window. The labrador got off again soon afterwards, his place taken by a local girl in a pink and white ensemble who anxiously fiddled with her mobile phone the whole time. Soon she departed too and I had the seat to myself for a while.

We stopped for lunch at a kind of roadhouse where half the passengers headed into the restaurant and ordered all manner of complicated items with the air of people who were used to far higher standards than the ones they were currently encountering. The remainder stayed on the bus and unwrapped bits of newspaper containing mysterious and malodorous items, some of which resembled substances which had passed through the digestive system already. I decided to take my chances in the restaurant, and ordered a Pepsi, a couple of rotis and some achaar pickle. Another bus pulled in and a small man waited at the steps. One of the passengers – another elderly man – was helped along the bus and then down the steps to where the other was waiting, who then turned round and picked him up on his back. He gave him a piggyback all the way into the restaurant, where the invalid was deposited in a chair and his legs arranged in front of him; the right one tremored uncontrollably. The sight of this little old man carrying another on his back affected me quite powerfully. No disability access here, no wheelchair ramps, and no wheelchairs either – you just hire a man to carry you on his back.

The afternoon wore on, the bus interminably winding its way north. We gained altitude again and the first flash of snow-capped peaks appeared in the distance. We ran alongside a tumbling mountain river for a while, gigantic white boulders worn smooth at its centre. Periodically there were large boulders in the road as well, the result of landslides. The local people outside looked different to where we began: gone were the tank tops and grey flannels. People here instead wore colourful kullu caps, like a brimless kepi (which immediately gave me a flashback to Kabul police) and a kind of shawl, often with a cummerbund – which I believe is another Hindi word originally, much like pyjamas. In fact you could walk around here in your pyjamas with a blanket wrapped round your shoulders and look perfectly at home. In the UK anyone wearing a blanket is either homeless or on their way to a waiting ambulance. The valley grew progressively wilder, the surrounding peaks still higher. It looked a bit like the road to Glenorchy in New Zealand’s Fiordland, except that the mountains here were considerably larger. The first few concrete monstrosities started to appear – the hotels on the outskirts of modern Manali – as opposed to the town of Old Manali further along the valley. We nosed into the bus station all slumped in our seats, exhausted by ten hours of hairpins. A veteran now of big city India I knew what to do, pushing my way ruthlessly off the bus, grabbing my backpack from the luggage space before any porter could get their hands on it, and smartly marching off in the first direction that came to mind, shaking off a couple of touts who were trying to get me to go to some fleapit of a hotel that were plugging for a ludicrous price. I found an autorickshaw and was temporarily taken aback when he quoted me a perfectly reasonable price. I was going to chuck my cigarette, but he said “smoking no problem sar”. I decided immediately that I liked the place. And as we roared over a narrow bridge above the gorge and then made our way up a hill, stopping briefly for a procession coming the other way – the driver accepting two scarves which he draped over the wing mirrors, and taking a pinch of salt which he then sprinkled over his bowed head in blessing – I decided that I liked it even more. We found a nice little hotel with windows that close and a shower that works, and has hot water, and I walked out onto the balcony to be confronted with the most beautiful Alpine view – pine-covered hillsides, the dramatic black rock and white-streaked pinnacles above them, the sun shining on the snowfields of the Rohtang Pass in the distance, and far down in the valley the rushing of the river like the sound of wind in the trees. I leaned back in the chair thinking of the purgatorial journey to get here: Kabul, Delhi, Kalka, Shimla, and said to myself: Yes. I’m finally here.

Footloose

Shimla – 22nd April 2013

There couldn’t really be much more of a cultural contrast than Kabul to Shimla. I suppose the weather’s similar, and there are mountains in the distance, but that’s about it. This place is painfully, achingly cute. Well, fine. I need that. It’s like Totnes-on-Himalaya: crusty old gents in tweed jackets and enormous moustaches walk creakily along the Mall; groups of giggling teenage girls go by with hair scandalously uncovered. You get the odd Kashmiri tout who looks a bit shifty, but even they are so damn wholesome that all they want to do is take you trekking, not sell you drugs. Feeling a bit jaded, really. But it’s OK – I’m coming back to earth slowly. Weird flashes of anger about things: the normality, the unfairness. The cuteness. The locals here are an odd mix that incorporate pretty much all of India’s many ethnicities. The real indigenous types are short and rather bandy-legged, very hardy. The women laugh openly and wear traditional colourful shawls. The fashion for skinny jeans together with flat shoes has proved disastrous for the girls of India’s hill people, as they are not gifted with the longest of legs. Cute but stumpy.

I’ve found what I think is the warmest place in Shimla so far – the rooftop terrace of the Hotel Dreamland. It’s the usual calamity – motheaten sofas, foodstains on the table, a room that stinks of paint and windows that don’t shut properly – but it’s quite nice really. Charmingly incompetent. The restaurant advertised on the booklet doesn’t exist, the terrace looks like it was last cleaned in 1970, but I don’t care; I just need somewhere to stop and recuperate, and it will do for that. It’s empty as well, which is an additional bonus when my nose is dripping like a tap, onto the table if I don’t get the tissues out in time, and you can follow my progress around town by listening carefully to where the sneezes are coming from. One never looks one’s best when stricken with a cold, but the locals are a mellow bunch and are far to polite to stare at the honking and cursing gora in the corner.

The whole town is vertiginous, strung out along a ridge. There’s a steep valley in the middle and buildings cling improbably to the slopes like the terraced hillsides that are used to grow crops here. There’s a curving sort of promenade, like you might get in a South Coast seaside resort, except that here beyond the edge the ground drops away and there is a sea of mountains heading to the horizon. I can see why the British liked it so much: it has that combination of quaintness and prudishness that characterises so much of the British Isles. And of course the Indians would have felt right at home with the stifling class system. As it is now, it’s become something of a place of lost ideals: old soldiers creaking along pining for the Raj, and the kind of vibe that feels like a permanent Sunday afternoon some time in the 1950s. Girls can walk safely at night arm in arm along the promenade, as long as they are home in time for bed. It’s a goody-two-shoes sort of place which makes me feel profoundly depraved and slightly contaminated, not just by the shower of exotic bacteria that I keep spraying about the place.

There was a movie in the 1980s called ‘Footloose’ – one of the Hollywood bratpack films so popular at the time – where a preacher had rigid control of a small town in America. He’d banned dancing, drinking, smoking, any kind of music that wasn’t the dullest sort of wholesome dirge espousing family values. And in consequence the town was full of nice but hopelessly frustrated teenagers who were just aching to rebel but didn’t quite know how. Into this ferment of thwarted adolescent hormones comes Kevin Bacon in the tightest pair of blue jeans you ever did see, with one of those twin tape deck ghetto blasters (‘with hi-speed dubbing!’) and a series of bootleg electro music of the kind where the synthesiser manages to sound even more synthetic than it should, and which marks it out unmistakeably as being from 1980-1989 in origin. And Kevin likes to dance… no, lives to dance. Dancing is his life. Naturally he goes head to head with the preacher, who sees him as a danger to the moral integrity of the town. But Kevin wins over the local kids and soon they are all jiving away to electro-pop in their skintight jeans. It’s all rather comical really – expressing teen angst through the medium of 80s dance. Cue lots of rather tame yet unmistakeably suggestive bumping and grinding culminating in a rather chaste snog in the back of some large 1950s American car like a Studebaker or a Chevrolet or something equally impractical. Anyway, the point of all this is that the disco / nightclub down by the cinema here in Shimla is called “Footloose”. Someone round here has a wicked sense of humour. I hope.

I met a group of British tourists on the little rattletrap train up here from Kalka. It takes five hours and winds around the foothills in an astonishing piece of engineering. They were on a group tour, something to do with classic railway journeys, and had flown into Delhi before boarding the Shatabdi to Kalka then on to the Himalayan Queen up to Shimla. “I hope the place is worth it!” one of them quipped, and followed it up with a burst of honking and utterly humourless laughter that the British specialise in. I scrutinised them covertly from behind my sunglasses. They had packed lunches the size of hat boxes and nibbled cautiously at their sandwiches, peering out of the window from time to time. I was glad to see them though; I suspect most were in their sixties, and India isn’t always the easiest place to navigate around, so fair play to them. I got chatting to one man at a ten-minute halt in a small station – we’d both stepped onto the platform to stretch our legs. “Are you British?” he asked me in surprise.
Yes.
“Well you’ve clearly been here before and know your way around.”
Yes, I suppose so. How are you finding it?
He adopted that confidential manner of not wanting to be overheard. “It’s awful, isn’t it? The poverty, I mean. It really hits you. Just doesn’t make any sense, how people can live like that.”
I tried to remember what that must feel like. To be shocked by it. We were in a cute little hillstation, and I cast my eye round for a heap of garbage with kids looking for food, or some hideously disfigured cripple, but saw none. I told him that I understood what he meant, as I had been taken aback seeing an armless man begging in the traffic in Kabul. His eyes bulged. “You’ve been to Kabul? How was it?”
It was great, I told him. Really interesting. Bit tense at times, but very worthwhile.
He looked a bit unsure of himself for a minute, and took in my Nehru vest, scarf, several days of beard and pakol hat. “Here – you’re not one of them are you? No, of course not. I mean you couldn’t tell me even if you were.”

I smiled enigmatically and wished him a pleasant holiday.

The Last Days

New Delhi – 18/04/2013

Back in the hot stink of Delhi. It feels like coming home in some ways. It’s 38 degrees here, which is 20 more than Kabul. The rickshaw driver says: “I can tell you have been in India a long time, by your face and personality.”
Yes, I say. And I am coming from Afghanistan.
“Arrey! Afghanistan? Many crazy people there.”
No, actually they are really nice.

A friend in high places had organised a pickup for us in the morning, which turned out to be a Land Cruiser complete with army driver – our friend who took us to Panjshir. This meant that we were waved through many of the security checks to the airport and arrived in plenty of time. On three separate occasions people asked if I was Turkish, which is a new one for me. And these were airport security staff, who see a lot of foreigners. It wasn’t just the presence of Kayo in her trenchcoat and headscarf either – I got asked when I was alone. I’m not unhappy with this sense of mistaken identity – I quite enjoy it. Always liked the Turks.

The last days in Kabul became increasingly surreal. The tension grew, though whether it was a general atmosphere or a self-projected one with just a short time left there I can’t really say. I had wondered if I was becoming paranoid, stuck in a traffic jam waiting for a car to explode, or in a crowded market street with someone wearing a suicide vest. But then I spoke to a shopkeeper who said exactly that: “We never know. It happens. Will this car in front be blown up, will the man next to you explode himself. It creates a permanent stress, the not knowing.” He was a really nice guy, whose shop we visited several times, and he said: “We don’t know why this happened to us. We did not go out and attack anyone – they came to us.” He’s right. It was the Russians who invaded them (and the British before that). It was the power vacuum after they pulled out that led to the place becoming a base for assorted Islamic militants – it would be wrong to label them all Al Qaeda, as there were Uzbeks, Philippinos, Chechens, all sorts, all fighting their own unrelated wars. And it’s that power vacuum, a lack of central stability, which has now caused exactly the same scenario in Mali, where the Tuareg had their rebellion hijacked by international jihadis.

Perhaps the fears are exaggerated. Perhaps the apologists for the Taliban who sit in safety in their Western democracies as they call for sharia law are not deluded revisionists. Perhaps they would like to come and experience it for themselves. Most guerilla-style movements either run out of steam once they discover that winning a city is a great deal easier than governing it, or they turn on themselves in a frenzy of paranoia and purge themselves until there are none left. Perhaps the Taliban will moderate and become part of the political process. At the moment the choice is pretty stark for the average Afghan: does the Taliban offer a better choice than the Karzai government? It may seem a no-brainer, but with a corrupt judiciary and police force, an army that is being retrained from the sort of dim-witted shit-kicking drug-taking conscripts to a semblance of a professional one (still with some way to go), and a small but increasingly influential group of people positioning themselves to siphon off the flow of aid dollars before it dries up completely, the present ‘democratically approved’ setup does not look particularly inspiring. Karzai is not so much a puppet as a cardboard cut-out – the kind of blank figure you get in children’s books which you then stick different sets of clothes on. With his Tajik qaraqol hat, his Uzbek robe and his Pashtun DNA, he is the perfect shop dummy on which to stick an ethnic patchwork that has a semblance of unity. He probably wears a Turkman bracelet or something. The only thing absent is anything Hazara, but that won’t come as much of a surprise to them, since they get the rawest deal of all in a pretty raw place.

The first thing that strikes you about Delhi – other than the heat – is the trees. We hardly saw any in Kabul. And the walls – they are low, open. There are gardens beyond them, not an endless line of blank walls topped with razor wire turning their back on passers-by. Women in Delhi walk around with hair scandalously uncovered, and wear bright colours, jeans, tight tops. They possess an easy, languid grace, not a guarded and self-protective hunch. I sat opposite a teenage girl on the plane – maybe 14 years old. She scowled furiously. Her nails were bitten to the quick. She wore, despite the Indian heat, a black trenchcoat and black headscarf. The only hint of colour were a pair of purple stripey socks. And I thought: it’s rough enough being a teenage girl, hating yourself, without having to fend off the endless attention of men. What bizarre kind of cultural contortion reckons that this degree of self-repression is OK? It’s like the celebration of the plain, the removal of any degree of self-expression in anything other than the most limited form. The men walk with a swagger and openness. The women are shadows who pass by as unobtrusively as possible. There has to be a happy medium. In a sense there is progress, in that under the Taliban women could hardly venture outdoors at all, but the segregation, for example at weddings, is a recent phenomenon.

There was a banner across the road to the airport: Happy New Year. Best wishes for the year 1392. It’s a little ironic. In Europe in 1392 the Hundred Years War was about halfway through. The continent was slowly emerging from the dark ages. The clergy were all-powerful; people were tortured to death for heresy, for daring to question the status quo. Life was nasty, brutish and short. There are certain parallels. Imagine pasting onto that backdrop a modern consumerist society, democratic values, a hi-tech military occupation and the assorted luminaries of the development sector. Then you get some idea of the difficulty in reconciling the extremes, and incorporating the kind of fundamentalist values espoused by the Taliban into a modern society where you can access the internet, or jump on a plane and be in Delhi in two hours, London in eight. And indeed many Afghan national are as at home in those cities as they are in their own. So you have a cultural fusion at the individual level, and the incorporation of what might be termed modern values, clashing with an increasingly artificial-looking national boundary. You can build high walls and guard your borders, but you can’t stop the transfer of ideas or the soft power influence that totalitarian states fear because they can’t control them. Citoyen du monde, modern renaissance man, wonders why one rule applies at home and another everywhere else.

A huge thunderstorm over Kabul. The sky flickers with lightning and wind whips along the streets, causing small tornadoes of beige dust. People pull their scarves over their mouth and nose and narrow their eyes. The first fat drops begin to fall, and soon a curtain of rain. People duck for cover into small shops and under awnings. The soldiers stand miserably with rain dripping off their helmets – they wear knee pads and body armour that make them look like rollerbladers. A yellow and white Kabuli taxi pulls into the verge and we dash for it. It is a venerable Lada with column-operated gear lever and bench seats like sofas. The driver is an old man in white shalwar kameez, Nehru waistcoat and pakol. He’s a little cranky because the local driving has suddenly taken a turn for the worse because of the rain, but he thaws a little when I say: “Lada – very good. Strong cars.” He elaborates at great length in Farsi, in which I make out the word Moskvitch. “Also Volga,” I say. Then we get Zaporozhets, Kamaz and Chaika. “Ah, Chaika,” he sighs – the enormous limousines used by the senior party members in the old Soviet Union. It’s a little surreal to be discussing Russian cars in a torrential downpour while crawling over the muddy, potholed streets of Kabul with an old guy who has seen empires rise and fall and lived through heaven only knows what turmoil. But he’s a nice guy and can appreciate a robust motor car. He drops us at Rumi restaurant, which is deserted apart from three Americans who speak in low voices with heads conspiratorially close together, and I overhear a sort of burbling “rurr rurr rurr Taliban rurr rurr capacity building rurr rurr rurr Karzai…” The menu is familiar – kebab, bolani, mantou. It strikes me that this is largely a nomadic cuisine with Persian influences – a sort of fusion between the herders who slaughter a sheep and serve up large chunks of it with flatbread, and the Persian taste of adding fruit and nuts to rice. I drink sher chai, milk tea, which as a friend later points out: “In India they add milk to tea. In Afghanistan we add tea to milk.” He’s right.

The last day. We head to Wakhan for brunch. I’ve been varying the routine, not doing the same thing every day. Some days I walk up to the bakery and we have naan and Pegah cheese at home; some days we call Zuhag Taxis to take us to Flower Street or Wakhan. Today the traffic is heavy – we crawl. It stays like this the whole day, the cars grinding along. The police man their checkpoints, marked by boulders and rumble strips in the road. We sit nose to tail, in a jam caused by a bus that tried to do a U-turn and a dimwit who decided to follow it, failing to account for the fact that he had moved into the space the bus needed to reverse into. Traffic police blow whistles and make contradictory hand signals: go forward. Stop. Reverse. It is chaos. I don’t think about car bombs. I definitely don’t think about them at all. My latest briefing informed me that there are three vehicles that have entered Kabul packed with explosives, driven by insurgents; they even know the registration plates. Why haven’t they stopped them? Is it all a fiction? What about the ones they don’t know about? My shoulders are up around my ears with tension; in fact they have pretty much remained there the whole time, although now safely in Delhi again they are slowly descending in increments, a centimetre at a time. The sight of an army truck here puts them back up again – my first instinct is that it’s a convoy, and convoys attract suicide bombers. But I am in a cafe in Delhi, western backpackers are walking past outside, Indian girls go past as colourful as a flock of birds, people smile openly, everyone is relaxed. Ignorance is bliss.

Periodically I find myself going into a kind of trance, my eyes glazing over as I stare out into the sunlight, and I forget where I am. I’m very tired. Travel experiences that are out of the ordinary, that shake up your preconceptions, act like a kind of reset button. You look at things with new eyes, including yourself. In my mind I see grey-uniformed police in kepi-style hats with machine guns, dusty streets and high walls with razor wire, sandbags and steel doors, the hideous functionality of the architecture of modern warfare. I see the strain on my friends’ faces behind the smiles and laughter, the way they are bowed down by the weight of uncertainty in a city that has suffered too much and only wants to be like everywhere else, to have actual normality instead of an illusion of it in fleeting glimpses. I see the politeness of a soldier who apologises for having to search us and the rudeness of one who insists on keeping my friend’s rucksack as he uses an ATM, simply because the soldier has got a gun and it makes him feel powerful. I see the smile on an old man’s face when I greet him and say I am from London and he says “most welcome” and places his hand over his heart. I see a small figure trudging away down a darkened street, knowing that there are people who want to kill him because he questions their hysterical intolerance, their hypocrisy and their hatred, and dares to expose things that are a moral outrage common to all humanity, and yet which are denied for the sake of political expediency. Into the glare of the headlights throwing up twin shafts of dust, on a dark street somewhere in Kabul with the dim yellow lights of the houses climbing the mountainsides – Kabuli skyscrapers, they call them – I see him hunched against the night’s chill with the weight of the city’s hopes and fears on his shoulders as he slowly walks away, and I turn and stare out of the back window of the car as he gets smaller and smaller until he is lost to view, swallowed up in the darkness. And days later in the glare and noise of Delhi I sit in a cafe and remember until the words blur over in front of me.

Say goodbye to the light

Kabul – 15th April 2013

Woken to the perpetual refrains of happy birthday from the ice cream cart that goes up and down the lane all day. Wherever you go in Kabul you hear it somewhere, although I heard a variant the other day which sounded distinctly like some Chinese patriotic song; ‘The East is Red’, perhaps. We brunch in Flower Street Cafe, which has decent coffee in French Press jugs. Although it’s only a short distance away, we call a taxi from our trusted firm and after a 5 minute drive or so we are dropped at an anonymous steel gate. A peephole slides open, examines us, and then the door swings open. We know the guys now, and it’s all quite friendly. “No guns?” No. “Bag please.” I say “laptop, mobile phone, camera,” although actually all I have is the mobile phone and wifi keyboard, since that is the expected answer. Another door opens and a guy with a pump action shotgun and a bandaged hand beckons us through. Last night, at a shopping mall, the search was more intense – Kayo was ushered into a curtained booth reserved for ladies and a female guard searched her. The guards wore shiny blue suits and no smiles. Well, the place was blown up in a suicide attack a few months ago, so it’s understandable they are a little wary.

Dazzling mornings: the snow gleams on the distant Hindu Kush and hurts the eyes. Clear blue skies. 7am and the streets are quiet – the mad traffic has yet to start in earnest and the atmosphere is not yet full of dust. As the day goes on things become more intense. We hit rush hour on a Sunday afternoon on our way to Babur’s gardens – multiple lanes of traffic all trying to change lanes to inch ahead. Sandwiched between two buses converging on each other I was convinced there would be a crash. But no, we scraped through. At the junctions there is a tapping on the windows, usually from a small child. At one, just past the unfortunately titled Ministry for Women’s Affairs, I spot a figure moving between the cars, and involuntarily exclaim, ‘Jesus, that guy’s got no arms’. Landmine, judicial amputation by the Taliban, accident of birth – I have no idea. How he copes here I can’t imagine. After a series of lurches and emergency stops we arrive at the gardens and enter a cool green place with views of the houses climbing the hills behind. High on the ridge flaps an Afghan flag: an army post. Snipers are positioned on the ridge line and we are in their sights. Overhead flies the doodlebug, always watching, and quite possibly listening as well. At the entrance a masked policeman stands in the back of a pick-up truck covering the traffic with a heavy machine gun. I recall the embassy security briefing I just received which informs me that 15 insurgents have infiltrated Kabul dressed in police uniforms with passable fake ID cards. Best not to think about it, really.

The gardens are pretty – green shade and the soft rustling of trees. They were restored (and demined) by the Aga Khan foundation. Babur’s grave lies at the centre – cool white marble with curling calligraphy, and a simple stone slab. There are families here, and a group of kids who seem to be babysitting each other. Men pass by in groups and stare, but if you look back they look away, unlike the frank curiosity of Indians: I once had a man on the Delhi metro stare at me from inches away, incessantly, for 5 stops. When I stared back he grinned moronically. Here they look away until you do, then stare a bit more. They don’t grin much though. It’s always a bit edgy. But actually it’s just superficial – break through the initial suspicion and the Afghans are very friendly. I wonder how much of this is caused by the suspicion with which they are treated themselves by foreigners. I saw one westerner emerge from his gate a few days ago, all crew cut and shades, and as I was passing I said “morning”. He muttered back “salaam” and quickly jumped into his car. This morning I arrive at the bakery and two other local men are waiting. They stare. I salaam them, and one smiles and asks me something in Farsi in which I make out the word “Amrika”.
“Amrika nist,” I say. “English. From London.”
“Ah, English! Welcome. Nice to see you.” We shake hands. He takes personal charge of my bread order, rejecting one loaf for being too hard. I thank him and we say goodbye. “Nice to see you!” he says again. I suspect it may be the full extent of his English, but there’s no mistaking the friendliness. In the next shop a similar thing. Do they have coffee? “Ah, coffee problem sir.” OK, no worries. We shake hands, and he says “thank you for coming.” It’s all very charming. I walk to the end of the road and a police land cruiser passing by slams on its brakes, has a good look at me, and then zooms off again.

Chicken Street is named for the large number of Jews who used to live along it. Apparently they ate a lot of chicken. Nowadays there is only one left: the last Jew in Kabul, who steadfastly refuses to move out. The street now is given over to souvenir shops selling carpets, lapis lazuli from Badakhshan and assorted trinkets. Lapis first arrived in Europe in the Middle Ages, brought by exotic Moorish traders in turbans who sailed to Venice from Constantinople. The Venetians weren’t sure what to make of the lumps of bluish stone, until the Moors demonstrated how to grind it into a fine powder to produce the most perfect colour blue – Ultramarine, in Latin – which had until that time been unavailable. The discovery of the deep blue that was produced revolutionised painting, and the Italian masters embraced it liberally. The Virgin Mary had always been portrayed as having a blue robe, and the colour was considered holy by association. Some artists, notably Titian, became so possessed by the beautiful blue that lapis produced that his paintings were awash with it – deep ultramarine blue skies over Venice, far deeper and brighter than any natural hue. But lapis was expensive – the process of grinding was laborious, and it was scarce. In fact the only source of lapis lazuli came from the remote province of Badakhshan, in the far north-east of Afghanistan. It had been mined there since the 3rd century BC, although there are smaller outcrops of it in Siberia and North Africa. But Afghanistan holds the lion’s share, and today it is still the primary source of lapis lazuli. Chicken Street is full of shops selling lapis – huge chunks of stone, delicately carved statuettes, jugs or jewellery. The blue is as deep and as appealing to the eye as it ever was.

Halfway down Chicken Street is a curious kind of shop – a self-proclaimed Crafts Emporium. In fact it is a kind of mall, although a strangely deserted one, with half the stores vacant. We found a small Turkman jewellery store – one of the many ethnic minorities of Afghanistan – and looked over arrays of lapis, coral, jet and topaz, shining under the lights. The owner could have been European – a young man with a goatee in a leather jacket and heavy designer spectacles. We negotiated a price for a nice lapis necklace – he initially wanted $15 and we got him down to $9, which still wasn’t bad going for him, customers being in short supply. In another shop we met three young guys who were highly curious about where we were from – one had an aunt and uncle in London, but had never been there. In fact he wished he could go to Delhi, which he had heard was some sort of cultural metropolis full of all sorts of exciting possibilities, an impression gained mostly, I suspect, from watching Bollywood movies. He had grown up in a refugee camp in Pakistan, spending 20 years there – and since he couldn’t be much over 20 years old that was pretty much the sum of his experience. And yet he spoke English well, and was bright and self-possessed. He chatted to Kayo in Urdu and she replied in Hindi. They were very friendly without being forward, which was nice.

After a while the presence of the third cup of tea began making itself felt with some urgency. I had to find a bathroom. We were directed to the third floor, up a darkened staircase. The shops, most of them empty, were arrayed around a central atrium, and in the far corner was a sign for the bathroom. As I headed towards it I noticed a carpet of shoes outside, and then suddenly saw the rise and fall of a line of heads. Men praying. This was clearly the mall mosque, and they were all just finishing their prayers. I waited discretely to avoid having to walk past them, until most had filed out and reclaimed their shoes, heading away in small groups, and then I made my way to the bathroom. But every cubicle seemed occupied. There was a urinal, but it was about five feet off the ground – I had to stand on tiptoe to aim into it, which gave me the oddest sensation of being a small boy again. Various people were coming and going around me, undergoing some sort of ritual ablutions, I presumed, and no-one paid me any attention. Heading over to the sinks I happened to encounter a group who had just come in, most of them in white shalwar kameez with skullcaps and long beards. The first tap didn’t work. Nor did the second. And I had made the beginner’s error of squirting soap on my hands before establishing whether there was water or not. A man washing himself up to the elbows spotted my dilemma, and beckoned me over, turning on the tap for me. “Tashakor,” I told him, and got a “most welcome” in return. He carefully handed me several paper towels. I nodded my thanks again, and padded out across the slippery wet floor, glad I had taken the precaution of removing my socks before entering – they were sticking out of my pockets. Another man held the door for me, and I retrieved my shoes and headed back to join the others. It might seem a strange thing to write about, but largely as a result I suspect of social conditioning by a media agenda, I felt a little relieved. So there we are: to all the silly little xenophobes who hide behind their computer screens to make vitriolic, hate-filled posts about Muslims, and who never go anywhere or do anything because they are too scared, this post was brought to you fresh from a mosque bathroom in Afghanistan.

We head out to Zardozi, a shop which supports traditional ethnic craftwork and design. It’s the usual anonymous steel door in a dusty side street, but we spot a sign overhead, somewhere on which is the shop name. We knock, but no-one answers, so we stand a little bemused on the pavement (if there was one). Then round the corner come three women in long black coats and headscarves, together with a European man, perhaps around 60 years of age. They are heading in too, so we all take turns knocking until the door opens. He says to me: “I recognise that accent. You must be British.” I confess that I am. He turns out to be from the midlands, and has lived in Kabul for several years. But he came here long before – in fact he says he met his wife here years ago, I assume while travelling through in the 1960s on the old hippy trail to India. “We are very happy here,” he says. I say that we have both enjoyed visiting, and that we are on holiday. He seems delighted at this. “I’m so pleased. It’s exactly what I think more people should do – come and actually see the place for themselves. Oh, I’m so happy to have met two independent travellers here.” I say that while it’s been fascinating there can be a little tension at times, which some might find intimidating. “Oh, all that stuff about suicide bombers. It’s quite safe here. Now London – that’s a dangerous city. Or Chicago.” Well, it’s true. Up to a point, I suppose.

You know how in English we say: “switch off the light”? Or even the informal American “kill the lights”? Well in Farsi it is “say goodbye to the light”. It’s quite poetic really.

Many happy returns

Kabul – 14th April 2013

As birthdays go, it was memorable. My old mantra, “fear of a dull life”, has proved unfounded. We headed out to the old Royal Palace, now a bombed out ruin. Most guidebooks warn against walking round the area, as it was heavily mined. But in the foreground hundreds of youngsters were playing football on small muddy pitches. The weather took a turn for the worse – a chill wind and specks of rain. With the low cloud over the dull green flanks of the mountains, it looked like Scotland. The kids were clad in a bizarre assortment of clothing: Man U football shirts, salwar kameez, faux leather jackets, shoes without socks, no shoes… As soon as I got out of the car a small girl in green hijab latched on to me, tapping my elbow repeatedly and asking for one dollar, or failing that, a pen. Marching quickly away I almost crossed a line of rocks on the road surface, with a soldier on the other side. A visiting dignitary had been in the area and the road closed – though whether NGO, diplomat or local politician we could not establish. This sort of nonsense happens frequently and only serves to illustrate the divide between the powerful (or the foreign), and the ordinary Afghans. Ultimately it only causes resentment.

In fact this form of legitimised apartheid becomes self-perpetuating. There’s an old proverb, which could be British, Pakistani, or from anywhere, really: “Never trust an Afghan”. This seems to be the unspoken policy of many of the NGOs. Afghans who use a company vehicle have to provide receipts for the journey, in case they are using it for private business. Their foreign bosses do not. Afghans are given a separate table at lunch in the workplace. The official explanation is that of not wanting to cause cultural offence. In fact it does exactly that, by underlining difference. Afghan employees have their research checked and double checked, even though they are the people with first hand experience (and often qualifications from western universities which exceed those of their bosses). But do those Afghans get to double-check the pronouncements of their employers in their reports? Of course not. What is the consequence of this system of double-standards? Resentment. The undermining of confidence and the progressive demoralisation of the local staff – who are the very people, it could be argued, who have the most at stake in creating a stable future for the country.

Ah yes, stability. It’s the one thing that everyone takes for granted elsewhere. Indeed many bridle at it: suspicion at the ever-extending tentacles of governmental control into every corner of the citizen’s life. But you don’t know what you’ve got till you lose it. New Zealand, Norway, the UK… all the places I have lived that are secure, stable nations, are a stark counterpoint to the situation in Afghanistan. It’s stability that people want more than anything; a rule of law that extends to all. Otherwise out there is anarchy. The aid world tries to implement policies, democratisation, overhauling the legal system, training the police, but ultimately in this country stability comes down to how many armed guards you have. And how loyal they are to you. After the 8pm curfew the streets empty. By 10pm if you are about, you are aware of increased tension. Midnight? It’s even more stressful. The later the hour, the less legitimate the few people one encounters. This may be a universal phenomenon – a woman should be able to walk the streets of a city like London at any hour in safety, and yet many feel they cannot. Here? Forget it. Even in a taxi you are not safe. Not really. There is a slow and continual pitch of tension to life here, which rises and falls with the situation, but doesn’t really abate until you are outside the country. The locals feel it too. It’s a condition of perpetual stress, of living with massive uncertainty, and people show signs of it – too long living on adrenaline and your nerve starts to creak at the edges.

We drive through a weird half-built city populated mainly by Oriental-looking locals. Rain spatters on the windscreen and the wind shakes the car. Four lads on a Pamir motorbike go jolting along the muddy track ahead of us. A minibus encounters a huge ditch across the road, tries to edge over it and crashes into it nose-first, sticking fast. This suburb is the pet project of the president’s half-brother, or something. We pass a man and child living in a shack made of UN food bags. A crowd is off to the right, and we see a man leading a large mastiff in a state of exhaustion. It is a dogfight. Bets can be as high as one lakh – a hundred thousand dollars. We decide not to stop. People swagger around in T-shirts or thin jackets – it is 12 degrees C and raining. The road leads upward and becomes increasingly tricky; we slip and slide on the muddy track. Eventually we stop and walk.
“Are there any mines here?”
“Yeah yeah yeah whatever.”

One of our number takes off running across the hillside, leaping down the slope like a mountain goat. A word is written in stones on the hillside: it says “Ya Ali” – a Shia slogan. Our friend is running up the opposite slope, a small figure against a vast green hillside, getting slower as it steepens, running the tension out. Behind us Kabul lies in its valley, ringed by snow-covered mountains, razor wire and sandbags, the hollow shell of destroyed tanks off to one side. He goes slower and slower, and then finally stops, and crouches down exhausted.

Back in the car, sheltering from the wind-whipped hillside, we lurch down the track again. I have earache from the cold outside and can barely stay awake. Round-faced locals gaze in curiosity as we pass. The driver’s phone rings: it is a female American voice. She is saying: “Can you check through pages one to twelve of the contract and get your people to make any amendments? It’d be great if you could mail me it back within the hour.” The driver, steering around potholes the size of canyons, past an army post where soldiers huddle inside and a solitary dog stands outside the wire barking relentlessly, quite reasonably says, “how can you expect me to do this at such short notice? I am not in the office, anyway – I’m driving.” Oh, OK. Get back to me when you can. And I want to say to the voice on the phone, “and you should see the road he’s driving down. You should see this place. It’s like nowhere you’ve ever been”.

We head to Anaar Cafe, which has just opened. It has a nice USP (unique selling point), in that people can bring their own music, or request songs from the collection. There are guitars, dambura, drums, which the customers can use. Most importantly, it provides a breathing space – a sanctuary with the illusion of normality, where young people can get together to socialise. Pictures of musicians line the walls and shisha pipes waft the aroma of apple tobacco around, sweetening the air. Two musicians are playing local songs – one on the robaab, a kind of lute, and the other on drums. Most of the songs seem to be the kind where a beautiful maiden bids farewell to her lover on the eve of battle, and have lyrics like: “fight with honour and I will welcome you back with love; dishonour yourself by being a coward and I will not see you again.” Then a familiar tune – familiar from the countless ice cream trolleys that are wheeled around the city: it is happy birthday, but in a decidedly Afghan style, all quartertones and wavering notes. A waiter approaches bearing an enormous cake with candles on top. My friends all sing happy birthday to me. The room suddenly feels uncomfortably warm. Everybody claps and they offer me the knife to cut the cake. A small girl, about 6 years old, who has been shyly peering at us, stares wide-eyed at the cake. We beckon her over, and after I have blown out the candles, they are relit so she can blow them all out too. She takes a theatrically enormous deep breath, and does so. Her name is Boraan, which means ‘rain’. Her family keep an eye on her from their table nearby. She is very shy of us men, and will not speak, but Kayo befriends her. We offer her some cake which she gratefully accepts and then scampers away. It is a huge cake, so after we have all had some, it is offered around to the other customers.

We head out to dinner at a barbeque restaurant. Usual stables: pulao, naan, kabob. I have a biryani of some sort. We are all exhausted, after the mountainside, and struggling to stay awake. After a while we leave, and, as part of our effort not to walk too much at night, flag down a car. It is not a legitimate laxi, but most private cars offer a taxi service. One of our number chats to the driver before getting in, to establish his legitimacy, sympathies and so on. He seems like a nice young guy and we all pile in. We are in a strange part of town, and pass the usual ominous security walls. Then we come to a roundabout with the usual heavy police presence. What normally happens is that someone switches on the interior light, the cops peer in, see a foreigner and wave us through. This time it’s different. The guy in charge, clean shaven and with a smile that doesn’t quite manage to reach his eyes, addresses me in Farsi. “Farsi nist,” I reply. “English.”
“Passport,” he snaps. I show it to him – the front cover with the coat of arms, and he leans in and takes it. He questions Mansoor sitting in the front seat, then turns his attention to Kayo. “Afghan?” he enquires? No, daughter of Hindustan. “Passport. You speak Urdu?” “Nahi – Hindi,” Kayo replies, while looking for her passport. She asks me for my torch to see inside the bag. The one thing I am not going to do is start rummaging inside my bag at this point. She finds it and hands it over.

He takes the two passports and walks off a few metres away. Torches are shone through the windows and we squint at them. More cops come. They stand in a huddle, leafing through each page of my passport repeatedly. One of the cops has buttoned his waistcoat over his machine gun, with it pointing directly downwards. I hope he doesn’t trip, stumble and shoot himself in the testicles. My grin widens slightly. I am very calm, but the potential for this all to go seriously wrong is quite high. Mansoor discretely makes a phone call to the people we have just left, explaining that we’ve been stopped and it’s looking a bit iffy. The cops are making a great show of examining the passports – they have turned their backs to us and the minutes are ticking by agonisingly slowly. The taxi driver gets out and goes over to join them. He is questioned and keeps his cool. There’s a bit of a morality issue: a girl they took to be Afghan in a car with a group of men. There’s a general suspicion: are we carrying drugs? Anything which they can shake us down for? The irony is that the cops are all stoned – I can tell by their eyes. And I am wearing a local pakol hat and two weeks of beard. So we’ve got a Brit and an Indian disguised as Afghans in a private car driving around at night. I’m guessing the guy in charge is a corporal – he’s not very bright, and has that sadistic look. But he’s OK. When he sticks his head back inside the car I say to him: “Afghan hat, but English man.” I remove my hat – it’s an old disarming gesture, from the time that people doffed their caps to show they had no weapon hidden underneath. He seems satisfied, and wanders off again. Then he returns with Kayo’s passport and hands it back. Where is mine? Still being examined. I suspect he’s torn between being lauded by his superiors for discovering some undercover spy ring (who knows how cops think?) and between fearing serious repercussions from assorted embassies and his own foreign minister. Do we even know these guys are cops? Uniforms are easy to come by. The driver gets back in. More torches are shone. He comes back and after a slight delay of holding it just out of reach, like one might tantalise a dog with a biscuit, hands my passport back to me. “Thank you,” I say. He gestures impatiently and we slowly drive away. I carefully check every page of my passport, but it all seems to be intact. We are all subdued, aware of the knife edge we walk every day, the surface of normality that barely carries our weight. I take my passport, hold it up to the light, and recite in sonorous tones:
“Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State
Requests and Requires in the name of Her Majesty
all those to whom it may concern
to allow the bearer to pass freely
without let or hindrance and to offer the bearer
such assistance and protection
as may be necessary.”

And I add: “Or else the Queen (god bless her) will get very bloody cross with you.”

More checkpoints. Not again, I think. I’m getting too old. Nerve is creaking a little these days. Last police post before the road. I switch on the light and he waves us through. We make the gate, which fortunately decides to open. In through a dark courtyard, somewhere in Afghanistan. In through the door, which I lock firmly to keep the lunacy outside at bay. We roll cigarettes, smoke furiously, and get the giggles. It’s a release of tension and there’s a slight hysteria to it. I laugh so hard I can’t breathe, and it starts to hurt. Just when it starts to subside, Kayo says: “Please. Not one more kebab.” It sets us off again. “And no more rice with bloody sultanas,” I say. “Bolani nist (not have).” Just when we regain our breath, gasping and wiping our eyes, a thought strikes me, and I can barely get the words out. “Carrot jam.” It finishes us off – we howl with laughter, lying on the mattresses. It’s ridiculous, silly things, but we need a laugh. Memorable birthdays: turning 40 in Afghanistan, slightly mashed, and just made it through another tricky situation. Another day, another story. Welcome to the club, Kayonaaz.

The Wedding Halls of Kabul

10 April 2013
The Wedding Halls of Kabul

I got a call at around 6.30pm. Would I like to go to an Afghan wedding? Mild panic ensued. I have taken travel-stained to new and unprecedented heights. I have no smart clothes. My shoes are falling apart. One of the problems of living in a place with unpaved streets, especially after rain, is that everything gets covered in mud. In fact a rather elegant western lady just walked into the cafe I am sitting in with telltale beige patches of mud all over her skirt. It’s impossible to avoid. So my friends reassured me not to worry: everybody would be covered in mud. Nevertheless I decided to put on my relatively smarter trousers, and a cleanish shirt. Who was getting married? Nobody seemed to know. It didn’t matter. Should I bring a gift? Certainly not. Was it appropriate to kiss the bride? Hilarity ensues.

On the road from the airport we had passed what I took to be two enormous shopping malls. In fact they were wedding halls. One of the few growth industries here is marriage. It’s such an important event that it has undergone the full attention of the commercial sector, and wedding halls compete with each other by advertising on television and billboards around the city with regard to their seating capacity. The one last night boasted that it had room for 3000 guests. This was a little misleading, as in fact there were several weddings taking place at the same time, each on a different floor of the building. As it was explained to me – and admittedly this may have lost something in translation – the bride’s family and the groom’s family congregate in a room, and ask each other, “what are we doing here?” After a bit of arguing they usually decide that since they have an eligible couple with them, that they might as well get married, seeing as they are in a wedding hall, after all. Then a spokesman is appointed – usually an elderly uncle. He adopts a crafty approach, enumerating various flaws and problems with the upcoming nuptuals. This is all a ploy to agree on a dowry. The bride can reclaim her dowry at any time – say for a financial crisis or perhaps a shopping trip to Dubai – although there would be serious repercussions. That, at any rate, was my understanding of the formalities.

In reality we never caught sight of the bride, nor indeed any other female. There was a large partition down the centre of the room, and the women and children were on the other side of it. They were considerably more subdued than a hen night in the UK, although given the absence of alcohol that is perhaps not entirely surprising. Several hundred men sat uncomfortably at round tables in a large room beneath chandeliers and christmas llights. They were of all ages and backgrounds: there were young men in jeans and trainers with rather too much hair gel, and old chaps in pakol hats and impressive beards. A popular look was a sort of salwar kameez with knee length shirt, with a smart jacket worn over the top. In my disintegrating trainers, Nehru vest, muddy Barbour jacket and a week of silvery stubble, I couldn’t help feeling that I was a poor ambassador for British style; although perhaps it accurately reflected our rather down-at-heel status in geopolitical terms these days, relegated to the level of second- or perhaps third-rate power. Certainly next to all these elegantly attired Afghans I felt like the poor relation from somewhere out in the provinces where there was a great deal of mud. Suffolk, perhaps.

There was the usual confusion of greeting, with assorted handshakes and embraces. It is a rather odd experience to be kissed on the cheek by a man with several days of stubble and too much aftershave, but one does one’s best to reciprocate. We sat round the table, periodically rising en masse to greet someone passing by. Then the band started. It’s hard to describe, but if you stood next to a pneumatic drill on the main runway at Heathrow as planes came in to land over your head, you might get some idea of the sheer volume they produced. It was explained to me that the singer might command a fee of up to $1500 for the night’s performance. I can only assume that he was paid by the decibel. I wasn’t entirely sure whether the band were actually playing or not, since one of the musicians, perhaps the drummer, decided to stop playing and wandered off to make a phone call without any obvious change in the music. The singer noticed his absence, however, and decided to cover for him by upping the volume from the merely ear-splitting to the actively torturous. I looked around the room and saw a room full of groups of men sitting miserably looking at the tablecloth, unable to speak to each other. I found the best way of speaking to Mansoor, who was sitting next to me, was to send him a text message.

This went on for some time, and then mercifully it stopped. The groom was coming. His group made their way around the room greeting various tables. There must have been some order of precedence, because our table was completely ignored; I became aware of a cloud of aftershave approaching behind me, and then it went past and hovered at a nearby table for a while. Then it moved off again. Unsure as to the consequences of this slight – would there be a gunfight? Did it merit a blood feud? – I sat unobtrusively and watched the proceedings. After a while we all decided to go downstairs, and sat round in comfy chairs watching the waiters bearing huge trays aloft with their right arms, actually sprint the length of the hall and up the stairs. It was an impressive physical feat, given the size of the tray. It was suggested that perhaps this could be made a new Olympic sport – sprinting with large tray – in which case Afghanistan would undoubtedly take gold. And China bronze, probably, having constructed a city full of tray-sprinting academies for small children to be coached in it.

A man approached our table, and we all rose to greet him. This was the uncle of the groom, and he informed me that he was a British citizen and had lived in London for many years. The groom was also British, apparently. As was our host who had invited us – a tall and elegantly attired local with a force of character that was impressive. In fact many people seemed to have lived in London at one point or another, and asked me questions such as “do you know the King George Tavern in Trafalgar Street?” Sadly I did not, London being a rather loose collection of villages masqurading as suburbs, as separate from each other as some of the mountain villages of Nuristan. Nevertheless it was nice to have some sense of shared experience. And Londoners who moan about the overcrowded Tube, the unreliable buses and the ludicrous opening hours of shops, or even the weather, would do well to bear in mind the many times that Afghans, when I asked them how they had enjoyed London, would enthuse: “A wonderful city! Everything works! It is so beautiful, so clean.” Yes, well. Everything’s relative, I suppose. A few people commiserated with me on the death of Mrs Thatcher a few days earlier. “A strong leader! Very great character.” I can’t help but feel she might be eulogised rather less in the UK, but I don’t think this was out of mere politeness – it seemed genuinely meant. In a place with a distinct absence of strong leaders (live ones, anyway), I suppose one notices the lack more.

The food arrived – mountains of it. At the next table a group of old boys in pakols and beards abandoned conversation and got down to the serious business of eating. There was mantou – a kind of local ravioli, chicken, mysterious meat that may have been goat or mutton, and three types of rice: Kabuli pulao, with sultanas and nuts; rice with orange peel, and a third kind redolent with cardomom. Having been vegetarian for my stay in India I had decided that pragmatically, unless I wanted to live on a diet of nothing but rice and naan bread for the duration of my stay in Afghanistan, I had better start eating meat again. I then discovered that next to me was a local who was himself strictly vegetarian – the only vegetarian in Kabul, the others joked. I was intrigued as to his motives; I didn’t go veggie for any great moral or religious reasons myself – mostly as a result of disgust with the industrialised factory farming that we practise in the west, and the hypocrisy of labelling meat products “UK farm standard approved” when actually it is just a legitimised form of cruelty. Anyway, my western sensibilities looked a little shallow in the context of a country where people starve to death. So I asked him what made him choose to be vegetarian here. His answer shook me. “It was because of the atrocities I saw the Taliban commit. The violence. I cannot eat meat after seeing such things. It disgusts and appalls me.” It brought home to me the massive personal traumas that lie just beneath the surface of everyday life here, in a country that has known nothing but war for 30 years. Nobody has any counselling, there are no diagnoses of PTSD for Afghan civilians, no therapy or medication. They just get on with it. Indeed the maid in one place I stayed was so visibly nervous of strange men that she almost cowered in their presence. I don’t even want to ask what has happened to her. Everyone here has a story.

One of the things I have noticed amongst the small group of friends that I have made here is just how impressively informed so many of them are. In casual conversation people reference Karl Popper, Fukuyama, Zizek, Chomsky. Their bookshelves would shame many a postgraduate student in the UK. I am considered fairly well-read, but in this company I feel embarrased to admit I have not read half of these authors. It’s the thirst for knowledge here, the appetite for answers, which makes us in the west appear so complacent. In a society like our own, with free education, access to the internet, libraries, 24 hour TV, one can only conclude that the absence of interest amongst the great British public for anything that does not immediately concern them, is a deliberate stance. With so much information on offer, ignorance becomes a choice. It’s crucial in a place like this, with a literacy rate of 40% or so (and a life expectancy of 45 years), that education is regarded as a solution. Because there is a lack of a tradition of literature here; like Africa, it tends to be more word of mouth, in a more oral society. And the problem with that comes down to one of interpretation. A mullah can command an audience of 10,000, and what he says will be taken seriously as he is seen as being a representative of the official Islamic view. Never mind that he may be prejudiced, bigoted, ignorant. His views will be taken seriously far more than any book – especially one by a western, or indeed western-educated author.

And the problem with all this, the elephant in the room, is the role of Islam. It’s a word where people instinctively lower their voices (much like “Pakistan”, which is always mentioned sotto voce.) In a place where people are killed for an innocuous statement about religion which somebody else happens to disagree with, any kind of discussion is fraught with risk. And so there is a taboo about the very subject that needs to be discussed the most. The great thinkers of the Protestant reformation in Christianity realised this in Europe 500 years ago, and because of the threat that they posed to the power of the church they were labelled heretics and tortured. The same goes for the thinkers within an Islamic context – sufis and similar. They are labelled as dangerous deviants who must be eliminated. In this regard, what has happened is that the extremist view has moved to occupy the mainstream; the moderates have been marginalised and the most radical interpretation has come to occupy the centre ground. And so, amongst a small group of free-thinking intellectuals, people boldly make a controversial comment or a joke, and everybody laughs, but the laughter is forced and slightly nervous, aghast at their own daring, and the eyes flit quickly around the room to see who is in earshot. What is needed is a moderate spokesperson who has the authority to represent Islam, to take back the centre ground from the extremists, and to say, “these extremists do not represent Islam. They claim to, but that is to give them a false legitimacy.” The problem is not Islam per se, as it is sometimes portrayed in the west, but the lack of coverage of the viewpoint of the vast majority of Muslims, and their lack of plausible spokesmen. A leader, in effect.

There’s an expression in English: ‘Fake it till you make it.’ Lawrence Durrell once described it rather more elaborately by saying that we humans are creatures of habit just as animals are. In our everyday interactions we can make a deliberate choice to act in a particular way which may be contradictory to how we actually feel; our intellect mastering our innate emotional response. If we force ourselves to act in a particular way, after a while we can begin to believe it, to feel it. Act confidently when we feel nervous, and after a time we begin to feel more confident. You can walk into a dangerous situation and walk out the other side by carrying yourself with conviction. Conversely if you walk around expecting to be attacked, you are sending out all kinds of unconscious signals inviting it. Well in Kabul we are all faking it. We act normal in a place that is so far from normality that chaos looms just beneath the surface. We act with a studied calm, and simultaneously watch everything. At any moment the world could be turned upside down. I’ve lost track of the number of places that are pointed out to me on our night-time drives around the city, where someone says: “This is such-and-such restaurant, hit by a suicide bomber last year. This is so-and-so hotel, blown up two months ago. This is the hotel that had a 24 hour gun battle.” Places become known by how often they have been hit. And the upshot is that no matter how determined you are to lead a life with a semblance of normality, to get out of your compound and bypass the illusion of security, you are essentially going from one secure location to another – hotel, cafe, restaurant – where, behind bomb doors and scanners and armed guards, people congregate in relative safety and an illusion of normality.

The food is over. Abruptly the tables are emptied, and crowds of people head out into the night. It is 10.30pm and the party is over. Men are all talking on their mobile phones, trying to rendezvous with their women who have left from a separate entrance. What they did before mobile phones I can’t imagine, although it is explained to me that these enormous weddings are a fairly recent phenomenon; traditionally they were much smaller, in people’s houses, and even segregation between genders didn’t really happen until the 1990s. This is perhaps one of the many issues that is seldom appreciated in the west – that the increasing fundamentalism is a relatively recent phenomenon: the pictures of Kabul in the 1960s showed women with heads uncovered, and, if not actually in miniskirts, then at least in knee-length ones. Similarly across North Africa, one sees many more women wearing hijab now than a decade ago. It reflects a recent political climate more than any great long-standing religious tradition. We stand around in a group, smoking cigarettes. There is a great impassioned discussion in Farsi going on, so impassioned that they have temporarily abandoned English. Mansoor translates: we are discussing who will go in what car. In the event, six of us pile into one car – three in the front and three in the back. We set off at high speed through the dark streets of Kabul, past the British embassy with its bomb walls and coils of razor wire, along Wazir Akbar Khan, round chaotic roundabouts where nobody gives way as it is a slight on their masculinity. Indeed, masculinity, or machismo, is everywhere. Jokes are made about the guy sitting between the front seats, in alarming proximity to the gear lever. “He does not mind. He is an hommsexual.” The butt of the joke giggles. We discuss Brazil, which someone visited last year: “Oh the girls! So many buxom wenches! So beautiful shapes.” It’s everywhere, this kind of sexual tension. How does one meet girls in Kabul? It’s impossible. Hence, I suppose, the marriage industry.

I meet a businessman, highly educated, intelligent, progressive and dynamic, who confides in me that he has just begun speaking to his fiance by text message. I am a bit confused initially. Had they had a row? No – he literally had not spoken to the girl he was engaged to. It was an arranged marriage. And he felt, that at the age of 27, it provided a good solution. She was from a good family, well educated, respectable, and that ticked many of the boxes for him. “And what of love?” I ask him tactlessly. “What if you don’t love each other?”
“In time, I believe love will come,” he tells me. “We must work at it, be dedicated, and since we are a good match in so many other ways, yes, love will be there.”
It’s an interesting approach for me, as a westerner, from a society that puts so much emphasis on the self, and on one’s own gratification. But perhaps he has a point. I know many people my age who still have not settled down with a partner, let alone married one. Perhaps it’s the famed lack of commitment that many of my female friends at home complain about in men. Perhaps it’s a case of the grass is always greener. Sooner or later we all have to make a choice – not go shopping about for different attributes in different relationships: a bit here, a bit there, and all without any danger of ‘being tied down’. My friend the businessman has made his choice, and is determined that it is going to work. So although the concept is alien to me, I congratulate him and wish him all the best.

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Kabul – It’s the Small Things

9th April 2013

It’s the small things. That old saw about whether it’s safe depending on who you ask. I don’t want to sit indoors trapped by my own paranoia. I need to buy things for breakfast. I remember a time when I was so highly strung, so neurasthenic, that a trip across the road to Tescos in London would take me 20 minutes of psyching myself up. And countless cigarettes. Well, it was good traning for Kabul.

I unlock the gate and step into a muddy lane. It rained most of yesterday and there are puddles everywhere. I nearly make a spectacular entrance to the neighbourhood by falling flat on my face, and giggle inwardly as I recall the Monty Python scene with the two ancient Britons looking for a nice heap of dung to smear on themselves. I am grinning at the thought, and this is fortunate, since an old man standing opposite sees me smiling and smiles back. I give him a nod. The next minute the grin is wiped off my face – a gate opens and four armed men come out, AKs in their hands. Clad in various items of random battledress, they are clearing the road for a Land Cruiser which is emerging from the gate. There’s a momentary confusion – as a foreigner what is my status? Should I be ‘dreeshed’ (halted)? I assist them by convincingly playing the part of bumbling idiot and splat messily through puddles roughly where the pavement would be, if there was one. I make the end of the road and the first police checkpoint. They stare at me levelly. I cross, and find a shop which looks shut. Operation naan bread is not going well. I try to call Mansoor to get directions to the bakery and find that my credit has disappeared overnight, yet again. Two text messages, and about 20 minutes of Facebook, has cost me 150 Afs, or $3. But wait – a man is coming out of the shop. I greet him and enter. They couldn’t be more helpful. ‘Ah, sorry, we only have sliced white bread. Go straight down the road and there’s more traditional bread.’ Super, excellent, thanks very much.

Out in the street again, dodging puddles. Four small children appear, carrying shopping bags. They are tiny – the oldest can’t be more than seven. They wouldn’t be allowed out on their own in the UK. They halt at the busy road and stand watching as traffic roars by. The oldest girl eventually marches out into the traffic, and ushers the others across. I find the bakery, naan breads on display in the window. But there doesn’t seem to be a door. How do you get in a shop with no door? Answer: play the bumbling idiot. If you stand outside looking helpless long enough, someone will open a window. “Salaam,” I say. “Yak naan please.” He grabs one, and wraps it in a piece of A4 paper upon which is a pie chart labelled Drugs Tested. I notice that the small segment, less than a quarter, is marked Private Sector. The remainder is marked Public Sector. What does it all mean? “How much?” I ask. “Dub,” he replies. Sounds a bit like the Hindi “Das” – ten. I offer a ten, thank him, and he climbs back up into the shop.

So this is going swimmingly so far. I can haz naan. But what to put on it? I retrace my steps towards the house, to another small shop. The shopkeeper, an elderly man with a white beard and colourful fez hat, doesn’t look up. I salaam him. He greets me in return, and says the Farsi equivalent of “what can I do for you?”
“Um, do you have Pegah? The cheese?”
“Chiz?” I recall that chiz means “thing” in Hindi. Did I just ask him for a “thing?”
“Pagah. Iran. With my naan.”
He shuffles over to the back of the store and emerges holding a litre of UHT milk labelled Pegah.
“Nahi – not this one. Maybe smaller. For khana – eating.”
He smiles in understanding and fetches a small box, also labelled Pegah. Helpfully it is accompanied by a picture of someone smearing it on bread, whatever it is. The line of curling Farsi script is not intelligible to me. I turn it over and see it says Cream. Cream on bread? Those crazy Iranians. Whatever next. I consider my potential breakfast and decide that since he’s such a helpful guy, it’s worth persisting. I spot a pack of Laughing Cow. “Aha!” I cry. “Like that one, but Pegah.” Mercifully I decide against doing an impression of a laughing cow. He beams, and fetches out a small tub of Pegah cream cheese. “Yes!”
OK, now how do I pay? He announces a figure in Farsi which sounds nothing like any Hindi. Um… calculator. iPhone to the rescue. I find the right app and he quickly cottons on, leaning over the counter to tap out 25 on the screen with a gnarled finger. “Accha,” I say. Twenty-five. Oh, and can I have yak Roshan recharge card? Panj sau? I tap out 500. He fetches one. So we are at 525 Afs. And then I find I have only dollars. Mental arithmetic not being my strong point, I tap the XE app and get a live update on the latest stock market conversion rates. $11, and 20 Afs change. Meanwhile he’s chatting away to me in Farsi, both of us being highly deferential to the other. “Me angrez hoon,” I say. “Farsi nahi hai – nist.” (I hope the word was ‘nist’ for ‘not have’.)
“Angrez.” He smiles. Then he fetches me a bag and carefully puts all my items in it, including the naan. “Tashakor,” I say, thus exhausting my Farsi vocabulary completely – hello, halt and thank you being the full extent of it. He beams. “Tashakor.” Then he reaches over the counter and shakes my hand. It’s the small things. Out in the street a burqa squats in the mud and mutters beseechingly as I go past. I go a few steps past and then recall my 20 Afs change. So I turn around, and under the eyes of two cops, one with a vest full of grenades, I place the grubby note into the hand kept hidden under the folds of blue material. “There you go, lady.” She murmurs thanks. It’s the small things.

We have dinner at Istanbul Restaurant, in the Macroyan district – an old Soviet-era housing project. It’s a large room with a huge plasma TV at one end showing Turkish television. I stare at it mesmerised. A football match: Galatasaray versus Mersin. The news: a man in a grey suit announcing something interminably into a microphone. An interview with a Turkish rapper who has the most extraordinarily long neck, and wears a silly baseball cap. Meanwhile, on the ticker at the base of the screen, a series of Turkish words unspools: I make out NATO, the number 10, the word Israel, the word Afghanistan. What is going on in the world outside? I have no idea. Only what is happening here matters. I check the BBC website. A youth leader has received ‘words of advice’ after posting idiotic comments of a homophobic and generally stupid nature. She has ‘learned her lesson’. Obesity may be genetic. People should exercise more and watch what they eat. A football coach has denied being racist. I want to scream at the BBC: For fuck’s sake! Wake up! This is not news! Meanwhile in Afghanistan ten children were killed in a NATO airstrike at the weekend. They were the children of a suspected Taliban leader and were at home. A car bomb killed several locals and a 25-year-old US diplomat. She was delivering books to schools in the rural areas. Imagine if a dissident group in Northern Ireland had planted a bomb trying to target a policeman and it had instead been set off by a minibus carrying ten children, all of whom died. Imagine the outrage, the consequences. And here? It happens again and again. Sure, the Taliban use human shields. But imagine the deep, slow-burning hatred that this causes. And here I am, ostensibly a representative of the NATO nations, walking alone and unguarded round a Kabul neighbourhood. And a man smiles at me, and another shakes my hand in his shop. I don’t know what to say – we don’t have the words. Only the basic human connection.

The Istanbul Restaurant is closing down for the night. Kabul goes to bed early – the unofficial curfew is 8pm. The guard comes in carrying not one, but two machine guns. Perhaps it is ‘buy one get one free’. We head out into the night, across a dual carriageway. The US embassy change guard twice a day and shut the entire road, causing gridlock; earlier it was a huge traffic jam but now it is deserted. There isn’t much of a sewage system in Kabul, but they have dug tunnels for one under some main roads. Unfortunately they haven’t put any manhole covers in place, so every few yards there is a gaping hole along the road which would drop you directly, as it were, in the shit. A pair of headlights approaches and a car pulls up in front of us. Of course it is a red Corolla, the favoured make in all the security alerts, and also the most common car in Kabul. The driver is all stubble and leather jacket. We agree a price and screech away down the road. He reaches up to turn on the interior light, so that the cops at the checkpoints can see inside the car. Sirens go off behind us and flashing lights. We lurch towards the hard shoulder and a huge SUV zooms past – I make out a face staring at us in a not very friendly way. We drive down the main drag, past Finest supermarket, past computer shops that have Macbook Pros on display in the window. Another checkpoint. The front passenger rolls down his window and greetings are murmured. The cop peers into the back and sees me. He wears a scarf over his face and only a pair of Oriental eyes are visible, hard as stones. We wait, and then he lifts an arm in half salute and waves us on. Frankly the whole experience is nerve-wracking, to say the least. Coming from the outside, there are a thousand and one things you could freak out at every day. But that’s not sustainable – you have to keep fear in proportion. And the inhabitants of Kabul have to live with this every day.

I recieve an email from home saying it is my niece’s birthday. She is eight today. They are having chocolate cake with strawberries. She’s mad about Barbie, so I had sent her a special Barbie in India from Goa. Barbie in India is ethnically diverse – she at least has the merit of looking Indian. Black hair, bindi, and wearing a beautiful maroon and gold wedding sari. You get free mehendi stencils with this one – part of the whole marriage ceremony for Hindus and Muslims alike. Given my phone credit problems Mansoor offers me his phone to call home, so sitting in the Istanbul Restaurant in Kabul I ring the family in Suffolk. The line is pretty good – a slight delay. I talk quickly to Mum, and then she hands he over to my niece. She confirms that she has received Barbie in India successfully. She likes it. They had chocolate cake and strawberries. Aunty Barbara gave her a mermaid whose hair changes colour. Where are you? “I’m in Afghanistan, sweetheart. With my friend Mansoor who you met last year.” Oh, OK. Here’s grandpa again. Bye. It’s only been three months but I can hear how much more grown up she sounds, in her voice and vocabulary. On my backpack is a small pink Barbie badge. When I was sitting up on a hill overlooking the Panjshir Valley, with blown up Russian artillery littering the foreground, I took a photograph. You can’t see it, but just out of shot is my backpack with that badge hanging off the zipper. Barbie in Afghanistan. It’s the small things.

Kabul – Relative Safety

Kabul, 7th April 2013

There’s a computer game called Halflife 2 which I played once, where you land in some familiar yet dystopian city. It is eerily deserted, and you make your way past blank faced buildings with reflective windows, high walls, razor wire and so on. Periodically you hear the crackle of a walkie talkie, and sometimes pass groups of masked armed men patrolling. The overwhelming mood is one of, if not exactly fear, then a definite tension. Convoys of vehicles roar past, harsh commands through a megaphone, sirens. Welcome to Kabul. And yet the difference here is that this is a normal central Asian city too. Street vendors: boys pushing ice cream carts that play happy birthday. Old men on bicycles. School kids running and laughing, the little girls all in white headscarves. A group of young guys in a pimped out car with bling paint job who wheel spin out of a junction and slow down to check out a couple of girls walking. A soldier carrying naan bread under one arm and a rifle in the other hand. Shoeshine men, boys selling maps, a fruit stall. It’s all so normal. But it’s not really. There’s a tension in the air, a raised heartbeat. In a restaurant you suddenly look up and realise all the other diners have left. A man walks in with a machine gun and takes a seat in the corner. Was that click the sound of him cocking his gun? Or is he eating pistachios? Is that guy outside on the phone who keeps glancing inside planning a kidnapping, or is he just checking to see if his food has arrived? You never know. It’s all about the perception of risk.

And it’s a subjective judgement. The only sensible response to the question ‘is it safe?’ is, it depends who you ask. The aid workers and diplomats are part of a system that offers security as standard, but it’s a self perpetuating industry: private security contractors have a vested interest in painting a worst case scenario, partly because if things go wrong they go very wrong, but mostly, I suspect, because their livelihood depends on it. And so you end up with a two tier system. Yes, foreigners are more of a target, less of a threat. But does that justify discrimination that would be illegal in those foreigners’ own countries? An Afghan national married to a foreigner, who has a degree from Oxford and a PhD from an Ivy League US university, who lived in London for ten years, who runs a company here supplying NATO with equipment – this person is denied entry to a restaurant on a night out with his western colleagues because he is an Afghan. So-called humanitarian organisations fire western staff for breaching security regulations. What heinous breach? They had begun a relationship with a local. It’s the very organisations that have the most impeccable liberal politically correct credentials that are perpetuating this prejudice. It is hypocritical, to put it mildly. And it is justified in the name of that all encompassing reason that lacks any reason at all: security. And the contractors hang out in their compounds, following the advice of their security staff, only go to ‘safe’ restaurants – which inevitably have a No Afghans policy – happily negotiate for salaries of thousands of dollars a month, justifying it with market economics arguments, and when it comes to the crunch they are going to cut and run, and go and do it all somewhere else. ‘See you next year in Damascus. I’m going for a consultant job, and won’t take less than a hundred grand. Say, do you remember our driver in Kabul? What was his name… Abdullah? Ahmed? Wasn’t he just the sweetest guy. I wonder where he is now.’

The irony, of course, being that you could be blown up by a British suicide bomber on the London Underground. In fact one of the victims of the 7/7 Tube bombings was an Afghan.

Breakfast in Kabul. I sit cross legged on the bed wrapped in my patoo blanket, eating naan bread and Iranian Pegah cream cheese. Dates – special hajj issue. Black tea. They say here that black tea is for winter as it warms the body. Green tea in summer. Another local custom: walking with Mansoor my foot accidentally touched his, causing him to stumble. He immediately extended a hand for me to shake, explaining that it signified no hard feelings. There is a courtesy here, in everyday life, amongst ordinary people, that seems to be almost entirely absent in the west these days. Everybody is greeted, no matter how menial their occupation. The caretaker at an office – each visitor shakes his hand. And of course only here would the car park attendant carry an AK, and wear fatigues and a pakol hat. I imagine him walking through Liverpool Street station – minus the AK of course. He wouldn’t get five yards without someone going into hysterics.

The local cats are a tough bunch. Their feline pastime is to knock each other off the wall and into the razor wire. No wonder they look a fairly moth eaten bunch. There’s a lot of yowling.

Local quirks: why are there sandals in the bathroom? Every bathroom? Am I supposed to put them on? What about the ones in the kitchen? How would it go if a visitor to a British home came into the kitchen wearing your shoes? It’s all a bit of an etiquette minefield, really. And how on earth do you tear a naan bread the size of a tea tray using only your right hand? And why does my left eye keep flickering? What was that scream? Kids playing? Or someone being arrested? Is that screeching car a kidnapping? or some local lads impressing the girls (not). What about that bloody great bang? A truck dumping bricks? Or something else?

I hear shouted conversations in Farsi from the police station next door, and mentally translate: ‘Oi, Mahmoud – how many westerners have you pointed your gun and shouted “dreesh!” (Halt!) at today?’
Mahmoud looks a bit shame faced. ‘Only one.’
‘Bah – pathetic. I got at least three. Last one looked like he soiled himself.’
‘Yeah, but mine was a journalist. Headlines tomorrow: “The mood in Kabul is becoming increasingly tense. Police are on edge and expecting an imminent attack.”

Both cops giggle and resume their patrolling up and down.