|De Trancekaravaan ('Trance Caravan') Contact, Amsterdam, 1996.
'A Journey to the East through the Sixties.' A story of adventure and inner search. To fiercely guarded Shia shrines in Iraq and the rose gardens of Iranian mystics. To Kurdish villages and the Syrian desert. To hashish farms in the Bekaa Valley, and to feudal Afghanistan as prince's bodyguard. A world largely lost to us since, depicted by an author with rich visual memory. English manuscript available.
A chapter from the English translation of
Trance Caravan by Peter ten Hoopen
Published as De Trancekaravaan
(Contact, Amsterdam, 1996)
IT HELPED TO TRAVEL in the company of a prince. Wali's servants had gone up ahead, bought bus tickets and claimed the front row, awarding us the wide, royal view of those in command. Wali had dressed as if we were on our way to a ski resort, one of the posher places, like Chamonix, and nothing in his demeanour betrayed that he was more than a tourist looking forward to enjoy himself.
The open, nearly treeless landscape with its snowbound villages of bare adobe impressed itself on our souls as bitterly inclement. It also impressed on us the qualities of character required to survive here. There was such stark, austere beauty in this appeal on the best of human resources, that one understood why men might prefer it over lusher, more decadent regions.
Every now and then a group of prospective riders, bearded and beturbaned, or heavily veiled, would stand at the roadside with their tin-clad trunks, burlap bags of walnuts, sheep, disassembled beds, or crates of Chinese 'Double Happiness' matches. Many of the men were armed, some carried songbirds in prettily veiled cages. The driver would greet them warmly and strike up a conversation soon joined by other passengers hanging out the windows. The intensity and emotional fervour of these meetings made it appear as if they were all relatives or at least old friends. Finally, almost as an afterthought, the luggage and merchandise would be hoisted on to the roof, the boarding riders would greet their more distant acquaintances and settle on the wooden benches or on the floor, according to rank.
Wali Khan took no part in this social activity and studied all those weathered and furrowed faces as intently as we did. In between stops he told us that he had much enjoyed observing the girls of Lausanne. Seeing Wali in his chamois jacket with beaver lining, his Varnuet sunglasses and well-groomed Van Dycke, it was easy to picture him in the tearoom of the Beau-Rivage Palace - the young pasha from Farawayistan, rich in Oriental mystery and that capacity to arouse women that comes from good looks and conspicuous absence of need.
Still, something told me that Wali had stayed virginal till his marriage to an Afghani princess ten years ago. He was too gentle, it seemed, to overcome the slightest resistance, the mere whisper dictated by modesty. There was something of the baby in him. Something so soft that it cried out for cuddling. If he had been intimate with Western females at all, they must have been older, maternal women with a keen eye for quality and enough authority to pick what they liked.
In winter, a bus could go only so far. At the mouth of the Panjshir valley, where the mountains began in earnest, we had to switch to a truck, one of those crazily painted kings of the Asian roads. The road to the North snaked across the backbone of the Hindu-Kush over the Salang Pass. An ancient caravan route, it used to be snowbound half the year, but the helpful Soviets, ever eager to project their friendship Southward, particularly in the direction of the coveted Indian Ocean, had recently constructed an all-weather road; at 13.000 feet it was the highest asphalted road in the world. Intended to facilitate the inroad of the Soviet armies, a function it would indeed serve eleven years later. Ironically, it would also facilitated the slaughter of these self-same armies. Narrow, steep and winding, it needed only a single truck with a blown tire - two of our tires had no tread left whatever - to create a massive traffic jam. Even a minor avalanche could back up traffic for twenty miles each way, turning all enemies of the Afghan peoples into live practice targets for the mujahedeen astride the peaks and ridges.
Weariness of Soviet intentions ran high in the sixties, when the cold war was at its coldest. The Prague uprising had just been quelled by Russian cavalry and many were wondering which area was next in line for the assertion or expansion of Soviet authority. Afghanistan was clearly being readied. The army was largely Russian equipped, Kabul University operated on grants from Moscow and its vassals, as did several health programs. The United States did what they could to counter the Soviet dominance of aid, but it seemed that all the best bits were taken. Surely, the Americans also got to build a road, the West-East link between Herat and Kabul, but its strategic use to the builders was much less clear, unless the Americans thought of the Shah's Iran as their own turf - which in those heady days may well have been the case.
The most pernicious Soviet influence was doubtless the one on education. Nearly all the students we talked to spoke warmly of communism and its historical mission to liberate the oppressed peoples of the world. They never failed to point out that Afghanistan was still a feudal country, where the masses were usurped by local chieftains with unlimited power over life or death. They reeled off the countless communist achievements that could be witnessed in the neighbouring Socialist Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan.
When we pointed out that freedom of religion, more specifically the freedom to practice Islam, was not one of the Soviets' achievements, they upheld their faith but spoke scathingly of the mullahs, who kept the people in ignorance with their insistence on Qoran study as the only education worth having. 'Why do you think they are all paid by the khans, the local rulers? Because they turn the words of their khan into the words of Allah.'
Sadly, the few dissenters spoke warmly only about Lucky Strike, Corvette sports-cars and action movies. It looked like a lost battle.
The cabin of the truck had been enlarged to accommodate ten passengers, three up front with the driver and his helper and seven on an additional bench behind them. The advantage of these hybrids, long a mainstay of third world travel, has only lately been picked up by the first world's car industry, showing once again that the rich are blind not only to the poor's needs, but also to their creativity.
The mountains were rougher and more forbidding than any other we had ever seen. Dark grey and black, covered in sleet, they towered above us so high that often we saw no sky at all. Halfway up it began to snow. A slow, massive shower of white flowers that silenced the tires and depressed the passengers. Soon after we entered a long dark tunnel that seemed never to end. It took me a while to discover that we had already left the man-made structure and were now piercing a long, dark tunnel through heavy clouds.
Every so often we passed the drab hulk of a stalled truck. Now it was a cooking engine, futilely adding steam to the mist, then a blown tire (identified by the fuming roadside fire required for the process of vulcanisation) then a collapsed axle or a nose crushed to scrap. The repeated confrontation with all these mishaps created a palpable fear. Two passengers tried to evade it in sleep, but the others sat straight up on their bench, alert to the least deviation in ride or engine sound. Our Indian built Tata (a licensed copy of a 1950s Mercedes) held out wonderfully. It laboured through the switchbacks at no more than 6 mph, but we got to the top, a heroic feat celebrated by liberal offerings of naswar and handfuls of tart green raisins.
Because of drifting clouds there was no view to speak of, but as we descended towards Khinjan and Dosi the sky cleared and we were rewarded with glorious vistas of narrow valleys with fortress-like homesteads perched precariously on cliffs. Near Bhaglan, a name suggesting plentiful gardens, the landscape became more gentle, the villages larger and less fortified. Poplars stood braving the snow, their denuded branches striving to reach heaven with such fervour that they grew almost parallel to the silvery trunks.
The faces of the people were flatter here than South of the Hindu-Kush, less inclined to smile. Many had slanting Mongol eyes, set in a permanent squint: Hazaris (a name derived from 'hazar' meaning 'thousand'), descendants of the hordes, the thousands of Genghis Khan. The younger were clean-shaven, a few of the elders affected flossy goatees of a few hundred hairs.
In that grey hour when the sun hovers over the horizon, unsure whether to make a last effort or yield to fatigue, we drove into Kunduz, the last major town before the Soviet border. We shook hands with the driver, his helper and all others aboard and wished them well into the seventh generation as Wali engaged a porter for his one, very light suitcase. In a surprise move for an Asian of noble birth he suggested that we walk to the hotel to pump some blood to our lower limbs.
While we worked on our circulation, observed by all, but accosted by none, I had the strange feeling that I had seen it all before. Chekhov, Tolstoy, Gogol: all those images of villages knee-deep in mud and melting snow; moujiks in quilted coats huddled around burnished copper samovars; landed noblemen prancing around on thoroughbred horses, escorted by their sons and servants; officers striding along proudly in their woollen great-coats; day labourers trotting like pack horses, bent double under the weight of flour sacks and stacks of firewood; sweating blacksmiths pounding red hot irons into sprays of sparks; fur merchants counting their piles of pelts; buggy drivers luring customers by jiggling the silvery bells dangling off the bridles of their spirited, steaming horses... Might not some dead souls be had here for a good price?
On a busy corner three barbers had set up shop amidst heaps of mud-coloured snow, their soaps and blades displayed on the lids of the small wooden chests that served as seats for their customers. Two villagers with Mongol features, their turbans resting in their laps, were having their heads shaved. The semi-shorn skulls were adorned with shiny old scars and fresh nicks. The one unemployed barber sat examining his chin in a tiny mirror, yanking unruly facial hairs out with a pair of tweezers. There was nothing to indicate the use of warm water, leaved alone boiled, not to mention sterile.
Wali reassured me: 'We'll have someone come over to the hotel. He also does excellent massages. Very important after a long journey. When you travel you must have a massage every day.' Right. That's the standard to live by. We avoided giving any indication that there might be days when we did not meet the standard and gladly followed our host into the lobby of a surprisingly clean hotel, more modern than his own.
Sure enough, within half an hour there arrived a wiry Tajik with a thin black beard that had been carefully groomed into a dagger-like appendix of his pointed chin. He went to work on Wali first, beaming us smiles full of professional pride at every groan he managed to elicit from the solid frame. I courteously offered to go last, secretly hoping the henchman would be exhausted by then, but it seemed that he had needed the first two to really get doing. He was one of the world's undiscovered masters. I have never known anyone else who so confidently addressed each individual strand of muscle, every joint and cartilaginous connection. When he was done I had feelings in parts of my body I never even knew I had.
Then came the painful bit. The mystic masseur brought out a battered chromium-plated box that contained a huge syringe, a spirit burner, and a smaller, flat chromium box. He put some water on the boil in the flat box, placed the syringe in and let it cook as he pretended to count to sixty three times, mumbling inaudibly until the significant end of the series: '...abraca-blahblah, panjah-o-hasht, panjah-o-noh, shasht!' Then he expertly cracked one of my vials, filled up the syringe and jabbed the needle into my freshly tenderized buttock. It felt like he drove a nail into it, but in this country of hardened, weather-beaten men it seemed improper to make much of metal parts being driven through your fleshy parts. My comrades gave me smiles that could have passed for commiseration if they had been less smug. I responded with the brave grin of a man who has passed the ordeals of a rite of passage without so much as a whimper.
'Now let's have dinner', Wali said. 'We shall be the guests of an old friend of mine, who has recently retired. He has an excellent kitchen.' His jaded pronunciation of the adjective created high expectations. 'One thing, though: I know that you are not like all those hippies I get in my hotel who know nothing about our culture and smoke hashish all day - and that is why I invited you. But you are also liberal minded people, and I appreciate that. Freedom of thinking is a great good we should have more of in this country. But please keep in mind that here in the North people are highly conservative. Please don't even mention charas, it is not a fitting theme.'
Ewald and I hastened to assure him that such lowly subject matter would be strictly taboo and looked at each other in worry: how were we going to get through the next days? We carried some dynamite, hand-rubbed hashish from Mazar-a-Sharif, a town not far from Kunduz, that would do very well here in its region of origin. What a shame, we would have to forgo a delight of high cultural standing.
In the ghadi over to the house of Wali's friend I remembered that smoking is not the only way to partake. When ingested the effect is much less immediate but it can be considerably stronger and invariably lasts longer. I stealthily nibbled off a minute morsel of the Mazar and offered Ewald a bite too. To prevent asphalting our molars we chewed the stuff to a pulp with our incisors. The taste was delicious (if you liked resin) and the tangy aftertaste would stay till well into the meal.
Our host was a small, rotund man with a gleaming bald head that in the yellow light of oil lamps and candles assumed a dark orange tinge, like tandoori-fried duck. He was dressed in a white, monastic-looking robe that during the meal would leave his stomach free to expand, and greeted us with that smile of eternal contentment that the Chinese love to carve into soapstone. He wasted no time on preliminaries but showed us directly into the dining room. It was furnished with a wine-red Shibergan 'Elephant's Foot' carpet from the same region as our unmentionable stimulant, and bolsters with clean white pillow cases.
Most of the carpet was covered with a white damask table-cloth and most of the damask was covered with food. Mounds of Kabuli on repouss‚ silver trays, piles of roast quail and pigeons, various lamb and chicken dishes in rich gravy, two ducks slow-fried and basted till the meat sagged off the bones, spiced and plain yoghurts, eggs from assorted fowl both raw and cooked, melons, grapes, oranges, guavas, apples, pomegranates and various cakes and sweetmeats. To imagine that six people might eat this was indecent. To even offer it to four was a sin, but one which clamoured to be forgiven.
Our benefactor spoke no languages that we understood but Wali Khan, fluent in Dari, Pashtu, Urdu, Turkmen, English and French, interpreted with the air of a man used make up other people's deficiencies.
'I have left my business (of a nature apparently so all-encompassing as to defy definition) to dedicate myself entirely to my passion.'
What might this passion be? Religion?
'Ah, no my friends, religion is not a matter of the heart, it is a matter of the soul. When the heart starts meddling in religion, blood is sure to flow.'
We could only nod gravely at such wisdom. Then what? Art collecting perhaps?
'No, heaven forbid! The accumulation of material is not worthy a single heartbeat. It is the poor man's folly.'
I could think of one more subject an opulent Muslim male might indulge in to his heart's content, but given Wali's admonition it seemed better not to broach women. We gave up. 'Pray tell, what is this noble passion of yours?'
He spread both arms over the food like a priest giving his blessing: 'Eating!'
Again, that steatite smile. He called in two servants who started loading our plates. By then the hash had started to do its noble work. A warm feeling filled our bellies, ready to rise to our heads.
'In eating we honour both God the Creator and God the Provider. We fortify the body as well as the spirit. In fact it may well be said to be a saintly duty.'
Amen. We dug into the quail and pigeons, the curried lamb and saffron rice and filled ourselves with gratitude. How noble was this man to recognize the worthiness of such guests as ourselves.
It was not before the entremets (savoury pies and pheasant livers in aspic) that I started having flashes of the day-labourers we had noticed in the bazaar, dressed in rags that could hardly have provided much protection to the icy winds, most of them barefoot. Still, when a servant started poring sanguine pomegranate juice over my slice aromatic winter melon, those troubling images were easily inundated. All that was left was an overpowering sense of well-being, bordering on bliss.
After our service to the Creator and the Provider had run its courses, all seven of them, we were so holy that we could barely walk. The ghadi driver, who had been retained for the night and spent the last few hours freezing in his open carriage, could be woken only with effort. He blew his nose between his fingers as a token of his disgust and climbed onto the box with the agility of a man fighting rigour mortis. His horse pulled away in a fit of terminal enthusiasm but after a few paces it sensed the extra stones we had brought on board and decided to strike. The driver, not in the mood for dialectics, brought the tip of his whip down between the animal's ears, making it jump ahead with such force that we were thrown back into our seats, our distended bellies struggling to retain the halwah and other sweetmeats that had constituted the benediction.
The hotel might look more modern than Wali's own, but it lacked one amenity the Shah Foladi did provide: pillows. Wali again showed himself an accomplished traveller. He opened his featherweight suitcase and with a superior smile took out a large down pillow. He fluffed it up, then showed us his suitcase: that pillow was all his suitcase had contained. That, and a newish looking pistol. Wali took out the pistol and put it under his pillow.
'This suitcase is for the money that we are to collect.'
His use of the first person plural alarmed me. That, and the pistol. Ewald evidently had the same literary sensibilities. We exchanged a brief but profound glance of understanding. The Afghans might be tall, strong looking men, made even taller by their towering turbans, but at six foot four each we still looked down on all of them. To anyone unaware of our pacifist natures we would look like formidable, or at least credible, bodyguards.
'What calibre is that gun?' I asked, perhaps subconsciously slipping into my expected role.
'I don't know, frankly. It's not so heavy. I'm not even sure that it'll do much good. It's more like, eh...'
I knew what he wanted to say: '...like a last resort'. It took Ewald and me only a millisecond of eye contact to agree that we would not stand between any covetous Afghans and this suitcase.
'Is this going to be full?' Ewald asked.
Wali stared at the suitcase while computing an equation that seemed to involve lots of variables: 'Maybe only three quarters. They told me they had many problems this season. Bad weather, rats, thieves...'
'You think that's true?'
'No. Most of that is probably made up.'
'Is there anything you can do about it?'
'How much a local ruler pays his absentee landlord is a complex business. There is a fixed rate that they are supposed to pay, but in practice it really depends on how much they fear, need or like him.'
Was he being self-deprecating? I asked him bluntly: 'How do you rate?'
'In the current political constellation there is little I can do to enforce my rights - it would create tensions that could only harm my position. As for need: I have been of some use to them in the capital. I know my way around in the ministries... But I do believe they like me.'
'More than they like money?'
Wali smiled wanly, as if the direct comparison was too gross to consider. 'I am almost a member of the family. They worshipped my father.'
Wali told us the story of his illustrious forebear, Moussa Latiff Khan, a general in the Afghan army. When, in the early 1930s, king Nadir Shah was threatened by a mutinous general in the North, Wali's father took the initiative to march across the Salang Pass, then no more than a bridle path, so early in the spring that no one thought the crossing possible, frightfully surprised the mutinous forces and killed them to the last man, except for the general, who he brought back to the court for more special treatment at the king's pleasure.
In gratitude the king deeded to his loyal soldier a vast tract of land comprising some forty villages - the actual battlefield plus the surrounding countryside. The local rulers expected a draconian regime from this heavy-handed avenger, but found in Moussa Latiff Khan a benign master who established Qoran schools, helped the sons of the khans get an education in the capital and spent all his spare time in the region, riding and hunting with his liege-men like an equal. As a young boy Wali used to spend most summers on the estate, the guest of one chieftain or another. Over the years his father had gradually relaxed the land tax, till, at his death five years ago, it was no more than a tithe. Ten percent of an income that only the khans themselves could calculate.
'Still', Wali said, patting his pillow, 'with a bit of luck we won't have room for this on the way back.'
Again that first person plural.
'Don't worry', Ewald said as he rolled up a woollen pullover and wrapped it in a shirt against the itch, 'I'll take it.'
In the morning Kunduz revealed itself as a market town full of life; the kind of place where you could take photographs with your eyes closed. The bright light, given volume by the dust of speeding buggies, had the colour of white gold. Everything it touched, human faces, horses and camels, fruits, vegetables and nuts, even the plain mud of the houses, seemed to radiate with an inner beauty. It was the beauty of cohesion, of organic togetherness. There was nothing jarring, nothing that seemed out of place or foreign - except perhaps those two pale skinned fellows in their Ghazni coats. But even they seemed to somehow fit in.
A caravanserai on the silk route for thousands of years, Kunduz had seen men from all nations pass through. The Hindu-Kush was the crossroads of Asia, and for invaders from the North the main bastion to be taken before reaching India. Here passed caravans from the Levant and Persia to Tibet and China, from Samarkand and Bukhara to Baluchistan and the Sind; the legions and hordes of Alexander, Genghis Khan and Tamerlane; Buddhist missionaries from the Gangetic plains and Mecca-bound pilgrims from as far away as Turfan and Xian. All these crossings and invasions had made the Afghans open-minded, yet alert. They seemed extremely observant, but unlike Arabs and Iranians, always eager to make their presence felt, they left us blissfully alone. One felt respected in their midst - and as a result one respected them.
Still, we felt it would be nice to blend in a little more and started shopping for turbans. A good one, we soon found out, was between four and five yards long, made of the finest silk, and cost more than you would think. We had several fittings, one as hilarious as the other due to our desperate struggles to give structure - leave alone style - to several yards of flimsy material. Even where we did not make a purchase we left happy owners and shop-assistants.
The idea was to pull one end over the crown of the head, leaving a flap of one or two feet hanging over the shoulders, and keep the cloth pressed to your skull as you quickly wound a few tight layers just above the ears. Then you started slanting up and down with each winding, creating an elegant cross-hatch right above the nose. As a final flourish you might make a few crazy loops over the top of your head to indicate your freedom from convention. The flap in the neck could be left as it was, a brazen tail, fluttering in the wind, or be pulled forward to protect the mouth and nose and tucked in under one of the ears (in the manner of the Saharan 'hommes bleus'), or folded forward over the crown and tucked in under the material covering the forehead (in the Sikh style). But the most important thing was that the whole contraption did not collapse at the first dainty step or get blown off by the faintest breeze.
Ewald finally settled on a chic mouse grey with black diamonds, the equivalent of a banker's necktie; I chose a pure white of the filmiest silk I could find. Photos taken in those early days of turbanism show that we managed the rough and ready look of gun-runners and horse-thiefs. The fact that we could walk into a busy teahouse without people poking each other in the ribs with laughter prove the Afghans highly civilised people.
Another part of blending in concerned our names. We had long found it tiresome to explain what they meant. One signified 'Mighty Bear' or 'Boar', I forget which, the other 'Rock'. They were not names that people called 'Slave of God', 'Love' or 'Guardian of the Shrine' could relate to. We both chose a name that expressed what we felt about ourselves. Ewald became Abdullah Ali Muhammad, an amalgam of the Prophet, his father and his spiritual heir, I Sharif-ud-Din, which stood for 'sincerity in religion' and almost cried out for a title for or aft: Sharif-ud-Din Khan, or better still, Sheikh Sharif-ud-Din, the former suggesting nobility, the latter spiritual leadership.
A Sufi Sheikh in India once told me an anecdote about pretence. "If a man goes around the village behaving like a madman, people will regard him as madman. If he keeps it up long enough, the man himself won't know any better and has in fact become a madman. Similarly, if he goes around pretending to be holy man and behaves in the manner of holy men, people will regard him as a holy man. If he keeps it up long enough, will he not indeed have become a holy man?"
To all of those who aspire to saintliness but fear to be phony, this should be an underpinning that gets them through rainy days.
The weather, which had been unseasonably mild so far, turned vicious. By eleven, when we met up with Wali in a teahouse, a cruel Northern had started blowing in from the Central Asian steppe, dropping the mercury twenty degrees within an hour. The turbans, protecting our ears with ten layers of silk, proved a godsend. Wali, never worried to seem out of place, had equipped himself with a pair of fluffy Swiss earmuffs. Again, no poking in ribs.
The Russian-built jeep that Wali had arranged for the next stage, the village of Quaja-i-Ghar, boasted only a single seat next to the driver, so Ewald and I had to ride in the back under a canvas top. Rather symbolically we had an open view of the scenery we left behind, but no indication where we were going. Once the outskirts of town had receded we were on open steppe, treeless and barren. The dominant features of the landscape were bumps and holes and deep ruts that made the jeep pitch and reel like a life boat on a rough sea.
Soon it started to snow, obliterating the last visual clues and reinforcing the feeling that we were close to Siberia. The only thing that kept us from freezing was the vigorous physical exertion required to stay on our wooden benches and not get thrown about like so much raw meat. We had been told that it would be only a short ride, yet after an hour we realized that we had failed to ask how short.
We called out to Wali and knocked on the cabin, but all our attempts at communication must have been drowned by the racket of the engine. The blizzard got worse, the jeep slowed down. We could feel it slide into depressions and heard the whine of spinning wheels as we laboured up inclines. After the second hour no amount of exercise could save us from freezing. The temperature was 0řF at best and our legs, covered only by worn jeans, started feeling like prostheses. We stopped looking out and took whatever strength we could from each other's presence.
After another half hour that made us feel like convicts being hauled to Kolyma, we started seeing some dark hulks in the grey mass behind us. Houses? Could it be that we were nearing our destination? The jeep stopped, the engine fell dead. A few seconds of silence. Then we heard the jeep's doors open and muffled footsteps come around to our window on the world. There appeared Wali, his beaver collar caressing his plump, well-shaven chin. 'Come, let's go inside while they ready our horses.'
Horses? Our? We clambered out of the mobile torture chamber and followed Wali to a low building with steamed-up windows. He opened the weather-beaten door for us like a king welcoming visiting dignitaries to his palace and showed us into a teahouse unlike any we had seen in Kabul. Its central feature was a huge stove. Around it, along three of the four walls, ran a two foot high platform, covered in carpets. At the open end was the kitchen, where an array of aluminium pans sat simmering over charcoal fires. Two antique copper samovars stood gleaming in a corner, fussed over and fondled by a scrawny old man who looked as happy as a dwarf who just found a goldmine no else knows about. We took off our boots, settled on the platform and within minutes had plates full of pilau on our laps and pots of green tea by our sides. Obviously Kolyma was still a ways off.
'Your barber will be here in a few minutes', Wali announced without looking up from his plate. 'I guess it doesn't have to be in the buttocks?'
I nearly choked on the chunk of lamb I had been chewing. 'My barber' - how thoughtful. Ewald looked at me with authentic pity. I couldn't stand it. There was nothing wrong with me. A minor inconvenience, that's all. The door opened to let in a gust of snow and an aging, but sturdy man. His beard was so white it looked like it had been bleached, which, given his profession, may well have been the case. He was greeted by many, pressed Wali's hand with enough attention to read his muscle tone and said: 'How are you my little boy?'
'Very well, father. But my brother is sick.'
The old man studied my face for a second, nodded gravely and held up his hand for the medicine he was to administer. He expertly burst an air bubble by flicking his index finger against the vial, asked the cook for his smallest saucepan and put a small syringe to boil on top of the blazing stove. All of this seemed to be pretty much routine. It was only when I had to drop my pants that people started looking up from their plates. I had offered my arm, but the old man insisted that he wanted more meat.
While holding up the front of my pants I managed to lower the hind section just enough to bare the upper quadrant of one buttock. The old man gently patted the target area like a mother enjoying the bouncy vitality of her baby. He had the needle in before I even knew and took half a minute to empty the syringe. The best shot I ever had, and the sweetest nurse. I became aware that everyone stared at me to see how I took it. When I hoisted up my pants I could feel a collective sigh of relief. It was only then that I realized the depth of their empathy. Either that or they were squeamish.
Four horses, their saddles covered with sackcloth, stood ready in front of the teahouse, tended by a Hazari who looked like Genghis would have dismissed him for cruelty. His eyes were reduced to slits so narrow that it was impossible to gauge which way he was glancing, and one corner of his mouth was twisted up in a perpetual sneer. Wali explained that our host had sent this trusted servant ahead to guide us. He assured us that it was only a short distance. We did not ask how short. I looked at the horses. Large, naked beasts that appeared not in the least uncomfortable.
I had never been on a horse before - if you discounted the odd ride on a beach as a six year old. Ewald's riding expertise was in the same league. Luckily we had seen enough slapstick movies to know how to mount without falling over to the other side or end up facing the tail. The horses turned out to be amiable fellows, quite happy to stay in a casual trot. I tried to keep my back straight and saw Ewald struggling to do the same while appearing to be at ease. Still, most of our energy went into efforts not to loose sight of Wali and the guide who took ridges and descents into ravines with so much more skill that often we had to break into a gallop to catch up.
After half an hour the snow let up. Clusters of low, walled houses dotted the horizon, some of them graced by stands of trees. Strands of smoke curled up into the sky like vines, promising warmth, security, survival. Wali reined in his horse and let us come abreast. 'This is my territory. From here to the Amu Daria.' The Amu river, the natural frontier between Central and South Asia, the Oxus of Alexander... How neat: our friend actually possessed a chunk of Oxiana. I cannot recall any acute pangs of jealousy but they may have been overridden by more acute pangs in my butt. It is one thing to have talent and ambition, and another to have land and history. Bearing in mind Robert Graves's admonition, "talent is a whip which you are given for the sole purpose of self-flagellation" a sane man would take the land any day.
We crested a ridge and looked out over an undulating field, sloping down to the slithering quicksilver of the Amu Daria, half a mile away. 'The border of my land', Wali pointed out, neglecting to mention the lesser fact that it was also the border of Afghanistan. On the Russian side a range of snow-clad hills stood guard. A flight of ducks just made their escape, flying South with steadfast determination.
Following the ridge Westward we rode into a village of undistinguished mud houses and unpaved alleys. An old woman straining under a pail of water stood aside and turned her face away as we passed. Entering a tall gate with wooden doors that had creaked open upon our approach, we found ourselves on the courtyard of a rambling homestead. Servants took our reins and helped us onto solid ground. Young boys came rushing up and greeted Wali with the respectful glee accorded a doting uncle.
A dozen women came scurrying out of various doorways and proceeded to saunter by, pretending to be engaged in some task demanding their passage across the courtyard, and tarrying long enough to get a good eyeful of the strangers. They wore wide cotton pants, embroidered bodices encrusted with scores of tiny mirrors, and pounds of silver. The younger ones were disturbingly attractive; slim and erect, they radiated a thoroughbred vitality. I knew that it was not good form to give them more than a cursory glance, but found it hard to keep my manners. With their dark, gamesome eyes, they looked like they could keep a man from sleep for days.
Suddenly they all scooted away. From the shadows of a porch appeared an elderly man with a fine grey beard, his arms crossed and the hands tucked into the long sleeves of his quilted coat. Our host, Rassoul Khan. Wali walked up to embrace him, then introduced us. He used our Muslim names. The old man looked us in the eyes and pressed our hands, holding them long enough to study the deepest recesses of our souls. He welcomed us with phrases that were cliches of Oriental travel even a hundred years ago, but sounded as fresh as if they had just welled up in his bosom: 'I am glad to see you. Any friends of Wali to me are like my own children. Please regard this humble residence as your own. Anything you desire please feel free to ask.'
I thought of the pistol and the empty suitcase.
We followed our host into a windowless room with a blazing fireplace and a splendid carpet in deep burgundy, accented by tiny dashes as white as fresh fallen snow. The only decoration on the walls was a framed lithograph of the Ka'aba. A green scarf had been draped over the top of the frame. Probably a souvenir from Mecca.
'Have you made the Haj?' Ewald asked.
'Yes, it has been the wish of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate, to allow me to go.'
'It is my deepest wish to go once myself', Abdullah Ali Muhammad spoke. (No attempt at flattery here: it still is his deepest wish today.)
'Of course. It is in the heart of every believer. We all want it. But is not until we go that we know what we have wanted. The Haj is a great gift. Nothing else on earth can bring a man closer to God.'
Sheikh Sharif-ud-Din wanted to ask if Allah was not supposed to be omnipresent. As Muhammad Ben Al-Fadl said: "I wonder at those who seek His temple in this world. Why do they not seek contemplation in their hearts? The temple they sometimes attain and sometimes miss, but contemplation they might enjoy always." However, it seemed the wrong moment for theological dispute.
Two younger men came in, both carrying automatic assault rifles, ammo belts strapped across their chests. Rassoul's first son and a nephew. They parked the guns near the door, greeted their patriarch, embraced Wali and pressed our hands so firmly that more than a welcome was communicated. The nephew, called Mahmud, was cock-eyed and had the nervous demeanour of a man who has been badgered from childhood. Rassoul's son, Bashir Khan, had the eagle's nose of an Afghani noble, clear eyes, and that aura of independence, that ironic defiance which makes a man seem invincible. He expressed his delight in seeing us, but was too sovereign and brash to avoid the impression that he could afford to be welcoming because we were wholly at his mercy.
After some of Rassoul Khan's younger sons had served us tea, cakes, fruits and other light refreshments, Wali asked if he could see his horses. All except Rassoul went outside to the stables. It was nearly dark now, but two servants with paraffin lamps provided a pleasant warm glow. The rentals that we had arrived on had been tethered to a pole near the entrance. They would stay overnight and be driven back the next day. Not one of them looked up as we passed. We went through a door with heavy wooden bolts and entered the stables proper, two rows of six boxes. Twelve pairs of eyes watched our every move. Wali went straight up to a dark horse that whinnied with childish excitement, nuzzled his armpit and seemed to kiss his hands.
'I always keep my horses here on the estate. They are taken so well care of... No one of course rides them, but they are exercised daily.' You didn't need much equestrian education to see that this was a magnificent horse. Lively, bright, well-proportioned.
'A full-blooded Arab', said Bashir Khan. He smiled his little smile - cocksure and sardonic and only an inch short of vain. 'He has three of them.'
Wali put his arm around Bashir's shoulders and pulled him close: 'Yes and they have twenty of them. Isn't that so, brother?'
The recognition seemed to warm Bashir Khan. 'Twenty four now. Only nine of them here, the rest are in my place.'
Wali whispered in French: 'Five, six thousand Swiss francs a piece.'
We followed Bashir Khan to a box with a stallion that looked like it had been carved out of ebony. The animal observed us with big alert eyes but did nothing to indicate that it was impressed with our presence.
'This is my father's favourite.' You only had to see its face to realise that this was yet another class up. The horse exuded touching sensitivity, but no eagerness to please. 'He has not served as a stud for three years. He's hot! Ooaah! Only Rassoul Khan can ride him. We are not strong enough.' His father, we had just learned, was sixty-eight. I grinned to indicate that I appreciated the self-deprecatory note, but Bashir Khan insisted: 'No, we cannot ride him. He would break our bones.'
When we returned to the guest wing, dinner was served. It was not nearly as Epicurean as our meal in Kunduz, but for an adobe homestead in Oxiana it was rich - though so poorly spiced that my tastebuds fell asleep. Between mouthfuls Bashir Khan dropped hints that the fall harvest had been even worse than his father had previously estimated. Especially the almonds had been badly hit. Late spring frost, hail storms, birds, bugs, thieves - it was a miracle there was a single almond left. Wali did not comment on these cumulative mishaps. He just grunted his regrets and told us what transpired in sarcastic asides.
Bashir Khan skipped deserts and played with a pistol that he apparently just bought. Knowing that, short of praise for their cocksmanship, little pleases men more than a chance to show off their toys, I asked to see the gun. It was a .38 Sig. Made in Switzerland. A graceful piece, by martial standards. None of the angularity that the culture of death seems to demand, but smooth flowing lines. It was a strange pleasure to hold. Not like it was made for your hand but like your hand was made for it. Or was that the way appetite translated itself?
'Where did you find this?'
'In Peshawar (neighbouring Pakistan). We get everything in Peshawar.'
'That too?' I indicated his assault rifle. It looked like a Kalashnikov.
'No, our brothers bring across the river...' He smiled and caressed his Sigg. 'Russian trucks, Russian jeeps, Russian guns - very cheap, very good.' He paused, qualified his judgment. 'For Afghani people good. Strong, easy repair. For you not good.' Was he putting us in the spoiled brats bracket?
Bashir held up his pistol. 'You like this, right? I like too. Same Wali, I love the good things. Afghani people different. Afghani like...' He held out his hand, wordlessly demanding his cousin's pistol, then handed it over. It but bore no brand-name and felt like a lump.
'What is this?'
'Copy of a Czech pistol. Made in Peshawar. For the price of one Sigg, twenty of these. Much better. Afghani people do not pay for luxury.'
'How about you? Aren't you Afghani?'
'Ah yes, Afghani.'
'But you do pay for luxury.'
'Ah yes, I enjoy too much.'
'Don't try to make him identify himself with the Afghani people', Wali said softly. 'Il est Afghan, bien entendu, mais c'est tout autre chose que faire parti du peuple Afghan.'
It was handy to have this secret language. Like a second sound track for comments and questions. 'What about cousin Mahmud? He doesn't seem to be above Peshawar specials.'
'Bashir Khan is Rassoul's heir. Mahmud is only a younger brother's second son. He is fully dependent on Bashir. When Rassoul dies, he will be like a servant.'
'How would Rassoul's decease affect your position?'
'These are proud people - proud and loyal. They uphold their traditions and honour commitments.' Wali reflected a moment and seemed to conclude that the formal line would not go down well with us. 'Actually Bashir can be a hard nut to crack.'
'Because he's got all those guns?'
'No, because I like him.'
Our bedroom adjoined the dining area. It had no fireplace, but it was pleasantly warm, like an incubator. The back of the hearth projected into the room and the walls were hollow, allowing hot air from the fireplace to circulate all around us. For once we would not have to sleep in our clothes.
'Aaah...', Wali sighed as he stretched out on his mattress, 'how good to be back here. I hate the city.' He made it sound like he spoke of a clanging metropolis, maddened by the rat race. His empty suitcase stood in a corner. I wondered where the pistol was.
'You said you like Bashir. But isn't he scheming to cut you out of your percentage?'
'Sure, he is nibbling at my share, but this is merely theatrics, all part of the game. He is still my friend. If anyone should threaten me, he would give his life to protect me. These people here are the best comrades a man can have in the world; a lot better than those shifty Pashtus from the South.' He paused. 'And they can be the worst enemies. Very cruel. We have a saying: "The ire of the Pashtu is sweeter than the smile of the Uzbek." They flail people alive, do horrible things to their genitals...'
Wonderful. A little horror story at bedtime was just what I needed.
'There's a treatment they call "pulling off the shirt", specially reserved for spies and traitors. They slit a man's skin around the waist, carefully pull it up all the way over his head, tuck his arms in like a dog in a sack and tighten it with a string. The guy suffocates in his own skin.'
How creative. This really endeared me to our hosts. Ewald had just been pulling off his turtle-neck but on second thought he kept it on. Wali blew out the oil lamp. 'Keep in mind: if they are your friends, this is what they'll do to your enemies. You are completely safe here.'
The breakfast was nutritious, but again so bland that you wondered if taste was supposed to be a sin here. Flat bread of coarse-ground flour, water, and eggs that had been boiled for a minute; warm, but raw, and supposed to be sucked out. For someone queasy about runny eggs it was a cruel ordeal, but I thought of my liver and the need for protein and braved them for the duration of our stay.
As I struggled to get the third blob of lukewarm goo down my throat, Wali inspected a stack of double-barrelled rifles that one of Rassoul's younger sons had brought in. The day's program called for a duck hunt. Did we want to shoot too? Sure. I really preferred ducks pre-shot, plucked and grilled, but there was a glaring element of cowardice in a carnivore loath to kill. I had better get over that. For himself Wali selected a beautifully finished Russian gun. The barrels had been engraved with scenes of a boar hunt done in a florid, almost calligraphic style. Party bosses apparently shared country squire tastes. Ewald and I settled for two plain rifles that looked like they would not explode in our faces. Picking the right horses for us was more difficult. We had made a good impression on the way up, but they did not want to risk our necks on some of their more unruly monsters. A fine balancing act on the thin line between tedium and risk. Fortunately Wali reined in my tendency to lean towards thrills. It would get bad enough.
The morning would be spent on what Wali announced as an inspection tour, but there seemed to be little to inspect. All we did was ride around … volont‚ through some of the most pristine territory on earth. Vast expanses of rolling pasture with patches of snow, little gorges with fast flowing brooks, rocky outcrops painted yellow, mauve and purple by lichens. Total, dimensionless silence. Only the breathing of our horses and the occasional shriek of a bird overhead. We rode East for a few miles to the Kokcha river, another natural border of our friend's domain, followed it downstream till its confluence with the Amu Daria, then headed West to some grassy knolls with the remains of an old Greek settlement.
Circa 250 B.C., a century after the death of Alexander the Great, the colony he left behind here established the Bactrian Kingdom of the Greeks, which held out for some three hundred years and influenced the style of sculpture, particularly the representation of Buddha, as far a field as Burma and Japan. The ruins consisted of little more than scattered fragments of columns and flagstones, but what the heck, there are plenty of people who would give millions for some scattered Greek ruins in their back yards. As we stood staring at the rubble, trying to work up a sense of historic drama, a line of dark figures became visible on the Soviet side of the Amu Daria: a caravan of thirty camels slowly emerging from a snowbound pass. We watched in fascination how they descended to the river and, without a moment's hesitation, waded through to our side, momentarily suggesting the shape of a long bridge with thirty arches.
As they trekked on across a snowy field in that deliberate, unhurried stride that is the pride of their race, I held my breath in wonder at the beauty of this sight. Camels in the snow... There was something highly incongruous in the image, yet at the same time it was subtly artistic. A Chinese scroll painting in the Northern Song style. That rhythmical line of reiterated dark shapes, off-set daringly by a bright white background, suggested the confidence of a great master. Three falcons soaring high above pulled into frame the expanse of stark azure sky, a few lone trees accentuated the emptiness and vastness of the landscape. Even Wali, who must not have been a stranger to scenes like these, was spellbound. It was not just that the past had come to life before our eyes, but that the present was still so innocent, so virginal.
When the caravan neared we saw that only a few of the camels carried any kind of load, indicating that they were on their way to be sold on a market. They were real Bactrians; not the scrawny, single-hump beasts popularised by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, but heavy-duty two-humpers with masses of thick brown fur that bounced as they passed by. Capable of withstanding the extremes of temperature of the Gobi desert, the Pamirs and the Hindu Kush, these were the animals that had made the silk route possible, and the greatest exchange of culture of all times.
We followed them with our eyes as they ascended the slope and disappeared behind the crest. 'Let's go and have lunch', Wali said. 'I'll race you back to the house.' He sped off at once. Our horses, Turkmenian Akhal-Tekes bred for Genghis's ferocious raids, needed no prompting and instantly gave chase, not worrying whether we were ready for that or not. I wasn't. Still busy stuffing my camera into my satchel, I didn't even have the reins in hand. I managed to close the buckle of the bag with one hand while holding on to the pommel with the other, then bent over to grab the reins, but just at that moment my rear was thrown in the air. I shot forward, slung both arms around the horse's neck in a desperate attempt to prevent a fall and before I knew I was hanging under the galloping animal, one leg still over it's shoulder, the other dangling in the air, frantically searching for any kind of hold.
The animal probably took part in enough buzkashi games (those romping events where scores of frenzied horsemen compete for the possession of a calf's cadaver) not to be worried about riders hanging on to it in odd positions. It did not slow down in the least and kept surging forward, in hot pursuit of its rivals.
The realisation that, if I did not regain the saddle, I might at best arrive at Rassoul Khan's fortress clinging to the underside of a horse, gave me miraculous powers. With a Herculean effort I swung my body back on top, albeit in front of the saddle. I grabbed the reins, pulled hard and made the animal take a breather as I shifted my behind a foot to the rear. Then I let it dash off again, racing to catch up. I arrived twenty seconds after my peers - a major disgrace, but that could be blamed on a slow horse.
When we rode out again, fortified and rested, we carried the guns on our backs. Bashir, one of his sons and a servant had joined us. We rode West this time, along the Northern perimeter of the village, then descended towards the river along a narrow path between gardens and orchards that were protected by a five foot wall. We rounded a corner and saw a bony, riderless horse stand by the side of the road, near a spot where part of the orchard wall had caved in.
Bashir swore under his breath, galloped to the suspect spot and peered into the garden. Seeing nothing, he sent his son and the servant in for an inspection. After five minutes they returned with a man in ragged clothes who carried an empty jute sack. There followed a rapid interrogation. The man said he had seen a partridge and wanted to catch it.
He was not believed.
Some almonds had remained on the trees, to be picked in better weather. The accused's sack was emptied to see how many he had pinched. A few almonds fell out; no more than a handful. The man said he brought them from home.
He was not believed.
Bashir took out a long riding whip and gave the man a lash across his chest - not viciously, but firm enough to ingrain a sense of authority. His son took the man's horse by the reins and rode off, back to the homestead. The servant turned around too and told the man to walk ahead.
'What will they do with him', we asked Wali.
'He will be freed tomorrow morning, but they will keep his horse. He can come back to retrieve it in a couple of days. He says he comes from a village across the river, but that's not true. They will find out where he is from and report him to his khan. He has no business being here.'
'But what if he were actually hunting a partridge, and found a few almonds?'
'He'd still be a thief. Any game here is our game, not his.'
'Would it not be possible', Ewald said, 'that this whole arrest was staged for your benefit?'
'What do you mean', Wali asked sharply.
'They told you they had been troubled by thieves, and lo: there's a thief. How convenient.'
For a moment, Wali looked at him speechlessly. Then he awarded him a smile of admiration. 'Mon dieu, you are worse than me.'
We rode on in grim silence, the pastoral ambience defiled. As we descended to the river the landscape became increasingly inhospitable. No curvaceous hills here on the Soviet bank, but perpendicular cliffs, dark and slick, looming over us only fifty yards away. The Amu Daria, a foaming and raging stream, was patently impassable. Affected by the sullen mood of the party, I confronted the sombre wall of stone as if it was something absolute, something that had a direct bearing on my existence.
So this was the Soviet Union. I allowed a chill to run along my spine, savouring the suspense. I had seen several countries that the Russians occupied, but never laid eyes on the evil empire itself. Scanning the rocks with Wali's field-glasses I spotted a single wooden guard hut, tainted the dark brown of the rocks, three hundred feet above. I focused on the black slot of the embrasure, expecting to see the glint of a rifle - or of another pair of field-glasses, as I had often seen on photo-safaris along the East German border. Nothing. No sign of life. Was this section guarded at all? The casual passage of the caravan suggested a relaxed regime - at least for the tribals who might otherwise get fractious. Still, this sheer rock-face was an ideal surface on which to project all the fear and revulsion of a cold war. I hated that rock.
Trotting downstream a few hundred yards we came to a marshy area in the inside of a bend. Clumps of shrub hid shallow pools of still water, shimmering in the breaking sun. Perfect duck ponds, no doubt about it. But no ducks. We kept a little distance and waited. Twenty minutes later, still no game.
Bashir announced that he couldn't afford to stay longer and galloped off, looking like he was itching to flog someone. The three of us stayed, enjoying the bond that was forming. We talked about Wali's love for Switzerland and our love for Afghanistan, his plans for the future and our lack of plans... Suddenly a flight of ducks appeared, gliding towards us with the river. Wali took aim as they dived in the direction of the pool nearest us, fired and missed. Ewald and I both got out a shot too, but the terrorised ducks were already flapping off in all directions. We didn't hurt any of them. Relief mixed with frustration. They had been so close by...
I stared hard at the communist bulwark on the other bank, braving us so impudently, aimed my rifle and took a pot-shot at a slender rock shard, standing on a ledge like a man contemplating to jump. The rock wobbled for a few seconds, then crashed down into the water.
No one asked what on earth I did that for. The heroism or honour accrued was distinctly minor, but there was a major ideological satisfaction. I might never be able to conquer or subvert the Soviet Union, but I at least had taken a shot at it.
Over dinner Bashir was his old self again. Brazen yet charming. He had shot a partridge on the way back and prided himself that he had sent the almond-thief home already - be it on foot. To Wali, in theory the most damaged party, he excused his leniency: 'He's only a poor fellow. My men know him. He's from across the river indeed, be it not the Amu but the Kokcha. I'll have a word with his lord when I get over there next week.' Wali nodded in assent, but it was clear that the convenience of the arrest kept nagging him. The after-dinner discussions again underscored how bad the harvest had been - without itemized accounting. Would they let Wali go back with an empty suitcase?
I had missed my shot that day and it was decided that I should not miss another. The next morning Rassoul provided horses and a servant for a trip to Quaja-i-Ghar. It had been a clear night and at nine in the morning it was still bitter cold. Rassoul saw Ewald and me in our Ghazni coats and warned that they would not do. We showed him the thick fur inside, but he shook his head. What we needed were coats such as he wore himself, long enough to cover the knees. Unfortunately, he only had one to spare, a luscious camel riding coat that belonged to Bashir. Like any window seat it had found an occupant before I knew.
We were given the services of Aman, the same Hazari who had guided us on our way in. He was more congenial now, his face less twisted. Either because he realized how close we were to his masters, or because they weren't around. On open terrain we rode three abreast, with Aman in the middle; wherever the going was rough he led the way. A cutting wind from the North blew across the steppe, scalding any exposed parts of the skin, but we were unspeakably proud to have become accomplished horsemen overnight and braved he cold with panache.
Aman, soon discovering that we needed little spurring to get out of a trot, dared us to sprints and taught us the Uzbek slalom: the one in the rear overtakes the one in the middle, cuts in front of him to the other side, passes the next horse and takes up the lead - to be repeated over and over in a continuous braiding of the tracks that tends to go faster and faster. The horses loved it and got so competitive that soon they started snarling and snapping at each other. If we had not restrained them they would have ended up rolling in the snow like dogs.
I wore two pairs of trousers one over the other, but the Ghazni coat indeed proved hopelessly inadequate. After an hour my knees became painful, fifteen minutes later they were numb and by the time we reached Quaja they seemed no longer to be part of me. Alas, when I dismounted at the teahouse and tried to walk they proved to be there alright. The pain was excruciating. I groaned like a woman in childbirth and had to stifle myself so as not to scream. Fainting would have been wonderful.
Supported by Ewald and Aman I made it to the teahouse. I went straight for the stove but Aman steered me away from it. He pulled off my boots and let me crawl onto the platform, all the way to the far wall. The thawing, he indicated, had to proceed slowly to prevent greater pain. Hot tea was okay though, and there we no contra-indications to yek pao with raisins. Every ten minutes I was allowed forward six feet. After half an hour I sat dangling my legs off the edge of the platform, leaning my body forward to get as close as possible to the healing heat. The gradual convergence turned out to be common practice. You could tell how long a man had been inside from his proximity to the stove. A few old-timers squatted on the floor right next to it, their faces red with the glow.
My medicine-man had been out on house-calls but eventually he did show up. He was told about my knees but said it was nothing. The fact that it had been painful was wonderful news. He suggested buying a few yards of cloth and just wrapping my legs up. Ewald went out and bought some towels that might come in handy anyway if some day we would take a bath again. When the shot had been placed - in the arm this time, meat or no meat - we decided to test my legs with a tour of the village. Aman strongly urged us to go straight back, pointing to the leaden sky, but now that we were here we wanted to get as much out of it as possible.
It was far back in the middle-ages. Tiny wooden shops open to the elements where men bundled up in quilted coats sat freezing behind some greens and carrots, a pile of Indian textiles or sacks of dusty rice. A tinker repaired a broken earthenware jar by drilling a series of holes and lacing the pieces together with string. At the horse parking lots guards with rime-covered beards sat watching the animals and saddle bags of travellers. The streets were frozen mud pits; horsemen and open carriages dashed across the ruts without regard for safety or comfort. The camels took it easier, unwilling to trade dignity for dispatch. The people were friendly, but seemed a little afraid of us, perhaps we looked like landed gentry: warm clothes, sturdy leather boots and a servant hovering around us to wipe snow off our saddles, carry our parcels and generally look after our well-being.
On the periphery of the bazaar a butcher had just slaughtered a goat and was washing the entrails in a bucket as his son hacked the carcass into indifferent chunks. Some fifty feet away three animals that looked like wolves stood watching his every move, their teeth bared. One of them gradually slunk closer, the others followed at a distance. The leader lowered its head and tensed its muscles, ready, it seemed, for attack.
'Wolves?' I asked Aman.
'No, dogs. Wolf, dog, mixed.'
'How can you tell?'
He took his ear between thumb and index finger and with the other hand made a snipping movement. Then we saw: all three missed the tips of their ears. Of course, how could we forget: 'What is the difference between a wolf and a dog? The dog has trimmed ears.'
'Wolves not in villages. Out there.' Aman pointed in the direction we would be heading.
The butcher took a stick and waved it at the hungry canines. They made no move, but dug in their heels. One of them emitted a howl of frustration. A few camels being loaded nearby became nervous. One of the bales of cotton thudded down and burst a seam. The camel-driver barked something at the butcher that made him pick up a cleaver and dash at the dogs. They scampered away - but only a few paces; then they stopped to confirm that the pursuit had ceased. They immediately stole forward again, frenzied by the smell of blood. Great place to shop for little old ladies.
The rest of the village, too, was strong on atmospherics but as Aman kept nagging us to return we agreed that under the circumstances a cursory acquaintance would suffice. The simple life may have its attractions, particularly for those who are not condemned to lead it, but there is a level of indigence that is painful to even watch.
Our horses stood tied under an awning and were raring to go. They probably felt the snow in their bones, because we had hardly left Quaja when the blizzard hit us. Snowflakes as large as powder puffs, thrown at us by crazy, whirling winds. I felt a strange, subdued excitement; energy trying to come to a boil but somehow kept solid, as if deep down I knew that I should conserve my strength.
We passed through a cotton field where naked plants stood dying in the frost, their scraggy skeletons adorned by fluffy tufts: a poetic mimicry of snowflakes caught in the twigs. We were enchanted. Here we were riding across the steppe with our servant like two Uzbek knights errant, braving the elements and the desolation, on their way to great, historic deeds...
Aman seemed affected by the same sentiment. He pointed in the distance: 'Hazari!' We peered ahead, seeing nothing but the white maelstrom and the dark shapes of farms, lying low like hibernating animals. Aman insisted: 'Hazari!' With a sweeping movement across the horizon he called up the hordes of his forefathers: 'Hazari, Hazari, Hazari...!' Now we saw them: Genghis Khan's thousands, evoked by the dark interstices between the flakes, a vast army. They rode across the land in waves, bows and arrows raised in the air, the tails of their turbans fluttering like pennons.
Soon there were no interstices left. Visibility was down to thirty yards. The enchantment faded and an element of fear crept in. We had no way to tell whether we were on a path or a field or on the brink of a canyon. If we should lose sight of Aman, riding a few yards ahead, death might be our next companion. Taking up the rear I felt extra vulnerable. Maybe we'd better ride three abreast... Suddenly I glimpsed dirty white shapes flitting by to my right. It was not an observation, just a fleeting impression of something furry and very fast.
Now I spotted them to the left of me, keeping pace alongside a few strides before disappearing into the white whorl. In this mad flurry it was hard to scrutinise the finer points of their anatomy. I shouted a warning to Ewald who in turn alerted Aman. We halted, peering into the white stew, saw nothing and rode on warily. Two minutes later Ewald yelled in terror and made a frantic movement with his leg that almost threw him off his horse. Had he been bitten? Before I knew they were on to me, two of them running along on my right, one on the left. I took my whip, bent down in the buzkashi routine that Aman had demonstrated, and struck one in the neck. The short yelp signaled anger as much as pain. Between flashing hooves and eddies of snow appeared two sets of glittering teeth. Only then did I notice the pointed ears.
Aman made a sharp turn and started running circles around us, howling hoarsely and swiping at the animals with his whip. I wished Wali was with us with his pistol. In fact Bashir and his Kalashnikov would have been equally welcome. I had visions of spraying gunfire, blood being spattered in the snow...
When the wolves had not shown themselves for half a minute Aman motioned us to stay close and gave his horse free rein, spurring it on by kicking its flanks with his heels. We stormed after him blindly into the white unknown. We would have followed him to the edge of the earth - and right off it, had he thought it a good idea.
I regretted having delayed our return. Should have listened to Aman. I could only hope that we would not see a real-life enactment of Tolstoy's 'Master and Man', where a headstrong master, against his man's better judgment, takes detours that cause them to get lost in a snowstorm and freeze to death. (In the tale, the serf's body lays sprawled over his master's, proof that he has tried to save his murderer's life with the warmth of his own body. Would Aman prove equally devoted?)
Aman slowed down. We had come to one of the many ravines that cut through the land. Like most, it was only some thirty feet deep, but steep, forcing us to lean well back in the saddle. The horses seemed to know the path by heart and descended without hesitation. Still, they frequently stumbled on rocks hidden below the snow, sliding down on their forefeet till they found a new hold. We crossed the shallow, rushing brook at the bottom and climbed up the other bank, bent forward now as if intent on kissing our horses in the neck. When we reached the high ground we found ourselves on the outskirts of a village.
Home? Yes indeed. As we rode into the village, sheltered now by the walls of the houses, I felt as if a heavenly hand lifted a heavy riding coat off my shoulders. Life would go on. Everything we had built up so far was still there - and more. Gratitude filled my being. I wished we could stay here forever.
We remained three more days on Rassoul Khan's homestead, sitting in on the financial discussions that gradually became more concrete, meeting a dozen other members of the clan, and riding when weather permitted. We also got to learn a lot about firearms. All the adult males in the clan carried assault rifles or pistols, most often both, which were constantly passed around for inspection and admiration. Pride of ownership and loving care culminated in supreme marksmanship. Splitting twigs at a hundred yards was commonplace. Witnessing their single-minded dedication it became hard not to share their boyish enthusiasm for a sparrow shot out of the air from full gallop. The sparrow was given to a servant to put in his soup.
Although servants were often employed to take this or that gun from storage or bring some ammo, they were clearly not allowed to use guns themselves. If they should ever decide to take up arms, they'd be desperately short of practice. As for dissent or dissatisfaction, we detected no tell-tale signs. The servants seemed to be treated fairly - inasmuch as possible within a system where one man has everything and the other has nothing. They were not yelled at or demeaned otherwise, but treated much like dependent cousins, which many of them probably were.
One morning over breakfast Rassoul told us that the headmaster of the school would pay a visit. I had hardly sucked out my last egg when an elderly man with a cane was led into the courtyard by a barefoot young boy. He wore no turban, just a skull cap over his short-cropped, snow-white hair. The two of them remained standing expectantly, one clearly not seeing where he was, the other too awed to look around. Rassoul walked up to the old man and greeted him jocularly. The headmaster chuckled like a schoolboy. I could not escape the impression that he was mildly senile.
Wali introduced us in what must have been glowing terms. The old man told us that it was an honour to meet us Men of the Book. Rassoul declared that the headmaster was a savant of renown who knew the Qoran by heart before he was six years old. For the last fifty years he had been trying to get the children of the village to acquire the same level of erudition. So far, in vain. His only pupil who had ever memorised the entire Qoran had been fourteen years old. Alas, the boy had died of consumption a year later.
Did we want to visit the school? Absolutely, we thirsted to see the local seat of learning. We followed the old man out into the village, a whole procession that elicited the usual scurrying around of women dying to see and dying to be seen but too scared to permit themselves either. The schoolhouse, a basic adobe box with holes in the wall for windows, contained about a dozen kids, all boys, who had been rolling about with pleasure until our arrival. At the headmaster's entrance they hurriedly sat down on the dirt floor behind low wooden lecterns.
'They are very obedient', the headmaster spoke with a satisfied grin. 'And if they are not, I hit them. The little bastards think I cannot see them, but I know exactly where they are.'
He raised his well-worn cane, swung it, and accurately landed it on the shoulder of a boy in the first row. They boy hardly winced. In Uzbekistan they don't wear softies well.
'So you teach them the Qoran', Ewald said, rather pouring on the syrup. 'That is splendid.'
'Yes, Holy Qoran. Every day. It is very important.'
On command, the boys recited a few surahs. There was little indication of their level of understanding, but Catholic kids, too, used to learn their pater-nosters without having a clue what they were mumbling. First you mould the jug and bake it, only then you pour in the oil.
'What else do you teach them?' I wanted to know.
The headmaster seemed baffled: 'Else?'
Rassoul solved the conundrum: 'These are peasants' children.'
'Your own children and grandchildren would not be taught here, would they?'
'O yes, Bashir and my other sons went here as well. All our children go. But after they learn to read and write we send them to Kunduz. After that, some of them go to study in Peshawar or Lahore. Three of my sons have completed university.'
'Why not in Kabul?'
Rassoul became inflamed: 'Kabul is a bad university. No religion. Only communism!' He looked Ewald and me over to see if we showed the least disagreement, then, seeing nothing, he let his anger smoulder. He walked out of the school building without a word to the old headmaster, who still stood beaming with pleasure at the royal visit.
'This is our big problem in this country', Rassoul said when we caught up with him. 'The enemies of Allah are taking over. But we shall not allow them here on our own domain. Here, we live the life Allah ordained. Here, we have happiness.'
On the last night, after an extra lavish meal, the financial dispute was finally settled. There followed no instant stuffing of the suitcase, but Wali was happy with the deal and confident that they would stick to it. The actual pay-out would be made at the house of Bashir, who, under his father's wings, had started functioning as the estate's steward. Next morning's breakfast, too, was richer than usual. Someone must have discovered our predilection for cake for there was quite a stack of it, though no one else seemed to like it.
Rassoul embraced Ewald and me like sons going away on a long journey. 'May God be with you on your journey - and may he grant me the joy to see you again.' I felt the sincerity in his embrace and was deeply moved. On my departure not many of my own relatives had spoken of their desire to see me return so eloquently, nor pressed me to their bosom with such feeling. If a man could choose his own grandfather, my choice was made.
The ride to Bashir's place, some twenty miles away, turned into a jolly outing. The weather was mild and with all the younger brothers, cousins and in-laws who wished to see us off we were quite a party. All the men seemed relieved that the thorn of contention had finally been pulled out and took turns romping with Wali, now once again the buddy they used to spend their summers with. They would come riding up furiously and flash their buzkashi whips by his steed's eyes, trying to frighten it into rearing, or attempt to grab the bridle and wrest control from his hands. Once six of them ganged up on him and shut his horse in so tightly that they could force it to a full stop. Wali pulled his pistol and jokingly fired in the air, the signal for a massive display of firepower that made a few peasants, just crossing the field on foot, cower in a snowdrift.
We felt that to any central authority, bands of horsemen like this might be a formidable challenge. Wali laughed: 'You know how many men Rassoul commands? Within twenty-four hours he can muster a heavily armed cavalry of two thousand men.'
'Two thousand men? Makes your single pistol a joke, doesn't it?' (Of course he still had his bodyguards.)
'It is not the number of guns you have, my friend', Wali responded princely to my pin-prick, 'it is what you are willing to do with the ones you have.'
'If there had been a clash - would you have shot Bashir? Rassoul?'
Wali abruptly became distant, almost contemptuous. 'We are friends. No such problems could possibly have arisen.'
'But then, why did you bring the pistol at all?'
'If a man goes unarmed here, that is not a good signal. One may question his resolve.'
'His manliness even?'
'No one respects a man who does not make himself a strong as he can be.'
'What about us? No guns - don't they think us a couple of pushovers?'
Wali smiled slyly: 'You are foreigners. They don't know what you keep under your clothes.'
The reception at Bashir's was like a stag party, except that guns replaced girls as the topic of conversation. Wali tried to stay on the sidelines without becoming too much of an outsider. Ewald and I, expended by the wild ride and the largely vain effort to understand what was being said, soon became drowsy by the warmth of the fire. We stealthily nibbled a titbit of hash and let ourselves sag into the bolsters like two settled noblemen too jaded to share in the knight-errants' tumult.
Feeding the horde, now swollen to about twenty men, appeared no problem. Massive amounts of rice with mutton were carried in, to be stowed away with boisterous joy in the abundance. Clearly, the more distant relatives could not expect to eat this well everyday. That they could today was a victory on hardship. To Bashir, being able to nourish them so copiously was a confirmation of his power. He relished his role, heaping favours on his guests' plates with almost aggressive largesse.
Just as servants helped us wash the grease off our hands, an old man was led in and welcomed tumultuously. He was introduced to us as Ustad Lola Akbar, given a seat of honour between Wali and Bashir and congratulated on his vigour. Ninety three years old and shrunken to the size of a dwarf, he had just celebrated the birth of his twelfth son. Lola chuckled with pleasure at the compliments. His face was flushed as if he had stood on his head for an hour and his eyes sparkled with an ecstatic intensity. Bashir informed us that Lola Akbar was the greatest living musician of all Uzbekistan.
The old man had brought a long parcel wrapped in cloth which he presently unwrapped. It was a major a let-down. An ektar: no more than a stick with a gourd attached and a lone string. The most primitive string instrument known to man. I had never heard it produce anything beyond the ploink-ploink of Nigerian griots and the scratching of Persian beggars. Great stuff for ethnomaniacs and culture snobs too highbrow to enjoy real music.
I was shamed. The old man picked up his bow and instantly commanded total silence. His first phrase slashed through the leather pouch around my heart, laying bare all the sadness of man's ultimate loneliness. A sustained slide over two octaves, it started de profundis and reached out to heaven, lingering in God's presence for a few scintillating seconds before withdrawing reluctantly - a plaintive plunge of four, five semi-notes, that was all it took to bring home the pain, the stab of separation and the primeval longing for love and union.
The next phrases seemed desperate attempts to reach the same exalted heights. Man, like the musician, was failing, but striving... Reaching out higher and higher, he built up desire, heightening the tension with each attempt, till finally he triumphed again, quavering with emotion as he attained the unitary state. Once more came that lamenting descent to the level that humans, imperfect mortals, can sustain. The hurt was like a cut from an angel's sword. The expulsion from the womb, the loss of kin and friends, the divorce from love that is egoism's price, the failure to materialize the mind's creations and speak the unspeakable... Melancholy comes in many colours but the longing is one and the same.
The old master began to sing. His voice was like a balm, soothing the wounds that his steel had cut. I heard gasps of relief, saw Bashir close his eyes to keep from crying. No man here was an island, no man a rock. All were naked souls, open to themselves and each other, blown about the steppe by gusts of passion.
Lola Akbar noticed how profoundly I had been touched and fixated his gaze on me. Before I knew I was singing along. Wordless, drawn out notes that spiralled around his like vines. He pulled them out of me - very delicately, as if the least excess of force could break the spell. The sound of my own voice, a strange, unfamiliar wind instrument, awakened something that had lain dormant all my life. I had never sung before, believed I had no voice. Yet here I was singing, aware of the rapt attention of all these men.
Soon the notes started flowing spontaneously, chasing the old master's, faster and faster. We sat opposite each other with locked gaze, entranced, intent on the most minute changes of mood and intent. As the men cheered us, sweeping us up, we reached a state where I left my body and floated towards the ceiling. I saw myself performing and rejoiced in the spectacle like a father who sees his kid doing well.
We were playing question and answer now - a phrase on the ektar, replied by a phrase from me in a rapid, rousing interchange. The phrases became shorter and shorter, faster and faster. Staccato. Three notes. Two notes. A single note. Then suddenly we merged, string and voice become one instrument, and swooped back to earth in a long glissando that ended in silence.
The applause, the cheers, were deafening. Lola put away his bow and grabbed my hand. I bent over and kissed him.
Ecstasy has one drawback: it is hard to sustain. Unless you enter nirvana or lose your mind, eventually you do come down. The Third Bardo. Reconstitution of the ego. Back to the body and its mundane demands, but with a fresh memory of the higher reality. It helps if the return to sanity is made in a pleasant mood, with touches of rhapsody. The master knew this well. He left the spheres of abstract music and started to blend in folk songs. Not the songs of longing that had led us away from the world, but songs of fulfilment; chants of bravery and ditties about lovely maidens. The tone became merry, the scales started dancing. Many sang along now, or did duets with the master, answering to his prompts with girlish coquetterie.
For a moment I was sorry that I did not bring my Uher. But soon I realized: no, it was better this way. Ecstasy does not record well. And it shouldn't. There is something inherently demeaning in the use of media: the suggestion that true content is transmitted, whereas nothing can equate or even approach direct experience. Many primitive people resist being recorded or photographed. They fear that something is taken away from them - and they are right. What is taken is their unique value as a whole being. The suggestion alone that they may be reduced to an image, a token, is dehumanizing, a form of rape. This view has not prevented me from recording people's music or taking their pictures. In fact it helps to know. Any sin comes off better if you commit it consciously and deliberately.
Bashir needed a few days to amass all the money. While he made the rounds of his debtors we rode across the estate and to Quaja-i-Ghar for my shots and the odd pao cake. We were confident now that we would not loose our way and when Wali did not come along we politely declined escort and drank in this wonderland with all our senses atingle. To be alone made the difference between being shown he country and seeing it, living it, owning it.
In several of the hamlets folks now knew who we were, or were supposed to be. We made a point of greeting all we met with equal courtesy, at the peril of our status. The people must have thought us deranged. Two well-dressed gentlemen on pedigreed Akhal-Tekes who addressed farm-hands and porters as their equals - it was not just weird, it was scary.
As we returned from Quaja one chilly afternoon we descended into a ravine where two women and a man were at work in the stream, the women washing clothes, the man rinsing a bunch of turnips. The women looked up, the man kept working. As we approached the water-line we spoke our formal greetings. The women answered in kind, the man did not look up. We were in the middle of the brook when suddenly Ewald's horse stumbled over a stone, throwing him off balance.
I saw Ewald look down. There floated his riding crop. The man instantly dropped his sugar-beets and darted into the stream. Hip deep in the icy water, he struggled along over the slippery stones till he managed to save the costly, silver-trimmed crop. He waded up to Ewald, who in the meantime had reached the far bank and, with palpable trepidation, handed him the guilty object. As soon as Ewald had his fingers around the grip the man frantically ducked away, in a hurry to get out of the crop's reach. Ewald called out his thanks, but the man just wrung out his pants and quickly went back to his turnips, bending deep over his work.
Our pleasant afternoon was shot. Clearly, in these parts, any association with mishap was a punishable offence. If this was the rule of law in Rassoul's land, should we not hate him for it? Should we not stir up the people and foment revolt? We related Wali the incident. He assured us that it was not typical. 'The fellow probably has cause to be fearful. Most likely he's a thief who has been whipped before. Believe me, Rassoul is a kind man and a just ruler. He is much loved by the people. If they held elections today he'd get one hundred percent of the vote.'
'What about Bashir? This is his turf.'
'Bashir does not enjoy inflicting pain. I've never seem him flog a man without reason.'
Ah, what a relief.
One evening we came home just in time to witness the transfer. Wali sat on the floor with his suitcase in front of him while Bashir and his eldest son handed over packets of bank notes, all large denomination. Wali made no attempt to count individual packets and settled for a credible pretence of tallying the totals. When he had stacked them all up, the suitcase was pretty nearly filled. Still, when I carried it out to the guestroom - instantly falling into the bodyguard role - I felt the money tumble around and settle. It was a pleasant feeling. With this around, deprivation was a long way off.
We departed the next morning. So as not to rely on more favours Wali had arranged some rental horses from Quaja. Bashir offered to send Aman and one of his well-armed sons along, but Wali told him not to worry, we would be perfectly safe just the three of us. I straightened my back to look as formidable as possible in a Ghazni coat and a lop-sided turban. Sure, we would be perfectly safe. If no one wanted the money.
After the farewells, which were amiable but somehow sullied by the imminent departure of the money, Wali rode away decorously, his suitcase sitting in front of him. As soon as we were out of sight he spurred his horse and galloped off to the South, his booty clutched between his arms. I thought I heard him whoop - 'Yoohoo!' - but that may have been imagination.
It was snowing heavily when we drove up the Salang Pass in a taxi. The road was lined with trucks that could not make it up on their bald tires. Thanks to this natural limitation of cargo traffic we made pretty good progress.
Ah, there was the first tunnel! But what was going on? Two men in turbans and grey uniforms were slaving like oxen to roll a heavy steel gate before the entrance. 'The pass is closed', one of them answered Wali's authoritarian query what they thought they were doing. 'Too much snow!'
Anyone else might have wasted precious seconds on curses and other attempts at management of sentiment, but Wali here showed himself a worthy general's son.
'Duck!' he commanded me in a whisper, 'and pull that coat over your head.' Without thinking, I did as told.
'You are closing the pass', Wali said to the tunnel attendant, 'that is very prudent. But this is an emergency. We have a foreigner here (he turned around to the backseat and adjusted my coat to reveal my face) who is badly ill. Need to get him to a hospital immediately.'
The tunnel worker stuck his head into the window that Ewald had thoughtfully rolled down and inspected my still sickly yellow face. I groaned heartrendingly, which, thanks to my uncomfortable position, was not all that difficult.
'There is a hospital back in Kunduz as well.'
'Are you nuts man? Don't you see how bad he is? His only hope is if we manage to get him to the Akbar Khan Hospital in Kabul. Come on, open up that gate!'
At the mention of the familiar name I mustered another groan and rolled up my eyes, showing only the dirty whites.
'Alright', the tunnel man said. 'Wait here.'
Ewald lovingly pulled the fur collar over my face and reported what was going on. 'They roll open the gate.' 'They get into a car.' 'They start the car.' The rest I could hear. They rode ahead of us into the tunnel with racing engine and blaring siren. 'Weeoooh-weeooh-weeooh-weeooh-weeooh!' A wholly new form of Afghani music.
The escort did wonders for my health. When, after a few miles, the gate on the other side swung open, I had recovered enough so I could sit up without groaning; and when, after a torturous but entertaining journey, we rolled into Kabul, I was smiling like a child coming home from sanatorium.
While we were away, Kabul had metamorphosed into a clanging metropolis. Trucks and army jeeps were roaring through the streets, racing ghadis forced one to flee on to the sidewalk, hawkers blared out the qualities of their wares, and at the Pol-i-Hesti Mosque near Shah Foladi the priests were testing a new speaker system that carried the adhan a mile further across the city. We had to get out of there. Assuring Wali that we would most definitely see him again, we did something we had not voluntarily done before: we went back West.