‘Welcome to Afghanistan’
For the past two weeks, the ignominious departure of the 20-year-old US/NATO occupation of Afghanistan has dominated the news headlines.
Those of us who have experienced Afghanistan, its people and cultural traditions will have followed events with extra interest. Places like Kandahar, Kabul and the Khyber Pass trigger memories, often with much affection.
Here are a few paragraphs from my Memoir of my journey across Afghanistan in 1967. It starts with arrival well into the night at the Immigration Office in Afghanistan from Iran. We completed the entry form including our occupation with humorous intent. It seems ironic that certain foreigners after the 2001 NATO bombing and invasion of Afghanistan fitted our job description.
Immigration consisted of a couple of small, single-story buildings, plus basic sleeping quarters for officers and soldier in the desert. A soldier let us through the barrier announcing the start of our journey on the rough road across the desert of Afghanistan.
Five Short Extracts from the Memoir
1. ARRIVAL AT FRONTIER OF AFGHANISTAN
We drove a few hundred metres further along a barren track until we spotted a single sign ‘Welcome to Afghanistan.’ It bemused me how the two countries had ever come to an agreement on what section of the desert belonged to Iran and what belonged to Afghanistan. Besides the simple barrier across the rough road, an Afghan soldier sat asleep in a sentry box. Wearing his army green uniform, he held his rifle in his hand with it leaning on him as he slept. On waking up, he looked up at us in the coach, gave a bored grin, waved us through to the Afghan Passport Office further down the track. We were in high spirits as we made our first entry into Afghanistan.
The official in the immigration office handed us a form each to fill in with all the usual passport details, along with home address, length of stay in Afghanistan, purpose of visit and profession.
We duly started filling out our forms. I suggested to my fellow travellers we write the most outrageous profession on the line asking to write our occupation. Some of our fellow travellers got irritated with the outrageous job-titles we gave ourselves. They worried that the Afghans would not see the funny side and then arrest everybody.
I wrote ‘CIA agent.’ Another wrote ‘MI5.’ Others wrote Spy, Hired Assassin. Drug Dealer, Imperialist, Mercenary, Arms Dealer, Pimp, Kidnapper and more. We handed over the forms to the passport officer, who read them and burst out laughing. He gave us all a fresh batch of forms to fill in.
Pinned to the wall of the Afghanistan Passport Office, a notice in large black letters read “DO NOT TAKE ANY DRUGS INTO IRAN. THIS IS A SERIOUS OFFENCE. YOU CAN FACE EXECUTION.”
Most of us on the bus spoke English while two officials spoke quite good English but conversed between themselves in Afghan or was it Parsi, Urdu or Pashtun? In the Afghan passport office, we sat around drinking tea with the Afghan officers.
I read a newspaper from a Washington journalist that US alcohol industry saw the potential to develop a huge market in Arab countries to sell Iranians and Afghans whisky and beer, but the lips of Muslims avoid alcohol, with its impact upon the mind and relationships. Hashish remained the recreational drug of choice for some Afghans; they refused to drink alcohol despite the efforts of the American alcohol industry.
2. INVASION OF AFGHANISTAN OF BRITISH ARMY IN 1839
I read in a history book that around 130 years earlier, the English army entered Afghanistan on yet another of its imperialistic expeditions. In 1839, the British sent in the troops to put in power an Afghan warlord, named Shoja Shah, who the British government appointed to protect British interests in neighbouring India (now Pakistan).
Afghans with its long tribal history engaged in a fierce defence of their land, religion and culture. All-powerful 19th century conquerors of 25% of the world, the British fled Afghanistan with a bloody nose, as one historian commented. The British army occupied the country for two years and then made a hasty retreat to India.
British troops invaded Afghanistan conquering the main towns of Kandahar and Kabul. They wanted Afghanistan to serve as a buffer for Britain’s control over the exceptional resources in India. Their mission to conquer Afghanistan failed. The Raj feared that the Russians, French or Moguls might invade India, and end the Britain’s ruthless exploitation of country, its people and its resources.
Two years later, Afghans launched a rebellion against the occupation of their homeland. They surrounded the British troops who attempted to retreat to India. Led by Major General Sir William Elphinstone, the small army started a hurried march back to India while the Afghan tribesmen launched regular attacks. Although 10,000 soldiers quickly left Kabul in the middle of winter, they then had to face the wrath of the fearless Afghans around the infamous Khyber Pass. The British army succumbed either to the Afghan tribesmen, starvation or the bitter winter.
Only one soldier, Assistant Surgeon Dr. William Brydon, aged 31, survived. He got back through the Khyber Pass and into the sub-continent of India. Brydon worked for the East India company. Afghans released later a handful of captured soldiers. The British government learnt a lesson about the fearsome independence of the Afghan people. Brydon died in Rosshire, England in 1873, aged 62.
In revenge, a large army of British and Indian soldiers invaded Afghanistan for the second time, killing thousands of Afghans, destroying their mosques and central bazaar in Kabul. The head of the army imposed a new Afghan government sympathetic to British interests in the region. The Afghans also ended this second occupation. Afghans live close to the Earth and to each other. They welcome foreigners as guests but not as warlords.
3. A JOURNEY ACROSS THE AFGHANI DESERT
I watched again the first glimmer of light, the faint whisper of light of the new day. The sun edged itself upward to reveal the vast landscape. Most of my fellow companions fitfully snoozed on but some of us were wide awake in this Byron-esque romantic journey across Afghanistan.
I glanced around to Tim, a quiet, thoughtful individual to check if he was awake. We grinned. I gave him the thumbs up as the two of us, in our own silent way, paid reverence to the vibrancy of the visual world becoming available to us at the end of the solemn nature of the night.
The sun moved upwards in its heavenly path. We spotted a roadside stall, so we stopped the bus, stretched our legs, and bought watermelons and tea from the stall on the edge of a village in the middle of nowhere. Two Afghan children, filthier than we were, took care of the stall. The kids, a boy and girl, aged about seven or eight, set their eyes upon Westerners as if we arrived from another planet. They looked aghast. Their lower lip separated from their upper lip. The children froze with curiosity.
One little girl put her hand over mouth and started giggling while the boy appeared mesmerised by our presence, as he stared up in disbelief upon hearing our noisy chat in a strange language. A child raced back to the clump of single-story dwelling perched lazily on the side of the road to tell her family and friends of our impromptu arrival. Bearded men with turbans emerged from the narrow confines of their homes accompanied with more children and barking dogs.
An Afghan invited me to look inside his two-room home on the edge of the road. I peeped inside one of the empty rooms of the villager living in the middle of the Afghan desert and spotted hanging on the wall a picture of Mecca, The Beatles, the Virgin Mary and John F. Kennedy, the late President of the United States. It seemed an odd combination. Were these pictures brought in a local market? Had the family ever listened to a song by John, George, Paul and Ringo? I smiled, knowing a picture of the four gods of music landed on the wall of a remote village in the Afghan desert……
We drove on into the darkening evening expecting to come across a village, but the miles passed by until the darkness swept across the Earth with our trusty bus bumping up and down, as we went over one pothole after another. These potholes made it impossible to snatch any sustained sleep. Two or three hours later, we saw village lights beside the road, not electricity but from the fires. We drew up with us all clambering out of the truck to stretch our legs, and to ask if we could buy food.
Dawn approached. The sun began pressing itself through the windows. We agreed if a man or a woman needed to pee or squat, the driver stopped the bus so the passenger could walk behind the bus for privacy.
We spotted more compact Afghan villages, built of mud and brick, which broke the endless barrenness of the desert. A small camel train wound its way on the horizon of the desert or close to the road. I have a photo on my wall in my office at home of two Afghan camel herdsmen and myself standing together in the desert.
We journeyed across central Asia surrounded by vast, open spaces, sunburnt shrubs, and no offering of any shelter from the harshness of the environment. Afghans say that in the summer months the wind can blow every day for 100 days carrying with it the force of the harsh grains of sand.
No wonder the women and men cover themselves from head to foot. How do they endure this austere way of life? They have minimal possessions, a handful of goats, a patch of land to grow vegetables and a camel, if fortunate. How can such a hard ground grow crops? We crossed the bridge near Tirpul, heading further and further on towards Herat spotting the nomads of the desert, who had set up camp in their large black tents.
ONE ROAD IN ONE DIRECTION
Maps were irrelevant. There was one road travelling in one direction with no crossroads, no left or right turnings. We travelled through the night. Some of us fell into a fitful sleep on any smooth stretches of the road. Then the bus with its worn springs bounced up and down on long sections on pot filled roads in desperate need of attention.
A vehicle during the night in the desert would pass us by, leaving us wondering about the driver and any occupants of that vehicle. What were their names? What was their intention in driving through the desert? What did they think about on their long journeys across this moonscape of the Earth? What goods did their trucks carry? Who were the car drivers going to visit? Had they picked up hitchhikers en route to Europe?
They knew we were not an invading army, since we had no weapons and appeared friendly. After buying some fruit, we sat down on the side of the road, took out our knives, peeled the fruit and shared it between us before boarding the bus for the rest of the journey to Kandahar. We experienced an austere, imposing and authentic expression of the intimacy of humans with nature, Westerners with Afghans.
We passed a hat around and put in some Afghani notes as a thank you for the restaurant meal, despite the resistance of the café owner to receiving our donation. We clambered back on board the coach and set off on our way to Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, some 600 kilometres more driving through the desert from Kandahar. The journey took us around 24 hours owing to the dilapidated condition of the road; we often only covered a few kilometres in an hour.
Occasionally, I would spot a bird drifting effortlessly across the glory of the Afghan sky.
I felt as free as a bird….
5. AN ENCOUNTER WITH A BURKA
A fellow traveller, Stefan from Denmark, and I waited to cross the road in the heart of Kabul. To cross the road, we would have to skip around the holes in the road, filled with puddles of water, dance around the bicycles, jeeps, bus and trucks, horses and ponies making their way through the city. Three young Afghan women wearing a black burka, a one-piece veil that covers the head, face and goes down to the shoes with a mesh screen to see through. The three women stood a couple of metres apart from Stefan and myself as the five of us also waited to cross the road.
I spoke to Stefan. “It must be hot under that black dress. There’s not a spot for a cool wind to blow through. I’d hate to bump into one of these women in the night. I might think I met a ghost.”
My banter continued: “I wonder how old they are? I reckon they are about our age.”
Under the veils, the three women started giggling. “We speak English,” said one.
Title of the Memoir: TEN YEARS AND TEN DAYS (520 pages).
Time it took to make one full circle of the Earth. Six of the years as a Buddhist monk.
Paperback and Kindle format. Available on Amazon.
Will distribute details and cover pix of the Memoir
on Christopher e-news, blog and social media in September 2021.