From summer in 2001, shortly before the attacks of September 11
A short break in Peshawar.
It is certainly time I had a break. Its Thursday; I came out from Mazar yesterday. As I was waiting at the airport, some young Talibs came up.
’Do you speak Pashto?’ – they asked, in Pashto.
‘Why not?’ – in Pashto.
Me, in Farsi: ‘Because I speak Farsi. I haven’t learnt much Pashto yet. Maybe next year.’
‘Your beard should be longer.’
‘It’s not the rule in my country.’
‘It should be longer. Longer is better.’
I turned away.
I arrived in Peshawar about 1.30ish and walked down to the Guesthouse. Peshawar felt hot and slimy. Within minutes of leaving the Red Cross’s soothing, air-conditioned van I was struggling with my bags and Sabina’s box of books that I had agreed to bring out, I was limp with sweat and I had already called the guard at the American club a shithead.
Made it to the Guesthouse without further social infringements and found Julie to be out. Nonplussed, I ate lunch, read the paper, sat under the fan. 2.30pm Julie showed up and we were able to share a sweaty hug and then heaps of mail. Some new people coming on the team – Bern and his wife Verity, who is one of 17 children. They themselves have three already, 2 ½, 1 ½ and 6 months. ‘How many children will you have?’, Julie asked. ‘We’ll let God decide that’, Verity smiled contently.
Julie and I went out to the Pearl Continental that night for dinner. It being five star, we thought we might get the chance of a beer. Sure enough, we asked at the Taipan restaurant, where we planned on eating, if there was alcohol. Yes, came the speedy reply. Reassured, we sat down and I asked for the wine menu.
‘You must go up to the bar for alcohol.’
‘Oh. Right. Can’t get it here?’
‘No, in the bar.’
‘Can we get it there and bring it down?’
‘No, but you can take your dinner up. Or we can bring it up. Or you can have a drink then come down. Actually it would be better if you ate up there, as we are full tonight.’
‘Well, we’ll go up and see.’
We went up to the fifth floor and found the bar, which looked nice enough and had a few bottles of whiskey on the shelves. ‘What have you got’, I asked, leaning happily on the rail.
‘Great, what else?’
‘Nothing else sir, just there is whiskey.’
‘What, nothing else? What’s in all the cupboards?’
‘Nothing sir, just you have whiskey.’
‘How much is a glass?’ Could I go a glass of whiskey? How keen was I?
‘Not by glass. Just you buy the bottle.’
‘What, the whole bottle?’
‘How much is a bottle?’, I asked, speculative and increasingly incredulous.
‘Ahhh. Thankyou, you have been most kind.’
We went downstairs. A little ludicrous, in retrospect, but it certainly was suprising, not just once either, but a whole string of suprises closely knitted together and it took some unravelling. We sat down again in the Taipan restaurant, much to the discouragement of the waiters and had some very nice chicken and beef dishes, washed down with a cleansing lemon juice. Meanwhile, at the packed tables next to us, a tour group of Japanese drank themselves silly on non-alcoholic beer.