I’ve just spent the last two days in Herat, Western Afghanistan. I didn’t want to go. I only got back from the last trip a week before, and I increasingly dislike flying, and I wanted to be with my family, and the situation I was called to deal with was complex. But I went. 4.30am on Saturday, I got up, and at 5.15, was picked up by Qasem, the office’s sanguine and sardonic driver. We got to the airport well in time for the 7am flight, which, as it transpired, didn’t leave till 10.30. Kam Air. ‘Kam’, in Dari, can also mean ‘little’, or ‘less’. ‘Less Air’. Not an inspiring name, for an airline. Kam Air had a slight mishap a few years ago, when the plane missed the Kabul airport in January and hit the nearby mountain. There are plenty of mountains between Kabul and Herat, and plenty of opportunity to repeat that sorry event. But, we got there safely, with me doing relaxation exercises and mental pilates, in order to keep my mind off the clunks and bangs and movements of the plane beneath me.
On arriving at Herat, a classic illustration of the failure of the social contract: the bags are loaded on a pick up truck and driven out to a dusty field, where the passengers are meant to locate their luggage. No poofy luggage carousels in Herat. Obviously, with bags in a pick-up truck, some are at the bottom, some in the middle, and some at the top. But instead of people showing a bit of wisdom and thought, and unloading them all, the impatient travellers simply moved the bags around in the hope of locating their own.
I waded in, and started taking the bags down, one at a time, lining them up, so that all the bags could be seen and indentifed. Not a single person helped me. This idea – the social contract – really needs work in this country. It’s absence is evident everywhere – in the way people litter; in the traffic jams that emerge because one driver, and then two and three, cut the vehicle queue, driving on the wrong side of the road, to the front of the line – thus blocking the incoming traffic, and holding everyone up; in the ready recourse to violence as a means to settle disputes: last week, outside a friend’s house, a car blocked another. The obstructed driver got out, pulled a gun, and threatened to shoot the other driver. The threatened driver pulled his own gun. Then the police arrived – there is a post nearby – and the first belligerent threatened to shoot the police. The police left, the obstructing driver and the obstructed had an altercation, then they all left. No shots fired – this time.
Well. With the bags sorted, and my shining example of the social contract blithely ignored, my colleague and I caught a taxi into Herat. There followed two days of non-stop meetings in Dari and English and occasionally a bit of Finnish, as we sought to resolve a longstanding problem with an Afghan co-worker. An intensely religious man, he has strong links with the armed opposition groups around the province, and with clerics and mullahs. A bad enemy, in short: we cannot simply sack him. Delicate diplomacy and negotiation followed, as I sought to persuade him to join the path of reconciliation and trust. I don’t know how successful it will be. Throughout the meeting, he reassured me of his commitment, his sincerity, of Allah’s goodness, and man’s depravity, of my depravity (emphasised), of his own (not so much), that I should not worry, but that I should also not hamper his work and activities. ‘Kar-e man ra masdud nakonen‘: Don’t put any obstacles in my way. Hmm. Stronger people with better language and more attuned cultural skills than I have failed to make an impact on him. We will review it in three months.
Exhausted, I left for the airport this morning at 6.30am. There, we waited for an hour in the freezing wind, while the ticket office failed to open. I debated whether to put my pyjamas on. Over my clothes? That would look odd. Under my clothes? Even greater open-air oddness would be involved. In the end, I just stood and shivered.
Happily for me, as we were just preparing to board the Kam Air flight, my friend Dan from PACTEC called to me from across the waiting room. PACTEC flies to remote areas that are not served by the commercial airlines, and they are, I would say, some of the best pilots in the world. I expressed to Dan my reluctance to fly more of Less Air, and he offered me a seat on his plane, as another person had cancelled. I needed no persuasion. It was a longer flight, but I would rather that than a sharp encounter with a lot of rock. We stopped at Chaghcheran on the way, and I attempted to capture the treeless nudity of the area, shown here:
I was home by lunchtime.