Writing about Chechnyans reminded me of earlier times here. This is from early 2001. Afghanistan was a different world then.
Julie and I both Julie went out to Rubat today. A good day for her, but she is tired too. A death: one of the girls who took her swimming last year has died. ‘She was so full of life, she took my hand and we went swimming together. She died of jaundice, just a few days ago.’
I was interested to see the latest international development: just outside of the village, Chechnyans were practicing how to fire large calibre guns. As we drove out from the village to the site of the new joi, Amir Gul pointed across the river and said, ‘Chechnyans.’
I looked, and there were a group of men, small in the distance, standing near a truck and setting up a large, mounted gun. As we drove back, they fired; an echoing boom, and then an even louder boom-crack, a huge wall of sound, as the shell exploded on the opposite hills. A massive, recoiling wave of sound, and then the smoke fanning out from the site of the explosion. There were many such explosions throughout the day. Several men who I asked, all assented vigorously: a group of Chechnyans who the Talibs are training. ‘They look like us, dress like us, but they can’t speak Dari, only a weird kind of Uzbeki. And when they open their mouths, their fillings are made of gold.’
Yesterday was Good Friday. Today is a holiday, so is tomorrow. Today was the day we set aside for men to visit, we asked the women, if they feel able in these straitened times, to come tomorrow. So early I went off to the office to deliver some mail, then went to the barber. Esman told me where the local one was, but got so confused in his telling – ‘it is next to this shop, where that shop is – you know, don’t you, Mr Phil? Beside that shop!’ – that I asked him to come show me.
As we were getting in the car, he told me how yesterday, the Talibs had been rounding up everyone to pray at the mosques: rain is already a problem this year, crops have already burnt and if there is no rain in the next few weeks, all the crops will fail. Again. It is only the month of Hamal; it is meant to be coolish and next month, Saor, it should still be raining. Esman went on: ‘A group of people even went out into the desert to pray for rain, and Talibs slaughtered 25 cattle as a sacrifice to God and distributed the meat to the poor, hoping for God’s kindness.’ But there was only a dust storm. ‘It is no use, in fact, trying to make God do what you want’, said Esman. ‘God is in charge, not people.’
’He looks at clean hearts, not killing 25 cows, even a hundred cows‘, added Hamid, as we drove off.
The barber shop was grimy, the scissors and comb looked like they’d been used last digging ticks out of a dying sheep’s belly. I sat down somewhat gingerly, wondering just what special diseases I might contract. Out the back, the sound of steel ringing on steel; the barbershop doubled as a panelbeater. My barber, a rotund Panshiri, wrapped a stained lab coat around his frame and vigorously brushed the dirt from the comb, using a filthy brush. His hands smelt badly, but he cut well. The results, though, were slow in coming. I had forgotten that Afghan barbers remove hair at great speed, but only a millimetre at a time. His hands flew and snipped and chipped and buzzed and after an hour he still wasn’t done. ‘Foreigners hair is soft’, he remarked to another customer, ‘not like Africans, ‘their hair is black and stiff.’
‘When did you cut an African’s hair?’, I asked.
‘In Leningrad, I saw some Africans.’
Many Afghans have studied in Russia, in Kiev, in the former Soviet States. They try out their Russian on me, some I am sure, feeling cheated that English is the language to know these days.
A grating smash intruded on our conversation: a large amoured truck had run into a karachi outside the shop. ‘These guys’, muttered the barber, meaning the Taliban, ’They’re trained in Pakistan, so they all drive on the left. Then they come here and get confused and keep having accidents.’ By 10.00 I had to call things to a halt, and in a whirr of clicking, he finished up. 40,000Afs: about 40 cents.
Engineer Yunnus and his wife Marzia were the first visitors. They sat close and when we took a photo of them cuddling Pieta, Marzia put her arm around her husband. It was unusual, but wonderful to see a bit of public affection. Then after lunch, Gul Taki. ‘What, no one else here?’ he said, looking nervous. Ali Jan soon turned up and we talked about cooking pilau, I told them the Easter story of the empty tomb, we drank tea and juice and ate Julie’s hot cross buns. At 3.00ish Jamin and Malek arrived and conversation was much more stilted. After half and hour, Mohammed Jaffer showed up with his son and then in a rush, Naim, his son and his wife, and my language teacher, Ustad Ghari and his son. There was wave of standing and reseating, a sudden rearranging of floor space to give the best position to Ustad Ghari, his elevated status as a teacher being known to everyone. It did make me wonder how our taxi driver, Naim felt – he too is a teacher and a graduate of the university; only few people know.
No glasses, out of juice, hot cross buns all eaten and Julie busy with Naim’s wife and child, who seems to be able to create havoc in record time and is never disciplined for it. The guests didn’t stay long though, and around 4.00 Amir Gul arrived and all the other guests left. Amir Gul was cheerful and talkative, he stayed for ages and consumed bowls of almonds. He told me a story of pre-Taliban days: Vincent, a previous AIS worker had invited all the office men over to his house for dinner and a party. He had a TV and video, after dinner they all watched Charlie Chaplin films, which Afghans love. Then, Jurassic Park. Amir Gul said, ‘It was so terrifying – I kept my head beneath the covers, only peeping every now and again. What kind of animals they are!’