|Geoff and Jules - Chapter 6|
"How do you like our little games?" A servant had sponged Mirhud down and he was dressed again, drinking tea with us under the awning. We nodded that we had, and he went on, "We do not have many opportunities for games against each other, so even if it is just wrestling, everyone comes. It is an enjoyment, and there is a chance to be some Afghanis, and maybe win a little."
"Do you have much wrestling?" asked Geoff.
"No, not here. But in Kabul, often. Are you interested in wrestling?"
"No. Not especially wrestling, but I am very keen on Athletics ... you know, running." And Geoff told him of his love for the marathon. Akkul and Khozad watched and listened politely, and every now and again Mirhud would translate what we had been saying into Farsi for their benefit. Khozad leaned forward, looking at Geoff, and spoke rapidly to Mirhud.
"He wants to know how many wives you have. He thinks you must both be wealthy and important men in your country to be sent here to Afghanistan."
Geoff chortled. "We haven't any wives at all," he laughed, "but anyway, our countries are very backward; we are only allowed to have one wife each." Mirhud translated, and Khozad and Akkul shook their heads in disbelief, then looked sympathetic. Obviously the Emir of Australistan was a very ignorant man not to allow this elementary right, sanctioned by Allah and in the Koran.
"Bacha!" Akkul called for the boy to bring the hookah, and the gurgle of water-pipe mingled with the conversation as it passed from one to the other and was ceremoniously puffed. Akkul asked about the quality of the horses in our countries and why we were not riding through Afghanistan. Clearly he had little regard for the automobile and he felt that people who were obliged to travel about in them were deprived. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps the industrial and technological revolutions would prove to have been aberrations in our culture, and that in time we would come to learn from untroubled, stable and ancient ways of life such as thrived here. Perhaps such places helped to preserve something of the mainstream of humanity. There was a warmth in social relations here, an unspoken but deep interdependence that had as yet escaped the impoverishment of the depersonalised, mechanical encounters that so often pass for social intercourse in our society.
"It is good that you run," said Mirhud seriously, looking at Geoff. "Allah has given us all fine bodies, and they are not to be made into skins for holding fat. So many people in Europe and, I think, in America have no respect for their bodies and let them become fat and useless. It is an insult to God!" He spoke with considerable feeling, his eyes sharp and intent. "Even here in Afghanistan, where I suppose it is harder to get fat, even here there are those who are wealthy enough and stupid enough to eat nothing but rich food and sweets. Do people in Australia have more care?"
Geoff was a little taken aback by his line of question. "Oh yeah ... I mean no. No, they don't. I suppose they get just as fat as other people. They certainly get their share of beer bellies, that's for sure!"
"Beer bellies? What is that ... ?" Oh, beer in the belly ... yes, I know. In Germany they drink very mush beer and I see many men there with ... beer bellies? Is that what you call it?" Geoff nodded, and Mirhud went on, "But you are not drinking beer; I can see that. You do not have the beer belly."
"I wouldn't be too sure of that," said Geoff laughing. "I love the stuff."
"But you are not fat at all," said Mirhud.
"Yeah. Well, that's because I guess I don't drink all that much of it; and anyway I get a lot of exercise. I run up to a hundred miles in a week when I'm training, so I suppose it won't have much effect on me."
"One hundred miles in a week." Mirhud was impressed and translated for Akkul and Khozad. Khozad got up and came round to feel Geoff's calf muscles, which were very solid. He grinned up at Geoff, whistling his admiration. "But it is very important to eat good food for your body, too," went on Mirhud. "Two things: good food - not too much of it - and enough exercise. These are all that are necessary for a man to remain healthy and content until he dies."
"Yeah, but what exactly is suitable food?" said Geoff. It is very hard to know what the best diet is. In Australia my teacher used to work us very hard, running is sand, and he would get us to eat raw oats, raisins, sultanas and other dried fruits, honey and nuts. We didn't eat much meat there. Then I was running in America and they were very keen that I should eat a lot of meat. Fresh vegetables, and lots of steak; that's what they reckoned. Then I went to Japan and it was quite different. The athletes there had me eating beans, various kinds of grain and seaweed. I didn't like that at all, but it seemed to do them a lot of good. And now Afghanistan is the first place where we've had meat since I left Japan, and by God we enjoyed it, too; even though we've been months without meat and very fit. But the point is, everyone can't be right. There are those who eat a little meat and do very well. Those who eat mostly meat and do very well, and those who eat no meat at all and still do very well. What is the best diet for a man?"
"If I could answer that question, I should have the solution to a problem that has perplexed men over many ages. It is a simple problem, but it is not easy to give a useful answer. According to the way God has constructed man, it is probably meant that he should eat food from the earth. The teeth, as you know, are mostly those of a plant-eater, but also there are those few which are the remnants of teeth like the fangs of the flesh-eating beasts. So which is it to be - flesh or plants? Probably you would say both, since that seems to be the way the teeth are made. But is that the way it is?"
"No," replied Geoff. "As I said, I have been in places where they eat an enormous amount of meat, and in others where they eat none. Anyway, when man was evolving he was a plant-eater before he was a flesh-eater. Flesh-eating came last, after man had come down from the forests and food was harder to find. But the canine teeth are smaller now than when man lived in the trees. They might have been used for fighting and self-defence in the forests, but I don't think they were used for flesh-eating."
"Yes, I believe it is so. So the teeth do not teach us very much. Perhaps it is better to look in another direction. What is the food we eat designed to do?"
"Well, give us the right nourishment, I suppose ... the nourishment we need for our bodies to grow in a healthy way." Geoff was becoming quite involved. It was a subject he loved to debate. We had often argued about the best sort of lifestyle and diet for good health, and the arguments had always been unresolved and inconclusive.
Mirhud spoke in a relaxed manner, obviously enthused about a topic which he also loved to discuss. He was authoritative, yet he spoke in a gentle voice. It was midday, and warm, but a keen breeze swayed the willows outside the high wall. "What causes growth, then, in animals and plants?"
"Yes, but even beyond that. Is it not the life force; I think you would call it energy?"
"Energy ... ? Yes, I suppose that would be right. Energy it is, in plants and animals. You can't get anywhere without it."
"And where does this energy - or life force - come from?"
"Well, I imagine it must come fundamentally from the sun."
"Yes. That is right. Finally, all the life force in animals and plants comes from the sun. But animals generally cannot use this life force directly. They must get it from the plants, the only living things which can take the sun's energy directly and combine it with water and the elements to make the living tissues of the plant. Animals then must get the life force second-hand, as it were. They must eat the plants in the form of fruit and nuts, berries and leaves, grains and grasses. And then they are getting it distilled, directly from the sun and the earth, by the very good favour of the plants. Is it not wonderful?" Mirhud positively beamed, and spread his arms wide, inviting us to share his enthusiasm.
"Oh. yeah." Geoff was skeptical. "Well, I guess what you’re saying is that man naturally should not be a meat-eater."
"Is that what I said?"
"It’s near enough to what you said."
"Well, let us look at it a little further. If an animal does not eat plants as food, there is only one way in which he can get the life force he needs to live; and that is by eating the flesh of another animal. And this flesh is tissue which has already a used the life force, so it is in a very true sense dead. But if the animal which is being eaten is also a flesh-eater, then the eater is getting his life force far removed from its original source, the sun. So there is not much of it available for him. That is why flesh-eaters do not usually feed on other flesh-eaters. They feed on plant-eaters. So man has this choice, and that is where the problem arises. When there is a choice, then people seem to come to the one side or the other and firmly believe they are right. Then they have pity on the others who do not share their view. For myself, I believe it is quite simple. Man should eat whatever fresh food is available in his district. If he lives in a harsh rocky place - like much of this country - then he will eat meat from the flocks of goats and sheep. He will have milk and cheese and maybe eggs if he is lucky. But rice and maize will not be so plentiful, so he will have to eat food from the earth just whenever he gets the chance. But a man who lives in a river valley where the soil is good, and many crops grow, then he should eat mostly plant food and perhaps balance it with a little meat when he gets the chance. That is the important thing ....... to balance your food according to how your body tells you. People do not listen to their bodies telling them what they need. Be still, and listen and understand. That is the great secret. Be still, listen and understand. Ho! I started off by wrestling and look, now I have become a schoolteacher."
We sipped our tea in silence, and I reflected on the curious nature of things that we should have come from two modern, technologically advanced countries to a poor, ‘backward’ land so as to hear a commonsense approach to nutrition, freed from the talk of calories, vitamins, carbohydrates and the other ‘essential’ components.
"Well, do you think such a diet will keep a man healthy and free from sickness?" Geoff was still involved in the discussion and would not readily let it alone.
"Such a diet?" Mirhud was indignant. "Such a diet? I did not say anything about a particular diet. It is necessary only to be still, listen and understand. Then if you eat according to the harmony of your body, your whole being will be in harmony. Your body will function according to its nature, your mind will be free from discord and become tranquil, and this will result in the even flow of your emotions. Finally your spirit will preside over the whole man and you will live close to God."
It was an impressive exposition, but Geoff was skeptical by nature and naturally suspected such a simple prescription for the good life. "Oh, yeah. Well, do you mean that’s going to stop a man from being sick? Get the body in tune, and you’ll never be sick again."
"Yes, I believe so. But your understanding must be ....... what do you call it? ..... mature. Yes, mature. This does not come at once. It takes many years to understand properly. In my religion we have a time called Ramadan. Do you know of this?"
"Ramadan. Yeah, I’ve heard of it. Isn’t that a month when you only eat at night, or after the sun goes down? Something like that?"
"Yes, I’m afraid that is the way it often is. But Ramadan should be a period of fasting. It is common in most religions, fasting of one kind or another. In ancient times it was better understood, when people understood natural ways much better. It is simply a time to fast so as to get the body back to a condition of health. It is a way to cure sickness. And it is the way of nature. You will know that a wounded or sick animal cures itself simply by fasting. It will go off, lie down and rest in a quiet place, and not eat until it is well again. It is the way of nature and, like many other wise things, it was brought into the practice of religion by the old ones.
But fasting is a subject in itself, and it is now time to go back to Kabul." He got to his feet and eyed us quizzically. "Do you plan to go on to Kandahar, or to Mazar-i-Sharrif?" We looked at each other. Mazar-i-Sharrif was in the north - on the other side of the Hindu Kush Range, not far from the southern border of Soviet Russia - while Kandahar was to the south.
"We would like to go to Mazar-i-Sharrif," said Geoff. "But what’s the road like?"
Mirhud gave a short laugh. "It is all right, when there is no snow, but at this time the Pass of Shibar will be closed, I think." He turned and spoke to his brother. "Yes, it will not open for another month. Akkul says you are welcome here as his guests if you wish to wait until it is open again. There will be many trucks and buses waiting to go at that time, so if you would like ....." He shrugged his shoulders and spread his hands out, taking in the little village. It was generous and tempting, but the urge to keep moving was still strong in us and we declined the offer.
Reluctantly we took our leave of Akkul and Khozad and returned to Kabul with Mirhud.
"There is a small room by the mosque where you can stay while you are in Kabul," he said as he let us off by the main bazaar. "We have had a pleasant time together. Perhaps we shall meet again." We shook him warmly by the hand and watched him drive off.
"You know, Jules, it’s a year today since I started travelling." We trudged off along the muddy alleys, ankle deep in slush and melting snow. "I set out to go to England via America, and here I’ve arrived in Afghanistan via Alaska ...... and I’m flat broke." We tramped on in silence. It didn’t seem to matter that I had very little money and Geoff had none. We had adopted a fatalistic approach to travelling. We would keep moving, see what we could and hope that something would turn up. So far we had been lucky. We reflected on the fact that we had not had any accommodation bills since leaving Calcutta. This had not been a conscious objective, but the fact was that our expenses had been only for food and a few train journeys, so at this rate we would make it on the cash I was carrying to Teheran, where Geoff’s money should be waiting.
"G’day there!" We had come out on to a main thoroughfare where a few high-set Russian cars passed infrequently. Geoff had spied an American station-wagon some distance away, with two clean-cut young men about to climb in. "There’s some construction companies here, Jules," he muttered. "We might get a lift." We hurried toward the car. "G’day!" He beamed insincerely at the two men and contrived to look the very soul of innocent friendliness. "Saw your car there and thought one of you might have been Nick Ford. Do you blokes know him?" The neat young men looked puzzled, as well they might, since Nick Ford was an instant invention.
"Hi there. Nick Ford? No, I can’t say I know him. What outfit does he work with?"
"Look, I don’t know for sure. Knew him in Boston some time back and he told me he’d be working here with some construction company. We’re just here for a day or two and thought we’d look him up." I squirmed inwardly but smiled earnestly.
"Well, we’re from Columbia University and we’re here on a teacher-training program." A pause. "Say, why don’t we run you guys out to the Erikson-Harris Construction Office. They probably know him there."
"Thanks, that’s very kind of you." We climbed in and drove off. The two young men were having an argument, one beefing that the other had invited him to dinner and not invited a girl for him. He was quite put out. We listened to the conversation with interest.
One turned after a while and said, "I guess you guys know that Kabul is a city of fun and fornication." He went on, "Bob, here, and I have a theory that it’s the water that does it. Rhinocerous horns, you know, are an aphrodisiac. Well, we figure that once there was a great herd of rhinocerous grazing here in this valley. Some great catastrophe must have overtaken them, and they were all buried. Now when we draw water from the wells there’s a good deal of dissolved rhino horn in it. Well ....... it’s just a theory, but I’ll tell ya one thing, there sure is something that affects the girls’ behaviour once they get here. Wow!"
We arrived at the construction company’s office, the two men let us off, then drove on, still arguing. The construction office had air-conditioning, rows of typists, dark-suited men and memo-carrying employees scurrying about importantly. The sight of business efficiency in Kabul was depressing, but Geoff ran through his Nick Ford routine to a man with glazed eyes, quickly working round to the important subject of getting a lift to Kandahar.
"Heck no! It’s winter, and we haven’t sent a vehicle through there in two months." Thanking him we left and made off back into town to check on buses through to Kandahar.
On the way we passed a huge, Russian-built bakery. Both the Americans and the Russians pour aid into this strategically located land, each fighting tooth and nail to be the dominant influence and to suck the little country into its orbit. In this ‘hearts and minds’ contest it was interesting to observe the different approaches. The Americans concentrate on mammoth schemes to build airports, dams and the like, gigantic activities which the ordinary Afghan regards in much the same way as he would the waxing and waning of the moon; interesting, no doubt, and important, but somehow remote from him. The Russians, on the other hand, settle for a more seductive approach - a bakery which supplies the bulk of Kabul’s bread, ungainly cars which are not too good, but cheap, and hundreds of miles of roads, stretching from the Russian border, ultimately to tunnel under the Hindu Kush Range and reach as far as Kabul. The only casualties in this struggle are likely to be the simplicity and innocence of the Afghan people. They are, naturally, unable to see that the Uniformity and Progress of the Industrial State and a Higher Standard of Living, which they imagine to be desirable, are the very things which will rip the fabric of their lives to shreds.
A mail bus would leave for Kandahar next morning, insh’alla, and would take us for a hundred and two afghanis - about two dollars fifty. Good value for over three hundred miles, but the insh’alla indicated the chancy nature of the undertaking, it being in the hands of God just when the bus would leave and when it would arrive in Kandahar, or in fact if it would manage to make the journey at all.
We insured against the cold with two Pushtun jackets bought in the bazaar. These brightly embroidered leather waistcoats have coarse wool linings and, although giving us the appearance of eccentric dandies, nevertheless kept us warm and comfortable in the biting wind. We spent the night in a tea-house near the bus-serai and next morning took our places in the Royal Afghan Mail Bus.
This vehicle bears description. Brightly painted like a gipsy caravan, an oblong, box-like superstructure was mounted on the chassis of an International truck. Inside were the seats, wooden-backed benches running the width of the bus, and on the top, along the sides, gaudily painted boards formed a shallow cavity where women making the trip were obliged to perch with the luggage, exposed to whatever weather blew. The two seats behind the driver were ‘First Class’ but differed in no way from the remainder, save for their position, being all engineered for the maximum discomfort. The space between the back of one seat and the front of another was just short of that needed to sit with your legs to the front. So you sat with them tucked to one side, and so did everybody else. When one person on the seat wanted to change position, it was necessary for everybody to rise as one man and do the same. The ‘aisle’ was taken up by little cross-seats to accommodate an extra person, so with the escape route blocked, getting in and out became a feat of gymnastics which involved climbing and crawling over all the other seats and passengers.
Our bus driver was a raw-boned, genial character clad in a turban, vivid green shirt, matching pyjama pants, and a khaki army greatcoat. He marshalled our fellow passengers in a good-humoured way and seated them all with practised authority. There were two mullahs, and a magnificently dressed policeman resplendent in what appeared to be the uniform of a four-star general. We encountered these grandly attired policemen quite often, the country having a decided penchant for gold braid and glittering epaulettes, whether the wearer be a military man, a policeman or an attendant in a government office. Indeed, when ex-King Amanullah visited England in 1928, it was his custom to distribute twenty-pound notes amongst those who did odd jobs for him, and at railway stations he habitually saluted gold-braided station-masters, mistaking them for admirals or cabinet ministers.
Finally preparations were completed, the last passenger had squirmed his way to the last seat, the driver had been harangued lengthily by the manager of the bus company, and the great machine lumbered out of the bus-serai, through the crowded bazaar and on to the road to Kandahar. Bump! Lurch! All through the day the gaudy vehicle swayed and groaned as we climbed to more than eight thousand feet through stark, black hills streaked with snow. There were stops for tea at village chaikhanas, stops for mail, stops for breakdowns and stops for prayers, when all the men got out, spread their prayer-mats on the ground and bowed, knelt, prostrated themselves and rose in rhythmic movements, all directed by our two mullahs. Whatever the stop it was welcome, since it gave some relief to tortured legs and backsides, although only at tea-stops and prayer-stops was it possible to get out and stretch our cramped limbs. The comradeship of the journey soon entered into us all, and before long we were good friends - except for the mullahs, who held themselves aloof, and the policeman who was of a sour disposition.
Our final stop for the day was at midnight in a small settlement which sported a hotel with mud battlements, and a straggle of low mud buildings. Regarded as passengers of some distinction, we were expected to spend the night in the hotel with the mullahs, the policeman and the driver. But with persistent cries of "Nay afghani! Nay afghani!" demonstrating that our money was not so plentiful that it could be squandered on hotels, Geoff led the way back to a cosy-looking chaikhana where most of our companions were already installed. Inside it was warm and dim-lit, the mud wall blackened with smoke from an ancient tin somovar, and our fellow passengers were sprawled about on benches, some already sleeping, some drinking tea and eating. Space was made for us, and declining a little hashish from a proffered hookah, we slept soundly in a corner.
We were well away by seven the next morning, without the benefit of breakfast or other preliminaries. Still a little snow on the ground, but it was not so cold. We had descended quite a bit by now, and soon the country assumed a different aspect. The mountains were still there but simply bare with no snow. They looked quite unreal - like a painted backdrop for a stage play. The snow had made all the difference - you could feel the cold, be dazzled by its brightness, but now there was nothing, just a foreground of sparse, open tussock country. All was brown and grey and black. Mid-morning, when we were feeling the need for food, the driver pulled in to a chaikhouse. We squatted expectantly in the sun with our companions until the young lad came round with tea in little china pots, and breads as big as snow shoes. With this inside us, the day brightened. There was an interminable delay, so sitting there in the sun we produced the paperbacks we read on such occasions - "Mr Norris Changes Trains" and "Brazilian Adventure." Geoff had the latter, in which Peter Fleming relates the story of the road upcountry into Brazil. Fleming’s descriptions of that road tallied rather well with the one we were on, and oftimes as he peered around at our Afghan companions, Geoff would nudge me and say, "By George, Jules, these Brazilians are certainly colourful people!"
Negotiating a particularly accursed creek-bed crossing in the afternoon we blew a tyre. And for an hour and a half we were stuck in that little spot, with nobody out of the bus save the driver and his mate. I suppose nobody expected they would take so long to change the tyre, so we sat like so many sardines and endured the wait. Near the end of this time there was a great lull. People had stopped talking and a long silence reigned. It was broken only by Geoff allowing a great fart to escape him. All of a sudden the bus rocked with great gales of laughter. "Ho! Ho! Ho!" the people went at his indiscretion.
Later the afternoon was further enlivened by our ‘General’ attempting to settle a small grievance in a spectacular manner. He was an improbable character, swarthy, hooknosed, balding, with a thin, drawn face, hollow cheeks and burning black eyes. Instead of being dressed like a general in a musical comedy, he would have been better cast mounted on an Arab steed, burnous flowing and eyes flashing darkly. But in fact he spent most of the time hanging out of the window being miserably sick. During one of these chunder sessions a young fellow behind him took his hat and hid it ...... his bright, shining, high-peaked cap with the peacock-blue trimmings. Recovering from his spasm and finding his hat missing, the ‘General’ rounded fiercely on an inoffensive man alongside him, who happened at the time to be laughing but knew nothing of the cap. Pulling out his revolver, the ‘General’ shouted angrily at the man, firing off a shot which went through the roof and must have greatly alarmed the ladies squatting there. At once there was pandemonium. The driver applied the brakes violently, and men shouted and began climbing over the seats in all directions. Two men grabbed the ‘General’ from behind, while another recovered his hat and placated him with soothing talk. He seemed to simmer down then, and we resettled ourselves and the bus restarted, but at intervals he would erupt again with an angry burst. It was all good fun and certainly served to break the monotony.
The atmosphere became increasingly stifling late in the evening as we rumbled into Kandahar, and it was a great relief to clamber out of the bus. A thunderstorm was brewing, and away in the distance we saw black clouds and forked lightening. A wind had sprung up and we caught a few drops of rain, but the worst of it fell beyond the town.
Kandahar, we could see, was a fine city. Apparently free of western influences, it was pure Afghan, wild, dirty, haphazard, with a garish, jaunty bazaar in which crowds of Baluchi tribesmen, nomads and merchants haggled, ate, jostled and shouted at one another in a great hubbub. Suddenly we found ourselves accosted by a seedy individual who seemed eager to show us to a tea-house where we could sleep.
Following him for some distance along bazaar streets and through narrow lanes, we eventually came to a large, fortress-like building and were led up a flight of narrow steps.
"Ah!" said Geoff as we came into a bare room. "This looks a good place to doss." But alas. A door opened and we were shown into a small room where a swarthy man in a woollen cap and dark glasses sat behind a desk. We were at Police headquarters, and the unsmiling man in dark glasses scrutinised our passports carefully whilst carrying on a long, low conversation with our seedy companion. A uniformed policeman was summoned and issued with instructions. Down the stairs again and into the street with a police escort. Were we under arrest? Geoff spied a little restaurant where a man was grilling liver slices.
"Let’s duck in here, Jules," he muttered. "He’ll soon get tired of hanging about." But as we finished our meal he appeared with a horse and cart and loaded us aboard. Clip, clop! Along the crowded streets to the outskirts of town. What was this? Hotel de Kandahar. A pretentious, mud-brick building set in a high-walled grounds. The driver pulled up at the white colonnaded porch where a suave, smiling hotelier waited to greet us.
"Bon soir, messieurs. Ici l’hotel internationale de Kandahar!" A little bow of welcome.
Geoff exploded. "Look! What in hell’s going on?" he railed at the policeman. You blokes lead us all over town when all we want is a place to sleep. You don’t give us a moment’s peace, and now you’ve brought us to a bloody hotel!" The unfortunate man looked crestfallen, while the hotelier wrung his hands in distress.
"We’re not hotel men," Geoff went on. "We’re tea-house men! Nay afghani! Chaikhana!" He subsided and sat obstinately in the cart. The hotel manager explained that we had no choice and that we were to be kept in the hotel by order of the chief of police. Why? He shrugged his shoulders. Who would pay? Why we would, of course - such wealthy men. No. The police chief could pay. A long argument, and finally it was agreed. The bill would be sent to the police chief, and so we slept in a bed for the first time in months.
In the morning we found we had two police guards, one outside our door and another at the hotel entrance. The first was very tall and the other quite short, their uniforms, however, being just the same size. Dressed like benevolent stormtroopers, the sleeves of one ended half-way up his arms, while the other flapped about in a jacket like a tent. But what was to be done? Quietly, Geoff opened the window of our room and dropped to the ground outside. I lowered our rucksacks and followed. In a moment we had crept round to the high iron gates at the front of the hotel. There was the policeman sitting on a chair, smoking a hookah, his eyes half closed. He had not seen us. Slipping round the gates we made off up the road at a good pace, looking back from time to time to see if we were pursued.
By the time we reached the bazaar section of the town we had relaxed and were strolling along casually, looking for the bus-serai where we could catch the next bus to Herat, away in the west near the Iranian border. There came a clatter in the street that sent people scattering, and up behind us rolled two red-faced policemen in a commandeered horse and cart. "Ho, Jules!" cried Geoff gaily, "They’re after us again!" And we darted off down an alley and made ourselves inconspicuous behind a pile of grain sacks in a yard. Alas, we were quickly discovered and hauled back off along the road, presumably to police headquarters. Just as we were passing the bus-serai - a big courtyard filled with buses, people and piled baggage - Geoff spied a yellow station-wagon of the Erikson-Harris Construction Company parked in an adjacent street. Acting together, we stopped in our tracks, turned to our respective captors, and shook them warmly by the hand, bidding them farewell and thanking them for their concern. Then, as they stood nonplussed in the centre of the street, we vanished into the crowded bus station, emerged stealthily into the adjacent street and hid in the back seat of the construction company’s station wagon.
The driver, who returned before long, was a cheerfully disposed Filipino, and he was in no way perturbed to find two uninvited passengers hiding in the back of his car. We explained the position to him. "Hell, fellers, that’s okay. Look, I’ll run you out to the camp. I’m pretty sure they’ve got a truck going to Herat soon." And he went on to explain how it came about that Geoff and I had been placed ‘under arrest’. The King, in Kabul, had proclaimed increased land taxes and decreed that women would no longer be obliged to wear the chadori - the all-enveloping cloak of purdah. The mullahs, however, who held sway in Kandahar, roused people against these new laws and there were riots, killings and much damage to property. Only last week a mob had gone on the rampage and killed a woman schoolteacher who had elected to wear western dress; then they burned down the school. Several cars had been set on fire and an American had had his ear cut off. Far from being under arrest, we had on the contrary been under police protection so that we should not come to any harm.
"Jeez!" said Geoff contritely, "that makes me feel a bit of a rat." Neither of us felt any qualms about being alone with a crowd of Afghans, no matter how fierce and villainous they might appear, since we had found them to be good-hearted, kindly people who scrupulously observed the laws of hospitality. Furthermore, since neither of us was any cleaner or better dressed than the average Afghan, we in no way flaunted an ostentatious display of wealth. Nevertheless, we were much chastened by this official concern for our safety and determined to inform the police chief as soon as possible that we had left Kandahar and were making toward Herat.
Erikson-Harris had a truck going to Herat that afternoon, and the Afghan driver was happy to take us. A little further than the distance from Kabul to Kandahar, the journey would involve two nights on the road. Sixty miles from Kandahar, however, we rolled into the Afghan Engineering Company’s construction camp at Chah-i-Anjir in the Helmand River Irrigation Project, where Erikson-Harris were involved. This enormous enterprise was commenced some twenty-two years earlier and had received a good deal of help and assistance from the U.N.O., although it was largely under Afghan direction. There were about twenty separate irrigation projects in hand, involving almost the whole of the arid south-west corner of Afghanistan, centred on the Helmand and Arghandab Rivers, which rose to the north in the mountains of the Hindu Kush. The aim is to bring as much as possible of this land into production of wheat and other grains. A German doctor at the camp took us in hand and we ate at the camp canteen - beer, veal cutlets, and plum pudding.
"I must eat this cutlet before it vanishes, Jules," said Geoff, "I’m not sure that this isn’t a dream."
The doctor told us that in ancient times this area had been a network of irrigation canals, and when Alexander the Great had passed that way with his armies it was one of the granaries of Asia. The great irrigation works had been destroyed around twelve hundred A.D. by the hordes of Ghengis Khan sweeping down over the mountains from the northern steppes; and it was hoped that the present project would bring the area back into something like its original production. He and his wife drove us out to some ruins of this civilisation at Qala Bist - not far from the camp - and we climbed to the top of the ancient fortress that dominates a huge tract of desert country, part of which is now under irrigation. He told us that nobody knew just who the people were that inhabited this place, but since ancient Greek coins were sometimes found there, it was possible that Alexander had besieged and conquered it. Going down from the top we came upon an old myllah giving instruction to a younger one with the aid of a much venerated copy of the Koran. The doctor greeted the two men, and after speaking to them in Farsi for a moment he introduced us as two holy men from Australistan. They welcomed us warmly, the older one promptly offering Geoff the holy book, inviting him to read and interpret a verse or two. Alas, Geoff’s ignorance of the Arabic script betrayed us for what we were.
"If even the mullahs think we look like mullahs," observed Geoff later, "then the general public must be easily deceived!"
That the Afghans are a sturdy race was attested by the following tale related by the doctor. A man walked into his surgery at the camp one evening and removed his trousers to reveal an almost severed penis and scrotum. It came out that he had been sleeping with another man’s wife in his village and the husband had come to hear of it. He was outraged and ordered his wife to make love to the man once more. Then when he fell asleep she was to take a knife and cut off his penis. She did just that. The man left the village immediately, abandoning all his belongings, for he knew that if he returned the husband would surely kill him. Proud and fierce people, but very hardy. That man had walked several miles to the surgery.