Sunday, 23 December 2007

The Forbidden Land (Chapter 7, Shind-Dan to Farah, Afghanistan)

(In the village of Shind-Dan) The samovar bubbled and we sat on the still-warm sand, sipping hot sweet liquid and absorbing the pungent atmosphere of the night. Stars, glittering in their icy millions, roofed the dark shapes of the nearby sandstone mountains, making a powerful and compelling background to the murmur of the hill village, with its clink of brass ewers, soft chatter of voices punctuated by the howl of a dog or the bray of a disturbed mule. The supreme tranquillity of the wilderness was briefly ours. Very briefly, for we had barely finished our second glass of tea when a disturbance a little way up the road brought us rapidly to our feet. A couple of shots rang out, shattering the peace and reverberating along the rocky valley. Everyone rose and trotted along to see the cause of what Nita and I hoped was a waste of precious bullets.

At the other end of the village, where a hasty barrier had been erected across the track, it was apparent that the shooting had been in earnest. A heavily loaded truck lay slewed across the main street and there was a group of turbaned tribesmen gathered round a central figure.

As we drew nearer I noticed that the front offside tyre of the immobile truck was in shreds, in the best film tradition. Hyatulla motioned us to stay in the background as he went forward to the edge of the crowd. We waited and watched, mystified by the proceedings which were evidently coming to a head, for everyone was talking at once and there were some angry gestures and much fingering of knives and rifles. As we stood, apprehensive though intrigued, another posse of men strode past us, headed by a tall figure, wearing with his robes, glossy riding-boots and a French-style military cap. His henchmen were armed to the teeth, though more orthodox in their dress; these latest arrivals burst through the group without ceremony and dragged the protesting central figure to one side. Nita grabbed my arm and suggested we return to the peaceful end of the village, but I was far too engrossed in this little drama to leave half-way through the performance.

Three of the officer's band broke away, swarmed on to the back of the truck and started to slit the bags of merchandise with their knives; the plot was beginning to unfold. Back in the centre of this very late-night performance, the police officer was dealing out summary justice.

He questioned the lorry driver curtly, pointing to the truck frequently. The driver was vigorously shaking his head in between anxious glances at the stem men surrounding him. The climax came when the officer motioned the biggest of his men forward, who promptly cuffed the agitated driver with great force across the side of his head. The suspect cowered but remained silent. The officer signalled again. Once more the wretched prisoner had his protecting arms dragged away and again a slap, almost equal to the rifle shots, echoed on the night air. This last herculean, perfectly delivered clout did the trick; the prisoner spiralled into the dust, scrabbled dazedly for a moment, then hastily sprang to his feet to start talking and gesticulating at great speed. At the end of this rapid tirade, the officer, who had listened patiently, making occasional notes, had him led away down the street-still babbling his innocence-presumably to the police station.

When it was all over, Hyatulla told us the story. The slapped one had been ferrying contraband across the border from Pakistan. Our friend showed us a sample from one of the sacks: a hard white substance in pellets about the size and shape of granite chips -he could not give it a name in English-but said that it produced a milk-like substance when fermented. I can only surmise it was hashish or some similar narcotic; I still have the little nugget which has turned greyish with time and perhaps one day I shall have it analysed. Hyatulla showed us the cunning way in which the stuff had been distributed throughout the rest of the load; half the bags containing rice and the other-the forward bulk-contraband. The driver, who had at first disclaimed all knowledge of his dangerous cargo, was soon persuaded with the good old-fashioned lie-detector that perhaps he did know a little more about this illicit traffic than he at first allowed.

The truck was roped off and guarded and the officer, with Hyatulla's help as interpreter, apologized to Nita and me for the somewhat forthright manner in which he had dealt with the errant truck driver. He assured us, however, that his treatment was absolutely necessary, for without the show of force he would be laughed out of his position within a month. Looking at the tough crowd around us, I could understand that perfectly.

The anger of the villagers towards the drug-runner was not due to social righteousness: it was only that the procuring of the forbidden fruit would now be made considerably less easy. Hyatulla implied that the prisoner would probably have a very thin time for the next few weeks for being caught red-handed. Someone had obviously tipped off the police and the man with the outsize headache was probably wondering glumly just where he'd been too garrulous.

On through the night, we traversed more barren mountains over a track of treacherous scree and soft sand. Frequently our guide vehicle slowed down and we followed it delicately through precipitous detours round washed-out bridges. Some of these chasms were twenty or thirty feet deep, marked only on either side of a black yawning pit by two or three little stones laid across the track, signposts, of course, being non-existent.

However, the pace was now much more leisurely, thanks also to Hyatulla's consideration. As the sun rose over the horizon, we crossed a vast desert plain and arrived in the historic town of Farah, as the first smoke wisps were rising from the cooking fires.

For the whole of one day we rested in the centre of Farah, drinking tea and demolishing small bowls of rice and chicken, which Hyatulla delightfully described as 'meat of hen'. As the morning of that day wore on, the sun struck down ferociously. We lay on a carpeted chai-house floor which was roofed with thatched reeds. Periodically a small boy with an earthen pitcher would dowse the roof above us with water, when magically, the oven-like heat would drop steeply for a few blessed moments and the clouds of sleeping mosquitoes which were disturbed in hordes were easily tolerable in preference to the heat.

Farah was very hot indeed, because the town lay in a desert basin almost at sea-level. On any journey of this nature there are bound to be places and situations that retain a dream-like quality in the memory of the traveller. For me Farah was one such place. I remember lying in a half-waking, half-sleeping state on the hand-woven rugs, looking out through the opening facing up the main street. The turbaned figures, stray dogs, children (energetic despite the blazing sun), swirling wraithlike in the shimmering heat, all seemed to be the visions of a dream. Nita lay sleeping beside me, completely unconscious as she always was after a night ride; but sleep would not come completely to me that morning and I could only gaze at that primitive street scene, with the scooter wheel intruding before me. I remember distinctly studying the tyre and marvelling that the tiny structure could carry us across such wild country without being cut to shreds on the jagged flints. I drank deeply from the pitcher standing at my elbow and waited impatiently for the cool of evening.