Sunday, 20 January 2008

The Forbidden Land (Chapter 7, Kabul and onward, Afghanistan)

The next day was Sunday, and in the morning Ted shepherded us around the grounds within the Embassy's high whitewashed walls. The greenery everywhere and the neat, meticulously laid-out flowerbeds contrasted strangely with the landscape outside, where yellow sandy hills glowered down on the little oasis.

During our stroll we were introduced to a part of the staff, who were disporting themselves in and around a small, pleasant swimming-pool. Most of them resided almost permanently within the walls. They found enough energy to say, 'Hullo', but there it ended. The only topic of conversation was the 'bores' at the last diplomatic cocktail party. I asked one of the younger men how he liked Afghanistan. 'Well, you know,' he replied, 'I've never really seen the place. We spend most of our time here, except for the odd social visit to some of the other consulates.' He had been in the country for two years and spoke not one word of the language. He had never once explored even the immediate country around Kabul, and had only spoken to three Afghans in twenty-four months, but was apparently quite pleased with life. . I could not help thinking it a great pity that there were not more men like Ted Gamble to serve as our ambassadors.

In the evening we scooted into the city again to meet Hyatulla, who had brought his younger brother along with him. We all set off through the narrow, crowded streets to the site of the International Exhibition. The big attraction for the predominantly male visitors were the female Chinese ballet dancers in their national dress. The sight of tight-fitting slit skirts to the Afghan male (whose only sight of women outside the house was in the form of walking black shrouds) was the high spot of this ostensibly cultural and educational fair. The next exhibit, in order of popularity, was a full-scale armoury. Every conceivable firearm was on show, from the latest small-calibre repeating-rifle to standard British Army small arms, Sten-guns, Tommy-guns, and full-sized mortars. This arsenal, I suppose, could hardly be called 'cultural' as described in the multi-lingual brochure, but it rated a good second best from an interest angle.

Considering the remoteness of this mountain city and its inaccessibility, the exhibition was well staged and equally well patronized by foreigners. Some very fine Nghan work was exhibited, particularly in the art and handicrafts section. Tight though our budget was, we were unable to resist a beautifully hand-tooled, sheepskin waistcoat, the soft yellow skin covered in pleasing abstract designs with the reverse side a thick, downy wool of the long-haired mountain sheep. It cost the equivalent of ten shillings. Hyatulla was delighted that we had found something irresistible. He and his young brother were tremendously enthusiastic for us to see every part of the huge open-air exhibition and we must have walked at least ten miles and covered every corner.

It was past midnight when we finally broke up, our friends to return to their house in the city centre and we to catch a gaily painted tonga back to the Embassy. This was the moment of goodbye for us and our Afghan friend. We are both looking forward to 1960 when we shall welcome him on a visit to England.

Once away from the brilliantly lit area around the fair, our horse-drawn carriage made its way through narrow, unlit streets where the flickering light from the solitary candle-lantern on the tonga cast dancing shadows on the whitewashed walls. I felt quite uneasy during that eerie ride through the dark streets of Kabul, and was relieved to see again the stern outline of the British Embassy. I was more than ever convinced that night that one is far safer in the wilderness than in the city. We had heard of a stabbing incident which had resulted in the death of a German engineer in Kabul just before we arrived.

On the eighth day, before we were to leave to tackle the one-hundred-and-fifty-mile run to the border, Ted greeted us with the breakfast news that there had been another disappearance. A nephew of a former American ambassador to Great Britain and the Swedish girl with him had vanished without trace, in their Land Rover, north of the capital near the Russian border.

Hearing that did not make us eager to leave the haven of the Embassy. But the last lap had to be dealt with, which meant assailing the notorious Lattaband Pass, thrusting higher even than the Khyber, to a height of 11,000 feet. We should have to make ourselves as unobtrusive as possible, keep our sick engine running, and trust to luck.

So, tubbed and clean, we mounted the scooter, along with the remainder of our gear, and left a still-slumbering Embassy to face the wilderness once again. After all, one hundred and fifty miles was not so very far. . . .