The place I wanted to reach, Afghanistan, was pretty much as I had pictured it. Mountainous and cooler, it featured a lot of open spaces, stone huts, camels and the best hashish in the world. It also had some of the best food I’d ever had. I’m not a gourmet, or even a foodie, but there was something about the way they mixed lamb, rice, carrots, raisins and spices that settled right in and has stayed with me forever. Most people that visit that country feel the same way.
Those that live, anyway. I was just barely one of them.
By the time I was to leave Kathmandu, I was thoroughly sick of the native ideas on local transportation. Endless bumping around in shaky buses, slow trains that stopped at every small town, cafe and large boulder, and goats for seat partners wears thin very quickly. So I took a ticket for a freak bus from Kathmandu to Kabul. Freak buses were old, somewhat reconditioned European tour buses, operated by some tough, expat Brits, who shuttled around the Asian bohemian trail. The buses promised room to stretch out, clean windows to enjoy the scenery and a safe place to blow dope during the journey. They also promised to observe basic human safety standards on hairpin turns in the Himalayas.
For me, it was a tossup. I still didn’t want to talk to anybody for longer than nine minutes, which would be difficult in an enclosed vehicle driving 14-hour stretches. It was the promise of relatively safe passage through the mountains that got me. The Khyber Pass, even the modern version, was still home to hairpin mountain turns. So, I signed up. What I hadn’t considered was that any tour bus full of Western backpackers will also be equipped with a piped music system. And that they would be hard rock fans. And they would only have about seven tapes, all of which I hated, and would toggle between them. All the way.
Talk about mood-breaking. Here we were, witness to some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet, and the background music they chose to accompany the experience was being performed by Janis Joplin. Nothing against Janis, but her voice tends to grate after a while, and it about as compatible with viewing Himalayan scenery as a lecture on dental surgery.
Nobody else minded, or even noticed. Are people so comfortable with the familiar that it barely registers with them anymore? That has certainly been my experience as a bandleader….
Going through the Khyber Pass, with Janis lamenting something for the 387th time, we reached Afghan customs. This was 1979, about four months before the Russian invasion. Afghanistan had a puppet president, a blatant stooge for the Soviets, and it was an officially communist land. So I was ready for a really different way of looking at things.
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about communism is the remarkable thoroughness with which they find state-paid employment for even their dullest comrades. I’ve always thought that this was a benign waste of government resources, and it’s always nice for society in general for citizens to have jobs to go to. And those who bitch and sneer about this as a horrible waste of taxpayer’s money should consider things like the Iraq war, the drug war, $400 military toilet seats and then of course sin repression in general before they start their whinging.
Anyway, all this meant that there were seven (!) customs officials at the border. Each one of them had the task of looking at incoming passports and nodding over them and passing it on to the comrade on their right, who did the same and Looked Important. Monty Python would have had a great time with it. At the end of the line, however, the last agent took a look at me. He was a big, burly guy, a hard man overseeing the border of a land full of other hard men besieged by yet another bunch of hard and desperate men, and he gave me a thoughtful look. I was young, with curly red hair down to my shoulders, and, well, not unpleasing to look at. Few people that age are. This guy seemed to think so, anyway. He smiled, raised his hands and made the universal corn-holing invitation, and blew me a kiss.
Er, this was, I suppose, a welcome change from the usual “You gots hashish up you butthole, freak pervert infidel shit??” But it was still unsettling. He did have the power to lock me up somewhere, and heaven knows what could happen at that point. But I had been on a bus full of hashish smoke for about 18 hours, with loud rock music ringing in my ears, and I was pretty far from normal. Plus, as noted earlier, I had just made my bones.
I put my pack down, moved my hands in the same corn-holing gesture, shook my head no, and then, with a big smile, to show him that this–and just life itself, doggone it–was all a big silly joke, gave him the finger.
Nothing happened for about 30 seconds. Nobody moved. What the fuck did I think I was doing? This guy, gestures and preferences aside, is no sissy. This guy picks fights with camels. And wins them. Nobody has ever given this guy the finger.
And I guess I should mention here that Afghans are probably the hardest, toughest men on the planet. They grow up in craggy mountain passes, try to coax crops from unpromising soil, fight vicious wars and feuds for kicks, drink ditchwater, practice banditry, and in fact within a couple of years they would go on to beat the Red Army. At the same time, although they are raising normal families, they seem to have a weakness for camel boys, who they use as sort of mistresses. I met several tough, leathery desert types in Kabul and even Kandahar, and they all made a point of proudly introducing me to their smiling young “boyfriend.”
Some years after my time there, I was researching a story about Vikings. The latest scholarly thinking on these guys described them as “traders,” downplaying somewhat their cheerful skull-crushing and nun-raping. While I was reading up on them, I kept thinking, yeah, those guys “traded” a lot like Afghans…
During my stay there, some guy asked me to join the “Freedom Fighters,” a group of anti-communists, living up in the mountains, who were sniping and bombing their way toward what he actually called democracy, but what was really the early ascent of the Mujadheen. The recruiter said that they were getting money from the American government, which I had no trouble believing. But all I could think of was going up to the mountains with those guys would be like prancing into the Sing Sing exercise yard dressed up as Ziggy Stardust. So I declined. And I missed another great piece of history…
Well, back at the Pass. The customs thug didn’t come running over, waving a cutlass. He broke into a howling fit of laughter. He smiled and waved me through. It was, apparently, a form of male bonding in his world.
We piled back into the bus, all of us relieved at having gotten through another barrier full of enemies. For about 20 minutes.
There was another irritating aspect to this particular freak bus, but I didn’t know anything about it. The Brit who ran it was also a smuggler, and he would sneak in bus-sized quantities of whatever whichever government had either taxed or prohibited. Alcohol and porn into Pakistan, electronics into India, that sort of thing. And the Brit apparently didn’t want his passengers to worry their pretty little heads about things like that, so none of us knew that the bus was also smuggling 1,000 cases of —– drum roll ——lipstick.
Now, I don’t know why Afghan women wanted lipstick. They wouldn’t dare wear it in public, and even if they did, they wore veils and no one could see it. I cannot think of a sillier thing to risk a public flogging for, but there it is. Want it they did, and were prepared to cough up all the added-on markups of semi-legality to have it.
The Brit had arranged to unload the stuff upon a colonel in the Afghan army, who was about 10 miles away on the road to Kabul, with a large military escort. Unfortunately, one of the colonel’s rivals, another colonel, was five miles away on the road to Kabul, with an even larger military escort. Obviously, somebody had grassed. The rival colonel, backed up by a platoon of untrained 17-year old soldiers with Kalishnikovs, would be able to simply confiscate the lipstick, flog it to a waiting general, and pay the first colonel a modest percentage. There was no place in his budget for the Brit.
The Brit, understandably, wasn’t happy with the change of plans. He tried to con the colonel, saying things like, “What fecking lipstick?? Do I look like a fecking poofter??” The colonel simply shrugged and lined us all against the bus, at gunpoint. The soldiers, the teens, were pointing their weapons, giggling, and trying to remember which lever to open or close. Afghan soldiers, by the way, were almost uniformly very young, six days off the farm, and their basic training seemed to have taken about 45 minutes. This made them as dangerous as toddlers with hand grenades.
I happened to be lined up next to the Brit. “Listen, motherfucker,” I hissed, “I am not gonna get machine-gunned over some cases of fucking lipstick! Turn it over now!”
He didn’t speak or move. He was still trying to bluff his way out of it, not particularly caring that his 14 paying customers were the colonel’s bargaining chips. But then his lady friend, the mother of his two kids, who, by the way, were on board, cried out.
“Clive, you fecking asshole! Give up the lipstick and do it now!!”
He looked over at her. She, apparently, could give him a lot more long-term trouble than the Afghan army. He sighed, deeply, and turned to the colonel.
“Oh, it’s lipstick you’re after? We’ve got a few cases.”
And then he unloaded an enormous compartment under the seats. Out rolled box after box after case of what looked like real cheap Indian lipstick. Apparently, in Kabul, it was worth more than hashish. The army took it and sent us on our way, with a soldier in the front seat. He was older, probably 18, and he kept pointing his AK-47 at the soldier’s in front of us, hollering “Bango! Bango!” and giggling.
All the way to Kabul, the Brit was cursing and snarling.
“Buncha fecking crooks! No fecking morals!!!”
Well, I did think that Afghanistan would be interesting.
It was in Kabul that I learned, or actually taught myself, how to play darboukka, a.k.a. doumbek, although they had some completely Afghan name for it. I went to a show at the Spinzar Hotel, the kind of hideously ugly brutalist 12-story building that international investors inflict on emerging cultures. I had smoked a lot of the local hashish—the best, by the way, in the world, by any measure–and the lobby muzak (!) slapped me like a live eel in the face. I pushed on, having heard great things about the drummer.
Good things didn’t even come close. He got about 10 distinct notes from that drum, and they were always the right notes, and they came shooting from the drum at the speed of Buddy Rich showing off. I thought, I’ll never be that good. But the usual accompaniment, so why bother? didn’t come through. I liked the sound and the feel and especially the portability of the drum and I stuck with it. I became, well, pretty good on it. I got so I could jam with Turks and Moroccans, anyway. I even had a couple of paying gigs in Turkey and Morocco, but I was probably hired for the novelty of it all.
I left Afghanistan, like so many others, because we all felt something horrible was about to happen. I noticed people literally bursting into tears, with no apparent cause. Others were picking fights, for the same non-reasons. I remember, as the only customer in one restaurant, the patron came out and told me how happy he was to have me in his establishment. There used to be a lot more tourists in his establishment, he said, back in the days before communism. The communists had killed the tourist trade, he said. Backed by the Soviet Union–with which they share a border–they had established their rule in the usual totalitarian/developing world manner, by strafing civilians and dropping bombs wherever they felt like it.
This had happened about a year before I arrived. The country was being run by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan. It was clumsy communism. It banned usury, which was the main source of the peasant’s income. It killed a reported 27,000 political prisoners, mostly mullahs from the countryside, who were livid at the Worker’s ideals of women’s rights and atheism. The religious element–pretty much the entire country–fought back, and the Mujhadeen was born. The regional powers chose sides; Pakistan funded the Believers and the USSR supported the Workers. When I was there the Proletariat had the upper hand, but just barely, and the lack of coherence and security from above was trickling down to the tourist industry and the guys on the street.
The restaurateur sat down and pulled out a photo album. It showed pictures of him presiding happily over a full restaurant full of happy-looking–well, stoned–European travelers. The other pictures showed him with his visible signs of success; astride his motorcycle, in his apartment with a color television. “But now,” he said, “no tourists. No business. No business for me. No business for anybody…” Then he burst into tears. He started walking around the room, hitting things, crying out No Business. It was like the proverbial animals before an earthquake.
I, who had planned on staying at least a year, left a couple of weeks later, about two months before the Russians invaded. This would lead to the end of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan proving, once again, why it had been dubbed “The graveyard of empires.”
Safely elsewhere, I worried about the drummer, the master of the darboukka. He was probably undergoing re-education by the Taliban, a group of wild and crazy guys who considered music to be an abomination and plaything of the devil. I could only hope that he had impressed someone else, someone more important than I.