It was the early seventies. While wars raged through the jungles of south- east Asia and across the deserts in the Middle East and race riots erupted on an American aircraft carrier and blood ran freely through the streets of Londonderry and Lod airport and Dacca and Gdynia and hijackers and kidnappers roamed the globe and landslides and mudslides and cyclones and earthquakes wreaked devastation in small places on hundreds of thousands of people and tens of thousands of refugees left Uganda for the unwelcoming British shores and Laotian villages were bombed by the United States Air Force during their ‘secret war’, here it was quiet. For once it was peaceful. It was calm. It was a solid craggy mountain of tranquillity. It was a land of many cool, calm streams and snow-fed rivers. Tarnak, Halmand, Khashrud, Farrahrud, Harrirud, Argandab, Kabul, Kunar, Bara, Panjshir: watery, rocky-streamed, romantic river names that rolled off high plateau tongues and spilled down the rugged mountains and seeped their way into remote fertile valleys and ancient epics and modern romantic poetry.
There was wood smoke, the most powerful of all pheromones, curling around corners and invading hidden spaces, seeking out enormous deadly black scorpions and lost lovers. There were deep hand-dug eons- old wells holding clean, sparkling waters and dust-filled, disease riddled puddles. There were galumphing camel trains winding their way through moonscape landscapes. There were men – tall, dagger-rattling, pistol- packing, falcon-rearing, goat-baiting, bearded proud men riding horse-back through the mountain passes and reading poetry in the city centres. There were smiling kohl-eyed, long-haired, veiled women peeking from behind shuttered windows and curtained hallways celebrating engagements and marriages and births and circumcisions and the arrival of the first snow and the departure of the old year. There were giggling, barefoot children flying multi-coloured, tissue-thin kites. There were nomadic Kuchis with their intricately embroidered outfits and their tattooed veil-less lapis lazuli-bedecked women and their elaborately detailed handmade khilms and saddlebags and hand-woven goat-hair tents trading and bartering and moving their camels, goats, sheep, donkeys and horses to greener pastures. There were bustards and eagles and hawks and partridge and lapwings and plovers flying free over land dotted with fox and jackal and deer and bear and marten and stoat and weasel and there were fields of wheat and millet and rice and maize and barley and lentils and tobacco and sugar cane and the famed intoxicating charras that brought so many of the young searching westerners to the old wise East.
Hippy girls with hennaed tattoos and kohled eyes held hands with hippy boys in long brightly embroidered sheepskin coats or drab coloured camelhair clocks wrapped around long flowing tresses while elegantly sleek and angular salukis leapt from rooftop to rooftop and smiling market men wearing flying saucer shaped cotton turbans connived and cajoled and shared their hot drinks and spicy snacks with the marauding armies of innocent travellers and welcomed all the young white and black and brown ‘peace and love’ seeking explorers in search of themselves.
Strolling through snow-clad mountains, sleeping in ancient, untouched, unblemished landscapes, hitching through deserts and towns and villages past smiling people sitting on broken pavements eating flat, large pizza- sized bread and charcoal grilled meats and boiled chickpeas and raviolis stuffed with leeks and sour yoghurt and sticky, sickly, syrupy, bright fluorescent orange jelabis and drinking piping hot sweet tea and emitting booming burps of pleasure while torn and tattered pictures of John Wayne and Steve McQueen and cowboys and Indians looked down on them, the questing, grail-seeking, searching youth of the Western world inhaled all these positively placed spaces in wide-eyed amazement.
Walking through souks packed floor to ceiling with hand-loomed carpets and camel blankets and huge metal cooking pots and clay chillums and fat sultanas and dried wrinkled apricots and dates and green salted pistachios and bloody sheep and goat carcasses, in search of cheap, clean hotels and cheap, fresh food and fair price money changers and exhausted by time- consuming thoughts spiralling out of control from inhaling cheap, strong hash, elated and joyful, the youth of the Western world crossed this border a thousand times a day, all of them waving their hellos and goodbyes to each other as they flashed their passports to the welcoming once-martial, now-marshalling border guards.
‘Where can I stay?’ ‘Where should I eat?’ ‘How do I get there or here or anywhere?’ Questions upon questions upon questions they flung at the local people who answered easily and warmly and smilingly. ‘Stay at my house’ or ‘Eat, eat. You must eat my food’ or ‘Meet my family’ or ‘Come to my village’ or ‘You are my guest’ or ‘Stay as long as you like’ or ‘You can hitch a ride with my friend’ as they passed around trays of hot steaming tea and sweet halva while camel trains and lop-sided buses and falling-apart jeeps and brightly-coloured, fume-belching juggernauts loaded down with Pashtuns and Tajiks and Hazaras and Uzbeks and Pathans and other – oh so many other – tribal peoples, divided and conquered, whose origins are now lost in time, rode past fertile melon and mustard and sesame and red and green grape gardens and orchards of apricots and pomegranates and almonds and quince and mulberry and fat-tailed sheep inhabited clover and thistle covered pastures.
Back then, this place – this extraordinary, out of the ordinary, unclassifiable place – was not like before and it was not like now. There were no shouts of ‘Do it my way or else’ or statue-blastings or book-burnings or night-time house-to-house massacres of women and children or urine-drenchings on sacred tomes or rows of massive tanks topped by lethal weapons storming down streets and through valleys searching out those who disagreed. It was mostly pure back then and smilingly simple back then. It was. It just was.
Before the tablelands and arid wastelands and fertile watersheds and pine- clad, snow-capped mountains and the numerous clear flowing streams and ancient statues were dripping again with the blood of foreign hordes and native men. Before the Soviet invasion and occupation, before the Mujahedin with their Stinger surface-to-air missiles and the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in their secret Tora Bora caves with their Kalashnikovs and Lee-Enfields slung over their shoulders, before the USAF and the RAF and their bombing campaigns, before the suicide vests and car bombs and Black Hawks and Apaches and water-boarding, before the ten million landmines and the cluster bombs and the limbless victims and the food shortages and the starvations and the brutal battle-induced privations, before the whisperings behind closed doors and the stifling of news and the slaughtering of journalists. Before.
In this ancient land of mountains and barren deserts and mobile sand dunes and heroes and martyrs and settlers and nomads and warriors and Shi’as and Sunnis and pain and epics and dramas and tragedies there was a brief before. Before all this there was a time – a painfully short period, a short lull in the long history of ongoing, violent invasions that swept through this country for eons – of beaming crooked-tooth smiles and booming laughter and many let-me-help-you sentences and camaraderie and friendship between oh so many people, so many very different people, living in and passing through this wondrous landlocked soil, this basin of dignity and frailty and notorious turbulence, this ravaged land of many tears and sorrows, this meeting place, this crossroads, this melting pot of East and West.