Behind Rashid hummed the murmur of conversation, and as he spoke a shadow slid past rice sacks piled up in the corner. I heard the rustle of fine cotton. Glancing backward I saw the billowing folds of a blue burka disappear into rooms beyond an arched doorway, vanishing far into the depths of the teahouse. Rashid smiled, ‘See for yourself. They are already here too and soon you can write about the women of Kabul who do not exist, Miss Sarah.’
He laughed, showing teeth set like strong towers into his gums. He leaned back on his stool and began to pick at them with a delicately carved, little ivory toothpick that appeared from somewhere in the pockets of his sheepskin. He worked as a craftsman, first on the incisors and then around his mouth, attending meticulously to the biggest molars I’d ever seen and I knew he was about to begin another of his elaborate tales. Rashid was an expert at changing everything. He would adjust in time and space every story he knew, giving the impression that only Afghanistan really existed. Kabul was the centre of the centre world.
This particular night Kabul was the centre of our world. We were all anxious. Outside the teahouse, not far away, shots were being exchanged but, well, we were used to that. No one spoke as another crack echoed into the Asian night and disappeared. Rashid looked over at a stooped bearded old man seated beyond the counter who was lighting his long curling pipe. This ancient raised a tapering finger towards us and placed it on his beard. I was not sure if he was conversing silently with Rashid or not. I thought Rashid almost imperceptibly inclined his head. The old man began to suck and exhale slowly, sending pale rings spiraling upwards.
Outside night fell softly, enclosing the garden with scents of oleander and jasmine floating in to mingle with the smells of green tea and charcoal. In the dusk of the garden, a child dragged a kite along the pathway. He tugged at the string, bouncing it through scrubby grass and past flower pots that looked like enormous inverted orange turbans and which spilled delicate mauve flowers onto the tiles. The child dashed through the opened doors and into the teahouse. Rashid paused and for a moment watched too, shook his head, and began his story. We all leaned forward, all four of us journos, to catch every word.
‘In this place, long ago, in this actual teahouse, there was a visitor…very important…because he was from the great Moghul Akbar himself.’
‘You mean this place has been here for five hundred years?’ I interrupted. I glanced at Joe from Ireland. ‘In the Age of the first Queen Elizabeth.’
‘Huh,’ he grunted, shaking his ginger head.
‘Much longer than that,’ Rashid said. ‘Don’t interrupt. Listen and I’ll tell you the story of Akbar’s bride.’