I first met the storyteller, Rashid, in an old teahouse in Kabul. We spent weeks together dodging checkpoints, moving like shades around the countryside, avoiding the new fighting phenomenon, they called the Taliban. In the south we had seen hunger and desperation and I, one of the few woman photographers in the area, filmed some of the worst poverty I had witnessed during the Russian war. The country was devastated by tribal fighting. I could almost understand why these gentle people looked at the turbaned men for answers to their despair. My photographs captured their loss.
Rashid was my guide, my translator, my advisor and mentor, and on at least one occasion in the war lands of the southeast, he had saved my life. Let me tell you about Rashid, but I can’t really because he was an enigma, what the Victorians would have called a wily old gentleman, a remnant of The Great Game. What I can say is that I was glad to have Rashid as my friend.
Finally, as the Taliban gained control, we retreated, filthy, exhausted and burned out to the relative safety of a hotel in Kabul. It possessed a faded green door and a long corridor leading to rickety stairs and rooms that never locked. We kept our cameras, film and possessions close to our persons in battered rucksacks that came with us everywhere we went. During the weeks that followed our return to Kabul, we would all meet again in the hotel’s teahouse where Rashid told us stories of his family and exploits he had seen in other wars, as we waited to leave. He introduced us to the lands of mountains and rivers north of Kabul where old tribes lived, and to tales of invaders forever dropping in to this remote corner of the world.
‘You mark my word,’ he would say, fixing me with flashing eyes. ‘There are bad times coming again. You will all be leaving this place soon.’
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 back, 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. Look at that burka. Soon you can write about the women of Kabul who do not exist, Missy Sarah, and that is sad.’
He smiled at me, 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 like a craftsman, first on the incisors and around his mouth, attending meticulously to the biggest molars I’d ever seen. 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 and Kabul was the centre of the world.
On this particular night, Kabul was the centre of our world. We were anxious. Outside the teahouse, not far away, shots were being exchanged but, well, we were used to that. Even so, no one spoke as another crack echoed into the Asian night and disappeared. Rashid glanced over at a stooped bearded old man seated beyond the counter who was lighting his long curling pipe. The 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. But, I thought Rashid almost imperceptibly inclined his head. The old man began to suck and exhale slowly, sending pale rings spiralling upwards towards the rafters.
Outside the Asian night fell softly, enclosing the garden, scents of oleander and jasmine floating in to mingle with the smells of green tea and charcoal. In 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. He 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 journalists, to catch his 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 and glanced at Joe from Ireland teasingly. ‘In the Age of the first Queen Elizabeth.’
‘Huh’ Joe grunted, shaking his ginger head. ‘No friend of an Irishman that Queen.’ I laughed. We often sparred.
‘Much longer than that,’ Rashid said. ‘Don’t interrupt. Listen and I’ll tell you the story of Akbar’s bride.’
We sipped tea as charcoal dropped through the fire grid and fine dust scattered, disappearing like truth itself. Rashid opened his tale in a low mesmerizing voice, speaking in English which he claimed he learned by listening to the world service and reading school primers. Time was opening a flimsy curtain onto another stage.
‘A little cavalcade wound its way up through the Panjshir valley. It moved through regions with large boulders and mountain walls that were fractured into huge stairways of angled ledges that dropped downwards into wide fans of splintered rocks. Omar, the emissary, was its leader and as he sat swaying, feeling slightly ill atop a large elephant, he was thinking about the new bride, the daughter of Mahesh, proprietor of the Dragon teahouse on the street they called Silver Alley, just to the east of the great souk in the centre of Kabul, right here as a matter of fact.’ Rashid looked up at us, his eyes twinkling with delight at his own storytelling.
‘Akbar, the great emperor was spending his summer well up in the hills, away from the dirt and dust of the Indian plains. The emperor’s new painter had spoken vividly of the girl’s beauty, which he insisted he had once glimpsed in this very teahouse’…Rashid wafted his long fingers about… ‘She possessed a queenly bearing and would be a perfect wife for the great emperor, a wondrous addition to his harem. The painter purred like a cat as he extolled her delights. “She’s fourteen years old, Great Lord, of marriageable age and surely a young bride can succeed where other wives have failed. She will give you a child,” he said slyly. “The father is a silversmith. Look, I traded frieze work for these. Look closer.’” Rashid flashed his eyes again, whipped a silver watch chain out of his pocket and held it towards us. It glinted in the firelight. ‘The painter knelt before the emperor, opened up a casket and drew out works so fine and delicate Akbar was astounded at their quality. Staring at them, the warlord thought if the girl matches up to those pieces she will indeed be special. I shall send over the mountains for this little Pashtun princess at once. Rewarded well for his services, the painter simply disappeared. He travelled deep into the Hindukush and disappeared across the mountains to other lands…and he vanished for years.
Omar was sent in search of the girl because he spoke many tongues. He was accompanied by a wizened old eunuch and protected by a party of guards as well as a mountain guide. Omar was given only a month to find the beautiful girl and bring her intact to the great emperor. “Bring her back,” Akbar ordered. “I want her before we leave the hills. I want her to learn our ways. She will need training in the traditions of my harem. I need diversions and she will need much instruction in music and dance.” Omar was told to treasure the girl, protect her with his life and he was given coin with which to reward the father.’
Rashid paused. He raised great eyebrows and there was amusement in his eyes.
‘You see the great Moghul orders and the servant obeys. He wants a beautiful woman and she must be brought to him. She has no choice. Her family will see it as a great honour.’ Rashid sipped his tea and passed his hand across his mouth, wiping his beard.
‘Omar felt he had been travelling for weeks, heat by day, cold by night, dusty all the time, pitching tents at night by mountain streams, crossing perilous swinging bridges, fearing the elephant would miss its footing and crash down into the ravines below. Not good, my friends, not good up there.
As the air became chilly and they followed the guide deeper into the mountains, Omar leaned back into his swaying bower, longing for a warm brick at his feet, and sighing. Snow had settled on far off peaks like great mounds of white rice. How awful he had to fetch a bride and escort her back in such weather. They would never break through the steep mountain passes if they delayed, so he urges the procession on, swearing that an elephant might be tough but it was too slow. Omar dragged his enormous coat about his shoulders and shivered. He demanded the eunuch rub his feet.
“We should have left earlier in the summer,” Omar complained.
“Not to worry. The girl will be wrapped in carpets to survive this unusual cold,” the eunuch said.
‘They were deep in the mountains by the second week of travelling when high turrets appeared in the distance, followed by crenulated walls. Omar could see snow swirling around a building, revealing it in disjointed sections. A track wound up the mountain and continued over a swinging bridge towards the castle-like buildings. Omar summoned the guide. He called to their escort to climb the mountainside to what was surely a monastery above.’ Rashid paused and looked towards the street door into the teahouse.
A scooter spluttered outside, hiccupping and coughing. We all looked up. It had to be Alfredo, an Italian with an Afghan girlfriend. It was and Alfredo swept in. He looked terrified. He grabbed a stool by Rashid. We knew by his face he had seen something unspeakable.
‘It’s the roadblocks,’ he said in a low voice. ‘They dragged a boy out of a van and shot him on the side of the road. A kid! Bad, so bad. I came the long way around the souk.’ He put his foot over his leg and swivelled the heel of his boot and leaned towards Rashid. He gave him a roll of film. ‘I got it though,’ he gasped.
Rashid muttered, ‘Put that away. You know better than showing that in here. Later.’ He turned to the bar. ‘Abdul, bring something strong for Signor Alf. He’s been through the roadblocks.’ Rashid waited until Alf spluttered on the brandy. Two young Dutch journalists and the Irishman shook their heads. We understood how terrified Alf would have been. We knew his film showed terrible truths. None of us spoke or interrupted as Rashid continued.
‘Now where was I? Ah, the monastery. It was like that one, you know, in the movie.’
‘Meetings with Remarkable Men, perhaps?’ suggested Joe.
‘That’s it,’ Rashid agreed. ‘Great film. Anyway, a bell rang out guiding the little group up, its sound elusive as the wind caught it and a musical cadence fell and disappeared and was caught again over and over until the cavalcade weaved over a rickety bridge and entered a courtyard. An old monk silently beckoned them to follow him into the monastery buildings. Omar, stiff and sore, had to struggle down steps placed by his kneeling elephant. He stretched and before he had time to speak the monk broke his silence.
“You are from the great Akbar, I believe,” he said. “And now you are part of the great game of chance. Welcome to our monastery.” He bowed low and lifted his arms, opening them wide in greeting. “And you seek a bride.”
He smiled, and led them through tall archways, past chanting moving circles into the heart of the monastery. Omar was confused. What did the monk know and how and what did he mean by a great game of chance?
“Things do not always happen as they are planned, you know,” the old monk said, reading Omar’s thoughts. He gestured to the party to sit and eat. Feet shuffled over teak floors as the monks carried in bowls of food. The sound they made as they moved was like the rustle of cards falling from a pack. Soon, after they ate, all Omar could hear from rugs and pillows around him, was heavy snoring. He drifted off himself thinking how much he liked this peaceful monastery.
In the morning the animals were rested. Omar was sorry to leave the beautiful place that hinted at enlightenment and peace.
The monk gently told him, “But you will return, friend, for in each pot in the fire you find many things.”
Three days later the cavalcade came out of the mountains and soon they were approaching Kabul. The elephant had a huge thirst, the sun burned over the plains and the mountains seemed far away concealed by haze.
“This blasted elephant,” complained Omar as they stopped at the tenth well that day. “A nuisance,” he added. “Too slow.”’
I drew nearer to the brazier as, again, Rashid paused his tale-telling. His head was cocked to one side. He was listening to a crackling transistor radio. Alf moved closer to Rashid, their beards almost touching. Alf could not stop twitching. He was nervous. I shifted on my stool trying to catch the radio’s fading sound.
‘World service,’ Alf said, and looked up. ‘The Taleban are in control of Sarobi. Tomorrow Kabul.’
I shook my head. It wasn’t good. Rashid reached over and turned off the radio. One of the Dutchmen said, ‘Never mind the Taleban. They’ll be on their way back to the mountains soon enough. Go on, Rashid, tell us what happened. Finish the story. Did he get the bride? Go on!’
‘Bet Omar fell for the beautiful girl himself,’ said the other Dutchman.
‘Or maybe the eunuch did,’ joked my Irish friend.
Rashid called for honey cakes. ‘More cakes here please and a big pot of mint tea.’
We had seen it all, I thought, skeletons of Russian tanks, buildings crumbled and crunched into rubble, Kalashnikovs at the check points and our cameras snatched and eventually returned with spoiled film. All of us had seen too much innocent blood spilled. The murder and rape in Afghanistan was not over by any means. Moths were gathering around flickering lamps like miniature shrouds and out somewhere in the circling night we could hear shooting again. Not one of us wanted to go out there. We wanted to escape into this magical tale, tall as a giant stick of cinnamon and as elusive as Ali Baba’s magic carpet.
Rashid began picking his teeth again. He was playing for time, spinning out his story, forcing us to hang onto every word. ‘What happened in the teahouse? What happened here, Rashid?’ I said, and hacked a chunk of sugar from a slab on the table, to lace my tea with it.
He leaned towards us and continued in a low but rather conspiratorial manner. ‘My story has lost its ending but never the less let’s see what happens next. Now where did I get to? Ah, Kabul itself.’
‘Omar is in the old city, and it is Friday, day of prayer, so he has to wait. He has to take time to find lodging for the elephant, but now he begins to worry. Big worry. What if the silversmith’s daughter is already married? What if there isn’t a silversmith or even a daughter. Well, you see, going back to the Great Akbar empty-handed would be more than his life was worth. He would find this girl at once. Omar took one of the guards and the eunuch, of course, to look at the girl. They went straight to the old souk in Kabul. The guard struggled with an oversized casket, present for her father, on his head. They made their way through passageways, past stalls with sugar and perfumes. They pushed through hordes of Arab traders. No one commented as they passed. There were always so many strangers in this town. They were everywhere, Persians, Pashtuns, Indians and Arabs. There were Turks trading, Jews and even Europeans selling Sicilian silks. Eventually, they found the teahouse, The Dragon. Omar stood in the doorway and announced his purpose, determined to get this bit over and done with very quickly.
“I am from the Great Emperor, Akbar,” he announced. Rashid grunted effusively and puffed himself out as he became Omar.
“I need to speak with the silversmith, Mahesh…on a matter of some importance.”
He showed the silversmith a document which the girl’s father read, peering closely at the script. The clever artisan nodded and eyed the coffer which the guard had placed by his feet.
The silversmith, a gap toothed Pashtu, was oddly fidgety as he showed his unexpected visitors into shadowy rooms beyond the archway.’ Rashid pointed beyond the counter but he abruptly stopped speaking. He shuffled around on his stool and glanced through the archway and into the back of the teahouse as if he had noticed something of importance, something we had all missed. There was a whispering, a rattling and static from the radio followed by hush and silence. Men, in twos and threes were drinking tea and talking in low tones. Some were smoking. The sweet smell of hashish drifted around the teahouse mingling with cooking smells from behind the counter. Around us, from low benches and stools, a hum of conversation merged with the roll of dice and clatter of mugs. A game of chess was nearing an end by the stove. A queen was about to enter a position of checkmate. The old man stopped sweeping behind the counter. Emerging, he added charcoal to the brazier and looked at Rashid, pulling at his beard. He stopped tending the fire. It felt as if it was a signal because Rashid’s eyebrows shot up as if he were expecting news of some kind. I thought he was waiting for the old man to say something but the ancient put his rake down, raised his head and spoke to Rashid in a low tone. I strained to listen but could hardly understand except for the sentence Hasid will guide them through the mountains…Taliban will be here by daybreak.
‘What was he saying?’ the Irishman asked.
‘Telling Rashid to give up his spinning of yarns I guess.’
‘Let’s hear the end of the story in that case,’ said one Dutchman. ‘Then we can eat. The kebabs are good here. I smell them already.’
Rashid rubbed his hands together and folded his arms. It was his habit as a story drew to a close.
‘The silversmith looked at the casket, opened it, glanced in and without ceremony led Omar behind into a shaded room.
“I’m blessed with two daughters,” he said after Omar told him he was seeking a bride, and not any bride but Mahesh’s own daughter for the Emperor. Mahesh rubbed at his face, scratched his balding head and walked around the carpet thinking. “Both are of equal beauty, but the older one was wed last week. You could take the other in her stead. We’ll drink tea. Later, you may speak with her but she is a girl of few words. She’s the quiet one and, I promise, as lovely as her sister. Very good girl …a great loss if you take her…but if we are well compensated …” He eyed the coffer again.
And so they ate sweetmeats and drank tea served by the sister who appeared suitably humble. The suitable girl shimmied and glided around the carpet daintily in an extravagant robe covered with silken, emerald-coloured veils, her face well-concealed as if she were already under a burqa. There was just the hint of green slanting eyes from beyond the veil and Omar longed to see more. His only reward, however, was the tread of a bracelet encircling a pretty ankle when she moved by him as he reclined on a magnificent carpet.
And, as they set off she was wearing a burqa, of course, so he could not find out more.
The very next day the girl was seated under a canopy, on top of the elephant where she curled up into the pillows and didn’t say a word. She ate in silence too. The eunuch sat by her feet trying to see beyond her ankles, feeding her sweetmeats and fanning her as the cavalcade slowly once again crossed the sweltering plains.
“She’ll be talking soon,” he squeaked to Omar. “She needs the company of other wives. She needs to settle in. Just wait until we arrive. I’ve seen it all before. Women love to gossip. She’ll soon find her voice.”
“If only I could have a peep,” sighed Omar. “I’ll pay a big price if she’s not as beautiful as promised.”
“I’ve an idea,” whispered the eunuch. “Wait, and she’ll want rid of the dirt and dust”
“Ah…” said Omar. “And to change her clothing.”
The eunuch winked.
‘They travelled on for what seemed weeks, but was only a few days, over the dusty plains and the bride did not utter a word the whole time. At last they reached the mountains where they put up tents for the night as usual. The eunuch set to heating water and throwing strewing herbs into a great wooden tub once it was ready. They led the girl into a tent misty with steam. She was pleased and nodded her thanks. Holding her burka close, she signalled to the eunuch to leave her. The pair did not entirely retreat but watched closely from just beyond the curtained entry into the tent. Assuming, she was alone the lovely girl cast off her burka, and then her robes. Both slid to soft carpets laid out for her comfort. As arranged the eunuch signalled to Omar. Omar looked closely. He could not believe what he saw. Indeed she was very beautiful with pale skin and long fine hair and such a lovely face but as she rose, reaching for dry cottons, the eunuch and Omar looked at each other, with shock in both pairs of eyes. This was a mistake for which both would pay dearly. Their eyes slid downwards again and away. This was no girl.
Omar left for the monastery in the hills on the next morning before the camp awakened, travelling with speed up through the mountains far away from the tents. The eunuch returned to Kabul with the beautiful but silent bride, and the rest of the guard disappeared into the hills where they eventually married local girls.’
‘Well, well, poor Akbar, laughed my ginger-haired friend. Soon we were all laughing at the joke.
‘Not at all my friends, not at all. A month later Akbar sent soldiers to look for them. After his search parties found no trace, he decided they had all been eaten by wild beasts or murdered by bandits that roamed the Hindukush and returned to his winter palaces still seeking a bride which he found closer to his own winter palace.
He did hear a rumour that there was a royal elephant in the stable of some jeweller in Kabul, loved by a beautiful boy, and his friend, a eunuch who told tales of a great emperor’s harem, but he never traced the source of the story for, of course, like everything else in Afghanistan things are often not as they seem.’
Rashid stood up and stretched, reaching long fingers behind his neck and clasping them.
‘My friends, you are to see those mountains for yourselves.’
Alf opened his mouth to protest.
‘No, Alf, your lady will be safe. Arrangements have been made for her too. Mark my word, we leave Kabul soon as Hamid is ready and your newspapers agree. They have already agreed,’ snapped Rashid, his eyes cold. He nodded at the blue burqa in the corner by the stove. As he did a grey boot was quickly withdrawn. Hamid. Friend or foe? For that matter who really was Rashid. The teahouse steamed with secrets. The ancient owner grunted and sucked his pipe, his eyes glazed with a sort of timeless acceptance.
‘Our new visitors to this teahouse won’t be at all welcoming,’ Rashid spoke from the doorway, his Shalimar kames gleaming in the slanting moonlight.
An explosion burst into the night, far away. Rashid picked up the blue kite dropped by the child earlier as he ran through the teahouse, and hung it carefully on a peg by the door. The kite’s tail, a sequence of neat knots, fluttered and quivered in the draught.