As a teenager I became fascinated with Kabul, Afghanistan after reading James Michener’s “Caravans.” To my great delight I had an opportunity to travel there as part of a business trip when I worked as a consultant.
The trip took our team of four consultants around the world with a little “down” time to travel between work locations. In moving from Asia to Europe, I decided to fulfill my dream and visit Kabul, Afghanistan.
1974 was well before the Russians invaded Afghanistan and people from the other parts of the world traveled freely. However, it was very rare for a woman alone to be doing such travel and this led to many adventures for me. Women in Afghanistan wore full covering, head to foot, with gauze at the eyes. I was strolling about in pant suits and fancy boots!
Fortunately on my flight to Kabul (from Delhi) I was seated next to an Ariana Air Line (the official Afghani airline) manager. He was coming from training he had in New York from PanAm about running an airline. He expressed concern for my being alone on Kabul and smoothed my arrival through customs and immigration.
My hotel was in the center of Kabul and allowed me to walk everywhere and really take in the atmosphere. Kabul was a mixture of the 15th century and 20th century. The streets were filled with camels, donkeys, horses and a few cars. It was not unusual to see a man leading a donkey with a woman riding on it – I was transported to Biblical times. I had never seen anything like the people and places in Kabul.
Everyone was very warm and friendly and wanted to look at me as much as I wanted to look at them. It was February, quite cold and snowing, and there did not seem to be any other Westerners or tourists of any kind. I was an event for them. The assortment of cultures represented by the people in the streets was fascinating: Arabs in sheik-like garb, Mongolians all looking like drawings of Genghis Khan, men who looked like Armenian-Greek-Turks, and some tall – like six foot seven inch- blond Aryans. There were very few women and they were all covered in Burqas. It was as if I were seeing early man in evolutionary phases. Most of the men would stand tall, erect, proud – reminding me of some of the portraits of Native Americans. I am sure they were poor and struggling, but they exuded strength and silent wisdom.
My first indecent proposal came from the hall boy in my hotel. The hotel doors did not have locks and every floor with guests had a hall boy. Not sure what his official purpose was, perhaps security, but his habit was to come into my room whenever he felt like it. Asking him to knock did no good - either he didn’t understand English or preferred to not understand. I was fortunate to have a bathroom in my hotel room – not always the case in Kabul, but in order to use it, I had to wedge a chair under my door knob to keep the hall boy out.
My Ariana Airline friend, Mr. Sameey, came to see me at the hotel and offered to show me around. I mentioned the hall boy issue and he disappeared. This troubled me and I hoped he was okay, but reassigned elsewhere.
Our first stop was at a rug merchant. How can I describe this scene: my interpreter and I were seated on a floor covered with priceless antique carpets surrounded by shop keepers who looked like sheiks and we were all drinking chai and eating Afghani candy, while looking out on a street filled with nomads, burros, and Genghis Khans strolling past ancient, bejeweled mosques. It was snowing and I was bargaining on the prices of magic carpets?
That evening, I ate dinner in the hotel restaurant. Since it was winter and not a time when tourists visit Kabul, there was only one other guest in the hotel – an Afghani business man with his wife and two children. As we were alone in the huge dining room, he asked me to join his family. He spoke English very well, but his family did not. After much small talk, and smiling with his wife and children, he proposed that he visit my room so that we could have sex. His family continued to smile since they had no idea what we were discussing. I explained that I was not interested in his proposition and excused myself from the table. The chair again protected me in my lockless hotel room.
The next day, Mr. Sameey showed up with a car and driver loaned to us by the rug merchant. Apparently he is considered to be very wealthy and has several cars and drivers. We drove though the Kabul gorge toward the Hindu Kush Mountains – a narrow, steep, scary road. On the ride, Mr. Sameey explained to me that the issues I was having with Afghani men were the result of American movies.
They honestly thought all American women were like the ones in movies and were happy to jump into bed with anyone at any time.
After a breathtaking descent from the mountains to a desert, we stopped for lunch at the ONLY “restaurant” for many, many miles in either direction. It was a low cement building, with tables that looked like beds of reed and wood, at which you squatted down to eat. The only bathroom facility was a ditch out back and for men only. Fortunately in those days, I could hold it!
When we returned the car to Mr. Nazir, the rug merchant, we sat and had more tea at the carpet shop and met his eight children. They got quite a kick out of meeting me – they stared and smiled. I don’t think they had ever been that close to a Westerner before, let alone a female not in Burqa.
all pics by Christine Bullen.
MONGOLIAN SOAP VENDOR.
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