This is an excerpt from Veena’s book, A Vanished Road.
I loved Herat! It was a sleepy kind of place with plain buildings, wide streets and horse-drawn vehicles. The only strange thing was you couldn’t see any women because they were all covered from head to foot in the typical burkas. But from the body language you could see that the women were curious about us and I tried to see through the embroidered lattice-like opening in front of their eyes and convey some kind of greeting. I sensed equal curiosity from their side about me although they shied away from Pieter and Simon.
There was colour everywhere. And soft subtle colours, not the bright glaring colours we were later to see in Pakistan and India. The Afghanis favoured shades of olive green, subtle hues of blue and rich dark maroons. Everywhere we looked there were market stalls selling colourful bags and garments, many of which, I later found out, were made by the wandering nomadic tribes which criss-crossed the country on camels.
Within a few hours we were approached by a very good-looking young man who spoke surprisingly good English. He asked if he could practice his English on us and we quickly agreed because this gave us a chance to know what was going on with these intriguing people. His name was something that sounded like Ahman. He was seventeen years old and wanted to be an engineer. Being with him was amazing because wherever we went – and he was an adept tour guide – we were quickly surrounded by people who wanted to know all about us and took the chance to use his translating skills. Before leaving us he invited us to tea the next afternoon in the grounds of a mosque on the outskirts of the town.
This meeting proved to be another unforgettable experience in my many years of travelling around the world.
The next day, in the mid-afternoon, Pieter, Simon and I found our way to the mosque, guided by its four pillars which could be seen rising above the low buildings of the town. A deep blue cloudless sky and the yellow-brown desert formed the backdrop to the white and blue decorated minarets and domed structure of the mosque. The square inner courtyard was filled with curiously contorted palm trees which made us feel we were in a surreal fantasy garden, with an Alice-in-Wonderland kind of quality. The place was dead silent and there was nobody there.
We waited awhile for our young friend to materialise but finally decided we must have misunderstood or something and turned to leave. But we were stopped by a shout and turned to see Ahman appear from behind the mosque, gesturing us to come and join him. We followed him round the back of the building and were faced with a picturesque scene.
On the fine yellow sand, amongst the misshapen palm trees and some bushes covered in dark pink flowers, he had laid a gorgeous, thick, richly-coloured silk carpet scattered with coloured silk cushions. At one end of the carpet there was a big gleaming copper samovar for boiling water and in front of it was a tray of beautiful glasses for the tea and some plates of food. Two men, dressed in subtly coloured traditional garb, stood to greet us. We all sat down on the cushions and one of the men, our young friend’s uncle, I think, brewed the strong sweet tea and offered us little cakes to eat.
For an hour we sat there chatting, drinking tea and just absorbing the extraordinary scene.
We weren’t sure of Afghani protocol but decided that we should perhaps indicate it was time to go as we didn’t want to take up too much of their time. But it seemed we had made a good impression because, after a quick conference with the other two men, Ahman turned to us and said he and his family would like to invite us to their evening meal a few hours hence. We were very touched and of course agreed. After Ahman arranged to pick us up at our guest house, we expressed our profound thanks for this beautiful experience and slowly walked back into town. […]
That evening proved to be another very special experience – especially for me. We were greeted warmly by the male members of Ahman’s family and served the usual tea by women who were not wearing a burka now but still had veils across their faces and tent-like garments covering their bodies. There was a lot of quite loving communication going on between all the family members and I got the feeling that, although the women were hidden from general view, they were appreciated and respected rather than being downtrodden and abused. But I was the only woman sitting down to eat. We all sat on cushions and carpets on the floor and were served by the women. I can’t say the food was that great – just a kind of stew which was eaten with the fingers and lots of what I later discovered was called naan, a flat bread covered in oil and garlic.
After the meal I could see Ahman having a discussion with one of the women. He then got up and brought her round to me and introduced her as his mother. He asked me if I would come with them both to the women’s part of the house to meet the rest of the female family members. I was delighted of course and, with all the men nodding genially, I left the room and followed Ahman and his mother upstairs and into a very big room with arched windows from which the desert was just visible in the dusk.
For the first time I saw the faces of Afghani women! And what beautiful, intelligent faces they were. There were six women: grandmother, mother, two aunts and two teenage sisters. I was faced with a barrage of questions – they weren’t at all shy! – which Ahman translated. Of course the first questions were if I was married and did I have children but we soon moved on to my travels and what I thought of their country. I told them that I found it sad not to see their faces when I walked around and they all agreed, Ahman included, they did not like the system of burkas. This was obviously a fairly well educated and progressive family and Ahman said that none of the male members of his family liked hiding the women members but that they had to do it because the consequences were severe. If a woman dared to show her face in public she and her family could be prosecuted, ostracised or even, in a worst-case scenario, stoned. I felt sad for these women and hoped that their situation would improve as the years went by. In a way their situation has improved in that they now have greater freedom to be educated and not wear the burka always, but this slight progress has been a bitter victory in the light of the recent horrific events in their country.
The meeting with Ahman and his family was the highlight of our week in the fascinating town of Herat but soon it was time to move on. We caught a night bus to Kabul, stopping only for a few hours around midnight in what I assume was Helmand Province where we met some interested local inhabitants and rested for a while on the sand just gazing at the breathtaking starry panorama that the desert sky, sans any form of artificial light, presented. When I watch or read of the ongoing battles now centred in this very area, I remember that night and am saddened at what is now happening. The only consolation is that perhaps this starry vista gives our soldiers some occasional respite amid the grimness of their daily life of fighting.
Update 17.8.2021: Last 4 paragraphs added
- A Vanished Road by Veena – review by Bhagawati and ways to buy it online