Walking with my uncles

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Today being a Friday, after a morning playing chess and drinking tea, I decided to go for a walk. The sun was shining and I felt the need to stretch my legs, maybe stroll down to the river, and enjoy that state of thoughtful peace that walking in a beautiful, tranquil place can bring. When I’d gone out of the compound before on foot I was assigned a guard to accompany me up the hill to the nearby shops. I was amused by this at the time but today wanted to be alone and hoped to avoid having to drag someone else along with me.

It wasn’t to be. When I said I was just popping out for a bit someone was summoned to go with me before I could make good my escape. Piqued, I decided if I couldn’t get out of my prison alone I may as well not bother at all. One of those silly acts of stubborn petulance I can do so well. I feel I can and do put up with a lot quite happily while working in Afghanistan, but the lack of basic freedom to move about when I see no good reason not to really gets to me.

The local manager tried explaining it to me: ‘security, you know…some people here…expatriates…I am responsible for your safety…’ I don’t buy it, not here, but felt suitable chided by the last point to settle down with a book instead. And his suggestion that the guard could follow twenty paces behind me cheered me up again.

I face the same thing when I’m in Chagcharan in Ghor. But being largely based there, time and necessity meant I have developed better coping strategies while there. The best of these involves colluding with my fellow expats, each telling their own staff that they are going to such and such an office, meeting up somewhere else and walking off into the hills instead.

And in Ghor I have my ‘uncles’ to contend with. ‘Kaka’ is an informal but respectful term of address, generally for those older than oneself but who don’t quite ‘merit’ a ‘sahib’. It is how I’ve come to think of the guards and drivers who gather round the gate when I walk out, wondering where I’m going and if it’s safe for me to do so. I love them for it, but at times their concern begins to feel oppressive. On special occasions – getting into a car with two unknown foreign women, or riding off on the back of a friend’s motorbike one night to go for a meal and a drink elsewhere – there can be four or five of my uncles peering out of the gate after me as I try to assure them there’s no problem and no, I won’t be back too late.

That motorbike ride was a memorable occasion. Whizzing along the deserted main road, scarves wrapped tightly around our heads trying to keep out the freezing night air, I felt unbelievably, joyously free. Maybe it was a little foolhardy, but no policeman pulled their occasional trick of jumping out of the dark screaming like a banshee and waving a gun around, and on the way back after a couple of rare cans of beer the air felt warmer the road smoother and I felt liberated.

Arriving back home though, as on the few occasions I’ve been out in the evening in Chagcharan, and I felt like a teenager again, getting back home too late and trying to hide the smell of alcohol on my breath. One of my uncles caught me. ‘Afghanistan, you know…it’s not so safe a country…’

In the end I gratefully accepted the company of a colleague to go for a walk today. It was less relaxing than I’d hoped, having to talk about sex and marriage in veiled terms and getting mobbed by kids as I took a photo of the river. Still, it was good to get out. As we slid our way back to the office, our conversation moved on from the German soldiers in town to had I ever been to Germany and did I need a visa to visit other European countries, and how it is nigh on impossible for Afghans to get one. ‘You see,’ my companion concluded as we got to the gate, ‘you say you are in a prison here. But we are prisoners in this country.’

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