Bread, milk and power

As we were sitting down in the empty room, we estimated the size of the three large and expensive rugs, and thus of the room: about 6 meters by 9 in total. Round these parts that’s palatial, and the owner obviously wealthy.

He was a local commander, generally considered one of the better ones, and a man of some influence.

‘This,’ said my companion, gesturing to the rugs and thin mattresses spread around the edge of the room, ‘is where the District is controlled from. Not the Governor’s!’

His point was all the more apparent to us because of a security concern that had screwed up our plans earlier in the week. The commander had left his district and gone a visiting elsewhere. In his absence, a former Governor from the Taliban times had come a courting.

There was no trouble, but the district police advised us to delay our visit to the area. They did not attempt to exert their authority, but rather waited until the other commander returned, re-establishing the area’s equilibrium. A prudent course of action, but one that made clear the room we were now in was where the power lay, not the district centre two hour’s drive to the south.

We’d dropped by to discuss a small problem with a development project in one of ‘his’ villages. It being around lunch time, and hot and thirsty after the drive along terrible tracks, we were also hoping for a cup of tea.

He wasn’t at home, but we were ushered into his house anyway, the laws of hospitality maintained by a couple of young men of his household. Reluctantly, given our thirst, we seated ourselves in the bright, clean room always set aside for entertaining visitors.

A plastic sheet was soon spread on the floor before us, bearing heavy, flat homemade bread, and we were poured glasses of hot, fresh milk. Simple fare, though the milk was a luxury, and it made for a decent meal.

I wondered if this was a tactic the commander used to lull his visitors into drowsy compliance; feed them warm milk and rusks, or if the ruse would only work properly on Westerners for whom such food held the slumbering memory of early childhood.

Driving away from the village’s only painted building into the monotonous hills, slumber was not an option; heads banging on the bruised car interior like manic pendulums.

I sometimes pass these long car rides drafting little stories in my head to write about later. Sometime between then and now, I completely forgot where this particular story was going.

If ever it had a destination. Maybe the commander’s bread and milk worked on me after all.


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