I have now been to Herat five times. And each time I go, I seem to discover more and more. On this occasion, I was tasked with the job of photographer’s assistant! A friend of mine was asked to photograph historical sights in Herat, so I jumped at the chance to join, and practice my Dari as his translator. In the past year my Dari has progressed to the point I can now chat fluently about trivial topics. Which, for those of you that know me, is a speciality of mine even in English, as I love to natter away to my heart’s content to anyone that will listen. And in my new found role as a ‘fixer’ I was glad to be able to demonstrate my knowledge of the city, instructing our driver to go from one site to the next, taking into consideration the optimal time of day for the best light in each location. I was also able to recommend the best restaurants in Herat for our food breaks in between full busy days of photographing shrines, mosques and bazaars. My favourite restaurant is called 1001 nights, and is particularly special as it is fully staffed by dwarves, quite a source of intrigue as we gorge ourselves on unhealthy oil-drenched Herati cuisine. Not in a nasty way, but there is something quite amusing about these Afghan dwarves with their turbans carrying huge plates of steaming rice and kebabs at head height, elegantly manoeuvring their way through the tables. Quite a sight.
As usual Herat offers a welcome escape from the dust and pollution in Kabul. With the recent announcement by Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) stating that air quality in Kabul is roughly 100 times worse than the minimum acceptable standards of US cities attributing to the death of 3,000 Kabulis every year, my lungs needed the break. With it’s tall pine trees that in Summer provide a welcome shade, in the Winter their presence and scent send a boost of oxygen rushing through your blood.
On this particular trip, being Eid, there were many people out and about enjoying the parks and the usual hangouts at the shrines. We stumbled across a number of black-turbaned, kohl-eyed men who had moved to Herat from the likes of Kandahar and Paktia. Most conversations with these obvious Talib-types were somewhat friendly. We were even invited to sit down and share a bag of Cheetos with a group of young Talibs. Although they didn’t want their photo taken, we all thoroughly enjoyed each others company on that sunny Eid day.
Other conversations were not so pleasant however, with one young man from Paktia starting to quiz me aggressively on my knowledge of Islam. Feeling mightily uncomfortable, we made a swift exit. However, what was interesting was that the more moderate Sufi Heratis were debating with him about his extremist views on life. Unfortunately, the poor kid had probably spent most of his life rocking backwards and forwards in a madrassa and was not really open to discussions, apart from forcing his own warped views on us.
So, after two days of that type of excitement, we head back to the military airbase and hung out with the Italians for four hours waiting for our flight to take off. It has to be said, even in the dusty mess of an Afghan airbase, the Italians know how to live. We were invited for a delicious lunch which to my delight did not involve a hint of kebab meat, where I walked into a canteen full of what seemed like 500 Italian soldiers staring at me. I wasn’t really sure what to do as I felt their eyes follow me around the room, so in true SJ style, I just smiled. A nice end to another adventure in my favourite Afghan city, Herat.