Hunting turkey in Afghanistan

December 18-22, Herat, Afghanistan

Merry Christmas, Ding-dong merrily on high, kisses under the mistletoe, etc.

Saddam was caught whilst I was in Kooklam (centre of Kushk) last week. His capture failed to make so much as a ripple in these parts. I did hear about it, firstly after we were called on the HF (High frequency) radio by Martha (the English nurse), who can be relied upon to make sure all the essential news and gossip gets around. I tuned into the world service immediately afterwards to get the details. I was expecting more excitement in Herat but I’m yet to find anyone from outside the ex-pat community who really gives a damn. The most worldly of our national staff say simply that he was a dictator and that it’s good that he has been deposed. They told me that most people in Afghanistan either aren’t interested or are pleased. Most people in Kushk-e-Khona are far more concerned about whether they are going to survive the winter than in a supposed war between Islam and the Western world. My impression of Afghans is that the vast majority simply want peace and security. Despite being a predominantly rural, conservative, Islamic society with more than its fair share of rogue mullahs, Afghanistan has a long and well-earned reputation for tolerance. Despite having been invaded, its treasures pillaged and looted, its men slaughtered and its women raped by innumerable foreigners over the centuries, murderers, guests and tourists alike have always lauded Afghans for their hospitality. It’s a cliché to call Afghans “lovers of freedom” (who isn’t?) but distinguished writers all seem to do so, so I shall too, to make a point. None of Afghanistan’s invaders or leaders have succeeded in homogenizing the Afghans into a single people. A stroll around the Herat Bazaar reveals a bewildering array of facial characteristics; eye colours from deep mahogany to icy blue, noses from great hooks to little buttons, long pointed chins and soft round ones, dark, dark brown and pale, freckle covered complexions, little dumpy, short and scrawny and huge bear-like frames. There are even red heads here and it’s not just the henna. Apparently genetic heirs of the red hairs of Alexander the Great, there are carrot tops and freckles dotted around all over.

The point of this little diversion was to illustrate the fact that Afghanistan is very diverse, locally, tribally and regionally and the thought of even a Muslim dictator is anathema to the majority.

On a more informal note, we’re off tomorrow a mission to procure Christmas dinner. The turkey hunt, scheduled for tomorrow, has excited the hunter-gather in me. Time for bed now though. It’s nice and cosy and snowing outside.
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It’s a wet, slushy morning on the 22nd. Suddenly panicking at the thought of missing Christmas dinner, even though we have Turkey in the neighbourhood the oven is in Herat, so we’re off a day early. A day of rain and the roads, about 3 hours if slightly wet, are practically impassable. We risked our lives, or at least our Christmas, by driving a couple of kilometers away from the Herat to a village where we were assured that there were turkeys. When we arrived in the thickening sleet we were told that there were none for sale. Baktash, our interpreter was joking that he had bought one himself for Christmas. We brushed him aside whilst worrying about losing face in Herat, particularly since I have procured sausage, ham, bacon, Christmas pudding, unsalted butter, salmon and champagne. It was a matter of pride that I also came home with turkey. We were told that there was no turkey for sale in this particular village, because someone had bought the last one the previous night. I couldn’t believe it, there were no other NGOs for miles and turkeys were kept for their 40 large eggs a year and very rarely eaten.

With the snow flakes becoming more sleety and the ground more slushy we couldn’t risk hanging around any more and so we headed back towards Herat. After about an hour I asked the drivers to stop so that we could ask one more time if there were any turkeys. The name in Dari is _______ which literally translated means ‘elephant chicken’. The man we asked assured us that he had a couple of elephant chickens to sell, and if we waited a few minutes he would fetch them. After about 20 minutes we were wondering if he was having to wrestle the giant birds to the ground, but it was then that we saw him racing along the crest of the hill with 2 pairs of birds squawking and gobbling in front of him, feathers all puffed up, trying not to suffer the indignity of being caught and roasted for the infidels’ festival. The birds are as free range as you could possibly get, and will probably be as tough as the proverbial old boot, or as tough as the average Afghan free-range chicken, which have been most appropriately described as miniature feathered pterodactyls.
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Now I’m back in the office in Herat with turkey shit drying on my shoes and trousers and have proudly displayed the main course of the meal, the rest of the house want to keep the birds as pets! I’m encouraging them (Darby and Joan, aka Christmas dinner) to keep up their impressively annoying loud gobbling so that by Christmas day the swish of the cooks knife will be a relief to all.

Seasonal cheer, mulled wine, carols and hugs, big kisses, J