Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Afghan insights

As I boarded the aircraft from Doha for Islamabad, I realised I was squeezed into a tiny seat on the huge airbus. Hope that I would have the 2 seats to myself for the 4 hour flight which would arrive in Islamabad at 3 am was soon dashed as a fellow traveller arrived at my row, gestured towards the seat and started to settle in next to me. He was a really interesting looking character, in very traditional Afghan attire but as I hoped to grab a short sleep before the crazy arrival time and anticipated stress at immigration, I kept my guard up and didn’t make an effort to engage in small chat. Neither did he.

As the plane took its passengers on board and prepared for departure, my sputnik (fellow traveller in Russian – literally someone who travels on the same path as you do) also prepared for departure. He donned his traditional head scarf and started a gentle chant accompanied by a rocking motion. His mantra took several minutes and accompanied the security announcement of the flight crew. At some invisible signal the prayer was over, our safe passage assured and the chanting ceased and his scarf was removed.

As we prepared for take off we exchanged pleasantries and names. He told me he had been in the UK and was the head of an NGO working in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He asked me about my job and when I gave vague details of my organisation, he immediately named it and asked if that was who I worked for. This eroded part of the awkwardness between us and we soon started a warm discussion about work in the area. I told him about our work in India and Sri Lanka and he told me about the challenges of working in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

When I said I was from Scotland he said that he had worked with a colleague in the UK who was from Wales. “Is that like Scotland?”, he asked – meaning not England! ”Yes” I replied, ”very much so! ”

He wanted to know about Scotland, he said. I anticipated the usual questions – our national food, industry and history. And bagpipes.

Sure enough, I found myself describing the delights of haggis, detailing how it is prepared and its origins a staple of the rural poor in Scotland. He described the different regional specialities of Afghanistan and dishes of meats marinated in spices and yoghurt and served with exotic fruits and vegetables. If I ever visited Afghanistan he promised to make sure I tasted the most delicious of traditional dishes, which varied enormously from area to area.

”So”, he asked, ”what are your main crops then? ”

Not too difficult, I thought. “Barley, wheat, oats….”I recited.

”And what about livestock – what animals do you farm? ”

Also an easy one.

”Cows, sheep, chickens, pigs and a few goats….”

”Ah. So what is your livestock population then?”

Silence. I have absolutely no idea. And at 38000 feet I have no access to Google to find out.

I resort to one of the most useless facts I have at my fingertips, which is at last useful.

“I don’t know about Scotland but do you know, that Mongolia is half the land size of India, and the human population is only 2.6 million. Isn’t that amazing? And the most interesting thing is that the large livestock population is 28 million. Incredible, isn’t it?”

But I have no idea about the livestock population in Scotland. Absolutely no idea at all.

“So what would be the price at market of an average sized sheep then? ”, he asks.

Please ask me about rocket science, I think to myself – at least then I wont feel so bad that I have no idea.

I guess wildly “well, I don’t really know, but I would think you would pay around £500 at least for a good sheep”. Quite what the basis is for that guess, I am not sure.

”Aaah. And what would the weight be of an average sheep then? ”

My eyes scan the aircraft and passengers for inspiration. My brain develops a sudden ability to operate some desperate sift, sort and search action. With no result. Sheep are heavy. Heavier than a grown man? Groan – I just have no idea.

I blurt out the first figure that I can think of.

”50 kilos”. Where did that come from? No idea, but that is what came out of my mouth.

”So it must be around £10 a kilo for sheep meat then?” He calculates.

My silence and stupid smile tell him that it must indeed be.

I am rescued by the arrival of our in flight catering and both of us are unable to chew our Qatari cuisine and talk at the same time.

The lights are dimmed immediately after eating and conversation is replaced by a companionable silence and attempts to doze before arrival in Islamabad.

We exchange cards at the airport and I make a firm promise to find out the answers to his questions. I have been reminded of a very different set of priorities and feel an sudden and urgent need to know more about my country.

1 comment:

ROUTES said...

I love this post.Im in stitches everytime I read it!