Caravans [Secure eReader (recommended)/Adobe EPUB]
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by James A. Michener
Category: Historical Fiction
Description: In this romantic adventure of wild Afghanistan, master storyteller James Michener mixes the allure of the past with the dangers of today. After an impetuous American girl, Ellen Jasper, marries a young Afghan engineer, her parents hear no word from her. Although she wants freedom to do as she wishes, not even she is sure what that means. In the meantime, she is as good as lost in that wild land, perhaps forever....
eBook Publisher: RosettaBooks,
EPIC eBookstore Release Date: February 2004
11 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats [Secure eReader (recommended)/Adobe EPUB - What's this?]: SECURE EREADER (RECOMMENDED) FORMAT [392 KB], SECURE ADOBE EPUB FORMAT [2.2 MB]
All formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED
GEOGRAPHIC RESTRICTIONS: Available to customers in: US, PR, VI, UM What's this
On a bleak wintry morning some years ago I was summoned to the office of our naval attaché at the American embassy in Kabul. Captain Verbruggen looked at me with an air of frustration and growled, "Damn it all, Miller, two weeks ago the ambassador ordered you to settle this mess about the saddle shoes. Last night the Afghanistan government made another protest... this time official. I want you, by three o'clock this afternoon, to hand me..."
I interrupted to report: "Sir, a much more serious matter has come up. Last night a dispatch arrived. I've assembled the data for you."
I shoved before him a leather portfolio jammed with papers. Across the face of the portfolio was stamped the gold inscription, "For the Ambassador," and since our embassy owned only two such folders, what went into them was apt to be important.
"Can't it wait till the ambassador gets back from Hong Kong?" Captain Verbruggen asked hopefully, for even though he was our acting ambassador he preferred to temporize.
I disappointed him. "It's got to be handled now."
"What's it deal with?" he asked, for he was a self-made man who disliked reading.
Carefully folding back the leather cover, I pointed to a cable from Washington. "Senior senator from Pennsylvania. Demands an answer. Immediately."
Verbruggen, a rugged, bald-headed man in his sixties, snapped to attention, as if the senator from Pennsylvania had entered the room. "What's he want?" He still refused to do any unnecessary reading.
"The Jaspar girl," I said.
With a disgusted reflex Verbruggen slammed shut the portfolio. "For seventeen months," he complained, "this embassy has been plagued by the Jaspar girl. I'm here to help a nation climb out of the Dark Ages, and that's the job I'm trying to do. But I'm pestered with saddle shoes and Jaspar idiots. There's nothing more I can think of to do on this case," he concluded firmly, shoving the papers to me.
But I forced the papers back to his side of the desk. "You've got to read the dispatch," I warned.
Gingerly he lifted the leather cover and peeked at the peremptory message from Washington. When he saw that even the Secretary of State had involved himself in the matter, he snapped to attention and pulled the paper before him. Slowly he read aloud:
"It is imperative that I be able to supply the senior senator from Pennsylvania with full details regarding the whereabouts and condition of Ellen Jaspar. All previous reports from your embassy are judged inadequate and unacceptable. If necessary, detail your best men to this problem as it involves many collateral considerations. Am I correct in remembering that Mark Miller speaks the native language? If so, consider assigning him to this project at once and have him report promptly, sparing no effort."
Captain Verbruggen leaned back, blew air from puffed-up cheeks and once again shoved the folder to me. "Looks like it's been taken out of my hands," he said with relief. "Better get to work, son."
I lifted the portfolio from his desk and said, "I have been working, sir. Ever since I arrived."
"In a very desultory way," he suggested pleasantly. My boss could never forgo the obvious, which was why he was stuck off in Afghanistan, one of the most inconspicuous nations on earth. In 1946 it was just emerging from the bronze age, a land incredibly old, incredibly tied to an ancient past. At the embassy we used to say, "Kabul today shows what Palestine was like at the time of Jesus." In many ways, our attaché was an ideal man for Afghanistan, for he too was only just emerging from his own bronze age.
Yet I liked him. He was a rough, wily businessman who had made a minor fortune in the used-car racket, and a place for himself in the Democratic party in Minnesota. Four times he had helped elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, and although I was a strong Republican, I respected Verbruggen's tested loyalty. He had given the Democrats some sixty thousand dollars and they had given him Afghanistan.
He was almost entitled to it. While still a civilian he had made himself into a rough-and-ready yachtsman, for boating was his principal hobby, and when World War II struck, he volunteered to help the navy manage its shore installations. By merit and drive he had risen from lieutenant to navy captain and had made significant contributions to the building of our great bases at Manus and Samar. He was a tough bullet-head and men respected him; he had courage, and I could prove it.
My name is not really Mark Miller. By rights it's Marcus Muehler, but in the 1840's when my ancestors fled Germany they decided with that foresight which distinguishes my family that a Jewish name would not be helpful in America, so they translated muehler into its English equivalent, and henceforth we were Millers.
As usual, my family was right. The fact that my name was Miller and my face wholly un-Jewish enabled me to succeed at Groton and Yale, so that when in 1942 the United States navy was looking for a few acceptable Jewish officers to avoid having many unacceptable ones forced upon them, they grabbed me with relief and were happy when most of my shipmates never realized that I was Jewish. In how many ward-rooms was I assured by amateur anthropologists, "I can spot a kike every time."
Captain Verbruggen, under whom I served at Manus, watched me for three weeks, then said, "Miller, you're the kind of kid who ought to be in Intelligence. You've got brains." And he personally fought with the brass on the island until he found me a good berth. In 1945, when our State Department also became eager to pick up a few Jewish career men with table manners, my former boss remembered me, and in one exciting week he switched me from lieutenant, junior grade, to State Department officer, very junior grade.
Then came the problem of where State should put me, for the typical embassy doubted that I would fit in. For example, I wouldn't be welcome in Cairo or Baghdad, where the citizens hated Jews, or, as it happened, in Paris, where many of our staff felt the same way. At this point Captain Verbruggen, now serving as naval attaché in Afghanistan, reported that he knew Mark Miller, and that I was a well-behaved Jew who would be a credit to the country. "In fact," he said in a cable that was passed widely throughout the department, "some of my best friends are Jews," and he got me. His courage gained the gratitude of President Truman and a nod from the Secretary of State. To everyone's relief I was working out reasonably well, so that Captain Verbruggen looked on me with a certain pride. I was one of his ideas that hadn't turned sour, which could not be said for all of them.
"I haven't been a ball of fire on the Jaspar girl," I confessed, "but when the cable arrived I got everything together. I've reviewed the files and I think I know what's got to be done next."
"At four this afternoon I'm seeing Shah Khan. At his home. He talks better there, and if anyone knows where the Jaspar girl is, he does."
"Will he tell you?" Captain Verbruggen countered suspiciously.
"In Afghanistan I expect no one to tell me anything, and what they do tell me, I distrust."
"You're learning." The captain laughed. He looked at his watch and said, "If you've already studied the file, and if you're going to meet Shah Khan at four..."
"I'd better get to work on the saddle shoes," I anticipated.
"You'd better. Those damned mullahs are off again on a big religious kick." I was always surprised at Captain Verbruggen's use of the vernacular. He read widely -- magazines, not books -- and acquired strange phrases. "The mullahs from the mountain districts stormed into town yesterday," he continued, "and they got wind, somehow, of the saddle shoes and they're demanding that our Marine guards be sent home."
"You aren't going to let a few mad priests dictate our policy, sir?"
"The one thing I refuse to get mixed up in is a bunch of fanatic Muslim priests. You don't know them the way I do. Already they're putting a lot of pressure on the Afghan government. I may have to lose my Marines."
"What am I to do?"
"You speak the language. Go down to the bazaar. See what's actually happening."
"Very good, sir."
"And, Miller, if there's any good reason for getting rid of the Marines, let me know right away. Their time's almost up and it might be a friendly gesture on our part to get them out of here. Placate the mullahs at no real expense to ourselves."
I was equally surprised at the precise vocabulary my boss could use when he wished to. "I don't like the idea of placating a bunch of mullahs," I objected stubbornly.
"You won't be," he replied. "I'll accept responsibility, and we'll all be further ahead if I do."
I nodded deferentially and rose to go, tucking the Jaspar papers under my arm, but at the door I was stopped by a command from the acting ambassador. "Let me know what Shah Khan thinks," he said.
I laughed. "There must be twelve million people in Afghanistan who would like to know what Shah Khan thinks. I'm sure I won't be the one to find out." I left the room, then called back, "But I'll let you know what he doesn't tell me."
In 1946 the American embassy in Afghanistan required no large staff, for in those hesitant days the big lend-lease program that was to mark the future had not yet been visualized. We who did serve in the strange and sometimes forbidding city were forced by circumstance to be a closely knit group, because at that time Kabul provided positively nothing for foreigners: no hotels that we could use, no cinema of any kind, no newspapers, no radio with European programs, no restaurants available to visitors, no theaters, no cafés, no magazines. No public meetings were allowed, nor were we permitted any kind of normal social life with our Afghan hosts, for this was prohibited by the Afghans. We were thus driven in upon ourselves and if we wanted entertainment or social life we had to provide it ourselves, looking principally to the personnel attached to the English, French, Italian, Turkish and American embassies. At the end of a long, confining winter during which the city was snowbound, we searched hungrily for any diversion and were delighted when the people at the English embassy, always the most inventive where living overseas was concerned, came up with the idea of reading plays aloud before informal audiences.
Therefore, when I got back to my office in the two-story white building which served as our embassy, I was not surprised to find our pool secretary, Miss Maxwell of Omaha, typing furiously and somewhat irritated when I asked for the well-thumbed papers on the saddle shoes.
"They're over there," she snapped without looking up.
"Could you get them?" I asked.
"Please, Mr. Miller," she protested. "I'm just finishing the play for tonight."
"I'm sorry," I said, finding the papers for myself.
"The reading's tonight," she explained, "and I'm responsible for all of Act Three. The British girls are doing Act One, which is the longest, and one of the Italian girls is typing Act Two. She's finished. I guess they never do any work at the Italian embassy," she sighed.
"You go ahead," I said consolingly, and I noticed that she had in her machine not only the original copy but seven carbons as well. "See that I get one of the first three," I cautioned. "I can't read those last carbons."
"On my machine they're all right," Miss Maxwell assured me. "It's the Italian typewriters that won't strike off seven copies." I noticed that Miss Maxwell was using a German machine, and it did make seven usable copies.
I took the saddle-shoe papers to my inner office and started to leaf through them, but the top page arrested me, for it said briefly, "Afghan agents have warned us that if the Marines continue to molest the saddle shoes, there will be a murder in the bazaar." This moved the whole matter up several notches in gravity, so I asked Miss Maxwell to summon my Afghan aide, Nur Muhammad, who came quietly into the room.
He was a good-looking, lithe young man of thirty-two, dressed in a western-style blue suit which fitted badly. He had black hair, dark skin, deep-set eyes, a big Afghan nose and extremely white teeth, which he showed rarely. He was a moody, sensitive person who during the two years he had worked at the American embassy had taught himself to speak English. It was generally known that he was in the employ of the Afghanistan government.
"Sit down, Nur," I said. With grave attention to protocol he sat in the chair I indicated, smoothed his trousers, then folded his hands in his lap.
"Yes, sahib?" he said with a deft combination of willingness to help and studiousness not to appear too eager.
"It's about the saddle shoes," I began, and Nur Muhammad relaxed. "You've heard about the latest intelligence?" I continued.
Nur Muhammad betrayed nothing. He was far too smart to be trapped into admitting that he knew anything. He insisted that I speak first. Then he would react to what I had said. "What intelligence?" he asked blandly.
I opened the manila folder on the case and looked at the ominous report. "Some of your people have warned us that if the Marines continue to... Well, they say molest. Nur Muhammad, do you think our Marines have molested anyone?"
Before Nur could reply my door was opened by a handsome young American Marine who had won battle stars on Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima and who now enjoyed, as his reward, an easy job as one of our two military guards in the embassy. He stepped in smartly, handed me some papers, turned professionally, and disappeared. His uniform, I remember, was immaculate and his shoes were shined.
When he was gone Nur Muhammad replied cautiously, "I wouldn't say by your standards the young men have molested. But Ramadan is approaching. The mullahs gain more voice each day. It is they who believe there has been molestation and if they believe this, Mr. Miller..."
I showed him the report. At the suggestion of murder he drew in his breath.
"Yes," I said. "Murder." Nur Muhammad carefully replaced the paper, then straightened his trousers once more.
"I would not ignore the mullahs," Nur Muhammad warned. "You see, as Ramadan approaches they wish to reinforce their power. To remind us of that power."
"Suppose these suspicions continued? Suppose the Marine you just saw did... well... molest?" I added quickly, "You understand, I'm not for one minute granting that any Marine did molest."
"You made your position clear on that point," Nur Muhammad agreed effusively.
"But suppose the mullahs thought otherwise? Whom would they murder?"
Without a moment's reflection Nur replied, "The saddle shoes, of course."
"The saddle shoes!" I gasped.
"Of course. I must explain, Miller Sahib. In the past the mullahs loved to murder the ferangi, but whenever they murdered a ferangi it caused much trouble for Afghanistan. So they've had to quit."
I was always bemused by the Afghan word for foreigner. When the first Asian students saw this ugly word, with its even uglier connotations, the unaccustomed combination of g and n perplexed them, so they invented an expressive pronunciation which included all the letters, heavily fraught with hatred, envy and contempt. Some pronounced it ferangi, with a hard g, some faranji, others foreggin, but it meant the same.
"The mullahs will not murder the ferangi," Nur Muhammad assured me.
"I think we should go down to the bazaar right now," I suggested.
"I do not think I should go, Miller Sahib. My presence would endanger your effectiveness and mine."
"I agree, but I'd like to have you there, if danger should erupt."
"What danger can erupt in a Kabul bazaar?" Nur Muhammad asked deprecatingly.
"We just agreed. Murder."
"But not to a ferangi," Nur assured me, and he declined to join me, returning to his regular duties.
When he had gone I called Security to request that our two Marines be excused from duty, and although I met with loud protest, my threat to involve the acting ambassador turned the trick. From my window I watched the two clean-cut battle heroes hurrying toward the exit gate. I summoned Miss Maxwell and informed her, "I'll be in the bazaar."
"Good," she replied, grabbing her hat. "I'll deliver the copies of the play."
I went to the exit gate and asked the guard to hail me a ghoddy, and in a few minutes a driver pulled up with the world's most uncomfortable taxi: a horse-drawn two-seater in which the driver perched comfortably in front on a hair cushion, while the passengers clung precariously to a sloping wooden seat that faced backward. Thin strips of old automobile tires tacked to wooden wheels enabled the ghoddy to travel over the rough, frozen streets.
I've been told that diplomats and military men remember with nostalgia the first alien lands in which they served, and I suppose this is inevitable; but in my case I look back upon Afghanistan with special affection because it was, in those days, the wildest, weirdest land on earth and to be a young man in Kabul was the essence of adventure. Now, as I jogged along in the ghoddy on an unbelievable mission, I thought again of the violent land and the even more violent contradictions that surrounded me.
The city of Kabul, perched at the intersection of caravan trails that had functioned for more than three thousand years, was hemmed in on the west by the Koh-i-Baba range of mountains, nearly seventeen thousand feet high, and on the north by the even greater Hindu Kush, one of the major mountain massifs of Asia. In the winter these powerful ranges were covered with snow, so that one could never forget that he was caught in a kind of bowl whose rim was composed of ice and granite.
Kabul, pronounced Cobble by all who have been there, Kaboul by those who have not, was shaped like a large capital U lying on its side, with the closed end to the east where the Kabul River flowed down to the Khyber Pass, and the open end to the west facing the Koh-i-Baba. The central part of the U was occupied by a rather large hill, which in my home state of Massachusetts would have been called a mountain. The American embassy and most European quarters lay in the northern leg of the U, which I was now leaving, while the bazaar, the mosques, and the vivid life of the city lay in the southern leg, to which I was heading.
As we made our way toward the center of Kabul I was reminded of the first contradiction that marked Afghanistan. The men I saw on the streets looked much more Jewish than I. They were tall, dark of skin, lithe, with flashing black eyes and prominent Semitic noses. They took great pride in their claim to be descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, who were supposed to have reached these mountain plateaus during the Diaspora. But at the same time the Afghans remembered that the ancient name of their country was Aryana, and in the volatile 1930's they were adopted by Adolf Hitler as the world's first Aryans and his special wards. The proud Afghans were able to accept both accolades without discrimination and consequently boasted that while it was true that they were born of the Jewish tribe, the Ben-i-Israel, once they reached Afghanistan they had ceased being Jews and had founded the Aryan race. It made as much sense as what some of their friends were propounding elsewhere.
The dress of Afghan men was striking. The few educated men and officials dressed like Nur Muhammad: western clothes with fur-collared overcoats and handsome iridescent caps of karakul, shaped either like American Legion overseas caps or like fezzes. Other men wore the national costume: sandals which allowed toes to drag in the snow, baggy white pants of Arab derivation, an enormous white shirt whose tails were worn outside and reached below the knees to flap in the breeze, richly patterned vest, overcoat of some heavy western cloth, and a dirty turban, one of whose ends trailed over the shoulder. If they were tribesmen from the hills, they also carried rifles and sometimes wore bandoleers well studded with cartridges. I doubt if you could have found a national capital anywhere in the world where so many men walked the streets fully armed, for in addition to their rifles most of the tribesmen carried daggers as well. Civilization in Afghanistan, as represented by officials who wore the karakul cap, existed on a very narrow margin of survival.
During my first days in Afghanistan I had noticed that whenever I saw a pair of these fierce tribesmen down from the hills, men who had probably killed in mountain ambush, one of the couple behaved in a very masculine manner while his partner was sure to have feminine traits. He walked in mincing steps, kept a handkerchief in one hand, and carried a winter flower between his teeth. Usually the feminine partner wore a little rouge or eye makeup and always he walked holding the hand of his more rugged partner.
A further glance at the streets of Kabul explained why this was so. There were no women visible. I had been in the country more than a hundred days and had yet to see a woman. I had been entertained in important homes, like that of Shah Khan, but never had I been allowed to see any of the women who lived there. It was this phenomenon that accounted for the curious behavior of the men: having removed all women from public life, the Afghans realized that feminine traits were nevertheless desirable and so allocated them to men. On the frozen streets of Kabul I saw just as many feminine actions as I would have seen on the boulevards of Paris, except that here men performed them.
Of course, it isn't accurate to say that I saw no women. Frequently as the ghoddy plugged along I saw emerging from towering walls, whose gates were always guarded, vague moving shapes enshrouded in cloth from head to toe. They were women, obliged by Afghan custom never to appear in public without a chaderi, the Muslim covering that provides only a tiny rectangle of embroidered lace through which the wearer can see but cannot be seen. We were told by educated Afghan men, most of whom despised the chaderi, that the imposition damaged the health and the eyesight of the women, but it persisted. At the age of thirteen all females were driven into this seclusion, from which they never escaped.
I must admit, however, that these ghostly figures, moving through the city in shrouds that were often beautifully pleated and made of costly fabric, imparted a grave sexuality to life. There was a mysteriousness in meeting them and wondering what kind of human being resided inside the cocoon, and rarely have I been as aware of women, or as fascinated by them, as I was in Afghanistan, where I saw none.
It was midmorning when the ghoddy dropped me at the little fortress-like mosque with two white minarets that stood by the river in the heart of the city, and I noticed at the doorway to the mosque three mullahs -- tall, gaunt, unkempt men with flowing beards and fierce eyes -- who appeared to be guarding the holy place and condemning me, a non-Muslim, for passing so near. When I looked at them politely, they stared back with undisguised hatred and I thought: These are the men who rule Afghanistan!
At this moment one of them, obviously down from the hills, spied something behind me that alarmed him, and he began screaming imprecations in Pashto. Encouraged by his protests, the other two mullahs started running at me, and I hurriedly ducked aside to let them pass. When they had gone, like scarecrows in their long gowns and flying beards, I looked after them to see what had so agitated them, and I discovered that our typist, Miss Maxwell, had driven to town in the embassy jeep and was now hurrying along the public sidewalk with her eight copies of the play we were to read that night. The country mullah had spotted her, a woman without a chaderi, and felt obliged to assault her for this violation of faith. He and his companions, giving no thought to the fact that Miss Maxwell was ferangi, bore down upon her screaming and cursing.
Before I could protect her, the three tall mullahs, their beards and hooked noses making them caricatures of religious frenzy, had swarmed upon her and were beating her with their fists. What was worse -- then and in retrospect -- they began spitting at her, and rheum from their lips trickled across her terrified face.
I dashed through the crowd that had gathered and began grabbing the mullahs, shouting in Pashto, "Stop it, you fools! She's ferangi!"
I was saved by the fact that I knew the language; the holy men fell back, startled that I could speak to them in Pashto, whereas had I been a mere ferangi who had struck a priest they might have incited the crowd to kill me. A policeman ambled up, never swiftly for he did not wish to become involved with mullahs, and said quietly, "Look here, men. We're in Kabul, not the mountains. Let the woman alone." And the three fanatic mullahs withdrew to guard once more the mosque at the river's edge.
Miss Maxwell, terrorized by the sudden attack, proved herself a brave girl and refused to cry. I wiped the spit from her face and said, "Forget them. They're madmen. I'll find your driver."
I looked about for the embassy car and discovered the Afghan driver lounging unconcernedly along the river wall, from where he had watched the incident. He was sure that I or somebody would halt the fanatical mullahs and that his charge, Miss Maxwell, wasn't going to get seriously hurt, so he saw no good reason to risk his neck brawling with idiot mullahs.
He now sauntered over. "Must I take Miss Maxwell back to the embassy?" he asked in Pashto.
"The Italian embassy," I explained.
"Be careful," he warned me. "The mullahs are dangerous these days."
Before he drove Miss Maxwell away, I congratulated her upon the self-control she had exhibited. People back home made jokes about the softness of Americans, but they should have seen Miss Maxwell that March day in Kabul.
When she was gone, I wandered over to the bazaar, a nest of narrow streets in the crowded section of the city, where almost everything was for sale, much of it stolen from warehouses in Delhi, Isfahan and Samarkand. I derived perverse pleasure from the assurance that new India, ancient Persia and revolutionary Russia were alike impotent to halt the hereditary thieves of Central Asia. When Darius the Persian marched through Kabul five hundred years before the birth of Christ, this same bazaar was selling practically the same goods stolen from the same ancient cities.
There were, of course, a few modern improvements. Gillette razor blades were in good supply, as were surgical scissors from Göttingen in Germany. One enterprising merchant had penicillin and aspirin, while another had imported from a rifled G.I. warehouse in Bombay cans of Campbell's soup and spark plugs for American cars, of which there were beginning to be a few on the deeply rutted streets of Kabul.
But it was the faces that made me think I was back in the days of Alexander the Great, when Afghanistan, astonishing as it now seemed, was a distant satrapy of Athens, a land of high culture long before England was properly discovered or any of the Americas civilized. In these faces there was a sense of potential fire, of almost maniacal intensity, and wherever I looked there were the mysterious forms of women, shrouded in flimsy robes which hid even their eyes.
I was watching the movement of these alluring figures, wondering as a young man should what form was sequestered beneath the robes, when I became aware -- how I cannot even now explain -- of two young women who moved with tantalizing grace. How did I know they were young women? I don't know. How did I know they were beautiful, and aching with sexual desire, and gay and lively? I don't know. But I do know that these creatures, whatever their age or appearance, were positively alluring in their mysteriousness.
One was dressed in an expensive, pleated chaderi of fawn-colored silk; the other was in gray. At first I thought they were trying to attract me, so when they passed very close I whispered in Pashto, "You little girls be careful. The mullahs are watching."
They stopped in astonishment, turned to look out of the bazaar toward the three gaunt mullahs, then giggled and hurried on. When I turned to look after them, I saw that they were wearing American-style saddle shoes. These must be the girls who had been reported as meeting our two Marine guards in the bazaar, and from my memory of the dashing manner in which the Marines had left our embassy compound, and from the saucy way in which the girls had moved past me, I suspected that matters of substantial moment were afoot, and that the impending meeting of these young people might lead to tragedy.
I therefore set out to follow the girls, and I cursed Nur Muhammad for not being on hand to help. The girls were not moving fast, and from time to time I was able to catch glimpses of them, two figures shrouded in expensive silk, exquisite in their movements, and wearing saddle shoes. They became the personification of sexual desire -- attractive, dangerous, evanescent -- as they moved gracefully through the bazaar, looking, hoping.
I followed them into the alleyways where karakul caps were sold, those silvery gray hats that made Afghan men seem so handsome and ferangi so ridiculous. "Sahib, cap! Cap!" the merchants cried, falling back with laughter when I said regretfully in Pashto, "It takes a handsome man to wear karakul."
Now the shrouded girls moved lazily, wasting time in the fruit stalls where precious melons from the south were available, and in the dark stalls where cloth from India was on sale. I do not think they were aware of me, following them at a distance, but the movement of those gay, abandoned saddle shoes fascinated me, and I well understood how our two Marines had fallen under the spell of these lively girls.
For a moment I lost them. I turned into a street where there were shops with metal goods -- bronze, tin, stainless steel and silver -- but the girls were not there. Fearing something not easily described, I hurried back to the fabric center, and finding no one there I turned toward a little alley which led to what seemed a dead end. On chance, I stepped that way and saw a perplexing, haunting sight.
Against the dead-end wall leaned our two American Marines, in bright uniform. Against them, their backs to me, were pressed the two Afghan girls, their chaderies thrown back, their unseen lips pressed eagerly against those of the Marines. The girl in gray had allowed her dress to be pulled partly away, and in the wintry air I could see her naked shoulders. I have never seen human beings so passionately intertwined, and I became aware of the fact that the girls had begun to loosen the uniforms of the Marines and to adjust to the results.
It was at this moment that I saw, from the corner of my eye, the three gaunt mullahs moving through the bazaar, intent upon finding the girls. It would be some moments before they reached this alley, and they might not see it. On the other hand, they might.
"You fools!" I shouted in Pashto, running down the alley. "This way! At once!"
I tried to grab the two girls, partly, I suppose, in order to see what Afghan women looked like with the chaderi removed, but they eluded me, and when they finally did face me, the shrouds were back in place and the girls were as mysterious, as silent as ever.
"The mullahs?" they asked in real fear.
I started to lead them to what I thought was safety, but the two couples, having surmounted the language barrier, had somehow planned their own escape routes, for in an instant, the girls vanished down a narrow pathway that led away from the approaching mullahs, while the two Marines vaulted the seemingly unscalable wall, and I was left alone in the cul-de-sac. I heard the angry mullahs behind me, whipping up a crowd, and on the spur of the moment I had the presence of mind to start urinating against the wall.
This even the mullahs understood, and I heard them cry in frustration from the other end of the alley, "The evil girls must be here." When I made my way through the crowd, I saw along the farther edge two shrouded figures, one in a fawn-colored chaderi, one in gray, drifting easily away from the bazaar. Their silken shrouds flowed in the wintry wind like the robes of Grecian goddesses, and along the snowy footpaths I watched the saddle shoes depart. I was aching with the mystery of sex, with the terrible allure that such undulating figures could evoke. I wanted to run after the girls and protest madly in Pashto that I needed them, that with the Marines gone I would like to make love with them, even in the hurried corner of a bazaar where men paused to urinate.
For the Marines would have to leave Afghanistan. That was clear. Regretfully I watched the girls disappear, then realized with some shame that I was inwardly pleased that the Marines would be sent home. I dismissed the unworthy thought and looked for a ghoddy. To my surprise one appeared promptly, occupied by Nur Muhammad, who had come down to survey matters from a distance.
"Trouble?" he asked blandly, pointing to the mullahs, who were haranguing a crowd near the entrance to the bazaar.
"Just escaped," I reported. "A miracle."
I climbed onto the sloping seat of the ghoddy and we drove back toward the embassy. As the horse clip-clopped over the frozen mud that served as a road in Kabul, I noticed once more the little open ditches that lined most streets in the city. In them ran the public drinking water, since underground pipes were unknown in Afghanistan. But in the same ditches the citizens also urinated, pitched dead dogs, brushed teeth and washed all food that would be later eaten by the citizens, including ferangi stationed in the American and European embassies. I shuddered.
Ahead of me a man from the mountains, carbine slung over his back, squatted over the ditch and defecated, while not ten yards away a cook's helper, dressed like Nur Muhammad, unconcernedly washed the meat that would be served that night in the French embassy.
"A thing like that is a national disgrace," Nur said bitterly.
"Does the government know who the girls are? The saddle shoes, I mean?"
"Rumors whisper that one is Shah Khan's granddaughter."
"Does the old man know?" I probed.
"He's the one who protested to the ambassador."
"Is his granddaughter pretty?"
"They say she's a beauty," Nur replied. "I haven't met anyone who's seen her."
"Is it true that Shah Khan has openly stated he's opposed to the chaderi?" I asked, trying to review our intelligence on the man I was shortly to see.
"Of course. That's why the mullahs tried to murder him last Ramadan."
"I have to be there at four," I repeated. Nur said he'd have the jeep ready, and I hurried to report to Captain Verbruggen. We arranged for the two Marines to be shipped out of the country that afternoon. They would ride an open truck down the long, perilous mountain passes to Peshawar, at the Indian end of the Khyber Pass. And in the years ahead they would relate such memories of Afghanistan as would inspire other young men to serve in distant nations.
Copyright © 1963 by Random House