20 OCTOBER 2001, Page 30


David Gilmour recalls Afghanistan

in the good old days of King Zahir

WE were arrested at midnight by a patrol of the Shah's army.

'You crazy mens.' the lieutenant told us, 'Afghans bandits. Bad peoples. They like to cut... and he drew his hand horizontally across his throat.

It was foolish to be sleeping in the open, a few miles from the Afghan border, even in 1971. But we were a young and naive threesome, barely 18, riding the hippie trail in a very old and unreliable Land Rover. We were aspiring hippies, of course, not real ones: we had only just left school and our hair was too short to be convincing. But we had some of the right gear, including a guitar hanging round my neck. Released into bandit country the next morning, we felt the Iranian officer had been exaggerating. The Afghans may have looked like brigands, but their brigandage in our case was limited to filling up the Land Rover without returning the pump gauge to zero. In Herat, the first stop, we met a fur merchant who welcomed hippies in their own argot.

Tar out, man,' he said when we bought one of his karakul coats. Sheepskin waistcoats were de rigueur in the world we aspired to, I bought two for a pound each (inferior specimens then cost £20 in Kensington Market) but, alas, they had been poorly cured. When I got home, my mother hung them in the garden shed and later, after I had been dispatched to university, she discreetly burnt them.

We quickly discovered that a lump of hashish the size of a cricket ball cost less than a bottle of beer or a packet of cornflakes. We bought one and some pipes to smoke it in, and sat under a tree looking at the decorated minarets of this delightful and hospitable oasis. Nobody minded, not even the police, who walked up and down the pavement beside us.

Two days later we were in Kandahar — the greenest and loveliest of Afghan cities — where a man in the bazaar offered to sew uncut heroin into my jeans. Then along the highway to Ghazni, and finally to Kabul, the goal of all true hippies. After Kabul the trail bifurcated; those (like us) in search of hashish in the mountains going east to Kathmandu, those preferring hashish by the seaside migrating southwards to Goa. But everyone went to the Afghan capital — and often returned.

We stayed near the fur market at the Najib Hotel, where for two shillings a night you could have a bed of sorts with bedbugs. According to my diary, it was the heroin centre of Afghanistan, but I do not remember anything of that. It was a peaceful place, built around a small orchard where guests spent the day sitting under the trees, fingering guitars and drinking lemon juice.

The evenings were more animated. As local vegetables had given almost everyone dysentery, we ate kebabs and drank coarse red wine. After supper, joints were rolled, the pipes came out and we all got stoned. Once in that condition I wrote a poem about meeting Alexander the Great in Valhalla. It was 'far out': for an evening I thought I was Coleridge.

Lethargy under the fruit trees could be broken by visits to the Bala Hissar Fort or the Babur Shah Gardens, and once to the British ambassador, who let us have baths (not a feature of the Najib) and gave us a bottle of whisky. Some evenings we went to Sigis, a haunt run by an enormous German called Siegfried, where one could play chess and listen to so-called underground music. According to my diary, the place was inhabited by a 'mass of freaks'.

Apart from dysentery, the only flaw in this idyll was celibacy. We had left England believing that oriental cities contained quantities of exotic ladies clad in silk and scented with jasmine, all willing to serve sherbet and practise the Kama Sutra on a trio of toy hippies. We had even bought a gross of condoms from a London chemist. Our quest for these ladies had been entirely unsuccessful in Shiraz and Isphahan, but we still had hopes of Kabul. After another failure there, we sold the gross to our friend the money-changer, a Kabuli with nine children.

There were some pretty cool people in the Najib: a professional smuggler, a Swiss dealer in antiquities, a Dutchman who looked like George Harrison and read Jibran under a peach tree. One day the smuggler and the dealer set off together for the airport. The smuggler swept through customs with 50 kilograms of hashish and left the country; but the dealer, who had forgotten to bribe the officials, was interrogated until his flight had taken off.

The coolest guy of all was the Mad Dane, a smuggler in his thirties with alarming blue eyes and a scar on his cheek. He seemed to have been everywhere in the world, but he always came back to Afghanistan. 'No hassles in Kabul,' he used to say. He had visited Tibet disguised as a sherpa with a team of yaks — or so he said — but he seldom went back to Europe. 'Too many hassles, man.'

I first saw him in a street by the fur market, galloping on a horse with a broken bridle. After trying to sell me the animal for 560, he gave it away and swapped the saddle for a wolf cub, which he called the Steppenwolf (we were all reading Hermann Hesse in those days). One day he and the Steppenwolf entered the Karmozan Cafe, where I was trying to polish 'Valhalla' without the aid of a narcotic. He began talking about his next adventure, taking a consignment of heroin through northern Iran. I told him that there were posters at the embassies warning that smugglers were shot, but he smiled, said he knew and didn't expect any hassles. I never learnt whether he made it.

Afghanistan had few hassles for the 100,000 tourists who passed through annually in the early 1970s, the last years of a monarch who had been on the throne since 1933. We seem to have been the only invaders the people ever liked. Visa extensions were easy to acquire, and those who forgot to acquire them were simply rounded up and made to spend the afternoon in the central police station. A sense of freedom and security extended beyond the city as well. Nobody suggested that it might be dangerous to go for a walk in Jalalabad or the Kabul Gorge.

It is now said that Afghanistan has gone back from the Middle Ages to the Stone Age. But urban Afghans — admittedly a small minority — were not living in the Middle Ages in 1971. The country was a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament and an economy improving through road-building, irrigation and light industry. Gentle modernisation was accompanied by a shrewd foreign policy that enabled the country to receive aid simultaneously from the United States, the Soviet Union, China and Western Europe. The Encyclopaedia Britannica of the time even predicted that the country's success in combining 'a measure of democracy with political stability' would lead to 'peaceful solutions to its economic and social problems'.

Then along came the republicans, the Russians, the mujahedin and the Taleban. But in the good old days of King Zahir Shah it was 'far out'.