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A Day in Herat
By Hilary Williamson


We entered Afghanistan from Iran on April 27, 1978 and stopped in Herat. The next day there was a coup in Kabul and the borders closed. This caused us some anxious moments. I was in a group from all around the world, who had started across Europe a month earlier, shivering as we jolted along in the back of a Bedford truck. We veered South through Yugoslavia, admired the mosques and minarets of Istanbul, and warmed up as we followed the old caravan routes East and through Iran.

Isfahan, 'half the world' according to the Persians, was our previous stop. We wandered its bazaars, admired the Friday Mosque, and rested on faded carpets in old caravanserai, sipping chai (tea) through thin caramelized sugar wafers. A desert journey led to the border. In Afghanistan, Iran's small clay houses gained domed roofs, like miniature mosques. Men wore loose tunics with striped, woven belts, over baggy trousers. The ends of white turbans trailed down their backs to their waists.

The women shocked me. The Iranian chador at that time was worn casually, with Western clothing often visible underneath. Here the chaderi enveloped Afghan women completely in dull dark grays, browns or black, and the head covering was pleated with a piece of dark lace covering a slit for the eyes. It had to obscure vision. Afghanistan, and especially Kabul was supposed to be the highlight of our London to Kathmandu trip, and our leader had frequently expressed his admiration for the independence, pride and freedom of its inhabitants. This clearly only applied to the men.

Afghanistan has been invaded by all the big names in Asian conquest. Genghis Khan destroyed extensive irrigation systems that have never been replaced. The hordes of Tamerlane swept through, as did Alexander the Great with his Macedonians. The country has also had its share of religious movements - Zoroastrianism started there in the sixth century BC, and Buddhism was strong until the seventh century AD, when Islam swept in from the West and was there to stay. We feared that we might be there to stay too, and breathed a collective sigh of relief when the border re-opened, and we were able to head back to Iran.

After all the high expectations we had only spent one day in Afghanistan, but it was a full one. We visited a citadel built by Alexander the Great, and the Masjid-i-Jami mosque. In the hills above the city we saw Gazer Gah, a place of Moslem pilgrimage, where mistreated wives and debtors could claim sanctuary. One highlight was an old tree studded with nails (a toothache remedy). Some of them had dangling threads, hung there to induce pregnancy. Afterwards we roamed the Herat bazaars, and met shopkeepers who were as anxious to offer tea (salt or green) and to chat with us as to sell their goods.

After backtracking to Iran, our truck traveled South through desert. The earth beside the road was baked clay, with one inch wide cracks running across it. At Taibad we crossed into Baluchistan and had to search for the border station on the Pakistani side. As we journeyed on, I often thought of those gregarious Afghan shopkeepers and their invisible wives, and wondered how they coped with the change of regimes. I was relieved that I was able to exit their country but sad to leave it in such chaos ... and sorry for all the ordinary people there, men and women, who did not have the same choices that I did. I still feel sad for them today.

Photos above were taken in 1978 and are Hilary Williamson

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