DANCING IN AFGHANISTAN
Lapis lazuli lakes stepped down in lacy rapids and hanging waterfalls, before losing themselves in the sand and rubble deposited by the crumbling walls of the towering escarpment. Sunbeams of gold streamed through a cleft high in the ragged ridge, casting a dazzling spotlight on the adjacent rockface. The valley below my rocky knoll was veiled in a deepening purple, with pale blue mists distinguishing the higher ground and obscuring the lakes.
For many months the waters freeze over, and snow blankets the landscape; even in the height of summer, the temperature plummeted the moment the sun dipped below the jagged horizon.
Shivering as an icy gust of wind penetrated my inadequate clothing, I hastened down towards the three tents which comprised the temporary seasonal village of Band-i-Amir. A perimeter of rough stone walls formed a partial barrier against the weather and wolves, and thwarted the cruel wind, but canvas did little to insulate the tent and its inhabitants.
Several layers of the course woolen blankets provided by the ‘hotel’ though, helped to dispel the evening cold, and the company of the six other travellers sharing the tent soon bubbled into warm camaraderie.
We were a mixed bunch of nationalities all bound together by the kinship of the road, and when the steaming cauldrons of food finally arrived, the atmosphere was already well animated by laughter. Fueled by the strong local hashish, shared tales of experiences along the way drew appropriate response and appreciation. The situation of being a world away from home, sharing space and brief time with people not likely to cross paths again, arouses an particular intimacy that usually did not manage to surface in the familiar circumstances back home.
We were all aglow with contentment by the time the pots had been emptied; in spite of the huge quantities of bland rice, grisly mutton and unleavened bread, every morsel was devoured as if it had been a Persian feast. Haute cuisine could hardly have been expected almost three thousand metres up in the Hindu Kush mountains, but our appetites more than compensated for any shortcomings in culinary skills. I lay back to contemplate my stomach and state of well-being. A little smug perhaps, but surely excusable and hardly surprising given the exotic circumstances.
The tent flapped open and a freezing draught poured in, followed immediately by Sharif, our enterprising host cum renter-of-horses cum cook, and now apparently a musician, for his hand grasped the neck of a rough stringed instrument, not unlike a banjo. Three other Afghanis also entered, each carrying his own crude instrument.
Appearance suggested that they might have been brothers; similar stocky build, weathered complexion, and, more strikingly, grey-blue eyes. Wise yet expressionless; certainly none offered a smile. Nevertheless, we were apparently going to have a concert. No one complained.
‘Now, music night,’ declared Sharif obviously, and proceeded to herd two startled Englishment aside to make room for his companions, who seated themselves without comment or fuss. One by one, and without any sense of order, they began to play. Their audience settled back comfortably to enjoy the entertainment.
The four musicians strummed vigourously and tunelessly on their rustic instruments, bashed without rhythm on goatskin drums, shrieked, wailed and croaked in song, occasionally almost harmoniously. It made for us all a raucous good time. We clapped a little ironically after each song, and as the patterns of the discord become vaguely clearer, one or two of the travelers began improvising percussion on leg or hands. I timidly tapped my toe, soundlessly, warming to the music, but too self-conscious to amplify my contribution.
The cacophany continued without pause for half an hour or so before stopping abruptly at a signal from Sharif, who by now was sweating profusely, and grinning exaltantly.
‘Okay! Good music, yes?’ We agreed appreciatively. ‘Now you make music too.’ He surveyed us all enthusiastically, looking for the first to volunteer. We each fidgetted under his scrutiny, casting hopeful glances about for the prodigy who would regale the gathering with his mastery, and save us all from our ineptitude.
Nobody leapt into the fray; only silence and more discomfort, sharpened by a noticeable irritation from our host and his companions. Suddenly the atmosphere had changed dramatically, from cosy well-being to chilly menace.
‘No music, no fun!’ Sharif looked puzzled, then brightened. ‘I know. You sing, we music, yes?’ No response. Just more silence, and shifting and squirming. I just felt very stoned, and way out of my depth. Sharif and his friends looked confused, then almost threatening. Oh shit.
Sharif looked about at each of us with ferocious intent. ‘Okay, I know. You dancing. Now. You!’ He seemed to be looking at me. Surely not? He emphasised his command by pointing, directly at me. “You,” he emphasised again.
I winced and froze, shrinking under the feisty Afghani’s cajoling. Like countless other self-conscious youth, I had always suffered from excruciating fear of inadequacy exposed, to the point of never being able to muster even the courage to dance unless the dance-floor was so crowded that it was almost impossible to do more than move with the bumps of the crowd. Not actually dancing, but at least well hidden from my embarrassment.
He harped at me again, spat a cruel disparagement to his companions, then fixed me again with an unblinking stare. Frozen, I found myself caught between naked embarrassment and a deep sense of shame, that not one of us was prepared to toss pride to the wind and join these rough, simple men, for the sake of just entertaining each other. Especially me.
“Okay,” I blurted out, “I’ll dance,” and before I could retreat, found myself scrambling to my feet, like a stunned cow to the slaughter, spurred on by the relieved encouragement of my fellow squirmers, and the unbridled cheers of the musicians. Their tension had dissolved instantly, and they immediately set about improvising the tune for my performance.
No turning back, and as a tune became vaguely discernable through their strumming and thumping, I took a deep breath and began to move, fearfully and leadenly at first, and surely without style or grace. Then, as the tempo rose, I was able to ease into a turn, then a glide, and a spin. Dancing, dancing, a dervish whirl of giddy delight as I set myself free, body feeling its own motion, not caring about form or audience, knowing only the dance.
I’ve been dancing ever since.