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Road to nowhere

The last time the stars spoke to me was in Afghanistan, more than 30 years ago. Ruud van Weerdenburg tells bout the place and how the journey through the country forged a mystical brotherhood.

india Updated: Dec 19, 2008 23:01 IST

I received a letter from my nephew — yes, a letter, not an email — in which he told me about his difficulties as a soldier in Afghanistan. He possibly thinks he can talk to me about this Asian-desert experience because I’m the only other member of the family who has travelled in this part of the world. But how can I tell him what Afghanistan meant to me?

The last time the stars spoke to me was in that country, more than 30 years ago.

I remember standing at the back of a truck — a tipper lorry to be precise — hemmed in by tall, proud, bearded men in long robes. The floor beneath rattled up and down, and we were prevented from lurching over by our fellow travellers. This strange collection of men — two Europeans and a group of Afghans — on such a strange caravan through the desert created a unique brotherhood.

Herat to Kandahar

It all began when we took a local bus from Herat to Kandahar. At Peter’s suggestion, we took our seats directly behind the driver. “We’ll have a better view,” he said.

The Afghans gazed straight ahead and spoke little. But all hell broke loose, when, after about 40 kilometres, our bus suddenly collided with another one travelling the other way.

Peter got a scratch; the other passengers escaped with no more than a fright. The shock woke us up from a trance-like state into which we had fallen under the hypnotic spell of the desert. We got down along with the Afghans and sat down on the edge of the road, in the sand. We took care to keep a respectful distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’, just like at a grandstand.

Then, a fight commenced between the two drivers with the savagery of a cockfight. The spectators followed the contest tensely. How long would it be, Peter and I wondered, before the Afghans took sides, reached for their sabres and attacked each other in earnest. We were afraid.

Just then, out of nowhere, a man appeared — a man who towered above us all. He was swathed in white cloth and wore a white turban. His bushy black eyebrows and glistening moustache held my attention. We curiously observed as he slowly laid himself on the sand and began to silently follow the drivers’ spectacle with a hand under his head.

As we gawked at him, we failed to notice how the fight had taken a turn for the worse. Both the drivers were out of breath. Evidently, the one from Kandahar was gaining an upper hand. He brought back his right fist back behind his ear, as if he held in his left hand an enormous bow and the fingers of his right pulled taught the bowstring. But instead of delivering the decisive blow, he held out to our driver the open first of his right hand.

Then, all of a sudden, the drivers shook hands, brushed the dust off their robes, and in the sand traced out a diagram to show how the accident had come to pass. Peter and I asked ourselves whether it was customary to fight first in order to relieve emotions, and then get down to investigate the whys and wherefores in a rational manner.

Peter nudged me in the ribs. I looked up to realise that our tall man in white was already more than 20 metres away, almost at the point where he would vanish into the void. Was our slow, giant wanderer a desert sleepwalker?

The guiding star

Later, as I stood between the silent Afghans at the back of the tipper truck that had picked us up, I must have subconsciously fixed my gaze upon a star.

I stared up at this one star, placed among many others in the sky. Its sparkle brought to my mind the desert sleepwalker: how he lay stretched out in the sand at the moment our driver’s opponent was about to deliver the final blow, and then unexpectedly extended his open hand to make peace. Had the gentle giant, who appeared at just the right time, taken care of matters? He had come and vanished without anyone except Peter and I noticing.

My gaze turned to the star. Its brilliance filled me with a subtle clarity and an invigorating power.

Ruud van Weerdenburg is a journalist based in the Netherlands