I have sat in a mountain hut drinking tea on a carpet of clouds, I have searched for sleep in a room filled with 50 snoring men cradling Kalashnikovs, I have seen my life flash before my eyes as the thunderous hooves of buzkashi horses descended, I have laughed until I cried, and I have been humbled by the hospitality of those who have nothing. This is the Afghanistan I know. This is the country I love.
In 2001, I was despatched to Afghanistan by the News of the World to cover the “war on terror”. My parents were horrified. I didn’t know what to expect. I had spent much of my working life chasing soap sirens and sports stars. I flew business class, stayed in five-star hotels and spent my cash on overpriced miracle face creams. I was somewhat dismayed to discover that war reporters often sleep on dusty floors under well-used blankets, that they wash from buckets, keep a safe distance from small boys with big guns, and reminisce about electricity.
Even so, that first journey to Afghanistan was the most fabulous experience of my life. There was a war on, there was fighting, landmines littered the countryside and I was shot at, but away from the horror of the battlefield, every day brought humour, warmth and friendship. The Afghans around me were courteous, curious and cordial, and within three months I had made friends for life.
The Afghans who took it upon themselves to protect me were largely Pashtuns from the east who wielded heavy guns and old-school charisma with devastating effect. The lines scored prematurely into their handsome faces pointed to hardships beyond my imagination, and yet a gentle laughter often softened their eyes – usually following a joke at my expense. In the midst of such macho chivalry, I became hooked not only on a land that appeared to be lost to another time, but also on a people who provoked fear and affection in equal measure.
When my paper’s interest waned, I continued to visit Afghanistan, spending my holidays in Jalalabad with former commanders and friends. One year I even took my mother. At that time, the country was still basking in the glow of liberation and the days were normally long and lazy, spent cross-legged on plump cushions listening to the intricate strums of the rebab and playing carambul. Occasionally, a rocket would scream overhead to thud harmlessly in the distance.
In 2005, I moved to Kabul to edit a hearts-and-minds publication for the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf). In 2001, the
Taliban had all but brought the once-bustling capital to its knees. Four years later, schoolgirls thronged pavements; young men no longer hid handsome faces under fist-length beards; women walked to jobs under umbrellas to protect their burqa-free faces from the sun; and businesses were thriving. I was further surprised by the number of billboards displaying semi-naked musclemen advertising bodybuilding clubs.
But it was when the sun set and the call to prayer died on the breeze that the city turned magical. Shops decked with fairy lights and brightly coloured bulbs gave evenings a festive air. Smoking charcoal from kebab stalls wafted along pathways. And from Wazir Akbar Khan to Shar-e Naw to Qala-e Fatullah, Land Cruisers clogged the streets, ferrying people to dinner invitations, restaurants and bars.
For two and a half years, I lived in Kabul in a two-storey house opposite a Thai restaurant and two doors up from a brothel. My companions were a rescue dog called Blister and a Pashtun helper called Mohamed Sharif. I employed no security and there were no guns on the premises. The most dangerous item I allowed in my house was the gas burner on which my meals were cooked. In all my time in Kabul, I never once feared for my safety. Nor was I ever made to feel vulnerable. I was a guest who became a friend who became an adopted member of a number of large and loving families.
While working for Isaf, I also witnessed the overwhelming appreciation of every small gift of progress: a well bringing potable water, the first surge of electricity to a remote village, the building of a clinic, the construction of a classroom.
Away from the headlines, Afghanistan is a country that embraces traditional and tribal values while exercising tolerance of other cultures. As an unmarried western woman with no god to call her own, I was treated with nothing but kindness – and maybe a smattering of sympathy.
Andrea Busfield is the author of “Born Under a Million Shadows” (Black Swan, £6.99)