So, why Afghanistan?
That’s something I’m always asked and I don’t really have a compelling answer, other than the country was a place I’d long been interested in visiting. I guess there was an element of trying to test myself. After lengthy and very challenging journeys in Mongolia and Tibet, I wanted see if I could cut it in a place that was actually at war. Could I personally handle being there? Aside from that Afghanistan is a country that has made almost daily headlines for the last decade and I wanted to see for myself what it was like there — what were the people like, how would they react to me, what was it like to walk on the streets of Kabul? It was something I wanted to find out for myself.
And how did you spend your time there?
I flew in to Kabul from Islamabad in Pakistan and stayed at a guest house in the city where I was hosted by a group of French journalists and photographers. I spent probably half of my three months in Afghanistan in Kabul but also visited the cities of Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif, Bamiyan, and spent three weeks travelling alone by horse in the remote Wakhan Corridor in the country’s north-east.
Was it easy to get into the country?
Yes, very, I was given a one month tourist visa from the Afghan Embassy in Australia, I had to provide a letter of invitation from the French production company but other than that there was no red tape and no questions asked. Once inside Afghanistan it was easy to extend the visa, or just let it expire and pay a fee for an exit visa.
And what was the average Afghan like?
Very friendly, very hospitable, welcoming and warm! I couldn’t count the number of invitations for tea I’d receive in a day! No one seemed to care that I was from the west, which I guess could be painted as being the enemy, no one cared that I wasn’t Muslim, people were open and tolerant which is perhaps not what one would expect given the reputation of the Taliban.
Definitely there was, but for the most part it’s not openly expressed, I did meet people who weren’t overly pleased to see me for whatever reasons they held personally. And those reasons might be justified — after all Afghanistan has been meddled with by foreign powers for centuries. It was rare, however, for someone to be openly hostile to me.
So is Afghanistan a dangerous place to travel?
Yes, it is! There is no escaping the fact that Afghanistan is a country at war and it is a country with a violent element of extremism. While I was there, there were regular incidents such as suicide bombings, kidnappings, murders of foreign aid workers, in and around Kabul and at times quite near to where I was staying. On the other hand as long as I was careful, and a little lucky I guess, I was able to travel through much of the country without incident.
What was the closest you came to real danger?
Travelling anywhere by car is the most dangerous thing you can do — the driving there is insane! Apart from that I was in a town in the north which came under rocket attack one night, someone having a go at the local governor. It was amazing, two rockets were fired in the middle of the night which must have woken the whole town but no one even got out of bed to investigate, I was expecting to hear sirens in the street or people running in panic but after the booms died down there was silence, the next day no one even seemed interested, just another night in Afghanistan! The other brush I had was when we were tipped off that the guest house in Kabul was to be targeted by the Taliban in a plot to kidnap or kill us. Everything was packed and moved in two hours to a safer address. That really brought home the precarious position foreigners live in there and it made me wonder as I strolled the streets of the city if I was being watched or followed.
Let’s talk about the horse trek….
The Wakhan Corridor was one of the main reasons I went to Afghanistan in the first place, it’s that odd little tail on the end of the country between Pakistan and Tajikistan. The region is incredibly beautiful, lying between two mountain ranges, it’s also the safest and most stable part of the country and has never been fought over in modern times, there are no insurgents there, no landmines etc. I had to get a special permit to travel there which was extremely difficult and I was very lucky to get one at all. At the entrance to the corridor I bought a local horse, borrowed a saddle and set off. Along the way I camped or was hosted in villages by ethnic Tajiks. About half way up there is an almighty gorge which I had to trek through on foot as it was too steep to ride. Foolishly, I didn’t bring much in the way of supplies and so spent three days with a very empty stomach. However, the top of the corridor opens out in to the Pamir grasslands inhabited by Kyrgyz nomads who live as herders of yaks, sheep and horses.
What concerns did the Afghan people express to you?
Naturally the main concern the average Afghan has is peace and stability. Many Afghans have grown into adulthood and know nothing but war; first the Soviets, then the civil war, then the Taliban and now the coalition forces. Ironically the time of the Taliban was probably Afghanistan’s most stable — petty crime was almost nonexistent — but of course the human rights abuses were extreme. I don’t think Afghans have ever expected a lot, they just want some security and a reassurance that they have a more positive future.
Do you have any opinions as to what the solutions might be?
The problems Afghanistan, and any other country involved with it, face are mind-boggling and extremely complex. The problems extend beyond the borders of Afghanistan itself and into Pakistan and the wider area, so solving Afghanistan’s problems is never going to be enough. One of the main dilemmas is that the nation of Afghanistan is made up of a dozen ethnic groups none of which feel any particular loyalty to any other and in fact they might have been tribal enemies for hundreds of years. One day someone drew a line on a map and said ‘OK, now you’re a country’. The problem is that you can’t have a president or even a government that is universally accepted by everyone. It made me wonder if the western ideal of democracy can actually work there? Personally I don’t have much in the way of opinions, what I wanted to get from Afghanistan, and express in Tea with the Taliban, are the opinions of Afghans themselves, whether they are right or wrong. When I was there local people talked about including elements of the Taliban in a future government, it’s not something many would want to see but as it seems virtually impossible to defeat the Taliban then many people said if including them is the answer to peace then why not? The inclusion of Taliban ministers in an Afghan government is now being openly discussed by the United States government and other coalition states.
Would you go back?
I always answer yes and no! Yes, because I’d love to go back to a peaceful and stable Afghanistan and travel to all the places I couldn’t get to, to experience the warmth and hospitality again. And no, because a peaceful and stable Afghanistan doesn’t look likely for some time.
And why write Tea with the Taliban?
I wanted to portray the country from the point of view of an ordinary traveller, like any other travel book, but set in the extreme environment of Afghanistan. Most books which have been published recently have been written by Afghans in exile or by foreign ‘experts’. I wanted to produce a book by an ordinary guy who just went there to see what it was like. I wanted to tell the stories of the Afghans themselves as they were told to me, the average Afghan I met on the street or in tea houses everyday. I wanted to show the way local people live there against the backdrop of violence and chaos.