“Do you want to meet the Taliban?” the Afghan lad who ran the dingy chaikhana, teahouse, on the edge of Kabul’s chaotic Grand Bazaar asked me.

“Not really!” I replied thinking young Ali was joking.

“But if you want you can, one man I know is Taliban, if you like I can ask him to see you, it’s interesting for you, yes?”

A few days later Ali called me, “Mr Ian, my friend the Talib will come to my shop today, can you come here?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

Before I left the guesthouse I was staying in I told someone where I was going and that I was about to meet a member of one of the world’s most infamous organizations, in case I didn’t return.

Before leaving home the New Zealand government’s travel advisory website had warned against setting foot anywhere near the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan; EXTREME RISK, SUICIDE CAR BOMBINGS, KIDNAPPING OF FOREIGNERS, BANDITRY, LANDMINES, these were just a few of the treats in store for anyone fool enough to ignore the advice. But at the same time the Lonely Planet guide talked of places in Kabul where one could dine on fresh seafood flown in from Dubai, French restaurants with swimming pools and jazz evenings, the marvels of Bamiyan and the ruins of ancient Alexander’s Balkh.

Afghanistan had captured me in my teens, in the days when mujahadeen fighters trundled about the country in tractors as they took on the Soviet war machine and the conflict was staple news fodder. I’d had visions of fast stepping horses in the deserts, of turbaned men in flowing robes with sword and musket defending their parched lands and the honour of their veiled women, of stone Buddhas in a Muslim land, of camels, silk roads and caravanserais. I’d always wanted to come here but heart breaking civil war had made it impossible. Post September 11 Afghanistan was once more on the nightly news and as I watched I wondered what it was really like there, again I wanted to see for myself how it felt to walk on the streets of Kabul.

Arrival in mid-summer Kabul was an aggravated assault on the senses; omnipresent flies and all-pervading dust, heat to knock you off your feet, beggars, burqas, bellowing donkeys, sandbagged cafes, check-points and Kalashnikovs, flocks of urban sheep in the streets grazing on piles of garbage, helicopter gun ships hovered over the city in constant menace, psychopathic traffic. All this set against the backdrop of a culture 5000 years in the making, deep traditions of hospitality, salams, welcomes, handshakes and friendship, endless invitations to share tea from everyone I encountered.

English was widely spoken in Kabul, dozens of guesthouses waited for residents, restaurants with succulent meals of mutton and rice with raisins had empty tables, artisans and craftsmen with shops bursting with carpets, curios and antiques. Everyone sat idle wishing Afghanistan would return to its glory days on the overland hippy trail of the 60s and 70s when it rivalled Kathmandu as the place to go. But nightly news stories of wars on terror made almost everyone too afraid to come.

Back in Ali’s chaikhana the usual old men sat sharing their pots of tea. Ali greeted me and led me out the back of the shop through a concrete yard, past the reeking toilet pit and down a narrow passage way, ‘Should I be doing this?’ But before I could answer my own question Ali opened a door and ushered me inside.

“This is my friend.” Ali introduced me to a dark skinned middle aged man who sat on the floor with a boy of about five or six in his lap, though his name was never mentioned. The Talib stood up and greeted me with the salams, smiles, handshakes I would have received from any other hospitable Afghan while Ali disappeared to return a few minutes later with a pot of tea and a bowl of pistachios. The man wore the usual Afghan anytime pyjamas, shalwar kameez, his beard was neatly trimmed and there was no black turban.

“E bacha-e shoma ast?” I asked, is this your son?

“Ne, famel-e man dar Kandahar.” No, my family is from Kandahar, he told me. The fact that he was from the notorious southern city somewhat confirmed his credentials. His mobile phone rang and from the conversation I could guess he was talking to someone about moving something to somewhere.

“He has a shop.” Ali told me. I guessed that meant he was a smuggler.

“I worked at the airport as a security officer,” the Talib told me through Ali’s translation, “I can’t read so it wasn’t easy for me to find a job then.”

“But why did you want to join the Taliban?” I asked.

“The Taliban were the government then, I was just working for the government. Lots of men joined because they needed work and there was nothing else.”

“Do you still consider yourself to be Taliban?”

“Yes,” he shrugged, “I’m Taliban.”

“During the time of the Taliban,” he went on, “Afghanistan was peaceful, it was safe, there was no stealing, no criminals, you could leave your money on the street and it would still be there tomorrow.” He showed me where he kept his cash now, in a pocket tucked well away under his outer garments. “I used to keep my money here, like this!” And he slipped a few hundred afghanis into his top pocket half sticking out for the world to see.

No one I met denied that during the reign of the Taliban petty crime and disorder all but vanished. “I would send my son,” the Talib said, “to Kabul with thousands of dollars in his bag, completely safe, but now? I won’t even send him to the market to buy a melon!” I’d heard the same kind of story a dozen times, but it was the only positive thing anyone had to say about the Taliban.

“In the west,” I told him, “we had a view that the Taliban were very bad.”

“Of course,” he nodded, “there were some who were bad like in any government, but ninety-five percent were good, the leaders were all good men but they couldn’t know what every man was doing, does President Karzai know what all his men are doing?”

“But what about Afghan women, they weren’t allowed to go to work or to school?” I countered.

“That’s not true! They could go to the Islamic schools, the madrassas! And as long as they wore the burqa they could go to work, otherwise they should stay at home!”

“What about banning women from wearing white socks and nail polish?”

“Not true! Not true!”

The conversation went on like this. Every atrocity I’d heard of he denied had ever happened, every item of idiotic Islamic law imposed wasn’t true. According to the Talib men were allowed to shave and the reports of imprisonment for not having fist-long beards were just western propaganda. He insisted the Taliban leaders had a deep and excellent knowledge of the Koran, even the halftime executions at football matches at Ghazi Stadium were myth, “No! I never heard of that happening! Just sometimes the players in the teams fought against each other!”

We were soon both becoming frustrated as each of us expected the other to see things differently. I could also sense a rising tension in Ali’s voice as he translated. In the staunch ‘shame and honour’ culture of Afghanistan did he find my accusations an insult to a family friend?

“What about the three foreign aid workers, the three women who were shot dead in Lowgar,” my final assault recalling the recent murder of the three women, Canadian, British and American, who were pulled from their car not far from Kabul and shot dead along with their Afghan driver, “the Taliban claimed responsibility but how can they call themselves men, how can they call themselves warriors of Islam when they shoot dead unarmed women who cannot defend themselves, women who had come here to help the poor, how can they be so cowardly?”

“Those women were not killed by Taliban! They were killed by criminals who said they were Taliban! Anyone can dress like a Talib and say ‘I am a Talib’!” The boy in the man’s lap looked around at the three of us nervously at the raising of his voice. He stood up and slipped outside into the courtyard to play in the dust with a broken kite. “And anyway,” he went on to justify their murders, “those women were not wearing Islamic dress! This is an Islamic country!”

“I hardly think they were wearing miniskirts and bikini tops!” I said, thankfully perhaps Ali was unable to translate this, “And besides, is that reason enough to drag a woman from her car and shoot her dead?”

We sat in silence for several minutes and sipped the last of our now cold tea.

“Mr Ian,” Ali whispered, “if you don’t have any more questions I think we can go now?”

“Sure, perhaps this is enough.”

We all stood up and I shook hands with the Talib. His anger seemed to have vanished and he smiled. He didn’t strike me as being someone inherently bad, there was simply no way to reconcile our opposing views and each of us just had to accept that we had grown up in different worlds.

Back in the teahouse Ali stood with me in the doorway and added his point of view to the already existing complexities.

“Mr Ian, many of the Taliban were not bad people, the leaders even wanted a more free life for Afghan people.” He told me how the mullahs had wanted Afghanistan to have television, to have the internet, to have educated women and foreign investment. But the real power lay with the foot soldiers, illiterate villagers who had grown up in refugee camps, men who had never learnt to read their precious Koran and who had been brainwashed into the belief that an orthodox Islamic state was their God-given birthright. The mullahs knew that if they didn’t give the men what they wanted they themselves would be overthrown and lynched. Afghans have a history of turning against their masters.

Whatever the truth, from my conversations with the people I met in the three months I spent Afghanistan it appeared that the rule of the Taliban was not the time of eternal darkness those days had been portrayed as in the western media. It was more like a shade of grey, dark grey perhaps but not utterly black.

“Tashakor Ali-jan,” I thanked him and laughed, “it was an interesting conversation.”

“You are welcome Mr Ian,” and I turned to go, “oh Mr Ian, please don’t tell anyone who you met today and how you met him, okay?”

“Of course.”

“And perhaps don’t come here for a few days, I will call you when it’s better to come back, alright?”

“Whatever you say Ali-jan.” We shook hands. He never called again.

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.


Any hostility?

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.