Latif's Chai Khana
The old truck rumbled into Herat revealing a scene from another time. The street was alive with a culture carrying on as it had for centuries. Brightly painted tongas pulled by sleek horses decked out in feathered headdress and mirrored bridles were a common form of transportation. Water vendors with full goat skins wet and cool offering drinks in the mid day sun.
For the last month we had been traveling across Western Asia seeing many new and fascinating cities and countryside but this town felt like a destination, of finally reaching a place that fit my idea of the purpose of coming all this way. It was true that it was 1973 all over the world. It was present and the future was making itself clear in places like Istanbul and Tehran but Herat felt different. There was no denying what year it was but something about this place and what I had seen of Afghanistan in just my first day set it apart from the rest of the world. There were motorized vehicles, but very few. Camels and horses continued as an important transport system and because of that the large transport trucks that carried goods on the main highways were kept out of the old city.
I sat in the back of the truck under the canvas that had protected us from the elements and took it all in. All the people in traditional dress and even the young western travelers blending in like weird gypsy nomads. The Afghans were traders and there were shops all along the streets and alleys selling tribal carpets, herbs and spices, produce and clothing. Bolts of fabric in an array of color and texture hung about and tailors with treadle sewing machines were busy embroidering and making clothes.
Of course, hash was everywhere and to meet someone who had come this far and not be into smoking was very rare. At this point I knew almost nothing about what else the country had to offer and my mission was to experience the drug at its source. A visit to a few hotels for the foreign travelers and one more night sleeping in the truck and by the next morning I was ready to stay even though my companions talked of moving on or in a few cases turning back as the realness was just too close here, a little too raw for some. I was ready to find a place away from the westerners, just a room and try living here for awhile. I walked from the new town center and found a room at the Badghis Hotel at the southeastern gate of the old city. From my window I could watch the camel caravans coming out of the desert heavy with cargo and get unloaded in the nearby square. The rooms of the hotel encircled the second floor of a large building that were the walls of a caravanserai with shops on the ground level. Fresh nan was baked in tandoors right below my room and the smell of these big flatbreads wafted into the air from early morning until dark. Yogurt was available from huge ceramic bowls and ladled into what container you brought to take it away in. Tea and simple meals were served in the hotel. The room itself was a small rectangle furnished with a charpoy and a small table, a carpet covered the floor and where I would sit looking out the window to observe the street and take note of the impressions that flooded in in the new strange place. Every morning I would see an old bearded man set up a small table and sit upon a chair with his pen and paper. He was there for hours daily working as a scribe writing letters for many of the people who were illiterate. This was a powerful image as a service that had been around for centuries and also the totally foreign thought of not being able to read or write. There was a powerful truth and mystery in his flowing script that I wanted to discover.
Being about a ten minute walk from the newer part of town every day was a new adventure in getting acquainted with the town and it's workings. From nearly every shop that I passed someone would come out to greet me with, "Please come into my shop, no buying, only looking. Please sit, drinking chai, just looking." Inevitably if I went in it would become a major social event and other Afghans would arrive to sit, drink chai and inquire as to my mission there and learn as much as they could about me and the entire hippy invasion that had been taking place for the last few years. Most times in these exchanges I would be asked if I liked Charas, there term for hashish. Of course I would answer yes and someone would hand me a fair sized chunk of what they would call Prima, number one Mazar i Sharif and I would be off. This type of thing went on every time I would leave my room and after two weeks I had met a lot of the locals and tried, what I thought was all the charas in Herat. It all seemed about the same quality and fairly potent. I had bought a small gas burner for my room so I could heat the hash to make tea and other tasty treats with it, so things were working out well during my break from the traveling.
One day I passed a chaikhana on the main street leading to the large, beautiful main mosque in the city. I had passed here many times but today the proprietor came out to greet me and invited me to come back that evening to hear music and experience Afghan entertainment and hospitality. I agreed to return that night and see how it went.
The sun was setting as I returned and a few gas lanterns had been lit in the room and quite a few men were already there talking and drinking chai. In a society where alcohol is forbidden this is their equivalent of a pub or tavern. The chaikhana was one of the main social gathering places and much of the afghan social code was evident in what went on in these tea houses. There was always at least one very large samovar to heat the water for tea. The samovars were heated by coals that were constantly being replenished in a long brazier that could also be used for grilling kabobs and other foods. I don't know if it was like this every night or I had just hit it right and got in on a special occasion but the room was filling up, tea was being served and everyone was conversing in friendly tones. I found myself seated between Hamid, a school teacher who spoke fairly good English and a fellow introduced as Ahmed who looked like a cross between a pirate and a desert warrior who spoke only Dari but seemed very interested in communicating with me. All men in traditional shalwar camise dress, drinking tea on a summer evening. Only a dotar and drum would provide the music but before the entertainment began an additional element had to be added to put it all into the proper perspective. From out of the back of the chaikhana a man brought a ceramic hookah with one straight wooden tube coming out. On top sat a very large chillom filled with charas. He and the pipe sat in front of the brazier as he picked out glowing coals with metal tongs and placed them over what seemed liked at least a dozen good sized round balls of the charas in the chillom. Then he went to work with lungs of a locomotive doing some impressive circular breathing to get this huge amount lit. He puffed and coughed a breathed and drew and coughed again, never letting up until a blue gas flame danced above the bowl. This was passed around with great camaraderie to everyone in the room, a very serious ritual, the only sound being the bubbling pipe and the hiss of the gas lanterns. There was enough to go around the house three times and then the music began. The sound filled the room and everyone seemed pretty relaxed either just listening or talking quietly.
Ahmed brought out a piece of white cloth with a wide lace border and while holding it very delicately had Hamid explain the subtleties of this simple but luxurious piece to me. My eyes were drawn to one of the larger holes in the lace, a negative space that should have revealed his green shalwar that he was wearing. But instead of green baggy trousers I saw darkness like the night sky with many stars within. I looked closer not believing what my mind said was there and upon closer inspection fell through the lace and began falling through a blue black universe punctuated by stars, points of light that I would speed past but still remained far off in an infinite distance. Falling, but getting higher at the same time realizing there was no up or down and there was no beginning or end.
I looked up and the gas light seemed dimmer now as the musicians continued with added vocals. Ahmed continued his explanation with the help of Hamid's translation. It seemed that Ahmed was from Lashkar Gah to the south across the desert and one of his wives had woven this cloth from the best cotton. It was soft, pure and made with the utmost care. Things like this could be mine if I would join him tomorrow on his journey back down to Ladhkar Gah to meet his family and be his honored guest.
Why do we travel? To see fascinating things and experience what others less adventurous may not. But to relate our stories, we have to balance the lure of the unknown with the rationality of self preservation so as to live to tell the tale. I looked at Ahmed, very well dressed and proud of his wife's work and seemingly very hopeful to show me his estate in the desert. I also saw possibly by way of the charas a perfect chance to be sold away into slavery and never be heard from again. The night continued and I gave no answer to his travel plans for the next day. There was some tension there and maybe I was insulting him by not taking his offer but I did my best to let it go. The music continued with poetry more chai and another round of the hookah. After a while the crowd began to disperse into the quiet street. I thanked my two companions of the evening and told Latif, the proprietor that the charas was the best I had had since I had come to Herat. He was very gracious and told me that I could come back the next day and he would have some for me.
I walked off into the night toward the towering mosque and marveled at the solitude at this late hour and the blue black sky with its countless stars. I returned to Latif's the next morning and bought my first hash in Afghanistan that would last me for the next month as I further explored the country.