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‘Bad tea, bad sign’: an extract from my WIP

Thursday, November 12, 2009 by Marianne Elliott

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This is an extract from my work in progress, a memoir about my life and work as a human rights officer with the United Nations in Afghanistan. This text may not be reproduced without my permission. For more extracts select WIP extracts from the categories in the sidebar. Let me know what you think!

The next morning our courtesy meeting with the Provincial Governor took place in his office, a simple room that had nonetheless been furnished with a lavish lounge suite, including a two seater, two armchairs and an intricately carved and painted coffee table. As he welcomed us enthusiastically to the province and exhorted us to make ourselves at home a young man entered the office with a tray of glass teacups filled with green tea and a plate of caramels.

Over the course of the two years I spent in Afghanistan I must have eaten a thousand caramels and drunk at least twice as many cups of green tea. No meeting took place without tea and caramels or dried fruit and nuts.

The Governor’s tea tasted off, as though the water with which it had been made had not been clean. I considered for an instant not drinking it but the risk of causing offense was more pressing than the threat of a stomach bug so I began to sip the tea, reaching for a caramel to cover the bad taste.

It wasn’t only his tea that was off, however. Everything about this Governor screamed foul to me. His manners were exaggerated and oily and he spoke about the province with a thinly veiled contempt. It was fairly obvious that this man, an urbanite from Kabul, resented his posting to this remote and ‘backwards’ province.

I had heard rumours that the man was deeply corrupt and that he was too busy lining his own pockets and rushing off to Kabul to seek a transfer to more appealing post to actually get anything done for the province. Now that I had met him I found the rumours easy to believe. For the province’s sake, if not for his, I hoped he got the transfer and that Badghis would get a Governor who actually cared about the place and it’s hard-working people.

In the meantime I asked him a few tough questions that I had been fed by my boss back in Herat, just to see if he would squirm or give anything away. He was far too smooth for my game and I was soon ready to thank him for his fetid hospitality and move on. He had, at least, confirmed the reports of crop shortages and had sent a message to the Department of Agriculture directing them to prepare some data for me to collect the next day.

Our next courtesy stop was at the office of the Provincial Chief of Police who was quite a different sort of a man. He welcomed us into his office with a stern nod and seemed quite unconcerned about whether or not he was charming me. He did, of course, serve us tea and sweets but as the tea was poured he skipped through the preliminary greetings and got down to business.

He was concerned about reports of increasing activity by anti-government groups in the province. Only the previous week there had been a rocket attack on one of the district police stations in the province.

He was also concerned about renewed reports from the northern part of the province of ‘night-letters’ in which anti-government groups, perhaps even Taleban, warned teachers and students against attending school. There had been many night-letters in the Southern provinces of Afghanistan at this time, but they were a new phenomenon in the north and the police chief wasn’t happy about the development.

In the south the letters had sometimes been followed by school-burnings or the execution of local teachers so he had plenty of reason to be concerned. As soon as our meeting was over I asked one of our young assistants, Rahim, to find and talk to as many people he could find who had come into the capital from the districts. They would be able to tell us more about the night-letters.

Before we ended our meeting, though, I asked him about the two Pashtun detainees I had heard about the night before. I told him that I was concerned that the rumours circulating about maltreatment of these two men appeared to be inciting ethnic tension in the town.

I suggested that it could be helpful if the UN were to visit them and then clear up the rumours definitively. He agreed and assured me that I would be welcome at the prison anytime I wanted to visit the detainees. So once we had said our farewells and sent young Rahim off on his investigations I asked Fazel to accompany me directly to the prison.

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One Response to "‘Bad tea, bad sign’: an extract from my WIP"

  1. amy says:

    i love the simplicity of your writing. you have a wonderful way of drawing characters and scenes. i look forward to reading more.

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