Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.


Christmas Charades: Echo of war in Aladdin's cave: At this time of year, people play funny games. We put on an act and go through the motions, but behind the scenes, things may not always be as they seem .

ALADDIN was playing at the British Club in Islamabad, a wooden shack on the British diplomatic compound at the foothills of the Karakoram mountains. The principal boy ran off with an immigration officer and the ambassador, who was playing the Emperor of China, had a custard pie thrown at his face each night. The Chinese ambassador was amused and wanted to know which dynasty he represented.

It seemed life in Pakistan had returned to normal as 1979 drew to a close - a tense year which had seen the execution of the prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and violent anti-American rioting. Well, up to a point. The weather was sensational: sunny, cloudless days followed by crisp winter evenings. But for the first time the British were not lost for turkeys. You could get all the trimmings by merely showing a British or Commonwealth passport. Christmas that year would be special.

A month earlier the British had watched horrified as a mob sacked the American embassy down the road. The women and children and most of the non-essential staff had been shipped out, leaving an American commissary filled with Christmas stock and no one to buy.

It was rather appropriate that Aladdin was the pantomime. When the American embassy opened the commissary door the British rubbed their eyes. They found themselves in wonderland - jars of cranberry sauce, packets of stuffing, crystallised fruit, flagons of Californian wine and turkeys, scores of the damn things, and bacon.

Suliman hadn't cooked a turkey for years and got his stuffing and cranberry sauce mixed; the sauce went inside the bird and the stuffing was stacked around it. But there was no problem about the cake and Christmas pudding.

Suliman made them in September and each week insisted on anointing them with brandy. The liquor cupboard was opened in the presence of two witnesses (so no one could be accused of imbibing - drinking liquor being an offence punishable by the lash in General Zia ul-Haq's Pakistan), the grog was brought out, the pouring took place, and when it was over the brandy was locked away again. By Christmas Day, cake and pudding weighed a ton.

It was a grand day. The sun was out. We were a large party; we played croquet on the lawn and games with the children in the house. The cranberry sauce dribbled out of the bird and turned the stuffing into a rather tasty goo.

Boxing Day would be exercise day. There would be an outing to Rawal lake on the edge of town; we would take a lavish picnic, put up a tent and trestle tables, and play more games. If we were lucky, we might see a jackal.

On Christmas night it rained. It wasn't an ordinary shower, it was the start of the winter rains. On Boxing Day the sun had gone. Our party went out with picnic and tent, soaked to the skin. The tent was opened briefly and put away in its bag, never to be opened again.

It was a miserable day. But while we were isolated in the Punjab sage, trying to read waterlogged instructions, slipping on our arses as we pulled on guy ropes and banging into fruit bats hanging from the bushes, London was waking up and trying to make contact.

For across the border an odd report had been picked up by the BBC's radio monitors. It was a garbled message quoting a local radio station in Tajikistan. It referred to Babrak Karmal as leader of Afghanistan and talked about a contingent of Soviet soldiers being invited to serve there. Hafizullah Amin was head of the Afghan government, not Babrak Karmal. Babrak had been deposed 18 months earlier. So, London wanted to know, what was going on?

God and the Russians only knew. It took 24 hours for the rest of us to find out. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had begun. Quite a clever Christmas charade, you might say.