Afghan eye contact that left a hatless, alien creature in a cold sweat

JALALABAD DAYS

Afghan Ariana Airlines Flight FG 315 from New Delhi to Jalalabad is a Boeing 727 - but not the kind that carries an in-flight magazine. The female passengers are shrouded in the Afghan burqa, the cabin crew are mostly bearded, and the cardboard packet of lychee juice is stained with mud. Since the pilot's English was a little rusty, the chief steward walked to my seat, crouched in the aisle beside me and - as if revealing a long-held military secret - whispered into my ear: "We'll be flying at a height of 31,000 feet." If only we had.

Approaching the old Soviet military airstrip at Jalalabad, the pilot turned almost 180 degrees, sending the blood pumping into our shoes, and touched down on the first inch of narrow tarmac - just in time to stop an inch from the end of the runway.

Given the rusting Soviet radar dishes and the wrecked, tail-upended Antonov off the apron, you can understand why Jalalabad Arrivals lacks some of the amenities of, say, Heathrow or Geneva.

But it's more than just the runway. When I trudged through the heat with my bags, I found the bullet-scarred terminal empty. No immigration. No customs. Not a single man with a single rubber stamp. Just six young and bearded Afghans, four of them holding rifles, who stared at me with a mixture of tiredness and suspicion. No number of cheery "Salaam Aleikum"s would elicit more than a muttering in Pashto from the six taciturn warriors. What was this alien, hatless creature doing here in Afghanistan with his brand-new camera bag and his canvas hold-all of shirts and newspaper clippings?

"Taxi?" I asked them. And they averted their eyes to the great blue-and- white bird which had jetted so dangerously into town. I hitched a ride with a French aid worker.

They seem to be everywhere. Jalalabad is a dusty brown city of mud-and- wood houses, earthen streets and ochre walls, with the characteristic smell of charcoal and horse manure. There are donkeys and stallions and Indian-style "velo-" rickshaws and Victorian bicycles and the occasional clapperboard shopfront - Dodge City transferred to the subcontinent.

Two of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's local guerrilla commanders who turned up for their haircut at the same time last month shot dead the barber and a couple of other men before deciding who was first in the queue for a regular shave. One-third of all the children in Jalalabad hospitals are victims of joy-shooting at weddings.

It doesn't put the agencies off. There is Save and the World Food Programme, UNDCP, Medecins sans Frontieres, Madera, the International Red Cross, the Emergency Field Unit, the Sandy Gall Clinic for Orphaned Children, the Swedish Committee for Afghans, the UNHCR, and a German agronomist agency: and that's just the first few offices signposted off the highway to Kabul.

Finding the old Spin Ghar - White Mountain - Hotel is something of a relief. But, in the torment of midsummer heat, a roaring air-conditioner plays Catch-22 with me: to cool my empty double room I turn it on, but its tiger-like engine vibrates so loudly that sleep is impossible.

When I turn to the only book beside my bed - Plain Tales from the Raj - the sweat runs down my arms and glues my fingers to the pages.

Then a rustle, a kind of faint, rasping sound comes from the silent conditioner. I sit up and, five feet from my face, I see the dragon's head of a giant lizard looking at me from the cooled bars of the machine.

When I raise my hand, the head disappears for a moment. Then it is back, a miniature armoured brontosaurus face that is followed now by a long, rubbery torso, grey-green in the dim afternoon sunlight, and big sucking feet that grip the plastic air-conditioning vents. Like an old silent film, it moves in jerks.

One moment, I see its head. Then, at shutter's speed, half its length of heavily breathing rubberiness is out of the machine.

A moment later, the whole half-foot of creature is suspended on the curtain above my bed, swaying on the material, alien and disturbing, looking back at me over its fortress-like shoulder.

What is it doing here? Then it scuttles out of sight into the drapery. Of course, I switched the air-conditioner on, swamping the room with a rush of ear-splitting cold air. And I curled up on the bed further away and watched for movement at the top of the curtain rod. I was frightened of this thing and it was frightened of me.

Only after half an hour did I realise that the bright screws on the curtain rail were its beady eyes. With rapt attention, we were watching each other.

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