Kabul Stories: A minefield of comedians and doctors
Sunday 27 July 2003
Kabul is an unlikely place to seek comic inspiration, but Henry Naylor, a former Spitting Image gag writer who makes up half of the Parsons and Naylor Pullout Section on Radio 2, had been out since 5am.
With his photographer, Sam Maynard, Naylor was gathering material in post-conflict Kabul for his role as an unscrupulous war correspondent in Finding Bin Laden, which debuts next month on the Edinburgh Fringe festival.
Naylor's character practises his poses and bamboozles his editor by poking into the occasional cave. After collecting enough clues from other reporters' files, he attempts to lead the authorities to the al-Qa'ida leader. The carrot of a $25m (£16m) reward means he puts up with a lot of stick.
Afghanistan is literally a minefield, though, and the researchers didn't find much to laugh about in an orthopaedic centre for young mine victims. A jaunt to a hillside palace was equally sobering: a splash on the wall marked the spot where a landmine had been triggered the week before.
"It was exactly where we would have come through the entrance," Maynard said. At a US military base, one soldier threatened the pair with barbecue tongs, apparently upset at being grilled about his exploits by comedians.
Naylor and Maynard found the mujahedin considerably more co-operative. All it took was a fistful of Marlboros to get them to re-enact the historic liberation of Kabul from the communists in 1992. According to Naylor, the "muj" looked like passionate fighters as they danced on top of their vintage tank, "but it was because they were barefoot, and the metal got so bloody hot in the afternoon sun". The warlike image was further undermined by the fact that international peacekeepers have insisted that the gun barrel of the tank be tied off with a handkerchief.
"We are trying to look at Afghanistan from a humanist point of view," Naylor insisted. "We still haven't worked out the ending." Nor have the coalition forces.
I was glad Waheed was on hand to help when I sank up to my armpits in slime.
Somehow I'd failed to notice the diggers excavating the moat around the US embassy. I lost my footing on the mud-slicked street, and slid into a nearly bottomless ditch. My fall was harmless enough, even if I felt a fool.
Journalists in sticky situations rely on a special breed of interpreter-cum-fixer to keep them out of harm's way. In Kabul, the best tend to be former medical students, most of whom speak excellent English. Waheed, Ebidullah, and Humayun are all young physicians who can be relied on to patch up wounded egos or mend any breaks between government spin doctors and correspondents. As translators, they can earn up to four times a month's salary in a single day. Afghan doctors typically earn just £20 a month, and attempting to treat patients with only basic medical supplies can be heartbreaking.
Waheed works the morning shift at an emergency clinic and supports 22 relatives through his work for journalists. He says television pays better, but is riskier. His last employer insisted that he led the way through any potential minefield. Me, I'd prefer the doctor to follow behind, with his emergency kit at the ready.
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