Soldiers distrust journalists; always have, always will. In the West, they corral us into reporting pools, harpoon us with accreditation badges, and woo us with threats and flattery. In Azerbaijan, more traditional methods apply. Woe betide those who balk at a ball, albeit one that merely hung between the woolly thighs of a sheep.
We had been dining for about an hour, sheltering from the sun at a small table in a pavilion beside a lake in this border fiefdom - poppy-dotted meadows, vineyards and cedar groves that roll over the hills westwards towards Armenia. Barbecued lamb had come and gone. We had shared corn- fed chicken, walnuts, long leaves of fresh tarragon, fresh carp from the lake, and slithers of ivory-white sheep's cheese.
But Col Murad Hadimov, though impeccably polite, remained aloof. It was obvious he was manifestly unconvinced by this civvy, this mufti-clad western journalist who had swept in from miles away to inspect the north-western border, propelled there by rumours of fresh fighting with the Armenians.
Moreover, I had disgraced myself by asking an incomprehensibly foolish question; for reasons that can only be explained by rote-learning social niceties, and perhaps also by his pale and burly features, I asked him what nationality he was, imagining that he might be part-Russian. A proud Azerbaijani, he did not reply. Not, at any rate, verbally.
I passed the testicle test for two reasons. To be frank, I thought I had been given an eye. As it travelled from hand to mouth, it seemed to to have a doleful greyish gaze. Only when it was in my mouth did some instinct - some inner voice, triggered by its texture - whisper "ball, ball, ball".
Confirmation came when one of the colonel's colleagues, pleased to see it swallowed, cried "testikyule!" By then, it was too late. I had also shared several vodka toasts, to ourselves, our hosts, Azerbaijan's shrewd president, Haidar Aliyev, and so on, which softened the blow.
The colonel seemed pleased to see his offering consumed. He rewarded us with a toast to journalists "with fire in their hearts" - a reference, one assumes, to one's passion for the job, rather that the heart-burn that seemed certain to follow.
Throughout the meal he had singled out pieces of meat for me, including a large lump of white sheep's fat and a slither of heart, imploring me to to eat with my hands. "Guests come out of the skies, but are all from the same earth. Put your fork aside and eat with your fingers," he said.
But testicles were of a different order. They were only to be eaten by men, he explained (partly for the benefit of my female colleague from the Melbourne Age, who had to make do with a toast to her bravery as a woman). It was clear they were a testimony to one's potential for bravery, one's credentials as a solid fellow, who could be trusted to listen to Azerbaijan's grievances about Armenia's occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and seriously discuss the three-year ceasefire, which has held, albeit shakily, despite Russia's gift to Yerevan of $1bn worth of arms, including Scud missiles.
Journalism in the former Soviet Union is full of such trials. Here, the public relations industry - the curse of the serious news gatherer - is largely absent. Our chief scourge comprises officials who, when asked a simple question, reply with "let me remind you of our history" followed by a half-hour speech; a passion for paperwork, and invitations to lunch, which are both an act of hospitality and an attempt to check you out.
But it is worth enduring. Like a First World War officer, replete after an excellent lunch, Col Hadimov announced that it was time to set off for the front. We washed our hands in vodka; pulled on some khaki uniforms, climbed into a jeep and rattled off over the hills.
High in the woods, the colonel showed us his fresh-faced troops in their trenches, staring intently through the trees, listening for suspicious movements from the other side but hearing only cuckoos and woodpeckers. We were shown trees dotted with bullet holes; we were introduced to a bandaged young man, apparently one of six injured in violence the day before.
Of these matters, more at another time. But as we strode along the border I found myself wondering: would I have seen this, and have been allowed to report it, without accepting the colonel's offer? One will never know. However, it lends a new meaning to Voltaire's remark that "the composition of a tragedy requires testicles".
Phil ReevesReuse content