"Do you want to meet the Taliban?" the Afghan lad who ran the dingy chaikhana, or teahouse, on the edge of Kabul's chaotic Grand Bazaar asked me.
"Not really!" I replied thinking young Ali was joking.
"But if you want you can, one man I know is Taliban, if you like I can ask him to see you, it's interesting for you, yes?"
A few days later Ali called me, "Mr Ian, my friend the Talib will come to my shop today, can you come here?"
"Yeah, I guess so."
Before I left the tranquillity of New Zealand the Government's travel advisory website had warned against setting foot anywhere near the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, let alone meeting up with the Taliban. "Extreme risk, suicide car bombings, kidnapping of foreigners, banditry, landmines," these were just a few of the treats in store for anyone fool enough to ignore the advice.
But at the same time the Lonely Planet guide talked of places in Kabul where one could dine on fresh seafood flown in from Dubai, French restaurants with swimming pools and jazz evenings, the marvels of Bamiyan and the ruins of ancient Alexander's Balkh.
In truth, of course, the lure of seafood and jazz had nothing to do with it. Afghanistan had captured me in my teens, in the days when mujahideen fighters trundled about the country on tractors and horses as they took on the Soviet war machine's tanks and helicopters, their exploits shown on the news each night.
I'd had visions of fast-stepping horses in the deserts, of turbaned men in flowing robes with sword and musket defending their parched lands and the honour of their veiled women, of stone Buddhas in a Muslim land, of camels, silk roads and caravanserais.
Post-September 11, Afghanistan was once more on the nightly news, and as I watched I wondered what it was really like there, I wanted to see for myself how it felt to walk on the streets of Kabul. It was still dangerous ... but I went anyway.
Arrival in Afghanistan's capital in mid-summer was an aggravated assault on the senses: omnipresent flies and all-pervading dust; heat to knock you off your feet; beggars, burqas, bellowing donkeys; sandbagged cafes, checkpoints and Kalashnikovs; flocks of urban sheep in the streets grazing on piles of garbage; helicopter gunships hovering over the city in constant menace; psychopathic traffic.
But all this was set against the backdrop of a culture 5000 years in the making, deep traditions of hospitality, salams, welcomes, handshakes and friendship, endless invitations to share tea from everyone I encountered.
English was widely spoken in Kabul, dozens of guesthouses waited for guests, threre were restaurants with succulent meals of mutton and rice with raisins - and empty tables, artisans and craftsmen with shops bursting with carpets, curios and antiques.
Everyone sat idle, wishing Afghanistan would return to its glory days on the overland hippy trail of the 60s and 70s when it rivalled Kathmandu as the place to go. But nightly news stories of wars on terror made almost everyone too afraid to come.
Yet here I was, not merely staying in the capital of this famous hellhole, but off to meet with a representative of the chief bogeyman. Just in case, before I left the guesthouse I was staying in I told someone where I was going and that I planned to have tea with a member of the dreaded Taleban.
Back in Ali's chaikhana the usual old men sat sharing their pots of tea. Ali greeted me and led me out the back of the shop through a concrete yard, past the reeking toilet pit and down a narrow passage way. Should I be doing this? But before I could answer my own question Ali opened a door and ushered me inside.
"This is my friend." Ali introduced me to a dark-skinned middle-aged man who sat on the floor with a boy of about five or six in his lap, though his name was never mentioned. The Talib stood up and greeted me with the salams, smiles, handshakes I would have received from any other hospitable Afghan, while Ali disappeared to return a few minutes later with a pot of tea and a bowl of pistachios.
The man wore the usual Afghan anytime pyjamas, shalwar kameez, his beard was neatly trimmed and there was no black turban.
"E bacha-e shoma ast?" I asked, is this your son?
"Ne, famel-e man dar Kandahar." No, my family is from Kandahar, he told me. The fact that he was from the notorious southern city somewhat confirmed his credentials.
His mobile phone rang and from the conversation I could guess he was talking to someone about moving something to somewhere. "He has a shop." Ali told me. I guessed that meant he was a smuggler.
"I worked at the airport as a security officer," the Talib told me through Ali's translation, "I can't read so it wasn't easy for me to find a job then."
"But why did you want to join the Taliban?" I asked.
"The Taliban were the government then, I was just working for the government. Lots of men joined because they needed work and there was nothing else."
"Do you still consider yourself to be Taliban?"
"Yes," he shrugged, "I'm Taliban."
"During the time of the Taliban," he went on, "Afghanistan was peaceful, it was safe, there was no stealing, no criminals, you could leave your money on the street and it would still be there tomorrow."
He showed me where he kept his cash now, in a pocket tucked well away under his outer garments. "I used to keep my money here, like this!" And he slipped a few hundred Afghanis into his top pocket half sticking out for the world to see.
No one I met denied that during the reign of the Taliban petty crime and disorder all but vanished. "I would send my son," the Talib said, "to Kabul with thousands of dollars in his bag, completely safe, but now? I won't even send him to the market to buy a melon!" I'd heard the same kind of story a dozen times, but it was the only positive thing anyone had to say about the Taleban.
"In the West," I told him, "we had a view that the Taleban were very bad."
"Of course," he nodded, "there were some who were bad like in any government, but 95 per cent were good. The leaders were all good men but they couldn't know what every man was doing; does President Karzai know what all his men are doing?"
"But what about Afghan women, they weren't allowed to go to work or to school?" I countered.
"That's not true! They could go to the Islamic schools, the madrassas! And as long as they wore the burqa they could go to work, otherwise they should stay at home!"
"What about banning women from wearing white socks and nail polish?"
"Not true! Not true!"
The conversation went on like this. Every atrocity I'd heard of he denied had ever happened, every item of idiotic Islamic law imposed wasn't true.
According to the Taleb, men were allowed to shave and the reports of imprisonment for not having fist-long beards were just Western propaganda. He insisted the Taleban leaders had a deep and excellent knowledge of the Koran.
Even the halftime executions at football matches at Ghazi Stadium were myth, "No! I never heard of that happening! Just sometimes the players in the teams fought against each other!"
We were soon both becoming frustrated as each of us expected the other to see things differently. I could also sense a rising tension in Ali's voice as he translated. In the staunch "shame and honour" culture of Afghanistan did he find my accusations an insult to a family friend?
"What about the three foreign aid workers, the three women who were shot dead in Lowgar," came my final assault, recalling the recent murder of the three women, Canadian, British and American, who were pulled from their car not far from Kabul and shot dead along with their Afghan driver. "The Taleban claimed responsibility but how can they call themselves men, how can they call themselves warriors of Islam when they shoot dead unarmed women who cannot defend themselves, women who had come here to help the poor, how can they be so cowardly?"
"Those women were not killed by Taleban! They were killed by criminals who said they were Taleban! Anyone can dress like a Taleb and say 'I am a Taleb'!"
The boy in the man's lap looked around at the three of us nervously at the raising of his voice. He stood up and slipped outside into the courtyard to play in the dust with a broken kite.
"And anyway," he went on to justify their murders, "those women were not wearing Islamic dress! This is an Islamic country!"
"I hardly think they were wearing miniskirts and bikini tops!" I said, though, thankfully perhaps, Ali was unable to translate this, "And besides, is that reason enough to drag a woman from her car and shoot her dead?"
We sat in silence for several minutes and sipped the last of our now cold tea.
"Mr Ian," Ali whispered, "if you don't have any more questions I think we can go now?"
"Sure, perhaps this is enough."
We all stood up and I shook hands with the Taleb. His anger seemed to have vanished and he smiled. He didn't strike me as being someone inherently bad, there was simply no way to reconcile our opposing views and each of us just had to accept that we had grown up in different worlds.
Back in the teahouse Ali stood with me in the doorway and added his point of view to the already existing complexities.
"Mr Ian, many of the Taleban were not bad people, the leaders even wanted a more free life for Afghan people."
He told me how the mullahs had wanted Afghanistan to have television, to have the internet, to have educated women and foreign investment. But the real power lay with the foot soldiers, illiterate villagers who had grown up in refugee camps, men who had never learnt to read their precious Koran and who had been brainwashed into the belief that an orthodox Islamic state was their God-given birthright.
The mullahs knew that if they didn't give the men what they wanted they themselves would be overthrown and lynched.
Whatever the truth, from my conversations with the people I met in the three months I spent in Afghanistan it appeared that the rule of the Taleban was not the time of eternal darkness those days had been portrayed as in the Western media. It was more like a shade of grey, dark grey perhaps but not utterly black.
"Tashakor Ali-jan," I thanked him and laughed, "it was an interesting conversation."
"You are welcome Mr Ian," and I turned to go. "Oh Mr Ian, please don't tell anyone who you met today and how you met him, okay?"
"And perhaps don't come here for a few days, I will call you when it's better to come back, alright?"
"Whatever you say Ali-jan." We shook hands. He never called again.
Visas: All visitors to Afghanistan require a visa.
Getting there: Pakistan International Airlines flies from Islamabad to Kabul once a week. Indian Airlines and the Afghan airline Ariana fly from Delhi to Kabul twice weekly. Afghan airlines Ariana and Kam Air fly daily from Dubai to Kabul.
Note: Advertised services offered by various airlines in and out of Afghanistan are subject to sudden and unexplained changes.
Security: Security concerns in Afghanistan should not be taken lightly. The situation can be volatile and is constantly changing. Travel insurance is essential and should include air evacuation coverage. However, with good planning and by taking careful and sensible precautions, independent travel to many places in Afghanistan is possible.
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