Matthew Leeming

Diary – 12 October 2002

The writer goes in search of Alexander the Great, but only finds Withnail and I

Kabul

On the trail of genetic traces of Alexander’s soldiers in Afghanistan, I arrived in Badakhshan, the country’s most remote and beautiful province that abuts China. I went to see my old friends at the government guest house, which is set on an island in the middle of the Kokcha river. We sat on a terrace with the river roaring 20 feet below us. Night fell quickly, and I looked up at more stars than I have ever seen before in my life; it was as if my sight had been miraculously restored. Occasionally, an orange tracer shell arced silently upwards as government soldiers tested their guns. The only thing to do for fun here is to take naswar. I asked Shafid, a turbaned old man who seems to have some sort of decorative function, what it was, and he said, ‘It is part of narcotic. When you put it in your mouth, you will become like crazy man.’ He showed me how to cup it in the palm of your hand and throw it underneath a raised tongue. It looked like ground tobacco and tasted revolting, and had no effect on me. Shafid said it was no good and went to fetch dope (chas) instead. When I gave him a packet of Rizla papers, his eyes nearly popped out of his head; he claimed never to have seen this invention before. I doubt this, because he proceeded to roll a Brobdingnagian spliff, jabbering at me in Farsi. I think he said, ‘This is called a Kandahar Carrot.’ With truly Afghan hospitality, he insisted that I take bigger and bigger puffs. After a bit, and with great difficulty, I went to get my Walkman and lay down on the pathway staring up at the stars and listening to Glenn Gould playing the Goldberg Variations.

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