Last of the Afghan Dandies


The waitress clicked her fingers, swayed and twirled to the sounds of the Saz over Lebanese radio. "Scrambled eggs?" she asked the elderly gent in the crimson turban, but he seemed miles away, transported. "This song," he said, "we used to play it at the Marco Polo Club in the 'sixties."

"London?" asked the waitress.

"No, no," he sighed, "Kabul.

Now that was a scene that really jumped, especially when someone fired their gun at the ceiling. Kabul was like one of your "Welcome Breaks" on the ancient trade route, and the world stopped to visit our toilets and stretch their legs. Fierce tribesmen mingled with fey young Englishmen, Sheikhs, Sultans, Camels and Pharoahs. Everyone came to the Marco Polo and danced the nights away to Bollywood hits like Aunty Knows Best and The Sand Got in My Eyes. The Afghan fashion world was never so dynamic, and I was part of the "nouvelle vague" of young designers jockeying to create the next sensation. One week we wore hats made from stuffed lizards, the next, huge curly-toed slippers with matching moustaches. We created floral burkhas for ladies with huge shoulder pads and decorative rocket launchers. Maybe the cultures of man are destined to swing like the pendulum, and so it was that the wild flamboyance of these times was overtaken by the arrival of the Russians.

Initially we embraced communism, with its laudable ideals and minimalist military chic. Excess had given us indigestion and suddenly good honest "bread on toast" seemed more attractive than a lavish banquet. We married Afghan and Soviet styles, with floral boiler suits in light, flowing chiffon, and Salwar Kameez emblazoned them with prints of cheery workers and encouraging productivity statistics.

One day, however, I lost patience with communism. It was a gorgeous morning, so we forsook the factory and instead decided to picnic in a delightful glade next to a small stream. Little did we know that the Russians had mined the area. I heard the click under my feet and felt a surge of nausea, as I realised the embroidered pink silk slacks that had cost my tailor weeks of work were about to be lost. They could not be saved, and neither could my legs.

The Russians may have been boring, but the Mujahideen were appalling. Years of living in the mountains had so affected their manners and conversation it was hard to believe we belonged to the same species. Their problems were compounded by the influence of their American friends. I was repeatedly told to "shove it up my ass" and called a "bunch of crap". With the Russians defeated, however, they soon started fighting each other, which signalled the arrival of my nemesis, the Taleban. Their influence on ladies' fashions saw a huge rise in the blue canvas trade.

I remember it suddenly became very hairy. Visiting shops, one had to plunge through the undergrowth to get to the counter. I presumed it was the new fashion and followed suit - which probably saved my life. Clean-shaven men were either beaten or killed. Despite being one of only three buildings still standing in Kabul, the dear old Marco Polo Club was, like the Bamiyan Buddhas, considered sacrilegious and exploded. Friday night entertainment was reduced to popular public beheadings and mutilations. The outlook was so depressing that I escaped by rolling myself in a carpet and posting myself to a relative in Shepherd's Bush."

There was silence in the cafeteria, scrambled eggs, bacon and beans forgotten. "Maybe one day I will return. I hear khaki is making a comeback."