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Wednesday, 31 October, 2001, 15:38 GMT
Culinary delights amid scars of war
By Jacky Rowland in northern Afghanistan
Commander Mohammed Daoud paused between mouthfuls of shashlik to share a philosophical thought.
"Afghanistan is like a peacock", he munched, "it's too beautiful for its own good."
You only have to look at the countryside surrounding the town of Farkhar to see what he's talking about.
First was the mountain of 90 turns - I gave up counting after 40 and closed my eyes as the wheels of our Russian jeep sent rocks scuttling down the precipice.
We bounced over dusty hillsides before descending sharply into the valleys below where we followed the rocky course of dried-up rivers.
We arrived in Farkhar after nightfall and headed straight for Commander Daoud's office - an aquamarine building which stands out among the baked mud houses.
The commander was having dinner. Stainless steel plates and dishes were spread out on a plastic tablecloth on the floor. He would meet us early the next day after giving his men their religious instruction.
Fighting can wait
Shortly after dawn we found Commander Daoud standing in the road methodically passing his worry beads through his fingers. Could we go with him to the frontline now? After breakfast, he replied.
We waited outside for a good hour then the commander emerged, jumped into a red pick-up and we were on our way.
But not for long. Commander Daoud stopped to visit a village elder and to my surprise announced that he would be having breakfast there. I sat next to the commander at the head of the plastic tablecloth.
The servant brought around a metal jug and bowl for us to wash our hands. Then the food was carried in. I'd not seen such a feast in Afghanistan: Stewed mutton on metal salvers, chicken cooked with onions, fillets of fried river fish.
There were two different types of unleavened bread and plates of freshly washed apples. Glasses of golden tea sticky with sugar were passed around at the end.
Commander Daoud is proud of his professional record. He started his military career in the mujahadeen towards the end of the Soviet occupation.
Now at 31, he's the youngest commander in the Northern Alliance.
But the commander has seen his personal domain cut in half and he took us up to the front line to contemplate his lost territory. From a high vantage point he swept his arm across the horizon.
Do you see the mountain beneath the sun, he asked. That's Tiger Mountain. The misty peak and the land beyond are now in the hands of the Taleban.
Back at his aquamarine office, Commander Daoud spread a plastic-coated map on the floor - it was a Russian military chart of the north of the country.
He planted his finger on the town of Taloqan. Until August last year that was his headquarters. He was the governor of the whole province as well as the military commander - absolute power.
But the plastic-coated map had to make way for the plastic table cloth - it was tea-time.
Trays of dark chocolates were placed before us and dishes of lemon-tinged pistachios, the fattest I've ever seen.
I was most fascinated by the cakes. A Madeira sponge like my mother used to make, and delicate pastries smuggled over the mountains from enemy controlled Taloqan.
I competed with the food for the commander's attention. Did he know any of the Taleban generals? Had he fought alongside them during his days with the mujaheddin?
Yes, he crunched, he knew the majority of the Taleban commanders here in the north. Wasn't it strange, I persisted, shooting at people he knew?
He stopped between pistachios. If my own brother fought with the Taleban, he replied, I would fire against him.
Commander Daoud had summoned his lieutenants from the surrounding hillsides for a meeting. Could I join them? Yes, but we would be having lunch first.
The pistachios disappeared and were replaced by plates of rice and dishes of stewed mutton. I tried a few mouthfuls out of courtesy.
Limits of courtesy
The commander thrust a chipped enamel pot at me. A local delicacy. I looked inside to see what looked like a pile of scarab beetles. What were these? Birds, he replied. Tiny things burnt to black skeletons. Courtesy stretches only so far.
This is not a special reception for you, Commander Daoud assured me. The special reception comes later.
I didn't stay to find out. We bumped and jolted for 12 hours back to the village in the north of the country which has become our base camp. I couldn't eat another thing, I announced.
Walking out into the sunlight the next morning, I discovered the Americans had been dropping humanitarian supplies.
Yellow parcels of raisins, peanut butter and other goodies, straight into our compound.
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