An icon of the Prophet




Part One: 1996


1. ... ornaments of gold

I was rifling through the records of Kabul Museum when the rocket attack started. I wasn't sure if they were government rocket or rebel rockets, but they certainly brought the house down.

The Darulaman Palace is a symmetrical pile that looks not entirely unlike the Croft Mansion. From the front there can be seen two large bowed windows, two stories high and above them, set back are twin square towers topped by glass atrium skylights in the shape of a pyramidion. I was on the second floor of the east wing, Maglight clamped in my teeth and fists deep into the Director's filing cabinet, when I heard the whoosh.

I flung myself to the ground, pulling the Director's desk over as I went to try and provide cover.

There was a tremendous explosion and then flames. I was both deafened and stunned. The windows at the front of the building and above me vapourised - there were very few glass shards, but there was a fog of pulverised silicon suddenly filling the air. What there was, was brick and stone shrapnel, crashing about the room.

The desk next to me was cleft by a large piece of rock travelling at supersonic speed and then, to my astonishment, for I myself was not hurt, the files that I had crunched up in my hands burst into flames.

"How can that be?" I thought. I was too dazed to think. I threw away the burning fragments, and tried to clear my head by unblocking my Eustachian tubes and rubbing my forearm across my streaming eyes.

I got up, thinking vaguely of finding a fire extinguisher. The flames were tinted a violet colour - I couldn't work out if it was due to the metal in the paint or in the fuel - and they roared like a burning gas tap. The chances were that the fire extinguisher, if I could have found, would have been dry for years.

There was smoke and I staggered around a bit. I could either fling myself through the hole were the wall had been, or I could try and find the door. I needed to find what I had come for, especially if the whole place was about to burn down, so I opted for the door.

At that moment there was another explosion, punctuated with semiautomatic fire, and the floor gave way beneath me.

In retrospect it seems typical that the mujahed civil war would have picked this little bit of the country to fight over just as I was there.

I have good reflexes, so I grabbed onto a wooden beam as I fell. The beam provided the ceiling for one of the major exhibit halls in the museum and I was dangling about twenty feet above the floor. Next to me a pile of burning debris, including most of the Director's office, fell to the ground. I could see a large display case filled with Bactrian terracotta from Ai Khanoum, dating from the time of Alexander the Great. Irreplaceable. In the next second it was all brickdust as a large bookcase fell squarely on top of it.

Museums are reknowned for being as dry as dust and Kabul Museum was no exception. The whole room below me seem to burst into flames - 3rd century carved ivories in classic Indian styles, Chinese lacquers, seventh-century Buddhist sculptures from Fondukistan made of unbaked clay reinforced with wooden frames and horsehair, Kafir ancestral wooden effigies from Nuristan, priceless Islamic textiles - they all burnt a treat. Fire doesn't discriminate.

"Fuck," I said, partly out of regret at the loss and partly because I was hanging by a dodgy plank of wood between two floors that were on fire. "That's your tourist industry gone up in smoke lads."

A couple of feet away was the first of a number of dusty chandeliers. I began to try and swing on my piece of wood. I yelped as I felt splinters going into my fingers, and my efforts as a pendulum seemed doomed to failure. I was about to fall into the fire below when the heel of one of my boots got snagged on a piece of rococo chandelier metal work. The next moment I was hanging upside down, with a century of dust and dead spiders showering onto my face and with the end of my ponytail smouldering.

The metal dug into the flesh of my heel and I could feel blood. The pain was excruciating and I wriggled and struggled until I managed to get my hand over the edge of the chandelier. I was pulling myself up when the ancient light bulb under my hand shattered, spearing my hand with glass. Fortunately my other hand had already got a purchase, and I gradually ended up crouching on top of the thing, head crushed up against the chalky ceiling.

I could have done with about ten minutes rest at that point - a nice cup of tea, some band-aids, a smoke - but the ceiling was hot and the chandelier fittings were creaking. The smoke rising from below smelt lovely - old perfume and incense. Unfortunately it was also rather dense and hot.

It would have been nice if the chandelier was been shaped like a waggon wheel and attached to the ceiling by a long length of rope. That's the way they always are in Westerns or action films when the hero swings across the room like Tarzan. This particular one seemed to be attached to the ceiling by a lump of crap. There was brown 1930's wiring, what looked like a bit of fireside poker, some congealed gunk made up of human sweat and skin flakes, and a mummified mouse. As for the chandelier itself - it was made of three large bits of brass about the size of a car tyre, several hundred filthy glass jewels, and a minefield of ancient light bulbs. I wondered when the last time it had actually shed any light.

I gingerly let myself down by one of the brass things and immediately felt the flames scorching my heels. I straightened my legs so that they were at right angles to my torso, hoping to start a backwards swing. The chandelier didn't budge. Fair enough, I thought. I'll do one of those gymnastic things - a midair flip - and catch hold of the next chandelier along.

At that moment the whole ceiling fell in.

*****


For many years I had known a Professor of History called Nooria Dubery, whose French husband Louis, now dead, had been an expert in Afghan archaeology. She was about fifty when she was been forced to leave the country. Many of the more reknowned historians in Afghanistan had been women, but unfortunately history had overtaken them. Not only was Nooria a Muslim, she was a Sunni Muslim, but when she had told the more hardline members of the temporary government of the Islamic Students in Kandahar that "based on the Koran it is more important for women to continue their education than stay at home", it hadn't gone down particularly well. Soon after in the street a Talib field commander called Mohammed Basmachi had offered to have her whipped on the spot for un-Shari'at thoughts, but she'd taken refuge inside the offices of an NGO called "Sandy Gall's Afghanistan Appeal" where there happened to be a bunch of Western pressmen, and thus had escaped him. However she hadn't escaped a self-imposed exile in the long run.

"Interesting lecture," I said to Nooria after one of the rare academic conferences that I bothered to attend. We were in London.

Nooria smiled and tucked her fringe back inside her scarf. "Thank you," she said, seeming genuinely pleased. "Have you been interested in Alexandria-in-the-Caucasus for long?"

"I'm always interested in lost cities," I said. "Is it all right if I drink?"

"This is an English public house," said Nooria, gesturing around her. She sipped at her orange juice.

"I didn't think you lot were allowed in pubs."

"Please. I'm not from Saudi Arabia."

We laughed.

"I just read something that a women wrote on your site," I said.

"My site?"

"RAWA.org. Revolutionary Women of Afghanistan whatsit."

"Hardly mine," she said, despite being a stalwart member. "What did this woman write?"

"We seek your freedom, not your abuse of freedom. She was writing to some American. All sounded a bit Ayatollah Khomeni to me."

Nooria smiled. "What do you want me to say?"

"I thought you lot were opposed to fundamentalists?"

"We're all good Muslims," said Nooria, with a twinkle in her eye. She leaned forward conspiratorially. "You know what - it's interesting. There seems to be a perception in the Western press that the only people who are opposed to fundamental Islam are non-Muslims."

"Whereas in reality it's the Sunnis who are opposed to Shiite fundamentalism and the Shiites who are opposed to Sunni fundamentalism," I said.

Nooria snorted. "As Louis used to say - touch�," she said.

I offered her a cigarette but she waved the packet away with a youthful giggle. She liked to think of me as shocking.

"I read the records of your husband's excavation at Borj-i-Abdulla," I said, flicking my zippo and blowing a plume of smoke well away from her

"He would have been sad to hear that the military had turned the site into a minefield."

"Probably the best way to protect it," I said.

"Would it keep you away?"

"Probably not."

"So," said Nooria, politely waiting for me to put down my whisky glass. "There is a small ... problem that I thought might interest you."

"Oh yes?"

"My husband's field journals. They are still in Kabul."

"I thought all his work was published?"

"On the contrary." There was a moment's sadness, soon gone. "I just thought - if you used your Western press pass to obtain a visa, and carried with you, maybe, a letter from me ..."

"Isn't the museum shut up?" I said.

"There'll be staff there somewhere," she said. She wasn't to know that General Omar's men were about to take the capital, and that my visa, authorised by the Rabbani government, would become useless almost as soon as I had arrived from Islamabad.

"Does this mean that I might get to be a co-author on a paper?"

Nooria shrugged and laughed. "It would be my honour," she said. "It would be Afghanistan's honour."

*****


Try an experiment sometime. Set fire to a piece of paper and then hit it with a fly swatter. The fire will be blown out. That was the effect that the ceiling and I had on the fire at the floor level of the museum gallery. Not that I landed on the floor. I almost broke my back on a large statue of King Kanishka of Kush.

I scrambled down, suppressing my urge to start swearing. I could sense that there were soldiers out there, and that they were just looking for a handy moving target. I strained my ears for the sound of whispering or the clack of a rock tipping under a boot, but I could hear nothing except the creaking of half burnt objects and the whistle of a breeze. The smoke was well into my lungs, but fortunately a decade of spliffs had help me learn to control my cough reflex. I wiped the tears from my eyes one at a time so that I could keep a look out.

I took from the pocket of my combat trousers the floor map that I had ripped from Dupree's Guide to Kabul Museum. I hadn't found anything in the director's office to tell me where the field journals might be kept, but the library and the basement seemed like reasonable options. Unfortunately both would be locked, and the sound of splintering wood would have soldiers swarming all over me like ants over a corpse, but there was no other. Assuming that the whole thing hadn't already been burnt.

"Chist?" I heard a voice call outside, and I ducked down. "Che ast?" If I'd been more educated I'd have been able to tell if this was Dari or Pashto, or both, or neither, and then to deduce from that which group the soldier belonged to. Or maybe not, and even if I had I doubt whether it would have helped me much, despite my letter from Nooria.

I did a snake crawl over the rubble - possibly one of the most uncomfortable things a girl can do outside of an S and M club - and made it to where the door had been. I needed to get away from the remains of the windows and into the interior of the Palace where there was cover.

There was a main atrium with a staircase going up - been there, done that - and another going down. The library was on the ground floor, so I opted for the easy option and headed down for the basement, sliding along the wall, and heeling and toeing it to reduce the sound of my feet on the marble. Behind me the fire was starting up again - I could hear the eager crackling.

"Chap," came the voice, distantly. "Baash!" It sounded as it they'd found a landmine, or something else that needed careful treatment. There was a couple of rifle shots and then a shout. However I was too busy to pay attention to them.

The basement was a maze of old corridors, the remnants of a small service industry from the days when the Darulaman Palace had housed the Afghan royal family. The rooms weren't on the map, so I'd have to search randomly and hope that I got lucky.

I realised, after about ten minutes, that anything in a newish looking crate was valuable. Unknown to me plans were afoot to ship a large part of the collection to the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul, officially to protect it, and unofficially ... who knew? One crate contained trays and trays of silver coins; I even caught sight of some double decadrachmas of Amyntas, the biggest Greek silver coins ever minted, each worth a king's ransom. I was tempted to pocket one, but I reckoned it might undermine my credibility if I was caught. Another crate contained priceless Kushan ivories from Begram whilst a third was packed full of gold ornaments from Tillya-tepe. They were all very portable, and my fingers itched, but it was more than my life was worth. Recently I've heard that some of these things can be had on the international art market for the right price. Some people have tried to blame the Soviets for the thefts, but it seems unlikely that the Soviets sneaked back into the country to nick the stuff in 1996, years after they'd been driven out.

However, that was all irrelevant. I had to keep my eye on the ball. It seemed likely that old field journals, financially worthless, wouldn't be in any of the new crates.

I was tiptoeing down an ill-lit corridor when I heard a growl. I turned my Maglight onto the sound, and there was a large Afghan hound. I almost burst out laughing. You cannot get a more silly graceless fop of a dog than an Afghan hound, and here one was, in Afghanistan. Hurrah, I thought. Then the dog growled again and I noticed the foam around its mouth and the redness of its eyes.

Rabies, I thought, and reached for one of my Browning pistols. My invariable method of dealing with hostile animals is to shoot them. But then I heard the footfalls on the floor above me. One noise - even a bark - and I'd be discovered.

The Afghan hound leapt at me.



2. ... those who drag forth



I stopped it in midair by punching it hard on the chest. Flecks of foam splattered on my face, and as I started to wipe it away the dog jumped again.

I was wearing leather gloves and stout combat trousers, but I had a feeling that if I was bitten I'd have a certain amount of trouble getting an anti-rabies jab, even in Kabul.

The dog jumped again. I pushed it away again. It snarled as it skidded around on the floor, knocking small objects around with its clumsy feet. There was a loud clattering sound. I strained to heard any reaction from above. The dog jumped for a third time, ands got its teeth into my forearm. I slammed it against the wall and it gave out a loud yelp.

This was getting stupid, I thought. I was going to have to silence it before it got me killed.

I was stooping to get my knife out of its ankle holder when the Afghan bowled me over. It wasn't very heavy but I couldn't get a purchase on the floor. Its teeth were snapping at my nose. I held it off with one hand, coughing and spluttering. It had bad breath, and I'd gotten more foam in my face. I wondered if one could get rabies from stuff that fell in one's eyes.

I was bringing the knife around to finish it off when it sank its teeth into my ear. Such was my apprehension about being infected that I dropped the knife and grabbed its muzzle. I wrenched its jaws open and twisted my head away.

Holding it firmly, I got onto my knees and then to my feet. I tried letting go with one hand to reach for the knife, but my purchase was too slippery and I had to give it up. I tried twisting the dog's head to break it's neck, but the Afghan began to flop around like a giant rug. Eventually my gloves became too slippery with saliva, and the dog broke free.

It skittered off, turned and began to bark. Fear had finally penetrated its hydrophobic aggression.

"Fuck!" I hissed, trying to find my knife. "Shh! Good boy!"

The knife was nowhere to be found, so I threw myself at the animal. I landed heavily on it, trying for the head again, but only managing to grab it around the chest. The dog scrabbled at my skin with its long, untrimmed claws. I nearly cried out.

The dog was trying to bite me again so I tried for a headbutt. It had already bitten me at least once, and I was through pissing about with it. One can recover from rabies most easily than one can recover from a bullet in the head. There was blood and a canine tooth - not mine - fell into my leg.

We rolled about a bit, me swearing and the dog yelping. I wondered if I could rip its tongue out. Or even bite it off.

The mixture of dust and foam on my face was beginning to obscure my vision. I remembered watching a film in which an assassin had masked his gun with a pillow. It was the expanding gases that made the sound, wasn't it?

I managed to get hold of a pistol, and put the muzzle against the dog's side. I pulled the trigger, and there was an enormously loud bang. So much for that theory.

Dogs are quite tough. The Afghan was thrown onto the floor, a gaping wound in its flank. Then it leapt up as if nothing had happened, and started run away down the corridor.

I was relieved for a split second, but then I had an image of the dog running up the stairs from the basement, an obviously fresh gunshot would in its side. I had to catch it or I was fucked.

Afghan hounds are related to greyhounds. They can sprint extremely well. I can sprint quite well, but only for short distances, and then I run out of energy.

I wasn't far behind it when it sprinted up the staircase to the next floor. Too late, I thought. Suddenly there was a burst of semi-automatic fire and a yelp.

I could hear a roar of laughter and then, very clearly, a Western voice.

"What was it?"

"A dog," said an Afghan voice.

"Why are they laughing?" I could hear the disgust.

"Well, it was only a dog! And Ahmad very bravely shot it. He is a brave man."

"Is what's left of the museum secured?" Acidly dry sarcasm. Apparently too dry for the soldiers.

"Yes sir. Pashtoon fighters are the best in Afghanistan."

There was some ragged cheering. "Let's get on with it, shall we?" said the Western voice. He sounded like a weary sports master trying to finish a 3rd Eleven football match on a rainy Saturday afternoon. "You're all being paid enough, so try not to blow up anything else, there's good chaps."

I legged it back down into the cellar. The quicker I found Professor Dubery's field notes, the quicker I could get away from that voice. Nothing had scared me so far, but that voice ... it reminded too much of my boarding school. I imagined being given six of the best in front of a group of salivating militia.

There was one dusty area that I hadn't been in. I found myself scanning the floor for paw prints, but nothing has disturbed it for months, which was promising. I picked the rusty lock of a large door. It took a while and a good deal of strength. My fingers were aching by the time I pushed it open. I scanned the room with my torch - there were shelves and shelves of box files and books. There were also - to my delight - what looked like reports of archaeological digs, some hand written.

It was easy to find two notebooks with the name Dubery under the title. They were written on thick paper in neat unfaded ink - "An account of the Bactrian ruins at Borj-i-Abdulla. 1966. Principle archaeologist: Louis Dubery. Expedition sponsor: King Zahir Shah." Nooria had been a twenty year old student at Kabul University at the time. It was a more emancipated era, and she had met the charismatic foreign academic whilst helping on the dig. Nonetheless, even then it was unusual for a Afghan woman to marry a non-Muslim, however educated and middle class. Times had certainly changed.

I stuffed the field journals in my backpack and was about to leave when I found myself looking at what I was about to leave behind. Priceless documentation of long lost sites, now even more lost than previously. Many of these archaeological sites would have been dug up since the Soviet invasion in the search for gold, by people more interested in buying food and medicine than history. Some of these documents might be the only surviving records.

I took another notebook at random. It was handwritten in Arabic script by a scholar whose name I couldn't read, but the inscriptions and the drawings were clear enough to me. I let the book fall open and there was a meticulous sketch of a fragmentary piece of text. "hAlABI πROπheteS et SeRGIVS SA" read one phrase. "tA MeRe teS ethRIB" read another. It had obviously been written by someone with a confused grasp of alphabets.

I turned to the back of the notebook, and there was what I guessed was a list of artefacts along with their code numbers. No doubt somewhere there'd be neatly drawn maps showing the exact locations where they'd been found. I can't read Arabic, but I can make out Arabic numerals. The numbers ran from roughly 10 to 1000 and next to number 57, embedded in the Arabic sentence, was the name "SeRGIVS" again and the Latin word "ephemeris".

I'm naturally nosy. I tried to match the writing on the front of the notebook with some of the boxes on the shelves. Several boxes seemed to fit the bill, and the number scheme seemed to match. I lifted down the fourth box in a long row, and unsealed the lid. Inside, lying next to the sandy pottery and remnants of textile was a slim package - number 57. It was made of some sort of waterproof cloth bound with twine. I unwrapped it gingerly. Inside were some small panes of glass, and pressed between them like rare dried flowers were fragments of papyrus, each covered with faded spidery writing.

I hesitated. If I removed the artefact from its context, then I was risking the destruction of what looked like a well conceived archaeological dig, albeit one from the turn of the century. Of course it was possible that I'd get back to the UK and discover that the whole thing had been analysed and published years ago. It was equally possible that the whole collection would be destroyed by a rocket in the next few days. I couldn't take it all with me, so I compromised, tucking the notebook and the package into my backpack.

I can always return it later when peace returns, I thought. Cupidity is the mother of self-deception.

*****


I needed a plan to get out of there. I toyed with the idea of shutting myself in a crate full of treasure and allowing myself to be taken to the baddie hideout and then, like a member of the Famous Five, leaping out and exposing them all to the authorities. However, I decided that I didn't really give enough of a fuck. If the Afghans were stupid enough to blow up or sell their cultural heritage, then good luck to them. All I really wanted was a hot bath and then a nice seat in business class flying out of Kabul International Airport.

I wondered if I could hide until nightfall and then sneak off. I'd arrived wrapped from head to foot in a lovely chador and on a public bus. I'm sure I could get a taxi with a minimum of effort - a fistful of dollars is good in any country, except possibly the UK.

I wondered if the building was still on fire and when they'd be down to collect the crates. If that's what "they" were up to. Unfortunately at that moment, somebody stuck a pistol muzzle to the back of my head.

"And who are you? - Don't turn around!" said the Western voice.

"I work for C.N.N.," I said. "It's a slow news day so I thought I'd do something cultural."

"Kabul has just fallen to General Omar."

"See what I mean? One Afghan warlord is much like another. It's hardly going to compete with home news, is it?"

"I want you - still without turning around - to show me some identification papers."

I fished my British passport out of my pocket and held it up, open. "You must be with customs, then," I said. "Are you here to confiscate the contents of the museum as illegal contraband?"

"Lara Croft," said the Western voice. He swore an unlikely oath under his breath, something school-boyish.

"Have we met?"

"Sorry about this old girl," he said, and knocked me unconscious.

*****


When I woke, for a second I thought I'd was in my grave. It was black and stifling and there was material over my face. I thrashed around in a blind panic, only to find that I was still in the museum basement, hidden under a tarpaulin. The Westerner, whoever he was, had saved me from an uncomfortable interview with his men.

I walked in from the suburbs, keeping to the shadows. Most streets, when viewed in cross-section, resemble the letter 'U', with vertical walls and a flat road. Many of the streets in Kabul that night were shaped like the letter "V", and so it was sometimes tricky to find a route through the rubble. At least I wasn't likely to be picked up by a motorised patrol. The September air was icy with a ferocious wind chill factor and so it was very easy to remain muffled and anonymous. I just hoped that the dust wouldn't cause me to let out a female sneeze or cough at the wrong moment. I had a horrible suspicion that there was a curfew for girls.

As I neared the Presidential Palace, I heard shots and shouts and the roaring of car engines. I made myself as inconspicuous as possible and watched.

Several Datsun two-doors pick-ups - gifts from the Saudi government and the favourite vehicle of General Omar's troops - were driving round and round the palace to much excitement and applause. One of the pick-ups was dragging something behind it.

As I watched, the trucks stopped. The dragged thing was the bloated body of a old man, barely recognisable. They strung him up from the nearest lamppost and there was the Taliban equivalent of a forty-one gun salutes, only using Kalashnikovs. There was a rain of spent bullets for a minute afterwards.

The fat dead man, I learned later, was ex-President Najibullah, the ex-Communist leader and Soviet collaborator. General Omar's army had grabbed him out of UN protective custody - protective in the sense that only the UN uses the word - and tortured him. When they got fed up, they executed him. When the mob strung up Mussolini and his mistress for the world's cameras the world cheered. Maybe the Taliban were hoping for the same approbation. More likely they didn't really care.

I decided that the sooner I got back to my hotel and mingled with the foreign correspondents the better I'd be. When I got there, there was a crowd of pressmen standing watching the soldiers, who were busy carrying crates out of the hotel and laying them in the street.

I recognised an Australian reporter who'd come in at the same time as me.

"Where have you been?" he said, astonished. "You were lucky not to be shot."

"Out and about," I said, "picking up a few souvenirs and checking out the night life. What's going on?"

"They've found all the beer in the hotel cellar."

At that moment I heard the cough of an engine starting - there was a T55 parked a little way up the road.

"Surely not?" I said.

"They like their gestures to be as literal as possible," said the Australian, rubbing his mouth and looking thirstily at the crates.

The tank rumbled down the road and flattened the crates, filling the air with the sound of crashing glass and the smell of hops.

"I can't think of a better way of pissing off the foreign press corps," I observed, after it was all over.

"Neither can I," said the Australian, who was about to take a photograph.

I snatched down his hand. "Put it away. It's forbidden."

"If they didn't want us to photograph it then why set it all up?"

"They weren't setting anything up," I said. "They were just enforcing Shari'a law."

"Christ," said the Australian. "What a bunch of lunatics."

"Welcome to the seventh century. Let's get indoors."

*****


I'd picked a bad time to try and leave Afghanistan with stuff nicked from the museum. True it didn't look like anything valuable, but I had an idea that if I was stopped at customs I'd be for the high jump.

I needed a way of getting the stuff out of the country and there were only two ways - via a diplomatic bag or via smugglers. I wondered for a second if the new government would give me permission to export the stuff - why should they care? - but I realised that even they were interested in American dollars.

I pored over my Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan and tried to work out where the British Embassy was and whether the route to it was mined. In the end I decided to take a taxi. I wasn't sure if the Embassy would still be open - officially it had been abandoned two years earlier.

I kept a gun in sight as the taxi bumped and weaved through the ruins of Kabul. No point in asking if the driver was taking the most direct route. The shortest distance between two points in Afghanistan usually runs through a trap. The driver seemed to know where the army checkpoints were and how to avoid them. Eventually we pulled up outside a slightly bigger pile of rubbish, the remains of a magnificent house.

"What is this supposed to be?" I asked the driver. He spoke French.

He cackled. "It was the British Embassy. They handed it over to the Pakistanis two years ago and then it was shelled."

"You could have told me this earlier."

The driver gave a Gallic shrug. "A fare is a fare."

"Why shouldn't I shoot you?"

"Ohhh!" he said, flapping his hands in mock terror. "The spirit of Malalai has come back to haunt us." Malalai being an nineteenth century housewife who had exhorted her compatriots to drive the British out of Afghanistan. Not the most fortunate metaphor.

I didn't know enough French swear words to carry on the conversation. I wound down the window and subjected the ruined embassy to an intense examination. I was still wondering about the Westerner who had rescued me in the museum. He was unlikely to be a pressman or else I'd have come across him in my hotel, and he was unlikely to be with an NGO if he was removing archaeological treasures from the country. He'd sounded public school-educated to me, and besides he'd acted as if he knew who I was. I smelt a rat.

I gave the driver a wad of US dollars. "If you report me I'll find you," I said. He chuckled as he drove off in a screeching of gears.

The embassy was surrounded by what could laughingly be described as a residential district. I could hear voices, a radio, children and I could smell cooking. Nothing that close, though, which made me wonder about booby traps.

I tooled up. I blacked out my eye sockets and pulled on a balaclava. I put a red filter over my Maglight torch and exchanged my boots for dark plimsolls. Just inside the ruined gateway I took a risk and buried my back pack, still containing the field journals, under a pile of rocks. I was fairly certain that nobody had seen me.

The first thing that I found, slinking round the side of the mansion, were sets of tyres tracks leading from one of the back streets. There was the remains of a garden, overgrown with weeds and rubbish.

The building itself looked worse from the front than the back. There were still some intact rooms, and of more immediate interest to me, an intact steel door. It was locked. I examined the lock - it was freshly oiled, free from dust and cobwebs. Interesting.

There was an old barrack room. Presumably British soldiers had come back here after a hard week's work being slaughtered on the Khyber Pass by Afghan war lords. I wasn't sure what I was looking at, at first. There was an enormous press, a bit like a wine press or a printing press, but stained with brown. There was a tin bath, some demilitre bottles containing an acrid smelling liquid, some stained muslin sheets and a dustbin lid, burnt black on one side and powdered with a rusty dust on the other.

I was surprised, to put it mildly. What sort of lunatic processes poppy resin in the centre of a capital city, in the ruins of the British embassy? An Afghan lunatic, presumably.

"Salaam a-laykum," said a creaky old voice.

I found myself with my gun aimed between his eyes. He cackled at me, one hand grabbing at his turban as if he'd been caught in a sudden wind. My Arabic is shit, but I thought that I'd give it a go. "Ma-laykum salaam," I said, experimentally.

"American?" said the old man.

"Lord help us no," I said. "British."

He tottered over and placed a liver spotted hand on my shoulder. He obviously wasn't remotely impressed by my gun. "British - good," he said. "My greatgreatgrandfather kill your greatgreatgrandfather at Jalalabad." He cackled and drew an imaginary knife across his turkey gizzard of a neck.

"Apparently I am distantly related to the Elphinstones," I said, "through a bastard child of one of their chamber maids." As well as Clive of India, Rhodes of Africa and Lawrence of Arabia there might have been an Elphinstone of Afghanistan. Unfortunately he'd lost, and taken sixteen thousand British troops with him in an idiotic winter retreat from Kabul in 1842. He was the Tim Henman of British military history.

"Yes, yes," said the old man, revealing teeth that seen better days. He obviously didn't understand a word I was saying.

"Is this yours?" I said, gesturing at the miniature heroin factory.

"Yes, yes. You buy?" Either the daft old bastard had relatives in the police, or the Afghan authorities weren't that bothered. I'd read that the Middle Eastern attitude to heroin was - "Good stuff. Kills infidels in America whilst generating much needed income for us. Praise Allah and pass the ammunition."

A thought occurred to me. It was a plan, of sorts, for getting my acquisitions out of the country. It wasn't a very good plan, but hell - this was war.

"Do you have a lorry?" I mimed a steering wheel and a gear stick. "Brmmm brmmm brmmm."

That tickled him and he started giggling like a schoolgirl. "Brum brum," he tittered and drooled. "Hee hee hee." Apparently you don't have to be a member of Mensa to be a drug trafficker.

"I'll work for you," I said, pointing at myself and at him. "I ... work for ... you." I mimed driving again. "Peshawar. Me drive lorry to Peshawar."

He slapped his pantaloons as the tears ran down his cheeks.

"I have guns," I said, showing him my guns. "I have a disguise." I mimed pulling the chador across my face. "And I have a huge fortune in American dollars."

He draped a paternal arm across my shoulder. "You have husband?"

"No," I said. That sobered him and he patted my arm in a solicitous fashion.

"You'll soon find a husband," he said. "You are a brave and beautiful woman."

"Thank you," I said, blushing.

"Come. Come to my house."

I didn't have any other plans for the evening.



3. ... she who is tried



Some obscure Greek legends claim that Leda, after being raped by the swan, was deified as the goddess Nemesis, the due enactor of retribution.

I'd always wanted to see the Khyber Pass - maybe it was being force-fed Kipling as a child or maybe it was the memory of Kenneth Williams as the Khazi in Carry On Up The Khyber. In the good old days, the discerning opium grower had lived in the west of Pakistan. Then the Americans and Interpol had forced them over the border into Afghanistan provinces like Nangarhar. Now Nangarhar was under threat and production was shifting southwards into Helmand.

I wasn't going to be allowed to drive the truck after all. In fact, all that I was allowed to do was hide and keep quiet. Rukh had driven the route to Peshawar many times before, and had taken the precaution of having a relative, a customer or a willing recipient of bak�i� in place at each army check point. If all that failed he had a letter from his patron, a powerful man. Rukh was confident that the war would not be allowed to interfere with the important business of making money out of foreigners.

My overwhelming memory of the truck was that it was asthmatic, grey and covered with mud. Every gear change was a labour and every pot hole threatened to crack our heads against the roof of the driver's cabin. The view of the road ahead was obscured by a bizarre collection of beads, ornaments and improving verses from the Koran impregnated into grimy plastic coated pieces of card.

Rukh wasn't much of a conversationalist - his English vocabulary was as limited as my Pashto - but he did enjoy singing along to his cassette tape of tuneless Afghan popular songs. At the first sign of a checkpoint, he'd hide the cassette in the door panel, and then - after we were clear - he'd get it out again. I'd climb into an area behind the passenger seat that was shielded by a curtain and try not to think about the origins of the smells that wafted from the makeshift bed that was laid out there. The climate was chilly, but I could feel myself sweating nonetheless, and with each sweat I found myself imagining an additional layer of grime impregnating itself into my skin and clothing. I had one or two insect bites and it felt like I was getting a stye on my eyelid. I dreamt of a Pakistani hotel room with a ceiling fan and a private shower.

The view outside, when I wasn't cooped up, was not particularly inspiring. Imagine the dusty roads that one finds cut into a large quarry somewhere in South Wales, crawling with bizarre vehicles filled with rubble. Now extend the scene over hundreds of miles, and you have eastern Afghanistan.

And then, one of those events - like my airplane crash near the Village of Tokakeriby - that changed my life and still informs my view of life and of humans. Specifically - of men and of society, and my role in that society.

The seventh checkpoint wasn't an official one. Rukh turned a ghastly colour and his teeth chattered. It was some bandits.

To cut a short story even shorter, they shot him. He shouldn't have tried to stand up for me. Then they took it in turns to rape me. I could have forced them to shoot me too, but I had this idea that my life was worth it. By the time they'd finished I'd changed my mind. There was a brief respite where they made conversation - one of them even showed me photos of his family - and then they raped me again. They couldn't even be bothered to kill me - they just threw me and my belongings into a ditch and drove away with the lorry.

The moon came out, and I was lying with one cheek in the dust, trying not to move as that reminded me that I had a body. The moonlight glinted off Rukh's fishy eye as he lay gazing at the heavens. He didn't blink and neither did I. A scorpion came to look at me, but my expression must have unnerved it because it ran away.

A group of Taliban soldiers in a pickup truck found me. I cried when they gave me a cup of sweet cardamom tea and wrapped me in a blanket.

"Bag," I said, and they carefully brought me my rucksack, without even looking in it. I guess they thought I was entitled to a shred of privacy.

There was a town house and a woman doctor who spoke English. She washed me using a soft sponge and a little plastic bowl full of warm water. Then I slept.

*****


Shari'a means "the way" and taliban means "the students", or so I've been told. The leader of this particular group of students of the way was called Mohammed Basmachi.

My first impression of him was that he looked more like a Turkish houri than a hard-bitten ex-mujahedin fighter. His clothing was brilliant white, with a gold trimming, and he wore an embroidered waistcoat. An elegant cap was perched on top of his carefully coiffured black ringlets, and he was wearing enough eye make up to pass for Marc Almond.

His hand, as he reached out as if to touch my bruised face, smelt of perfume and his fingernails were perfectly trimmed. He flinched as he looked into my eyes.

"How are you feeling?" he said, in unaccented English.

I couldn't think of a clever answer. "O.K.," I mumbled.

"I can only apologise for what has happened."

"It's ... it wasn't anything to do with you."

Basmachi bowed. "Nonetheless."

"What will happen to me now?"

"You were attempting to reach Peshawar," he said. "We will help you when you are recovered enough to travel."

"Thank you."

Basmachi poured me a glass of mint tea. "Why choose such a dangerous way to leave the country?"

I improved. "I'm not with a charity or an NGO, and there were no planes leaving Kabul due to the shelling. I've never been in a city that has fallen to an armed attack before. I just wanted to leave. I was afraid."

Basmachi steepled his fingers and made a movement with his eyebrows that reminded me of a shrug. "So you are a journalist?"

"Yes. Freelance."

"A war correspondent?"

"I'm actually an arts correspondent, interested in history."

Basmachi laughed. "History is happening all around us," he said, with a smile. "I'm surprised you haven't heard of me." His kohl-ringed eyes twinkled with amusement.

"Why?"

"I managed to get mentioned in the foreign press, or so I'm told. I said that when we took Bamiyan from the Northern Alliance that I'd destroy the idols of Buddha there."

I sipped my tea. "I remember reading somewhere that the Large Buddha had had his face sawn off and his arms and legs broken two centuries ago. By Persian iconoclasts. And that you can buy fragments of smaller Buddhas that were dynamited by the Soviets. In the market at Bamiyan."

Basmachi seemed amused. "You attempt to paint me as a philistine by giving these examples of ideologically-inspired vandalism."

I passed an hand over my face. "I'm not in a position to lecture people about how they treat their archaeological heritage. I was just making conversation."

"This country will be Islamic," said Basmachi. "Shari'a law will be applied. We can hang as many people as we like, but the world will not notice. However if we destroy some of those big lumps of sandstone, then they will notice us."

"Pour encourager les autres," I said.

"A nice phrase," said Basmachi, "but yes. If I thought that the statues of Buddha might come to life and help us reconstruct the country, then I might leave them alone. However from what I understand of the Buddha, he just watches and smiles."

"For evil to prosper, all good men need to do is stand by and do nothing."

"Buddhism ... in a nut shell. Is that the phrase?"

"There is a certain irony in hearing a Muslim criticising another religion given the care they take to defend their own."

"Life is full of irony," said Basmachi, "but the teachings of the Prophet cuts through all cynicism and gives us a clear path to follow."

"I'm pleased to hear that," I said. "Faith instead of real politic, justice instead of expediency. How refreshing."

"Now you mock me."

"I wasn't mocking you," I said. "I was just wondering what you were going to do to the men who raped me."

Basmachi sighed and looked at his hands folded on the desk in front of him. He got up and gazed out of the window at the street below.

"We have them already," he said, eventually. "They will be executed for theft and murder."

"And for rape?"

He didn't look at me. "There is no evidence," he said.

"I've been examined by your doctor and I can identify them," I said.

Basmachi came and sat down. "You are not going to like this," he said, "but under shari'a law rape can only be proved if four believers - four men - are prepared to testify that they witnessed the crime."

"Four men?"

"Yes."

Even assuming that the Taliban had medics to spare to carry out forensic tests - most of them were sowing up stomachs and fitting prosthetic limbs on a 24-hourly basis - it wouldn't have made any difference.

Maybe I should have been upset but in my altered mental state I found myself thinking - fair enough. Can't condemn a chap without proof.

"How are they to be executed?"

"We intent to shoot them in the football stadium. A public execution."

"What type of execution is reserved for convicted rapists?"

Basmachi shrugged. "They can be shot. Or stoned to death. I've known of an instance where a wall was toppled over onto a guilty man."

I sat up straight and cleared my throat. "Let me be part of the firing squad," I said.

"Impossible."

"Please?"

"I'm sorry. It would not be appropriate behaviour. Besides, in the absence of witnesses, you yourself could be open to a charge of zina."

"Zina?"

"Indecent behaviour. When a zina-bil-jabr case - a rape case - fails for lack of four male witnesses, the legal system has more than once concluded that the intercourse was therefore consensual, and consequently has charged rape victims with zina."

At this I felt as if someone had poured cold water over me, and so I gave up trying to argue. "God is good," I said, bitterly.

"Yes," said Basmachi, in a soft voice, his dark eyes soulful. "God is good, men are bad and your attackers will be executed. Does it matter why they die?"

I looked at him. He was so urbane, so educated, but so alien. It seemed that his policy of "pour encourager les autres" wasn't worth applying to the oppressors of women.

"Don't worry your pretty little head about it," I said. "It's a girl thing."

*****


It turned out that I was in Jalalabad, three hours drive from Peshawar. Jalalabad had fallen to the Taliban about a month before and since the majority of the populace were Pashtun, it had been a relatively peaceful handover. They put me up in the Spingar Hotel for a night or two to recover from my injuries. It was the spiffiest place in town, with a shower in the room and a television. Televisions were not usually included, but they were trying to make me, a Westerner, comfortable. There was a toilet as well, which was fortunate, since for some reason I was suffering from diarrhoea. Maybe it was the water, but I had a secret theory that having my nether regions stuffed with various assorted brands of spunk hadn't done me much good. The shower head was welded to the wall so I found myself doing various acrobatic feats to wash my lower torso. I spent a long time in that shower. The rest of the time I lay on my bed poking at my bruises and cuts to see if they still hurt. Something inside me felt different. I had an idea that somehow my brain was bleeding and that there was a little voice in there trying to scream.

Everybody that I met looked sympathetic or refused to meet my eyes. It made me furious but I smiled. Even the women behind the hotel reception desk patted my hand. They were distressed and upset at what had happened and I got the distinct impression that they felt that Afghan hospitality had been given a bad name. When I realised that everybody knew what had happened to me - I was a cause celebre - but at the same time none of them would agree to the men being charged, I felt a bitterness growing in my heart. The hospitality seemed two-faced, under the circumstances.

I got on to chatting terms with the hotel owners, Mr. and Mrs. Rashid.

"I want to buy a motorcycle," I said to them. Apparently there were a good number of twenty year old Russian military machines for sale. I burst out laughing when they brought one to show me. It had been painted grey once, with Russian insignia. Now it was a mess of rust and bare metal, as if someone how put it into a giant tumble dryer for a decade.

I gingerly climbed abroad - it was bearable - and did a short wheelie to impress the natives. There was laughter and applause. Only Mr. Rashid seemed disapproving. Mrs. Rashid explained that I was making more of an exhibition of myself than was thought seemly for a woman but that she, Mrs. Rashid, understood that Westerners were different and that she thought I was OK. She meant well, but I felt like telling her that everyone could fuck off and that I'd behave any damn way that I pleased.

They invited me to an evening meal. I had no idea what to give them as a gift so I bought some potted plants. I tried to remember to eat with my right hand, and to work out how much it was polite to eat, and whether or not I was supposed to drain my glass of tea or leave a little in the bottom. They both ate with me, perhaps to prove a point about how they were prepared to compromise with a Western guest. Underneath it all there seemed to be that pleading for forgiveness. The Taliban might have decided that they didn't care what the West thought of them, but Mr. and Mrs. Rashid had not.

Eventually I got to ask the question that I had been itching to ask for days.

"Where are the men being held and when are they to be executed?"

*****


I had my passport, I had my visas, I'd packed my bags and I'd filled up on petrol. I was going to be leaving early.

I snuck out into the curfew just before dawn and headed to the police station. In more recent years I've broken into and out of high security compounds, but in 1996 I was relatively new to it. I guess the citizens of Jalalabad are fairly law abiding because the police station was half asleep.

I climbed up onto a nearby roof with my binoculars. There was a front room with policemen playing backgammon. Obviously backgammon hadn't been banned yet. Around the back were darkened windows with bars on them.

I considered doing a Terminator and running into the front of the station, slaughtering everybody who got in my way. Sadly I had only had my Browning pistols.

I watched for a couple of hours, devoid of a plan. Then, at a back door, I saw the glow of a cigarette.

There was a wall with broken glass and barbed wire and then I was within striking distance. It was a policeman and I knocked him out with a haymaker to the jaw before he had time to be surprised. I grabbed him as he bounced off the wall. Now I had keys and an open door.

He'd obviously been sitting at a desk outside the cells. There was a dirty electric bulb in the corridor but the cells were dark. I shone my Maglight into the cell through the door slot, and there was a man. He flung up his hands to shield his eyes and gave out an exclamation. It was the man who'd shown me his family photos.

I unlocked the door and then locked it behind me. "Shh!" I said, shining the torch onto my face.

A look of horror crossed his face and he started to cry out, but I stabbed him in the throat with stiffened fingers. He gurgled as I slammed his head against the wall, holding him by his hair. He smelt just as I remembered - a mixture of sweat, pheromones and fear.

I slammed his head against the wall a few times. Then I caved in his skull with the butt of my Maglight. It broke, the light went out and I was covered in blood.

I left. I crept back to the hotel and used the shower for the last time. I left money on the counter for Mr. and Mrs. Rashid. As the curfew lifted I kick-started my Russian motorcycle.

Over the border I stopped and looked back.

"Farewell, Afghanistan," I shouted. "Fuck you, and fuck your people. Fuck the Taliban. I'm never coming back."

I drove across Pakistan and got into India. I finally stopped at the Imperial Hotel, Calcutta. During the day I slept and in the evening I sat drinking generic lager in the hotel bar, gazing into space. My mind stopped. I became a thing.

I'd thought that nobody was looking for me. One evening I was sitting in a drunken stupor smoking a weird cigar. I'd found a copy of my Bigfoot book for sale in the local bookshop. What a small planet.

"What's a man got to do to get that kind of attention from you?" said a man's voice.

I looked up and recognised him, although from where I wasn't sure. I'd either slept with him or tried to kill him or both. He was an American.

"It's hard to say, exactly," I said in a mild voice, "but you seem to be doing fine." I could be rude to him when I knew what he wanted.

"Well - great," said the American. "Though truth is it ain't me that wants you."

"Oh?"

As he was speaking he unfolded a snazzy looking laptop computer on the table in front of me. "No. Ms. Jacqueline Natla does, from Natla Technologies. You know - creator of all things bright and beautiful." He chuckled at his own joke.

The screen flickered on and there, wearing a beige business jacket and a tight white top that showed the tops of her breasts, was Natla. Her hair was a brilliant blonde and her skin glowed with an expensive Californian tan.

"Seal it, Larson," she said. Her grasp of American colloquialisms was always flimsy.

"Ma'am," said Larson obediently.

Natla smiled at me with her big blue eyes and started throwing money up in the air. "Feast your eyes on this, Lara," she said, in a seductive voice. "How does that make your wallet rumble?"

I'd never heard the phrase "wallet rumble" before and wondered if it was suggestive. However, neither money nor sex had much appeal to me at that moment.

"I'm sorry," I said, starting to rise. "I only play for sport."

Natla smiled again, a big American smile with perfect teeth. "Then you'll like a big park," she said, and her face was replaced by a shot of the snow capped mountains near Arequipa. "Peru."

I was hooked.

*****






Part Two: 2001





4. ... Jonah, peace be upon him





I'd tried quite hard to get over the loss of Winston and my husband. I'd travelled back to Tibet, to visit Tokakeriby and the monastery at Barkang. I'd done a certain amount of trekking and of trying to reach inner peace by sitting cross-legged on the floor dressed in orange robes, but although I'd taken some nice photos I didn't really feel much better. Maybe I should have shaved my head into a Tibetan mohican and then tried spinning prayer wheels for a few months, but I had a feeling I'd just end up feeling silly.

Now I was on the Indian Airways flight from New Delhi to London, and I was depressed. We were at thirty thousand feet and the only thing I had to look forward to a Bollywood classic, Tere Ghar Ke Saamne.

I ferreted around in my bag for something to read and discovered an unopened letter from Nooria Dubery. I'd recognised the writing and immediately hidden it away. I didn't really feel like being reminded of Afghanistan. On my return I'd mailed the field journal and the parchment to Nooria and then mentally taken the phone off the hook. I didn't want to see her.

I looked at the envelope and I was reminded of my habit, when injured, of poking my wounds to see if they still hurt. Maybe if I read the letter, I'd find the wound wasn't as painful as I was anticipating.

"Dear Lara," it began and then there was a load of waffle asking after my health, and why I hadn't been in contact for years. I felt guilty, and then annoyed, and I was tempted to rip up the letter before I read any further.

"The artefacts that you brought back from Kabul turned out to be extremely significant," said Nooria. "I am almost afraid of the reaction if my findings were released to the general public."

"Chicken or vegetarian?" said the Indian air hostess, breaking into my reverie.

"Chicken," I said.

She rummaged on her trolley. "We've run out of chicken," she said.

"I'll have a bottle of single malt then."

"Yes, Madam."

"I am assuming, perhaps wrongly, that you know little of the early life of the Prophet," the letter continued, "and so forgive me if I fill in some details for you."

I sighed and drank from the neck of the bottle. Did I really want to get into this, I wondered?

"One of the characters from the life of the Prophet is a Christian called Bahira. Bahira was a Nestorian monk that Muhammad was supposed to have met during a trip returning from Syria to Mecca. Bahira's Christian name was supposed to be Sergius or Georgius. The Muslim traditions say that Bahira recognized, through various signs, that Muhammad was a prophet. There are suggestions that Bahira stayed with Muhammad and taught him as alluded to in Sura xvi.105 of the Koran;. "Husain the commentator says on this passage that the Prophet was in the habit of going every evening to a Christian to hear the Taurat and Injil."

That made me sit up. There was only one empire that a Nestorian monk living in Syria in the late sixth century could have owe an affiliation to; Byzantium. Nestorius, the heretic Patriarch of Constantinople had been banished in 435 to Petra in Syria for preaching that Christ had two natures, one human and one divine.

"The field notebook describes an inscription which reads "hAlABI πROπheteS et SeRGIVS SA", found in the ruins at Borj-i-Abdulla. "Halabi" is a Greek name for the Prophet, whilst "Saint Sergius" could well refer to Bahira. They are described being located "tA MeRe teS ethRIB", or "in the region of Ethribou". Ethribou is another name for Mecca. There is no record that Bahira travelled to Mecca, so as you can see, there is already some confusion."

I was reminded, for some reason, of Lawrence of Arabia.

"As you know," Nooria continued, "there are at least two famous relics of the Prophet in Afghanistan - the Cloak and the Hair of Mohammed - both in mosques at Kandahar, and both 18th century gifts from the Emir of Bukhara in Russia. There is also the tomb of Hazrat Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, at Mazar-e-Sharif - the so-called "Tomb of the Exalted". When the original tomb was destroyed by Genghis Khan, many of the mementos of Hazrat Ali's life were hidden away. My point is that there may be a numbers of relics associated with the historical person of Mohammed lost or hidden in Afghanistan. My husband's field notes and the fragments of papyrus that you recovered seem to hint at such a lost artefact."

I was interrupted in my reading, however, by the passengers around me, who were whispering or sitting with their mouths open. I sat up in my seat and looked down the cabin. A man with a gun was standing next to one of the stewardesses.

There was a crackle and then the pilot's voice; "Ladies and gentlemen. There is no reason to be alarmed at this point," he had a very Indian accent, "but we have on board a number of members of the Kashmiri Pandit Islamic Brotherhood. They have requested that we make an unscheduled stop on our way to London after which they will ensure that we are refuelled and allowed to go on our way."

I carefully put the whiskey and Nooria's letter back into my bag. I had no weapons with me. I gazed at the nearest hijacker and his gun, and wondered what the chances of disarming him were.

I'd assumed that Kashmiri militants would demand to fly to Pakistan - not really a huge problem - but I was wrong.

"Our next stop will be in about 30 minutes and will be at the Afghanistani city of Kandahar."

There were gasps and cries of fear, and an elderly lady burst into tears. I could feel the blood draining from my face and my peripheral vision filled with swirling black and white squares. Afghanistan - where presumably I was wanted for murder.

The shocks weren't over, however. Moments later one of the hijackers came stumbling down the aisle from the back of the plane. He staggered from side to side, nearly falling onto people's laps. The whites of his eyes were showing and he was babbling in a high pitched way. Two Indian nuns who heard him exchanged shocked glances and crossed themselves, clutching at their rosary beads.

The man stumbled to the ground by me just as one of his colleagues came up to restrain him. The frightened man looked straight into my eyes and said something in what I presume was Hindi or Urdu.

"What is it?" I said, curiosity overcoming my caution. My mouth was dry but I had to do something. "What's happened?"

The second man banged the headrest of my seat with the flat of his hand.

"Mind your own business," he said. "Face forward and keep quiet."

"They come," said the first man. He was clawing at his head.

"I'm Dr. Farringdon," I said, holding up my open passport and trying to keep a tremor from my voice. I'd finally been forced to exchange my lovely gold and black British passport for a ghastly wine-coloured European one, and I was still using my late husband's name and so I'd given my title as "Dr." to make up for it. "Maybe I can help."

"You are a medical doctor?" said the second man.

"Let's just say I'm a psychologist," I said.

To be brief, I helped them to the back of the plane. I was out of my seat and a few steps from at least two guns.

"What's the matter with him?" I said to the second hijacker and the frightened air hostesses.

"Heat stroke," said the second hijacker.

"He thinks he is being pursued by demons," blurted out one of the hostesses.

"Punishment ..." said the panicking man. He was slapped across the face.

"Tass," said the other hijacker. "Be quiet. Be quiet all of you. He is talking nonsense."

As if to contradict this, the lights in the plane began to flicker. We all staggered as it lurched in the air. I nearly had the opportunity to grab a weapon but I was caught off guard; my legs were wobbling too much.

The seat belt and "no smoking" signs pinged on. I've never understood that. Surely if you're just about to crash you'd need a swift fag.

"Ladies and gentlemen," said the pilot. "We seem to have hit a patch of bad weather."

The lights were off momentarily, and people screamed as a giant flash of lightning clapped next to the starboard wing of the 747. There was the sound of wind, audible even in the heavily insulated passenger cabin, and at the porthole next to me there was a rattle of hail. The sky outside was turning from a bright cloudscape into a Stygian, swirling night.

Middle Eastern men have a knack for melodrama. "They have found me," said the first hijacker. Then he started to howl.

*****


There was another flash of thunder and one of the port engines was hit. The plane felt as if someone was holding it in their hands - it was like a shaken baby. Everybody standing, including myself, were thrown to the floor. It had the sort of out of control motion that one feels in a major earth tremor. The last time I'd been shut inside somewhere with nowhere to run and the earth rocking under my feet had been in the tunnels of Atlantis.

I scrambled into a vacant chair and pulled the howling man next to me, managing to fasten both of our seat belts.

"Why are they after you," I yelled.

The 747 chose that moment to start to fall. Everything tied down began to float. The oxygen masks emerged from their alcoves but didn't fall, whilst the luggage racks burst open. I tried not to see the burning port engine out of the window.

"Listen, listen," he said, scrabbling at me like a drowning man.

"I'm listening."

"The temple at Wandhama."

I'd never heard of it. "What about it?"

"We wanted the Hindus to move from around Jamma. We ..." he began to weep. "Woman and children shot ... we burnt their temple ..."

I considered reminding him that there was only one Allah and that Mohammed was His Prophet, and that vengeful Hindu demons didn't really register on the Islamic radar, but I had the suspicion that he was having a crisis of faith.

"What should we do?" I shouted. "What can I do to help?" And suddenly I was back in my teens, shouting exactly the same words to my school mates from the finishing school. I could feel my old self enveloping me - a nice, generous young girl, about as much use as a tortoise without its shell. I held onto myself tightly, murmuring some internal mantra about how now was the time to behave like a grown up.

The plane ceased to fall, and a sharp-edged makeup valise cracked me across the forehead. It must have knocked some sense back into me, for I noticed that the frightened hijacker had fainted. I grabbed his gun before the others noticed.

I leapt out of my seat and forward-rolled down the length of the aisle, trying not to land on any of the passangers sprawled on the floor. I came face to face with the second hijacker at the back of the plane.

"Halt," he said, aiming his weapon at me.

"If you think this plane can stand bullets flying around the cabin," I said, aiming my gun at him, "go ahead and shoot."

There were some screams and he fired at me. So much for logic.

The bullet grazed my forehead - I guess I must have shifted slightly, like a batsman facing a fast bowler. My finger jerked reflexively on the trigger and he had a nice ragged hole in his forehead. The stewardess behind him was lucky - the bullet must have missed her, even if his brains didn't.

I was expecting a sudden drop in cabin air pressure, but there was none. Neither bullet had penetrated the cabin walls.

I didn't have time for reflection - I dashed over to the rear cabin window and peered out. I'm no expert on meterology, and so I couldn't tell if the storm looked normal or not. There was comparatively clear air around us, but a hundred yards away, in all directions, was a pulsing wall of dirty black cloud. The interior wall of this area flickered with St. Elmo's fire. I was reminded of the submarine in "Fantastic Voyage", sailing through a kitsch version of the human brain. I wondered if, like Raquel Welch, I was about to be attacked by giant leucocytes.

Joking aside, I could not shake the impression that we were in the belly of an enormous beast.

I decided that I had to get to the pilot's cabin. There were two more hijackers in business class, but I caught them by surprise and broke their necks one after the other. The remaining hijacker was in with the pilots, but I persuaded him to give himself up by stoving the back of his head in with my pistol butt. OK - I admit it sounds a bit brutal but I was frightened, and there were hundreds of innocent passengers to consider.

"Are we air-worthy?" I asked the pilot.

"Barely," he said. "Even less so in this weather."

"Can we make an airfield? How far is it to Kandahar?"

"I estimate a quarter of an hour, but I've lost half my engines and most of my fuel. If we continue to be thrown about the sky I could run out just trying to keep us in the air."

I sighed. My nerves were jangling and I couldn't think straight, but the "enormous beast" illusion was still with me.

"Continue to try and contact Kandahar air traffic control and keep us as low as possible," I said. "I have an idea."

As I made my way back to the rear of the plane, people were clapping and cheering. I was slapped on the back, and kissed. Somehow all the adulation made me feel even more beastly.

"What's your name?" I said, holding the gun on the remaining hijacker.

"Abu Jahl," he said. He had gone through his terror to a place of numbed calm.

"The demons who pursue you - they will kill us all."

"Yes."

"If they have you, then the rest of us will be spared."

"I cannot."

"You mentioned women and children," I said, after a moment. "At Wandhama."

"Twenty nine died," said Abu Jahl, in an expressionless voice. "Twenty nine Hindus."

"There are also women and children on this plane."

At the back of the plane, I glanced at one of the television screens. It said ten thousand feet and falling - too high to breathe, but maybe not too high to open the door without crashing the plane.

I picked up the phone, keeping my gun trained on Abu Jahl.

"Prepare for a cabin depressurisation," I said to the pilot. "Warn the passangers to strap in and use their oxygen masks."

Abu Jahl cried out, but almost immediately his strange calm returned. His face was still covered with sweat, but it was old sweat. Cold and oily.

"I thought I was an instrument of Allah," he said.

"I pity you," I said. "I've done a few things in my time, but I've never deluded myself that I had God's permission." I pushed an image of myself at the vanguard of Arthur's army from my mind.

He handed me his wallet. "Can you give this to the embassy? I want my wife and children to know what has happened."

I was going to ask him how a father and husband could have carried out such atrocities, but I didn't. "I promise," I said.

We held a long exchanged look. His eyes were very wide, as if he was seeing things that he had never seen for the first time. He smiled weakly.

"The word Islam - it means "peace," he said, pulling on the handles that opened the cabin door.

"Maybe they should rename the religion "Jihad", I said. "Born in war, living in war and now, dying in war."

"God is good."

"If man is in God's image," I said, "then I somewhat doubt it."

He wrenched the door open and there was a howling gale. I'd expected him to be sucked out like an astronaut, but he wasn't.

"Allah'u akbar," he said again, and holding his nose like a kid jumping into a pool, he allowed himself to fall out of the doorway into the sky.

I struggled to look out. He was whirled away and then upwards. It was hard to see, but I half imagined that shapes came from the clouds and dismembered him. As I say, it was hard to see.

I couldn't shut the door, so I dashed back to my seat and retrieved my backpack. The moment that we docked the customs would be on board, checking passports.

The storm was subsiding, and our height was dropping. The pilot announced that we had been cleared for landing. By the open door I could see lights far below us, and roads like giant arteries, pulsing with life. The smell of the hot earth came to me through the night sky. I saw the ground speeding below us, and the shadow of the 747 like a giant crow in the returning moonlight. Then we were over the runway, which looked hard and deadly and too far down. There was a jolt and screeching sound as the undercarriage touched down and a mighty roaring of the the jet engines. We had almost reached the end of the runway as we slowed to a walk.

I let myself down by my fingertips and then fell, hitting the ground with a parachutist's tuck. I rolled and rolled, winded and grazed.

Welcome to Kandahar, I thought.



5. ... women



Kandahar used to have two famous inhabitants; Mullah Omar, leader of the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden, American bete noire, who lived in a newly built mansion on the outskirts of town. Kandahar was one of the most conservative cities in Afghanistan, and it was the local Pashtunwali version of the Shari'a that has been enforced over most of the country. I stole a chador as quickly as possible - nothing would be more useful to me if I was to escape undetected.

I had a tremendous sense of deja vu, deja vu underlaid with panic. Yet again I had to find a clandestine exit from Afghanistan, but now I no longer felt like a bright young thing, biffing foreigners and stealing their treasure. I felt like a frightened old woman who's wandered out without her spectacles.

I had no Afghan money and no visa. I joined a crowd of women waiting by the bus stop and managed to be allowed onto a bus into the city. To what extent they covered for me I'm unsure to this day. All the way I was sweating and imagining that every eye was upon me. I suspect it's a miracle that I discovered the Crusade of Rescue offices without being stopped.

I ducked into the building and leant against the door, shutting out the outside. Suddenly I knew what it felt like to be agoraphobic. I sat on the stone stairs leading to the first floor, and lit a shaky cigarette. The combination of deep breaths, nicotine and darkness were like a mantra.

"Hello?" said a voice with an Indian accent. I jumped half out of my skin.

"Hello," I said. I ground the cigarette under my toe.

"The office is closed."

"May I come up?"

A turbaned head appeared from a door way. The speaker was a Sikh. "The office is closed," he repeated.

I decided to walk up the stairs anyway. Five minutes of conversation revolving around the theme "the office is closed" was better than going back out into the street.

"My name is Lara Croft," I said, holding out my hand. I guess I wasn't thinking too clearly - he could have been anyone..

The Sikh looked at my hand. "And my name is Mr. Singh," he said.

"I guessed," I said.

He chuckled and pulled the end of his beard. "You seem tired," he said. "Would you like a cup of chai?"

"I can't think of anything nicer, Mr. Singh," I said.

"Call me Tarmur," he said. "It will lead to less general confusion."

I stepped into the offices of the Crusade of Rescue and there, seated at a typewriter as if it was most natural thing in the world, was a person that I remembered.

"This is Mem Nooria Naderi," said Tarmur.

*****


Nooria and I, it seemed, were both travelling incognito. She had applied to the Afghanistan representatives in London for a visa under her maiden name and to her surprise they hadn't made any link to "Nooria Dubery".

"Where did you get that chador?" she said, after we had got over our initial discomfort and had said insincere things about being glad to see each other.

"I borrowed it," I said.

"A chador like that can cost three times the salary of a senior civil servant."

"Oh."

"Some poor professional woman, no doubt, who will now not be able to go out into the street without being punished by the Religious Police."

"I didn't know."

Nooria shook her head. "You'd be better off dressing in a Western way," she said. "Then you might not be mistaken for an Afghan woman."

So I told her about my rape and how I was probably wanted for murder.

Fortunately the tea was "tray tea" in which one can choose how much milk and sugar one adds oneself. I've never got used to the milky stuff they make in India.

"Cheers," said Tarmur, raising his glass.

Nooria and I both laughed despite ourselves

"So what brings you here?" I asked after a suitable peroid of silence.

"It's a strange story," said Nooria, smoothing her sleeves. "One of our reports was shown on the Oprah Winfrey chat show in America. The show set up an appeal for money for video cameras to be distributed amongst the members of R.A.W.A. here in Afghanistan, so that we could record the activities of the authorities."

"How odd," I said. "Why Afghanistan? You wouldn't have thought that the average American would know where it is."

"For some reason the Taliban have caught their imagination."

"What about Pakistan, and Saudi, and Iraq, and Iran, and all those other countries?"

"But remember - here in Afghanistan there's also Osama bin Laden. They hold him responsible for the bombing of an American warship called the Cole, and for a small explosion that he is said to have masterminded on one of the floors of the World Trade Centre. About seven years ago, I think."

"People are having fun blowing up Americans all over the planet," I said. "I don't really see why this particular bunch have attracted the attention of the great American public."

"Murder isn't fun," said Nooria, "even if it is Americans."

I could see that we'd have to agree to differ. "So you're here to arrange the distibution of these cameras?"

"And I have a problem. We were going to use this office as a way station in Kandahar, but the Christian missionaries that run it have all been arrested."

"They were preaching the Bible," said Tarmur. "This is against the law. Not even Sikhs are allowed to go around preaching willy-nilly."

"Sounds fair enough to me," I said.

Inevitably the conversation turned to the Taliban. I wondered if Afghans talked about the Taliban as much as we Brits talk about the weather. I wondered how long it would be before the word "Taliban" made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. Sooner than I realised, as it turned out.

"What people are not realising is that Afghanistan is a wild country," Tarmur was saying. "The Taliban are strong and they keep the peace. Before the Taliban I and my family were forced to leave for Quetta in Pakistan. We were afraid for our lives. Now it is safe for us to return to Kandahar. Many refugess have returned to Afghanistan since the Taliban took charge."

"That hardly excuses their treatment of women," said Nooria with an indulgant smile.

"Mem Nooria, I am only a Sikh. But it seems to be that women are the same in every Muslim country. It is no different in Pakistan, except perhaps for rich people who have been to University."

"I think that many educated Muslims find the Taliban embarrassing," said Nooria after a moment. "They are like backward country cousins who are giving Islam a bad name with their boorishness."

"It's a bit like as if a bunch of backwoodsmen from Texas seized control of the government in Washington," I observed, "and started banging on about flogging for graffiti writers, the televising of capital punishment, curfews for promiscous teenagers, the demonic influence of gangsta rap and the superior healing power of prayer. The President wouldn't be able to appear on T.V. without quoting from the Bible. Before long they'd be sending terrorists to nearby godless Communist countries in some sort of unofficial holy war, determined to unite the world under their interpretation of Christianity."

I had a vision in my mind's eye of the film "1984", but instead of the Two Minute Hate being used to scream abuse at the bearded face of Goldstein - Big Brother's arch enemy - the bearded face that the population of Air Strip One was encouraged to detest was that of an Islamic cleric.

"I cannot see this," said Tarmur. "America is the land of the free."

"At least the Taliban are not like Saddam Hussein," said Nooria. She sighed."They have not commited genocide. They have not invaded any neighbouring countries. They are not developing biological weapons."

We changed the subject.

"It's difficult to see how you are going to get out of the country. Not even the NGO planes will take you without an appropriate exit visa. You can hardly go to the Police Station and apply for another."

"Is there nowhere in town I can buy an entry visa for Pakistan?"

"There is a Pakistani embassy in Kandahar New Town. You may be able to get through the regulations with payment of an appropriate fine to one of the civil servants."

"Pakistan is only 200 kilometers away," said Tarmur. "In a fast car you could be at the border in two hours."

"She'd never make it past the checkpoints."

"Maybe if she was on foot."

"We have time to decide," said Nooria. "A Pakistani visa will take at least two days to process even after the payment of a surcharge."

"Can I stay here?"

"Oh no," said Tarmur. "If they find you with a single man, you will be arrested."

"You can come with me," said Nooria. "You might find it interesting."

*****


On the street we passed a number of women seated by the side of the road. Some of them, dressed in heavy burqas, resembled full bin bags left out for the dustmen. Some appeared to have fallen sideways and lay with their eye near to the earth, vacantly watching the ants or the feet of passers by.

"They have no husbands," said Nooria. "Maybe the husband is dead. They cannot work. They have to rely on the charity of others. I want you to keep a look out for me." She produced her video camera.

I glanced nervously up and down the street, my veil clamped tightly over my nose with my hand. I wished that I had my Uzis with me, although the state I was in I'd probably have shot any bearded man wearing a black turban.

One of the beggars had a small child with her. The child was very quiet and she looked at me without smiling. Her head was uncovered, revealing a mass of greasy, dusty curls. Flies were clustered near her mouth but she couldn't be bothered to brush them away. I tried to imagine myself in her position in her age, but it was impossible. It was as if I was looking at a foreign species, hardly human at all. Untermenschen.

Nooria was talking quietly to the woman and handing her some dollars. I was expecting the woman to smile, or something, but she just remained expressionless despite her murmured words of thanks. "Seeing-eye dog" collection boxes for the blind have more expression. Maybe she hated us for not being her.

"She was a surgeon," said Nooria, as we walked away. "She was sacked for saving a man's life. She's only supposed to operate on women."

I was surprised. "What - she went to University?"

"She was a professional."

A little further on a Datsun truck drove slowly past us. It was full of men. I kept my head down but suddenly there was a tremendous blow across my back. I cried out and fell.

Nooria was helping me to my feet. One of the men jumped down and started to whip her around the legs with a stick. I received another couple of truncheon blows across my back.

We said nothing, and eventually they drove away.

I sat down by the road, shaking with emotion. "What was that all about?"

"The chador that you stole is too short for you," said Nooria, putting a tentative hand on my shoulder.

I looked down. One inch of ankle was showing.

*****


We managed to bribe an official at the Pakistani Embassy. Nooria gave him what was - to him - a small fortune but to me wasn't enough to buy a decent top. It would be ready the day after tomorrow - enshallah - although the likelihood of God taking bak�i� for stamping passwords seemed rather slim.

There wasn't a lot to do in Nooria's friend's house. Football, chess and kite flying were banned, as was listening to music. Not that the local radio station played any.

By the next afternoon I was ready to escape. When they weren't looking I donned my chador and snuck out. It was like being a teenager breaking curfew all over again.

"And if anybody tries hitting me with anything again," I said to myself, "I'm fucking kicking their arses to the Khyber Pass and back."



6. ... the steps



About two miles west of Kandahar, high above the plains on a rocky outcrop is a cave carved out of the sheer mountain cliffs. Forty steps known as the Chihl Zina lead to this chamber which is - on the face of it - a shrine to the Mogul Emperor Babur. It was here that my instincts suggested that I looked for something out of the ordinary. The Shrines of the Cloak and of the Hair were not really the sort of place that one would wish to hide an object that might un-nerve the faithful. My problem was that spread around the foot of the Forty Steps was the Old City of Kandahar, destroyed by the Persians in the 18th century, and now a lethal minefield.

To make things worse, I was approaching as the sun as setting. Although I was veiled from head to foot, it wouldn't prevent me from being picked up for breaking a curfew, and the chador wasn't really an outfit in which one can be particularly gymnastic. I wandered along the deserted road as casually as I could manage and when I thought the coast was clear I clipped a hole through a mangy stretch of barbed wire and ducked into the ruins.

UXO, or unexploded ordnance, comes in all shapes and sizes. The places where one might typically find such a thing, according to the book, include "unused footpaths, tracks and short-cuts, alongside walls, especially those of damaged buildings, in the doorways and room corners of deserted houses, in low-lying or hidden areas of cover." If you've ever seen the ruins of an abandoned city, then you'll realise what the chances of stepping on some UXO are.

I decided that I was going to assume that there were no mines on top of large lumps of rock, like columns, for example. I gingerly hoisted myself up onto a wall and regarded the distance between myself and the Forty Steps as if it was a giant puzzle. The light was fading fast, but I could see possible routes. Some looked as if they might make it all the way, whilst others looked as if they came to a dead end - a gap too big to leap, a wall too narrow to walk along. I wished that I had a Polaroid camera with me - at least when I was in the middle of the maze, I'd have been able to use the view from the edge. I was going to have to rely on memory.

The sand flies and the mosquitoes were beginning to home in on me, and so I decided to move. I took a step backwards on the wall and, hitching up my robes, did a running jump. The wall I landed on was covered with loose pebbles which made me skid. I fell onto my back, but managed to push myself up so that I was sitting astride the brickwork. There was a pattering from the bushes to one side as a rain of dislodged debris hit it. I held my breath for an explosion, but there was none.

"Easy girl," I said to myself. "Dangerous gymnastics in a booby-trapped environment - busman's holiday."

One of the "telltale signs" of a minefield, according to the UNOCHA Mine Clearance Programme, is "skeletons and dead animals". I dutifully examined the area around my next target, a virtually vertical marble column. No fur-lined splat marks, as far as I could see.

I stood on my wall and tried to work out how to land on the top on a column. Should I land feet first? Should I attempt a dive ending in a hand stand? Should I just jump wildly and land on my stomach?

In the end I attempted the hand stand and ended up with the belly flop. My stomach muscles are hard, but they're not as hard as stone. I lay there with the wind knocked out of me, like a fish on a spear. I was just beginning to get my breath back when the column creaked and toppled over. I was flung onto the ground, rolling a few feet.

For a while I lay quite still, listening, and resisting the temptation to straighten my limbs. I was lying in a patch of deep shadow - the sun was almost at the horizon. I realised that I was going to have to take a risk, and so I switched on my Maglite torch.

I was lying partly on one side. I played the light beam up and down my body, looking for anything that seemed suspicious. I'm pretty limber, but there was an area behind my shoulder blades that I couldn't see however much I craned my neck. I gave my boots one more check and caught a glint. It was a thin metal wire, strung a couple of inches above the ground and almost rusted away. If I'd rolled one more roll I'd have hit it.

I carefully drew my legs in until I was in a crouch, standing in an area twelve inches by twelve that I was sure was safe. Turning slowly I looked at the blind spot that had been behind my back. Lying half hidden was what looked like a plastic toy, something you'd find in a Lego kit. It resembled a winged lipstick, or a green, stylised bird. I recognised it as a Soviet-made butterfly mine, dropped from a helicopter. Nicknamed "Green Parrots", the plastic makes them hard to spot with a metal detector. Many children around the world have spotted Green Parrots, or their Western equivalents. It's usually the last toy they ever play with. I'm no soldier, and I have little idea about concepts of honour or chivalry, but even I find it hard to spot the glory amongst all those young corpses. But what do I know?

I made my way to the place that I had originally been aiming for, using the torch. I pulled myself up very tactfully, away from the ground.

I could see I was nearly there when I jumped onto a rock and there was an explosion. So much for my theory about stepping stones. The rock lifted vertically under my feet, and pieces of stone shrapnel flew all around me. I fell awkwardly into the small crater left by the mine and then, panicking, scrambled to the foot of the Forty Steps.

I was unscathed, as far as I could tell. It was little short of a miracle. However, I'd advertised my presence very effectively. I decided I'd worry about getting out of there later. I started up the Steps in the darkness, trying not to think about more trip wires.

*****


"I wish that I could tell precisely what you might look for and where to look," Nooria's letter had said. "My husband used to hint at some object that would be of significance, but he never confided in me directly and his notebook contains nothing more than scraps and hints that seem to be written more as an aide de memoire than a guide to an outsider. I cannot tell if he actually found something and left it hidden, or if he knew where to look, but had never had the opportunity to return to Afghanistan."

She had made the case for searching the Shrines of the Hair and the Cloak - "maybe it is possible that the Emir of Bukhara gave the Shah more than just the two relics" - but I was damned if I was going to raid some of the most sacred sites of Islam in the town where the Taliban had its central government.

"Another place - maybe not so promising - is the Zor Shah, the ancient capital of Afghanistan. The monument to Babur at the top of the Chihl Zina may provide a clue. Timurid miniatures are amongst the finest examples of Islamic figurative art, and therefore perhaps Babur would not have been unsympathetic to iconography. However I myself have examined the remains of Babur's tomb in Kabul and there is nothing left of significance to our quest."

At the top of the Steps was the cave, its entrance flanked by two stone Sassanian lions. The lions were cute - chunky and fierce in a kittenish sort of way, with their mouths open in a silent roar. I entered the cave gingerly, to find that it was hardly a cave at all. There was an Arabic inscription and that was it. I sat down and scanned through the letter again.

"With respect to the Chihl Zina, my husband only makes one direct reference. He has quoted the inscription to Babur that is found inside the chamber, and then next to that he has written 'Vulg Heb 11:33-4, obturaverunt ora leonum extinxerunt impetum ignis effugerunt aciem gladii'."

I translated this gnomic quotation as "He stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword." What on earth a quote from the Latin version of the Bible had to do with anything I wasn't sure. Maybe a Christian agent in a Muslim land would use it as a sort of code book - I'd guess that if one said to a fellow operative "Hebrews eleven thirty three four", it would be as opaque to your average Afghan as a transmission using the Enigma machine. I had no idea where Professor Dubery had unearthed that particular quotation, but the mention of "lions" cheered me up considerably.

I went outside and looked at the statues again. I tried sticking my finger in their mouths, but it didn't tell me much. Then, for some reason, I sniffed at then. There was a smell. At first I thought it was the sort of smell that one associates with old earth and rock, but then I remembered where I had smelt it before. Bunsen burners at school. It was some sort of marsh gas or methane.

I fished out my Zippo and tried lighting the gas. Each time there was a brief purple flame which disappeared very slowly down into the throats of the statues, like a gently falling leaf. There was no more heat than that from a lit Christmas pudding.

After a while I got tired of this party trick and went back inside the cave. The cave had been carved out of the rock and the inscription had been carved out of the rock and there were no seams, doorways, cracks, trapdoors or secret levers in the form of hinged torch brackets. It was a very very boring cave indeed.

"I've traipsed my way across some of the most dangerous territory in the world for this," I said to the rock. There wasn't even an interesting echo.

The quote, which was looking increasing irrelevant, said "He stopped the mouths of lions." I made a mud and pebble patty using water from my bottle, and bunged up the mouth of one of the lion statues. When I went to bung up the second statue, I could hear something. I put my ear to the mouth and I could hear air moving. I moistened my finger and held it in the air stream - air was being sucked into the statue.

I considered this phenomenon. I knew from long experience that rushing blindly into situations wasn't always the best way.

Presumably the lighted marsh gas used up oxygen, I thought. I had an image of a stone pipe filled with marsh water, and above the surface, burning marsh gas. If I interrupted the air flow to the flames, a temporary vacuum would result. Maybe the water would rise in the pipe a tiny amount, I thought. Maybe that would cause something else to happen - some there was some sort of hydraulic switch.

"Might as well give it a go," I said. I stopped up the second mouth.

I went back inside the cave, but nothing was happening there. I got out my night binoculars and started scanning the cliffs on each side of the Forty Steps. Then I saw another cave mouth some distance away, with the flickering of flames inside it. It hadn't been there when I'd climbed up.

*****


There were no convenient steps carved up to the second cave. I had to shed my robes, and to tie my boots around my neck by their shoe laces. One of the things I'd always done, when I was a little girl on holiday in Ireland, was "bouldering" in bare feet. "If you have tough enough soles," I'd been wont to say back in the 80s, "and you don't mind losing the odd toenail, you don't need EBs." The Afghan cliff had the advantage that it wasn't dripping wet, but it was as cold as an ice face. I knew I'd have to keep moving. Climbing a face that was E6 in most places, in the dark and without a safety rope or karabiners was quite entertaining. I'd done Mont Blanc and El Capitan, but this was more ethnic. At least if I fell off I'd probably land on a mine.

Inside the second cave was a circular basin of water whose surface was dancing with brandy snap flames. Above the flames was a giant metal vase, and from it was coming a loud hissing - steam. There was one other thing - a small stone door, shut. I tired pushing at it, but it was housed in vertical runners. I tried dragging it downwards and provoked a cloud of scalding steam from around the door frame, but I couldn't budge it.

"More haste, less speed," I said.

The next line of the Bible quotation was, of course, "he quenched the violence of fire." There was even a hinged stone lid for the fire basin. I pulled it across the surface of the water and the fire was snuffed out.

After about five minutes, the giant metal vase began to cool and the sound of hissing disappeared. The stone door way began to drop as the steam pressure that had been holding it shut diminished.

What sort of a mind designs a safe that is always open, I wondered? If I'd climbed up here first of all, I'd have been able to walk straight in. But then, maybe the cave was invisible without the fire. It was a complicated way of thinking - security based on a double bluff. Typical of an undercover agent. Typical of Byzantium.

I stepped through the doorway and then I realised how impenetrable the place really was. Before me there was a deep crevasse in the rock, falling down to a stream far below. I shone my torch downwards and made out, on the banks of the stream, many stone stalagmites, their tips capped by bronze spikes. One slip and it was girl shish kebab.

I scanned around, looking for some sort of bridge to the other side and something glinted in the torch light. It was what looked like the blade of a scimitar, sharp edge upwards, over thirty feet long. The base and the tip were embedded in bosses protruding from the crevasse walls. It was the most stupendous piece of medieval engineering I'd ever seen. So many claims are made for the British Industrial Revolution, and how it was the first era to discover how to make giant pieces of metal, and how to harness the power of steam. This place illustrated very well that, in fact, the human race had forgotten more than it knew. Whoever had built it - maybe a consortium of Byzantine and Arabic engineers - their skill easily rivalled that of Isembard Kingdom Brunel.

*****


Even the most skilled tightrope walker would have been unable to walk across the edge of that blade and the distance was too far to jump. I looked upwards for a convenient place to lodge a grappling hook and a rope, but there was nothing. I reached down to touch the edge of the blade, wondering if I could slide across it like a zip line, spanning the edge with a metal chain held in both hands. However the blade, being the curved blade of a scimitar, rose in the central of the span. Not even I could slide uphill.

"He escaped the edge of the sword," said the quote, but that wasn't at all helpful. The problem was obvious, the solution occult.

Lying on my stomach, I examined the circular boss that the hilt of the giant blade was embedded in. It too was made of metal and covered in a thin layer of grease. I lifted some of the grease to my nose - it smelt fishy. Lord knows how the grease had managed to survive the centuries without evaporating. Maybe the darkness and dampness of the cave had preserved it. However the point was - where there was grease, there were moving parts. If the boss was designed to move in some way, then so too was the scimitar bridge. All I had to do was deduce the mechanism.

I won't bore you. To cut a long story short, I went back out into the cave and relit the fire in the basin. The steam-driven door sealed itself behind me, and the scimitar bridge revolved through ninety degrees, converting itself from a thin edge to a broad blade that I could walk across. The way forward was clear, the way back was sealed.

*****


There was what had once been a treasury. A large studded door lay on the floor, ripped from its hinges. This was fortunate for me, as I didn't have the key. Inside the room were shelves, all empty. In the middle of the floor was a skeleton with the square punctate mark of a mace wound punched through the dome of its skull. Whether the dead man had been a robber or a guard I couldn't say. Scattered around were many wooden trunks. They were marked with Arabic symbols. I wish that I'd made a note of them, or could remember what they looked like. It would be interesting to know whose wealth had been stored there. Maybe the wages of an Islamic army of jihad, or the savings of a merchant fled from Mecca - I, with my cynical eye, could speculate endlessly. Maybe you should go back there yourself and discover the truth.

I searched through eight trunks and in the eighth I found a package. It had obviously been hidden in the treasury long after the treasury had been looted, by person or persons unknown. The package was made of leather and tied with string. I opened it up and there in my hands was a wooden Byzantine painting.

The icon showed two figures, both haloed. One was tonsured and standing, and seemed to be delivering some kind of sermon. The second wore a turban and had a black beard. He was listening to the first figure.The icon had the caption from the scrap of manuscript that I had found five years earlier.

I really don't know to this day is the icon was a fake or an early piece of Christian propaganda, but the implication was clear. The Nestorian cleric Sergius had travelled from Byzantine territory into Arabia, and had given Mohammed the Christian instruction that the illiterate Mohammed had later regurgitated as the sayings that became the Koran. Even the dislike of figurative art that the Iconoclastic monk - immortalised in Islamic hagiography as Bahira - had brought with him, was reproduced in the teachings of the new religious leader. The implication was that Sergius hadn't recognised the inherent holiness of Mohammed, as is written in the Koran - he'd created Mohammed as a rebel leader, part of the Byzantine version of the Great Game. In the following years the remains of the Persian empire, ancient enemy of Byzantium, had fallen to the armies of the new religion Sergius had unwittingly created - mission accomplished. It was a pity that in a later era the Islamic warriors had turned - Frankenstein like - on their creator. Fight an imperial war by proxy and before you know it, it turns around and bites you in the ass as the Americans might say, and they should know.

No wonder they'd hidden the icon in the deepest darkest cave they could find. It was blasphemous. I wondered what had stopped them from destroying it completely. Maybe they're weren't sure. After all - if there was any chance that it was real, they'd have been destroying a genuine icon of the Prophet. It was too hot to handle. It had been locked away for a time when Islam felt less insecure about itself..

I had solved my mystery and now all I wanted to do was to get out of Afghanistan as rapidly as possible. I waited and watched at the mouth of the caverns. Eventually either the marsh gas ran out, or the mud that I had used to block the mouths of the lions gave way. The stone door reopened and I left, the icon in my backpack.



7 ... the made plain



Sometimes one does things in life and looking back one can't understand it, despite many hours thought. Why did I pick that fight? Why didn't I say something? Why did I decide to turn left instead of right? Why did I deliberately do nothing? To this day I don't know why I didn't tell Nooria about the icon. I was always just about to do it, but some sort of inertia or reluctance deep in my mind prevented me. I find myself fingering the icon in my backpack, with it lying half exposed through the top flap. If she saw it, then fine - I'd tell her. If she didn't - I wouldn't. It was all down to fate. She'd put me on the track to finding it but I felt that it was mine and mine alone, at least for a while.

She'd decided to come with me to Quetta, with Tarmur to show us the way. She said she wanted to video the refugees and get the film to a safe place. We spent the first day walking, and the next squeezed into a van that took us past more dead fields, dying animals, dying villages. Southern Afghanistan is a desert with nothingness piled upon nothingness.

Finally we topped a rise that Tarmur told us overlooked the border post - nearly there, I thought.

Some men were standing looking ahead - hollow men covered in dust and dressed in torn clothes and wool caps. They were farmers and they had been travelling from farms killed by the drought. First they'd run out of money and then they'd run out of food.

A moment later we reached them and we could see what had stopped them on the rise. Ahead was a solid metal gate blocking most of the roadway. There were hundreds of people just like our farmers - without proper documents, without money for bribes, without any possessions other than their filthy clothes - who were surging toward the small opening, trying to push their way through.

Tarmur was dumb-struck. "Where did all these people come from?"

I took my binoculars from my back pack. I could see Pakistani border guards who are waiting with wooden sticks; they had instructions not to let undocumented refugees through. I couldn't hear the sound of people being hit, but I could see them flinching or running back into the melee.

Nooria was wondering whether she could film. "Last year," she said, "one hundred and fifty people - most of them children and women - froze to death after having arrived in the refugee camp just over the border there."

"That's ridiculous," I said.

"In some villages, you come across children - I'm sorry to use this word - but they're acting like animals. They want food. That's it. That's all their life is. The search for food."

Apparently there were about fourteen thousand families settled in the vicinity of Kandahar and living in Neanderthal conditions. Their tents were scraps of cloth supported by dead willow branches. There was no drinkable water, and no medical help. There was no food and no latrines. In the winter they died faster. People watch Schindler's List and weep, but a few thousand miles away from the cinema there are people who are no better off than the prisoners of Auschwitz, and they are dying right now.

Nooria pointed out an encampment to me. I hadn't realised it was an encampment - I'd mistaken it for a refuge tip. She took me from tent to tent.

"I used to beg," said one woman. She was a widow with eight children. She started to cry. "Now I can't even beg."

"I feel cold, all the time," said the woman in the next tent. She'd come here two months ago, and given birth to twins. She was feeding them spoonfuls of dirty water because she is too weak to produce milk. One infant was wrapped in a green cloth, the other in brown. "I haven't named them yet," she said.

In the third tent was a man who thought that he was going to die. "Can't you see?" he said, showing how thin he was. "Isn't the hunger killing me?" His wife, who was both deaf and mute, looked at us with a stunned expression. The man showed us what he owned in the world - some blankets and a pot. "I want to leave this place," he said. "How do I go from here?"

I reflected that he'd better not try coming to Britain, even if he could raise the air fare. When we repatriated him he'd end up in debt to some local mafia and back where he started. At least now he was able to quietly die in peace.

"It seemed ironic that the best we can offer these people is weapons and warfare," I remarked to Nooria as we were walking away from the camp. "A drink of clean water would be so much more useful. I've faced the undead, and various mythological monsters, but I've never had to look after a child dying from dysentery."

"Some people would claim that all this suffering is God's will," she said, after a moment. "The sad thing is that it's not God's will, but man's."

*****


We passed the time. We deduced that the gate below closed at about five, and were hoping that the crowds of document-less people would disperse with the sunset. Then we'd go down with our passports and our valid Pakistani visas and our American dollars and cross the border.

Tarmur told us a story about a Soviet helicopter that had been found on the dried up bed of a lake, the crew's skeletons still manning the weapons that they had been attacking the population with fifteen years earlier.

"At least soon when the Taliban defeat General Dostum," he said, "we will finally have peace in Afghanistan. No more Russians, no more British and no more Americans. No offence meant to you, Mem Lara."

"Don't you worry about it," I said. "The Russians, the Americans and the British aren't great friends of mine either." There was a set of customs and military buildings below us and my attention was drawn by what looked like the blink of binoculars. Nooria, who was standing silhouetted against the skyline, was peering the that direction with her hand shielding her eyes.

"Is somebody watching us?" I asked.

"Yes," said Nooria. "They watch everybody."

"How are we going to avoid being searched when we get there?"

"Repack your bag so that your underwear is on the top, followed by your clothing," said Nooria. "Since we have a valid exit visa and cash, we should be lucky. The Taliban border guards don't like searching through female knickers."

"What about your camera?"

"They'd have to body search me, and I don't think that they will."

It all sounded a bit hit or miss to me, but I surreptitiously rearranged my backpack so that the icon was lying flat on the bottom. Again I was tempted to tell Nooria but I decided she'd be safer not knowing in the event it was found.

Then I saw a Datsun two-door pickup drive around from behind the buildings and start up the hill towards us, spewing up dust.

"They're coming," I said.

"We have to face them sometime," said Nooria. "It's better not to behave in a guilty way."

The vehicle drew up beside us. There were three young men with Kalashikovs. We were taken into custody.

*****


Nooria and I were shown into the presence of a grizzled Taliban commander. His face was scarred and he had a patch over one eye. His hair was prematurely greyed and one of his legs had been replaced by a wooden peg leg. He was a shoe in for Long John Silver.

"It is good to see you again Lara," he said.

I looked at him closely and then I realised that it was Mohammed Basmachi. My shock must have shown on my face; the last time that I'd seen him he'd been a beautiful young man.

Basmachi chuckled and indicated chairs. "Time has been kinder to you than it has been to me," he said. "May I offer you some tea?"

"Am I under arrest?" I said.

"Of course not, old girl," said a voice behind me. My heart leapt. I knew where I'd heard that voice before. After a frenzied racking of my brains, I remembered the person that had saved me five years earlier in the cellar of Kabul Museum. I turned around and there was the Permanent Under Secretary at the Foreign Office. He was dressed in a natty tropical suit and was warming his hands at a brazier in the corner of the room.

"You!" I said. I laughed with great weariness. "All these years and I never recognised the voice."

"It's sometimes difficult to recognise someone out of context," he said.

I didn't say anything for a while. "How did you know I was here?"

"I saw the passenger manifest from the highjacked aircraft. It's part of my brief to keep an eye on your movements. If it wasn't for our close history, I wouldn't have made the link between a 'Lara Farringdon' and yourself. Contacted our people here and got them to delay you waiting for a visa you didn't need. Barely made it here on time myself as a matter of fact."

*****


And so Nooria, Basmachi, the Permanent Under Secretary and I sat in a dusty office on the edge of the Pakistani Wild West and drank mint tea.

"If I can explain a little," said the Permanent Under Secretary. Basmachi nodded. "I represent the British Government, of course, whilst Nooria here represents the American Security Services."

"What?" I said.

"I was recruited whilst I was at University," said Nooria. "I've known these two for years - I knew them when I sought you out at that conference in 1996."

"I had no idea."

"I'm pleased to hear it."

"Nooria and I first met at a madrassa in Pakistan," said Basmachi. "I was a young theology student. She offered us guns and money to establish a strong government here in Afghanistan."

"All this civil war was bad for business," said the Permanent Under Secretary. "We wanted to build an oil pipeline from Turkmenistan to Pakistan, and the Taliban initially agreed."

"However they also had Osama bin Laden to contend with," said Basmachi. "A powerful friend of Mullah Omar."

"Bin Laden is a Saudi and he wanted Saudi law to be applied here in Afghanistan," said Nooria. "He was opposed to any cooperation with the West."

The Permanent Under Secretary leaned forward conspiratorially. "Incidentally, all of the law that is carried out here in Afghanistan and which has so annoyed the Western media is already in force in Saudi Arabia - public executions, the lot," he said. "Ironic, really. With no oil, Afghanistan can't buy the right to run an oppressive regime in peace."

"I'd better not meet you in a dark alley in London any day soon," I said.

"I'd like to say," said Nooria, looking at the Permanent Under Secretary with a flash of anger, "that part of my ... fee ... for working with these people is to be allowed to champion the rights of Islamic women. I am opposed to any attempts to establish a Saudi-style regime here in Afghanistan."

I gave her a look of contempt and she blushed.

"And the moderate members of the Taliban support you," said Basmachi, in a conciliatory voice.

"Quite," said the Permanent Under Secretary. "At any rate, we all struck a deal. In exchange for holding bin Laden under virtual house arrest we promised to help the Afghans to find a legendary and dangerous object that has been a well kept secret amongst the local Pashtun population for centuries."

I started to laugh again, even more bitterly. How many times had I found myself in this position before, I wondered? Led down the garden path and sold a patsy.

"Does she have it?" asked Basmachi.

"She does," said Nooria.She avoided my eyes.

"I told you that she'd find it eventually," said the Permanent Under Secretary. "She's an expert truffle hound."

He and Basmachi looked at me like kids promised a birthday treat.

*****


Part of my "fee" - as Nooria so daintily put it - was to be allowed to return to England without being tried for murder. Basmachi told me that he approved of the way that I had killed my rapist. I wasn't sure that I felt good about his support.

They burned the icon on the brazier in Basmachi's office. Nooria looked sad, Basmachi looked relieved and the Permanent Under Secretary looked at his watch.

Then, a few weeks after I'd returned to England, pictures of the icon began to crop up on the Internet. Nooria had taken it from my backpack and videoed it. She'd obviously decided to retire from the Security Services, but soon afterwards she died of a brain haemorrhage. The icon became famous as the "Dubery Fake", and eminent scholars deduced from the grainy pictures that it was a piece of thirteenth century Christian propaganda. I tried to join the debate, describing where I'd found it and why I thought it was real. Soon afterwards the police searched the Croft Mansion with a warrant, and - amongst other things - the papers supporting my case disappeared.

Nevertheless - thanks to Nooria and myself - the deal between the Permanent Under Secretary and Basmachi must have been rendered null and void. The pipeline wasn't built, and bin Laden wasn't sidelined.

*****


It was a strange and changeable autumn. Since the burning of my cows and sheep during the Foot and Mouth epidemic, the fields around Croft Mansion were empty and rubbish strewn. It felt as if one age was passing away and a new one beginning, a bright new 21st century age, filled equally with promise and terror.

I pottered around the kitchen. There was a thin layer of dust on some of the pots and pans. I'd always been able to see my face in one particular copper saucepan, but now it was dull and tarnished.

I ferreted around in the cupboard for a mug, and found Winston's, with its faded Union Jack. I couldn't really work the range and had bought myself a kettle, a microwave and a toaster from the local superstore. I made myself beans on toast and some strong tea, and took it upstairs on a tray.

The house was so quiet that I could hear the ticking of the clock on my bedside table from the other side of the house. I put the television on, and started to eat.

There was a disaster film on the BBC, shot in a sort of documentary verite style. A passenger plane was about to crash into the World Trade Centre, which was on fire. The shadow of the giant wings brushed across the upturned face of innocent Liberty. By the end of the movie she would have been turned into a goddess of vengeance, no doubt.

"I've seen that movie before," I said, and switched it off.

The wind creaked the beams in the attic, and twigs battered against the fading window panes.

There was a storm on the way.





The End





Author's note: To write this story, I plundered an article in the Washington Post called "Invisible Journeys" by David Finkel, and two books - "Taliban" by Ahmed Rashid and "Afghanistan", edited by Edward Girardet and Jonathan Winter. All were written before September 11th 2001, and I myself had just started writing chapter five of this story when I heard about the World Trade Center attack. Therefore whilst the last chapters were written with the benefit of hindsight, the early chapters were not.

NOTICE: This story is a work of fiction. Lara Croft, her likeness, and the Tomb Raider games are all Tm of Core Design and EIDOS Interactive. There is no challenge to these copyrights intended by this story, as it is a non-sanctioned, unofficial work of my own.