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Titles are but nick-names, and every nick-name is a title.

Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, 1791


Blackie and Whitey hung around Kabul in the days of the weasel king. They added immeasurably to the gaiety of nations, not least because of their outfits. Blackie had a black corduroy safari jacket, with belt and large patch pockets, that he wore with matching cord Levi's and a charcoal T-shirt, while his mate had a tropical suit that, from a distance, in the late afternoon with the sun behind him, looked rather like one of Tom Wolfe's cast-offs. Even the French freaks dug the gear; for a pair of Limeys, they were striking.

Everyone knew them by sight and nobody knew who they were. This they obviously encouraged: It only helped their collective reputation as minor masters of the mind-fuck, not to mention being a sound precautionary measure for a pair of sub-rosa entrepreneurs. No one was too clear how they kept themselves afloat (natch) but it was generally accepted that if you needed a little crank of a morning, Whitey was a major dude, while those who wanted to mellow out on the sticky Afghani hash with little flecks of opium blended through it would be well advised to have a quiet word with Blackie. Acid, Mandrax, mushrooms, 'ludes, bombers and other such commodities were a mutual endeavor and subject to availability but the staples were always in stock and under a continuing, rigorous program of quality control.

Advertising was not an important part of their operation, although if they had to file tax returns they would presumably have been able to write off a significant proportion of their personal consumption as a business expense (the free samples alone would have sent shudders down the controller's spine). Not for them the corner-of-the-mouth 'Hey mister' come-on or the deniably sibilant 'Hasssheeesh?' They just lounged around the courtyard with Rizla papers and Samsun tobacco and passed the time with anyone who felt like stopping by. If the subject came up, which was not unknown under the circumstances, well, yes, they could help you out. Price was not a big deal – shit was so cheap that negotiations were on the basis of say-a-buck for yay-much – and everyone was happy. It's a rare privilege to find yourself doing so well by doing so good.

This activity cannot have passed unnoticed. Indeed, nothing whatsoever in Kabul passed unnoticed, which seemed to be an unstated keystone of their local marketing plan. Back in those halcyon days of the late sixties, the most remarkable things were available in the bazaar, at competitive prices dictated only by the invisible hand of classical capitalist theory, not forgetting the quantifiable transportation and risk factors. Every currency in the world was available, at exchange rates that bore little relation to the fantasies of the War Game Journal. Disque Bleu cigarettes cost less than they did even in Paris, where the government took its cut as profits rather than taxes. You could find Pentax cameras and pre-war Lee Enfield rifles, traditional carpets and workmanlike scimitars, elaborately embroidered waistcoats in vibrant colors with tiny mirrors sewn into them and (it was widely rumored, having been on the front page of the London Daily Excess) eighteen-year-old hippie chicks who'd been kidnapped and sold into white slavery for a taste of the awful potions of the orient.

The tales of women (and men!) who had suffered fates worse than death (and worse, death!) were the nub of the local tourist-based distribution opportunity for organic and/or manufactured relaxants and stimulants. Let's face it, the bazaar was exotic and fascinating but it was also, if you had a brain in your head, scary. Freaks who stuck around got used to it, or at least learned how to cope, but the smart ones never forgot just how weird it really was.

The simple code of the Afghan male was: Don't fuck with me. Since this was assumed to be reciprocal, a mutual understanding between men was not hard to maintain. Step out of line, though – just give a hint of something that could be construed as disrespectful – and the polite if taciturn offers of tea and a puff at the hookah disappeared fast. Even in the big city, where not everyone carried a gun at all times, a knife was as much a part of the costume as the flat Afghani turban, and it was large and sharp and expertly handled.

Western women had to have a lot of nerve to wander around on their own. Being chattels, they were fairly safe with their putative husbands (male pride was assumed to extend to protecting the wife and even if these European kids were as feeble as they looked, who knew what they were packing) and more or less fair game without them (male pride also extended to the challenge of conquest, although shameless infidels were presumably easy pickings). In this, Afghanistan was more direct and arguably more honest than Britain, but not so fundamentally different. It was a man's man's man's world, in the hippie subculture as in the dominant paradigm, and the good-looking old lady, epitomized by Marianne Faithfull [sic], was as much of a trophy as the businessman's Barbie, and often as fucked over, fucked up and generally ignored (except for fucking and even then).

If a woman had the temerity not to buy into the game, to show a quiet pride and hide fear, she stood a chance of establishing herself in a special category – Amazon, perhaps – that opened interesting possibilities, but it was a hard row to hoe in London, and potentially deadly in Kabul. Most split for India pretty quick. To get there, you admittedly had to get through Pakistan, where the hassles were at least as numerous if less lethal; in the considered opinion of one experienced woman traveler, "Lahore is the armpit of the world." Once you made it through, however, you found that Hindu women's lives were vastly more accessible. The Muslim women of Afghanistan were practically invisible to the outsider, the chadoor an impenetrable black hole within which personality disappeared.

The frisson of danger that never quite left the visitor's awareness was attractive – controlled fear can even be a turn-on, as more than one woman silently stretching a relationship to get her through the rest of the Muslim countries could attest – and added immensely to the entertainment value of Kabul as a tourist destination, but it was a tedious accompaniment to routine transactions like scoring. Besides, good authority (the U.S. embassy) had it that drugs were illegal and even though better authority (the street) was certain that the weasel king was personally in charge of the hashish industry, not to mention the odd numbered bank account in Zurich, absolutely nobody wanted to get busted.

Enter Blackie and Whitey, your friendly middlemen. They were as safe and simple to deal with as the neighborhood Tupperware hostess, and much lower-pressure salespeople. Hell, they gave away as much as they collected for and the thoroughness of their testing procedures ensured a well-satisfied clientele. In fact, their customers were generally so completely zonked that they never noticed the essential illogic of this charitable activity disguised as a commercial venture. Not that they had anything to complain about, and the few economics majors and budding capitalists who started to apply practical dentistry to the gift horse in front of them soon concluded that they were just too stoned to understand and why on earth not.

After all, the operation evidently ran on the interesting principle, 'Stay high, sell low'.