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Qu'ils mangent de la brioche.

Let them eat cake.

attributed to Marie Antoinette, ca 1789, but Rousseau in 1750 called a similar remark well-known; another has been attributed to Marie-Thérèse, ca 1670


Kabul was not a disappointment when Blackie and Whitey arrived, it was simply a relief. Enough was enough of those goddamned buses for a while. They drifted without much conscious attention onto Chicken Street for the traveler's conveniences. Who knows what the place was called in Pushtu? Presumably it had a name, which may even have been written down (backwards) but practically no western freaks read the script and many of their hosts couldn't read at all, and over the years the English name for the low-rent tourist center came to prevail, as it did in Kathmandu, where Freak Street and Pig Alley remained on the official, G.I. city maps into the '90s, long after the freaks, but not the pigs, had vanished.

The first hotel they picked, by the scientific method of applied randomness or uncontrolled experimentation, was adequate but unexciting. It supplied beds, locks, running (or at least jogging) water, intermittent electricity and a sun-baked roof for doing the laundry, and they used the facilities for a couple of days as they took their bearings. It didn't really cater to the resident trade, however, and as they looked around they began to wonder if there might be a better choice.

Kabul is at its best in the fall, when the summer sun has not yet given way to the snow drifts of winter. The air is thin and clear, and any discomfort from the noonday heat is soon salved by the cool of the evening. The biggest factor in the climate is the altitude, which regularly used to be a matter of discussion. Straight Europeans asserted that it was over 2000 meters, while old-fashioned Anglophones insisted that it was really some 6500 feet; the modern element, bolstering their opinion with the observation that it took more time to cook food and less time to get wasted, just said it was high. The indigenous population took a properly detached view of these absurd controversies. Kabul was, of course, normal and anyone who failed to appreciate this was more to be pitied than censured. Besides, it was rude to argue with guests, no matter how misguided. If they dishonored your family, you might knife them; short of that, they should at least be tolerated.

The first day Blackie and Whitey hit town was spent in the inevitable haze of recovery, discovery, smoke, sleep and general acclimatization. The next was spent on laundry, in addition to all of the above, and the middle of it largely on the roof. Sun-tans were not de rigueur or even normal in underground culture; they were barely acceptable, being too closely associated with the dreaded Costa-del-Sol-for-an-all-in-paella-and-chips-fortnight mentality that one so despised if one wanted either less or more. Still, midnight white was hard to maintain in the tropics – Afghanistan is, in point of mere geographical accuracy, well north of the Tropic of Cancer, but the tropics are a loose concept in the imperialist dictionary and tend to encompass all the areas that the White Man wanted to take on as a Burden – and the safest way to ensure that the clothes weren't ripped off was to watch them as they dried. This also made it easier to do all the laundry at once.

"Where's the one-hour dry cleaner?" asked Whitey.

He looked fetching, lying around in the suit and nothing else, but the garment was gathering that distinct patina of experience.

"We'll find one," grinned his mate, clad only in a towel of dubious color. "What I need is a third T-shirt."

"Find a tailor."

"Yeah. Reckon I will. Mind you, this stuff's practically dry already."


"Dry too. This sun's fucking intense, man."

"What camel jockeys do."

"What? Oh, I get it. Fucking in tents. That's awful. That's not like you, I thought I was safe with you. Jesus Christ. Must be the altitude."

"Gotcha," muttered Whitey with a half-smile and gathered up the materials for the inevitable.

"It's the heat. Gone to his head," explained Blackie to the clothesline. "Mad dogs and fucking Englishmen. And you're not even fucking English."


"Yeah, that's it. Proper sahibs go out in the mid-day sun. You fucking Cherokees can't take it."

"Just smart is all."

"Well, I grant you it's getting warm."

The weather was a continuously fit subject for conversation, as always, especially for the British – when you perch on the edge of a major landmass, you tend to get buffeted and interested in the process – and autumn was an appealing season, but it certainly wasn't a sufficient reason to stay in Kabul. The buses out were bad, to be sure, but not unbearable. The apple pies at the government restaurant in Pashtunistan Square were great but scarcely irreplaceable; you could get sick of them in a couple of weeks, probably much quicker if you flew in from the First World. The bazaar was bizarre, the rugs rugged, the barracks barricaded and the museum distinctly antiquated. All fair enough, but why on earth did Blackie and Whitey decide to hang around?

Well, first of all, they didn't. In the overall scheme of the universe, as things finally worked out, they really weren't there all that long, it just seemed that way, to themselves as much as to most of the people who encountered them. Circumstances just encircled them; they leaned lightly on unlatched doors and found themselves moving into rooms they hadn't expected to find, for reasons they never intended to obey. At least in the beginning, it was less that they did decide to hang around than that they didn't decide to leave.

If they really wanted to cop out, they could blame it on Barb. The Kiwi couple were three days ahead of them, having selected the all-day torture-rack option and skipped the scenic South altogether, but intending to spend a week in the capital and expecting that the Brits would catch up. Ed was a bit susceptible to the hipness bullshit they tended to cloak themselves in but Barb was not only unimpressed by it, she actually liked them anyway. What a shocking thought. Someone who claimed to be as uncool, even as ordinary, as she did actually saw through their disguise and discovered that if she smiled at them, without forethought or premeditation, they would both smile back and everyone enjoyed the interaction. Revolutionary, nothing less.

On the third day, they sauntered out for some further exploration, feeling relatively spiffy in their clean underwear. They soon alighted, as one tends to, at a humble but pleasant place of refreshment, in this case one with tables that abutted the sidewalk, all the better to see and be seen by le tout Kabul, or at least that subsection of freak tourists who lurked in those regions. The mullahs and the righteous skirted the area, lest they be tempted to impose sanctions on the infidels. The right of women to bare their faces had officially been proclaimed, not long before, and initially enforced at gunpoint, by 30,000 troops who were not loath to shoot. At least one token cleric was gunned down as an example, but the war was far from over. The soldiers were withdrawn, and the holy men tried to avoid confrontation for the moment. The infidel tourists were not their primary target group, but they were certainly an aggravation, especially the whores. Of course they were whores, you could tell by their noses. You could see their noses.

That's not fair, but that's bias for you. Most of us can only take the multicultural bit just so far.

Anyway, Blackie and Whitey were enjoying the delights of the local street scene, and if it was not strictly authentic, (a) they didn't know and (b) they didn't care.

Refreshed, relaxed and ready for anything, they were having a ball.