Taliban-less town helps give thanks

Holiday: An Afghan restaurateur and his staff, freed from their oppressors, help Americans and friends celebrate far from home.

War On Terrorism

The World

November 23, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

TALOQAN, Afghanistan - Two weeks ago, Abdullah Mohammed Massin was cooking plain lentils for Taliban commanders who didn't appreciate good food anyway. Yesterday, he cooked up a turkey, Afghan-style, for a homesick American and a small group of colleagues.

The dinner he laid out was lacking in cranberry sauce and stuffing and potatoes and other items that the homesick American's wife calls the non-negotiables of Thanksgiving. But Massin is a self-confessed happy man, and how could that not rub off in a catch-as-catch-can place such as Afghanistan?

Massin works at a restaurant here run by Sufi Mumim, a happy man himself now that the Taliban have left town because his business is up sixfold. Mumim's restaurant does a steady trade in grilled lamb, lamb meatballs and rice with lamb, but he enthusiastically agreed Wednesday evening to put on a different sort of spread for this new breed of foreigners.

Just come back tomorrow morning at 8, he said, and we'll find a turkey.

Search for turkey

Promptly at 8 - or, technically, closer to 9 - five journalists showed up in an old gray Russian UAZ van and picked up Abdul Vadood, a young relative of Mumim's who works for him as a waiter, and off they went.

First, just on the off-chance, they stopped by a poultry lot in the city's market, but no luck there.

So off they went into the countryside, heading from village to village, each one smaller than the last. Vadood would say, "Wait here," hop out and run across a field to a gate in a wall made of mud and straw, bang on it for a while, learn there were no turkeys at hand and race back to the van. He seemed to know where to try, but it also seemed that turkeys were more than a little scarce.

Finally the van reached the outskirts of a village called Puli Tok, and here everyone got out.

It was about a half-mile walk into the village, down a winding lane with a cloudy stream on one side and mud reshaped into houses on the other. A goat bleated, and a donkey brayed. A few little boys joined the entourage. A couple of ducks splashed in the stream, which seemed like a good sign.

Vadood banged on a gate, one that had a mark on it signifying that the farmyard was clear of mines, and Abdul Habib, 20, opened it a crack.

The 18-year-old waiter asked him whether he had a filmorgh, which in Farsi means "elephant chicken." Habib ducked away and was back in a minute with what might be described as a smallish bird.

He asked how many turkeys were wanted.

The homesick American replied that maybe two would be good.

"Well, this is the only one I've got," Habib replied.

"I suppose one will do," the American allowed.

That, of course, was not the end of the transaction because there followed a rather long conversation about turkeys.

"A lot of people say they're harder to raise than chickens, but they're a lot more profitable," said Habib. This didn't seem like a very good way to start bargaining.

Habib went on to say that what he likes about turkeys is that they lay bigger eggs than chickens, and they have more meat on them. He feeds them greens, rice, rye and wheat. Typically, he said, he and other farmers keep turkeys for their eggs and eat them only when they get old.

This one was just 6 months old, but Habib said he was willing to part with it because it had laid 20 eggs in the past 20 days and all were being tended to by chickens. "What's the difference?" he asked. "A chicken doesn't know the difference."

Afghan-style negotiating

Then the conversation got around to price, and Habib said he wanted 150,000 Afghanis, which - depending on which of three currencies in circulation here is meant and at what exchange rate they were obtained - was worth somewhere between $3 and $5.

This was agreed to, the money was handed over and then Habib said he needed 100,000 Afghanis more. This seems to be a fairly typical Afghan bargaining technique. The after-the-fact ploy, it might be called. Everyone around knew that it was anyone's guess where the next turkey might be found. The money changed hands.

By this time, seven onlookers had crowded around just to watch. They were satisfied.

Vadood carried the docile turkey upside down back to the van.

Back in town, it was agreed that the turkey would be slaughtered and plucked at noon. The execution was carried out by Mumim in the restaurant's back yard, a black wasteland strewn with old bones and rotten carrots. He was dismayed by the small size of the bird but worked with particular care while an assistant and two boys stood by. Behind him, a small man delivered a large load of firewood.

Indoors, the restaurant staff were asleep on the tables. Because of Ramadan, the place wouldn't open until sundown.

Out front, as a sort of advertisement, two sets of sheep's lungs were nailed to a tree.

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