Saving the Laphroaig from the Taliban

Thursday, 19 January, 2012

Laphroaig single malt Brrrr! It’s cold and dark, wet and windy out there. Looks like it’ll be a weekend for a good book and generous glasses of single malt whisky. Up for a rereading is News From No Man’s Land by the legendary BBC foreign correspondent, John Simpson. This is the third in a series of three autobiographical books that Simpson has bundled under the title “Out To The Undiscovered Ends”. The first, Strange Places, Questionable People, was an account of his working life; the second, A Mad World, My Masters, was about his travels, and the third is an entertaining look at his business: the broadcasting of international news. On Thursday, 31 August 2001, Simpson and his cameraman, Peter Jouvenal, are at Heathrow Airport on their way to Afghanistan where they plan to do some reporting on life under Taliban rule. First stop is the duty-free shop:

“We needed quite a long list of things: a couple of bottles of Laphroaig, since booze was illegal in Afghanistan and one had to make a stand somewhere; a box of twenty-five good Cuban H. Upmanns at the cigar shop, because both Peter and I like to end the day in a cloud of choking blue smoke; books and magazines in some numbers; and, finally, a present for Mutawakil, the Foreign Minister. That, however, posed a problem. What do you give the man to whom almost everything is forbidden? Not, certainly, a bottle of good single malt whisky, the present of choice for government ministers throughout the Islamic world.”

In the end, Simpson settles for a large and “hideously expensive diary, bound in what looked rather like human skin, with tags and toggles hanging of it?” On 4 September, in Islamabad, Simpson and Jouvenal receive their visas — among the last to be handed out by the Taliban — to enter Afghanistan. While passing the time, Simpson reads the list of items visitors are forbidden to bring into the country:

“Alcohol, pork products, lipstick, nail varnish, audio recorders, compact disc players, cassettes and discs, video recorders and video cassettes, any items made from human hair, chess sets, musical instruments of any kind, including pianos, grand or upright, billiard tables, statues, Christmas cards, neckties or bow ties, books, newspapers, postcards containing any image of any animate objects, human or otherwise.”

From Islamabad, Simpson and Jouvenal make their way to Peshawar before heading up through the Khyber Pass to Torkham, the main crossing point into Afghanistan. But before leaving Peshawar, Simpson repacks, with the Taliban in mind:

“Into the bag I was taking with me I put my only tie, plenty of compact discs, a travel chess set which I had bought in the bazaar, especially for the journey, and a variety of pictures of people especially women. And in lieu of a billiards table or grand pianos, I put in a litre of superb cask-strength Laphroaig single malt whisky. Not in its own distinctive bottle, though; my sister-in-law Gina had provided me with an empty and thoroughly deflavoured bottle of disinfectant for trips such as this. It wasn’t in any sense a gesture against Islam a religion for which I have a profound liking and respect; it sprang purely from a dislike of being told what to do.”

As they cross the frontier they see a sign that reminding them that they are leaving all rationality behind: “ISLAMIC EMARAT OF AFGHANISTAN Faithful People With Strong Decision Entry Afghanistan! The Sacrifice People Heartly Welcomes You With Pieses.”

It takes them almost a day to travel the 140 miles from Torkham to Kabul, such is the dreadful state of the road. Once in Kabul they book into the “dark and desolate” Hotel Inter-Continental. After an evening meal of “rice with rubberized meat”, they smoke their cigars and sip the Laphroaig from cups, in an attempt to make the waiters believe they are drinking tea. But they pay for their hubris the next day because half a dozen bearded, shawled figures with Kalashnikovs arrive and begin searching the rooms. It’s the dreaded religious police from the Ministry for the Suppression of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue. This is a serious situation so they decide to sacrifice the single malt.

“And so I found myself kneeling on the bathroom floor in room 208,staring down into the lavatory bowl in the unwell position. It was full of darkish yellow liquid. I yanked the handle, the lavatory flushed, and the yellow faded. The best part of a litre of the finest alcohol known to man had just passed round the S-bend.”

On Saturday, 8 September, three days before the deadly attacks on New York and Washington, the Taliban expelled Simpson and Jouvenal from Afghanistan. On Thursday, 13 November 2001, Simpson was back, becoming the first journalist to enter the post-Taliban Kabul. His recalling of those times is made all the more enjoyable with the help of the great Islay single malt. Sip your Laphroaig and then savour the rush of sensations that suggest peat, tobacco, leather, smoke, liquorice, salt air, honey, oak, spice, heather, strong tea and freedom.

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