Travels in epic Silk Road country come with hazards even in the best of times. Dan Terry, a life-long friend and humanitarian, hopelessly besotted by the beauty of Central Asia, moved with his family to northern Afghanistan during civil war: wild country, wild times. Crossing Balkh province solo one day, his jeep marked by a plume of dust, Dan found himself at a roadblock manned by gunmen of a local warlord. Though a veteran of such encounters, none of his savvy could stave off the upshot: Dan was taken hostage to the warlord’s mountain base where the commander set about to turn his captive foreigner into a windfall.
Dan assured the commander that neither he nor his threadbare service organization possessed anything of value. They traded in no Silk Road riches, had no Swiss bank accounts. This the commander seriously doubted. But in the course of time, he came to realize that Dan was, indeed, that bane of desert lands: a dry well. But by then a strange dynamic had taken hold of those within the barbed-wire perimeter. Their hostage had become part of that armed-to-the-teeth community. Seemingly without a trace of bitterness, Dan inquired after their families, talked about their hometowns, mused with them around the evening fires, shared their gritty fare at mealtime. In time, the commander resigned himself to this unsettling truth: that his odd hostage had become – well, a friend.
The day came when the warlord realized there was no further point in holding Dan. He called for a goat to be slaughtered and their friendship was sealed in a kebab meal and by embraces. With that he set Dan free, wincing, no doubt, at his misfortune that no windfall had resulted from this caper, but glad of having an unlikely ‘kafir’ friend, just the same.
Months later, Dan was traveling with colleagues in those remote ranges, his jeep trailed by dust. From the opposite direction came an open truck bristling with turbaned gunmen swathed in bandoliers. As the vehicles crossed, the drivers had a flash of mutual recognition. Everything slid to a halt as dust engulfed the scene. Before any explanations could be made, Dan and his erstwhile friend, the warlord, danced with shouts into each other’s arms on a gritty Silk Road track as Dan’s colleagues looked on aghast at this encounter with a dreaded warrior. And glaring down from the truck, a band of gunmen wondered at a commander abandoned to the embrace of an ‘infidel’.
Dan’s musing over this experience left his peers in speechless disbelief. He said to them, “In the end, hostage-taking is another form of hospitality.”
*Adapted from the author’s book, ‘Making Friends Among the Taliban’, Herald Press, 2012.