Hiraeth for Herat

***UPDATE -Interview with Sian Nicholas***

I’m not sure exactly when my attitude to life changed but I know that by the time I heard the song ‘I hope you dance’ that I was much more ready to say yes to opportunities than say, no thank you.

I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean,
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens,
Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance.

Sung by Lee Ann Womack 2000

Taking risks in life is frightening but of course there is nothing new under the sun.  There is a Bible story about a rich man giving his servants talents (Talents in this context were measures of precious metals).  Some of the servants used this money to invest and create a profit whilst one was so scared of losing the talent he had been given that he buried it in the ground in case he lost it. You can’t blame him can you?

Earlier in my life I tended to find excuses and rationalise why I should not do something.  Maybe I’d embarrass myself, or not be good enough, or maybe it would hurt!!!  Somewhere along the line I realised I was missing out and I needed to change my attitude and start living.

Max Boyce Perth Beach

The Max Boyce Band – Freemantle Beach Perth, Australia

Over the years that new attitude has taken me to all sorts of places.  I remember getting a call from Max Boyce asking if I wanted to join his backing band on a tour of South East Asia.  Although I was a massive Max fan it probably wasn’t the music I was used to playing or that I saw myself playing during my years working with Elton John and John Peel.  But I must say that 5 week tour travelling to Hong Kong, Korea, New Zealand and Australia really did change my life.  There is nothing like travel to broaden the mind especially in the company of Max Boyce and a bunch of lads from Swansea.

Outside Sun Studios, Memphis

The invitation to travel to Tupelo in Mississippi came off the back of a proper paid job.  I had travelled to the Deep South to film a TV show about Gospel Music and made some good friends in a very short space of time.  Southern hospitality is well known so when they asked if I would return the following year to perform at the Gumtree Festival in Elvis’s home town I thought they were just being, well, southernly!  A month or so later the requests keep coming and so I said yes.  That trip became an annual visit to Mississippi and left an impression on me that has moulded the way I view that part of the world.

Some requests were more difficult to say yes to even though they sounded like amazing opportunities.  When I got the call inviting me to tour Europe supporting Art Garfunkel I was ecstatic.  It was only when they told me that I would have to fund myself for the period, including my travelling expenses that I took a deep intake of breath.  Being away for months on end would mean cancelling every paid broadcasting job I had in the diary.  After a long family discussion, I said yes and so began one of the most exciting and frightening periods of my life. Sometimes I would travel free in a tour bus but often I would travel alone from city to city, country to country on the cheapest mode of transport I could find.

Eventually the German based tour promoter invited me back for a couple of other tours on a fee and with expenses, so it all worked out in the and I have a million stories to tell about the experience as well.  I could have said no, maybe I should have said no, but I’m glad I said yes.

The news this week has reminded me of one opportunity I was offered, that I actually accepted but was then snatched from me by world events that changed everything for everyone.

Sian Hawkins - CMS

Sian Hawkins- Church Mission Society Afghanistahn

I think I first met Rev Kevin Cecil when he was a guest on an afternoon radio programme.  As well as being a vicar he was also a musician and artist. Following his appearance on the show we kept in touch.  At the time Kevin was associated with the CMS, the Church Missionary Society.  One of the CMS workers was Welsh, and she was working in Afghanistan.  Kevin asked if he could take me out for lunch as he had something he would like to discuss with me.

The meeting in Verdi’s must have been in 1999 or maybe 2000 but I remember it like it was yesterday.  Kevin wasn’t alone.  He had brought Sian Hawkins with him as she was back home in Wales on furlough from Afghanistan.

The first thing that struck me was how small Sian was.  She had gone there to work on a Mental Health Project, helping to counsel women who were self-harming.  It wasn’t a pretty picture she painted.  Sian had gone hoping to work directly with local women but as that was frowned upon she found herself having to deal directly with the Taliban.

Surprisingly, she told me that many of the Taliban she worked with were caring and reasonable. Others could be intimating and cruel. She was there to do a job and help the women of Herat so she would often have to stand her ground to get things done.  It almost made me smile to think of this little Welsh girl arguing with the men with AK47s.

The other thing I remember was that with so little entertainment Sian had become very good at knitting!!!

(Update- Following chatting to Sian for the podcast it turns out to have been cross stitch not knitting!).

I found all of this fascinating but then came the question. Would I go to visit Sian in Herat?  The idea was that I would spend a few weeks seeing her work and then come back and write about it.  There was some talk about maybe even trying to smuggle in a tape recorder or guitar so that I could record a radio programme and maybe write some songs whilst I was there.

I didn’t say yes immediately.  Taking a month off to go to Tupelo or travel across Europe was one thing, leaving everything I knew to go to the heart of Taliban controlled Afghanistan was another.

I started doing my research on the country, especially Herat.  In the time of Alexander, the Great the area had been described as the Bread Basket of Central Asia. For centuries Herat had been a centre for learning and artistic life in the Islamic world. The trip would mean travelling to Peshawar in Pakistan before entering Afghanistan through the Khyber Pass. The more I thought about it, the more I read and the more pictures I saw the more I was determined to go.

The 9th September 2001 was a beautiful day in Mumbles.  I was in the middle of recording yet another album in a small studio I was renting on the front overlooking the sea.  Andy ‘Wal’ Coughlan, my old friend and bass player was in the middle of doing some overdubs when we had a knock on the door.  Some friends working at the Red Café called us down to see the news.  A plane had gone into the World Trade centre.  As we stood watching the screen, another plane crashed into the second tower. 

A few hours later Wal and I walked along the Mumbles front hardly speaking.  I think we both knew that our world would never be the same again.

Within weeks the US led coalition had gone into Afghanistan and any thoughts of visiting Herat were dismissed.

I know that Sian stayed in the country for a number of years organising a Disaster Management Programme but by the time she left the country was rife with corruption, killings and kidnappings.

I have wept at the pictures we have seen on the news, of people desperate to escape, people fleeing for their lives, handing their babies to soldiers asking them to take them to safety.  Its people like Sian who are still there helping the Afghans who we must support now.  Prayer sometimes seems a cop out, something to say to make you and others feel better, but at the moment, it seems as if it’s the only thing any of us can do.