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After almost three intense hours at a dusty police checkpoint in the middle of a desert, it was time for a second breakfast. The soft warm naan from the morning had become stiff and dry by then. Chewing and swallowing the dusty bread seemed like starting your own war within you, especially on a dry and humid morning. Even water was no help, because the plastic bottle had heated up in the morning sun and the once-cold water was now about 75 degrees.
But nothing bothered the Afghans. The soldiers turned on the radio in their trucks (a Pashto wedding song loudly played from the speakers), spread the bread on the seats of the truck, and tore pieces from the big loaf. No peanut butter or jelly. I ran to the Land Rover and came back with three small tubes of Vegemite, butter, and a packet of cold vegetable chili.
The Afghans did not appreciate the Vegemite--I was little hesitant myself until my colleague Graeme Wood told me about its rich vitamin content--and ate the naan without anything on it. It wasn't quite the poached egg and sausage breakfast I was getting used to at the main military base, but it definitely killed the urge to whine about cafeteria meals.
On another day, I had dry naan with Afghan soldiers when we visited a checkpoint on one of the highways, where members of the Afghan National Police were enjoying the breeze inside a tent right by the roadside. It was lunchtime after a morning of patrol on the highway.
One of the policemen brought a big pot covered with a lid and placed it in the middle of the circle, where about 10 or 12 men were gathered for their lunch. Another policeman spread a very thin and dirty piece of cloth on the floor, and threw loaves of naan in front of each person as if distributing cards. That time, the naan had some company: the policeman brought bowls of cold goat milk with a huge lump of ice and a ladle right to the plates, where they piled spoonfuls of okra cooked with tomatoes and cumin.
As the locals happily started their lunch, I watched the British soldiers around me tear the bread, dip it in okra, and make an honest effort to chew and swallow the bread with comfort. The locals did it with ease, I noticed, everyone drinking the cold goat milk from the same ladle. There was almost a rhythm to the way they were eating--four chews, one sip, four chews. Four chews, one sip, four chews. Four chews, one sip, four chews. And then a loud gratifying belch. An odd but original way to spend my birthday.
That evening, I was waiting in the queue at the dining facility in the British Army camp in Lashkar Gah when I noticed the unthinkable--loaves of naan and poppadum on the dinner line. The British dining facility, which was mostly run by Sri Lankan cooks, had a hint of South Asian dishes everyday. Fortunately, the naan here came with scrumptious company. I scooped two big spoonfuls of lamb curry from the line onto my plate, grabbed two loaves of naan and some steamed vegetables and headed straight down the dinner table. I could not have had a better birthday dinner, especially in a war zone.
The young Afghan soldier was right. There is no morning, afternoon, or evening in Afghanistan without naan. Does not matter if you are a soldier, politician, or even a Taliban--naan is always part of the meal.
"And that's the only thing we have in common with the Taliban," an Afghan interpreter told me with a grin. "Neither the soldiers nor the Taliban will start their day without a naan."
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