My recent dive into Veronica Doubleday‘s book, Three Women of Herat, was a double-edged exercise in time-travel. Afghanistan has always fascinated me, ever since I caught a glimpse of this magnificent country while on the late hippie trail in 1976. Since then political events have brought endless turmoil and power struggles, culminating in the shameful Western abandonment of the country in 2021 and return of the Taliban. So when Doubleday’s book was re-published last year by Eland, it fired up my craving to mentally return. 

Old acquaintances

But that was not the only reason. In fact I had known Veronica aeons ago in the early 1970s while I was at Sussex University from where she, a few years older, had already graduated. Afterwards she remained in Brighton with her partner, John Baily. My charismatic boyfriend at the time was her younger brother, Oliver Doubleday, also an undergraduate, so naturally I met his beautiful, willowy sister – a somewhat remote figure (or was I just shy?) who left me in awe. 

My memories of the time are hazy, but perhaps I heard her partner, an ethno-musicologist, perform informally. One day Veronica gave me a stunning, multi-coloured skirt that she had hand-crocheted – I was surprised and felt honoured, and kept it for many years before it met the moths. Our paths forked definitively when I left for my studies in France and I never saw Veronica again, although I remained in touch with Oliver, on and off, for a few years.

Herat bazaar, 1976 ©Alberto Salvagno

Into the heart of Herat

But back to the book. I have only just got round to reading it but once I started, I was totally immersed. For several long rainy days during this cursed English summer I became enveloped in this ancient, exotic world that Veronica reveals with great sensitivity, perceptiveness and intelligence. Her approach is far more than a traveller’s tale; it is an anthropological study threaded with personal anecdotes.

The accounts of her relationships with three different women in Herat, each living a different form of purdah, take me deep inside their closeted walls. From the charming friendship that developed with Mariam to the more tortured ties with Mother of Nemo, the book gathers momentum until the final chapter when Shirin steps onto the scene. This account of Veronica’s bond with Shirin (aka Zainab, a celebrated singer), her gifted, generous music teacher, is full of eloquence, insight and emotion, and not without critique. All too sad to read about Shirin’s premature death in the afterword.

Herat’s Friday Mosque ©Alberto Salvagno

Not only touched by these social attachments, I was also impressed by Veronica’s growing mastery of Afghan music – whether drumming rhythms on the daireh, a jingly frame drum, or actually singing traditional Afghan songs, even performing professionally at wedding parties. This of course was unheard of for a Western woman, albeit incognito. How I regret not seeing her perform in London in recent years – I just didn’t know about her concerts, but there’s still time.

Yet how delighted I was to mentally walk with her along the shady alleyways of Herat, follow her music groups or friends, and to be spirited through the cloistered world of Afghanistan’s women, of which I had no experience. For me they had been invisible – enigmatic figures in long, pale blue silky ‘tents’, with only a grid to see through. Veronica’s comments on the psychological effect of donning the burqa are revealing, and she soon picked up cunning hijab techniques to ward off men’s provocative glances.

Photos of Herat in August 1976

Unfortunately my notebook of the time has vanished, as have my black and white photos (I still hope to unearth them in the chaos of my study), but her descriptions inspired me to look again at a large folder of photos taken by one of my travel companions, Alberto Salvagno. The colour photos here are all his.

I clearly remember that Herat seemed like paradise after the strict Shiite world of Iran where fierce old ghouls shrouded in black tapped your elbow if a centimetre of flesh showed. In contrast Herat felt welcoming, boosted by monumental sights such as the ruined citadel or the Friday Mosque, the kaleidoscopic colours of the bazaar, aesthetic arrangements of fruit-stalls and above all the ease of the Afghans. Unfortunately there was also plenty of child labour, visible here.

Alberto’s images revived the visual excitement of the night bazaar, the sizzling kebabs, mountains of fresh produce, barbers’ shops, pony carts, tea-rooms, tailors and the carpet shops. How many times have I seen these activities since then on my travels through the Islamic world?

Yet they have never rivalled the impact of Herat. Even more striking is that in his many photos not one woman features, burqa or not – proof that Veronica had miraculously tapped into a separate society thanks to speaking fluent Dari and her commitment to music. And of course being an empathetic woman.

Paths not crossed

As I read I soon realised that my stay in Herat had been just a few weeks before Veronica and John returned there, in September 1976 (they had already spent a year in 1974-5), overland, as I had done with my three friends from Italy where I lived at the time. Long dusty roads through Greece, Yugoslavia, Turkey and Iran were filled with risky incidents, strange encounters and spectacular landscapes (read a bit more here), before we crossed the border into Herat.

After a few days, our little group motored onwards to Kandahar, Kabul and up into the Hindu Kush, a far more superficial experience than Veronica’s dedicated focus on Herat, her women friends and music.

And then came the last coincidence which I discovered at the very end of the book: it turned out that my former boyfriend, Oliver, had visited his sister shortly after my passage through, and contributed to the book a fetching photo of her with Shirin (below). Past worlds within worlds – and just a shame we could not all have met up for a glass of tea and a performance in Herat.