Smorgasbord Blog Sitting Special – Afghan Ceilidh by Mary Smith


It is lovely to welcome Mary Smith as a Blog Sitter today, whilst I am probably recovering from a hectic schedule here in Portsmouth.. I know that the blog is in very capable hands. Today Mary is sharing a photograph from her time in Afghanistan and which holds great meaning for her.

Mary Smith - web ready

About Mary Smith

Mary Smith has always loved writing. As a child she wrote stories in homemade books made from wallpaper trimmings – but she never thought people could grow up and become real writers. She spent a year working in a bank, which she hated – all numbers, very few words – ten years with Oxfam in the UK, followed by ten years working in Pakistan and Afghanistan. She longed to allow others to share her amazing, life-changing experiences so she wrote about them – fiction, non-fiction, poetry and journalism. And she discovered the little girl who wrote stories had become a real writer after all.
Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni: Real Stories of Afghan Women is an account of her time in Afghanistan and her debut novel No More Mulberries is also set in Afghanistan.

Afghan Ceilidh by Mary Smith


Of all the many photos I brought home from my years working in Afghanistan, this is one of my favourites. I call it Afghan Ceilidh.

Though nowadays a ceilidh (pronounced kay-lee) is often a night of (sometimes wild) Scottish dancing, traditionally, it was an informal social gathering in someone’s house. Whenever and wherever a group of Scots folk came together in an evening, songs and storytelling, especially after a few drams had been taken was inevitable. An Afghan ceilidh is exactly the same, though instead of whisky, tea is drunk.

This photo was taken on one such occasion and when I look at it, memories flood back. On the left of the photo, Tajwar’s sewing machine has pride of place on top of the family’s tin storage trunks. When she sewed, she placed it on the floor and complained loudly about how much her back ached. We sit on toshak (mattress) arranged around the room on the Afghan rug. On the right of the photo I’m leaning on a bundle containing bedding. At bedtime, the mattresses are re-arranged and blankets – imported, colourful blankets emblazoned with peacocks – are distributed. The thermos, one of many, contains black tea.

The children love these occasions and have a wide range of games they play. The littler girls dance and sing songs. The bigger ones, like the one with the gleaming smile in the centre, might start to dance but then be overcome by shyness, giggle and sit down. A favourite game of the boys is cor-jangi (blind fighting). Two boys are each blindfolded and kneel facing each other. Each is provided with a rolled up patou (a man’s heavy wool shawl) with which each tries to wallop the other, but must, all the time, keep hold of a cushion in one hand.

If you think the woman sitting below the sewing machine and the other to the right of her don’t look happy you’d be right. They are terrified of the ‘devil’ wearing the mask – with a cushion stuffed up his jumper. I was always astonished at how fearful they became during this game even though the boy was a family member. He comes in, usually when the lamps are burning low, and adopting a hoarse voice ask if anyone has seen ‘Deyo’. The bigger children give cheeky replies but the smaller ones and some of the women pull back in fear. Later, they laugh – shamefaced – but still not wholly convinced there was nothing to fear out there in the dark.

I look at this photo and remember stories and songs, silly games and so much laughter – and so much black tea. We drank gallons of it so I always had to make a couple of trips out in the dark to the latrine later in the night. I look at my son – my filthy son – sitting on my lap and think of the freedom he had as a small child roaming the mountain with the boys herding the sheep and goats, coming home when hungry. I remember friendship and the joy of being accepted.

Afghan ceilidh

At an Afghan ceilidh
instead of whisky
we drink tea, black, no sugar
from small Russian glasses,
eat dry roasted ‘baqale’ –
spit their slipped-off skins
on the floor ‘til the rug’s
rich reds are covered
by a new carpet of greenish grey.

A hurricane lamp’s pool of light
projects small girls’ dancing shadows
on bare mud walls.
Songs, stories, laughter ripples
while outside is black dark silent.

(baqale – broad beans)

©MarySmith 2017

About No More Mulberries


Scottish-born midwife, Miriam loves her work at a health clinic in rural Afghanistan and the warmth and humour of her women friends in the village, but she can no longer ignore the cracks appearing in her marriage. Her doctor husband has changed from the loving, easy-going man she married and she fears he regrets taking on a widow with a young son, who seems determined to remain distant from his stepfather.

When Miriam acts as translator at a medical teaching camp she hopes time apart might help her understand the cause of their problems. Instead, she must focus on helping women desperate for medical care and has little time to think about her failing marriage. When an old friend appears, urging her to visit the village where she and her first husband had been so happy. Miriam finds herself travelling on a journey into her past, searching for answers to why her marriage is going so horribly wrong.

Her husband, too, has a past of his own – from being shunned as a child to the loss of his first love.

Just one of 132 reviews for the book

At first, what struck me most about this highly descriptive, lyrically written, “No More Mulberries,” was the author’s ability to completely transport me back to the faraway country of 1990s Afghanistan, not only geographically, but also culturally, and ideologically. It’s a country where ‘saving face’ is the order of the day, where its population is rapidly falling victim to the Taliban, and where primitive beliefs are so pervasive, that a child with leprosy is almost drowned by his father, in order to ‘kill’ the disease. In addition, Smith shows us––through the eyes of the ‘outsider’ widow Miriam from Scotland, her second Afghani husband, and their children––that there’s another side to this land; how the people are so gracious and hospitable that offering one’s home and food to strangers is a given, and not accepting a dinner invitation is tantamount to receiving a slap in the face.

But ultimately, what held me captive was the slow, unwinding mystery being played out of how Miriam’s first husband died, and what brought her to her second husband. Although the clash of cultures is often painful, confusing, and palpable, Smith confirms that in the end, no matter where we’re from, no matter the hardships in where we’ve landed, if we are truly willing to be honest with ourselves, the rest will undoubtedly fall into place. Definitely recommend!

Also by Mary Smith

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Read all the reviews and buy the books:

Connect to Mary via her website:

My thanks to Mary for sharing this very special time spent with her friends that she made when working in Afghanistan.. Please show your appreiciation by sharing far and wide. Thanks Sally

36 thoughts on “Smorgasbord Blog Sitting Special – Afghan Ceilidh by Mary Smith

  1. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blog Sitting Special – Afghan Ceilidh by Mary Smith — Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life –

  2. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blog Sitting Special – Afghan Ceilidh by Mary Smith | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

  3. These books sound fascinating. I will definitely check them out. My TBR list is groaning now but there is room for one more. Best wishes with all your books, Mary. What special memories you must have. Thanks for sharing them. Hugs to you both xxoo ❤️

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks, Geoff. I sometimes look back and wonder if I did have all those experiences in Afghanistan. It’s odd but I’ve been in a bombing raid (where I learned you do really and truly thrown yourself flat on the ground, just like they do in films), been tied up and robbed at gunpoint and shot at while travelling BUT it’s the photo of a family gathering and people having fun which brings back the strongest memories.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Such a lovely post, Mary. I wish stories like these were picked up and focused upon by the media, instead of all the unrest and fighting in the world. Seeing folks of other cultures as real people with all the cares and emotions of those of us in the western world would go a long way to easing tension and fear. What a blessing to have such pleasant memories. Thank you for this heartwarming post 🙂 💛

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Tina, I’m pleased you enjoyed the post. I wrote the books based in Afghanistan for precisely what you said – to try to show that people are people where ever in the world they live and whatever faith they follow.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. I loved learning more but you Mary and your time in Afghanistan. This post was absolutely fascinating. I wonder what your son is doing now? What an amazing childhood he had. Fabulous to hear how you learned as an adult that yes, you can write as a profession. Good going!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Lucinda. The other two are picture-led local history and very local to my bit of Scotland. I’m working on turning the Goldfish blog into a memoir. I’d like to say it will be done this year but I said that last year!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: Smorgasbord Round up – The Amazing Blog Sitters – A huge thank you. | Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life

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