The noon gun

Do they still fire the noon gun in Afghanistan?

I wonder.

I miss it.

When I lived in the capital, Kabul, during the late 1960s, an old British cannon was perched on a hill overlooking the city. It was fired around the middle of each day.

During my first year there I complained that the gun did not discharge precisely at noon. It went off somewhere ''around noon,'' some days as much as twenty minutes off. It offended my Western sense of punctuality and I took a personal exception to it being referred to by the old timers as the ''noon gun.'' No one bothered to answer me.

Gradually, as time began to dissolve strangeness into familiarity, I felt my priorities shift. I became nourished by my surroundings and like a flower from bud, the ingredients remaining the same, I was transformed.

The phrase Enchella, Allah willing, edited my day. What had previously been a Sunday-only belief in an omnipotent force now overtly ran my life. My concept of schedules did not exist. My life was in the hands of Allah. Even the in-country airline ran on Enchella time.

I was a Westerner, taught to project into infinity, living in a country whose language did not have a future tense -- a person of tomorrow surrounded with the relics of an eternal past. Slowly I learned that today is an extension of the past, not merely a prelude to the future. The hues of violet fading on the surrounding Hindu Kush mountains filled me with the same beauty that centuries before and, Enchella, centuries to follow, would experience.

The newness became sameness. I learned to treasure my local policeman playing his flute in the silent night-time city, the notes intimately mine. Following a period of fear I experienced exhilaration driving among camels, bicycles and pedestrians -- all with no tomorrow. In time I learned to accept each day as Allah gave it to me. When the noon gun exploded I would glance at my watch and chuckle, ignoring the newcomers who felt it important to complain that it was not exactly noon.

And the gun became a symbol. It personified not only my own inner change, but also the strengths and weaknesses of the Afghan people. I felt, like a pilgrim, that I must climb the mountain and see the actual firing.

I chose a brisk spring day. The brown of the land showed around the patches of melting snow and the clear air was warmed by a bright sun. A crumbling remnant of ancient city wall snaked up the mountain behind the gun hill and all the city was cupped in the palm of a hand with stark majestic mountain fingers.

The climb proved more difficult than I had anticipated and I soon realized that my time had run out -- I could not possibly reach the gun by noon. Defeated , I stopped to rest, and looked up to the brow of the hill. There I saw an old man waving me on.

By throwing all my energy into the climb, I arrived exhausted at the top - twelve minutes after noon.

On a flat spot stood the ancient cannon, its wheels gone, supported in the spring mud by loose rocks and boards. Next to its breech was the old man who had beckoned to me. We greeted each other with the Afghan litany of daily greeting as we shook hands. He motioned me to sit on a nearby boulder. After checking to confirm that I was in my seat, he moved to center stage. Using the grandeur of the Hindu Kush as his backdrop and me as his prompter, he prepared to play to his city-wide audience below. A light breeze ruffled the silk of his turban scarf and his loose clothing flowed around his body. Like a bride straightening her train, he slowly reached over and picked up a cloth and wiped some dust from the cannon before positioning himself beside the gun. He removed a watch from his outer garment, gave me a knowing smile, checked the time, and returned the watch. With deliberate care he lighted a long taper and with a theatrical sweep of his arm touched off the powder.

The world exploded!

I grasped my ears as the old cannoneer threw back his head in an unheard laugh and a blue-white cloud of smoke from the gun's muzzle spewed into the spring breeze. The boulder moved under me.

Securely I sat knowing that it was noon - Kabul gun time.

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