Continued from “Connecting with The Taliban”
The Sentimental Terrorist - 14
Mohsin, TV Hill, 3 a.m.
Yesterday evening, after the reading of the Shahnama to bolster up our spirits, Hussein, Abbas and I ate our last meal. In my mind I can still recall the taste of the spiced black dhal and the mouth-watering chappali kebab. But now I’m remembering the dinner where Shamsuddin introduced me to my two collaborators, and to the Taliban leader, Pervez Alam.
* * *
Mullah Shamsuddin had made elaborate preparations for the dinner that night. Our meal took place in a room inside the masjid that I had not seen before. Adorning the walls were photographs of the holy city Mecca by day and by night, and verses from the Quran in delicately rendered calligraphy. The Herati rug on the floor was new, as was the bright blue cloth spread out for the dastarkhan.
It was a lavish spread. Succulent, reddened, pieces of chicken tikka, flat chappali kebabs made from tender ground lamb, muntos filled with beef, kabuli pulao, a thick tomato soup or shorba and large white china pots of scented green tea to accompany the food.
Unlike the regular meetings, on this occasion there were only a few of us. A couple of helpers at the masjid served as waiters.
The guest of honour was a man by the name of Pervez Alam. A tall, sturdy man with a long black beard, he wore a thick black turban, trademark of the Taliban. In general, though, he appeared urbane and courteous. A shiny black waistcoat encased a traditional brown-coloured shalwar-kameez. Next to him sat another man, introduced to us as Humayun, also dressed in black but with a cheaper, less ostentatious cut of clothing. This man didn’t utter a word throughout the entire evening. I wondered if he was Pervez’s personal bodyguard.
Two other men were introduced to me by Shamsuddin – Hussein and Abbas. I was led to understand that the three of us formed the team that would carry out the attack on the guesthouse.
Hussein was a tall, gaunt man whom I had met previously. The grey in his hair and the lines on his face betrayed signs of a troubled life which had prematurely aged him. Like me, he hailed from a village near Kandahar, but, whereas mine lay to the north of the city, his home was an hour’s drive towards the east.
I had seen him at Shamsuddin’s durbar on and off. Sometimes he raised questions, but in a resigned, almost melancholic manner, with little enthusiasm, and he never seemed too impressed with the mullah’s answers. For this reason alone, I held him in high regard. I knew that he too had lost his family as a result of misguided action on the part of the Americans, but I didn’t know the details. I tried to draw him out in conversation a couple of times, but while remaining friendly he gave short, evasive answers. Perhaps he thought I was too young for him to share his thoughts with. Or perhaps his sorrow ran too deep to share with anyone.
During the introductions I learned that Abbas, my other collaborator, came from the town of Jalalabad, not far from the Pakistani border. Stocky, pockmarked and with a thick nose, he must have been no more than twenty; even the hair on his chin was sparse. What was he doing here? Had he been affected by a personal tragedy the way Hussein and I were? Certainly he didn’t seem particularly perturbed at the prospect of participating in a mission that would probably cost him his life.
Shamsuddin, I now realised, was part of a large, loosely connected network of likeminded activists, and it was plainly no coincidence that so many of his views paralleled those held by members of the Taliban. Clearly he was in close touch with them, even if he never divulged it publicly.
For the first time I saw Shamsuddin being deferential. Whether this was by virtue of the power that our guest commanded as part of the top leadership of the organisation – Hussein whispered this piece of information to me – or some other reason, I did not know.
‘This is Mohsin, whom I have spoken to you about,’ Shamsuddin announced by way of introduction to Pervez. ‘He’s from Muntozai.’
Pervez nodded, as if the reference to my village made it clear why I was here and committed to the task.
Shamsuddin added, ‘Mohsin, what I told you earlier today about the man who was responsible . . . It is Brother Pervez who provided me with that information.’
‘I am grateful to you, Pervez jan,’ I said.
Uncut onions, tomatoes, carrots and cucumbers had been brought to our table. A last-minute addition to the menu, I supposed. I started to peel a cucumber and began to slice it into little round pieces. I sprinkled some salt and squeezed some lemon juice over the onions. It would add to our enjoyment of the meat dishes.
‘Pervez has also agreed to help you carry out your revenge,’ Shamsuddin said.
‘I’m sorry to seem impolite,’ I said, ‘but might I ask why you’re helping me?’
‘Our cause is the same,’ Pervez replied. His voice had a slow, almost rhythmic quality. ‘We feel for the death of your family members. And we have our own reasons for wishing to attack this guesthouse.’
‘Your own reasons?’ I echoed.
‘Other infidels living inside, who need to be punished. People who work against us.
I stopped slicing the tomatoes and stared at him.
‘For example,’ he said, taking the hint, ‘there are firangis, foreigners who are setting up centres all over the country from where they will give loans to farmers.’
‘Is that a bad thing?’
Shamsuddin looked troubled by my questioning. I didn’t care.
‘Not a bad thing at all,’ said Pervez, unperturbed. ‘Except that they charge biyaz. Interest. Which, you must know, is haraam, prohibited under Islam.’
He broke off some naan bread, curled it over a chunk of chappali kebab and placed the portion into his mouth.
‘And there is another category of people living in that guesthouse to whom we need to send a message.’ Pervez wiped his mouth. ‘These are the people organising elections.’ He sipped some green tea. ‘Now is that such a bad thing, you will ask, won’t you?’ He turned to Shamsuddin, with a short laugh. ‘You have a very bright pupil, Shamsuddin. So many questions. But I like it.’ He turned back to me. ‘Elections are not bad in themselves. But these elections? They are being held just to show to the world that the bombing of the Afghan people is happening with their consent.’ He raised his voice. ‘This fellow, the so-called President, if he was a real man, a true Pashtun, he would not tolerate any loss of innocent life.’
His last remark hit a nerve. He was right, I thought. There was no need to ask so many questions. None of the candidates who stood for elections wanted the Americans to leave. All were stooges. Puppets.
I didn’t support the Taliban. Until recently, I’d hated them and what they stood for, but those feelings now paled against the far greater fury I felt towards the firangis. I wanted the Americans and the foreign military that had come to my country at their behest to leave. Afghanistan was none of their business. Above all, I wanted revenge for the deaths of my sister and family. If this entailed collaboration with the Taliban, then so be it.
Pervez asked softly, ‘Are you satisfied?’
‘Now, if you’re ready to move forward, we can discuss further details.’
‘I’m ready. I’ve been waiting anxiously for this very moment.’
‘Good,’ said the man approvingly. ‘That’s the spirit. I like enthusiasm. I don’t want to send anyone on such a mission who needs convincing.’
At the far end of the table, Shamsuddin looked gratified.
‘The three of you’ – Pervez glanced at me and then at my team-mates – ‘Mohsin, Hussein and Abbas – will all go for training. Afterwards, we will send you to Kabul. Is that agreed?’
‘Yes,’ I responded, with enthusiasm.
‘Yes,’ Hussein and Abbas joined in.
My partners hadn’t raised any questions themselves. There would be time enough to get to know them and their motivations.
* * *
Unlike Shamsuddin, who tended to be garrulous, Pervez spoke in more measured tones. He radiated power.
Although he fielded my questions with confidence, even aplomb, he didn’t say much on his own behalf. The only interesting – and somewhat humorous – observations he made were when Shamsuddin asked him when he thought the Americans were likely to leave.
‘One or two years maximum,’ Pervez said. ‘The signs are already clear. Did you hear about the Canadians?’
‘The Canadians here, you mean?’ Abbas said.
‘Where else, my friend? Of course I mean the Canadian occupiers here in Kandahar. And wherever else they may be in Afghanistan.’
The broad division of the foreign troops’ operations across the country was evident to most of us. As neighbours and close allies of the Americans, it made sense for the Canadians to park themselves in Kandahar, one of a few major areas in Afghanistan that had witnessed days of ground warfare. By contrast, the Germans were based in the north and, though part of the NATO-led coalition, wished to confine themselves to humanitarian efforts.
Pervez explained that inside information from their sources suggested the Canadian government was under pressure from its public to pull out of Afghanistan.
‘Soon they will all start to run.’ Shamsuddin sniggered.
‘My view,’ said Pervez, with the hint of a smile, ‘is that the Amrikan, despite all his anti-Muslim activities, in some ways is quite similar to an ordinary Muslim.’
We all turned to him in surprise.
‘In what way?’ I said.
‘Well, they have three wives, don’t they?’
‘New Zealand, Australia and Canada.’
‘And one mistress to boot,’ added Pervez.
‘Who’s that?’ said Hussein, coming to life.
‘That’s the English.’
We all guffawed.
‘Now you can expect the mistress to create a bit of a fuss now and again,’ said Pervez, ‘but a good wife is supposed to be obedient and toe the line. Canada is not expected to start talking about abandoning the coalition. If Canada leaves, what will the European partners of Amrika think?’
Pervez began to concentrate on the food now. The rest of us followed his lead. The dishes had mostly been prepared by Shamsuddin’s wife. She never once came inside for the duration of the meal, but we could hear her voice outside asking the servers if everything was going properly.
At the time the firnee was being served, Shamsuddin couldn’t help but throw in his own two bits.
‘Men’ – he turned to us, as if he was our military commander – ‘do you understand the meaning of the word faida?’
‘It means “profit” in Dari,’ I said, providing a Pashto equivalent. ‘In Urdu too.’
‘Same meaning in Turkish,’ said Hussein, as he spooned dessert into his mouth.
Pervez added: ‘In Arabic as well.’
‘An important word then.’ Shamsuddin moved his plate of dessert away and pulled off a piece of chappali kebab. ‘And I have an important question to ask. Who are the people who gain the most from this war? Amrikan contractors profited, yes? Arms merchants who supported the Amrikan President who started the war? Every bomb that falls on our country, those people earn a profit.’
No one replied. It was clear to us that he didn’t expect any answers.
‘The battle being fought in the world today,’ Shamsuddin said, ‘is a battle between al-Qaida on the one hand, and greedy traders and military contractors represented by’ – he popped the morsel of kebab into his mouth – ‘al-Faida, the profiteers, on the other hand. And I don’t think I need to tell you whom we support.’
* * *
Pervez then proceeded to outline the plan.
‘Has anyone thrown a grenade before?’ He glanced around, and quickly assessed we were all inexperienced. ‘Don’t worry. It’s as simple as learning how to boil an egg. You’ll get to practise using AK-47s and you will all become expert marksmen. We’ll take you to a special training camp, teach you how to fire bullets and throw grenades, and then we’ll send you to Kabul.’ He turned to Shamsuddin. ‘Mullah sahib will join you there to help with the planning. Is that okay?’
That was the first and last time I saw Pervez, for I never met him again, not once, not during our training sessions in the mountains or the planning exercises in Kabul.
Continued to “The Sitting Ducks”