Continued from “Journey to Kabul”
The Sentimental Terrorist - 18
Mohsin Khan, TV Hill
In less than two hours the dawn will break on the day I have been waiting for. The day we have all been waiting for. At last I will see the face of the man who blighted my life.
Four Chinese-made AK-47s were delivered in a wooden box to Shamsuddin’s quarters inside the Green Mosque the day after our meeting with the minister. Pervez’s planning was meticulous. Together with the gleaming black guns with their yellow wooden supports at the end of the barrel and brown butts – identical to those we had practised using – there arrived a second box full of ammunition magazines. A separate cloth bag contained Russian-made chest pouches that would enable us to carry extra cartridges on our person.
Two days before our planned attack, Abbas and I went to collect the grenades from the minister’s large bungalow in Wazir Akbar Khan.
Government and police vehicles were parked outside. That worried me at first, as I feared the minister’s connections with the Taliban had been discovered and there might be some kind of a trap set for us.
‘Engineer Rustom,’ the board outside said. ‘Deputy Minister – Anti-Narcotics.’
‘Let me call Shamsuddin,’ I said, taking my mobile phone out of my pocket. ‘Just to be sure that we have the right address.’
‘Yes, bachiya,’ the mullah boomed. ‘You have the correct address. Government vehicles outside, did you say? You can be sure then that you are in the right place. You don’t have to say anything. Anything at all. Just tell the guard outside that you’ve been sent by me. They won’t give you any trouble then.’
Upon hearing that we were ‘Shamsuddin’s men’, the security guard smiled broadly and personally escorted both of us to a large living room on the ground floor. And a few minutes later we had in our possession a box of grenades. From the outside it was just an ordinary cloth bag, with perhaps a crate of large Pakistani Alphonso mangoes inside.
‘Carry them carefully,’ said a western-attired man who claimed to represent the minister – who of course was too busy to see us, even if he allegedly sympathised with our cause. ‘You wouldn’t want to go to Jannat before time, would you?’ He smiled.
His joke was, I’m certain, completely lost on Abbas.
So far so good.
I suggested we take a taxi back to TV Hill, but Abbas didn’t want to spend money. We didn’t have more than five days left to carry out our mission, but if he still wanted to save money I was willing to do what he wanted. So we boarded one of the red minibuses that run through the streets. This one was heading towards the Kabul river, the point where we generally got off. Opposite us sat a teenage girl and a young woman who resembled her, possibly her elder sister.
An Urdu song played on the radio. It was one I recognised from an Indian film, a simple but melodious tune: a mother singing a lullaby to her child. I thought of my own mother, long dead, and my now dead sister.
Next to me, I felt Abbas’s body stiffen. I saw him grimace. It was never clear to me whether Abbas was influenced by Shamsuddin’s frequent rants about the evils of music and television or whether the credit for this went to the mullah in his home town who had put him in touch with the Taliban. As the time approached for us to act, his religious fervour grew more ardent.
Anger bubbled inside. My knowledge of his reaction intruded upon my listening pleasure. What in Allah’s name could anyone find objectionable about this song? I found myself wondering about his relationship with his mother.
At the red light the music changed to something romantic. An old Hindi song from the sixties.
‘Listen to me, you!’ shouted Abbas. ‘Why are you playing that song? Switch it off.’
‘What’s your problem?’ asked the driver nonchalantly.
‘I tell you what’s the problem,’ said Abbas angrily. ‘It’s disgusting.’
‘What’s disgusting about it, brother?’
‘The music. The lyrics. It’s all disgusting. Listen to the words. Talking about a woman’s lips and wanting to kiss them. Ugh.’
I had to stop myself from laughing. And yet I didn’t want to argue with my companion on our last days together, so I kept quiet and waited for the driver to turn off the music.
Something extraordinary happened. The two young women turned on Abbas.
‘Nothing disgusting about the music,’ said the older of the two. ‘And we want to listen to it.’
‘The Taliban is no longer governing the country,’ piped up the teenager. ‘We have democracy.’
‘Music is allowed,’ continued the first woman. ‘You shouldn’t ask the driver to turn it off.’
‘Don’t my feelings have to be respected?’ said Abbas, taken aback.
‘You don’t even have a proper beard, brother, and you are already talking like an old man,’ the teenager taunted.
The driver, clearly amused by all this, turned to me, sensing in my silence sympathy with the majority view. ‘What do you think, biradar?’
Abbas said, ‘Tell them to turn it off, Mohsin.’
I was the biggest and tallest in the group and my recently grown full beard added to my impressiveness. Everyone turned to me as if I were a judge, by whose verdict they would all abide.
‘It is none of your business,’ I told Abbas.
‘If you want to get off, you can.’ The driver smirked at Abbas. ‘I won’t charge you.’
The stink of the Kabul river penetrated the minibus; we were now near the point where we usually disembarked. Abbas made grumbling noises as we got off.
Turning back to look, I saw the women falling about giggling.
‘The mullah will not be happy with your attitude,’ Abbas said. ‘I’ve a mind to tell him.’
‘Go ahead and complain if you like,’ I said coolly, settling the cloth bag carefully on my shoulder. ‘I think he will be more concerned about your saving a few Afghanis by not taking a taxi. And creating unnecessary risk for our mission by getting into arguments.’
He didn’t have a comeback for that one.
* * *
We each had a few thousand Afghanis to spend as we liked, but there didn’t seem to be anywhere to spend it. Despite my love of music there wasn’t much point in buying a small stereo just for a few days. I could manage as well with my small transistor radio. At the height on the hill where I lived, my transistor picked up music stations in neighbouring Pakistan and Tajikistan as well as further off in Iran and India. On one occasion Hussein and I went to see an Indian film at one of Kabul’s rundown cinemas. We didn’t bother to ask the virtuous Abbas if he would like to come.
Abbas spent most of his money on food. He believed that there were Islamic injunctions against wine and song, but food of any description and in any quantity was permissible just so long as it was halal. He had put on a few pounds in these last days.
In contrast to Abbas, Hussein wasn’t too fond of eating excessively. As for myself, I preferred Afghan food to any other kind. Still, for Abbas’s sake and out of curiosity we agreed to join him in his food adventures. We accompanied him to a Chinese eatery as well as an expensive Lebanese restaurant, frequented mostly by firangis. Neither Hussein nor I wished to sample American food. But Abbas was keen, and one day upon his insistence we went for a meal to Humburgher King, a café at a short distance from Kabul University. The spelling was wrong and the signboard outside hung in a twisted fashion; inside, the concrete flooring and rough-hewn wooden tables reminded me of the university canteen in Islamabad.
We ordered six large beefburgers. The restaurant gave a discount if you ordered Coca Cola too, so we ordered bottles of Coke as well.
A young boy brought our order, carefully balancing the misshapen tray on his small hands. The burgers were only medium-sized and the buns flatter and whiter than those I’d eaten years before in a genuine Burger King in Islamabad. Here there were no accompanying French fries, but the burgers were hot and steaming, the meat inside more greasy. Oil had drenched the pink tissue wraparound, and it continued to drip, but this was a variation that suited our Afghan palates.
‘It surprises me, brother,’ I said, trying to provoke Abbas, ‘that you are so willing to try the infidel Amrikan food. You’ve even persuaded poor Hussein and me to join you here today.’
‘The meat is halal, Mohsin jan,’ said Abbas, taking my words at face value. ‘And food you must know is the gift of Allah. Even the infidel’s food.’
I nearly choked on my hamburger. Abbas was beginning to sound almost as sanctimonious as Shamsuddin.
Large posters of Kung Fu fighters and body-builders of various nationalities covered the walls of the café; these would have been more suited to a boys’ hostel room. Despite the foreign food served here, there wasn’t a single firangi inside. It was mostly young students, including a few girls.
‘Name three things that the Amrikan has in common with the Afghan,’ Hussein said, as he munched the burger.
‘Both country names start with alif,’ I said. ‘Capital A.’
Hussein shook his head.
I believe Hussein was so impressed by the way Pervez had wittily compared the Americans to ordinary Muslims during our dinner with the Taliban leader that he was trying to stretch his mind and be creative in a similar fashion.
‘Go ahead, tell us,’ said Abbas, already started on his second burger. Doubtless it would be added to the list of appetisers he would require the houris to place at the feast, the dastarkhan, once he reached Jannat.
‘The first is the yellow taxi,’ Hussein said. ‘You see yellow taxis on the streets of Kabul and you see them in New York.’
Abbas asked, ‘How do you know this, Hussein?’
‘Television,’ he replied. ‘I watch it even though the mullah forbids it.’
‘What’s the second?’ I dipped my burger into tomato sauce.
‘The second,’ said Hussein, as he stared at the greasy half of the remaining burger as if for inspiration. ‘The second,’ he repeated, ‘is that we both love lots of oil in our food.’
Scepticism lining his voice, Abbas said, ‘This is greasy, but that’s because they’re making it here. It may not be the same in Amrika.’
‘Even oilier than this,’ Hussein said. ‘An Amrikan cannot live without oil. Their factories and their cars need oil so they start these wars. And their stomachs too need oil.’ He laughed. ‘But we Afghans are tough, hardy people and we work hard, so our bodies manage to absorb all that oil. The Amrikans can’t do that, which is why their children are becoming obese. I once saw a programme about it.’
‘Subhan Allah.’ Abbas smacked his lips in appreciation. ‘Some people might argue that Amrikan food is not as tasty as our food. That is not true.’
He sank his teeth into the remainder of his second burger and signalled for another.
‘That’s because they put opium in it,’ said Hussein, with a sly expression.
‘Of course not!’ protested Abbas.
I said: ‘We have most of the opium, Hussein jan. Amrika doesn’t have much opium.’
‘It may be some other drug, Mohsin jan,’ said Hussein. ‘I grant you that, but it’s well known that they put it into their food. They put it into Coca Cola as well. That’s why Amrikans are addicted to these two things. No Amrikan can live without burgers and Coke. ’
He drummed the table with his fingers, and started to chant tunelessly in Pashto, shaking his head to the beat. ‘Eat burgers. Drink Coke. Eat burgers. Drink Coke.’
Some students turned to watch him. The girls giggled.
‘Maybe in Amrika they put in drugs,’ Abbas said. ‘Not here. This is all halal.’ He launched himself on his third burger.
* * *
Over the past few days I have started to bond with Hussein and understand him better. Sometimes he is animated, but in general he has a quiet demeanour and does not voice his opinions readily, though his views are well considered. Recently he has started to open up to me.
The other afternoon I asked him about his family, and he showed me several photographs he’d brought with him. I’d never met his wife, of course, but I could tell from Hussein’s photos that she had been beautiful. There were pictures of her in the family home as well as in public settings, and I was surprised to see that she wore only a hijab or scarf.
‘You didn’t wish her to wear a full face-veil? A burqa?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘She was very religious but said the burqa had nothing to do with religion. Islam insists on a woman’s modesty, nothing else.’ He paused. ‘But you know she expected her husband to sport a long Islamic beard. We constantly argued over it, for at the time I preferred a short beard.’
‘You have the height to carry off a full-length beard.’
‘One of the reasons I kept it short was that at the time I didn’t like the Taliban. You know how they insisted that if you were religious you should keep a long beard. I didn’t like that kind of thing.’
‘And your wife? What were her views?’
‘Oh, she didn’t like them either. For her I think it may have had something to do with the fact that she had grown up in Saudi Arabia, where her father was employed for many years. She sulked every time I trimmed my beard.’
‘And now you keep it long.’ I was struck by the irony.
‘After my wife died, I grew it in her memory,’ he said sadly.
* * *
These days I often prefer to keep away from Abbas and Hussein’s company. I stay inside my room staring at the snow-flecked mountains beyond and musing over the terrible events in my past, but then I get agitated, and there is no one on whom to vent my anger. So I force my mind to turn away from those thoughts and I walk down to the city for a change.
When I trudge down TV Hill along the muddy path towards the grey, swirling waters of the filthy Kabul river, I find signs marked all over the ramshackle slum. Red signs indicate dangerous areas where it isn’t safe to walk about, and white crosses denote the places that are now safe, having been cleared of mines.
Shamsuddin maintains that it is deceitful of the western powers to make small efforts to repair the damage they themselves caused.
‘What is the point, my friends,’ he thunders, ‘of bandaging someone after you have wounded him – or of burying him after you have tortured and killed him?’ He pauses dramatically. ‘They are all the same, these firangis. The ones who cause deaths and misery; and those who come to comfort and heal. They only appear to be different. This is done to confuse us. To confuse Afghan people about their true nature. To make them believe they belong to different groups. But the truth is they are all the same.’
Mines are scattered all over my country. Michel once told me that the western agencies clearing these mines measured the clearance in cubic centimetres; when they announced that so many million cubic centimetres had been cleared it only meant a few hundred acres.
Once I reach the river, I spend my time wandering through the markets. Vendors occupy most of the pavement and what remains is not enough for all the shoppers on foot, so you have to push and shove your way through. Stalls sell kebabs; blood-red slices of the extra-long watermelons from Mazar-e Sharif; Kandahari pomegranates at three times their price in my home town; and bolani, the deep-fried pastry stuffed with mashed potatoes and leeks. Stallholders beckon me, offering fake bargains for cheap suitcases, bags, books and posters displayed for sale on blue plastic stretched out on the pavement. But I need nothing. I have only days left to live.
Some days I eat dinner by myself at a famous kebab restaurant in the Macro Rayan area. A newly built wedding hall called Five-Star Diamond stands just beside the kebab shop. A war doesn’t stop people from getting married, and it seems to be doing good business. I often see a line of cars parked outside.
The owner of the eatery engages me in small talk sometimes. He lives nearby and complains that music is played all night long, without any consideration for the neighbours. Any attempt to regulate the loud, blaring music is met with the standard response that the time of the Taliban is over.
I love music, but I don’t think we should play it so loudly and all night without any consideration for others. But then, I tell myself, it is inevitable that in the beginning people will misuse their new-found freedom.
In Kandahar you can’t hear loud music. And in many Taliban-controlled areas in the vicinity you can’t hear music at all. That’s terrible. Given a choice I would say that I prefer to have music, even if sometimes it becomes a nuisance for others.
Kabul is different from Kandahar in the quantity of music I hear, the number of TV antennae I see, and these are good things in my view, but it is also different because here it has now become easy to obtain alcohol. And this is haraam under Islam. The kebab shop where I have my meals does not serve any alcohol, but the owner tells me there are many restaurants that do serve it. Most of these are places frequented by foreigners. When I walk back home after dinner I often come across gangs of youths in an inebriated state. Why should we change the rules of our society for the sake of some firangis?
* * *
Last night, a little before dinner, Shamsuddin embarked on a final round of briefing.
We were all assembled inside a large spare room inside Hussein and Abbas’s lodgings where our last meal together would take place.
‘I would be only too happy to join you in tomorrow’s adventure,’ the mullah said, ‘but Allah wishes that I prepare soldiers who are ready to die for the sake of our religion and people. And I cannot continue to do this work if I become a soldier myself. But, believe me, my young friends, nothing on earth would give me greater pleasure.’
‘Of course, Mullah,’ we all assented.
‘All right then,’ he said, wiping a tear with his sleeve. ‘Have you understood the drill?’
‘One outside and two on the inside,’ offered Abbas.
‘No, two outside and two inside,’ Shamsuddin said.
We looked at each other. There were just the three of us.
‘There has been a slight change of plan.’ Shamsuddin cleared his throat. ‘This guesthouse has two additional security guards outside now. The Amrikans have also received word that you, my soldiers, are here.’
‘Who told them?’ burst out Abbas.
‘If there are people in this infidel government who support us, who support Afghanistan, there are also traitors among us who sell their soul for a few Amrikan dollars.’ Shamsuddin stroked his beard. ‘Do not worry, Abbas. The person who was selling information has been . . . khrrrrr.’ He made a sliding movement around his neck.
Hussein said: ‘Since yesterday there have been roadblocks all over Kabul. I spoke to a local policeman . . . an infidel policeman’ – he corrected himself – ‘and he told me this is the way it’s going to remain until the elections.’
Abbas said: ‘Hussein jan, that is the reason Mullah sahib has got those excellent uniforms tailored for us.’
‘My concern is,’ Hussein said, ‘that it may not be enough. We will be wearing uniforms but we will be in an ordinary car. And the enemy knows that wearing the police uniform is an old trick. We may get stopped, and asked to produce ID.’ He paused significantly.
‘Listen to me, both of you,’ said Shamsuddin, raising his voice, ‘or will you both keep on talking? I’ve been thinking of exactly the same things and that’s why we have brought in, at the very last minute, the fourth man who will accompany you tomorrow. With this man you will have no problem in reaching your target.’
We looked at him expectantly. Who was this fourth man whose mere presence would resolve the problems raised by Hussein?
‘This man’s name is Latif and you will meet him in a short while from now. He will spend the night with Hussein and Abbas in the spare room and you can get acquainted with each other during the course of the night.’
‘Who is this man?’ I asked.
‘An infidel policeman. No –’ It was the mullah’s turn to correct himself. ‘This person, he is a real policeman, and will be a true martyr to our cause. And, Hussein jan, he will have the ID card that you mentioned and he’ll arrive soon in a police car. Any problem now?’
‘Muskil neest,’ Hussein said. ‘No problem now. But where did you produce this policeman from, Mullah sahib?’
‘He has been keen to help us for a long time, and this was the best time,’ the mullah said. ‘We have others who are waiting. For example, if any of you changed your mind’ – he saw our expressions – ‘I’m just saying, it does happen, not everyone has your courage, my friends, and if it does happen we need to have someone to replace you. Tomorrow’s attack has to take place. Any more questions?’
We shook our heads.
‘Good,’ said Shamsuddin. ‘We surveyed the area only yesterday. There are five guards posted outside the guesthouse. And they should not pose much of a problem for you. You will be dressed in police uniform and you’ll arrive in a police car. Once you have got rid of the guards on the outside, then Hussein and Latif will remain outside and Mohsin and Abbas will go inside.’
We all nodded.
I had always thought that the weakness of our plan lay in the numbers. Three men weren’t enough. Just a single person on the outside could not hold back the large numbers of Afghan police who would gather as soon as the alarm was raised. Even if in the end all of us were to be killed, it wasn’t fair to put such responsibility on one man’s shoulders.
Two days previously Hussein and I had passed by the guesthouse that we were going to attack. We had seen the increased presence of the guards but had not brought it to Shamsuddin’s attention. In a surprise early-morning attack, when in all probability the guards would be dozing, three would be able to take out five. Hussein pointed out the guard-house where he would be stationed.
‘Made of cement and concrete,’ he said approvingly. ‘Much better than the tin and wooden shacks in the other guesthouses.’
‘You won’t have any outside gunfire getting through those walls,’ I said.
‘Exactly. And equally importantly, Mohsin jan, they have those steel shutters that you can close. And you can aim at your enemy through those small gaps.’
I returned from these reflections to the present.
‘. . . the firing starts,’ the mullah was saying, ‘you can assume that the police, these Afghan traitors in uniform, will be there within about ten minutes. Once you kill the guards outside there are bound to be a couple of inmates inside the guesthouse who will realise something is going on and they will immediately call their employers, who will then call the police. And once the police are there in full force, my friends, don’t hesitate to send each and every one of them to Jahannam. As for you three, let me just say that Jannat is now not far away.’
I turned to glance at Abbas.
He looked serious, but committed.
So did Hussein.
So was I.
‘Your aim therefore,’ Shamsuddin continued, ‘should be to inflict maximum damage within those first ten minutes. Try and kill as many of these foreigners, these infidels, as you can.’
‘One question,’ I said. ‘Is there anyone inside the guesthouse who may have a weapon?’
‘There is a security officer with a gun,’ Shamsuddin said. ‘It’s possible there may even be two. Be extremely vigilant and alert. You have to take full advantage of the element of surprise. The enemy will not be expecting this attack.’
The issue of who would go inside the house and who would remain outside had been settled through mutual discussion and agreement. I demanded that I be allowed to enter the house at all costs because I wanted to have a look at the man, that reckless helicopter pilot, who had pointed the bombers to a certain target: a wedding taking place in my village. I knew his name but there would be no time to ask names. Yet I also knew he imitated a goat in the style of his beard and he wore offensive clothing. I wanted more than anything else to be face to face with my enemy, to see fear leap into his eyes, and have the pleasure of firing the bullet that ended his life.
As regards Hussein and Abbas, they had been given the choice. Abbas had insisted on going inside with me. I believe that he thought he would gain greater merit if he killed foreigners, non-Muslims, rather than the policemen outside the guesthouse, who would be fellow Muslims and fellow Afghans.
* * *
An Afghan police car drove up a little after the final briefing was over. We heard the sound of someone parking in the open space next to our building. It was a red four-wheel drive, one of the few expensive trappings our local police were allowed.
A man in police uniform stepped out. He had the hairiest nose I have ever seen. Black hair fell over the slopes of his nose where it merged with the rest of his face. Thick hair protruded from his nostrils as well. I wondered why he didn’t bother to shave his nose or trim his nostril hair. Or did that too constitute piety for him? I laughed silently to myself. After the initial introduction followed by yet another short briefing from Shamsuddin for his benefit, we settled down for a round of tea, and waited for the man who would enact the Shahnama for us.
Continued to “ Savouring Big, Fat Lobsters in a Warzone”