She strode purposefully towards me. Beautiful as always despite the sunburnt snub-nose, she was dressed in a blue and green shalwar kameez. Her head was demurely covered with a maroon scarf, but her movements across the mosaic-tiled floor were those of a woman who hadn't grown up in this country. Too confident.
Unsmiling, almost stern.
My destiny drummed its heels closer. For I had no doubt that she was my future. If I had one.
I was so shocked that for a moment I thought I had died and it was an angel I beheld.
Then I saw him.
At some distance behind her stood the familiar silhouette of a man I knew.
Even in my narcotised state of numbness, in which I didn’t know anymore whether I would live or die, where to be absolutely accurate I was seconds away from completing this cycle of my life, with the domed ceiling of the passageway careening before my eyes like a sinking ship, I shut my eyes and reopened them twice to see if the images would vanish.
It was her past that stood in the shadows.
The drug dragon was settling into me, flexing its muscles and enervating mine, taking over all my bodily functions, and hurtling me and what remained of my mind into oblivion.
An overwhelming sadness washed over me at the knowledge that I would soon be gone. A satisfaction tainted with bitterness bubbled up as I realised that at the very moment that death drew me into her arms, my future was reaching out to shake hands with her past.
And with this last thought, I slipped into unconsciousness.
My Girlfriend, The Taliban
Chapter 1 of An Afghan Winter
When I entered the dining hall of the Aram guest house that day, I saw her instantly. The most beautiful woman I had ever seen. Sitting alone.
I inhaled sharply, the way I might have done a decade earlier during my days at university when confronted with a particularly alluring feminine presence. For all of two seconds the rest of the room faded into an impressionistic painting.
It wasn’t only the fine features, the wheatish-white colouring of her skin, or the slowly sloping eyes; it was all of this, this visual symphony, accompanied by the light that her life force threw out. Real beauty is always indescribable.
Most tables in the marble-floored room were already occupied by a mix of nationalities, predominantly Japanese and Iranians.
Sensing my gaze, she turned her head; our eyes met, and she was quick to offer me a welcoming smile.
‘Are you … Chinese?’
She asked this question in an easy, familiar manner, and indicated the vacant chair beside her. Despite the probabilities of this happening, in Kabul of all places, we instantly connected with each other. I felt that I knew her from a past life.
‘From India,’ I said, sitting down.
‘You look a bit different.’
‘India is multiracial,’ I said, stroking my beard, and thinking that perhaps it was the high cheekbones I’d inherited from my Tibetan mother that for her marked me out as special. ‘Kashmiris in the north are as white as Europeans, and the southern Keralites often as black as any African.’
She smiled. ‘I’d love to visit your country.’ She put out her hand towards me. ‘I’m Zeenat. Originally Afghan – now American. I’ve come back to work with the government here.’
‘What do you do?’
Silenced, I hid a smile. If you made the mistake of asking a gender expert what that meant, you’d get hammered with further jargon. Were these real jobs?
Zeenat said, ‘After three years at a Washington think tank, I was looking for an opportunity to be in the field.’
‘Time to see the tanks instead of just think-tanking.’ What a corny, even inappropriate thing to say, I thought, as soon as the words left my mouth.
‘Sort of.’ She crunched buttered toast with a smile. ‘You still haven’t told me your name.’
‘Anzan.’ It was a Tibetan word that meant ‘quiet mountain’.
‘Anzan.’ She tossed the word around her tongue. ‘Are you Muslim?’
‘Try some bolani.’ She pushed towards me a plate of crispy, brown fried bread that threw off tantalising aromas. ‘An Afghan delicacy – full of leek and potatoes. Divine.’
It was topped with fragrant butter, whose shiny whiteness matched the colour of the chandelier that hung over us.
I thanked her, took a piece, dipped it into a bowl of plain yogurt on the table, and swallowed. Delicious.
My teeth froze in the middle of my second bite as the sound of an explosion flooded my ears, numbing them for a few seconds. Dull, heavy, reverberating sound. Not too far. Not too close. But too close for comfort. Fear slithered up and down the vessels of my heart.
‘Noooo!’ A young blonde-haired girl in the corner, who’d arrived only the previous day, screamed. And again.
‘Nooooooo!’ We turned to look at her quieten, then start to sob. Her friends at the table soothed her.
A few people in the room took out their radios. Tension crackled in the air, as did the switched-on devices.
‘Oh, God.’ Zeenat looked pale. Vulnerable. Almost instinctively I put my hand on top of hers.
‘Three rockets landed Presidential Palace.’ A Japanese man seated near our table who’d just heard an update addressed no one in particular.
‘Not the palace!’ Zeenat’s face lurched forward and her brow creased. ‘Michael …’ Her voice shook. ‘…A friend has a meeting there today with the Chief of Security.’
‘It’s a holiday.’
‘I know, but still a meeting was planned.’
‘Too early for any meeting. Don’t worry.’
‘I have to go up to my room. I’ve left my phone there. I need to call and check if he’s okay.’
‘Are you okay?’ We had only just met, but already I felt protective towards her.
‘Yes.’ She paused. ‘I’ll see you later.’ She stood up, her body trembling, and flowed out of the room.
This time the explosions were louder, closer to hand, and my ears pinged for longer. The building shook. Paranoia surfaced that some unseen force in the sky was moving the trajectory of the blasts closer to our building. With slowed breathing and faster heart rates, we awaited further news.
Silence. Nothing more. I exhaled in relief. Partial relief. You could never be sure this was the end.
There was light chatter in the room. Nothing to do. Nowhere to run. Just part of the regular ritual I was getting used to.
‘Nothing,’ the same man announced. ‘Nothing happen. This time also palace. Rocket land in garden. No one hurt. Nothing to worry.’
With this announcement the tension slowly seeped out of the room, like a snake sliding back into its hole. Ninety-five per cent of the rockets fired by the Taliban landed safely, but you never knew.
* * *
Thursday afternoon, a national holiday. With little else to do, I took a book to read in the lounge. Shiny green drapery fell over wide windows. Through drawn curtains I saw the lawn and, ahead of the manicured grass, still-surviving rosebushes and pretty poplar trees. Beyond the walls circling the guest house, snow-clad mountains threw off smoke-like wisps of cloud.
The six-foot-high fence fixed on the eight-foot wall, and the green-uniformed guards at the gate with black automatic weapons were a reminder that, despite the tranquility within, there was a war raging outside.
My morning companion sat on one of the hand-woven cane chairs opposite a round mahogany table. Two cups of green tea steamed lightly. A petite young girl, whom I judged to be about eleven, sat besides her.
‘Like some tea?’ Zeenat smiled up at me, as she stroked the girl’s hair.
‘Sure.’ I lowered myself into a chair. I addressed the girl. ‘Salaam.’
It took all my nerve not to recoil in shock as she turned to face me. I had seen an attractive profile, but the other side of her face was hideous. Her forehead was streaked white where the flesh had burnt off, as if someone had applied paste to it. The right eye was nearly shut and evidently sightless; the skin below had turned a muddy brown. Reddish scars ran across her face like snails.
‘Salaam.’ Her voice was little more than a whisper.
Shock gave way to sadness. Was there a kind cosmetic surgeon somewhere who would help her regain her beauty? She would have been a lovely girl without the disfigurement.
‘Shabba khair, bibi.’ The girl got to her feet.
‘Shabba khair, baccha.’ Zeenat patted her arm.
The girl walked unsteadily to a corner where a serious-looking bearded man waited with a woman in a black dress. They all bowed gently to Zeenat and went out of the door.
‘She’s going to study at a school I’m helping set up,’ Zeenat said.
‘Why did they come to you?’
‘The parents want her to go to a smaller school where she can have some individual attention. You know how kids are. They’re likely to make fun of her in some of the bigger places.’
‘Uh huh.’ This was real work. I felt ashamed for having been judgemental about her occupation earlier in the day.
‘This morning’s incident …’ I sipped the tea. ‘Is your friend okay?’
‘Yes, Michael’s fine, although …’ Anger sharpened her tone. ‘…he took so long to answer the phone, and then there were the other two blasts. I was so worried. You know him?’
‘The sports adviser?’
‘Yes.’ I saw her bite her lip. I thought I knew what that meant.
I’d met Michael Andrews two days previously while walking down the staircase. Hair thinning from the centre of his head created for him a woollen crown; his body combined a mildly protuberant belly with lumpy muscles. Too many workouts with too much beer?
‘Trying to set up an Afghan basketball team,’ he said. ‘Adviser to the Ministry of Youth,’ he elaborated, when he saw my surprised expression. Not the most likely occupation for an international worker in a post-conflict scenario. And poor Zeenat, in the moment of her morning’s distress, had accidentally revealed that the sports consultancy might be a cover for something else.
Zeenat was asking, ‘What do you do, Anzan?’
‘Journalist. I’ve been sent here by my masters in Dubai to train some Afghans. Urdu samajhtee hain? Do you speak Urdu?’
‘Very rusty. Like many Afghans during the war, I spent time inside a refugee camp in Pakistan – but not long enough to learn it properly. We soon moved to the US. I wonder how I would have managed if I’d remained here.’
‘Life would certainly have been different.’ I squeezed more lemon juice into my tea.
‘I’d have been married for one thing.’ She laughed, but quickly grew sober. ‘And if I’d had a daughter ...’ She shivered.
I stared at her.
‘Look at what happened to the girl with me just now …’
‘You don’t mean …’ I had assumed the scars to be the result of a kitchen accident, the kind that frequently happen with the kerosene stoves commonly used in Afghanistan.
‘I spoke with her in private just now. Two weeks ago she was returning from school when two Taliban on a motorbike threw acid on her. She ran home screaming. Her poor parents rushed her to hospital at once. You’ve seen her. Those scars are still healing.’ She shook her head in anger, eyes brimming over with tears. ‘I can’t imagine how terrible it must have been.’ She paused. ‘My family is originally from those parts.’ She gave a slight shudder.
Mindless monsters! Ever since the Taliban destroyed the world’s tallest Buddhas some years previously, I’d hated them from the depths of my heart. And now I was witness to further barbarism. Anger surged inside me. The irony of it was that the word ‘Taliban’ actually translated as ‘student’.
Kabul’s government had relatively liberal values – during my taxi ride from the airport I’d seen dozens of lively blue-uniformed girls heading for school – but in places like Kandahar religious righteousness was measured by the length and thickness of your beard. Big-bearded men carried small vials full of hydrochloric acid to attack little girls returning from school.
Zeenat said: ‘The family fled Kandahar just so their daughter can be educated. Can you imagine? They’ve had to leave their home, their small business …’
An old pain surfaced and started to throb somewhere in the recesses of my heart. I felt my throat choke. It was because of something else I was reminded of.
In 1959 my mother escaped the persecution of Tibetans in China, following the flight of the Dalai Lama across the Brahmaputra. In Dharamsala she met and married my father. He too travelled thousands of miles to the northern state in the lower Himalayas to escape oppression within his own country. High-caste Hindus attacked the outlying section of his village in the state of Bihar. A massacre followed, and over a hundred chamars were killed. Hiding behind a bush, he was terrified by the screams, the sounds of death.
But I didn’t say anything.
Zeenat said: ‘There are countries where the opposition goes underground …’
‘Many places.’ The opposition in Tibet was not only underground; much of it was forced into exile in India.
‘Yes, but that’s because they have a different ideology maybe. Here, it’s worse. Far worse.’ Her voice rose in anger and excitement. ‘You have to go underground to teach girls. Just to be able to bloody teach girls maths and geography.’
I was moved by her speech. There was real passion here. She was doing a consultant’s job but her thoughts travelled beyond the world of laptops and spreadsheets. Her heart felt more.
Regaining control over her feelings, she said: ‘In a way the Taliban is pretty smart, you know.’
‘They know that if women are educated, we will be unstoppable.’ She laughed, her good humour returning. ‘There he is.’
I turned to see the broad-shouldered, slightly paunchy figure of Michael making his way towards us.
Michael stood in front of Zeenat apologetically. He clicked his heels, saying, ‘At your service, madam,’ and gave a mock salute.
‘You’re late,’ she said.
‘Sorry about that. Traffic jam at the Wazir Akbar roundabout.’
‘Not good enough. This is the third time you’re late. I’m beginning to think it’s a way of getting attention.’
Michael grinned. ‘A way of getting attention?’ he said mockingly. ‘Do you know anyone else who does this?’
‘My six-year-old nephew,’ she said. ‘Anyhow, I’ve enjoyed a most interesting discussion in your absence and I now have to leave because I’ve another meeting to go to.’
So saying, she stood up, shoulders pulled back in annoyance, and left.
I was startled at this exchange. Zeenat had adopted a restrained and exceedingly polite tone during our brief conversation, even if she’d been passionate. Did this display of anger indicate a hot-headed temperament, or was there something else at work?
As if to confirm my nascent doubts, Michael closed his eyes and murmured: ‘My girlfriend, the Taliban.’
Chapter 2 of An Afghan Winter
Attempting a rhyme, Michael said: ‘Shall I tell you what’s been cooking without looking?’
A peculiar nasal inflection crept into his voice now and again, and his Adam’s apple bobbed up and down when he spoke, like that of an old man.
‘Go ahead,’ I said.
‘Oily kabuli pulao, oily minced beef, oily sheep curry, oily vegetables …’
I lifted the lids off the serving dishes. Afghans love dollops of fat in their meals.
‘Four out of five,’ I said. ‘You forgot the oily daal.’
Zeenat said: ‘Let’s eat out.’
We went out for dinner that night and on successive days of the long four-day weekend – Zeenat, Michael and me. In the space of just a few days we grew close to one another. This wouldn’t have been possible elsewhere, but the dangers of our host country lent an added intimacy to our encounter.
Although Michael was desperately in love with Zeenat and could have desired privacy on that account, were they to have dinner by themselves they would have found less interesting things to talk about and even have run into conversational roadblocks. It wasn’t that I was a particularly great speaker. Michael did most of the talking anyhow – after a couple of drinks he grew garrulous. It was as if I was some kind of conduit, a bridge even between the two of them, and each could communicate and start to understand the other better because I was there.
I was not only their fellow guest-house inmate and new friend; I was also becoming a kind of judge, someone to whom they both turned whenever there was a dispute between them.
It could have been Michael’s impatience over Zeenat’s refusal to go for a holiday with him, or the insensitivity Michael occasionally displayed to some aspect of Afghan culture. The repeated washing of feet before prayer, for instance.
‘Americans!’ Zeenat would exclaim. ‘I’m one myself and proud to be one, but hell – most of them are so insular. And you, Michael, are no exception, believe me. Sorry to say.’
Michael suspected that he was being targeted, and mentioned it to me a couple of times. He never did so in Zeenat’s presence, perhaps because he didn’t want to worry her.
‘Who’s targeting you, Michael,’ I said, ‘and why?’
‘I met with the Chief Security Adviser to the President yesterday,’ he said, after some hesitation – I guessed Zeenat had told him about her faux pas – ‘to warn him about some people here in Kabul linked to Al Qaeda.’
‘So is Al Qaeda targeting you?’
‘Could be,’ he said, ‘or could be someone else. I have many enemies. Thing is, I get this persistent feeling that I’m being watched and someone is waiting for an opportunity to get me.’
He wouldn’t say more, and I felt that he thought he had already spoken too much.
* * *
Eight o’clock. Monday morning. I entered the dining hall, with the thought of first making myself a cup of green tea to take up to my room; to come down later for breakfast, and then head off for work. I heard familiar voices from the lounge.
I found Michael and Zeenat sitting at one of the circular tables, next to a large, well-built man with a pumpkin face. Michael waved me across.
‘Meet Greg, my colleague,’ Michael said.
I shook hands with Gregory West. Well-built and over six feet tall, he was unshaven, with an unkempt appearance - an aggressive tilt to his chin, despite his clipped smile. From the tense atmosphere prevailing, I sensed that an acrimonious discussion had taken place.
‘Still in pyjamas,’ I said, addressing Michael. ‘You don’t seem to be working very hard with the basketball team.’
Greg said, ‘He’s not working at all.’
‘That’s uncalled for,’ Michael said.
‘It’s not true, you son of a bitch.’
‘Fuck you.’ Greg’s nostrils flared, and with mouth open he held his teeth in a bared position.
‘Fuck you too.’
‘I’m going to hit you so hard, man. You knew this was important for me.’
‘I’d no choice.’
‘You are such a fucking …’ Greg finally clamped his mouth shut, speechless with anger.
‘Come on, man. After what happened, I couldn’t give you the responsibility …’
‘That’s rich, coming from you,’ Greg sneered, an angry glint in his eye. ‘Mr Screw-Up himself. Don’t talk to me about screw-ups. Just wait and see. You won’t even know what hit you.’ Greg turned to me. ‘Be careful with this guy. Two-faced rat.’ And with this parting shot he stood up, turned and walked out through the glass door.
There were a few moments of silence. Then I said, ‘What was that all about?’
‘Office jealousy,’ Michael said. ‘Let’s talk about something else.’
Zeenat said, ‘Before we get off the topic, there’s something I want to tell you about Greg.’
‘What on earth can you tell me about Greg?’
‘Greg spent some time in your room yesterday.’
‘Really? You never mentioned it.’
‘I forgot. I’d returned to the guest house, just by chance, to pick up some files that I’d left in my room. I saw your key missing from the front desk so I assumed you’d come home early. Knocked on your door – and no prizes for guessing who opened it.’
‘You’re joking! Bastard! What the fuck was he doing in my room?’
‘I asked him, and he said, that oh, it wasn’t anything. Claimed he’d wanted to see what the rooms at the Aram were like.’
‘He could have asked someone at reception to show him a room.’
‘Exactly! That’s what I said to him.’
‘He said, “Oh, well, I needed to take a piss, and I thought might as well use Michael’s room.”’
‘Sounds like an afterthought.’
‘Why had he come to the guest house, anyway?’
‘I don’t know. At reception they are so sloppy they didn’t even notice Greg taking your key.’
‘I’m going to talk to this guy. He’s completely out of order.’
‘Greg’s a psycho. Did you see how his eyes were bulging just now?’
‘Anyhow, let’s talk about something else,’ Michael said, clearly irritated.
I said, ‘What’s with the pyjamas, man? You really don’t seem to be working, like your friend said.’
‘In fact I’m not working at all.’
‘As I said, I’m not working.’
‘I take it then that you’re spending your vacation in Kabul,’ I said. ‘Good choice, I must admit.’ I laughed as I took a sip of green tea.
Zeenat and Michael exchanged glances.
‘It’s all right, Zeenat,’ Michael said, patting her hand. ‘I think we can tell him. He’s probably guessed. Have you?’ He turned to me.
‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘Sports consultants are always meeting up with senior Presidential staff on national holidays to discuss national security issues.’
That made them both laugh, although her mirth was more muted.
‘The thing is, you’re actually right,’ Michael said. ‘I’m spending a holiday – an entire week – in Kabul, because of Zeenat.’ He took a deep breath and added, ‘I work for the American military.’
‘So that story about building an Afghan basketball team here in Afghanistan …’ I shook my head and rolled my eyeballs. ‘It sounded unlikely enough.’
‘It might have been true, mind you. I played basketball for Michigan just four years ago.’
‘And this argument just now – what was it about?’
‘Well,’ he hesitated, ‘let’s just say it was a photo opportunity with the visiting Secretary of State that Greg feels cheated out of. But I had good reasons for taking over charge. We work together at an ammunition depot. Let’s leave it at that, okay?’
‘Okay. And you, Zeenat?’
‘Oh, I am a gender expert with the Ministry of Interior,’ she laughed. ‘I don’t have to tell lies like Michael.’
‘How did you meet?’
‘Gender awareness for the Afghan military. Wasn’t easy for all those men to be lectured to by a woman.’
‘And then? Love at first sight?’
‘For me. Not for her.’ Michael shrugged.
‘I need to go now,’ Zeenat said, glancing at her watch.
‘You’re always leaving,’ I complained.
‘I know,’ she smiled, ‘but I have a flight to catch. To Kandahar. See you guys later.’ And with a wave of her hand, she went.
* * *
An orange light sped through the sky like an exotic species of squirrel and sharp on its heels followed a blue one. It wasn’t Navroz or Eid, and besides, the magical beauty of those lights was beyond that of ordinary fireworks.
‘Flares,’ Michael said, seeing the question in my eyes. ‘The Taliban have got hold of some missiles from somewhere. You fire them and they search out a heated object in the sky. The heat from those flares will throw them off the scent.’
Military aircraft were stoves burning in the sky, and this was the way to protect them from being targeted. And what, I mused, should be done to protect innocent villagers from aerial bombardment?
I said, ‘What’s your take on the civilian casualties?’ A wedding in the South had been devastated by a drone attack the previous evening.
‘Collateral damage – which can’t be helped, really.’
‘You don’t mean that.’
‘One of our ex-presidents, Nixon, used to say: “If you get them by the balls, hearts and minds will follow.”’
My ‘karma korrector’ kicked in.
‘Bullshit! And you know it.’
He stared at me, and I held his gaze.
I waited for him to respond with anger, even hostility, but he didn’t have the expected reaction.
‘You’re right, man,’ he said, his face taking on a tired, gaunt expression. Next, he put his head down on the table. Before I knew it, he was crying. The man was sobbing his heart out. He gestured for me to leave.
Up till this point I had thought of Michael as a cheerful, untroubled soul. But no, there were hidden depths of distress here. Shattered nerves? Had he seen too much fighting? Exposed to this new vulnerable side, I experienced a new closeness together with an odd sense of responsibility.
Continued to Blasted in Kabul