Continued from Previous Page
(An Afghan Winter Continued)
Nine o’clock. Monday morning. I was climbing the staircase that led up to my room on the second floor when I heard the blast. The loudest I had yet heard in Kabul – the entire building was momentarily rocked by it. As the building lurched like a drunken giant, the staircase shuddered, making me clutch the railing hard.
The blast stunned me. I stayed where I was for a few seconds, wondering if it was a bomb inside a bus on the busy street that adjoined the guest house, or something still closer to hand. A thread of smoke coursed towards me, carrying with it a sour stench that filled my nostrils. My ears felt as if water had entered them. A bomb? Inside the Aram. As if to confirm what I already knew, I saw a blackened and bloodied Michael stumbling down the staircase. Di kah zed, I thought in Tibetan. Was this really happening? And were there other blasts to follow?
This couldn’t be happening. We were together just an hour earlier. Michael, Zeenat and myself.
Although Michael was larger than me, nevertheless, with some effort, I managed to hold and support him. The injured man was speaking, but his words were garbled and unintelligible. Eyes glassy as if in communion with another parallel universe. I sat him down on a rope chair in the reception area and grabbed hold of the mobile clutched in his hand. Karim and a few guests crowded around the reception area. The two guards who’d been in the box-like structure next to the gate of the guest house raced towards the building, and one of them ran upstairs to where the blast had occurred.
I guessed that Michael was trying to call someone, but who? I scrolled down the address book of the small Nokia until I found ‘Security Operation Centre’. I pressed the call button. The phone rang. Someone at the other end spoke in a crisp, military tone: ‘Security Operation Centre, Delta Base.’
Michael had told me that he thought that someone was out to get him. But I hadn’t believed him. Had he been targeted? If so, by whom? All this could wait. Fear transmuted itself into anger. I needed to get him medical assistance. Now.
Be alert. Be aware. Especially in times of danger. The advice of a thousand Lamas pounded my mind.
The voice said: ‘Is that Yankee 362 calling?’
‘Yes,’ I shouted, as if I’d lost my temper. ‘Medical Emergency. Bomb Blast. Send Someone Now.’
Pacifying a pounding heart, I said: ‘This is Yankee 362’s friend speaking. There has been an explosion at Aram guest house. Mr Michael Andrews, one of the guests – who, I believe, is Yankee 362 – is sitting next to me, and he needs urgent medical attention. Can you do something?’
The voice at the other end quickly conferred with someone else and said, ‘Is Michael in a position to talk? Can I speak to him?’
As I turned my attention back to Michael to see if he could talk any better, his head slumped to one side of my neck. He was now evidently unconscious. ‘No,’ I said hoarsely, ‘he is in no condition to talk …’ I paused. ‘Or walk. He’s just fallen unconscious. We need an ambulance.’
‘Who am I speaking to?’ asked the voice.
‘Anzan Safri. A friend of Michael. The location of the guest house …’
But before I could complete my sentence, the voice gently interrupted me with, ‘We have the location of the Shahr-e Naw guest house, Mr Anzan. We will be there in exactly five minutes.’
In less than that time there was the sound of an ambulance screaming to a halt outside. Seconds later a guard pressed a switch to allow the big steel gates to open horizontally and let in a white minibus. Two black armoured vehicles followed.
TTwo Americans jumped out of each car. At reception the more senior of them, an African American introducing himself as simply ‘Wendell’, wanted to know who I was. Rather obvious given that I was sitting next to Michael, whose head still sagged over my shoulder. Wendell rapidly took charge and began barking orders. Two tall Afghan orderlies quickly brought out a stretcher, picked up Michael effortlessly and placed him on the sheet of plastic. The movements caused Michael to regain consciousness. He no longer made garbled sounds but was now moaning. Clearly in considerable pain.
Wendell said, ‘Nasty business, Anzan.’
‘You the owner?’ He turned to a blue-shirted man I’d just seen for the first time
The man nodded.
‘And you?’ He addressed Karim.
‘Manager.’ Both the owner and Karim wore worried expression on their faces. This wouldn’t bode well for business.
‘Forensics will be here shortly,’ Wendell said. ‘An explosion of some kind?’
The owner said, ‘Maybe boiler.’
Karim said, ‘Maybe bomb.’
‘Maybe,’ Wendell agreed. ‘That’s for forensics to determine … Please don’t let anyone touch anything until they get here.’ He turned to the redheaded American. ‘Chris, could you stay here and check things out?’ He looked at me. ‘Would you like to come to the hospital?’
I followed Wendell to one of the armoured vehicles. The ambulance was already on its way, but we caught up with it and soon our entourage was roaring through the streets of Kabul.
‘The Greek hospital, please,’ Wendell addressed the driver, ‘and we need to hurry.’
The ambulance was held up by a blue sack in the middle of the road. A burkha-clad woman sat begging, reminding me of Delhi’s sacred cows that sometimes take centre stage on our roads. Sad, for even those animals possessed greater dignity. The driver threw some change, circumnavigated carefully, and we were racing once again.
‘100 Per Cent Identity Check. No Exceptions.’
I read the large white signboard outside the gates of the military complex. Wendell jumped out, shouted at the guards and our vehicles were immediately passed through to a red-brick block, the medical section. A doctor and a nurse waited outside in readiness, and Michael was whisked inside.
‘Sorry, gentlemen,’ said the doctor, in a strong Greek accent. ‘This patient is in absolutely no condition to talk. Until tomorrow morning at least.’
Wendell looked as if he might protest, but up against the formidable firmness of the doctor he decided to agree.
‘All right, Doc,’ he said. ‘You’re the boss. What does it look like to you?’
‘Very serious,’ said the Greek, ‘but it’ll all depend on the extent of internal injuries. Going to be touch and go. The blast. Do you know what it was?’
‘Don’t know anything as yet, doctor,’ Wendell said. He turned to me. ‘Guess you may as well get back. Will you come to the hospital tomorrow?’
The doctor said, ‘Don’t come before 9 a.m.’
From the street I hailed a yellow taxi. We were held up by a military convoy passing slowly. Young boys did brisk business selling mobile top-ups. I heard drivers from adjacent cars grumble, but everyone kept a safe distance.
‘Start shooting,’ explained my driver. ‘Need to be at least hundred yards away.’
* * *
Life takes us by surprise. Constantly. Despite Michael’s worries, I hadn’t expected anything to happen. At least not so soon. No, that sounds ridiculous. Life never gives you advance notice. And despite the unexpectedness of what had happened, the seriousness and gravity, I anticipated a rolling back of the dice and restoration of equilibrium, and was unprepared for what happened next.
A Broken-Hearted Beauty
Chapter 4 of An Afghan Winter
From the guest house I headed off with a colleague to the InterContinental, where I lectured young Afghan journalists over the course of the afternoon. During breaks, I tried to call Zeenat several times, and finally got through at three.
I played down Michael’s injuries, but she wasn’t fooled.
She was flying back in any case, and would reach the guest house around seven.
For greater privacy, we retreated to a small terrace on the second floor. The gold-stitched curtains on a large window were pulled back to give us a view of a decrepit adjoining house. The plaster on the walls was crumbling and still bore a series of small bullet indentations. Gunfire hadn’t damaged the structure of the building, but was evidence of possible carnage and bloodshed not long ago.
‘Who could have done this, Anzan?’ she said once again.
‘Let’s see what Michael has to say,’ I said.
‘Unbelievable,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘What time did the doctor say?’
‘Nine in the morning.’
We went through this cyclical conversation five times. Her mind couldn’t yet absorb the enormity of what had happened.
I stared at the bullet-ridden wall of the adjoining building. I felt a twinge of guilt for appreciating the aesthetic effect the light made on the holes and dilapidated plaster. The famous soft daylight in Kabul made everything look romantic. Professional photographers often found they didn’t need to adjust the lighting to achieve the effect they wanted.
It suddenly became chilly. The guest house was centrally heated but some gap in the windows allowed a draft of air to enter. Zeenat shivered and drew her shawl close to her. We decided to leave the terrace.
AAs we crossed the glass-windowed annexe to the main dining hall, we saw a grim-faced Wendell sitting at one of the tables. Zeenat let out a scream and then a sob. I looked at her and then at Wendell. Zeenat rushed to Wendell, and stood beside him, a wordless question on her lips. Wendell was silent for a few moments.
‘I’m sorry, but I do have bad news.’ The tall, dark detective nodded slowly. ‘Yes, it is Michael.’ He paused, his face troubled and his speech heavy and slow. ‘He’s no longer with us, I’m afraid.’
HHe spoke of how in his last moments Michael called out her name, of a commemoration and memorial ceremony to be held the following morning at the American military base, and of the arrangements made to send the body back to the United States. I stood beside Zeenat and saw that she was no longer listening to Wendell, too caught up in the whirlpool of her emotions.
Her face furrowed like a peeled orange, and then the tears began falling. As she sobbed uncontrollably, I put my arms around her and held her tight, even as she mumbled a few times through her sobs, ‘I want to go to my room.’
Still holding her, I led her carefully up the staircase, and would have stayed with her longer, but for her insistence that she needed to be alone, and for her reassurance that she would soon be all right.
* * *
‘Let her recover,’ Wendell said, his tone that of someone wearied by having to be the harbinger of bad news on too many occasions. ‘But I think we can talk.’
‘I’ll be investigating this case,’ he said. ‘I’m here from Washington to investigate something else. Just happened to be around with the boys at the time you called. This business is serious enough for someone like me to take charge of – and stay on longer, if necessary.’
‘I’ve just received an update from the boys. It wasn’t a boiler.’ He shook his head like a pendulum. ‘An explosive device.’
‘So tell me. Do you suspect anyone? No, let me rephrase that question. Do you know if Michael had any enemies? Someone who hated him enough to do … this. Because, I’m telling you, this was a small device and the other rooms are not affected.’
I shook my head.
‘All right then,’ he said, ‘but think about this. And let me know if you have any ideas.’
We shook hands.
‘I’ll be in touch.’ He picked up his leather briefcase.
* * *
I heard a knock on the door. It was Zeenat, her beautiful face long and drawn, the eyes reddened with crying, her posture slack. Even in her distraught state she radiated a luminous loveliness. The lamp of her face burned less brightly but still cast a soft glow.
‘I’ve come to tell you that I’m leaving the guest house,’ she said, standing in the carpeted corridor and holding up her hands in a gesture of polite refusal to my invitation for her to come inside the room.
‘Where will you go?’
‘‘Another guest house. Anywhere. I can’t stay here anymore.’ Her voice broke and she was crying and speaking at the same time. ‘It’s too painful. Everything here will remind me of Michael.’
I tried to put my arms around her, but she resisted. ‘No, I’m okay,’ she said fiercely. ‘This is Afghanistan, you know.’
We were in the passage; were one of the hotel servants to pass by, a gesture of human sympathy could easily be misconstrued.
Then Zeenat came into my room, her forlorn face fragmented, and she hugged me fiercely for a few moments.
‘Don’t know what to do, just can’t think.’ Her brow creased. ‘I’m not going to stay here much longer. Just long enough to see if they find out who did this.’
‘Wendell will want to see you.’
‘I’ll leave my address at reception.’ Her spirit summoned up strength. ‘I better rush. Luggage all packed and the taxi’s waiting. You have my number.’
‘Of course not. Let’s meet soon.’
I nodded. Zeenat stepped out of the room, turned, and left.
I looked out of the window. Fat flakes of snow spun in the wind before softly falling. Winter had come to Kabul. I thought back to Wendell’s question. I hadn’t been exactly truthful with the detective.
IIn my view there were in fact three people who could be suspected. Who could have reason to celebrate were Michael to disappear. But to tell you whom I suspected, I will have to start from the beginning. From not that long ago. From only five days previously, when I’d been having lunch with Lavanya in an open-air restaurant that overlooked the Dubai Creek.
Loving Lavanya; A Nepali Nashpati
Chapter 5 of An Afghan Winter
I may as well mention at the very outset the names of the persons who I suspected might have murdered Michael.
Rosy-cheeked Kurt Kainzner was one. Motive: the German hated Michael for trying to shut down his charity. Opportunity: Kainzner was in the guest house till the day before the bomb blew up Michael’s room. He stayed in the adjacent room, and could have planted it underneath Michael’s bed. He wasn’t in the guest house at the time of the explosion but could have used a remote-controlled device.
Second on my list was Gregory West, who worked with Michael in the munitions depot. Motive: he was clearly furious with Michael and in my presence had threatened to ‘hit’ him hard. Opportunity: he was a man with ready access to explosives and was seen coming out of Michael’s room days before the incident.
Mansour Hashimi, the gigantic Pashtun who owned the Afghan Media Group, was my third suspect. Motive: Michael alleged that Mansour’s company was linked to Al Qaeda, and had been trying to have the company shut down. Opportunity? He wasn’t a resident at the Aram, but it could be him because he’d visited just a few days before the incident, and I had in fact seen him coming down the corridor where Michael’s room lay. But let’s start from the beginning.
* * *
I was having lunch with Lavanya at an open-air restaurant that overlooks the famous Dubai Creek.
I was due to fly to Kabul the following day and remembered that winter was fast approaching. Dharamsala, my home town, could freeze in winter; but the cold season in that North Indian hill station in the lower Himalayas was not comparable to an Afghan winter.
I’ve done difficult assignments in dangerous places before, but when I thought of Afghanistan, I felt the secretions of fear line my stomach.
The portly American head of the media company I worked for had asked me if I could travel to Afghanistan.
‘You’ll be there for two months,’ he said in his southern drawl. ‘Yes, I know it’s not a short assignment.’
I asked him what the job entailed.
‘Training local journalists. Mostly print media. We’ll have a local partner there to help you. Aside from your lecturing duties …’ He paused to allow himself a smile. ‘… I want you to research development-related stories.’
‘Why the North?’ I said, hastening to add, ‘Not that I’m complaining.’
‘It’s relatively peaceful, that’s why,’ he said. ‘Too many stories coming out of the South. Nothing new there. Don’t you get tired of hearing the same stuff?’
My chief was my former teacher at journalism school in London, where he was an acknowledged expert in broadcast media, having previously worked with major US channels. Around the time I graduated, he offered me a job in a media company he’d set up in Dubai that would focus on development-related news mainly in North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan. A bit of an arsehole – most bosses are – he peppered his briefing sessions with clichés, one-liners and wisecracks.
‘Hey!! Wake up!’ Lavanya clapped her hands in front of my face. ‘Are you in Kabul already?’
My girlfriend worked as an air hostess and trainer for one of the major airlines in Dubai. We were taking our leisurely lunch in a section of the city that adjoined a five-star hotel and luxury villas
I said: ‘I was thinking of Kabul. I need proper shoes.’
Lavanya was quiet for all of two seconds, and quickly came up with a solution.
‘One of the new pilots was talking about how he went skiing in Dubai last weekend. That’s the place.’
Later, in the evening, we went to Ski Dubai, a huge building that combined the attraction of skiing with the usual shopping. Young children and adults wearing thick winter jackets and headgear dotted designer slopes. Outside, it was boiling.
‘Do you have a photo of your father?’ I said, as we wandered through the shopping area, past food halls selling all manner of cuisine.
‘Why do you ask?’
‘Might bump into him.’
‘Don’t have a picture,’ she said, her expression glum, ‘and you don’t have to look for him.’
‘You’ve told me yourself that you’d go to Kabul to hunt him out if conditions were safer.’
‘‘If, I said. That’s a very big if.’
Of Nepali nationality, Lavanya was the offspring of two different races, as was the case with me. Her father was an Afghan who came into Nepal from India, the place where he originally sought refuge during the years of the Russian occupation.
Her father brought in a fair amount of money and joined Karam Bahadur, a local Nepali, as business partner in a carpet shop owned by the latter. His investment proved a blessing for Karam Bahadur, who needed money badly. Bahadur suggested that the man live in his house as a guest in a spare room.
A year after this partnership began, Bahadur was gunned down by the Maoists for refusing to pay them off. He left behind Sunanda, his pregnant wife, who took over the shop. The Afghan returned to his motherland.
When Lavanya was born eight months later she had the typical high cheek bones of a Gurkha girl. In this she took after her mother, fortunately, for as the mother told her daughter years later, when she was old enough to understand, her father was not Nepali. He was the Afghan.
‘There!’ Lavanya pointed out a Timberland store. We found shoes with sufficient thermal protective cover.
Turning back towards the car park, I saw indulgent parents glued to the glass partition, watching their children jump and frolic in the snow. I was glad that I hadn’t yet married or started a family.
We sped through the sparkling lighted city past office skyscrapers and shopping malls, back to our two-room apartment near Computer Street in Bur Dubai. I had moved in with her only a few months earlier.
* * *
Lavanya strode into the kitchen and rapidly began to move pots and pans about. She was energetic even while undertaking the most mundane tasks. Today, there was extra energy to her movements, and I imagined this was because she was secretly worried about my visit to Afghanistan. She didn’t voice her concerns. The truth was that Lavanya’s mental makeup combined a romantic imagination with a strong practical streak. She realised that such travel was part of my job’s essential baggage. There was enough toughness in her to even pretend to be enthusiastic about it, as if it were an exciting adventure. The idea was to beef up her man’s spirits in any way she could. Today, on the eve of my departure, her fears were sharper than usual, but she rode on them.
‘While you’re away,’ she said, as we sat down for dinner, ‘I’ll do as many flights as I can.’
‘Uh huh.’ I spooned myself a big helping of the spicy chicken curry.
Lavanya trained fresh air hostess recruits at the airline’s training centre – one of the largest in the Middle East – but still needed to work as an air hostess for a minimum number of trips each year.
‘Let’s go to bed early,’ she said. ‘We both have an early start tomorrow.’
‘Uh huh,’ I said, my mouth full of aromatic basmati rice.
‘You know what I’m going to call you,’ said Lavanya as she ran her fingers through the beard I had been growing.
‘‘Kabuliwallah!’ she squealed and gave me a hug. ‘You look just like an Afghan.’
Chapter 6 of An Afghan Winter
‘Wake up, baby.’ The soft whisper next to my ear was sweeter than any possible ring tone.
Lavanya was gentle with me in the mornings. She herself hated to be woken up abruptly for the occasional early morning flight.
‘‘Han.’ Even in my sleep I was subliminally aware that there was a flight to catch.
A small suitcase in her hand, she looked ready for work in her smart blue stewardess’s uniform. The broad brown belt around her slim waist created the illusion of gift wrapping on something good enough to eat.
She said, ‘It’s the early morning flight to New York.’
I made to get up to see her to the door.
‘No, baby, you just stay in bed.’ Lavanya leaned over to give me a quick hug. ‘Pickup’s waiting downstairs, so I’ve got to rush. Listen.’
‘There is a way to identify my father.’
‘Does he look anything like you?’
‘No, but he carries a map on his head. A map of Nepal.’
I was baffled.
‘A large birthmark on his forehead,’ she explained. ‘It’s in the shape of my country. Ma told me that she used to tease him about it.’
‘Okay,’ I said, and although it was extremely unlikely added: ‘I’ll find him.’
‘Have a look at an atlas sometime, so you have an idea. Control your “karma corrector”. I want you safe.’
It was a private joke. Something to do with my religious beliefs. She bent down to kiss me. I felt her breath and lips on me a little longer than usual. First the whispering and then this subtle awakening of the senses. All in all, the very best morning wake-up system. I was used to being woken up like this and being briefly kissed and hugged. Then she would be off. It was the air hostess’s lifestyle. I also travelled, and fairly frequently, but not to nearly so many places. I smelled incense and realised she must have been praying to the marble statue of Buddha that adorned a corner of the drawing room. I flattered myself she might have said a short prayer for my safety in Afghanistan. Sometimes I felt guilty that I never joined her in her rituals. I was also Buddhist, but from a different background.
I first met Lavanya at a party given by the Thai embassy in Dubai. I knew a junior diplomat there, while Lavanya had struck up a friendship with the ambassador’s wife during a long flight to Bangkok. I was instantly drawn to Lavanya. While she had the giggly, excitable nature of someone not quite grown up, I also saw a quieter, more mature side. Beneath the surface, there was an almost tribal honesty, rawness and forcefulness about her being that prevented anyone from taking her lightly. After a few dinners, followed by a trip to one of the more exotic nightclubs – Dubai must boast the largest number of nightclubs per hotel anywhere in the world – Lavanya suggested that I move in with her. This was surprising for a Nepali girl. We’d been together for several months now, and the subject of marriage had not come up. I suspected she would not be averse to getting married, but wanted me to raise the issue. While I loved her more with each passing day, there was somewhere inside me a deep-seated fear of commitment.
* * *
Inside the Dubai airport terminal, next to the boarding section where I would take the Ariana Airlines flight bound for Kabul, another flight was being readied for Baghdad. I wondered if it was deliberate policy or coincidence for two of the most explosive regions in the world to have boarding desks right next to each other. For some people there might have been little to choose between the two destinations, but it wasn’t so for me.
‘Wouldn’t like to change places with those going to Baghdad?’ I heard someone say in what I thought was a German accent.
I turned to see a rosy-cheeked middle-aged man dressed in a business suit looking at me. His lips were stretched in a smile but were at odds with the baleful expression in his eyes. The flared nostrils hinted at a sneer.
‘I doubt if either Baghdad or Kabul would be many people’s favourite holiday destination,’ I said.
‘‘My name is Kurt Kainzner. You work in Dubai?’ Kainzner. He was German.
I explained that I was a journalist.
‘No.’ The question surprised me, but perhaps, he wished to share the difficulties about leaving a family back home while embarking on travel to a dangerous territory. His next statement clearly showed that such concerns were far from his mind.
‘Not me either.’ He laughed. ‘Better to be on your own, isn’t it? More fun.’
We ambled along the gleaming floor, past white-robed Arabs, to a Starbucks counter in the corner.
As I sipped coffee from a thick white cup, I learned that Kurt was the chief executive officer of ‘Development Business’, an American contractor that worked with USAID. It was a ‘for-profit’ undertaking, but in common usage such organisations were still understood and referred to as charities.
‘We’re doing a great deal of work in Mazar-e Sharif, together with the Japanese and the Koreans,’ he said when he learned of my planned visit to the city, ‘and it’s certainly worth a story. Let me show you around.’
I saw a crafty, assessing expression on his face as if he were trying to read how far soft flattery and extravagant lunches would go in persuading me to write up a glowing review of the work done by his organisation. In my profession I encountered many such people.
‘Don’t want any favours,’ he said, clever enough to read me, ‘but right now we could do with some good publicity.’ He put his cup down on the small circular table. ‘There are people trying to give us a bad press.’
‘Everywhere,’ I said, pursing my lips in a gesture of pretended sympathy.
Kurt said, ‘We don’t always have to talk about war. Let’s talk about the people who are making love in Afghanistan. I was actually hoping to go back to Kabul on a chartered flight full of young children.’
‘Really? Not exactly most parents’ idea of a good place for their children to holiday.’
‘I mean Afghan children, of course,’ said the German, smiling at how he had succeeded in shocking me.
‘But where would you find young Afghan children, and why would they go to Afghanistan if they were outside the country?’
‘Part of a project to familiarise children from Afghanistan who’ve grown up overseas,’ Kainzner said. ‘Of course, they would have gone to parts of Afghanistan that are relatively safe.’
‘Wouldn’t be easy to convince their parents of their safety.’
‘We could have thought up some incentives.’ Kainzner shrugged. ‘Anyway, I couldn’t get anyone to fund such a project so the idea fell through. It would have been good, though.’ His eyes turned dreamy. ‘The children would have an opportunity to see the slums and little shanties in which they previously lived.’ Much to my alarm, his eyes filled with a gleeful malice.
I was on the verge of making a sharp retort when the cruel look flitted out of the German’s blue eyes, and his expression became vacuous.
‘Good for the children, don’t you think,’ Kainzner said, ‘to connect with their homeland?’
I nodded quietly. There was nothing objectionable in what Kainzner had said. It was just those few seconds when the German’s expression had made me feel so uneasy. It brought to my mind the image of a cat slobbering over something it had found in the gutter.
‘Where will you stay in Kabul?’ Kainzner said.
I thought for a minute before the name came to me.
‘Aram guest house,’ I said.
‘Oh, that’s where I’ll be staying as well.’ The German drained his coffee cup with evident satisfaction. ‘You should be fine there – just keep clear of an American hothead.’
‘‘Someone by the name of Michael Andrews,’ Kainzner said. ‘Nasty man. Interfering.’ At this point, I saw a look of pure hatred enter his eyes.
I’ll probably like him if the two of you don’t get along, I thought.
‘Have you had … disagreements?’ I said.
‘No fights,’ Kainzner said, ‘although the man fights with everyone.’
AA tall, burly man dressed in shalwar kameez, who had been standing near the toilets, began to approach us.
‘Hello, Kurt,’ he said. ‘Getting back to mischief?’
There was a quiet menace in this man’s expression.
‘What rubbish,’ Kainzner said. ‘We are working hard for Afghanistan.’
‘No, you’re not.’
‘You’ve been listening to Michael’s nonsense.’
‘This time he’s talking sense.’
‘Why do you believe him?’ Kainzner begged.
‘He’s not the only one talking,’ said the man. ‘Won’t you introduce me to your friend?’
Kainzner said, ‘Meet …’
‘Anzan,’ I said.
‘Anzan is staying at the Aram,’ Kainzner said. ‘This Afghan’ – he emphasized the second word, paused and gave the impressive-looking man a meaningful smile – ‘is a permanent fixture there.’
Ignoring Kainzner’s overture, the man looked at me with a friendly smile. It was an endearing childlike smile, a strange contrast with his bulk. I had the feeling that he had walked across towards us with the intention of meeting me, not Kainzner. This was odd.
He addressed me: ‘Are you from India?’
‘Right,’ I said.
‘‘Richard Brent – from Canada,’ he introduced himself. ‘Asalam-o-alakum.’
Had my beard given him the impression that I was Muslim? No matter. I responded equably with a ‘Valeykum-us-salam’.
Richard then surprised me with a common ‘how are you’ question in Urdu. ‘Aap kaisey hain?’
‘Accha hun,’ I said. ‘I’m well.’
I was intrigued by Richard’s more than ordinary interest in cultures other than his own. His bulk suggested someone more than capable of defending himself, but his friendliness suggested a person who wouldn’t pick a fight without cause.
Following an announcement that our aircraft was ready for take-off, two plump young Afghan girls appeared behind the Ariana Boarding Desk. A queue began to form rapidly. The girls wore yellow headscarves together with full-length, respectable clothing. Kainzner and Richard strolled off to join the line. I lingered over my coffee, but when I saw the last person in the queue pass through the boarding desk I hurried up to the counter.
The window seat I requested was the last one in the aircraft. By coincidence, sitting in the aisle seat was the man with the Afghan costume. I squeezed past my large companion.
I looked out of the window, ignoring the stewardess who was moving her arms up and down in a safety demonstration. The aircraft lifted and soon we were flying over small white vessels bobbing in the Persian Gulf.
I read the first few pages of a thriller but it failed to engage me and I dozed off. I was woken by the air hostess asking me what I wanted to eat.
‘Vegetarian, please,’ I mumbled, pulling down the holding tray. ‘How much longer?’
‘Another hour, sir,’ she said, and trotted off in the direction of a demanding passenger.
‘Provided we make it,’ Richard said. ‘These mountains are treacherous.’
The tall brown mountains resembled a crushed chocolate cake with white icing. Kabul lay in a basin of the Hindu Kush mountain range, and pilots had to manage a careful downward spiral towards the city.
‘At least we’re at the rear end of the plane,’ I responded. ‘When planes crash, they generally go nose first.’
I stared down at the rugged, bleak landscape with only the highest points smudged with snow.
‘Not very green, is it?’ Richard nodded as if mind-reading me. ‘I see that book didn’t hold your interest.’ He pointed to the novel now confined to the basket in front of me. ‘American junk.’ He curled his lip.
‘I believe he’s British.’
‘Well, maybe,’ Richard conceded, ‘but the product is American. A hamburger doesn’t become a croissant if it’s served in France, does it?’
I laughed, just avoiding a spill-over of some tea.
‘I could do better.’ He paused to take a bite from a lamb samosa.
‘Do you write?’
‘Not my day job,’ he said. ‘That’s working with livestock, helping villages in the South. But I am actually working on a novel. Don’t ask me about it though.’ He drank some water. ‘Or rather ask me in a month from now.’
A crackling sound preceded an announcement for passengers to fasten their seat belts. Our plane’s trajectory curved downwards.
Kabul’s brown hills and houses moved rapidly closer through the window, as if I were seeing things through a magnifying glass. The aircraft barely nudged the ground in a smooth landing and taxied to a halt.
Welcome to Kabul
Chapter 7 of An Afghan Winter
Kabul airport was small and run-down with unwashed floors and pot holes near the runway. Immigration staff wore military uniforms with peaked caps.
Yellow taxis lounged at a short distance from the main entrance. I climbed into one, having found a driver who spoke Urdu.
The airport lay at the edge of Kabul, which gave me an opportunity to view the natural landscape that the city’s buildings would later partially obscure. Frowning grey and brown mountains encircled the city. A brutally stark landscape stood in tragic harmony with its history. Yet now and again, as the car took a turn or passed an open field, there was an unexpected splash of colour. Red and white geraniums jostled for attention with roses of all hues: pink, orange and red. It would possibly be the same with the Afghan people I would meet – a strong, rugged people and yet strangely beautiful.
It was early winter, but just as flowers threw off radiance so too did the sunshine remain. The sun’s rays penetrated the closed windows of the car to gently massage my face.
TThe taxi stopped at the corner of a large park, which the driver said was the bagh in the Shahr-e Naw or New City area. A large white board in front of a huge double-storey building proclaimed it to be the Aram guest house. I carried my luggage through a tightly guarded security room.
A smartly dressed young boy behind the reception desk sprang to attention.
‘Welcome, sir,’ he said, in English. ‘I am Karim.’
The boy looked barely fifteen or sixteen years old, too young to have the responsibilities of running the establishment. He thumbed through a register and found my reservation.
‘Come with me, please.’ He gently pushed my hand away as I made to pick up one of my suitcases. I followed him up the stairs to a room on the second floor.
‘You is from India?’ Karim said. ‘From land of King Khan?’
He was referring to Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan.
‘That’s right,’ I said.
TThe boy’s slanted eyes and smooth skin revealed he was from the Hazara community of whom I had read prior to my visit. The Hazaras were the chamars of Afghanistan. I had a sense of the pain and indignities suffered by them because of my father’s low caste and what he suffered as a consequence.
‘And Taj Mahal,’ Karim added. I guessed he didn’t want to seem too star struck.
I put him at ease by initiating a brief discussion on Bollywood’s recent releases. Most Tibetans of the younger generation who grew up in India spoke local languages and were familiar with the music and culture of their adopted country. Foreign tourists anticipating an exotic, completely distinct culture that was also somehow insulated were often surprised.
He stopped outside my room and unlocked the door. I offered him a tip.
‘Not necessary,’ he said.
This was unusual behaviour for hotel staff anywhere in the world: helpful, a dash of assertion, and yet there was something vulnerable about his demeanour. I found myself warming to him.
For the price, the furnishings gave the barest hint of luxury: a double bed, a small sofa, two chairs and a writing table. A large television faced the double bed. The glazed windows held out a view of snow-clad mountains. There was no door to the attached toilet – a bizarre touch.
Before turning to go, Karim gave me a curious look. I knew that he was intrigued by my narrow eyes and high cheek bones that combined with an unusually long nose and a thickening beard. My face was a blend between my Tibetan and Indian ancestries. Frequently mistaken for nationalities other than my own, I mused that I could possibly pass myself off as an Afghan as far as looks went.
* * *
I came up from the basement after a quick survey of the gym’s facilities to encounter Kainzner in the dining hall. A tall, gorilla-sized man sat beside him. Despite his striking, potentially threatening appearance, this man’s general demeanour was placid.
‘You’re coming to Mazar, aren’t you?’ asked the German. He withdrew a blue visiting card from his wallet and handed it to me.
The white gorilla next to him smiled pleasantly at me.
‘Karim!’ Kainzner hollered at Karim, who came in from reception to oversee the food arrangements for dinner. ‘Can I have some fruit please?’
‘You take yourself!’ Karim said. ‘And do not shout.’
Kainzner didn’t seem to mind at all. Instead of getting angry, he tried to placate Karim by saying, ‘All right, all right! Don’t get upset.’
What was going on? Keen to settle into my room, I excused myself.
* * *
My Dubai SIM wasn’t working here. I needed to call the Afghan Media Group, my local interlocutors, to let them know I was here.
As I stepped out of the room to go to reception to make the call, the large man sitting with Kainzner a short while earlier lumbered down the corridor, a broad grin plastered on his face. I looked behind me, but no, that beatific smile was meant for me.
‘Mansour Hashimi from Afghan Media Group.’ He held out his gorilla paw for me to grab and shake. ‘I thought I’d drop in to welcome you. And then I met Kurt downstairs, and we got talking. It was only after you left, just now, that he told me that you are the man I’ve come to look for.’
I looked ahead towards the other side of the corridor.
Following my gaze, he said: ‘I knocked on the wrong room by mistake. They gave me the wrong directions – or perhaps I misunderstood them. Welcome to Kabul. Our driver will be there to pick you up at a quarter past nine tomorrow morning.’
Continued to "The Afghan with an Iranian Connection"