Mar 31, 2023
Mar 31, 2023
(An Afghan Winter Continued)
There was a knock on the door. By now I was showered, changed and ready for my first day out in Kabul.
‘Hello, sir.’ Karim stood outside.
By now I understood that Karim was the de-facto manager of the place despite his relative youth. This elevated status didn’t stop him from taking luggage upstairs for guests as he had done in my case, or from helping in repairs and odd jobs. The owner of the guest house rarely turned up. He ran four other guest houses in the city in partnership with his brother, and came over only intermittently.
Karim said, ‘Everything okay? Satellite working? Hot water?’
‘No grenade in any of drawer, I hope.’
‘No grenades.’ My jaw dropped. ‘Excuse me.’
‘Last month, one guest leave six grenade in drawer,’ Karim said, with the hint of a smile. ‘Found by other guest.’ He understood from my stiff posture that he’d gone too far and sought to reassure me. ‘Now no problem. We more careful about guest.’
‘No Taliban.’ After the initial shock of it, my sense of humour returned.
‘No Taliban, no Al Qaeda.’ Karim laughed softly. ‘I came to tell you that your driver is waiting for you.’
* * *
An old, battered Mercedes waited inside the compound. A tall, bearded man opened the car door and stepped out to greet me.
‘From Afghan Media Group,’ the man introduced himself in broken English, as if this bit had been rehearsed many times. ‘I come. Take you.’
We drove through the crowded streets in the general direction of the President’s palace.
‘Office, five kilometre,’ the driver said, indicating that our destination wasn’t far. ‘Traffic problem.’ He pointed to his right. ‘French embassy. Close road.’
We made slow progress. Those visiting war-torn countries often don’t expect bumper-to-bumper traffic on the streets even in the capital, but it was my business to know better. Streets in VIP areas keep getting closed down for security reasons; the city and its capacity to handle traffic shrinks progressively.
The Afghan Media Group comprised six rooms on the first floor of a large double- storey building with shops on the ground floor and offices on the first. There was a small reception room, a room for Mansour, the managing director of the company, and several other rooms where I could see people hunched in front of computer screens. The driver pointed out the director’s office to me and excused himself.
The previous night when I met Mansour he was wearing long, flowing garments of the Afghan variety – his muscles evident even beneath all that soft fabric – but today he was in Western attire. A dark grey suit that fitted his bulk, a bright yellow tie – with his wide frame and golf-ball-sized cheeks, he carried the personality and magnetism of a prize fighter in the ring.
‘You’ll have some green tea, won’t you?’ he asked, and taking my silence for assent, lifted the telephone headset and murmured, ‘Chai.’
If Ben Kingsley was the absolutely right casting choice to play Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s film, the person who stood in front of me was the ideal candidate to play the lead in Shrek for an American producer planning on launching a television series. Always provided he could act. But I couldn’t do him the discourtesy, so early in our acquaintance, of pointing this out to him.
Aloud, I said, ‘Good to see you again’
‘As it is for me,’ Mansour said, as he pointed to a chair opposite him. ‘Most of the time we receive requests from Western journalists, and we try to do our best. Nice change for us to have an Indian face.’ He studied the fax on the table that came to him from my parent company.
Without looking up from the fax, Mansour said: ‘Have you met an American in your guest house by the name of … Michael Andrews?’ The way he asked the question I felt that it was more than a simple enquiry.
‘Very briefly,’ I said, taking a seat. ‘Why – do you know him?’
‘Not personally, no,’ he said, and after a slight hesitation added, ‘but he’s been trying to shut us down.’
‘Really?’ I was astonished. ‘Why is that?
‘I’m not sure’ The big man shrugged. ‘As a matter of fact, I’ve been thinking of going to meet him to speak to him about this.’
‘But he’s just a sports adviser to the Ministry,’ I said, having met the American and chatted with him briefly the previous night. ‘Why should he be concerned with you?’
My own impression of Michael was that of a friendly, easy-going kind of person. If what Mansour said was true – and there was no reason to doubt him – there was clearly more to Michael than met the eye.
Mansour said: ‘A sports adviser? I don’t think so. Sports advisers don’t have such high-level contacts in the American military.’
‘Sometimes they do,’ I said, ‘but do you at least have an idea about why he wants to shut you down?’
He was silent for a few seconds as if assessing how much to tell me.
‘This son of a bitch – excuse me for my language,’ he said slowly, ‘thinks that we are in someway linked with Al Qaeda …’
‘You mean the Taliban?’
‘And Mr Bin Laden.’
The big man looked upset. Clearly, he was being very serious.
‘This man, Michael …’ Mansour tapped his head. ‘The son of a bitch is a bit crazy, I think …’
I didn’t doubt that any man in Mansour’s position had reason to be concerned.
A blue-uniformed attendant brought in green tea in a gold ornamental teapot, together with some dried fruits and biscuits.
‘Forgive me for asking,’ I said, ‘but how worried are you that your business may be closed down?’
‘I’m upset and angry,’ he said, ‘but not worried. I have high-level contacts within the Afghan government. People who know I am trustworthy. These Americans come here and think they know the country in a matter of weeks. And I have decided, on my own, to take some action against Michael.’
I was silent.
‘If you decide to become my enemy,’ he said, ‘you leave me with no choice but to make you mine.’
An image came to my mind. The image of Mansour eating dinner with Kainzner, shortly before he came up to see me.
‘Is that why you met Kainzner last night? To get someone to explain to someone in the American military that Michael was not … not well?’
‘Not at all.’ Mansour burst into spontaneous laughter, upsetting some of the tea on the table. ‘I’m sorry …’ He took out some tissues and started to wipe off the liquid. ‘Actually, it’s Kainzner who needs me.’
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Excuse me for asking, but why?’
‘This fellow, Michael, wants to get his agency closed down as well. He’s talking to the American generals about that.’
‘But Kainzner runs a charity.’
Mansour shrugged his shoulders. ‘That’s why I say the fellow is mad.’ He moved the plate of walnuts and dried mulberries in my direction. ‘But enough talk about Michael. Let’s talk about your plans. When do you want to go to Mazar?’
‘Tuesday? You have a lecture on Monday but there is a gap then.’ He had obviously studied my itinerary. Seeing me nod agreement, he continued: ‘I may accompany you to Mazar when you go there. Some relatives of mine in the city I haven’t met for a long while.’
‘That would be great.’
I sipped the green tea. In my ignorance I had thought of the beverage as something indigenous to Japan, and a fad in the West, but often flavoured with mint and exotic herbs, it was the preferred beverage all across this vast land.
In the chitchat that followed, I learned that Mansour had lived in Iran for many years. The vast majority of Afghans sought refuge in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1970s and 1980s, but a sizable number went to Iran. Mansour held a Master’s degree in journalism from Iran and, having married an Iranian woman, could easily have stayed on there, but he decided to return to his native country to start a media company.
This helped his company in its dealings with Iran. It also helped with stories about Iran for other networks. There was a fair amount of interest within Afghanistan itself in news coming out of Iran, but the outside world represented a greater market for news about what was happening in that country. It was an area the company was exploring.
‘I could have stayed in Iran had I wanted to,’ Mansour said, ‘but I decided to come back where I belong.’
‘And your family …?’
‘My wife doesn’t want to come here at the moment, and given the security situation I wouldn’t want her to be here either.
Mansour smiled conspiratorially. ‘We should have a drink sometime.’
‘Is it possible to buy alcohol in Afghanistan?’
‘If you know the right people,’ Mansour said. ‘But now let me introduce you to Yusuf Shah.’ He lifted the receiver of the telephone and spoke into it.
A few minutes later, a tall man in his early thirties with a full, flowing beard entered the room.
‘Yusuf Shah,’ Mansour said, moving his arm in a circular gesture of presentation. ‘Mr Anzan Safri …’
Yusuf sat down next to me, while Mansour explained that as part of the arrangements with DNA, my parent organisation, Yusuf, would accompany me for my lectures at the two-week workshop at the InterContinental. Yusuf, who’d studied at a British University on scholarship, appeared far too well qualified to be helping me with what I was doing.
Mansour seemed to guess my thoughts.
‘Yusuf was planning to attend the conference and volunteered to help. I thought he could also help you chase some of the … ah … development-related news stories.’
‘That’s great!’ I said, and meant it. I stood up and shook hands with Yusuf. Then with Mansour. It felt like I was putting my hand inside a rock’s tight crevice.
I said: ‘Very strong.’
Mansour smiled. ‘I am a great believer in fitness – most Pashtuns are.’ He spoke disarmingly. ‘In Kabul people don’t know that I was a former wrestling champion in Iran while I was a refugee. That’s how I funded my studies. I still exercise every day.’
I didn’t doubt this at all.
Yusuf was a couple of inches taller than Mansour if anything, but less broad. Even so, I didn’t doubt the Pashtun’s fighting abilities in a tight situation.
‘If you like,’ said Yusuf, ‘I’ll come to the guest house tomorrow and pick you up for the opening session.’
* * *
Back at the Aram, I went up the stairs to the second floor. I heard noises inside my room. Karim was inside the bathroom fixing the shower.
‘Plumber not here,’ said the boy in an assertive but pleasant tone. ‘I can repair …’ He hesitated as he searched for the right word, and continued, ‘New shower. You wait ten minute more, please.’
I was once again drawn to the boy. Perhaps it was the strange combination of docility and assertiveness in his personality. He was mouse-like in his general demeanour, but this combined with the self-assurance needed to work as a manager.
I sat on a sofa in the corridor – perhaps it was meant for guests to wait on while their showers were being repaired.
‘All fixed.’ Karim emerged, smiling brightly.
‘Thanks.’ Recalling his strangely sharp response to Kainzner’s request for fruit a few days earlier, I decided to try to satisfy my curiosity. ‘Can you tell me something?
‘You don’t like Mr Kainzner very much, do you?’
‘Not a good man.’ Karim scowled.
‘Something wrong?’ I prodded him
‘Yes, yes,’ Karim said impatiently. ‘Kainzner is bad man.’
And without further elaboration, as if he’d decided to draw a curtain around the subject, he raised his hand in a salaam and left me.
Rozas and Chilgosas
Chapter 9 of An Afghan Winter
I had reached Kabul shortly before Ramadan, the month-long period of fasting for Muslims all over the world.
There was a gym in the basement – which could double up as a bomb shelter if need be – that catered for the guest house’s high-paying inmates. On the day of my arrival, I found it crawling with Iranians, who formed the largest national group in the guest house, followed closely by the Japanese. With no treadmill or cycle available, I used the next best exercise option, which was to jog around the fairly large garden.
The next day the rozas began and the exercise machines were released by the fasting Iranians, but I continued with my jogging. After half an hour of running, I slowed my movements to a brisk walk around the concrete walkway that ringed the garden. Flower beds ran parallel to the walkway, throwing up a profusion of scents from white-flowered geraniums, vermilion and powder-pink fuchsia and all kinds of roses. In the far corner of the garden, near the tall wooden box that seated a security guard, stood a couple of apple trees and a weeping willow.
Richard Brent, the Canadian-gone-native, attired as usual in an impressive Pathani suit, joined me.
‘You do know that the gym is now free, Richard?’ I unpeeled a chilgosa and threw the pine nut seed into my mouth.
‘With the rozas, yes, I know that.’ He grinned. ‘Have you been to the green mosque down the street, by the way?’
‘No, I haven’t.’ I wondered if it was antiquity or any special architectural features that warranted a visit.
‘We could go there together sometime, you know.’
‘Yeah, sure.’ Something I must have missed in my reading: a special green mosque waiting to be seen.
Richard said, ‘I’ll start going to the gym once the rozas are over.’
He looked surprised. ‘It’s not such a good idea to work out in the gym if you’ve been fasting the whole day.’
Richard saw the look of incomprehension on my face and added, ‘You see, I keep the rozas.’
I was about to pass him some pine nuts but withdrew the action immediately.
Richard said, ‘I’m a Muslim, Anzan.’
‘But you have a Christian name?’
‘That’s right,’ said Richard. ‘All my school and college certificates carry that name. If I took on a Muslim one, it would be really bothersome to convince prospective employers each time that I was the same person.’
‘Well, I’m not. I’m Buddhist.’
It was his turn to look surprised. I realised that he had fallen into the common error of supposing Anzan to be a Muslim name.
Richard said, ‘But why aren’t you using the gym? It’s empty now.’
‘I’ve realised I prefer running and walking on terra firma, more than jumping on a strip of moving metal.’
Richard laughed. ‘I know what you mean.’
So this, then, was the explanation behind his attire and his greeting everyone with an ‘Asalam-o-alakum’. And his question about the green mosque was a veiled offer to pray together.
‘There is a friend of mine,’ Richard said, ‘who once told me that he could not observe the rozas, but he had a very good reason for not doing so.’
‘Yes. A very good reason, he said.’
‘The reason,’ chortled Richard, ‘was that he felt hungry.’
‘I’ll be breaking my fast tomorrow,’ Richard said.
‘It’s because I’m going to Kandahar for a few days.’
‘Why should that make a difference?’
‘According to Islamic law, we’re not allowed to fast while we travel,’ Richard explained. ‘I wouldn’t break my fast otherwise. I’ve observed the rozas faithfully ever since I became a Muslim.’
* * *
A white-bearded man stood near the willow tree, his eyes bright with friendliness.
‘Asalam-o-alakum, Richard,’ he beamed, including me in his smile.
‘Valeykum-us-salam,’ Richard responded. They hugged, and kissed each other on the cheek.
Richard said, ‘Meet Anzan – from India. Anzan, this is Safdar Rehman, owner of the best curio shop in town. Lowest prices, highest quality. Want to buy a genuine opal stone ring for your girlfriend? Best place in town.’
‘You embarrass me, Richard,’ said the elderly gent.
The Aram laid out a small spread for guests to break their fast: dates, milk pudding and an assortment of dried fruit. It was time.
We went in to fill up our plates and returned outside to sit on the garden chairs to enjoy the last phase of the evening.
Safdar said: ‘I was in India and Nepal for many years.’
‘Yes, for two years.’
‘And which years were those, if you don’t mind my asking?’ I popped a seedless date in my mouth.
He tilted his head to stretch his memory, and then said, ‘From the middle of 1982 to till the end of 1984. Roughly.’
‘Were you selling carpets?’ It sounded odd, my question, if not rude, but it was important.
It was Lavanya’s missing father who had come to my mind. I had promised to track down the man who carried a map of Nepal on his forehead.
Safdar himself wore a rolled-up woollen cap but his forehead was fully exposed. A clean unmarked forehead except for a couple of wrinkles. No maps.
Lavanya’s mother had told her the truth about her parentage during her last days. Her mother could never have publicly admitted that a strange Afghan was the father of her child instead of her deceased husband – the shame would have been too much for her to bear. And she hid the truth from her daughter, too, as long as it was possible. I recalled Lavanya’s words.
‘It was on her death bed that Ma told me. Everyone was sent outside. She said there was something I needed to know and that it would come as a shock and I must be brave. I couldn’t even begin to guess. Ma was dying, leaving me alone. What more bravery did she, could anyone, expect from me?’
A secret told to the daughter only when she was grown up and was able to handle the piece of information. And Lavanya kept it close to her heart and had not shared it with anyone besides myself.
The only clues for me were that her father sold carpets in Kathmandu and carried a strange birthmark on his forehead.
Safdar was saying, ‘… did trade in dry fruit but a friend of mine was selling carpets.’
‘Are you still in touch with that friend?’ The faint but definite movement of his eyebrows made me understand that some sort of explanation was in order.
‘I know someone desperate to get in touch with an Afghan – someone who sold carpets in Kathmandu …’ It sounded a bit convoluted, my explanation, but I didn’t want to be getting into details.
‘My friend has migrated to Australia,’ Safdar said, ‘but I have his photograph if that would help.’
‘Did he have a mark on his forehead? A birthmark or a scar?’
‘I believe he did.’ Safdar’s eyes widened with curiosity. ‘A small.mark.’
Was it like the map of Nepal?
I restrained myself. It was best if I saw the photograph.
Safdar said, ‘Come to my home sometime. I’ll bring out the photograph to show you. Richard or Karim can bring you there.’
Richard said: ‘Karim is Safdar’s nephew.’
An interethnic marriage existed somewhere, for Safdar had swarthy Pashtun features, but Karim’s features were Asiastic, and he looked like and was referred to as a Hazara.
‘He doesn’t look like me, does he?’ Safdar said. ‘Gone after his mother, his looks. But he’s my only nephew – my brother’s son – and I’m very fond of him. He lost his parents six years ago, a bombing in Peshawar – and since then I’m all he has.’ He paused. ‘And he’s all I have.’
Richard said: ‘Why don’t you get him to work in your shop?’
‘The shop is always there for him,’ said the old man, with a hint of irritation. ‘I want him to get other kinds of experience. That’s why I was happy when he was working in Mazar …’
I saw Richard and Safdar exchange a glance.
Safdar continued, ‘And now I think working in this guest house is a great experience for him. Who knows? I may turn our home into a guest house and ask him to manage it.’ He turned to me. ‘Don’t you agree?’
Safdar said, ‘See, Richard, your friend agrees. The shop is always there.’ He turned to me. ‘Have a meal with me. Your country was most hospitable to me. It will also give me an opportunity to practise my Urdu.’ He turned to the Canadian. ‘Richard practises his Urdu with me – and I can practise mine with you.’
I promised to visit him soon.
Richard and Safdar began a discussion on gemstones.
The lessening light suggested it would soon be dark. In a few hours it would be Lavanya’s birthday. I ran upstairs to my room to fetch my digital camera, and got Richard to click me holding a pink flower plucked from the Aram lawns.
At midnight I e-greeted Lavanya ‘Happy Birthday’, attaching the photograph. I wrote about my meeting with Safdar.
She responded almost instantly.
‘You’re overestimating my age – 86 to 88, those were the years my father was in Nepal. The flower in the photo –’ she teased. ‘Hope it’s not opium.’
Jannat is Not a Barnyard
Chapter 10 of An Afghan Winter
Yusuf was punctual. Dressed in traditional shalwar kameez, a muslin cap on his head, he arrived to pick me up in an ancient grey Toyota Corolla, by far the most common model of car to be seen on Kabul’s roads.
I invited him into the lounge for a round of green tea, but he politely declined, although I could see that he appreciated the gesture.
‘We’ll be late otherwise,’ he said.
It was Sunday morning, the work equivalent to Monday morning in Western parts of the world. A fair amount of traffic trundled on the streets full of holes and bumps that were for the most part without pavements. Even so, our car jogged along, dodging excited children and self-absorbed goats.
‘You’re very well qualified, Yusuf,’ I said. ‘Excuse me for asking, but didn’t you think of working for the government?’
‘Wages are all topsy-turvy here – like our roads,’ he laughed, ‘so I wouldn’t earn much. And because of the low wages everyone is corrupt.’
This was a sad, ironic truth about employment for the local population in many post-conflict countries. Even professionals such as doctors and engineers, with local qualifications and decades of experience, often couldn’t secure reasonably well-paying jobs. On the other hand, international organisations often paid interpreters and driver’s phenomenally high salaries relative to what was a normal wage in the country. The result: qualified judges, doctors and engineers often earned more money if they worked as interpreters and drivers for foreign agencies. Demand and supply economics.
I studied my companion. Yusuf was an archetypical Pashtun. Dark, with black hair and eyes, his general demeanour was a combination of pride and aggression tempered by an old-world courtesy. Mansour, too, was a large-built Pashtun, but he was clean shaven and fairer than most of those in his community. If someone took a survey, they’d find fewer Tajiks with large builds compared with the Pashtuns. And compared to both Pastuns and Tajiks, the Hazaras were – like Karim at the Aram guest house – smaller sized, with Asiatic features. The three important ethnic groups in this country.
At the corner of the street, I saw a small office with a sign board: Pashtuni Bank – even a bank appealing to ethnic loyalty?
Keen to have my companion’s views on the subject, I said, ‘Is there a solution to Afghanistan’s problems?’
‘If only our different communities could learn to live together,’ Yusuf said. ‘Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras – we must reconcile our differences.’ He looked sad. ‘I don’t know if that is possible.’
Different ethnic communities made jokes about each other; this was something common to cultures across the world. Innumerable jokes existed about the Sikh community in India. With the idea of injecting a more cheerful note into our conversation, I asked Yusuf if such jokes existed in Afghanistan.
‘Let me think of a good one,’ Yusuf said. ‘There are many such jokes, you know.’ He was quiet for a few moments.
We were now within sight of the InterContinental, a high-rise building looming over the city, being built at an elevation. A dull modern construction, but a historical entity nevertheless, having existed in Kabul for more than fifty years, receiving guests ranging from high-level Russian Communist Party officials to those within the higher echelons of the Taliban to, most recently, American consultants.
Yusuf said, ‘Let me tell you a joke that the Hazaras share. Listen to this one. A Hazara boy asks his father if a Hazara would go to jannat after he dies. The father says, “Of course, my son! We will all most certainly go to heaven!” “And what about the Tajiks?” asked the boy. “Will they also go to jannat or would it be jahannum for them?” The father thought for a few minutes and then said, “Well … I guess it is possible for a Tajik to go to heaven instead of hell, but it would all depend ...” Then the boy asked: “Father, what about the Pashtuns? Will they go to jannat as well?” at which the father got very annoyed and shouted at him: “What? What do you think jannat is? Let me tell you that it is not a barnyard in which to keep animals!”’
Yusuf laughed merrily as he told the joke, even if the joke was targeted against Pashtuns and he himself was one.
* * *
We turned around the hotel’s roundabout, which had a white marble fountain half-heartedly spraying water, and Yusuf quickly parked the car. At the lobby we were stopped by security. Frisking complete, we crossed the Bamiyan Brasserie and walked on to the Kandahar Hall – was there somewhere a Mazar Mehfil or Herat Haveli, after Afghanistan’s other prominent cities? – where some thirty-odd invitees were already seated waiting for the programme to begin.
As soon as we entered the hall, a bearded man who was sitting on the podium – together with a redheaded European-looking man and a thin, Middle Eastern-looking woman – left his seat and came up to us.
‘I’m the moderator of this workshop,’ he introduced himself. ‘I used to work at Bush House as a newscaster in Pashto for many years. Do you know about the programme?’
‘We have three presenters,’ he said. ‘One for television, one for radio and the third, that’s you, on the print media. We’ll open with the introductions, and you can start your lectures from tomorrow. I’ll start with the Irish gentleman with the red hair, who’ll teach television journalism, and will then introduce that charming lady with the grey scarf, sitting next to him – you see her? Radio journalist from Jordan – and finally I’ll introduce you. Will that be all right?’
‘Just one question, Janab.’ I addressed the venerable-looking gentleman respectfully. ‘It’s about our audience. Are they all journalists?’
‘Most are journalists,’ Habibullah confirmed. ‘There may also be a few students. Now, if you would care to join us on the podium? You’ll see that there is an empty seat.’
I turned to look at Yusuf, but he shook his head, signalling that he would be in the audience. The moderator took me by the hand and led me to the raised platform where the other two lecturers were already seated at white, cloth-covered tables with floral bouquets in the centre.
The session went more or less according to plan. Associated with television for more than two decades, the Irishman spoke slowly and was careful to use simple English. The lady from Jordan, who wore thick spectacles despite her youth, didn’t speak English very well but it wouldn’t matter as much for she intended to concentrate on practical sessions to better explain what radio journalism was all about. A young pale-looking interpreter stood close by, ready to translate anything that had not been understood.
Then it was my turn to speak. Although I had never taught before, I realised it would not be difficult. I interspersed my talk with Urdu words, confident that many of those present would follow me better if I spoke this way. I provided my audience with a preview of my lectures, explaining that they would focus on themes such as sub-editing, headline-making, media law, and various IT applications – all subjects that I myself studied years ago.
Yusuf sat in a seat in the front row. After I finished my talk, Yusuf stood in front of the audience and explained that, with due respect to the interpreter’s skills, he, Yusuf, volunteered to be an additional interpreter.
The meeting broke up around lunchtime, and I headed back to the guest house with Yusuf.
While we were driving back, I said to Yusuf, ‘You know all about me from the introduction I’ve just given. Tell me more about yourself.’
‘I actually studied law and management at Islamabad,’ he said, adjusting the white muslin cap he wore a little self-consciously, ‘but then I moved into journalism.’
‘Did you enjoy that experience?’
‘Oh, yes. Islamic International University in Islamabad is one of the best universities in Pakistan. It’s well known throughout the Muslim world. We had teachers from many different countries, especially Egypt, and students of over seventy different nationalities.’
‘Really?’ I was impressed. ‘Were there Afghan students in the university?’
‘Quite a few,’ Yusuf said. ‘There was a quota for us.’
‘Was there solidarity between all of you?’ I asked. ‘You were, after all, refugees away from home.’
‘There was a bit,’ admitted Yusuf, ‘but overall I don’t think so.’ He was silent for a few moments. ‘To tell you the truth, we were divided among ourselves, even in Pakistan.’
We drove passed Karte Parwan in silence and turned into Mohammadia Street, one of the main streets in Kabul, then reversed and passed a row of illegally constructed shops, soon to be demolished to make way for a park.
I said: ‘You didn’t think of going to Iran. Like Mansour.’
‘No, I come from a village closer to Pakistan.’
Of course. For people seeking refuge the time taken to reach the border of a neighbouring country was all important. All refugees seek to escape a ‘situation’, so the sooner they reach a safe haven, the better. This would also make sense because the refugees would often be leaving behind a house that included many possessions. It would be an advantage to live as close as possible to their original homestead so that in a hypothetical future they could come back to check if everything was in order.
‘Besides,’ he added, ‘Iran would have been easier for Mansour.’
Why would Iran have been easier for Mansour?
We were now nearing the Kabul City Centre crossing, on the outskirts of the Shahr-e Naw area, and would soon be at the guest house.
Yusuf said: ‘Did Mansour tell you that we are under threat of closure?’
‘Yes, he did mention it.’
‘Did he tell you why?’
‘Sort of. Allegation is that you fellows are all linked to Al Qaeda. Mansour is a good friend of Bin Laden.’
Yusuf let out an angry breath, and then, recovering himself, said in measured tones: ‘That is so stupid.’ He paused. ‘Anyone who understands anything at all about Afghanistan would know at once that Mansour could not be involved.’
He pressed the car's horn. The metal gates of the Aram screeched open.
I shook his hand in a goodbye gesture and descended from the vehicle.
* * *
I spent some time reorganising my room and my papers, and then, exhausted with the effort, I lay on the large king-sized bed with freshly changed sheets. I stared at the round disco lights that had been fitted onto the ceiling and reflected on my conversation with Yusuf, just before he had dropped me off.
‘That is so stupid,’ he’d said. ‘Anyone who understands anything at all about Afghanistan would know at once that Mansour could not be involved.’
I replayed the sentence in my mind a few times.
At once. I didn’t understand that remark. That it was stupid, fine. He was venting his anger But anyone who understands anything at all about Afghanistan would know at once. I thought hard about it for a while, but gave up. It was beyond me. Perhaps it was something to do with the way Afghans spoke: unnecessary hyperbole.
And the second part of his remark was equally odd – know at once that Mansour could not be involved. Why hadn’t he said Mansour and I could not be involved? Was this natural self-effacement, or was it something else? Or was I simply analysing too much?
More by : Rajesh Talwar