Nov 29, 2023
Nov 29, 2023
(An Afghan Winter Continued)
I had picked up the few toiletries I needed from the A One store, and was standing near the rubbish heap that lay right on the street when I saw him. The refuse was piled just next to one of the deep, open gutters that travelled across much of the city, which pedestrians had to be careful not to fall into – especially in these winter months when fallen snow hid the potential for a disastrous plunge into slimy waters. The garbage, comprising a mishmash of rotten vegetables, cooked food, tins, bottles, huge quantities of plastic bags and pink toilet paper, as well a variety of feces from horses, dogs and goats, gave off a strong, unpleasant odor. Long-haired goats were busy foraging through the litter looking for food. I looked around to see if I could spot their owner nearby and saw the unmistakable figure of Richard walking down the street on his way to the green mosque he had spoken to me about.
‘Richard,’ I yelled, but my voice didn’t carry far enough for he continued to walk like a tipsy elephant.
I decided to follow him and give him a bit of a surprise.
So instead of walking faster, I slowed my pace, for I knew where to find him.
Within the mosque I found a room to deposit shoes and slippers. An elderly, white-bearded fellow took off and deposited the unique Afghan half shoe worn by Northerners, reminding me of the Chinese slippers sold in the Tibetan markets in Dharamsala. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to actually go inside, I thought.
Richard was the only European guest at the Aram who walked about in the street. It was safe for me, as I attracted little attention on account of my appearance and the traditional Pathani suits that I now wore everywhere. Most locals who saw me in the streets assumed I was Afghani. I could understand Dari.
It wasn’t near the time for prayer. The bearded entrant who preceded me was on some other business there, for he went to a side room where I caught a glimpse of food being prepared.
The prayer hall of the mosque itself lay deserted. There was only Richard, in a slightly flamboyant Pashtun suit, engrossed in deep, low-voiced conversation with a thin man with a black beard flowing down to the third button of his shirt. This fellow had a scar running down his face just below one eye, which met with a scar moving horizontally from the corner of his mouth, like the lines on a palm. He wore a black Taliban-style turban.
I stood behind one of the pillars. They were speaking in low voices, and it was impossible to make out what was being said.
All the same, I had heard enough of the language in Dubai to know by the general intonation and the odd word that drifted towards me that Richard was speaking in fluent Arabic. It seemed to me that Richard was giving out instructions and the other man was listening obediently.
‘Fuluus,’ Richard said, at the end of a sentence, an Arabic word I understood. It meant ‘money’.
And he handed over something wrapped in a grey cloth.
‘Shukran,’ responded his companion. ‘Thank you.’
Scarface took the packet, flipped it slightly to expose its contents, and then quickly covered it again.
The interiors of this high-ceilinged hall had few windows to let in natural light so I stood in relative darkness in the shadows of a pillar, but I could recognize the green of a dollar. I couldn’t see the value of the note at the top of the heap but suspected it was a hundred dollars. Who would ever hand over a thick wad of ten-dollar notes? If it was true, as I suspected, that those were hundred-dollar bills, there was at least fifty thousand dollars in hard currency being passed on. I had witnessed enough not to want to be seen myself, so I turned quickly, exited slowly with a soft tread, and was soon back on the street.
Why was Richard handing over large sums of money to someone? He never told me that he could speak fluent Arabic. And the bearded fellow with the permanently pinched look understood him well. But that in itself wasn’t surprising. By now I knew many Afghans were able to carry on a basic conversation in Arabic.
I hadn’t been able to read Richard at all, I realized. What was his background? Why had he become a Muslim? It was suddenly very important for me to find out the answer to these questions.
The best way to get him to talk was to take him out for dinner.
* * *
Richard moved his fingers through his hair abstractedly. ‘You want to know why I converted to Islam? I’ll tell you.’
We were walking back to the guest house and had almost reached it, after having eaten at the Cedar, an upmarket Lebanese restaurant with so many excellent starters – babaganush, falafel, fattouch – that we had difficulties finishing the main course.
During our short walk back to the guest house two child beggars approached us, one of the boys clutching at Richard’s shirtsleeve and the other haranguing me. I dug into my pocket, took out a few of the boiled sweets I kept for such situations and gave them to the boys. They appeared satisfied with their meagre booty.
‘That was clever,’ Richard said. ‘Yes, why did I convert to Islam? Well, frankly, it was because I discovered that there was less racism in Muslim countries than there is in Western Christian-dominated societies.’
‘Why should that have personally affected you so much – even if that were the case?’ I couldn’t hide my astonishment. ‘You are white, after all. You couldn’t have been a victim of racism.’
‘Not directly, no,’ replied Richard, thoughtfully. We were at the gates of the Aram, but the security guard outside seemed to have disappeared somewhere. He pressed the bell. ‘But my mother was subjected to racism. You see, Anzan, although I’m as fair skinned as any white Canadian, the truth is that my mother was black. And my father was a white man.’
‘Did that matter?’ I said. ‘In Canada, I mean.’
‘Oh, everybody thinks that Canada has very little discrimination,’ he responded quickly, ‘and maybe compared to some other countries that is true, but you see, whenever my mother went out with me somewhere, people thought she was my nanny. They definitely thought less of her, and that’s bad enough for a child, to see his mother being discriminated against.’
The door opened. The security guard apologised, and we went inside.
‘What made things worse,’ he continued, ‘was that any new school friend who came home would be shocked when he met my mother, and he’d go and tell all the other kids.’ His mouth trembled. ‘When I joined the development world and began working in Africa, I saw that despite differences of colour, if you were a Muslim that was good enough. And then I happened to read the Koran one day …’
‘So you converted?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘At the time I was dating a lovely Ethiopian Muslim lady, and we decided to get married. There was never any insistence from her side, although her family did want me to convert. I was happy to convert to Islam.’
‘And your wife. Where is she now?’
Richard sighed. ‘Oh, she passed away, poor thing. I was away in Eritrea on a short mission, and while I was away she caught some strange infection that they couldn’t diagnose in time and provide the necessary treatment for.’ He pursed his lips and shook his head a few times, grieving for the past. ‘I was gone for only a week, but by the time I returned, she was dead.’ We entered the dining hall, and he stopped before the thermoses that contained hot water. ‘Shall we take some tea and go upstairs to my room?’
As we made our way up the staircase, our teas in hand, I thought I was still far from understanding the real reasons why Richard had converted to Islam. Surely Richard understood the Shia–Sunni sectarian divide better than most people, which in recent times had resulted in so much bloodshed in Iraq. It simply wasn’t true that there wasn’t a racial divide. Here in Afghanistan, the mongoloid-looking Hazaras had been persecuted by the other communities for generations. But then, Richard also said he was impressed by the Koran. Not good enough, I told myself.
I was struck by the wall hangings as soon as I entered his room. His room, like my own, faced the mountains, and on the opposite wall hung a photo-by-night of the Kabah, in Mecca in Saudi Arabia. A popular picture in Islamic households, I had seen it many times before. More unusual were the framed pictures of Islamic calligraphy on the wall adjoining the windows that looked towards the mountains.
‘Extracts from the Koran,’ said Richard. ‘I’ve got someone in Kabul to do them for me.’ He looked at an unframed canvas on the bed. ‘That reminds me. I have to make a phone call.’ He dialled a number and was then speaking apparently to someone close to the calligraphic artist. ‘Listen,’ he said, with a touch of anger in his voice. ‘I’m not at all happy with this latest picture you’ve done for me.’ He paused. ‘What am I not happy about? It’s the background. I’m happy with the writing. The calligraphy is excellent but the background is terrible. You have blue and pink. Those are Christian colours. Weak and feminine. I want strong colours. Do you understand? Strong, Islamic colours.’
Richard’s aesthetic sense bewildered me. Rational as he seemed otherwise, there were certainly some rather loony aspects to his mind.
‘Sorry,’ he apologised, as he turned to me. ‘I needed to get that sorted out.’
‘So how are you getting along with your Urdu?’ It was really a prelude building up to the next question I was about to ask him.
‘Thoda thoda,’ he said. ‘Bit by bit I’ll get there.’
‘Do you speak any other languages aside from English?’
‘A bit of French. For some years we lived in the French-speaking part of Canada.’
‘I see,’ I said, allowing the matter to rest there.
‘And yes,’ he said, ‘I should also mention that I speak fluent Arabic. Spent three years studying it after my conversion to Islam.’
All right. So he wasn’t hiding his knowledge of Arabic, even if he didn’t volunteer that information easily.
‘You don’t believe me, do you?’ He passed me a plate of dates.
‘You don’t believe that the reasons I gave you were the only reasons I converted to Islam.’
I munched a date thoughtfully.
‘Don’t throw the seeds,’ he said. ‘Almonds inside.’ He laughed. It was a bitter sound, uncharacteristic of his generally genial personality. ‘Well, you’re right. It wasn’t the only reason.’
I waited for some revelation to follow, but was taken aback by the unexpectedness of the disclosure, and his manner. Direct, no beating around the bush.
‘I was raped,’ he said.
‘I’m sorry.’ I was embarrassed.
‘I was raped,’ he repeated. ‘From the age of eight to eleven I was raped repeatedly by the priest in the parish I grew up in.’
‘Your parents …’
‘Were Christians,’ he said. ‘Both of them. God-fearing Catholics. My mother never missed the Sunday prayer.’
The mask had slipped. There was no glimpse anywhere of the pleasant man who accompanied me for evening walks around the Aram garden. The tormented, anguished soul of a child sat before me.
I didn’t know what I could do, but I felt his pain.
And then he reassembled his bright morning face slowly, almost as it were an act of psychic reconstructive surgery. The old smiling Richard was back, even if the expression was a little sober.
‘Let’s talk about something else,’ he said, and we let our conversation wander off to nondescript territory.
Reasons? There were reasons enough for Richard to have lost his faith. I didn’t blame him. No one could. Another man in his place would have given up on religion altogether. But he chose to align with another set of beliefs.
* * *
I fell asleep thinking of Richard. I liked him and was moved by his disclosures, but the scene at the mosque made me feel as though he was still hiding something. I replayed the scene in my mind again and again, looking for clues.
The dream was so real, as they often are. In my dream I was journeying back to Kabul from Bamiyan with Yusuf, who sat behind the wheel of a Land Cruiser. Our visit was successful beyond imagination. Not only did we see the demolished Buddhas, the main reason for our trip, but I also saw an intact statue of a Buddha that escaped the attention of the Taliban’s demolition team. It was a happy dream, but soon it turned into a nightmare.
On the way back through the mountain road we espied a police check post in the distance. Yusuf understood too late that it was a trap laid by the Taliban, and tried to reverse. The men fired at the tyres of our vehicle, and we didn’t have any alternative but to stop and step out of the car, our hands held up in the air. Blindfolded, and pushed by the men who had manned the check post, we stumbled through narrow pathways that led up to a cave – so we were told – where a senior Taliban leader awaited us.
And when the blindfolds had been removed, we were in front of the leader, a red scarf covering his face. I felt a trickle of excitement and fear travel down my spine, at the sight of the familiar colours and cut of the shalwar kameez that the leader was wearing. And then the leader had pulled off the scarf that covered his face and I had been shocked to see that he was none other than Richard Brent, the Canadian, wearing his familiar Pashtun attire.
At this point, I had woken up in a cold sweat. Relieved that it had after all been only a bad dream, I recalled a global news story a few years previously about a shoe bomber, a British national, stopped just in time by an air hostess and passengers while he was trying to set off an explosion in the aircraft. What was the connection? He too had been a Richard. Richard Colvin Reid. Alias Abdul Raheem. Another converted Muslim.
In the process of splashing water on my face in the bathroom sink, I realised that I was stereotyping converts. This was clearly a mistake. But it didn’t mean necessarily that there wasn’t even a speck of truth in what my dream suggested.
A Kidnapping in Kabul
Chapter 20 of An Afghan Winter
Even though it was a long shot, I didn’t want to lose any opportunity to try to locate Lavanya’s father. The following Sunday I decided to pay Safdar Rehman a visit. He’d suggested that I come along with his nephew Karim, but the fellow was nowhere to be found. In fact, I hadn’t seen him for the last couple of days, and no one knew anything about where he was or why he was absent. I determined to go on my own.
My guest house wasn’t far from the Wazir Akbar Khan residential area, an upper-class neighbourhood where Safdar lived. Rather than call for a taxi, after a late lunch at the guest house I decided I’d just take a walk and get to know some of the city’s short cuts. I had previously determined – the day after my arrival – that it was safe for someone like me to walk about in Kabul.
* * *
On that day there was a strange expression on Karim’s face when I asked him for directions to the nearest general merchandise store. I needed to buy toothpaste, shaving cream and other things I had not been allowed to carry with me to Kabul.
‘Is there something wrong?’ I asked. ‘Is there a problem?’
‘Oh no, sir,’ the boy replied quickly, dismayed that he’d sounded discouraging. ‘Mushkilat neest. No problem.’ He paused. ‘Foreign guest have car. No walking.’ Careful not to cause offence, he added, ‘Your case different,’ and then proceeded to direct me towards a nearby superstore. ‘Go straight. Reach “A One” supermarket. No good shopping. Go straight. End road right turn. Ten minute walk. Kabul City Centre. Many, many, good shop.’
My anxieties were not fully allayed by Karim’s explanation. I went back to my room to find a pair of dark glasses. It was winter but, unlike in Europe, winter in Afghanistan does not mean absence of sun.
I had worn my Polaroid sunglasses because I wanted to be able to look at people in the street without their being able to meet my eyes or study my expression. I wanted to see how they looked at me: whether they regarded me as an outsider or a fellow Afghani. I didn’t think I looked very different from the Afghans I had met thus far and thought that there would be a likelihood that I didn’t stand out in any way, but I needed to be sure. The shades would help me to discover how someone like me with swarthy Asian features was regarded in Afghanistan. In less than twenty minutes the results of my ad hoc survey were too evident to be doubted. Nobody looked at me. If I had been less modest I might have been offended at the lack of interest my presence generated. Yes, some beggars approached me, but they approached me mouthing phrases in Dari as if I were a well-to-do Afghan, not a foreigner. I could make out from the way they spoke to me in their native language that they expected me to understand – they thought I was Afghani.
By a strange irony, the shades also made me look yet more Afghani, for people in Kabul were fond of wearing them. It was true that my head was bare, but while there were many Afghans wearing different types of turbans on the streets, there were also a sufficient number that were bare-headed for me not to stand out. All along the main road there were stalls selling cheaper versions of the Armani dark glasses that I wore. There was even an imitation pair that looked exactly like my own.
I found the Kabul City Centre – where Safdar had his shop, incidentally – and made my purchases. After that day, I felt comfortable about walking about the streets of Kabul.
* * *
The snow on the streets slowed my progress, but I was at Safdar’s house in half an hour. It was a small home, large for a single person but suitable for a small family, which lay sandwiched between two much larger properties. Despite the smaller size, the exterior looked elegant compared with the loud Peshawar-style architecture of the adjacent buildings.
I had to wait for a few minutes after pressing the bell, and was about to press it again, when the door opened.
‘Welcome, my friend,’ Safdar said. ‘I’m very glad you could make it.’ The words were welcoming but the tone was subdued. He was dressed in a plain white kurta pyjama, and was wearing a muslin cap. The house was well heated. In the corner, I saw a bukhari burning.
I followed him into a sparsely but elegantly furnished living room.
‘Sit, please.’ No sofas, but a set of carved wooden armchairs on top of some Herati rugs. He gestured at one of these.
He looked pensive, troubled, and his smile did not reach his eyes. Something was eating this man up.
At the risk of sounding intrusive – I had met him only once before – I said: ‘Safdar bhai, you look worried. Any problem?’ I added: ‘Anything I can do?’ even if this was his city and his country. He was an old man who lived alone without any servants that I could see.
‘You are right,’ he said, as if considering how much to tell me. ‘There is a problem. And I will tell you about it. But first, let me make you a cup of tea. Then we can talk.’
Ignoring my protests, he went off into the kitchen, which I could see from where I was seated. While he made the tea, I looked around my surroundings more carefully. For the owner of one of Kabul’s prominent curio and jewellery shops, Safdar had relatively few artefacts adorning the big room, but perhaps on the other hand this made sense; as the owner of a small shop full of small objets d’art, he didn’t want his house to be similarly cluttered.
After some time he came back carrying a tray laden with a white and gold teapot, cups and a small plate of roasted cashews. I tried to help him, but he was having none of that.
He poured us both a cup of tea, added sugar according to my preference, and waited for me to take a sip to satisfy himself that the beverage had been prepared in keeping with the tastes of his guest. Then he let loose a bombshell.
‘Karim has been kidnapped,’ he said.
‘You’re joking,’ I said, and immediately regretted the words because quite clearly he wasn’t, and it wasn’t a laughing matter.
Safdar sipped his tea slowly and began to tell me what had happened.
‘Karim comes home every day around eight o’clock, sometimes later. I know that with his work at the guest house he cannot have regular timings. He has a duplicate key to the house and he lets himself in, if he’s running late, so that I am not disturbed.
The day before yesterday, he didn’t return home as usual, so I was a bit worried, but not too much, you understand, because sometimes he decides to sleep over in one of the spare rooms in the guest house. From the shop, I called him on his mobile but when he didn’t answer the third time, I got worried. I called the owner of the guest house, and he said he had been calling Karim as well to find out why he hadn’t turned up for work. Some of the guests were complaining, he said.’
‘I’m not surprised,’ I said. ‘You know that the guest house is practically managed by your nephew.’
‘I know that,’ Safdar said. ‘Karim works very hard, doesn’t he? Anyhow, the owner said he’d been planning on calling me up to find out what was happening. It wasn’t like Karim to disappear without telling anyone. So I got really worried, closed down the shop and started visiting all the hospitals in the city. Maybe, I thought, he’d been hit by a car, while going to get some stuff for the guest house. And in the afternoon, after I had finished with my rounds of the hospital, the phone rang. It was Karim’s number flashing. Thank God, I said to myself.’
He poured a few extra drops of honey into his tea cup, carefully stirred it and continued with his story.
‘It wasn’t Karim on the line. It was his kidnappers.’
‘Is this the Taliban?’
‘Taliban?’ he said, a bit distractedly. ‘No, no, I don’t think so.’
‘What do they want?’
‘“You’re a rich fellow, aren’t you?” they said. “No,” I responded. “I’m a poor man”. “But you have a jewellery shop in Kabul City Centre”, they said. “I only sell semi-precious stones,” I said. “Not precious gems such as diamonds or gold or silver even.” “Oh, but you live in a big house in Wazir Akbar Khan, the most expensive part of Kabul. It takes a lot of money to buy such a house.” “It’s not a big house,” I said. “It’s a small house. And I did not buy it. It was left for me by my parents.” “Okay, old man, stop giving us all this nonsense. Tell us, how much are you willing to pay to see your nephew alive?” I thought for a minute and then I said: “I can pay you one hundred thousand Afghanis”. “One hundred thousand Afghanis?” the man on the phone laughed. “You’ll have to do better than that, old man. It cost us that much just to organise your nephew’s kidnapping. Think about it. We’ll be touch again.” And then the line went dead.’ Safdar paused to take a deep swallow of the tea.
Bastards, I thought. The old man was right. Didn’t sound like the Taliban, though. The only possible argument for it being the Taliban was that Karim worked in a guest house that catered mostly to foreigners like me. Foreigners, whom the Taliban wished to leave. Any Afghan working with them could conceivably be regarded as a traitor.
‘Have they called since?’ I said.
‘They called again yesterday. And they said, “So what have you thought, old man? How much can you pay?” I told them that I had found out that I could raise a hundred thousand rupees from the market as a loan, and together with the price of the old Toyota Corolla – that you may have seen standing outside – I could give them three hundred and fifty thousand Afghanis.” “It seems you don’t love your nephew very much,” they sneered. “You’ll have to bury him very soon. We’ll return his dead body to you, don’t worry. And we’ll call again. Just once more. So make sure you have the figures right.”’
‘Have they called since?’ I said.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I’m expecting them to call anytime today.’
‘Have you thought about what you’re going to tell him?’
‘I have to stick to my original figure,’ he said, a tremble in his voice. ‘I have had some business losses and have loans to pay back. I could pay them more if I had time to sell this house, but these days it’s not so easy to find a buyer.’
Had a potential buyer of this valuable property organised this kidnapping? It was a crazy thought, perhaps, but it crossed my mind.
‘Besides,’ he said, looking me straight in the face, ‘I’m not sure if I want to sell this house and give them all the money. There is no guarantee that they will return Karim to me, even if I give them the money. And what will Karim and I have if we lose this house?’
I nodded, admiring his truthfulness.
‘It’s all up to Allah,’ he said, raising his head and hands in a gesture to the mythical being towering over us. ‘It’s all up to Allah. If He wants my nephew’s life to be saved, it will happen.’ He turned to look at his watch, as if reminded of something. ‘It’s nearly four o’clock. It’s time for my namaz. Excuse me.’
He went into an adjacent bedroom and came out with a prayer mat, which he proceeded to unroll in a corner of the living room – the praying corner, facing Mecca.
He sat down, head bowed and began to go through the ritual.
The earth was revolving. The world was not flat. Everyone knew that, so how much sense did it make to face in a particular direction? You’d be facing the holy city even if you looked the other way, wouldn’t you? And where was Mecca in an aeroplane or in a spaceship? Which way did you turn to pray? What did the learned Ulemas have to say about that? But it was no use to argue with faith, so I kept all these thoughts to myself. I was a Buddhist, and I too had faith. But my faith was not that the Divine proclaimed itself to us mortals, as Allah, God, Jesus, Moses, what have you. But that in us humans, each one of us, there was the potential to become elevated, enlightened, God-like.
In that precise moment of profound scepticism, while Safdar was still murmuring his prayers, the voice of God suddenly reverberated in the room. I didn’t think I was imagining it. The sounds I heard were definitely verses from the Quran. But someone else, not Safdar, was enunciating them. Much louder, and more coherently.
Safdar dug into his kurta pocket. I realised it was his ring tone that had broken into the relative silence of the afternoon.
Perhaps it was the kidnappers calling.
No, it wasn’t, for I heard him listen for barely a second and say, loud enough for me to hear: ‘Call me later, please. After fifteen minutes. I’m in the middle of my prayers.’
In a few minutes he was doing all the prostrating business, and then when he was done with that, he joined me once more.
‘I need another cup of tea,’ he said, lifting up the tray. ‘A fresh and hot cup.’ He paused. ‘Both of us need a cup of tea. I’m so glad you are here with me. I need to have someone when they call.’
Safdar usually took slow, measured strides as befitted a man of his age. But now he literally pranced his way to the kitchen. Why? I asked myself. And the answer that came to my mind was because there was a need to hurry up, make the tea, take a few inebriating sips and listen to an important call.
‘When they call.’ What did he mean? Surely it wasn’t the kidnappers who had called just now … but it was, I realised. My God! I exclaimed internally – even if I didn’t believe in one, exclamations were in order. This man … A beloved nephew, kidnapped. The kidnappers calling, cold-blooded animals who’d already issued a death threat, and this man, he tells them, please can you call after fifteen minutes, I’m in the middle of my prayers. Unbelievable. Sheer madness. Did he really even love his nephew? All these questions flooded my mind, as sooner than I’d anticipated – the kettle must still have been very warm – he returned with the silver tray and tea vessels.
‘Was it – them?’ I sought confirmation.
We both sipped our tea in complete silence, with mutual solidarity, awaiting a moment of truth. My heart burned, and I could only imagine what he was going through. Would they really slaughter poor Karim? The poor, innocent fellow.
The phone rang. Safdar switched it to speaker phone mode this time so that I too could hear what was being said. My Dari was not perfect, but I followed everything.
‘Asalam-o-alakum,’ the voice, a heavy gruff one, said.
‘Have you finished your prayers?’
‘Yes, I have. Thank you for waiting.’
‘All right then. We’ve decided to free your nephew.’
‘When?’ In Safdar’s voice, the relief was palpable.
‘In an hour from now, he will be back with you in your house.’
‘We are returning Karim to you because we are impressed with you. You are a good Muslim. You did not interrupt your prayers.’
Were these people for real?
‘Thank you.’ Said without a trace of emotion. I suspected he was trying to hide his doubts about the genuineness of the sentiment praising his piety.
A moment’s heavy pause, and then Safdar said: ‘Where would you like me to send the money?’
‘The money?’ the voice said, as if only just thinking of it. ‘Oh, forget about the money.’
‘You don’t want the money?’ Incredulity in Safdar’s voice.
‘No,’ the voice said. ‘Keep your money.’ A pause. ‘Consider it as baksheesh from us.’ And the line went dead.
Safdar and I looked at each other. I’m not sure either of us knew what to make of it.
For myself, I was completely unsure whether these people, the kidnappers, could be held to their word about releasing Karim and assuring his uncle that he would be home in an hour’s time. There was nothing else to do but to wait.
We munched cashews and made some small talk, but neither of us could concentrate and after some time we gave up trying and sipped successive cups of tea while looking out of the window towards the black steel gates, waiting for Karim to appear.
We didn’t talk, but all kinds of thoughts went through my mind. The Taliban was clearly not involved in this. There was no statement from the spokesman for the Taliban claiming credit for the event. The Taliban was interested in kidnapping persons who were conceivably worth a swap with the release of their own prisoners. These kidnappers seemed more focused on making money, but for some unknown reason had decided to release their victim. I didn’t really buy the idea that they had been impressed by Safdar’s piety.
Did Karim’s kidnapping possibly have anything to do with Michael’s death? I couldn’t see any connection. Certainly Kurt Kainzner would have been exultant over the news, but only if this had taken place weeks earlier – before Wendell had the opportunity to interview Karim. Right now, Kainzner was probably in a sanatorium somewhere near Vienna.
Karim did appear, in less than an hour. Expectedly dishevelled, but in general he looked fine. A bit dazed, as if he’d only just been let out into the sunlight after nights spent in a cave. And as he explained, he had in fact been in darkness, having a cloth tied over his face for much of the time he was in custody.
Safdar embraced him three times, as if he could not believe that his nephew had been restored to him.
‘What happened, bachiya?’ Safdar said, once Karim had taken a bath, changed into a fresh shirt and trousers and returned to join us in the living room. ‘Why did they kidnap you and where?’
‘I was at Afghan Spinneys,’ he said, ‘and there I met Carla Madam – you remember her, sir?’ He turned to me.
I shook my head.
‘Speak in Dari,’ Safdar instructed his nephew. ‘He understands.’
I smiled. Despite the emotional roller coaster he’d been through he was alert enough to realise I understood his exchange with the kidnappers.
‘Okay, she left before you came to the guest house. This is an American lady who stayed with us for a few weeks before she moved into her own guest house. She worked for a big US contractor that has offices quite close to Spinneys. I had gone there to order some … you know Mr Sukuzi, sir?’
I nodded. ‘The man who wanted soya sauce.’ A few days previously Suzuki – who was the head of the Japanese aid effort in Afghanistan, and stayed at the Aram, together with many of his compatriots – had kicked up a fuss about the absence of soya sauce on the dining table.
‘Exactly, sir,’ he said. ‘It was for the soya that I had actually gone to Spinneys. It’s the only place that you can find it in Kabul.’ The Kabul Spinneys was a store in Afghanistan that catered to the expatriate population’s needs: they kept everything from Kraft cheese to Thai Tilda rice.
‘I took a minibus to the shop,’ Karim continued, ‘and inside I met Carla, who insisted that she would get her driver to drop me back at the guest house.’
‘And so you agreed, of course?’ Safdar said.
‘Yes, I agreed. From Spinneys, we went to her company office first. She wanted to take a file home. I noticed some time after we left the office that there were two people in a green van that started following us. They followed us all the way till Carla’s guest house, and when we dropped her off she asked her driver to take me to the Aram. I didn’t see them for some time and assumed that they had only been interested in her.’ He breathed heavily. ‘It wasn’t the case. When we reached the Aram guest house I got off in front of the gate, and before I knew it the van was right next to me. A rough-looking fellow grabbed my hand. I tried to wrench it away, but he pressed a knife against my stomach and said: ‘Come quietly, if you want to live.’ I gave up any idea of trying to rush into the guest house.’
‘Why did they kidnap you?’ Safdar said. ‘You are not working with the Americans, bachiya.’
‘They didn’t know that. I think they must have been following Carla for some time with an idea of kidnapping her. When they saw me in the car with her, they assumed that I was working for the same American company, getting a fat salary.’
Safdar said: ‘So they thought, let’s forget the duckling and take the small chicken instead.’
Karim’s brow furrowed and his countenance turned grim. ‘I think that woman Carla created the problem for herself – and accidentally for me.’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘It’s because she refuses to cover her head,’ he said with some vehemence. ‘When she stayed at the Aram we all told her, but she doesn’t listen.’
Safdar said, ‘So foolish. This is Afghanistan.’ He turned to me ‘You have to see the local situation, don’t you?’
Karim’s voice grew bitter. ‘She was well-meaning, but I made a mistake in accepting a lift. I’ll call her and tell her to be careful one last time.’
Safdar said: ‘So then what happened?’
‘There was no option but to get into the car with this man who threatened me. And inside there was another big man. I was blindfolded almost immediately.’
Safdar said: ‘But you saw the face of the man who held a knife to your stomach, didn’t you?’
‘Not really. The windows of their car were tinted. And this man who grabbed me had a big shroud wrapped around his body that covered most of his face. The same was the case with the other men in the car. I can recognise their voices, but not their faces.’
Safdar said: ‘So how were you treated?’
‘First I was interrogated for around two hours. They wouldn’t believe that I wasn’t working with the Americans. That Carla was just giving me a lift to the Aram guest house. The leader of this group kept telling some other man to hit me, so I spoke the truth. But eventually they believed my story. And when they knew I was your nephew, I think they thought that they might be able to make some money from you. Did they ask for ransom?
Safdar nodded. ‘So it looks like they had planned to take an employee and then blackmail the American contractor. Amateurs – don’t you think?’ His question was addressed to me.
‘I doubt if the company would have paid a big amount of money for a local employee,’ I said, ‘if that’s what you’re asking.’
Safdar said: ‘But his family might have paid.’ He turned to Karim, puzzled. ‘Do you think that they might have thought you weren’t Afghan?’
‘That’s very possible,’ Karim said. ‘When I got dropped off by the car, the big man who took a lunge towards me and grabbed me shouted out the word “Americano”. I was baffled by it. But I think they thought I was working with the Americans. I might be an Afghan American, or from some other country. The thing is, I was wearing a shirt and trousers.’
‘Yes, yes,’ Safdar said. ‘I’m sure this is what must have happened. So where were you kept these last two days?’
‘In a small room inside a mud house. While inside the room I was allowed to take off my blindfold, but it was anyhow quite dark. There weren’t any windows. Just a small crevice in one of the walls that let in some air. When I tried to look outside this space, I saw only rocky mountains and snow.’
Safdar and I both had the same thought.
‘Poor bachiya,’ Safdar said. ‘It must have been cold inside. You must have frozen.’
‘No, it was actually quite warm. The heat was coming in from a bukhari in the other room. There was a small slit in the middle of the door, through which they would peer in now and again to see what I was doing. It was terrible,’ Karim said. ‘It felt like I was being suffocated slowly. In the beginning I shouted and screamed, but they hit me, and I realised I had no choice but to be quiet.’
We were quiet too. Talk about a near death experience.
Uncle, nephew reunited, they possibly had much else to talk about in privacy. It was time for me to go. I didn’t think anymore that this kidnapping had anything at all to do with Michael’s death.
‘No,’ Safdar insisted, when I stood up and extended my hand. ‘Stay for dinner.’
I made up an excuse.
‘Oh, but don’t go before you’ve at least seen the photograph.’ He slapped his forehead. ‘It slipped my mind – what with my being so worried about Karim. I’ll just be back in a minute.’
He returned carrying a large portrait-sized photograph. There was a mountain view behind – the Annapurna peaks, I guessed – and in the foreground stood Safdar flanked by a tall lanky man with a bulging nose, clearly an Afghan like Safdar himself, and a young Nepali woman.
Could this possibly be Lavanya’s mother together with her missing Afghan father? I scrutinised the photo carefully. Most of the photographs I had seen of Lavanya’s mother were fairly recent, taken a year or so before her death. The woman in the photo seemed darker and smaller, but sometimes people turn fairer with age, and size in a photo often depends on who’s standing next to you.
I turned my attention to the man with the prominent nose. Yes, there was clearly a visible mark on his forehead, but it was very small. It looked like a left-over scar from a wound rather than a birthmark. You would have to stretch your imagination as well about the contours of the scar to say that it looked like a map of Nepal. ‘Exactly like the map of Nepal,’ Lavanya had said. This didn’t match up to that requirement. All the same, it was worth a try.
‘Can I keep this photo for a day, Safdar bhai?’ I said. ‘I’ll have it scanned and sent to my friend, and then I will return it to you.’
‘No problem, biradar,’ he said. ‘You have been a big support to me.’
‘A support. But I haven’t done anything.’
‘Your being here at this time meant a lot.’
I shook hands with Safdar and Karim, refused their offer to be dropped off in the car, and turned to walk through the newly discovered alleys and side roads back to the Aram.
* * *
That evening I emailed a scanned copy of the photograph to Lavanya.
‘I don’t think this is your father,’ I wrote, ‘because the mark on his forehead is not exactly like your country’s map. But have a look. It would help if there was a photograph of him. And is that by any chance your mother?’
‘Can you believe it?’ Lavanya wrote back. ‘We have no photograph. Not a single one. And no, the man is not my father, the woman is not my mother. And that looks like a scar. My father had a birthmark.’
Continued to "A Parcel from Al Qaeda"
More by : Rajesh Talwar