Continued from “War Veteran with A C-Leg”
The Sentimental Terrorist - 4
Mohsin, TV Hill
It’s past midnight. The day has finally arrived.
I’ve taken off my Pathani suit and put on the uniform, even though there is still time. This is the standard uniform worn by the Afghan police. One of the mullah’s ‘fixers’ managed to get hold of several bales of the cloth through a source in the police. We have our sympathisers enlisted in the police, the army and all over the government. According to Shamsuddin, I should say ‘the infidel Afghan police’, ‘the infidel Afghan army’, and so on and so forth.
The tailor who measured up Abbas, Hussein and me for the uniforms had done a reasonable job, but he wasn’t pleased with my uniform. He said he wanted to make some alterations.
‘Zaroorat nashtai,’ I said. ‘It’s not needed.’
‘Don’t you want to look smart?’ he asked, and then when he saw that I wouldn’t give way added crossly, ‘Well, suit yourself then.’
Did I want to look smart? In a police uniform! Till the time it became bloodied, which wouldn’t be long after I had worn it. Just a few hours, at the very most, after I set out on my mission.
Abbas, who celebrated his nineteenth birthday last week, felt I should have humoured the old man, and allowed him to make the changes.
‘Ta lewnay,’ said Hussein, who is twenty years older than Abbas. ‘Mohsin is right. All this is not needed. He’ll get a brand new uniform in Jannat. All of us will.’
‘And maybe I’ll get a new skin,’ said Abbas, whose face is pockmarked.
All three of us laughed.
Shamsuddin tells us that this is a great honour – to be chosen for the task we are about to venture on. He mentions two other warriors who gave their lives for our cause. There was Javed, a regular at the masjid in Kandahar, and young Suhail, hardly fifteen.
And yet sometimes I wonder if I want to reach Jannat.
I won’t be seeing Mumtaz in Jannat, unless there is a duplicate there. And I don’t want a duplicate – I want my Mumtaz, but I guess I can’t have her. It’s easier for me to reach Jannat than it is to reach her, for she is far away in a foreign land, and I don’t have money even to go to Peshawar, let alone to buy an air ticket. Besides, they’ll never give me a visa.
Mullah Shamsuddin came over to Kabul a week ago to oversee and put the final touches to our plan to attack the guesthouse. The day before yesterday he began to discuss with us what should be done on our last night together.
‘Before the food,’ Shamsuddin said, ‘we should have some entertainment. What do you think?’
‘Absolutely,’ Abbas said.
‘Any suggestions?’ the mullah asked.
‘Shabnam Surayyo is in Kabul,’ Hussein said.
‘Who is this woman?’ Shamsuddin said, raising his bushy eyebrows.
The mullah was not up-to-date with pop culture but Shabnam Surayyo and Manizha Davlatova are popular Tajik singers who have a fan following in Afghanistan as well, although the traditionalists are disdainful of their songs. Because Tajikistan has a more liberal society than ours, a new kind of music is emerging there. But there is enough public demand here for these singers to visit Kabul periodically and perform to packed houses. Needless to say their performances here are more refined and decorous than in their home country.
These Tajik singers face competition from an unexpected source: songs in Iranian Persian. The more romantic and physically demonstrative Persian lyrics come from thousands of miles away through satellite music channels playing songs performed by the younger offspring of Iranians long settled in America. Mumtaz and I used to listen to these together on the computer during our lunch breaks.
‘A singer,’ said Hussein, without much hope.
‘I know what you mean by singer, Hussein,’ Shamsuddin remarked with a trace of contempt. ‘They are popular only because they are saxy’ – he paused, mispronouncing the English word – ‘and their lyrics are salacious. This is not really culture, is it?’ He gave a toothy grin. ‘There are nightclubs and discotheques to be found in Dushanbe. Prostitutes are standing at every street corner.’
It is true that the Tajiks from Tajikistan are not a very religious or Islamic people, possibly as a result of that country’s association with communist Russia for decades. Tajikistan has now become very poor; it is possible to have a cheap holiday there. Afghan men with high libidos are known to drive down to the nearest border town to satisfy their carnal desires; these days this is the commonly understood nature of our interaction with Tajikistan.
Shamsuddin appeared to think for a while. ‘I know what will be better.’
‘What?’ I said.
‘There is a shared tradition of poetry that Iran has in common with Afghanistan.’ He leaned across and put away the glass in which he’d been drinking tea in the wire-mesh basket that hung in front of him. ‘Are you aware?’
‘Of course,’ Hussein said. ‘Sheikh Sadi, Rumi . . .’
‘Bah!’ said the mullah. ‘Those are romantic fools. Let’s listen to something more worthy of men.’
‘Shahnama,’ Abbas guessed.
‘Now you’re talking,’ Shamsuddin said approvingly.
The Shahnama is very popular all over Afghanistan, particularly in the north. Its language is closer to Dari, the Persian spoken in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. An epic war poem, it has been used to boost the courage of fighters before a battle.
The mullah had chosen wisely.
So yesterday they organised a traditional reading to bolster up our spirits. We all gathered round and listened to a tall white-bearded performer who knew the Shahnama by heart.
‘And then Rustom looked at the dragon eyeball to eyeball,’ said the storyteller, and paused dramatically.
‘And then what, old man?’ said Abbas, like an over-eager child, impatient to hear the rest of the story.
The storyteller raised the pitch of his voice and went on to tell us in minute and graphic detail how brave Rustom eventually slew the dragon. His rendering of Rustom’s various adventures was passionate and he had us all enthralled. I was reminded of a time when as a child I went with Meena, my sister, to watch a play with actors playing the different characters.
I thought that the three of us, Abbas, Hussein and myself, were like condemned men being granted their last wish.
After the performance it was time to eat.
The black dhal, a favourite of mine among all the lentils from the years I’d spent in Pakistan, was seasoned with ginger and spices, though it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped for. But the mantoo, with its delicately spiced yoghurt, was excellent and the chappali kebab mouth-watering. It was all Mullah Shamsuddin’s doing, although I wondered what was the point of the elaborate preparations – it takes a day and a half in the kitchen to get the mantoo right – if we were all going to get meals to our heart’s content in Jannat. Abbas, in fact, did raise this issue.
‘The thing is,’ Mullah Shamsuddin said, ‘you will of course get all of this in Jannat and more, but you won’t have a sinner like me’ – he was putting on some ‘holy modesty’, as Hussein liked to term it – ‘to keep you company.’
Silent until now, Hairy Nose – my nickname for the Afghan policeman who was our new partner – had been thoughtfully chewing a piece of chicken leg, when he suddenly broke from it, not in order to contribute anything to the theological discussion, but to give a short, barking laugh.
‘I thought,’ Abbas said, ‘that you could have whatever you desired in Jannat.’
‘You have to make a reasonable request, bachiya,’ the mullah replied. ‘How can I have a meal in Jannat and be here at the same time – training brave soldiers like you? Tell me that, eh?’
And for once we were all was silenced with his impeccable logic.
‘Don’t worry.’ The mullah chewed on naan bread. ‘With all those houris serving you tasty meats, filling up your tumbler of fresh pomegranate juice, you won’t have the time or inclination to think of an old grouch like me.’
Oh, I remember all too well that terrible day when Mumtaz came to me and confessed her love for Pierre, the Frenchman who had taken charge of our affairs. He had offered to marry her and take her away to Paris.
‘What will happen to your mother?’ I asked.
‘Pierre says that once I’m there he will arrange for sponsorship for my mother as well, so that she can join us in Paris,’ she said happily.
I was burning with anger and jealousy at that point, but I kept quiet.
‘Why are you so quiet?’ she said innocently.
Why am I so quiet? What a question to ask! How innocent can you be?
‘I guess they’ll be shutting down the project,’ I said. ‘I’ll have to look for a new job.’
‘Maybe,’ she admitted, ‘but if so I’m sure Pierre will give you a good reference and you’ll soon find something else.’
A good reference from Pierre! From my enemy, who had stolen the affections of the woman I loved. Did I want that? Was I not a Pathan? Yes, a red-hot Pathan, who would wreak vengeance on his enemy. I could remain unemployed and even starve, but I couldn’t accept favours from Pierre any more.
I think about Mumtaz often. I wonder how she is. I wonder whether she is happy.
Continued to "An Afghan Love Story"