Dec 05, 2023
Dec 05, 2023
The Sentimental Terrorist - 5
Mohsin, TV Hill. 1 a.m.
This room I’m staying in on TV Hill is very small. I don’t know any of the families living nearby, and I think they’re a bit suspicious of me. Who this fellow is living alone, all by himself, they probably wonder.
Hussein and Abbas live in a three-room house. It’s a downhill walk of about fifteen minutes, not far from the main road, where the slum begins.
My room may be small but it has a much better view of Kabul city. The others had tried to persuade me to stay with them, but when I heard there was the possibility of my having a separate space, even if it was tiny, I seized the opportunity at once. For these days I like to spend time by myself. To be alone. There is much to think about and to remember. Before it is all over. As it will be. In just a few hours from now.
I didn’t always hold the views I hold now. Not so long ago I thought of the jihadis as mindless monsters, but today I don’t regard them like that anymore.
I was working with the Europeans on development issues – trying to get children inoculated, trying to have pregnant women treated, and trying to make barren wells fecund. The French agency that employed me in Kandahar paid me well, my room was fairly spacious, and I tried to help my family members who still lived in Muntozai, a village about an hour’s drive on a narrow dirt road.
But what I loved most of all in Kandahar was being with Mumtaz.
Mumtaz Isupzai worked in the same organisation as a social worker. A Pashtun like me, she stayed with her mother in a village outside the main city. She had studied in Kabul and was a graduate of the university. After her father died of tuberculosis, her mother married his brother – a common enough practice in our Pashtun community, even if it is forbidden under Islam – and decided to move to a village near Kandahar, where he owned property and did farming. So Mumtaz came to live here and found a job with Droits Sans Frontières, barely a few weeks after I had joined as an administrative assistant.
Michel had interviewed me for the position. My uncle Basheer, who worked as a security guard for them, had spoken to him about me. Michel agreed to give me a fair chance, together with the other interviewees. My uncle was satisfied. That’s all he’d asked for: a fair chance. He was confident that his nephew, who could read and write English, would be the chosen candidate. It was not a mean accomplishment for someone from Muntozai, for apart from Jamil, who kept the land records, there was no one in my village who spoke more than a smattering of English – hello, how are you, welcome – simple expressions which even the children in this Kabul slum can mouth. My English is not excellent, but I studied in one of the best universities in Pakistan, and I still haven’t forgotten what I learned there.
We have a doctor in our village, and before I came to Kandahar I’d been working with him, so I had some idea of different pharmaceutical products. I had also driven my uncle’s truck to carry vegetables to the wholesale market in Kandahar, and I had a driver’s licence.
Michel was impressed.
‘This job is yours, Mohsin,’ he said at the end of the fifteen-minute interview, ‘and to be honest, given your skills, you should probably do a more important job, but all we need is an administrative assistant who can double up as a driver – because as yet we don’t have a separate budget for a driver.’
‘I don’t have any problem with that,’ I said.
‘Mohsin, my friend,’ Michel said. ‘I’d be quite happy to hire you as a social worker, but you don’t have any qualifications that would allow me to employ you in that capacity.’
I nodded. I had spent four years studying architecture and urban planning at Islamabad University, but had been forced to abandon my studies just a year before completion. It still hurt, but my obligations to my family were too strong for me to refuse to be summoned back to the village. I could have gone back to university, but decided against. I had friends who had qualified as doctors and architects, but their earnings were so small, they preferred to work as drivers and interpreters for international organisations.
Michel was saying, ‘What I can promise you is that you’ll be paid the same wages as any social worker we hire and not less than anyone we recruit locally.’
And that assurance was good enough for me. For if my employer understood and respected me, what did the designation matter? That’s what I told myself.
But I was to soon learn that things are not so simple and it did in fact matter. I was to learn this once Michel left and his successor Pierre completely side-lined me.
The week after the interview, I began work. It was as easy as baking Afghan bread in an oven.
In the beginning I stayed in my uncle’s house, but eventually I decided to get my own place. My company provided for housing rent, and I would lose that benefit if I continued to live with my uncle.
My sister Meena thought that now I had a good job it was time for me to get married.
One Sunday when I was home in the village, during the course of dinner she asked me what kind of a girl I wanted.
‘A beautiful girl, khuahar,’ I said. ‘I want a stunner.’
‘Not very intelligent, brother,’ she said disapprovingly. ‘I’m disappointed in you.’
‘Why? It’s natural. Everyone wants a pretty wife.’
‘Don’t you want someone who can cook well?’
‘That’s important, I agree.’
‘And take care of you and your children?’
‘That’s all well and good – but I want someone beautiful too.’
‘Where am I going to get a fairy princess for you?’ She slapped her forehead.
‘There is no hurry, sister.’
‘All right, all right,’ she said, and I could tell she had eliminated someone she’d thought suitable for me. I was quite sure it was our neighbour’s daughter, Shabana – very quiet, modest, brilliant at housework, and not the one for me at all. In fact I had insisted on marrying a beautiful girl partly because I wanted to have Shabana out of the running.
‘Are you sure?’ she said. ‘I have someone in mind – but she’s not so beautiful.’
‘Shabana’s mother has her eye on you.’
So I was right.
‘Has she said something?’
‘Not formally, but you know how it is, brother. She came over for a chat the other morning, let it drop just in passing that they were on the lookout for a young man for Shabana, but paused meaningfully for a few seconds before going on to discuss the price of milk and eggs.’
‘Not Shabana,’ I said. ‘Never.’
‘There are many suitors for that girl, you know, and she will make someone a wonderful wife. She would make you very happy.’
‘Let her make someone else happy.’
‘They will marry her off soon. Don’t lose this opportunity. They are a wealthy family. It will be a grand wedding. The best our village has seen for years.’
‘I don’t even want to attend. Her marriage is not important to me.’
How wrong I was. Little did I know then that Shabana’s marriage would turn my life upside down. Nothing would ever be the same again.
‘I think you’re making a big mistake.’ Meena fixed her gaze on me, trying to detect a sign of weakness in my resolve. I stood my ground, and waited patiently.
‘Having rich in-laws never hurt anyone. I’m not saying you should marry for money alone, mind you.’
‘I’m earning all right.’
‘And once these firangis are gone?’
‘There’ll be something else.’
‘Ya, Allah, such a stubborn boy,’ Meena exclaimed, finally giving up. ‘Everyone knows the most beautiful girls are to be found in Nooristan. Do you want me to go there to hunt for a bride for you then?’
I nodded. I knew she was teasing me, but wanted to emphasise the point.
‘All right, I’ll try to go to Nooristan’ – a smile broke through the pretended seriousness of her expression – ‘but’ – she laughed openly now – ‘but in case I can’t get there, are there any other beautiful women I should consider?’
‘Some of the Kutchi women are very beautiful as well.’
‘That’s true. It’s the climate.’
The Kutchis are a wandering tribe who move to various salubrious climates according to the seasons. Most people believe that’s why they have acquired clear complexions and good looks. Essentially they are Pashtuns, but speak a different and difficult version of the language.
‘Sultan, our cousin, fancied a Kutchi woman,’ Meena said, ‘and the family sent the proposal across to her family, but they turned him down.’ She laughed. ‘They are Pashtuns but prefer to marry within their own people.’
‘If that’s the case, I’m unlikely to get one to agree to marry me. So let them be. You know what I want, sister.’
‘All right,’ she said grudgingly, ‘but you might be making a mistake. Shabana is a very good girl.’
‘I don’t doubt it.’
Meena paused, as if considering options. ‘Now between the Tajik and the Pashtun women, the Pashtun are more beautiful, my dear brother, but I would recommend a Tajik. They are more submissive.’
‘Tajik or Pashtun, it doesn’t matter. Afghaniat is all that counts – no matter what tribe or region she comes from. And submission – that’s also not important. I want someone who is independent-minded.’
I didn’t know it then, but I was soon to meet a beautiful and independent-minded Pashtun girl with whom I would fall madly in love.
Droits Sans Frontières is a charity that focuses on farming communities, particularly in developing countries. Health is one of their major concerns, since people in poor villages often don’t have access or trust in modern medicine. But they are also concerned with agriculture and everything related to it, such as irrigation, pest control, and so on.
The idea behind combining what appear to be two quite separate initiatives is simple. You need to gain the respect of the local rural community, and, if you provide them with free advice on how to farm their land better, deal with weeds and parasites and make higher profits, they are automatically more receptive to medical advice. It works both ways, of course; the two activities tend to reinforce each other.
Droits Sans Frontières employs doctors such as Michel to provide treatment for women in Afghanistan, Iraq and other mainly Muslim countries affected by war. Michel, our chief when I first joined the organisation, was a general practitioner but with some kind of expertise in gynaecology. In the beginning, this surprised me, and I asked him why we needed to have special doctors for women. Michel explained that in countries such as Afghanistan women were neglected, and didn’t receive proper medical attention and care. That’s why the charity had decided to help them. This made sense to me, but I wanted to ask him: if that was the idea, shouldn’t the doctors be women as well?
I didn’t ask him this question during the first couple of weeks when we went to the villages surrounding Kandahar, but then, I believe, he was forced to ask the question himself.
When we drove to the first large village that we wanted to cover, we looked around for the headman’s house. It was my job to speak in Pashto to him and make ourselves understood. In the office I alternated between wearing western-style shirts and trousers and traditional Afghan attire, but during these visits to the countryside I took care to wear the shalwar-kameez, the baggy trousers and knee-length tunic that is the trademark Afghan dress all over the country.
We were running a small clinic in our office at Kandahar, where there was also a small laboratory. We had a couple of nurses, and two beds for patients. I explained to the headman that this facility was available in Kandahar for any woman who wished to avail herself of it. Furthermore, we wanted to set up shop in the village itself for an hour or so. We didn’t need any space for this, I explained, when eyebrows shot up at this suggestion. We were carrying medical testing equipment in the car. We even had a plastic table, a chair and a stool. And we could conduct a cursory examination on the spot.
‘Who is the person who will examine these women?’ the headman enquired.
‘Doctor Michel,’ I said.
‘He . . . a man . . .’ The headman stuttered in disbelief. ‘He is going to examine the women of our village in the open market where he will park his van?’
‘Not in the open market, sir,’ I protested. ‘Anywhere discreet. At the side of the market perhaps. And the medical examination that takes place in the open will only be to measure the blood pressure and heartbeat. A detailed examination will take place indoors at the lady’s residence. Or, better still, at our clinic in Kandahar.’
The headman looked at me in speechless anger as if he would have given me a beating at that very moment, were it not for the bespectacled foreigner sitting beside me.
‘Could you explain to him,’ Michel said, ‘that sometimes pregnancies can be very complicated, and medical intervention can save lives.’
I translated for him, without much hope.
‘Can you explain to the doctor,’ said the village headman, ‘that we would rather our women die than allow them to be touched by a strange man.’
‘I’m a doctor,’ protested Michel, getting the gist of what had been said.
‘That doesn’t matter to us at all,’ said the headman with a tone of finality.
After we left the village, I could see Michel was troubled by this encounter.
‘Why don’t we take one of the nurses from the centre with us next time?’ I suggested.
‘No.’ He shook his head. ‘They hardly speak English. I wouldn’t understand.’
‘I could translate.’
‘That’s an idea.’ He brightened up. ‘I see this as a temporary solution. In the long term we have to hire a woman who can speak English, Dari and Pashto.’
‘We’ll ultimately plan to extend our programme to the non-Pashtun areas,’ he explained, ‘and my programme director sits in Kabul, where mostly Dari is spoken, isn’t it?’
I first met Mullah Shamsuddin inside an ancient-looking mosque in Kandahar. Once I’d begun working for Droits Sans Frontières I needed to find a mosque to pray in. There was a Shia mosque quite close by, but as I’m a Sunni I needed to walk a bit further to reach the mosque. It wasn’t far from one of the largest mosques in the city, which the Taliban leader Mullah Omar had ordered to be constructed after one of the city’s most popular cinemas had been torn down.
I didn’t particularly care for Mullah Omar and his type of people. I thought they were a bunch of idiots really, and I wasn’t alone in my thinking. My entire family opposed the Taliban, and nor were they alone in their thinking. As a matter of fact, our entire village was opposed to the Taliban. We are moderate, peace-loving Pashtuns, even if that appears strange to many people.
Anyhow, I say my prayers regularly, and soon I came to the attention of the mullah.
‘You are working for the infidels, aren’t you?’ he asked me one day.
‘Not for the infidels, Mullah sahib,’ I responded politely, and added, ‘I don’t work for the Americans. I work for a French charity, which gives free medical treatment to people suffering from illnesses.’
I knew I had to distance myself from the Americans, for they were bombing innocent civilians all over Afghanistan – no one could forgive them – and I deliberately didn’t mention that our focus was on the medical care of women, particularly pregnant women, for I didn’t know what the mullah might have thought about it; possibly he would have reacted not so differently from the village headman we had so recently met. But I had wasted my breath, since he wasn’t convinced that I was doing anything worthwhile.
‘Bah!’ he said. ‘They are all the same.’
‘No, Mullah sahib,’ I insisted. ‘All the foreigners are not the same.’
‘You don’t understand,’ he said, ‘but one day, when you’re a bit older and have seen more of the world, you will.’
After that he left me alone.
Droits Sans Frontières advertised a position of social worker, and the next week we interviewed six women for the post. Michel asked me to sit in on the interviews, primarily to assess the Dari and Pashto skills of the candidates, since I can speak, read and write both languages fluently. On that day Mumtaz was the last candidate to be interviewed.
When she came in, I almost gasped in disbelief. In Afghanistan, it is well known that it is the girls from Nooristan who are the most beautiful, but this woman was an absolute stunner from Kandahar. She had full lips below a pert, almost snub nose, and a broad, straight forehead. Both innocence and honesty shone from her brown eyes, which were framed by thick dark eyelashes. A black headscarf set off the natural flush of her cheeks, which glowed with a faint pink colouring like a nearly ripe pomegranate. She spoke softly, her stance was demure and she wore a long-sleeved cotton tunic above the baggy shalwar.
If I hadn’t known from her last name, and later from her accent, that she was a Pashtun, I would have thought she was Tajik. If you asked me I would say that Pashtun women are more beautiful and clever than the Tajiks, and most people would agree with me. All the same, many of us Pashtuns like to take a Tajik wife. This is even true of royalty. The late Zahir Shah had a Tajik mother; that is why he never learnt to speak Pashto. Why do we prefer the Tajik girls? It is probably because Pashtun women are too much like us.
Mumtaz spoke clearly in English and answered all the questions that Michel put to her with a quiet confidence. Her command of the foreigner’s language was almost as good as mine.
Then Michel turned to me and asked me to test her skills in Pashto and Dari.
I had prepared a short list of medical terms for her to translate and included synonyms which were not perfectly accurate. For instance, she translated ‘miscarriage’ as ‘abortion’, yet they are not exactly the same thing. A miscarriage is a spontaneous abortion, and a different term existed in both Pashto and Dari for each word.
‘How about this word?’ I threw in the correct synonym in Pashto, and I saw her sudden look of dismay as she realised her error. But I quickly covered for her, saying her choice was not incorrect. She shot me a glance of pure gratitude.
Mumtaz didn’t translate particularly well, but I understood at once that this was because she was nervous. I knew she had the ability to do much better. So in response to Michel’s question, about how she had fared, I said: ‘First class. Her translation is perfect.’
I don’t believe in being unfair, and despite her beauty I wouldn’t have rated her language skills any higher than those of the other six candidates we had called, had I not genuinely believed that she was the best.
After the translation test, I chatted with her for a while, taking the opportunity to find out more about her background, which hadn’t been mentioned in the CV that lay before us.
We had several things in common – Pashtun ethnicity for one. Like me she had studied at an English-language school. And like me she had lived in a refugee camp in Peshawar for many years, although our paths had never crossed. This wasn’t at all surprising. At one time there were several million Afghan refugees living in various refugee camps in Pakistani cities.
I was pleased to discover that my English, Pashto and even my Dari were better than hers. She readily acknowledged this during our brief conversation, and praised me for my linguistic prowess. At the time I was acting as an interviewer, and she did not know my position in the office, but I believe she gave her honest opinion. As she left the office she turned to both of us, said a quick ‘salaam’, and was gone.
Michel turned to me, ostensibly to seek my views, but we both knew without exchanging a word that she was the right candidate for our purposes.
We began going to the villages again, and this time we met with greater success. I was the driver, Michel was the doctor, and Mumtaz was the social worker and facilitator. Quite often we stayed outside, while Mumtaz went into houses and chatted with the women. The idea of having an examination booth in the open was abandoned, but Mumtaz, who already had a certificate in nursing, was able to jot down symptoms and do some basic medical examinations. We also linked up with a female doctor from neighbouring Urozgan, to come down every week and attend to some of the female patients whose spouses would not allow a male doctor to lay a hand on their wives.
It was all going very well. In the beginning I was physically attracted to Mumtaz, but when my feelings developed into love I cannot really say. Gradually, as the days passed, she began to confide in me about her family’s troubles.
‘Ever since my father’s death,’ she told me, ‘we’ve been dependent on my uncle. But my mother doesn’t want to live with him anymore. That’s why it was so important for me to get this job, so that we could have the financial independence to live apart if necessary.’
‘And are you planning to do that?’ I asked.
More by : Rajesh Talwar