Journey to Kabul

Continued from “Boot Camp, Taliban Style”

The Sentimental Terrorist - 17

Mohsin Khan, TV Hill

I’ve left everything I owned in the house for my landlord, just taking with me a small transistor radio and some clothing. Jamil was sorry to see me leave. I’ve been as quiet a tenant as he could have wished for; perhaps even quieter than he would have wanted towards the end.

‘Where do you want me to forward your mail?’ he asked.

‘Just send it to Shamsuddin’s masjid,’ I said, more out of politeness than anything else.

My letter writing and reading days will soon be over. And I’m not interested in reading any more letters commiserating over the death of my family. They are gone. What are condolences worth now?

* * *

We were taken down to Kabul in a rundown Toyota driven by the man called Humayun. An associate of Pervez, he’d brought Abbas into the Taliban’s folds and was present during the dinner hosted by Shamsuddin. On that occasion he was dressed in the traditional black clothes and turban of the Taliban. This time he took care not to wear anything that might remotely suggest such an association.

We didn’t carry any guns or ammunition with us; there was too great a likelihood of our car being stopped and searched, which in fact it was. We were stopped three times at checkpoints. The police may have had information about us or some other terrorist group entering the city, for at the final checkpoint they even insisted on all of us stepping out of the car. A scruffy-looking policeman moved a metal detector over us, and frisked us rather too thoroughly.

‘That polise gave my balls a massage,’ Abbas said.

‘Maybe he fancies you,’ said Humayun, touching the young man’s cheek lightly. ‘Your smooth skin . . .’

‘It was a Kandahari-style greeting,’ added Hussein. ‘He was just saying asr bekhxir – good evening to you.’

We all laughed uproariously, Abbas joining in after initial reluctance. Hussein was always serious and it was uncharacteristic of him to make a joke, especially about something improper – which made it all the more funny.

We have very religious-minded people in our province. And there are strict injunctions against homosexuality in Islam. And yet it amazes me that in the whole of Afghanistan it was my city and province, Kandahar, that had gained a reputation for having a large homosexual population. Although men here commonly kiss each other on the cheek as a show of affection and by way of greeting, sometimes you can sense that the other man’s embrace lingers longer and differently than pure affection would warrant.

Despite the delays, our journey to Kabul was faster than I anticipated. The last time I visited the capital was a year ago, when Meena, Suleiman and their children were with me. We were all going to attend my brother-in-law’s niece’s wedding. Aside from Suleiman’s niece, who would be a mother by now, there were other relatives who lived in Kabul, but I would not meet them, and hoped we would not bump into each other by chance.

During that visit there had been more blisters on the road’s surface than sores on a leper’s skin. Not only had we all been shaken from the outside because of the bumpy ride, but our internal body parts had also seemed to be getting tossed about. My nephews, niece and I, all seated at the back, had fallen on top of each other, to much laughter and giggling.
Meena had turned back from the front seat to reprimand us.

‘You are a young man, Mohsin,’ she chided me. ‘You should be controlling the children. This is not the time to play and have fun.’

‘We can’t help it, khuahar. The road is like this.’

But now the road lay coiled before us like a smooth black snake. The black tarmac was at least six inches thick. We whizzed forward.

I took over the wheel from Humayun after an hour. I’d been used to driving Michel around in our charity’s four-wheel drive.

‘The Amrikans haven’t built these roads for us, Mohsin jan,’ said Hussein, from the rear of the car.

‘Who are they for then?’

‘For themselves.’

‘But there are more Afghans who will use these roads, surely.’ Even though the selfishness of the firangis was no longer in doubt in my mind, still there was a limit to what we could accuse them of.

‘You don’t understand, Mohsin. They want to protect themselves.’

How would good roads protect the foreigners? It was beyond me.

Hussein said: ‘If the road is broken down with potholes and cracks, it will be easier to hide one of those brown mangos.’

Ah. He was talking about IEDs, improvised explosive devices.

* * *
Shamsuddin arrived in Kabul the day after.

He didn’t stay with us on TV Hill, but found accommodation within the precincts of the Green Mosque, a large new building constructed with help from the Saudi government. The prayer leader was an old friend from Shamsuddin’s childhood. They had sat together just one bench apart in the village school learning passages of the Quran by heart.

Shamsuddin asked me to accompany him to a meeting with an important personage at the Inter-Continental Hotel in Kabul. This large building is so ugly and unimaginative, it reminds me of the time the Russians were in my country, for, although this was designed by the British, they overused concrete in a brutal style, just as decades later the Soviets would do. Buildings made during the Russian time can be found in many places in Kabul, especially the sprawling Macro Rayan residential area originally intended to be low-cost housing for ordinary people, but now you had to be rich to afford to live there. For all its dullness, the Inter-Continental has one of the best locations, being perched on top of a small hill and looming over the city like a gigantic eagle.

For this visit, I’m not sure why the mullah preferred my company to Hussein’s or Abbas’s. My guess is that because I speak English and have worked with westerners it made Shamsuddin look more accomplished to appear to have a disciple such as me. It didn’t matter to me that I was being given the opportunity to meet someone important, but I could see from Abbas’s crestfallen expression that he was jealous. Most likely he will compete with me on the day of our attack, to try and kill more people. He can win that competition for all I care. I only want to kill one particular individual: the man responsible for guiding the military aircraft that bombed my village.

Inside the hotel we sat down in the octagonal-shaped coffee shop, ordered snacks and tea and waited. The yellow, beehive-like interiors were deserted except for a young, self-absorbed, romancing couple at a corner table who took no notice of us. By now the mullah had told me that we were about to meet none other than a deputy minister who worked for the current infidel government. He would supply us with the necessary arms and ammunition.

A portly figure with shiny waistcoat buttons, and spectacles falling off his nose, appeared in front of the glass door that led into the café. Two Afghan policemen stood beside him, ostensibly for his security.

‘Zahir!’ Shamsuddin stood up at once and went up to the man. The glass door opened and the two hugged each other fiercely like two bears.

The minister said something to the policemen, and they went away.

Shamsuddin clasped one of the visitor’s hands in his own paw, and dragged him to our table.

‘I’ll only sit for two minutes,’ said our visitor, as he seated himself on one of the yellow sofas that curved around the glass-topped table. ‘No, I won’t eat anything, Shamsuddin jan.’ He jerked his head in the direction of the guards. ‘I’ve told them to keep an eye out for the Minister of Finance. I have an important meeting with him.’ He lowered his voice.
‘Regarding your material, it is there with me. You know my house.’ His eyes fell on me.

‘This is one of your soldiers?’

‘Braver than the bravest,’ said Shamsuddin, with a flourish of his hand, as if he were a village magician producing an apple. ‘Mohsin Khan’

‘Very good.’ The minister held out his hand to shake mine. ‘We need people like you.’

The way the last words came out, the formality of the tone, made me suspect that he said the same thing when commending an Afghan policeman who had died in the line of duty.
Zahir Shah was a member of parliament from one of the southern districts. He and the mullah knew each other from their days inside one of the refugee settlements in Peshawar.

‘So how does it feel to be in government, Zahir?’

‘Terrible,’ said the minister. ‘I wish to destroy this puppet government.’

This time round, he sounded sincere.

‘You are doing so in your own way,’ Shamsuddin said. ‘You have helped us more than any other minister.’

‘I try,’ Zahir Shah said. ‘I try. You are destroying the beast from the outside, and I am trying to eat its entrails from the inside. That’s the only difference.’

‘As you know, this young soldier . . .’Shamsuddin paused, speaking softly and choosing his words carefully.

A red-coated waiter turned up with our order, forcing the mullah to stop in the middle of his sentence. Only when the pot of tea and small plates with bright yellow cake had been placed on the table, and the waiter gone away, did he continue.

‘As you know,’ Shamsuddin began again.

‘You need material,’ said the other.

‘Exactly.’ The mullah gave a short laugh. ‘We understand each other without my having to say anything.’

‘Two days I ago I sent one of my aides to Helmand to get the “material”,’ said Zahir Shah, ‘and he has come back with most of what you need. This will be delivered tomorrow to your residence.’ He paused. ‘Pervez telephoned me yesterday. He told me you also require jackfruit. Some baby jackfruit. Am I right?’

Shamsuddin nodded.

I gathered the reference was to grenades. A ‘baby’ jackfruit with its green colouring and pimpled surface must mean that.

‘That fruit will also reach me soon,’ the minister said. ‘Give your soldier my address and send him to collect it.’ He turned to me. ‘Even if I am not there, I will have explained everything to my staff. They will give you all you need.’ He leaned back on the sofa, spread his arms and looked at the mullah. ‘All right?’

Tashakor,’ Shamsuddin murmured. ‘Thank you.’

‘No need for thanks. You shame me by offering thanks.’

Now that the main business had been taken care of, I saw both men relax. Conversation shifted to more general subjects.

‘Once we have this government out of the way – and inshallah it won’t be too much longer – we can start to get things back to normal,’ said the parliamentarian.

‘Reinstate proper Islamic values?’

‘Exactly.’ Zahir Shah shifted on the sofa to be more comfortable. ‘Let me tell you, things are going from bad to worse. There are simply no morals left in Kabul.’

‘Interesting,’ Shamsuddin said. ‘What have you noticed?’

‘Two months ago I went with my family to Paghman, biradar. You know Paghman, of course. Less than an hour’s drive from Kabul. Everyone goes there for a picnic. We were all sitting together and enjoying a meal out in the open when I heard voices. I took a few steps down the hilly area and there I saw several young men with a young woman. I couldn’t see very clearly but I thought that they were raping her. I wasn’t sure so I asked Abdul, my young servant boy, to go closer and check. He went and saw that indeed there were five young boys and they were all . . .’ He took a deep breath. ‘Yes, all of them were raping this young woman. As a matter of fact they even jokingly asked Abdul if he would like to join in.’ He spat out in disgust. ‘I called the Chief of Police on my mobile at once and police officers arrived soon afterwards. The young men were arrested, together with the young lady.’ He pursed his lips in annoyance as he remembered something. ‘By the evening all the young men had been released.’ He drew breath. ‘The President’s office called. Can you imagine?’

While Zahir Shah spoke in Pashto for the most part, he peppered his speech with the odd English expression, as many Afghans do. A doubt teased my mind about his use of the English term ‘rape’ so I asked him if he thought the woman was a prostitute.

‘Of course she was a prostitute,’ he replied. ‘This is zina.’

Previously, under Taliban rule, a close watch was kept on all sexual activities. In Islamic law it is a serious offence to commit the act of zina, sex outside of marriage – irrespective of whether or not the sexual act is by consent. In Zahir Shah’s mind it mattered little whether the woman had consented or not. The young men were guilty of zina but not rape. I felt curiously detached from the fuss he was making.

A policeman opened the glass door, and poked his head in.

‘I’d better be going now,’ said Zahir Shah, slowly lifting his considerable bulk out of the sofa.

The two bears hugged and moved each other about once again. I stood up, out of respect.
Zahir Shah shook hands with me and was gone.

‘How many members of parliament do you know?’ I asked him.

‘Six or seven MPs are close to us,’ said Shamsuddin, as he stared greedily at a small piece of unfinished cake on the table. ‘Shall we head back?’

I left him to gobble it up, and walked to the windows of the coffee shop to have a look outside. These heights offered a different perspective of Kabul. From my shack on TV Hill I looked below at the city and ahead at the mountains; behind me was just the hill itself. But here we were at the summit of the hill and the mountains joined arms in a collective embrace; the beehive shape of the coffee shop made sense now. Clouds hovered over rocky stone flecked with snow. It seemed that the snow was closing in on us.

As we walked towards the taxi waiting in the parking lot, I almost slipped on what had previously been a puddle of water but was now frozen ice. I was glad of the thick woollen shawl I had wrapped around me. I pulled the brown, sheep’s wool pakol over my ears. It would not be long now before the winter set in. But blood would flow before the heavy snow arrived.

Continued to “A Holier Than Thou Youngster”


More by :  Rajesh Talwar

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