Dec 01, 2023
Dec 01, 2023
Continued from “Final Decision?”
The Sentimental Terrorist - 21
Mohsin, TV Hill, 4 a.m.
Now the moment is nearly upon me, I yearn for Mumtaz to be here with me, to advise me on what I’m about to do. Oh, Mumtaz. Where are you? Will I ever see you again?
Mumtaz was a good Muslim girl. Good but strong. Strong like my sister Meena.
‘Strong doesn’t mean always following what the mullah says,’ Meena always maintained. ‘Strong means doing what you think is right, even if no one else agrees with you.’
There were many things that drew me to Mumtaz, aside from her beauty. With her modest dress and demeanour, she kept her quiet religious sensibilities almost private, though she did say her namaz regularly. Yet, despite her reserve, she was not afraid to speak her mind.
When I told her one day about the circumstances that had led to her being hired by Droits Sans Frontières – the episode with the village headman who wouldn’t let any male doctor medically examine women, even those who were seriously ill – she had cried out in genuine outrage.
‘How bestial,’ she’d exclaimed, ‘to allow your wife, the mother of your children, to die rather than be touched by a doctor!’
‘That’s when Michel decided we needed someone like you.’
‘It was good for me, the problem you faced with the headman,’ said Mumtaz, ‘but there was another solution.’
‘And what was that?’
‘You could have taken a mullah to talk to the headman.’
‘A mullah?’ I raised my voice in disbelief.
‘A genuine, learned man. Not a crackpot.’
‘Still, what would that have accomplished? The two would simply have been in agreement.’
‘No, no,’ she said. ‘It is explicitly provided in the Quran that if a woman is sick even her . . .’ She paused delicately. ‘. . . her sharam gah, her private parts, can be examined by a physician.’
I was astounded by her cleverness. Why hadn’t this occurred to me?
‘And that includes a male physician,’ she added.
Was it my western education that had caused me, a Muslim, to fall into the trap of equating hidebound practices with Islam? I felt shamed. From the point of view of women’s rights, our south-eastern tribes were the most backward.
Mumtaz continued, ‘So many tribal practices are totally un-Islamic . . .’
‘Such as?’ Clearly, she had thought about the subject in some detail.
‘The torching of houses.’
‘True.’ It was a common way of exacting revenge on your enemy. And such terrible deeds often went without punishment.
‘Then there is baad’
Baad is a rough-and-ready tribal justice practice whereby young virgin girls are given away as a means of settling a dispute. We are a vengeful lot, us tribal Afghans. If you dishonour me in any way, I won’t rest until I’ve exacted my revenge. And if you kill someone in my family I won’t sleep until I’ve killed someone in your family who is as closely related to you. And so the killings go on year after year. One way to settle disputes before they escalate into violence is for one of the parties to provide a virgin girl to the other. Often the girls are just children.
‘So Islam should actually be a progressive force?’
‘Of course! If we talk in terms of western values no one will take us seriously. But, if we speak about what Islam says, it will get everyone’s attention.’
‘You are amazing, Mumtaz. I believe you will do something great one day.’
‘You are the one who will do something great one day, Mohsin.’
Turning a compliment right around with such adeptness. Yet when I looked into those large, innocent eyes I could detect no insincerity there. Her self-effacing modesty, her bright intellect, her forthrightness ... these were only some of the qualities that endeared her to me. Or, should I say, enslaved me.
‘You know so much about religion. Do you want the Taliban to come back then?’ I was joking, for I knew her views.
‘Ya, Allah,’ said Mumtaz, taking me seriously. ‘Those idiots have a warped interpretation of Islam. They will take Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. See what they’ve been doing in the past months. Torching and blowing up the girls’ school buildings. Making deliberate attacks on girls and women teachers. Is all this Islamic?’
There was no need for me to answer.
‘Women couldn’t even have medical treatment during the time of the Taliban,’ she continued. ‘Those who didn’t dress as they deemed fit were publicly beaten. Can you imagine?’
I knew exactly what she was talking about. This was the reason my family, in fact our entire village, had turned against the Taliban.
‘When we lived as refugees in Peshawar,’ she said, ‘I studied in an English medium school, but before that I was in a madrasa. I know both worlds.’
‘And what did they teach you in the madrasa?’
‘Many good things, some bad things. Fighting too.’
‘Really? Can you fight?’
‘Fire guns too. The Punjabi girls from Pakistan were being trained to use lathi sticks for self-defence, but Afghan girls were given weapons training. I asked one of the trainers why this was being done, and he said, “You girls are tough.”’
I laughed with pleasure.
Even had I not fallen in love with Mumtaz, I wouldn’t have considered marrying any of the girls from my village. Not because they are uneducated, but because they are too passive. I needed a wife to be someone I could talk to, discuss matters and even fight with occasionally. A bit like my sister Meena, although I wouldn’t have wanted my wife to dominate me the way my sister dominated my brother-in-law.
Mumtaz was the strong, independent and beautiful woman I’d always dreamed I would marry.
I often fantasised about having an Indian-style wedding for Mumtaz and me, the way it’s shown on television – which is all I have to go on, since I’ve never visited India and so it might not be completely authentic. In most of the marriages here, men and women are kept in separate halls. The women are served only after all the men have been served. Male–female segregation turns our marriage celebrations into stale, boring affairs. In the Indian weddings I’ve seen on television, men and women walk about the gathering gracefully, laughing, talking and joking with each other. The last wedding I attended here was at the East Diamond, one of the oldest wedding halls in Kandahar. There were just a band of us men dancing away to simple tunes played by a pair of sad-looking musicians, one blowing the double-reed shahnai woodwind instrument and the other whacking away at the hand drums. A dismal affair.
It’s not just the Taliban I dislike but all religious organisations. While they might set out with idealistic goals, decay and corruption are inevitable.
Even the Taliban started off with good intentions. They had a flag, a plain white flag. It was meant to be a symbol of purity and peace. When the Taliban took power, I remember how they got rid of a large number of police stations all over Kandahar and just planted white flags. According to them, if you saw a white flag you would not be able to commit a crime. There was very little crime at the time, it has to be said, though I’m not certain that it was the white flag that was responsible. More likely it was fear of the Taliban and their version of sharia law.
And then within a short period the initial idealism was replaced by religious bigotry – which is worse, far worse, than petty crime. We saw that at first hand in our village.
During the later years of the Russian occupation I lived in Peshawar with my sister’s family. The head of her family was a man called Akbarzai, the father of her husband Suleiman. Before we all left Afghanistan to seek refuge in Pakistan, we lived together in Muntozai as a single, large family group. Akbarzai had three married daughters who lived with their husbands, but his four married sons all lived together with their wives and children in a single extended family under his central, benign authority.
In Peshawar we found accommodation inside one of the refugee camps set up by the Pakistani authorities, but it wasn’t possible any more for all of us to live together as a group. The camps had a multitude of small dwellings with an extremely basic level of comfort, and the organisers told us there weren’t enough units located next to each other. As a result we all lived in the modern way in separate households. Akbarzai stayed with his eldest son’s family, and I lived with my sister’s family.
Akbarzai missed his village and life in Afghanistan and longed to go home. As soon as the Russians were gone, and it was considered safe to return, he went back to his ancestral home. Three sons and their families also left with him; only my brother-in-law stayed on in Pakistan with his family. Suleiman was always very good with his hands and he found employment at a decent wage as a supervisor with a big Pakistani construction company in Islamabad. We moved to private company accommodation.
I joined the International Islamic University in Islamabad for a four-year course in Architecture and Urban Planning. It is the best university in the whole of Pakistan with faculty members drawn from a dozen countries. It wasn’t difficult for me to gain admission, thanks to the Pakistan government, who had reserved a few places and also provided a dozen scholarships for Afghan students in each discipline. In this way I was able to pursue my studies and not be a burden on my sister and brother-in-law.
During my first year at university, more and more Afghans were returning home. Suleiman was being exhorted by his father to return and join his brothers in ploughing the fields.
‘Give up that job of yours,’ the elderly patriarch insisted whenever they spoke long distance. ‘The dust from those construction sites will destroy your lungs. There is good money to be made in your own country.’
Eventually Suleiman succumbed to the old man’s persuasion, and returned to Muntozai with his family. I moved into a hostel at the university so I could complete my studies.
Back in the village, Akbarzai was leading a contented life, his children all living with him now as previously. Before the Russians had come to Afghanistan, he was the most important person in the village and he was still important after they left. He had sold much of his land in order for us to live in greater comfort in Pakistan, but when he got back he still owned enough to make a decent living from it and command prestige in the community. A regular patriarch, he was loved and respected in the family and the village, for despite his hard exterior he had a warm heart.
There was a large age difference between many of Akbarzai’s sons. His eldest granddaughter, Rubena, the child of his son Zulfikar, was scarcely a year younger than me. The old man was especially fond of her.
A young boy from the adjoining village took a fancy to Rubena when he saw her at one of the village fairs, and he asked her to marry him. The proposal was sent through his uncle, who lived in our village and was himself the owner of a considerable amount of property.
So far so good. Since both families were Pashtun and known to each other, there should ordinarily have been no problem with such a match. But Rubena didn’t like the boy. And she pleaded with her grandfather to reject the proposal.
Akbarzai was used to indulging Rubena’s wishes, and here too he saw no reason to refuse her. She was a beautiful girl, and there would be plenty of other offers.
The Taliban were now in power. Unknown to us, the boy’s father had close connections with a middle-level Taliban official in the region. Akbarzai’s refusal so infuriated the boy’s father that he got this official to trump up a case of indecent behaviour on the part of Rubena.
In those days the Taliban did whatever they pleased.
Although Rubena dressed modestly, she wore a hijab, a scarf, instead of a full veil; this was customary for the young women in our village, more forward-looking than many others in neighbouring areas. From her stay in Pakistan, Rubena had picked up some small, girlish pleasures. One of these was to paint her nails and toes.
The boy must have been the one to tell his father about this. For one fine day six bearded Taliban accompanied by a local policeman sped into our village in a jeep and demanded to see Rubena.
‘What is your business, to come into a decent man’s home?’ shouted Akbarzai. ‘I will have all you hanged in the village square.’
As luck would have it, at the time of the visit, all of Akbarzai’s four sons had gone across to the Pakistani border to collect a tractor, which could be imported at a cheaper price than what it cost locally. By the time the paperwork was completed and they had driven home in their purchase it would be evening. Perhaps this was part of the planning by the villains who came to our village.
The policeman, who knew Akbarzai, took him aside and pleaded with him. These were the Taliban who were with him, and he had better do as they asked. The greybeard took comfort from the policeman’s assurance that nothing bad would happen.
A fully veiled Rubena eventually emerged from the women’s quarters, accompanied by my sister, and she was ordered by one of the men to hold her hands out for examination.
Meena told me later how she had tried to stop the girl, but in her youthful foolishness and courage Rubena ignored her advice and, little realising what was in store for her, innocently put forward her hands.
‘Nail par-leesh,’ snarled one of the Taliban. ‘No, my dear, we cannot have a Hindoostani actress in our midst. Next we’ll have singers and dancers all over the country. Those pretty fingers will have to go.’ And they seized her.
Despite protests from the aged Akbarzai, who swung his stick at the men and shouted that there would be blood to pay, Rubena was dragged to the village square. One of the Taliban announced through a loudspeaker fitted on the jeep – they had come fully prepared – that a trial under sharia law would shortly take place. The purpose of the trial, he announced, was to bring moral conscience and Islamic practice back to the women of Muntozai, our village; for months afterwards there were angry discussions about how on that day, by referring to Muntozai by name, the entire village’s honour had been violated.
A maulvi, a religious scholar with so-called expertise in Islamic jurisprudence, was produced from somewhere. This man shouted questions at Rubena, which she, poor girl, trembling with fear, did not answer, and so the conclusion was quickly drawn, and announced, that the wanton woman had accepted her guilt in having clearly gone beyond the bounds of modesty prescribed in the holy book. So there in the presence of several villagers who had gathered, Rubena’s hands were forcibly dragged and placed on the stump of an old tree, with her screaming, pleading and sobbing all the while, regardless the butchers chopped off her fingers one by one.
With the help of a neighbour, Meena managed to have Rubena rushed to the civil hospital in Kandahar and given immediate attention. It was too terrible an event for Rubena, the darling of our family, to have suffered. When she returned home the following day, she committed suicide in the bathroom by cutting open an artery with a kitchen knife.
Our entire village was in shock over the incident. Akbarzai’s humiliation constituted a humiliation for the entire community. Perhaps a few, very few, narrow-minded people rejoiced over the terrible event, but the vast majority of villagers determined that the Taliban were not our friends, but friends of the inhabitants of the neighbouring village, home of Rubena’s young suitor. An animosity between the two villages ensued, and this endured for many years after.
Our family had its revenge. Akbarzai’s eldest son, Zulfikar, who was Rubena’s father, went to the boy’s village the next week and shot him dead in full view of everyone there. By this time the entire village of Muntozai had mobilised in support of our family. The matter had become so politically sensitive, it was not considered wise even by the Taliban to arrest Zulfikar. It is likely, though, that they gave the go-ahead to the boy’s family to do as they pleased, for two months later Zulfikar was killed by the boy’s father. It now fell to Kazim, Akbarzai’s second son, to take revenge for his brother’s killing.
Around that time I was summoned home from Islamabad.
‘Call him home,’ Akbarzai instructed my sister. ‘Tell him to forget his studies. Our family’s honour is more important. The people in our village are all behind us. It does not look good if any able-bodied man from our family is not with us.’
I left my studies unfinished and returned at once. My sister’s word was law for me as was her father-in-law’s.
I didn’t participate in any of the subsequent killings myself, being regarded as too junior to merit the honour of being given such a task, but I was required to be at home constantly, so that the women of the house and the children could feel more secure. Despite the protection guaranteed to our family by the village elders, someone like me needed to be at home all the time, in case the enemy launched a surprise attack.
Suleiman and his brother took charge of the fields and I stayed at home, oiling the two Kalashnikovs our family possessed. There were at least four more deaths, two from their side and one more from our family; it was Kazim who fell to a bullet this time.
This saga of killings and revenge killings continued for upwards of a year. Eventually the village elders approached tribal leaders from the region and together with the senior leadership of the Taliban a compromise was reached between our two families so that the bloodshed could cease. At this stage, I could have gone back to finish my studies at Islamabad but I had lost my appetite for learning and decided to look for a job instead.
Akbarzai himself didn’t survive long after the bloodshed ended. He had to bear the loss of not only his favourite granddaughter but also his two older sons.
I hate the Taliban for what they did to Rubena, and I also blame them for the other deaths that took place in my family as a consequence of that terrible deed, but now my hate for them pales in comparison to the fury I feel against the Americans, against all the firangis.
I look at myself now, in this small hideout.
In a little while from now, I will be in a police uniform and be going out to kill the person who was responsible for my life’s biggest tragedy. It is possible that I will kill some others whom I don’t know anything about.
I am assured by Shamsuddin that all the others are in league with the Americans, one way or the others. A few innocent guards and helpers may be present. It’s not possible to prevent their deaths. But there will be no others.
Mumtaz would have hated me for spilling the blood of an innocent. And I hate myself. But I don’t see any alternative.
I wish I could ask her.
Is this something great that I am about to do, Mumtaz?
Continued to “Choosing the Sex of a Camel”
More by : Rajesh Talwar