Feb 29, 2024
Feb 29, 2024
The Sentimental Terrorist - 22
Mumtaz Isupzai, A guesthouse somewhere in Kabul, 4 a.m.
I liked Mohsin from the day I first set eyes on him. He was clearly trying to help me along during the course of my interview and he even pretended my translation was better than it was.
He won’t ever know it, but I fell in love with him soon after. It was the day he convinced the village elders to buy female camels.
* * *
Michel, our chief, was a doctor by profession but he also dealt with agricultural issues. Droits Sans Frontières employed an agricultural specialist, but Michel took charge of a few projects that he felt didn’t require too much technical knowledge.
‘So, Mohsin,’ he said, during one of our morning meetings in his office, ‘– and you Mumtaz – I want the two of you to take charge of this project to supply camels to a group of villages.’
‘But Michel,’ I said, ‘I thought we were going to help the villagers with farming. Why are we going to get them camels?’
‘The two are connected, don’t you see? Do you know how they operate the wells in that region? They don’t have a pump. A system of pulleys leads up to a contraption fitted around the camel’s neck. And the animal walks up and down. They have used this system to bring up water for centuries. The same goes for the sand, if you’re digging deeper to find water.’
‘So the camels are necessary in order to rehabilitate the wells as well as to draw water. The last time Mohsin and I discussed this with the villagers – you weren’t with us then, Mumtaz – they were enthusiastic but worried. Do you remember, Mohsin? They said: “Haji Michel, it’s going to cost 600 Afghanis per month to rent each camel.” They muttered amongst themselves but were resigned to the fact that camels are very expensive these days. And I thought this was a very high price too, but agreed to support them.’
At this point Mohsin interrupted: ‘I’ve been thinking about this, Michel. I think they were indirectly trying to tell us it might be better to simply buy the camels. And they’re right.’
‘Really?’ said our supervisor. ‘Why do you say that?
Mohsin explained: ‘I went to the market with Rashid the other day, and we found that you could buy a camel for the rent we would pay for two years.’
Michel drummed his pencil on the table for a few moments and quickly reached a decision.
‘Let’s do that then,’ he said. ‘In that case, Mohsin, and you Mumtaz, need to go back to the Kuram village’ – this was where we had our meetings – ‘and tell the headman to collect all the beards together for a two o’clock meeting tomorrow to discuss the problem of disused wells. Don’t mention that we’ve decided to buy the camels instead of renting them. I want that to be a surprise. Just tell them generally that it’s something to do with the camels. That’ll make sure they are all there.’
‘Collect all the beards together.’
Mohsin and I laughed.
Michel often used interesting and funny expressions like these. He was a gentle but practical man who thought on his feet. In some ways, at least as far as our work was concerned, Pierre was such a disappointment after Michel. I know I shouldn’t say that about my own husband, but it’s true.
‘Tell me something, Mohsin,’ said Michel, stroking his chin. ‘What is the difference in price between a male and a female camel?’
‘They are the same, give or take a few hundred Afghanis. The price of a camel depends more on its age, health and strength.’
‘Okay.’ Michel appeared to think for a while. ‘Why don’t we tell them we don’t want to buy them a camel that would just die, because that would mean we would have to purchase another animal? We’re going to buy a couple of males but mostly females. The females will give birth to baby camels that can be used when they are old enough.’
‘That should convince them,’ I said.
* * *
The next day found us all squatting under the shade of a mulberry tree, broaching the issue with a group of representatives from a few villages. Their reaction turned out to be very different from what we’d supposed. You’d have thought they’d be pleased, but no, there was a huge uproar, and in one voice they said, ‘Oh no, we can’t have female camels.’
As a woman and a new recruit in the office, I was supposed to take a back seat in the discussion so I kept quiet.
Mohsin asked, ‘Why not?’
One of the men, a lean, wiry fellow with the longest beard of them all, ignored Mohsin and told Michel – with Mohsin translating all the while – that female camels were not very strong.
‘Haji Michel,’ this man said, ‘you have to understand that a male camel can carry a hundred kilos comfortably, but a female will manage sixty kilos at the most.’
Michel said, ‘What we can do then is buy a few extra camels.’
‘No, no, Haji Michel, this job is not for the females,’ he insisted. ‘They’re not as strong; moreover, they keep getting pregnant!’
Michel was quiet and looked ready to give up when Mohsin, who had been silent until now, spoke up.
‘Can we understand from this, biradar,’ Mohsin said, ‘that when your wife becomes pregnant she stops cooking food, cleaning the house, collecting the firewood and looking after the children?’
He looked around at the people in our small group to make it clear that he was addressing everyone. They started to grin and smirk at his implied suggestion.
‘I suppose this is the case, is it?’ Mohsin persisted. ‘And then you start doing all these things?’
Then the man who had voiced the objection gave a big toothy grin, and said he was convinced. Some of the men guffawed.
‘Surely we could buy an equal number of male and female camels?’ Mohsin proposed.
‘An equal number.’ The eldest man in the group, with a snow-white beard, repeated Mohsin’s words. ‘That’s the right decision.’
It looked as if we were about to reach agreement, but then there was a fresh objection.
‘But I am not convinced.’ The biggest and tallest of the group stood up. ‘I swear upon my beard’ – he stroked his thick, black beard – ‘that I would rather slaughter a female camel and feed it to the poor people than use her for drawing up the water from my well.’ And he glared at the others to see who might disagree.
At that point, where we feared that negotiations over the female camels were doomed to failure, Mohsin, who is also very big and tall, jumped up and caught hold of the man’s beard.
‘My friend,’ he said evenly, ‘surely you can see that everyone else is in agreement, including the most senior and experienced man in our group. Now, if you wish to be out of the scheme, say so, but we will be buying both male and female camels.’
For a few minutes after he’d spoken, the atmosphere was extremely tense, but the big man, our new objector, suddenly cooled down and said he would go along with us.
I knew Mohsin had done a very courageous but dangerous thing by catching hold of his beard, because any Afghan could regard this as a major insult.
Mohsin and I met the village headman a few days later. He had been unable to attend our meeting on account of a family wedding, but had heard tales about what had transpired.
‘The villagers came to me the next day,’ the headman explained. ‘They said that Haji Michel was very nice, but the young man Mohsin was so soft and kind that he actually touched our beards and pleaded with us to take the female camels. So we have decided to accept their suggestion.’
Mohsin and I couldn’t stop laughing.
* * *
I sometimes think that recounting this small incident is the best way I can explain to some of Pierre’s friends in Paris my feelings about western approaches to female emancipation in Afghanistan. We have to move slowly, inch by inch almost. An Afghan woman will understand me perfectly.
All these months I have been lying next to fat Pierre, but my thoughts have been only of Mohsin.
I know an Afghan woman is supposed to be loyal to her husband and should not have such thoughts, but I am helpless. Ever since that day when Mohsin convinced the group of village elders that they should buy female camels, I have been in love with him.
On that day, while travelling back to the city, Michel was seated in the front of the car next to the driver. I sat next to Mohsin in the back of the jeep, our bodies touching ever so slightly. I longed at that moment to be in his warm embrace. To be forever his.
Mohsin displayed all the qualities I desired in the man I wished to marry: quiet, kind-hearted and at the same time brave. The way he challenged the troublemaker and convinced the village elders that day pushed my heart over the edge.
But alas. There was no way I could have married Mohsin or refused Pierre.
Especially after what happened to my stepsister Nafisa.
* * *
‘Be careful, daughter,’ my mother had warned me, giving a long sigh, when I told her about this wonderful young man, a Pathan like ourselves, who had shown interest in me, and who might – I prayed and hoped that I had not estimated him wrongly – propose marriage to me.
‘Why, madar?’ I noticed that there were bags under her eyes.
‘Idris will not agree. He doesn’t want you to marry outside the family. He has you in mind for one of Khalida’s sons.’ Idris is my stepfather, and Khalida is his first wife.
My father was a religious man but modern at the same time. He had always been healthy, and his tuberculosis was diagnosed too late. He passed away one morning, while holding my mother’s hand.
After my father’s death, we weren’t left with any money and for upwards of a year we were financially supported by his elder brother, my uncle Idris.
My father was handsome and young-looking even during his illness, but his brother by contrast was sour-faced and had an elderly appearance; he was in fact fifteen years older. One day, barely a year after my father’s death, he proposed to my mother. My mother would have refused, but in the circumstances, being dependent on my uncle, she agreed. Khalida was not pleased at all, but despite having produced three sons by him she didn’t have much control over her husband.
When my mother married Idris, she made it a condition that she and his first wife should not live within the same house. The two houses could be close to each other, but she insisted on a physical distance, however small. Idris was so besotted with my mother at the time that he willingly accepted this condition. Even during our years inside a refugee camp in Peshawar the separation of the two households was somehow maintained. And once we were back in Afghanistan, in our ancestral village, Khalida’s house was situated a hundred yards away from ours.
‘One of Khalida’s sons? Which one?’ I asked, for, even though I disliked both her unmarried sons, it wasn’t in equal measure.
The worst of the three was fat Fardeen, the youngest, and unmarried. He worked in his father’s fields and took care of the livestock. The previous year one of the village boys found him fornicating with one of the sheep right in the middle of the crop field. Next day the news was all over the village. The girls gossiped about it for weeks. It was enough just to mention his name to raise a laugh. I wouldn’t have been willing to marry Fardeen, even if he was the last man left in Afghanistan. Personally I’ve never been in favour of marriages between close cousins, and Fardeen and I are about as close as you could get. I once read in a medical textbook that such marriages can cause deformities in the children.
‘It’s Fardeen,’ my mother said.
‘Nooooo,’ I breathed out. ‘That boy . . . is . . . such a buffoon. And not educated.’
A thought struck me. Khalida had long hated both my mother and me. Perhaps she would not agree. I mentioned this to my mother.
‘It’s that witch’s idea, my dear,’ Mother told me. ‘She is the one who has planted this seed in Idris’s head.’
Ya, Allah, what should I do? I couldn’t bear the thought of getting married to that oaf.
A second thought struck me.
‘Surely you can convince abba.’
I called Idris ‘father’ even though he was actually my uncle.
‘Father always listens to you,’ I continued. ‘Remember the time you got me taken out of the madrasa and taught in an English medium school in Pakistan.’ My mother had always wanted me to have a good academic education, something she herself had craved in her youth, though the possibility had not existed then.
‘I remember, dekheter,’ my mother said, ‘but things are not the same now.’
‘You know how men are, dekheter. All the same. When I married your father’s brother’ – I was startled to hear her refer to her husband as my father’s brother, and something was clearly amiss – ‘there was nothing he would not do for me. But now I hear that he has plans to take a third wife.’
‘Wha –’ I opened my mouth in astonishment. ‘Who?’
It was the second shock for me that morning.
Zubeida was our village blacksmith’s eldest daughter. The blacksmith was a good, hard-working man, but he didn’t have much business come his way, as people from the adjoining villages now preferred to go to the city for their repairs. Bright-eyed Zubeida lived with her parents and younger brother in what was little more than a hovel on the outskirts of our village.
‘But she’s just . . . just a year older than me!’ I heard myself shout.
‘I know.’ My mother nodded sadly. ‘But it’s all settled.’
I stared at her.
‘Yes, terms have been settled, and payment has been made. Nothing can be done about it anymore.’
Yet more humiliation awaited my mother. Since our household was smaller and there was more living space, Idris had decided that the new, third wife would live with us. And he needed my earnings for his own household.
* * *
It always angered me how older Afghan men often took a much younger second or third wife on payment of a dowry. There were often news reports about young girls who had taken their own lives rather than be wedded to a wrinkled old man. It saddened me to see how the girls’ parents became willing accomplices in making these arrangements. Why did the parents of a girl of eighteen or twenty agree to have her marry a man in his late fifties, possibly even in his sixties?
‘Paisa,’ my mother responded, when I asked her one day. ‘It’s the money, dekheter. Plain and simple.’
Sometimes I’ve annoyed relatives and friends who are more tolerant of such arrangements by calling them ‘a sale – plain and simple’.
The girls have no choice. Their decision is made for them.
And when I thought about my stepfather’s plan to marry me off to fat Fardeen, the scheme that my mother’s sworn enemy, Khalida herself, had proposed, I understood that once again it was money talking. Ever since I had started to work and contribute money I was the murghi laying golden eggs at the beginning of every month; they had all become addicted to my salary, even my stepfather. Khalida’s house had been whitewashed and a new four-blade, gold-painted fan installed in her bedroom. With my marriage to her son, she would have her revenge against my mother; she would grab most of my salary; and she would get fat Fardeen to treat me like ‘a whore’s daughter’, the term of abuse she’d used for me in our early days together, before Idris got her to stop.
* * *
‘And you, mother?’ I said, as I pondered the new development. ‘Are you happy that abba will take a new wife?’
‘That should not be your question. Do we have any choice?’
‘Didn’t you tell him?’ I shouted.
She pulled up her shirt then and showed me the bruises on her back.
Allah! No daughter should have to face such a situation. Any respect for the man I had treated as my father until that juncture evaporated instantly.
I had to do something. Something, anything.
My mother’s question haunted me in the days that followed.
Do we have any choice?
* * *
Even after I’d spoken with my mother and she’d warned me that my uncle – I’d reverted to thinking of him as my uncle – would not accept my marrying someone other than Fardeen, I still wasn’t convinced that I wouldn’t be able to manage the situation. Surely they wouldn’t force me, if I simply refused and stuck to my position.
But then two terrible events made me think through the whole matter afresh, and with clearer eyes I recognised that what my mother said was true.
The first of these was the death of Abida, my stepbrother’s wife.
Khalida’s eldest son, Abdul, was a good ten years older than Ali, the second son. Abdul was a giant of a man but, as if to balance things, Allah had provided him with a pea-sized brain. Abdul’s wife Abida was a Tajik who hailed from the north. For some time now Abdul had forbidden his wife from visiting her family on account of some minor, imagined insult.
Four years ago, Abdul had visited Abida’s family, who lived in Mazar-e-Sharif, and during the course of a meal a younger son-in-law was served before him. This was enough for Abdul to immediately get up, shout at his in-laws and, ignoring their protests, pleas and entreaties, stalk out of the house with Abida and their two daughters in tow.
Since that incident, Abida had been forbidden from meeting with any member her family. A few days before Eid, however, Abida begged permission. Abdul gave a laugh and agreed that she could visit her family.
When we heard, we were all surprised at Abdul’s change of heart, for he was not known to forgive and forget easily. We were pleased for Abida, since every married woman wishes to be with her family now and again and it had been so long since she had seen them.
It appeared, though, that Abdul was merely playing a trick on her and cruelly manipulating her feelings. When the day arrived and she packed her suitcases and dressed up her daughters, expecting him to take her to the bus stop as he had promised, he took out a long stick instead, one he used for beating the cattle, and he slammed it on her behind. It was a Sunday and I was at home with my mother. We heard poor Abida’s screams all the way from her house. The children wailed but the brute didn’t care. A neighbour went in and tried to stop the violence but he pushed her away. No one could stop that giant from beating her.
That night Abida took an overdose of opium. No one knows how she managed to get hold of it, but opium poppies grow in abundance in fields just thirty kilometres down the road and it would not have been difficult for her to obtain some, on the pretext that she needed something to kill the pain while her bruises healed.
Did it affect the beast? Not at all. His eyes were drier than the most disused of the wells that Droits Sans Frontières were trying to rehabilitate. In my stepmother’s household they were already talking about finding a second wife for Abdul, to take care of his and the children’s needs.
* * *
Barely weeks after Abida’s death a second tragedy struck.
Nafisa, Khalida’s daughter and her youngest child, was engaged to Raheem, the son of a rich hardware merchant from Kandahar. The family owned three shops in the city and Raheem was going to be put in charge of one of them. There was no problem from anyone’s side. The would-be bride and groom both liked each other. They were both very goodlooking.
Raheem began coming to the house frequently, ostensibly to meet Nafisa’s mother and brothers, but really he simply wanted to spend some time with his fiancée. Nafisa’s brothers objected. It wasn’t proper, they said, for Raheem to visit the house before the wedding and they told him he must stop coming until the marriage had taken place. Yet despite their suggestions to this effect Raheem continued to visit.
At this stage, instead of taking up the issue with Raheem, the brothers began to attack Nafisa physically. She was beaten black and blue after every visit by Raheem. The marriage itself was only three months down the line, and in Afghanistan it is extremely rare for engagements to be broken – the loss of prestige has been known to result in killings – so it shouldn’t really have mattered, but clearly it did matter to pea-brained Abdul and his two younger, equally brutal brothers. Finally, to prevent any further assaults on his fiancée, Raheem stopped visiting.
Everything should have remained fine at this juncture. Unfortunately Nafisa and her fiancé started to meet in secret at another village not far from Muntozai, and she was spotted there with him by someone known to her brothers. There was no real issue involved here. The girl was after all meeting her own fiancé. However . . .
The brothers thrashed Nafisa so badly when she came home that night that her anguished screams of pain pounded the walls of our house. I couldn’t sleep for a second that night, even though I didn’t know the extent of her injuries and what was yet in store.
When we saw pretty Nafisa the next day, she was no longer pretty. Her rosy complexion was gone and her skin was a mixture of black, blue, red and purple. Her nose was broken and three of her front teeth were missing. An ear had been ripped off and stood at an odd angle with the rest of her face, as sometimes happens with a stray dog who has received a hiding. For this to have happened to poor Nafisa, who was so proud of her looks, was pitiful. We all wondered what the doctors would be able to do to repair the damage, and how soon before the wedding. But there would be no wedding.
Two days later, Nafisa tied her cotton pyjamas around her neck, and hanged herself on the new four-bladed ceiling fan in her mother’s bedroom.
* * *
A cold realisation dawned on me. This was my family, even if it was the part I would have wished to disown. Ever since I had begun to work with Droits Sans Frontières, as a consequence of all those workshops on human rights – all that empty chatter about female power – I had started to lose touch with my own reality. The reality that lived inside a small village in the south of Afghanistan.
I was living in Jahannam, I told myself. Idris, my stepfather, was a devil, and his sons no different. This family was worse than hell itself. But no one in the village, no one in Afghanistan, would stop their cruel actions, for these would be considered internal family matters. Could I prevent my mother from being beaten by Idris if I refused to marry Fardeen? Could I be sure of my mother’s safety, even that she would remain alive, if I married someone else? Even I could be attacked by his sons tomorrow. Who would help us? Who? What was I thinking? I had to leave this country and save both myself and my mother.
* * *
All this is in the past. It’s the life I’d rather forget.
But there are things I don’t wish to forget. The time spent at Droits Sans Frontières in Kandahar. With Mohsin. Not Pierre. Ya, Allah. What am I saying? But it is true.
All those lonely evenings when I waited for Pierre, it was never with the kind of eagerness I feel now. And on many of those evenings I wished it was Mohsin coming home to me rather than Pierre.
* * *
Will he come to see me tomorrow? My beloved, kind Mohsin, will he be there? After what I did to him?
So many times I’ve asked myself if I did the right thing in accepting Pierre’s proposal and dashing Mohsin’s hopes to the ground.
Oh, Mohsin, if only you knew what it cost me to get married to Pierre instead of you.
And if I didn’t tell him the full extent of my feelings for him it was only because I thought that I would then not be able to keep my resolve. To keep my promise. To myself. To somehow take my mother out of the living hell that had become our home.
Will he come?
I won’t sleep till the morning comes.
For tomorrow is the only day I have.
The next day Pierre is due to arrive and so too my mother.
* * *
I wonder if Mohsin has received my letter.
Mail in Afghanistan is so unreliable because of the war.
But I wrote to him care of the Droits Sans Frontières address, although I understand from Pierre that he is no longer working with them.
Why, Mohsin? Why did you leave your well-paid job with them? Did you find something better, as you so deserved? Or did you leave because I broke your heart and you couldn’t bear to sit within the same walls? I’m so sorry.
I hope and pray that he will have got my letter and will come to see me today.
What will I say to him when I meet him?
If he comes.
Perhaps it’s best if he does not come.
What is the point of our meeting?
I’m so selfish that I want to see him again, but I don’t think of what he will suffer.
Daylight is creeping in. Kabul looks so peaceful at this time. When I see these beautiful snow-flecked mountains, I don’t see this country any more as Jahannam. Or think that Paris is Jannat.
It would have been Jannat to have lived here in my own land with Mohsin.
More by : Rajesh Talwar