Continued from “Choosing the Sex of a Camel”
The Sentimental Terrorist - 23
Mohsin, TV Hill
The letter is from Mumtaz. How could I ever have mistaken that handwriting? Perhaps my brain has got addled from listening too much to Shamsuddin. My hand is shaking as I read the letter.
Dear Mohsin Jan
One of Pierre’s colleagues was leaving for Kabul and I asked him to post this letter to you.
You’ll be surprised to receive this letter from your friend, and I hope you still do consider me as one.
You may remember I said that there was something I wished to tell you, but that it would have to wait. No matter how much you insisted, I would not tell you.
My dear Mohsin, I could not have told you this before or else I would not have been able to leave Afghanistan at all.
The truth is that I love you, and have loved you from the day I first set eyes upon you, almost as soon as I entered the room where Michel and you sat and interviewed me. You were supposed to be just an administrative assistant, I later understood, but in my eyes from the very beginning you were something much more. You were the kind of man a Pashtun girl dreams of finding.
I am not blind and I could see in your eyes that my feelings for you were reciprocated.
You do not know how much I longed to hear a confession of love from you during the time that Michel was there. It never came, but no matter. I understood how you felt, and I also understood that sooner or later you would tell me.
But then Pierre arrived and everything changed. I could see your disappointment at being side-lined, at not accompanying us to the villages, and being confined to office duties, but there was not much I could do. For, you see, Pierre confessed his feelings for me within a few days, and then he never wanted to let me out of his sight.
I told him I didn’t feel the same about him, but he said he would wait.
I did not tell him how I felt about you.
And I began to wonder how our life would be if I married you. What future would there have been for my mother in our village? She would not have been allowed to stay with us, had we got married. Just days before I accepted Pierre’s offer, my mother had broached with my uncle, who is my stepfather, the idea of living separately, and he had flown into a rage. He beat her so badly that day that she couldn’t stir from the bed for a week. My ears burn when I remember the abuse that he hurled at her.
My uncle’s third marriage to a girl the same age as me was imminent, but he didn’t for a moment consider that this provided sufficient justification to my mother, to any wife, to wish to live apart. He began to beat her frequently. ‘You deserve this, you slut,’ he would say after every assault. ‘Do you have another man in Kandahar?’
No, my uncle is an influential man. He would never have allowed my mother to live with us.
This is what I realised.
And then, Mohsin, I reminded myself that, although I knew of your feelings, you hadn’t even proposed marriage to me. Perhaps I was just dreaming.
The day before I agreed to marry Pierre, my mother had received such a beating at that devil my uncle’s hands that she had to be rushed to the city hospital.
I couldn’t bear this any longer. We needed to escape, my mother and I. To somewhere outside of Kandahar. Somewhere outside of Afghanistan itself. I started to think of our country and the life of a woman here as sheer hell, Jahannam.
And I began to ask myself seriously how it would be if I agreed to marry Pierre.
He had already told me that he understood my concern for my mother, and he said it would not be a problem. He had contacts in the French embassy. All I had to do was say yes.
By his willingness to have my mother live with us, Pierre demonstrated to me that he truly loved me. He redeemed himself in my eyes. Do not imagine that I didn’t feel bad for you when he was dismissive of you, when he confined you to the office and stopped you from accompanying us on field trips. I felt terrible. An Afghan man or woman can be accused of many things but not of ingratitude and I never forgot that I owed my job to you.
I forgot that I wasn’t attracted to Pierre as a man. Or perhaps, at the time, seeing the state my mother was in, I just didn’t care about ‘attraction’ any more.
In the end, as you very well know, I said yes to Pierre.
It was not because I loved him, but because I was tempted by the new life that a marriage with him promised. For me and my mother.
I have traded my love for you for the safety and wellbeing of my mother. My mother who brought me into this world, who carried me in her womb for nine long months, and who tried to shield me from all the sorrows of this world. It was time for me to try and give back a little.
I would be untruthful if I said that I do not regret my decision for a second. But I feel sad, and shall always feel sad that I betrayed your true love. And from the looks I occasionally could not help but give you, and the little gestures of affection I showed, even as I tried to conceal them, as all Afghan girls are taught to do from childhood, you must surely have known that I reciprocated your love.
I may have been smiling on the outside when I told you the news about Pierre and me, but inside I wept for hurting you so terribly, for betraying your trust.
And still you took my news like a man. Not one word of reproach.
I am sorry to have broken your heart, and I hope you will find it in you to forgive me and think of me as a friend . . .
I will be staying at the Iftar guesthouse in Kabul. Pierre has not travelled with me, but he will follow in two days. I have persuaded him that I should go there a little before him just to make sure that all the paperwork for my mother has been completed. In fact nothing more needs to be done. Everything is complete. My mother already has her visa to enter France.
There is a cousin of ours, Omar, who will help her to come to Kabul. He is our neighbour in the village. It has all been planned carefully. She will just sit in his jeep completely covered in a blue burkha that is not her own, and come away with us. My uncle will have no idea at all – and, by the time he does, we will be gone.
Pierre will reach Kabul two days after me; my mother will arrive the same evening; and we will all leave for Dubai by Safi Airways two days after that.
My excuse for coming early, to ensure that all the paperwork has been properly done at the French embassy, is not true. I have lied to my mother and my husband about this.
The real reason I do not want either of them to be here yet is because I want to spend an entire day with you. This will possibly be the last time I will ever set my eyes on you, although I pray to Allah that this should not be the case.
If you can find it in your heart to forgive me, please come.
I want to look at you to my heart’s content for one last time.
I hadn’t been mistaken after all.
Those sidelong glances. That soft, gentle, special smile. The way her hand sometimes brushed mine during the ride home from the office, when we sat together in the back. All that meant exactly what I had hoped it meant. And she hadn’t been leading me on.
It’s true that, even if Mumtaz and I had got married, her problems wouldn’t have gone away. In some ways her mother’s troubles would have increased. The beatings would have got worse. Mumtaz wouldn’t have been there to take her mother’s side. Her mother couldn’t have left and started living with us. Mumtaz’s stepfather would never have allowed it. He would have killed his wife.
As she mentioned in her letter, she loved me, but she loved her mother too. And I, a young fellow, could manage, but her mother could not. She needed help.
She had loved me but had sacrificed that love for the sake of her mother. Could I blame her for that?
Mumtaz will be expecting to see me today.
And she will see me.
But not as a friend, a possible lover and husband, but as her would-be assassin. The man who will put an end to her life and to that of her mother. The mother will not be there today, but I have no doubt she won’t be able to survive Mumtaz’s death.
I’m trembling as I write this.
I can’t ever imagine doing anything that would hurt my dear Mumtaz. Even if she is married to someone else. Strangely enough, that fact doesn’t matter to me so much.
My love for Mumtaz is surging back with redoubled intensity. She arranged to arrive in Kabul a day early just to meet me. I know what it must have cost her. In the midst of the agony that’s tearing at my heart, a delicious thought leaps into my mind. Perhaps we could still be together. Is there some way I could somehow sabotage the attack?
I don’t want to go through with today’s attack any more. But I know that, if I don’t go, someone else will go in my place. There is another jihadi who has been prepared in case any of us decides to opt out. It’s been known to happen before. At the last minute, many people lose their nerve. Shamsuddin is an experienced man, prepared for such contingencies.
With the Frenchman, Michel, Mumtaz and I would sometimes discuss how people could behave like automatons, like robots. How they could kill innocent people.
And at this moment I wonder if I am any different from them. I’ll be avenging the murder of my uncle and sister today, this is true, but . . . but . . . there may be innocent people staying at this guesthouse. People like Mumtaz. If Mumtaz is staying at Iftar guesthouse, that means any number of other innocents may be in there too.
There are men and women inside whom Shamsuddin and the Taliban want to have liquidated, but I have no truck with their cause, harming people who have had nothing at all to do with the killings at Muntozai. Shamsuddin has told me that there are no innocents in this building. But he is a liar. And he is doing something far worse than telling plain lies, for by lying he will be sending me, Abbas and Hussein to our graves, as well as causing the death of many blameless people.
And yet. And yet. I cannot bear not to kill the man responsible for the death of my family.
I should never have agreed to participate in this attack. It is too heavy a price to pay: to kill innocents because of one guilty man. I could have armed myself and killed this man. Shamsuddin told me how I would be able to spot him.
But now it is too late. I can hear the police van approaching. They are coming. Everyone is ready to head out.
What shall I do? Ya, Allah! What shall I do?
If I stay, the others will go and kill Mumtaz.
If I go, I may be the one to slaughter her.
Continued to “Musings about the Meaning of True Love”