black turbans & white wigs

January 31, 2008

‎”honey, let me get those for you”, says the woman and sails across the room to her ‎husband who is struggling to button his french cuffs. it’s always been a struggle. the damn ‎slits never seem to line up and are always stubborn in allowing the studs to penetrate. the ‎man sighs and lets her button them. afterwards, she straightens the knot on his striped tie and leans in on him and tells him how ‎nice he smells. they kiss, he takes one last look at the mirror, and starts to leave. looking at just another day’s work ahead of him. he climbs down ‎the stairs, puts on his shoes, and then hears her yell something from upstairs. he cannot ‎hear it distinctly. ‎
“chi gufti azizem?” (what’s that honey?)‎
this time she puts her head out of the bedroom door and repeats:‎
‎”I said… be careful…just be careful..” ‎
he yells a “Kho” back, walks to his car and is suddenly reminded of that ‎timeless phrase by Hannah Arendt: “the banality of evil.” ‎
it’s just another ordinary day, another day in kabul, a sunny -albeit cold one- and the radio is pumping music from the latest episode of the afghan star. the man starts the car and waits for the engine to warm up. minutes later, he gets out of a side street and is driving on the main street, on the taimani road. on the rearview mirror he sees an army bus speeding and steers out of the way. there is a young man waiting by the side of the road bundled up and with a scarf around his head.

‎*‎
she is burqa clad, and lets off a faint ‎petroleum smell. the male guards of the courtroom notice this, but do not suspect anything. afterall, she is a ‎woman, and here the woman’s abode is the kitchen. she can’t be expected to smell of ‎anything but benzene and smoke and perhaps the occasional whiff of the greasy meal she ‎made last night. they let her in. people are coming and going, entering and leaving the ‎dilapidated, muddy building. nobody takes note of the woman. she, however, is self-conscious and her palms are sweaty -the ‎handle of the bottle is slippery and she realizes that the fingers of her other hand are ‎wrapped unusually tightly around the lighter she is holding.

she admonishes herself for being so ‎nervous and tries to ease up. but it is hard to do. burns are painful, she knows this from her own ‎experience of minor burns in the kitchen, and from her cousin who burnt herself over a boy and ended up bedridden for months and hated even more than before. but she is determined. “not another day with him” she whispers repeatedly. ‎she has heard people say that the court won’t approve of her divorce -her divorce-‎‎ from her husband. the man must agree -it is his prerogative.

your honor ‎enters pompously, the valet announces, all stand up from the old, expensive mahogany chairs of the court, and the courtroom falls silent. your honor, the presiding judge, is obscenely obese. ‎his white wig is too small for his head -it sits like a jewish skullcap atop his massive ‎head. your honor sits down and moves your honor’s ass around the uncomfortable wooden chair for it to settle in ‎perfectly snug. loose flesh protrudes from amid the wooden bars of the chair and your honor is finally comfortable. he ‎puts on his glasses and suddenly looks up.‎
‎”are you CRAZY woman?”‎
the young girl is ablaze in front of your honor, twisting violently and screaming with the agony of a shot gazelle.‎

*
he storms out of the the room and slams the door. the old wooden door springs back and hurts his ankle. his father yells angry words after him. he is red with anger and shame and picks his way across the vines to the stream. he settles under the pomogranate trees and splashes water on his face. he takes out his wallet and looks at her picture. again that annoying little thought enters his mind that her mascara might be a bit overdone. but oh god, she is so beautiful. and in his cousin’s wedding she simply looked divine. they had stolen looks at each other and he had felt what it feels like to be a man when, conscious of her looks, he had fired off his cousin’s klashnikov several times in the air. tak tak tak tkkkkkkkka. the water keeps flowing and as he remembers an old pashto landay, he begins to hum it.

he hears footsteps drawing near. a big group of men are coming. he quickly hides the photo and gets up. it’s the man in the black turban who never speaks, and his group of men. some of these he knows -and knows well. his cousin, for example, who is proudly slinging the klashnikov he had lent him to fire in his wedding. their eyes meet, and he feels inferior. he has always felt inferior to his bully of a cousin. that guy is never shy, and he is among the charismatic black-turban’s closest men. now, too, he teasingly looks at him and begins: “so… have you made your mind yet sweatheart?” god! he wishes he could punch the teeth out of his mouth. instead, he just slaps the dust from his clothes and begins to mumble. this is simply not the right time for his cousin’s grand ideas and eulogies for those dead in the way of god. he would rather be dead in the way of her. black turban interrupts his thoughts -by extending his hand, pressing his, and looking a most genuine look into his eyes. there is such sincerity in those large, dark eyes that no words can deliver. this man, he thinks, knows love. he knows life. he is sympathetic and perhaps even knows failure in love. without ever knowing him, he knows his pain. his cousin begins to taunt him again, but the man in black turban lifts up his left hand, and his cousin shuts up.

the next time black turban presses his hand and gives him that genuine look, he is no more the young and shy boy under the pomogranate trees by the stream. he is a broken man. after she sat herself on fire, his fate was sealed too. he had heard that in protest over her father’s arrangement to marry her off with the same man who had married her cousin, one night, after everyone was asleep, she went to the kitchen, doused herself in kerosene, and lit a single stick of match. her cousin had told her that though she loved her ever since they had been little children and played panjaq in the dust together, she would hate her for the rest of her life and could not live with her under the same roof and sharing the same man. she felt the same -and anyways, her cousin told horror stories about her husband.

for the last time he shakes hands with everyone, except for his cousin who still has that smug look in his eyes, and starts off. two months later, on a cold winter morning, he takes one last look at her picture, by now a pale shade of its former self. with time, though, the mascara has worn off and is now just perfect. he throws it into the bukhari -let it burn as she had burnt, and with it, all that he had ever cared for. he wants to cry, for his home, for her, for his stupid old father who never understood, for the pomogranate trees and the stream, but he remembers black turban and stops himself. god he hates and respects the black turbans so much -how do some men get to be so larger than life without ever jeopardizing their lives? his sleep-deprived mind is too messy for such thoughts right now, he must focus, he is on a mission. he goes to the promised place.

now, he is standing by the taimani road with a scarf wrapped around his head. he sees the target approaching fast, and then he sees a red corolla getting out of the way, coming towards his side of the road. he sees the man behind the wheel in a striped tie and begins to hesitate, and then he remembers black turban again.

THE END.

*

okay. let me explain. a confluence of events gave rise to this post.
just before i left home this morning, a colleague called and said that there had been a suicide attack on an army bus near taimani, a section of kabul. some civilians had been injured. the way i did not give this news any second thoughts and went right back to struggling with my french cuffs gave me a pause, and made me think how banal evil and violence can become, and how the shock-effect of these events wear off as one lives in the midst of it. later, when i asked the driver about it, he shrugged casually and said “it was just an explosion and it’s finished” -something that reflects the outlook of most people in this city on explosions that take the lives of ordinary people. of course serena bombing was a whole different affair: “Foreigners in Kabul still shaken”.
then i saw the news about a young woman of 25 who burnt herself in a courtroom in laghman province, because the court had apparently not allowed her a divorce.
lastly, when i checked the comments on previous posts, i saw that wolf club chronicler is finally back (hence the literary/fictional tone -he knows what i mean). so i had to sit and let this flow out of me.
it is, as i hope the reader realizes, a mostly fictional piece written in “stream of consciousness” style. the characters are all fictional. and yet those characters stand in for real life people in real life situations, whose lives are affected by black turbans and white wigs on a daily basis. to those this piece is dedicated, with a hope that it puts a human face on the statistics: the woman who sat herself on fire, the young man whose biggest disappointment in life has nothing to do with the promised 72 virgins, and those who will not return home because they ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. all these, and others like the charming arab in a black turban, have substitutes in real life. i am not so sure about your honor in white wigs though. even i would admit that’s a bit surreal for a courtroom in laghman.

*
originally written for and cross-posted at ‘hamesha-the vignettes’, filed under “dreamscapes”, “madness”, “stream of consciousness”, and “melancholia”.


This is Farshid

January 22, 2008

When I sat to write this last night, just home from a quick trip to the bazaar, I was not ‎planning to put it on Safrang. Its form and content are out of step with Safrang –self-serious, ‎presumptuous political bliggity bloggery, pseudo-intellectual scholarship, and polemical pamphleteering. I wanted to put it ‎on my other blog –more heart and hedonism stuff. Now that I am done with it, I think I ‎will put it here, a belated second episode in the series: ‎
From Afghanistan with Love.

————————————

Farshid

Meet Farshid. ‎

Farshid is nine years old. Maybe ten, or even eight –hard to tell anyone’s age here. He is ‎in the second grade. Of course schools in Kabul are out in the winter, so Farshid spends ‎most of his time outdoors, working. ‎

Farshid is cold –Very cold. Right now, he is standing near a fish-seller’s stall –keeping ‎warm in the heat of the gas stove. The water in the stream in front of the shop is frozen ‎solid. Last night they announced the highest and lowest temperatures for Kabul on the ‎TV. The lowest would be -10 ºC tonight. Weathermen being liars everywhere, I feel it is well ‎past that already.‎

Farshid’s voice shakes when he answers me. His little body, wrapped in old and torn ‎layers scavenged from Lilami shakes alongside. I get the impression that speaking is a ‎labor –it is too cold, and any amount of energy and warm breathe is precious. The boy ‎next to him in earmuffs and a hoodie does most of the talking. ‎

This boy tells me: “Farshid has been told to come home tonight with a hundred ‎Afghanis” –two dollars. How much has Farshid worked so far? “30 Afghanis.” It is ‎‎6:00pm now –already dark. And did I say it was cold? ‎

How did Farshid earn this money, and how is he planning to make another 70? Farshid ‎produces a dirty rag from his right pocket, and the boy next to him supplies the words: ‎‎“Motar Safi Mikona.” The word choice is important –he did not say “washing” cars, or ‎‎“Motar Mishoya” –but only cleaning them. It is cold, and soon as the water touches the ‎body of the car, it freezes. Farshid’s clients do not like frozen water on their windshields. ‎It creates distortions and aberrations in the glass and one cannot see the road ahead ‎clearly. Farshid, of course, would be glad to wash the cars should his clients please –for ‎him, it is part of the job. No matter what little games the water and the cold will play with ‎his tiny, chapped hands. ‎

What does Farshid want to become when he finishes school bakhair? I regret having ‎asked the question the moment it leaves my lips. This is a cruel question. There is no ‎finishing school, and there is no bakhair. The dignified, no-nonsense look in Farshid’s ‎eyes answers me, and it is telling me: “You may delude yourself pal, but I am not going ‎to. I am more worried about finishing the day’s work and going home –bakhair.” ‎

I think to myself: come on, it isn’t my fault I asked a senseless question. This little boy is ‎making me uncomfortable. I regret having come to this fish stall today. I like my ‎secluded life and do not even have to be in these situations. My appetite is gone. I hate ‎the cold. I am ashamed of my coat. I am ashamed of my car. I am ashamed of my fancy ‎camera –and the fact that I have brought it out with me. What was I thinking? I am ‎uncomfortable and ashamed and cannot bear the silence that somehow has developed and ‎become unbearably awkward and inconvenient for me over the past five minutes I have ‎been listening to Farshid’s story. I am speaking just to kill time, to engage him, to fill the ‎air -until my fish is done and I get the hell out of here. ‎

Again, just to kill time, I ask Farshid another senseless question. (And what, beg tell, ‎would be a more sensible question? Does he like the snow? His thoughts on the recent Serena bombing? Does he prefer Arsenal or ‎Man United? Grape soda or plain old Coke? Those marks around his eyes –what ‎precisely are those? Is global warming on his list of concerns for the world? Or, as many ‎Khareji in Kabul would itch to ask (just before engaging in their self-soothing “random ‎act of kindness” stuff procured via two crisp dollar bills) –does Farshid like kite-flying, ‎kite-running –the whole kite enterprise? His views on the progress of the mission in ‎Afghanistan? What about his opinions on the foreign troops’ presence in his country? Did ‎Farshid eat today?) ‎

Instead, my question is: where does he live? It’s a common enough question in a society ‎where identity is closely interwoven with geography. The boy standing next to Farshid ‎seems to have fallen comfortably into his spokesperson’s role, because he again ‎volunteers the answer. He is himself mildly intrigued at the interest this naïve stranger ‎has taken in Farshid, but then so many naïve and disgustingly sympathetic Afghans and ‎Kharejis do the same, so, no big deal. He answers: “Darul Aman.” “Which part?” I ‎press on. I know the area well -its a good 15 minutes drive from here. I work near it, and I have gone there several times to ‎photograph the ruins of the palace nearby.‎
‎ ‎
This time Farshid takes a jab, just so briefly: “Qasr.”
He lives in the palace! ‎

But for the circumstances I would have been amused by the absurdity. Farshid and his ‎family –his mother, his brother Jamshid, and I don’t know how many other people- live ‎in that dilapidated structure facing the ruins of the grand old palace. The one with red and ‎blue curtains for windowpanes and with a façade pockmarked with bullet holes. I would ‎love to ask more senseless questions. My voyeurism is not quenched yet –this poverty, ‎this misery is so obscene I cannot peel my eyes away. It is so pungent, so delicious, so ‎real life, so real time. I am already thinking out a blog post in my head. And I feel my ‎heart tightening, giving me that familiar old urge to cry, and at the same time, that other familiar old urge ‎to harden and to resist the first urge. ‎
What do they burn for heating fuel? I did not take a shower today because it was too cold, ‎when did Farshid wash last? He did not mention his father, what about him? And please ‎oh please: let it be Chelsea FC. ‎

But my fish is done. The man spices it generously, wraps it in an Urdu language ‎newspaper, counts the money with his oily hands, and apologizes for having taken too long. He ‎sees me lingering, glances at Farshid, coughs into his fist, and says: “yea farshid’s mum ‎hussaid he cant cumhome ‘nless he earns hisself a hundredAfghanis tonight.” ‎
Meanwhile, Farshid continues to shiver, and is silently taking all of this in –being ‎reminded of his duty, his looming deadline. The man goes on: “boy gohome boy you ‎won’tmake it to midnight in thiscold boy justgohome boy youwill freezetodeath boy did I ‎giveyourchange sir?”‎
‎ ‎
Farshid starts crossing the road reluctantly and I drive away with the uncomfortable ‎feeling that the man’s grave and hurried premonition might come true one of these dreary ‎cold nights. And no, you did not give me my change. I was waiting for it to give some money to Farshid to go home for the night. I look around, but Farshid is gone, and across the street in front of the shops with their iron shutters closed for the night and their lights out, children of Farshid’s age and height are playing with marbles. Gods of winter and cold and snow, show some mercy on the street children ‎of Kabul.‎


From Afghanistan With Love #1: Baba-i Za’faran

September 24, 2007



Babay Za’faran

Originally uploaded by From Afghanistan With Loveّ

This man used to be a big-time Opium poppy growing farmer in Pushtoon-Zarghoon district of Herat. Then he shifted to growing saffron, and has since devoted himself to helping other farmers do the same.
For his services, he has been officially dubbed “Baba-i Za’faran” or “Father of Saffron” by the Ministery of Agriculture – he even showed me the certificate.
Besides showing Afghans’ obsession with bestowing the honorific “Daddy of this or that” on old (or dead) men, in this case, the deserved title is a fitting tribute to a wise old man.


From Afghanistan With Love

September 24, 2007

Since Afghanistanica has taken to shamelessly stealing my blog posts, and since it has become blindingly clear that I cannot continue to rant as prolifically as I used to (in one notable instance replying a comment with a 30-chapter treatise), I have decided to steal one of Afghanistanica’s ingenious techniques for getting out of serious and effort-demanding blogging: Random Photo commentary (the other is the TOOCQ method which I shall appropriate in due time.)

Here on Safrang, the rules applying to the “From Afghanistan with Love” series are that the photos will come from my flickr photo stream and will all be taken by me, and save for the instances when I decide to post bad-hair day photos or of colleagues behaving badly, the photos will all have some sort of relevance to the “situation” in Afghanistan (I love how certain words in the English language quickly adapt to become shorthands and codes and save you paragraphs of description.)

We will begin the series with a photo of Baba-i Za’faran, with the attendant commentary appearing below the image.