”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.
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”.