Read In the Light of What We Know Online

Authors: Zia Haider Rahman

In the Light of What We Know (3 page)

And then suddenly the man was on the ground. He was choking and coughing and clutching at his throat, the most hellish, rasping sound coming from his mouth.

The man in the leather jacket stood stunned. Zafar told him to listen.

I punched your friend in the throat, said Zafar. You can pick a fight with me or you can call for help and save your friend.

The man did not move.

Do you have a phone? he asked him.

The man nodded.

Zafar then touched my elbow and we carried on down the mews, at our backs the dreadful gasps of the man on the ground and his friend’s gabbling into the phone. I was stunned.

Back on Portobello Road, I asked him if he thought they’d go to the police.

In court, it would be the word of two suits, two meek South Asians, against the word of bullyboy skinheads, one with a swastika and Combat 18 tattoos. What would they say? That we picked a fight?

We parted ways then. Only later, as images of that evening came back to me, certain questions presented themselves. Had Zafar sought to avoid the two men or had he in fact picked a fight? Had he turned into the quiet mews in order to evade the skinheads or to confront them?

That evening in 1996, I saw an aspect of Zafar that was new to me. But I didn’t know what to make of it. What had happened seemed almost ridiculous, but it was real. If anyone had told me about it, I would have disbelieved him.
*

*   *   *

As I write this, I see that Zafar’s return on that September morning in 2008 was welcome not only because it stirred the embers of our early friendship, which had never ceased to glow, but also because it afforded me a chance to shift the focus of my own thoughts. Habits of mind are not easily broken from within. His arrival coincided with a time of reflection in my life, precipitated in some measure by the turmoil in the financial markets and the looming prospect of being called before a congressional or parliamentary committee, all of which had left me, as a junior partner in the firm, with feelings of helplessness. Such feelings are, I am sure, foreign to many men and women in my business, who, like matadors, acquire enormous self-belief from subduing the great beast, the bull or bear, that is the market. Yet in 2008, my dreams were not for greater wealth but for the recovery of a sense of control in my personal life.

To a large degree, my introspection grew with the increasing distance between me and my wife, a woman for whom I no longer felt any passion and for whom, at bottom, I struggled to find respect. When I met her, she had come to finance after a year of teaching in a school in a Kenyan township near Kisumu, by Lake Victoria. She spoke then of the children, whom she obviously loved. She told me of eight-year-old Oneka, who would valiantly thrust up his hand to answer a question put to the class, and when my wife acknowledged him with a nod, little Oneka would say,
I don’t know.
She spoke of the children by name, she sent them cards, and she would tell me how much she wanted to go back and spend more time there, that she was going to squirrel away her earnings in finance for the freedom to do so soon. As our love blossomed, she became certain that when the day came, she would persuade me to go with her. But fifteen years later, with her idealism faded, she approached finance with the vigor of the convert. The last time our conversation had alighted on the topic of her days in Africa, of her dreams then, I caught in her eye the look of embarrassment. If that embarrassment had been for her failure to return to those children, I would have comforted her tenderly: Don’t they say that when mortals make plans, the gods laugh? I saw instead that her embarrassment was for having ever felt so idealistic; it was scorn for her own naïveté.

Cold, unfeeling statistics tell us that marriages are now about as likely as not to end in divorce. Many of our friends were separating or had already divorced, but my wife and I had long regarded ourselves as shielded against whatever foul wind was driving apart so many couples around us. We even comforted ourselves with invented true stories of how those failed marriages had been doomed from the start, that this divorced couple had not had sufficiently similar interests, or that another had been doomed by a rivalry we believed we could detect from the very beginning.

The seat of our faith in the endurance of our life together, it is plainly visible to me now, was the store we set in the similarity of our cultural backgrounds. My wife and I were both the children of Pakistanis, immigrants, Muslims, and we had faith that our union was of things greater than ourselves, that it would survive, even flourish, because of a history of generations that intertwined in us. We could never imagine that the strength of our faith might merely have been conjured from longing.

Weeks of such rumination had fed a growing fear of what the future held, when Zafar’s reappearance came as a relief and diversion, though later it would come to mean much more than that. Seeing him again restored in me a sense of continuity with something older than my marriage, older than my work—a period of limitless possibility. There was the revival of things forgotten over years of pounding the professional treadmill while watching life ebb away from the home. Seeing him was enough to set off in me an electrical firestorm of associations that had lain dormant for years, and I felt a renewed sense of the timeless beauty I had known during my studies. Mathematics, as Zafar had said many moons ago in New York, cannot contain its own beauty.

It had seemed extraordinary to me in those days that my brilliant friend had ever chosen to give up a career in mathematics to study law, and when I once asked him why he had switched gears so sharply, he replied merely that it could be an interesting thing to do. Kurt Gödel had edged toward madness over the course of his life, near the end relying on his forbearing wife to taste his food first, for fear that it might be poisoned, so that when she herself was taken gravely ill and was unable to perform this function, Gödel starved to death. I think that Zafar had some premonition of the madness that might await him in mathematics, though this danger, I see now, never actually left his side. This, then, is how I understand him now: a human being fleeing ghosts while chasing shadows. This also accounts for the twists and turns in his working life, changes of direction that I came to observe largely from afar, as in time our friendship lost its moorings, in the way perhaps of many college friendships.

Through a web of friends and acquaintances, I maintained some notion of Zafar’s path, but even before he disappeared there seemed curiously little known about him. Sometime in 2001, Zafar vanished from sight altogether, thereafter to become, from time to time, the subject of rumors, some apparently preposterous, that he had converted to Roman Catholicism and married an English aristocrat, that he had been spotted in Damascus, Tunis, or Islamabad, and that he had killed a man, fathered a child, and, absurdly it seemed, spied for British intelligence.

*   *   *

That day in 2008, when Zafar resurfaced on my doorstep, he stood there, for one hovering moment of stillness, waiting to be let in, and I perceived the spark of recognition in his eye. The house had not changed much since he had last set foot in it nearly a decade before. He asked me if I had fixed the leg of the ottoman in the study. I laughed. One corner of the ottoman was still propped up by books.

Do you have the leg?

It’s still there under the desk, I replied.

I’ll mend it—but not today. I have to sleep.

An hour after I left him in the guest room, I went back to collect his clothes and found a small pile beside the duffel bag. Zafar was murmuring in his sleep. For a minute, I tried to decipher his words but I couldn’t.

I took his laundry to the cleaners, where I noted the sizes of his pants and shirt (I wish now that I had checked the pockets but I didn’t). Then, before heading to the office to put in a few perfunctory hours, I stopped off at the Gap intending to buy some new clothes for him, like the ones he was wearing, cargo pants and flannel shirts. I’d got as far as the checkout before realizing I’d absentmindedly picked up a pair of khaki trousers and a blue cotton shirt. A banker’s taste in clothes is about the only thing predictable in banking.

That first day he slept late into the afternoon and then took a long bath. Sitting at the kitchen table, clean-shaven and dressed in a bathrobe, he ate a ham-and-mushroom omelet I had prepared, washing it down with coffee and orange juice. He ate slowly, even carefully. He still looked older than his years, though now younger than he had appeared standing on our doorstep. Lines radiated from his eyes, and his jowls hung from his jaw like the worn-out saddlebags on an old horse, and I wondered what, in the matter of a decade, had come to pass in the life of the man I once knew that he should look so used up. When he finished eating, he brought together the knife and the fork, pushed the plate forward, and began his story.

 

2

The General Welfare of Our Eastern Empire

The subject of our policy on the North-West frontier of India is one of great importance, as affecting the general welfare of our Eastern Empire, and is especially interesting at the present time, when military operations on a considerable scale are being conducted against a combination of the independent tribes along the frontier.
It must be understood that the present condition of affairs is no mere sudden outbreak on the part of our turbulent neighbors. Its causes lie far deeper, and are the consequences of events in bygone years.
In the following pages I have attempted to give a short historical summary of its varying phases, in the hope that I may thus assist the public in some degree to understand its general bearings, and to form a correct opinion of the policy which should be pursued in the future.
—General Sir John Adye,
Indian Frontier Policy: An Historical Sketch
, 1897
When Mahmoud Wad Ahmed was brought in shackles to Kitchener after his defeat at the Battle of Atbara, Kitchener said to him, Why have you come to my country to lay waste and plunder? It was the intruder who said this to the person whose land it was, and the owner of the land bowed his head and said nothing. So let it be with me … Yes, my dear sirs, I came as an invader into your very homes: a drop of the poison which you have injected into the veins of history. “I am no Othello. Othello was a lie.”
—Tayeb Salih,
Season of Migration to the North
, translated by Denys Johnson-Davis

On Friday, March 22, 2002, I climbed aboard a twin-engined Cessna at an airfield outside Islamabad. Already settled in were three passengers and, separated by a curtain still tied back, two flight crew. Mary Robinson, the UN high commissioner for human rights, sat with a thick file on her lap, her precarious coiffure touching the curved hull of the plane. Sila Jalaluddin, wife of Mohammed Jalaluddin, was seated facing her, and as I climbed aboard she nodded her recognition but after that there was no engagement. Just beyond them was another pair of seats. In one was a young man I did not recognize, dressed in a suit and tie, with a metal briefcase against his lower leg. The other seat was empty for me. I was on my way to Kabul, still with only a vague purpose. I had been asked to go by the UN rapporteur for Afghanistan, and by Emily, who was working for Jalaluddin in the new reconstruction agency he headed. But my commissions had been so lacking in detail that I could not avoid the thought that I was coming so as to meet Emily. My stated business, at least as documented, was to act as adviser to a department of the new Afghani administration. Advisers were numberless in Kabul, like stray dogs in Mumbai; even the advisers had advisers, and none of them were less than “special advisers” or “senior advisers.”

Shortly after we took off, a U.S. Air Force jet rose up alongside us. A bolt of sunlight glanced off the glass dome of its cockpit and flamed out before shriveling away. The plane was to escort us throughout the journey. An F-15 Eagle, I want to say—but what do I know? It was a fighter plane. It was a perfectly familiar sight. Yes, it rose up alongside us exactly as those fighter jets do in movie after movie. You experience the power not through the moment but through the focused light of umpteen filmic depictions of U.S. military might. What smart senator doesn’t know he can marshal the support of a people primed to believe they can do the things their boys, their heroic selves, do on the big screen? Reality is no match for the fantasy. But don’t suppose the senators and congressmen know any better; how many of these same senators, themselves reared on a diet of satellite images of laser-red targeting crosses hovering over enemy bases, of crouching silhouettes of special ops entering enemy tents in the desert, a diet of stealth and victory, how many senators have taken their conception of what America can do from what they’ve seen on the American movie screen?

I love America for an idea. The reality is important but ambiguous. In Senegal, there stands a building where slaves were stored before they were sent on to the New World. It was built in the same year as the American Declaration of Independence. I love America for the clear idea behind the cloudy reality. Without the idea, the joys of America would be mere accident, the ephemera tossed up by the hand of fate, to disappear in the wind. And what is that idea? It is the idea of hope, that grand, audacious idea that makes the Britisher blush with embarrassment. It may be an idea not everyone cares for, but it is one I need, I want. I love her for her thought, first, of where you’re going, not where you’re from; for her majestic optimism against the gray resistances of Europe, most pure in Britain, so that in America I feel like—I am—a sexual being. Before 9/11, I was invisible, unsexed. How is it that after 9/11 suddenly I was noticed—not just noticed, but attractive, given the second look, sized up, even winked at? Was that the incidental effect of no longer being of a piece with the background, of being noticed, or was it sicker than that? Was this person among us no longer the meek Indian, the meek Pakistani, the sepoy, but fully man? Before 9/11, I was hidden behind the wall of colonial guilt after having been emasculated by a history of subjugation.

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