Read In the Light of What We Know Online

Authors: Zia Haider Rahman

In the Light of What We Know (5 page)

Not five minutes after the boy left, Suleiman showed up bearing yet more tea. He set the two cups down on the bedside table, in a patch of morning light, and insisted that I take the bed, the only place to sit, while he remained standing.

I told him that something about the name of the institute had troubled me.

You mean the Dari in AfDARI? It’s clever, isn’t it? asked Suleiman.

Cute. But Dari is only one of the languages spoken in Afghanistan.

Indeed, replied Suleiman.

Not exactly inclusive.

I wasn’t here when the institute was formed, Suleiman said, but I expect the Australians were pleased with themselves when they thought of the name.

Didn’t anyone say anything? I asked.

You mean Afghans?

Yes.

I’m sure they did, he said. Something like:
Well done, a very clever name. Now please give us the money.
We can discuss this as we go.

Go where?

I want to show you the city.

Outside in the courtyard, Suleiman introduced me to Suaif, the guard. I did not mention that I’d already made his acquaintance. Class and status evidently trumped the seniority of age, but I found it impossible to address Suaif by his first name; I hesitate ever so slightly even now. He reminded me of my father. There was that same lost look my father had, out of place, as if waiting for something. Suaif had been an engineering professor, he explained, at Kabul University.

What happened to your job? I asked.

Oh, it’s still there, but it isn’t worth the money. I am paid more by the UN and these NGOs.

Had I heard distaste in those words,
the UN and these NGOs
? So it was with the drivers I came across and with staff generally; the aid agencies had put a bounty on the heads of locals who could speak English. The professional classes had been taken down from university chairs, schools, and offices, and conscripted into the menial service of the newcomers. Wages rose, production did not, so prices had nowhere to go but up.

Suleiman and I took one of the NGO’s Land Cruisers, along with a driver, and drove to a hilltop where the battered Intercontinental Hotel looked out over the city. Outside, we slung the shawls around our necks, puffing condensation from our mouths, moisture that now clung to the cindery dust enveloping everything.

I hear the Four Seasons is coming, said Suleiman.

The hotel?

Yes, replied Suleiman.

How many seasons does Afghanistan have, by the way—or this part of it?

Four.

No less from a long view than at close quarters, fractal-like, Kabul was the picture of a city scarred by war. I had seen many South Asian cities from an elevation, from flat roofs over an undulating ocean of rooftop after rooftop, where sheaves of steel reinforcements still stand, embedded in the protrusions of supporting columns that run the heights of the buildings. Such excess reinforcement, along with foundations of superfluous depth, measures of apparent redundancy, signaled the hope of later adding to the height of a building with time, money, and a growing economy. The books will tell you of Kabul’s storied history; it might even once have had a future. But if the buildings were anything to go by, its recent past was inhabited by a beaten people possessed of the knowledge that the future was not to be trusted.

For crying out loud, what was I doing in Kabul? I was in Dhaka when Emily called. I was practicing law, trying to sue multinationals and public officials for corruption; I was trying to bring about reforms in the procedures of government institutions, such as the Bureau of NGO Affairs. At the moment Emily called, I was in a meeting with a former finance minister of Bangladesh and a senior British government official, the latter flying in from London solely to finalize the British government’s commitment—money—to a project whose purpose was to develop the small business sector, SMEs as they called them, small and medium enterprises. The British government official had felt the two-day trip necessary in order, as was intimated to me, to ensure I would co-head the project; they didn’t trust the ex-politician. The parking bay of the premises of the NGO, an NGO that the ex-politician had set up
to give something back to the people
, he had said to me, leaving me wondering what on earth he’d have said his political career had been about—that parking bay came up more than once in tales of fat brown envelopes handed over by men stepping out from Land Cruisers just long enough to seal a deal. I took Emily’s call in the parking bay.

I was in the meeting and it was an important meeting—are we not required to think something is important when everyone else seems to think it’s important?—and yet I took the call and stepped out. I never turned the cell phone off. Did I so need to hear from her that I always left it on in case she called? And when she called, I made my excuses—It’s a call from Afghanistan, I remember saying to them, to the sound of oohs and knowing aahs, for that’s all you had to say in 2002:
Afghanistan
, and the word alone was a conclusive argument. I stepped out into that sullied parking bay of favors bought and sold, and I listened to her voice.

You must come here, she said. You could make such a difference to the lives of twenty-five million people.

Did she think that Afghanistan was the only place that mattered? And did she think that I might be flattered into coming? Worse still, did she believe that anyone could make
such a difference
? She did. They all did, this invading force of new missionaries. They were an army in all but name, not the army carrying guns that cleared their path, nor one carrying food or medicine. But they came bearing advice and with the arrogance to believe that they could make all the difference. Yes, they mean well, but the only good that an absence of malice guarantees is a clear conscience. I knew Emily believed in their creed, and when I saw that she did, when I understood that she did, suddenly, as if a wire had been cut inside, I had in me a thought, not yet an intention but a question, one set out in the languages of my childhood and in the perfectly clean lines of mathematics. I had a thought as powerful as an idea born in oppression: Who will stop these people?

I’m in the middle of trying to make some difference, I replied, to a population of one hundred and twenty million, give or take. If you’re telling me, I continued, that I can make five times the difference per person, then I suppose I can’t argue with that.

This was the woman whose call I awaited every moment and yet, on that call, as I stood in the parking bay of an NGO located in Dhaka’s Gulshan diplomatic area, as I listened to the voice of my beloved, I began to feel the heave of something inside me turning over, deep within me, and larger than us, the trifling matter of
us.
That was why a month later I was in Afghanistan, no more or less clear an answer than the gut opening.

This part of the world was just another chessboard, as I would be just another piece, but that is the way of this history, from one dark stretch of road onto another. Kabul, a city of war, had had its part of British blood and more. There was the First Anglo-Afghan War, itself just one step in the long march of British military colonial hubris—and by British I mean that the officer classes were British; the rank and file were drawn from the Indian populations. On New Year’s Day 1842, at the war’s end, General Elphinstone surrendered to the natives despite the protestations of his officers. Having secured guarantees of safety for the sick and wounded, who were to remain in Kabul, Elphinstone set off on the journey back to India with the rest. But no sooner had the last British soldier left the city than the sick and wounded were slaughtered. As for the departed British soldiers, worn down first by battle and now by the arduous passage in the dead of winter, those sad men were picked off at narrow passes as they staggered knee-deep in snow. Sixteen thousand died. General Elphinstone, in a shamefully un-British display of cowardice, surrendered himself to the Afghans, even as he well knew that none of the soldiers would be spared. One man who managed to reach safety was the surgeon William Brydon, who remarkably survived after having part of his skull shorn off by a sword. Upon arriving in the safety of Jalalabad, when asked where the army was, he famously replied,
I am the army.
When Elphinstone died in captivity a few months later, his body was sent back to the British garrison in Jalalabad, where he was buried in an unmarked grave.

*   *   *

Laid out below us was the ramshackle city in dusty morning light. Coming up the Upper Garden Road, the same winding road that we’d taken to gain this hilly vantage, an old man pulled himself, one leg in front of the other, until a detail came into view. He was missing a foot.

Suleiman, too, was looking that way, though I wonder now if he had followed
my
eye, for the image, so commonplace, I would have thought, cannot have been one to have caught his attention.

This is what war has given us, he said.

I asked Suleiman if there was any reason to be hopeful.

For myself I could be, he replied with brutal selfishness.

I am as impressed by honesty as anyone, but when there is a hint that a man is taking me into his confidence, my first instinct is to suspect him. Am I to be flattered? And is he about to break another’s confidence? I think Suleiman noticed my unease. He smiled incongruously. Two ways he could go, I thought, both qualifications to what he said: either undercut or extend. He did neither, instead making an observation that might have raised a flag, had I considered more carefully its rather rehearsed, even scripted, language.

Afghanistan doesn’t have the oil of the Khazars, he said, and we’re not ready to prostitute our women like the Thais. Unlike the Westerner’s, ours is not a spiritual poverty but a material one. When our needs in that area are met, we will not have the dilemma or crisis of Western man.

At length, we climbed again into the Land Cruiser and descended back into the city, where Suleiman was eager to take me through Wazir Akbar Khan, an area where foreigners, NGOs, and crooks had already starting buying property. Every so often, he’d bid the driver slow down but not stop as we passed homes that, he explained, were known to be owned by Talibs, even if title was held by Pakistanis who disavowed any connections.

It must be quite easy to get a message to them, I said.

A message? asked Suleiman.

With the Taliban everywhere, even in Kabul, it must be quite easy to get a message to them, no?

Suleiman looked at me as if calculating something before resuming his role as guide. He pointed out other houses, formerly belonging to Talibs but that had been acquired by Westerners for their rocketing market value, including diplomatic missions and their staff, whose real estate purchases had boosted Taliban funding. Property in 2002, even in Kabul, was booming, as it was the world over.

There’s a saying on Wall Street, I said. When there’s blood on the streets, buy property.

I like that. Yes, that’s exactly right. Now all these foreigners own property here and they have a double reason for wanting ISAF to stay. This is what it is about, isn’t it? Breaking eggs to make an omelet.

I glanced toward the driver.

What? You don’t think he agrees? asked Suleiman. And what does my view matter? I’m a threat to no one. You see, I’m powerless.

But you’re number two at AfDARI, I said.

Well, we’ll have to discuss AfDARI, he replied, glancing up at the driver, whose eyes flashed across the rearview mirror.

 

3

The Point of Departure or The House of Mourning

In March of 1971, the Bengal state—at that time officially East Pakistan—declared its independence as Bangladesh. West Pakistan imported troops to put down the rebellion. Until India’s armed intervention in December 1971, Pakistani troops waged war against the Bengalis. Estimates place the death toll at 3 million, the refugees into India at 10 million, the number of women raped at over 200,000 and their resultant pregnancies at 25,000.
—Dorothy Q. Thomas and Regan E. Ralph, “Rape in War: Challenging the Tradition of Impunity”
We Americans are aware of what is happening in Cambodia and South Vietnam because this country has a big stake there. But Bangladesh is a different case. There is no major American involvement or commitment there, nothing which approaches the needs of that young, impoverished nation. And so, the memory of what happened there may already be growing dim in many of us. But what did happen there will never be forgotten by the people of Bangladesh, especially the women.
—Garrick Utley, NBC News, February 1972

So began Zafar’s exposition of the events in Afghanistan, and even though I could not have imagined then where it would ultimately go, it had become clear that he had a story to tell, a disclosure by parts. There were the digressions, the tangents, the close analyses, and broad reflections—all deviations from a central line. I am convinced now that nothing in his account was out of place, nothing extraneous, even if at times it seemed incomplete and obtuse. If I am left with the sensation of being manipulated, then it also appears to me that there was a method and, behind that, a purpose.

I won’t deny that I have already altered his narrative, not the details of each episode, to be sure, nor the order in which things happened, but the order in which he recounted them. While I am keen to preserve the sense of his design and purpose, I cannot but wonder if Zafar’s own ordering of his exposition, which began so very far back, with a childhood journey, and which left the start of the story of Afghanistan to much later on, might actually have been driven by a wish—a wish unseen, as he might have said—a wish to delay broaching the matter of Kabul and all that came with it. Though, as for that, I suppose it could equally be said that I’m bringing forward Zafar’s Afghan story so as to put off the things that I myself fear to confront.

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