Read In the Light of What We Know Online

Authors: Zia Haider Rahman

In the Light of What We Know (70 page)

Are you expecting the man standing outside?

The woman shook her head but otherwise didn’t move. She wasn’t going anywhere now.

I asked Maurice: Who called you?

Emily, he replied.

On your own line?

We have only one line.

Cell phone?

The local network is disabled for everyone except UNAMA staff.

Satphone?

We don’t have one.

What did she say?

Exactly what I wrote.

Do I seem like someone who’s going to wait while you piss about? What did she say?

I pushed his hand. He let out a squeal of pain. Maurice, this feeble man, had become the object of my anger. Isn’t that the way—our emotions from one thing attach to the next? Think of those pop-science articles in magazines, where the journalist first tells you about the scientist as a child, the irresistibly endearing little boy or girl, so that a page later you find yourself first rooting for the adult and then, irrelevantly, his or her ideas. I was angry all right, but in the end perhaps Maurice’s only mistake was to be present. I was not prepared to accept that any part of everything that had happened was accident or without someone’s design. Remember that Maurice had sometimes taken receipt of parcels and envelopes meant for Crane. Or so Suleiman had told me. Remember, too, that there was only one phone at AfDARI, as Suaif had told me, and that it was in Maurice’s office. So what had Emily and he exchanged on the phone when she left her message? Something that might shed the smallest light on what had happened? Most important of all, I wanted to hear something that would confirm that it wasn’t Emily’s mere lateness, regular, predictable Emily tardiness, that had saved my life. It had to be something more than that, surely. Not the cause of the revulsion I felt toward myself for having endured all the disrespect.

I told you what she said, he replied.

When did you take the message?

I don’t know. Nine thirty, maybe a little later. I had the boy take it over to you right away.

How, I asked myself, did Emily know I was already in Kabul? As far as she knew, I thought, I wasn’t due until the afternoon, when the UN flight would come in. And why did she ask me to wait for her? Did she know I was going out, going somewhere in particular, even? Or was she asking me to wait there only in case I had plans to leave Kabul?

What do you know about the explosion this morning? I asked Maurice.

What do you mean?

What time did it happen?

I don’t know. Sometime this morning.

I picked up the picture of his wife and child and tossed it at his chest. I left, satisfied that Maurice was only an idiot ruled by his groin.

*   *   *

Back at the gate, I asked Suaif what time he’d heard about the explosion in the city center.

This morning.

Can you be more precise? I set off at ten forty-five. You told me about it then.

I’m not sure.

Who told you about the explosion?

Ahmed across the road.

Why?

He was complaining about the traffic. He was late for work.

He came to you?

Yes.

When?

He comes at ten a.m., but today he was delayed. He came to see me before you came, sir.

Just before ten thirty?

Is that when you came, sir?

Yes.

Then yes, sir.

Why?

Please?

Why did he come over?

His boss had not arrived and he could not get into the shop. Maybe his boss was delayed by the explosion or traffic.

But why did he come over?

He came to pass time with me.

But he knew about the explosion?

He heard from someone. We hear news very fast in Kabul.

You saw Suleiman before this man Ahmed came?

Yes.

What time?

I don’t remember.

What time did you arrive for work?

Seven a.m.

I left Suaif. I did not trust him entirely. I returned to my room to collect my bag. I could barely contain my anxiety. The hours of the clock were running through my mind, when, what, who, and intention washing back and forth, crashing on the walls of the cranium. There was calculation and there was fury.

Back outside, I climbed into the car and gave the driver Emily’s address. When we set off, I had only the intention of confronting Emily. Part of me wanted to believe—wanted confirmation—that she had
knowingly
kept me from going to Café Europa, because I could not abide the thought that her tardiness had saved me. And because I could not bear that idea, I was furious, even before I knew one way or the other, and the rage was itself so all-encompassing that it ultimately did not care for confirmation. Perhaps it is not so strange, after all, for how are we to feel contingent anger, how can we hold the state of readiness to be blind with rage, provided something turns out to be the case? We can’t. We are just angry, and if our anger does not take over we might stand down if it turns out that the anger was unjustified.

*   *   *

I arrived at the UN compound, continued Zafar, where I asked the driver to wait for me. I presented myself at the sentry box and was told to wait while a soldier went off in the direction of Emily’s accommodations. A few minutes later a soldier explained that Emily Hampton-Wyvern had just left for the palace. I tried my phone, hoping that, by some miracle, roaming now worked on it. It didn’t. I explained to the soldier that I was having trouble getting a connection—must be because of the bombing this morning—and persuaded him to send a message through to her by phone:
Urgent, for the attention of Emily Hampton-Wyvern. I am at the UN compound but leave for my flight in twenty minutes. I can’t wait a minute longer.

How self-abasing? Not I
won’t
, but I
can’t.
I can’t wait a minute longer
,
as if to say it’s outside my control, which is to imply that if it were within my control, you could still be late. Thirty minutes later an ISAF jeep pulled up outside the compound gates. Emily climbed out. Neither of us was smiling.

Inside Emily’s room, detached from the life of the city, its hubbub, its fracturing of the mind’s focus, I became the instrument of my fury. I had never felt such rage as I did then, such consuming vicious anger, and of course I was keyed up: I’d just witnessed a bomb site. I had yet to fully understand what precisely had happened, and, although I see now that I must already have begun putting things together, at the time, my body seemed entirely given over to imminent action, every nerve in the service of instincts, every sinew twitching with readiness. Do you know what a scientist would have called my state? Arousal. How primitive is this body, that it cannot reflect gross distinctions, let alone fine ones? Perhaps you think I should have been grateful to her: She had been tardy and that is what had saved my life. But you will have missed the point completely. I had been waiting for her all my life and never once had she waited for me, never a moment when she was on time. Had she even shown up earlier? Did she visit me in hospital? Had she even waited while I was there? The only future with her was short-lived. When a future had opened up, a vision of family came before my eyes, of love and affection and renewal and purpose, but she chose to shut that future out, and then, because of uncompromising mathematical reasoning, I understood—not learned, because she never told me—that the child could not have been mine. Don’t tell me it wasn’t yet alive. Don’t tell me it was not yet something. I might have fallen in love with an idea,
but I fell in love with an idea
, and what is greater?

I was wrong. I had no control over the Emily in my head, no power; we have no more control over the people in our heads than we do over ourselves. What does an optical illusion tell you? It tells you that you have no direct access to reality. How do you begin to control a world you cannot see, a world that includes you? How much of what we do is driven by the vanity of gaining dominion over others, not to own them but with the purpose of shielding our beliefs from evidence that would contradict them? Reality has no way to force itself on us, and we can, in fact, alter what we think we perceive in order to suit what we want to believe. Listening to people is hard because you run the risk of having to change the way you see the world. We’d sooner destroy them.

At the airport, I tried to get a seat on a flight, any flight, out of Kabul, out of the country. I went everywhere looking for some or other official who could oblige.

*   *   *

Zafar had skipped over something. He had gone from Emily’s room straight to the airport, quite obviously passing over what had happened in that room. So obviously that I think he wanted me to press him on it, to encourage him, to give him the courage to talk about it. I would raise it with him, I thought, but I would wait until there was nothing else left for him to say, nowhere else to go.

*   *   *

I had cash for a ticket, continued Zafar, U.S. dollars, but it seemed everyone else had also been willing to pay whatever extortionate amount was being sought in order to knock some hapless NGO worker off a flight.

When I had all but given up hope, a man appeared by my side, short, plump, and bald but with thick eyebrows and a thick mustache.

Hello, sir. You are having difficulty?

I’m trying to get on a plane out of here.

Do you play chess, sir?

I’m sorry?

Are you a chess player?

I play chess.

Some people think that chess is about the pieces, he said, echoing Colonel Mushtaq.

I looked again at this man, a positively odd-looking fellow, and I was sure that whenever his face took on an expression, those eyebrows and that mustache would have magnified the effect.

In fact, I replied, it’s about the board. And you learn only from playing game after game.

*   *   *

Of course, during the flight I reflected on what had happened with Emily, but my thoughts were interrupted by ideas surfacing from my unconscious mind, popping into my head unbidden, about all that had passed in the twenty-four hours leading up to the destruction of Café Europa and Crane’s death. What is it about a puzzle, a logical puzzle, that so grips us that we can’t shake it off until we’ve solved it? You know the kind of thing: Six people have to cross a river in a boat that fits three, but the vicar can’t be left alone with the cannibal and so on. Stuff like that. Even when you think you’ve set it aside in order to get on with whatever else has to be done, the brain carries on, and in the middle of making a cup of tea, when you’re wondering how they make the edges of sugar cubes so sharp, out of nowhere the key to the puzzle hits you: You take the vicar over
and
bring him back. Images of faces kept coming back to me—Suleiman, the colonel, Crane—faces I had already read, but now, on rereading them in my mind’s eye, I began to suspect my earlier impressions.

Whose side were they each on? The question only makes sense if there are sides to speak of. The West does not care to be reminded, over and over, that the Americans supported jihadis in the war against Soviet occupation. But if my enemy’s enemy is my friend, what is the quality of a friendship founded on common hatred? What have we each learned about the other, when all we need to know is that we share a hatred? Think of two people who don’t know each other very well, when their conversation chances upon a book, a rich and expansive book they both love. They become animated and bear a sudden goodwill toward each other, as if each is thinking,
You see the world the way I do.
Yet no two people ever feel the same way when stumbling on a book they both dislike. The conversation soon moves on.

In the mess of Central Asia there are as many sides as there are opportunities to steal a march. There are no sides to tell us who is doing what, for whom, and why. There are only exigencies, strategies, short-term objectives, at the level of governments, regions, clans, families, and individuals: fractals of interests, overlapping here, mutually exclusive there, and sometimes coinciding. No sides. Which should not surprise us. After all, we both know that good people do bad things, that friends will hurt you, and that everyone is from first to last on his own side.

By the end of the flight, a theory of what had happened had formed in my mind, but it was only after meeting the colonel again that its features would be confirmed.

*   *   *

It’s a pleasure to see you again, my boy. How are you?

Good afternoon, Colonel.

The colonel was there at Islamabad airport. During the flight, I’d plugged Suleiman’s flash drive into my laptop and discovered, as I expected, that it was blank.

I trust the flight was agreeable, he said.

Fine. Those envelopes. They didn’t contain money, did they? I asked him right away.

Correct.

Military plans?

Close.

Bogus plans intended to draw Taliban action somewhere specific. You’re going to set a trap, I said.

Well done, responded the colonel, as if awarding marks in an exam.

Suleiman works for the Taliban? I asked.

For the opposition.

How did you come to know Suleiman was working for this
opposition
?

Suleiman worked for us. He believed we had no knowledge of where his true allegiances lay. The question is, how did
you
know Suleiman was working for the opposition?

The colonel hadn’t answered my question: too much information to share.

I didn’t know for sure, I replied. But because he would have sent me to Café Europa, I suspected he wasn’t everything he seemed. He also gave me what he wanted me to believe was a recording of Crane incriminating himself, but it was blank. And then there’s the fact that he didn’t show up this morning. In the wind, I imagine. What exactly did your message to Emily say?

The colonel did not bat an eyelid. On the flight, I had come to the suspicion that he had had a message sent to Emily, which in turn prompted her to contact me and tell me to wait for her. He seemed not the least surprised by my question, and I had the impression he was ready to say whatever he was able to say.

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