The restaurant opens to the street and the jumble of Kabul’s downtown bazaar.
Stray dogs move in uneven packs past vendors whose listing burlap stalls lean into a quicksand of low lying fog. Police flatten the tires of illegally parked cars and the cars sink into the mud and potholes of the ruined road wheezing air in an odd sort of gasping unison while their irate owners shout obscenities at the police. In the sky above this splintered section of city, a plane’s white contrail cuts lazy curls that vanish almost as fast.
Inside the restaurant, wood tables full of bearded men wrapped in shawls crowd the uneven floor, the air heavy, the room seeming to swell and pulse against the smudged walls with the odor of sweat and unwashed bodies and the heat from burning charcoal. I see no place to sit. Then a man waves to me and points at a space open beside him.
I wash my hands in a sink by the door. Frigid water trickles from the faucet. A cook stands nearby in clothes blackened with grease; behind him hangs the carcass of a lamb, its fur a bundle at his feet, a bloody knife entangled in the matted hair. He hacks off chunks of meat and throws them into a pan popping with oil; then, as it browns, he cracks an egg over the meat. The yolk slides off and dances in the hissing, popping oil until it floats white and bubbly. I shake my wet hands, and the cook throws me a grimed washcloth to dry them. I hand it back to him and make my way through the crowd toward the table where the man who had waved me over waits.
He tells me his name, Ghul Rahman. Deep lines river out from around his eyes and mouth. Beside him sits a gaunt man who stares at me as do the rest of the men seated at the table, a singular contained attention focused entirely on me. Westerners don’t often go downtown by themselves for fear of being kidnapped or targeted in some other way. A drive-by shooting perhaps or a bomb or a rogue Afghan policeman emptying his gun into the chest of a western contractor. But I get more than a little stir crazy remaining behind the walls of my hotel when I am not working until I get hit with the feeling that I must leave, go somewhere. However, as an American in Afghanistan, I remain caged no matter what I do. There is a quality of “whites only” when I leave my hotel for some other place—a restaurant usually—considered safe for Westerners. Afghans are not allowed in these places and armed guards stand at every entrance.
So today, I’ve decided to venture out on my own away from the sanctum of my hotel, restaurants and other safe retreats. With so many eyes on me, however, I wonder with the growing unease of a child who cavalierly entered a dark room on a dare only to imagine the sounds of ghosts, if I’ve made a terrible mistake.
“United States,” I tell him. “Journalist. Where did you learn English?&rdquo
“The university. Do you need a translator?”
“No. I have one.”
He nods, tap his fingers against the rough boards of the table. He has long stained nails. His lank, thinning hair hangs down past his ears. His crooked teeth are stained as is his graying beard, and his bony shoulders resemble small rocks jutting beneath his shirt.
“Hello, how are you mister?” the man besides Rahman shouts. Before I can answer, he says, “Thank you, mister.”
Rahman raises a hand for him to be quiet. A waiter brings me a dented tin plate with an egg and a paddy of fried lamb. The man beside Rahman watches me with wide brown eyes that seem too big for his narrow face.
“I need a job,” Rahman says tearing at a chunk of bread and sopping up the mashed egg on his plate. “I have to answer to a man for his mercy. You see, my cousin in Kabul City hired a man to kill my father. My father owed my cousin money but refused to pay because he said he had already paid him. He called my cousin a liar. There was bad blood between my cousin’s family and ours. They are Pashtun. We are Tajik. I bought a gun from a friend. I killed the man my cousin hired to kill my father for insulting him.”
I nod, shift on the wobbling bench. When I first began working in Afghanistan, I knew nothing about its tribes and their rivalries. Over the years, I have learned that the country is a loosely knit conglomeration of competing ethnic groups. Chief among them are Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. Strong animosity exists between the Pashtuns and Tajiks. The Taliban emerged from the mostly Pashtun region of southern Afghanistan. The Tajiks made up the bulk of the Northern Alliance and fiercely resisted the Taliban. Then the Taliban government collapsed in the wake of the American-led invasion following the September 11th attacks. The Northern Alliance dominated the new government led by Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun. But many Pashtuns felt Karzai served only as a figurehead to appease international demands for a multi-ethnic unity government. He held little power by himself. It was the Tajiks who ruled. Instead of unity, people retreated to their tribal affiliations and mutually held antagonism, and prepared to resume age old conflicts as soon as western military forces quit the country.
“In Afghanistan, if we kill somebody and the family of that person says, ‘No, we give mercy,’ then you will not go to the jail,” Rahman says. “The father of the man I killed is very poor. He is Hazara. The Taliban killed many Hazara people. Thousands and thousands of Hazara people. I said to this man, why would your son kill for a Pashtun? He said his son did not have a job. This man told the police to release me, but now I have to answer to him. I have to pay him for his mercy.”
“He will not tell me. He says he will let me know when I have paid him enough. But you see, I don’t have a job to pay him anything. You are sure you don’t need a translator?&rdquo
“Do you know someone who does?”
Rahman shrugs. He dabs at his mouth with his fingers and drags them through his beard.
“The Americans leave Afghanistan soon, yes?”
“2014. Most of them anyway.”
“Then I will only pay him a little every month. Soon it won’t matter what I owe. There will be fighting when the Americans leave. He will be on one side and I on the other. He will expect no money when we are shooting at each other.”
The cook brings a pot of tea to the table. Rahman motions at my plate and tells me to eat. Blood from the meat mingles with the eggs. I dab at it with some bread. Rahman watches.
“Hello, how are you mister?” the man beside him says again.
“I’m good,” I say.
“Thank you mister.”
“Those are the only English words he knows,” Rahman says. “Hello, how are, and thank you mister. He won’t learn more because he hates the United States.”
“Americans are not Afghan. They don’t belong here. Are you alone?&rdquo
“No,” I lie. “My driver is waiting for me outside.&rdquo
Distorted Indian music screeches from a radio the cook has turned on. He tosses more meat into the pan and an explosion of hissing rises from it and a plume of gray smoke clouds the open kitchen and I can’t see anything of the cook other than the suggestion of a form and then the movement of his arms tossing meat.
“Hello, how are you mister?&rdquo
“Quiet,” Rahman tells the man beside him. He pours me more tea.
“Fifteen days ago, I saw the guy my cousin hired to kill my father. He was in a garden in Farza Village outside of Kabul. I was carrying a gun and I was walking down the street and I shot him and I killed him. A friend had offered me two, three guns to kill the guy but I only needed one.&rdquo
I finish my tea and wave the cook away when he offers me more bread. I let Rahman take my plate and finish what I’ve left.
“Hello how are you mister?” the man beside him says yet again. He nudges Rahman and laughs like some sort of manic sidekick gleefully waiting for I don’t know what. I stand up.
“Are you sure your driver is outside?” Rahman says.
I point at a car where a man leans against the hood.
“There,” I say.
“Let me walk with you.&rdquo
“I’m good, thank you.&rdquo
Rahman looks down at the table. The man beside him gives me a long compassionless stare but says nothing. I move to leave. Rahman grabs my hand.
“I will be staying in Kabul to watch my cousin,” he says. “He is my enemy. If you need a translator, you know where to find me.”
Read J. Malcolm Garcia's report from Kabul’s International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Orthopedic Center in January's "Hopelessness" issue.