by Andrew Kooman [Canada]
[Winner of the 2004 Hobson Prize for Fiction]
pentru versiunea română click aici
I’m writing this for Nazar, whose language I do not speak, and for the names of his children that I do not know. I write to understand something. If I knew what it was I wouldn’t be writing; if I knew what it was, I would be someone else, and then I would sing to you instead, a soft song, about an unnamed desert and the poppy fields, unleavened bread, family names, curried rice and small, polished animal bones. His story began before I was born, before the land was separated from the sea, is completely different from the one I am going to tell you. It begins with a single gesture and a tooth-filled grin.
* * *
Nazar leans forward in the chair and pulls a hand from his pant pocket. He runs his finger along the seam of the boy’s pocket, hardly feels it through the callous on his fingertip, grins.
“Pakistan. Factory.” The boy is young, like Aza.
The boy says something, too quickly, raises his eyebrows, smiles.
Nazar spreads his index and middle finger apart, forming a V, then snaps them together, spreads them again, snaps them shut.
Scissors. Scissors that could cut the thickest cotton in one sharp stroke, slice through fabric like the ocean liner that carried the material cuts through the sea, west to Europe, Canada; through silk like soft bread. Scissors that in one movement could break through a man’s breastbone and puncture his heart, spill his blood, dye his clothes a deep, beautiful red.
“Yeah,” he nods, grinning, shaking his head up and down like the boy. “Yeah. Cut.” A crescendo of agreement from the Y to the H, a growing rush of breath. “Factory.”
* * *
The factory is an old military building that housed tanks until the city grew around it. Four walls, a level floor, a criss-cross of rafters holding the ceiling. From here armored tanks rolled out against Indian forces in the Kutch, through night and dust storms, to war. But Nazar doesn’t know this, doesn’t know that the Indian workers bent over tables throughout the building, operating sewing machines, once fought against tanks sent out from the very factory they now work in.
The sweet smell of sweat, body odor and faint traces of manure, nicotine, cotton. It is nine o’clock in the morning and already Nazar is soaked in sweat. He feels the heat from the Hindi’s body across him, the warm breath the man exhales through his mouth, cheeks pushed out like a fish. The Hindi’s face bubbles with sweat. The drops merge like dew on the stem of a flower, then roll off his lip onto the unlit cigarette that hangs from his mouth.
One year standing across from Vickness, making patterns in cloth. One word they share each day. Namasstay. A foreign word that he speaks in the back of his throat, that almost gets lost behind his tongue; one word that stands in for many. The gods within me greet the gods within you. A greeting some in his country would interpret as a declaration of war. To Nazar it is a kindness, one word to a stranger inhabiting a safer land. A word he will hold inside, breathe in like cigarette smoke, exhale in rings that grow to inhabit the world, spread across entire oceans.
* * *
“You worked in a factory, making pants?” The boy asks the question slowly, pulls Nazar out of the factory, years of heat, sweat, different tongues, new names that hang in his mind like a mist.
Nazar breaths quietly. “Clothes and – ” he points, traces his finger once more along the seam of the pocket.
“Oh, pockets.” The boy makes a V with his fingers, pretends to cut.
“Yes. Cutting. Pockets.” Smile. “Namasstay. Work. Factory.”
The boy thinks for a moment then says, “Ah. Namasstay.” The boy brings his palms together under his chin and bows his head, like a prayer. Nazar smiles wildly.
“Yes. Namasstay. Hindi. Pakistan.” Nazar’s words trail off into laughter and he quietly repeats the greeting.
“You’ve traveled to many places Nazar,” the boy says, but Nazar doesn’t understand this. If Nazar were looking at the boy, he would see the boy’s expression changed. He no longer smiled. Instead, his lips were neutral, retreating into his face like a border mapping out different geography, separating nose from lip, country from country, head slightly turned, an axis for intrigue to turn on.
* * *
Gunfire. The last real sound Nazar remembers hearing in his country. A punctuation of bullet sounds, metal leaving metal, shells falling near him where he lies under the truck’s belly, with his nose and forehead pressed into the ground. An American automatic rifle. Loud, fast, efficient. Not the stutter, tinny, Russian sound. He turns his head to rest his cheek against the ground. He hears voices.
Pashto. Someone yells a series of commands. In the bursts of orange light Nazar can make out a man’s silhouette. Elbows resting on the man’s hip bones, one hand cupping the gun, the other on the trigger, the weapon is an extension of the soldier’s body, bullets his vocabulary. Taliban. More gunfire. Feet kick up dust and earth between the truck and the house. Nazar fights the urge to yell Aza’s name. He shields his eyes by forcing his face back into the ground, thinks.
A loud bang, and a scream of air. Mujahidin fire! There are still men who dare resist the Taliban! The truck, right front wheel emptied of air, shifts closer to the ground, like a camel bending onto its knees. Nazar takes a deep breath, the front axle only an inch above his head, the smell of rubber and gasoline. Nazar had not realized, in the confusion of the gunfire and explosions, that his leg is wet. He can feel the gasoline, now, drip from the crack in the tank, onto his pant leg.
Another wail of air. The other front tire whines, Nazar feels the warm air hiss against his skin. Glass shards bounce along the ground, reflect light under the truck from the fire down the street.
Nazar sees the bottom half of the soldiers’ bodies, men on their knees hiding behind the disembodied wheels. Three men duck behind the hood of the vehicle, swear aloud, yell at each other. Nazar cannot move or they will see him. Fatima and the baby. Nazar must move or a grenade or lucky bullet will hit the truck and set it into the air, igniting the tank of gasoline. He curses under his breath for not listening to Fatima.
The ground shakes. The smell of gasoline, smoke, the taste of blood. Aza! Between exchanges of bullets, and stifled cries from his own chest, Nazar yells his son’s name.
* * *
“Did you like Pakistan, Nazar? Did you like work in the factory?”
Silence. The boy tries again.
“Why did you move, why did you leave Afghanistan?”
“Afghanistan?” Nazar takes some time, thinks. “Beautiful country.”
“Is it beautiful? Why did you leave?”
“Yes, beautiful. My country.”
* * *
Aza walks slowly behind his father, arms pulled around his bare chest, hair and skin wet. Nazar, hesitantly, dips his foot in the water, pulls it back instantly. Far too cold, but beautiful. The family’s first trip to the Kokcha River. Suddenly he is in, under the water, thrashing against it, disoriented by the cold, the white fury of bubbles, his quickening heart beat. Ab!
“Abba! Put your feet down. You can touch.”
Nazar swallows more water, stubs his toes against the rocks on the river bottom, stands to his feet. He hurriedly wipes water from his eyes, and squints at Aza who peers over an outcropping rock above him, eyes wide.
“Aza! You know I can’t swim!”
“You don’t need to. You can stand.” Aza matches Nazar word for word, almost defiant.
“Aza – ”
Nazar stops. They boy’s cheeks are flush, his head bowed.
Nazar slaps the surface of the water with his fist, bends over and starts to laugh.
“Oh, you will be sorry,” and with that, Nazar pulls his arms up from the water, a tidal wave from the river soaking the boy.
Aza laughs too, shivers away from the water. He gets off his knees and jumps onto Nazar from the ledge, pulls him under the surface, and spins his father like a crocodile.
They emerge, gasping for breath, Nazar wipes water from his eyes, spits water from his mouth. He blinks through drops of water at Fatima, who stands, barefoot, on the ledge, looks down at him. She is pregnant, beautiful.
Aza arcs his arm above his head and brings it toward the water for a splash, but Nazar grabs Aza by the wrist, holds the arm in mid-air. “Lah-ah!”
Fatima glares at him, fights hard against the impulse to smile. “Come. Time to eat and sit with your grandmother.”
When Fatima turns and begins to make her way back toward her mother, who sits on a blanket with their lunch, Nazar dunks Aza’s head under the water, then quickly jumps onto the ledge.
Fatima stops and shakes her head. “Two children. Watch, Nazar, soon he will outgrow you.”
“Impossible,” but he knows Fatima is right.
Aza coughs up water and pats his hand against one ear. “Insha’allah,” he says with closed eyes, “soon I will outgrow you.”
* * *
“Did you learn more of the language when you were in Pakistan, Nazar?”
“You know many languages. Afghani, Pakastani, now English.”
“English? Little. Terrible.”
“No, Nazar. You are doing very well. We just need to practice.”
“Yes, practice. Practice.”
The boy caps the marker and moves away from the whiteboard.
“English. No good.”
The boy shrugs at this and smiles.
“Afghanistan, job. Expensive, money.” Nazar brings his finger against his thumb, rubs it to show money. “Canada. No English. Money not expensive. No job.” Nazar shrugs his shoulders in resignation.
The boy smiles, returns to the whiteboard and says, “Well, then we’ll keep practicing.”
* * *
Nazar drops what he is carrying when he notices the spot of rust on the wheel well. He brushes his finger over the edge of the spot and pieces of rust flake off. Nazar pulls out his pocketknife and scrapes it around the edge of the rust spot, precision like that of a surgeon. An ugly hole, infected like an open wound. Nazar sticks his finger in the center of the wound, pulls out shards of rust, the remaining scabs of blood and puss. With his lips he gently blows out dirt and debris.
“Yasar, you were supposed to tar this. The spot will only get bigger now.” Spread like leprosy. “Lah!”
Nazar shoulders the bag of cement mix, walks behind the truck and hoists it onto the truck deck. Yasar is asleep, snoring in the sun. He rests on top of the other bags Nazar lifted earlier in the morning, fifty kilograms at a time. Nazar drags the bag across the truck bed and lifts it above his head.
“Yasar, if you don’t wake up and help me, I’ll drop this onto your fat belly. Then I’ll mix you in with the rest of it later.”
“But Nazar, my back, it hurts.”
“Move now.” Nazar lets the bag fall from his hands, Yasar barely escapes. “You can load apples. That’s all we have left to move, anyway.” Yasar smiles widely, licks his lips. “I said load them, not eat them.”
“Nazar, you push too hard. Why don’t you take a break? We’ll eat some apples.”
Nazar knows once Yasar starts eating them he will not work any longer. “Ah. The apples of Paradise.” Yasar cradles his belly. “Give me only seven virgins with these apples for their breasts and I will rest well in the afterlife, my friend. Alhamdulillah.”
“You are a foul, lazy man.” Nazar clicks his tongue at Yasar. “We will each eat an apple when we return from Charikar, with an empty truck.”
* * *
“Did you work in a factory in Afghanistan too?”
“Yes, in Afghanistan?”
“No, truck. Me driving.” Nazar pretends to turn a steering wheel.
The boy imagines Nazar behind the wheel of a truck, driving along dusty Afghani roads. “Why did you stop driving the truck?”
“Stop? I don’t know.”
“Why did you go to work in a factory in Pakistan?”
“Pakistan? Ah. Taliban,” Nazar says and clicks his tongue. “Terrible, terrible.” Each time he says it, he shakes his head.
The boy sits back in his chair, eyes on Nazar, waits.
“Terrible.” A frown replaces the grin. “Gun. Taliban. Afghanistan,” Nazar points forward, “Pakistan, Canada.”
The boy nods his head and extends his thumb and index finger like a pistol, but Nazar leans forward and closes his hands around the boys mimed weapon.
“No, no.” He shakes his head, and calmly lowers the boy’s hand so it rests on the table. Nazar clicks his tongue and shakes his head. “Terrible, terrible.”
* * *
Yasar sleeps. Nazar has made enough money on the shipment to pay Yasar for his help, with enough afghani left over for the family to live for one month in Pakistan until he can find work. Cement, apples, milled wood, and fabric – enough money to live for one month!
Nazar wants to close his eyes on the dark, to wander off into sleep, find rest and the will he needs to follow Fatima into Pakistan. He continues driving, forces his eyes to stay open, whispers a prayer over the sound of the truck’s engine, the radio, the tires on the dirt road. They had never disagreed before, like they had a few nights ago. Fatima adamant, fearless, beautiful. I will not bring a child into a Taliban Afghanistan. I would rather die!
You would rather go into exile, leave our country for Pakistan of all places? But Nazar knows they must. The radio interrupts Nazar’s thoughts, reminds him he is driving on a road, in a truck, at night.
A voice instead of music, a deep voice, clean in its pronunciation, forceful syllables: The city of Kabul is under the government of the Taliban. Allah has freed the people of Afghanistan from injustice and fear, through the work of his servants. The Alliance of evil warlords that resisted the will of Allah has fallen. Continued resistance will be met with force and will be overthrown. In an effort to crush the rebellion, all servants of Allah will show allegiance and help the Taliban put an end to unrest throughout Afghanistan. All men with arms, munitions, transport vehicles, and the will to fight, must join the Taliban to complete the liberation of the Afghani people for the glory of God?
Nazar pulls off the road and brakes. Yasar falls forward in his seat and curses out loud, but Nazar brings a finger to his lips and points at the radio. “Shh, shh! Listen.”
…all who resist the will of the Taliban will be considered traitors, and will be treated as enemies of God.
Nazar reaches forward and turns the radio off.
“Wait – ”
“No, we must think.”
Yasar rolls down his window. The two are silent.
“We must go to Pakistan.”
“Yallah, habib! Are you mad, didn’t you hear them? They will catch us, and they will kill us.”
“They won’t catch us.”
“Nazar, have you heard what these men do to their prisoners? They humiliate them, torture them, cut off limbs until you beg for death.”
“Yasar, Fatima is already in Pakistan. Insha’allah. She left last night for Khyber with her brother Mahir.”
“But Nazar, they already control the border. Anyone trying to leave will be turned back.”
“Mahir will not, nor will Fatima. She will wait until tomorrow evening with her grandmother in Khyber, and if I do not arrive, they will sneak across the border at night.”
“He waits for me, in Kabul, to help load the truck.”
“So, you already have a plan, and I’m not part of it.”
“Yasar, I know you. You will not leave, you cannot. Fatima begged me not to, but I kept Aza in Kabul to help me load the truck quickly, if necessary. We were going to pretend to take a shipment to the border, but we weren’t going to stop, we were going to drive across it into Pakistan.”
Yasar laughs, wipes a tear from his eye and reaches for his cigarettes.
“Nazar.” Yasar exhales a cloud of smoke into the cab. “You can’t even lie about being sick during Ramadan, now this?” He laughs again. “Brother – ” he exhales and looks out the window. The cab is filled with smoke, sweet, gray wisps of air that only moments ago were held inside the warmth of Yasar’s body.
“We wanted to beat them to the border, before all of this.”
“Nazar, Nazar, Nazar.” Yasar drops his arm out the window and flicks the cigarette, an arc of orange light that paints the darkness, then burns out on the ground. Nazar waits for Yasar to speak again, holds his breath. “We will drive to Kabul, we will find Aza, we will get you and your son into Pakistan. Drive. I will think. Have a cigarette.”
* * *
The boy asks the question again. Nazar finally looks over and realizes the boy is speaking to him.
“How’s your wife?”
“Wife? Ah, good.”
“When will she have the baby?”
Nazar pretends he doesn’t understand this.
“Baby.” The boy cradles his arms at his chest, rocks them back and forth, then he shrugs his shoulders and says, “baby, when?”
Nazar lifts his hands off the desk and counts out three fingers on his left hand.
“Three months? You must be excited. Three months and then you’ll have a Canadian baby!” The boy holds out his hand, fingers extended, like a sign for victory. “A Canadian baby and an Afghan daughter already. Soon you’ll have two children, one from each country.”
Nazar mimics the boy’s smile. “Yes,” he says. “Two children.”
* * *
Yasar drives. Nazar taps his finger on the dashboard, smokes. He holds out the package of cigarettes for Yasar.
“No, you need them.”
Nazar closes his eyes, exhales deeply.
“Relax Nazar. I will do all the talking. Just sit still, you don’t have to say anything.” They are already in Kabul where they haven’t heard any fighting, have seen no sign of the Taliban. “We will stop only if we must, only if someone tells us to. If we make it to your house we will load the truck quickly, then, you and Aza will hide with the cargo. By the mercy of Allah, we will manage. It is a small truck.”
The streets are quiet, abandoned, only the sound of the truck engine. They are at Nazar’s house now, the truck idles in the darkness. Aza slips from out of a shadow and embraces his father. Nazar holds his finger against his lip. The boy nods, points behind him. There is movement down the street. Aza signals that he must get something from the house.
Yasar whispers. “Grab what you can, we must load as quickly as possible.” The men set to work, quickly throwing the apples, wood, and fabric that Aza has laid out at the side of the house onto the truck.
“No, we have no time for the cement, Nazar, we must leave now, with what we have. Go to the truck.” Nazar is beside the truck, Aza still in the house.
“Aza! We leave now!”
The boy emerges from the house carrying his father’s dhombra. He holds the instrument by its neck, closely, against his own body.
“You two! What are you doing?” A soldier is inches away from Yasar, gun raised. “Is this your truck?” Yasar nods. “We need it to transport fighting men to the center of the city. Rebel forces resist us there.”
“But I’ve been ordered to take a shipment of supplies to the border, for the soldiers there. We were leaving.”
The soldier looks at the instrument, then at the boy. Aza lowers the dhombra, hides it behind his body. “The border?” The soldier sniffs at Aza. “Show me your supplies.” The soldier starts toward the vehicle, and Nazar, from where he watches, drops to the ground and rolls under the truck.
The soldier sees the movement. “Who’s there?” He aims his weapon at the truck.
Gunfire! Cries from behind the house, urgent commands. Take cover! The enemy has machine guns!
The soldier turns away from the truck toward the gunfire down the street, weapon still raised. “We need your vehicle. Now we must use it and your house for cover. Hurry!” The soldier pulls the boy behind the house. Yasar ducks behind the cement wall as an explosion shocks the street.
More gunfire. Men run toward them, ducking, silhouettes of their bodies barely visible in the darkness. Unseen bullets puncture the cement house Yasar and Aza huddle behind, with the soldiers of the Taliban.
“We fight here!”
From under the truck, Nazar screams when he sees the explosion. A grenade rips a hole in the eastern wall of his house. Shrapnel from the blast cuts down Yasar and two of the soldiers. Aza is off his feet. The explosion is traced by gunfire. Aza scrambles, disoriented, bleeding.
Nazar moves from under the truck, to make his way toward his son. Before he makes it out from under the belly of the truck, Aza turns, looks at his father, extends his hand to him. Aza still hugs the instrument under one arm. Nazar stops, frozen. Aza’s body convulses in the light of the burning house. He is riddled in the back with bullets, blood bursting out of his chest like violent splashes of water.
Aza sways and drops to his knees. He turns his body to protect the dhombra when he falls to the ground. Seven, maybe eight soldiers pass him, interfere with Nazar’s view of his dying son. They are around the truck, kicking up dust, falling on their knees, firing at the rebels who remain unseen. Trapped under the truck, face against the ground, unable to think, unable to move, Nazar smells the gasoline, and remembers the matches in his pocket.
* * *
“You are quiet today.” The boy stands across from Nazar, encouraging him with his eyes.
Hands in his pockets, Nazar stares blankly at the foot or two of carpet between his shoes.
“What would you like to talk about, Nazar?”
The boy follows the path of Nazar’s vision to the space between his feet, but cannot see beyond it, cannot make out the detail of each tightly woven thread. Nazar does not tell the boy how it feels to have the shame of a new language fall heavily on his tongue, what it is like to be deaf and mute in a new country, yet still able to see. The two are quiet.
The boy takes off his glasses and rubs his eyes with the palms of his hands. He pulls a chair close to Nazar, sits down and breathes deeply. When Nazar looks up, the boy smiles.
“Tell me something, something beautiful about your country.”
Nazar blinks, says nothing. The boy starts to repeat the question, but Nazar opens his mouth to speak. After a few moments of silence, a smile breaks the edges of Nazar’s lips.
“In my country, there are beautiful, beautiful, apples.”
Copyright © 2004 by Andrew Kooman. All rights reserved
Andrew Kooman writes for the page, stage, and screen. His new play, She Has A Name, will have its World Premiere in Calgary in February 2011. He is the author of Ten Silver Coins: The Drylings of Acchora, an adventure novel for young adults. Order the book in print or as an ebook at www.tensilvercoins.com
Andrew Kooman lives in Red Deer, Alberta