Jan/Feb 2009  •   Fiction


by Abbas Zaidi

Artwork by Robert Hoover

Artwork by Robert Hoover

That late mid-summer afternoon when the temperature had shot up to 49 Celsius, the very presence of two officials from the American Embassy in a Lahore mosque was like a whiff of fresh wind. It was also indicative of how 9/11 had transformed Pakistan from an international pariah state into the world's (and America's) most pampered rottweiler in the Global War on Terror.

Clean-shaven, wearing shalwar-kameez, and sitting barefoot amongst us on the carpeted floor of the prayer hall, these American diplomats could pass for average light-skinned, sharp-featured Pakistanis. The light falling on them from the huge chandelier had lent their faces a bit of the halo effect. If they had worn beards, they could have been mistaken for some Sufis of yore whose imaginary portraits grace shrines and homes of the ever-receding population of moderate Muslims in Pakistan. Bespectacled, stiff-necked, and wearing an indifferent grin, both of them were continually pinching the thick red Iranian carpet under them either out of boredom or some tactile compulsiveness. Although they had just come all the way from Islamabad to meet Pakistani Taliban set free by the Americans in Afghanistan, they did not show any sign of fatigue.

There were 40 Taliban who had been flown from Kabul to Lahore and brought straight to the mosque. Seated in the centre of the hall, they looked like characters from a National Geographic special on primitives. Haggard, dirty-faced and hollow-eyed, they seemed not to be blinking at all. The stench from their dirty, blackened clothes was defying the air-conditioned cool and rose-perfume-sprayed atmosphere of the mosque. Their long, unwieldy beards appeared to be overlaid by dust or even mud. Most of them had their mouths open, exposing their yellow teeth. And in that posture they were frozen. Whether it was their hopelessness or helplessness—whatever it was—it was drowning the entire hall into a timeless lethargy and numbness.

I cannot recall how long the stand-off lasted: the humiliated savages on one side and the generous victors—the Americans—on the other. The rest of us—the journalists—were like an assortment of spectators paid to watch a fixed fight. At some point the scripted ceremony began when the octogenarian imam of the mosque stood up and looked obsequiously at the chief guest. A nod from him and the imam walked up to the rostrum and began a welcome speech in Urdu in which he briefly mentioned Islam's glorious contributions to the development of the West. After that, Sarmad Pathan, the senior-most journalist amongst us, took the mic. He more or less repeated in monotonic and grammatically outrageous English what the imam had said. When he finished, Dr. Mehmud Ghani, the State Minister for Religious Affairs and the chief guest, stood up and invited one of the Americans to speak.

The American stood up and moved to the rostrum. He looked around and up: everywhere on the white marble walls were painted the Koranic verses in black. While studying those verses, his casual body language made him appear indifferent, but his face betrayed bewilderment: even if he did not know a word of Arabic, he surely knew very well the immeasurable power those sacred verses had for their believers.

Ironically, we, too, did not know what they meant. Non-Arab Muslims can recite the Book of Allah ad infinitum, but few understand it beyond rudimentary supplications. And here lies the paradox: it is said language can be a powerful weapon in the hands of an intelligent user, but language can be far more powerful when it is not understood at all. Ignorant of what the Koran actually says, many Muslims are willing to do violence just because someone can recite a few verses and tell them they mean the infidels must be finished off. And their equally ignorant enemies act upon the advice of those who claim they understand the Koran very well, that it makes its followers into the most dangerous enemies of mankind.

In either case, it is the little-understood language that causes misery. Perhaps that is the reason why, when the American recited bismillah arahman arrahim (in the name of Allah, the Merciful) and a couple of other expressions (which I did not understand) in Arabic, the empty semantics echoed like a suppressed shriek all over the room.

"I am David Lentz," he began after blurting out his exordium in American-accented Arabic. He addressed the Taliban on the United States' role in the War on Terror, his government's respect for Islam, and the difference between the peace-loving Muslims—There is no dearth of good Muslims in the United States—and the Islamo-fascists: "Your release is evidence of typical American generosity. We could have punished you, but we want to tell you we respect human life. You are good Muslims, but some people misled you. I want to tell you the United States and the entire civilized world is your friend. We can all live in peace. You and the entire Islamic world should stand with us in our fight against terrorism. We have defeated Saddam Hussain and his Ba'athist fellow criminals in Iraq, and now it is Iran's turn to lick the dust, and that will happen soon! You must remember Iran is the last outpost of fascism and a great danger to civilization as well as Islam! I urge you to restart your lives and live like good Muslims, and you will find the United States firmly behind you. We must work hand-in-hand to make the world a peaceful place."

Throughout the speech my focus was on Lentz's neck. I forgot he was speaking in English, which the Taliban did not understand at all. To me it appeared a steel rod had been fixed in his neck instead of vertebra, and whenever he turned to look left or right, his neck moved as if operated by a rotator. His voice was deep, almost monotonic, and yet commanding. Before finishing his speech, David Lentz praised Dr. Ghani's bravery and "enlightened moderation." He said Islam had a great future if the likes of Dr. Ghani could lead the Islamic world.

The Taliban remained in their frozen posture while David Lentz addressed them. After he had finished, the other American, who introduced himself as Willy, took over and repeated David Lentz's speech in heavily-accented Urdu. We clapped. The Taliban clapped, too, without showing any change in their posture.

It was Dr. Ghani's turn to speak now. He was a healthy, long-haired, robust man in his mid-thirties, of middle height and light skin like the two Americans present. He too was wearing shalwar-kameez. His well-trimmed beard and gold-rimmed glasses had certainly enhanced his personality.

As Dr. Ghani took the mike, Willy produced a little tape recorder and placed it on the rostrum. Addressing the Taliban in Urdu, Dr. Ghani highlighted the importance of a balanced life. He quoted from the Koran and the hadith on how to live a peaceful life, the significance of international brotherhood, blessings of a moderate life, and the perfect compatibility between Islam and democracy. He claimed a perfect compatibility existed between Islam and the West. To prove his point, he quoted from Ronald Reagan (The Afghan mujahidin are the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.), Bill Clinton (I saved Muslims in Kosovo.), Bernard Lewis (Islam has been a great civilization.) Daniel Pipes (The Prophet Muhammad was legally justified to breach the Hudaybyya Contract with the Jews.), and the American constitution (We, the people!). There was a lot of spirit in his tone, but his face, an off-white pear, was serene. He criticized Osama bin Laden and his "goons." He concluded his speech by saying, "Muslims and the West must live in peaceful coexistence. To be honest, we must learn from the West if we wish to develop..."

Then he turned to David Lentz and Willy, switching to crisp English. He spoke in a perfect British accent with perfect grammar, the reverse of Sarmad Pathan. He thanked the American government for releasing Pakistani Taliban and assured them the freed Taliban would abjure the life of violence. After that, he nodded at Sarmad Pathan, who sprang from the floor, ripped opened a handbag which was lying in front of him, and quickly distributed handbills to people, excluding the imam and the Taliban. It turned out to be an English language poem Dr. Ghani had published on his blog a few months before.

Dr. Ghani then read his "Summer in Kabul post 9/11":

When trees reduced to vertical wood,
Leaves and grass a distant memory,
Days burn like logs, nights go sultry,
Even special prayers bring no good.

Outside people burn, at home they fry,
Light, gas, and water forever gone,
Blood in veins too dried to keep you on,
Quick to the West rich and famous fly.

Few bury their dead during the day,
Hollow is the memory of spring,
Stopped have for now wedding bells to ring,
Few bother to go to mosque to pray.

When breeze and cool gone from the world out,
Jihadis' fire and fury burnt down,
Not raising at infidels a frown,
Terrorism is suffering a drought.
Even grieving Taliban come out,
To have a beer or two to chill out.

I did not see any point in reciting the poem. But to Dr Ghani, it was a different matter. The Taliban, terrorism and the War on Terror, as I was to discover later, were not a very serious matter for Dr Ghani: he thought nothing in this world merited, in words, "macabre seriousness."

"At the root of even a very serious crime," he told me as we became good friends later, "there is a banality resting like a lazy, idle scamp. Life per se is not a very serious thing: it is a little man's grand narrative. With humor and a sense of light-heartedness, you can overcome any problem." A year later the irony of these very words was terrible indeed as I identified his headless body in a mortuary.

But on that evening all seemed okay, attested by the hearty clapping of the two Americans whose palates the poem had tickled. We clapped, too, aping the Americans. Even the Taliban clapped! The imam wasn't left behind, either.

After the speeches and the recitations were over, our job began. It was my first assignment on religious affairs. The journalists' mood was very hostile, and after taking a few photos, we wanted to grill the Americans. "How long will you continue to wage the War on Terror in order to capture peace?" asked a reporter whose tone was shaking with emotion. The Americans ignored him, as they did two more hostile questions thrown at them.

As another question was half on its way, Dr. Ghani shouted food was ready in the left corner of the hall. At that there was a mini ruckus. The Taliban dashed towards the corner and fell upon it as if they were getting a piece of their enemy. It was a typical Lahori dinner with a dozen or so meaty dishes.

The food cooled off everyone. The Taliban returned to their place. Dr. Ghani led David Lentz towards them, who spoke to them through Willy. Dr. Ghani injected a good deal of humor in it: "Go home and make love to your wives!" he said to a Talib at one point, "You must change your Kalashnikovs for a wife!" he said to a very young Talib. The Americans smiled and grinned profusely. "You must spend your honeymoon in Kashmir!" he said to yet another Talib. Willy meanwhile took notes in a small diary.

At one stage Sarmad Pathan asked David Lentz in a loud tone to help the Taliban settle down in their new lives by helping them financially. Lentz looked askance at Sarmad Pathan, the right side of his mouth twitching and becoming a faint smile. "Make a note of this gentleman's request," he commanded Willy in his deep voice, took a cursory look at all the Taliban and back at Sarmad Pathan. "Money is no problem. Why don't some of you guys take a study trip to the States? I am sure the USAID would love to sponsor Lahore's talented journalists. All of you!" There was a faint sarcasm when he said, "love to."

David Lentz's offer created a sudden alacrity amongst the journalists. All hostility towards the Americans died down and was buried right there. Now everyone wanted to get close to Lentz and say something. Before one of us could win his attention, David Lentz said he wanted to leave in order to attend a meeting in Islamabad. All of us excluding the Taliban dogged him and Willy up to their car and the police escort waiting outside the mosque. It was very hot, and my glasses suddenly got blurred, but I was able to see David Lentz hug Dr. Ghani, kiss both his cheeks, and thank him for his efforts. Willy gave Dr. Ghani a hearty handshake.

Returning to the mosque, Dr. Ghani said to Sarmad Pathan, "You should not have asked for money."

Sarmad Pathan was lost for words.

"Begging makes beggars. Better work hard and obtain what you must... Never mind, but be careful next time," said Dr. Ghani patting an utterly embarrassed Sarmad Pathan's shoulder. "You know you can spend your life in comfort if you carry a smile on your face."

Sarmad Pathan smiled.

"What will happen now?" a worried Talib addressed Dr. Ghani. "I have no skill other than firing Kalashnikovs, and now that the American infidel has spoken to us and our names and photos will appear in tomorrow's papers, no Muslim will give us money." The other Taliban noisily assented.

With his upper lip between his teeth, Dr. Ghani looked philosophical as he pondered the Talib's words.

"The 9/11 attacks have enraged the Americans beyond limits, and they are mad. But, who knows, they will later find out it was the Jews who were behind 9/11. Since you have loudly and wildly drummed your hatred of the Jews into every ear on this planet, the Americans will come begging you to destroy Israel. Then you will be back to your killing spree! After all, that's all you can do. Nothing civilized and nothing sensible! I suggest after going home, you grab your fathers by the collar and ask why they sent you to seminaries, and not to schools."

"Why blame us or our fathers?" howled an angry Talib. He must have been in his mid-fifties. "It's the Pakistan government that supported and trained and financed us. Only months ago we were the soldiers of Islam! We served the cause of Islam in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Mindanao, Chechnya, and Central Asia. We were called martyrs when we died fighting. We were called victors when we destroyed the enemy and returned alive. Now we are terrorists because the infidel America calls us so!"

There was a tense silence.

"When will the American send the money for us?" asked another Talib who was in his late teens. The question brought about a sudden relief in the atmosphere.
"I will speak to you when the money gets through," said Dr. Ghani without showing any emotion.

After that, the Taliban were herded into coaches to be taken home. There was about half an hour until the night prayer, so Dr. Ghani asked us to sit in a corner. I knew Dr. Ghani well, but it was the very first time I was in his company.

Sitting close to him, I realized Dr. Ghani was a man ages apart from the obscurantist fundamentalists he had decided to take on. He exchanged jokes and made us laugh heartily. His frankness with the journalists was amusing, refreshing and surprising, even reassuring. It was extraordinary coming from a religious man of his standing when he said, "Enjoy your life and have lots of girlfriends before you get married. You know having a wife is a liability!" Even the imam, though he did not join us, seemed to be amused by the spectacle.

I realized Dr. Ghani and the journalists around him formed a kind of coterie. Interestingly, all of us were in the same age group. Soon Sarmad Pathan introduced me to Dr. Ghani as "a new and brilliant entrant into journalism." After that, he chuckled maliciously, which was very embarrassing for me. I was not a new entrant, and every journalist knew that. I had been working as the chief reporter with The Lahore Press for a couple of years and had recently been demoted for publishing a scandalous report I later failed to substantiate.

Dr. Ghani studied me carefully for a second or two and said, "I know you have been under a cloud. But you can make a new beginning as a religious affairs reporter. I will make sure you get full support from all of us here." Then he shook my hand forcefully and said, "Welcome to the religious affairs reporting mafia!" He paused and then said something more, but the imam's call to the prayer drowned his voice, and we all made to the prayer area.

After the prayer was over, we left the mosque. Dr. Ghani invited us to his house, an offer accepted right away and with enthusiasm. Obviously everyone knew where he lived. On my motorcycle, I followed the mini procession of cars and motorcycles.

Dr. Ghani lived in his father-in-law's palatial house in the posh Defense Housing Scheme. Armed guards were standing at the gate. We were led to a spacious drawing room by a handful of able-bodied servants. It was air-conditioned, and we felt such a relief from the sultriness and stuffiness wearing us down since we left the mosque. It was a large, impressive room with spectacular chandeliers. Our feet were sinking into the soft, red Persian carpet. The furniture was old-style Victorian and faintly smelled of sandalwood. There were bookshelves all around: Great Books of the Western World, The New Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Webster's Third New International Dictionary, along with different editions of the Koran and books on Islamic philosophy were very conspicuous. On one wall was fixed a huge portrait of Saladin sitting on a white steed and gazing into the distance, holding a shining sword. The glint in Saladin's eyes was uncanny and awe-inspiring. On the opposite wall were life-size portraits of Napoleon Bonaparte, General Montgomery, Harry Truman, and Eisenhower. A bemedaled portrait of Dr. Ghani's father-in-law was fitted side by side with that of Sultan Tipu.

We heard happy-birth-day-to-you clapping, followed by noise and rock-and-roll music. After half an hour Dr. Ghani appeared in Bermudas and a T-shirt. He apologized for being late, saying he had to join his daughter's birthday party. He asked a servant to prepare something to eat and bring drinks, and he handed Sarmad Pathan a sheet of paper.

"This press release has all the newsworthy details of this evening's ceremony. Go to my study and fax it to every newspaper." Then he looked towards us and said, "Now you need not rush to your offices to file a report. Stay here and relax for a while."

"What was the point of David Lentz making such a high-sounding, cerebral speech to the Taliban? It was like speaking to a bunch of buffalos!" a reporter said aloud.

Dr. Ghani's face assumed a blank look, as if he was trying to think up an answer. But before he could say anything, the emotional reporter—the one who had tried to heckle David Lentz in the mosque—put in, "Do you think he is a fool? He is a very cunning man. He was telling the Taliban and the rest of the fundamentalists of Pakistan, Iran is their common enemy. You know the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda hate the Shia Iran far more than they hate the Americans!"

Dr Ghani seemed at lost for words. He shook his head, took a Cartier packet from his pocket and pulled a cigarette. "I would be the last person to think in terms of conspiracy theories, but," he lit up his cigarette, "if the Americans want to isolate Iran, courting the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda is not a bad idea."

The reporter continued, "The Americans do not want to destroy the Taliban or the Al-Qaeda... they want to control them in order to use them against Iran or any other group or country to challenge American interests. Don't be surprised if one day a Taliban squad is found blowing up bridges in Beijing in the name of Islam..." The emotional reporter could not continue for surfeit of emotions.

"Don't you think terrorism is a philosophy of life and operational management on both sides of the divide?" Dr Ghani said with a very mischievous smile. Words came out of his mouth sitting on little circles of smoke.

"He did not say a word against Osama bin Laden or the Al-Qaeda. He is aiming at Iran and wants to recruit the Taliban to fight the Iranians," Sarmad Pathan said.

"Come on, my friend. That's becoming ridiculous." Dr. Ghani sounded unhappy. "Would it be possible for us to see the positive, or even funny side of..."

"Would you distribute the money amongst the Taliban?" a journalist asked, referring to the money David Lentz had promised.

"It's our money. Muslim money! After all America has stolen it from our Arab brothers!" Sarmad Pathan said nervously.

"I do not know," Dr. Ghani replied, rewarding Sarmad Pathan's anti-American burst with an extremely sour face. "But sooner or later these Taliban will return to Afghanistan and will be killed like dogs. Violence has gone into their veins. They must kill to live a life of peace and fulfillment! Anyway, I will buy computers for some village schools where apart from learning academic stuff, the students can watch some pornography so they do not end up as sex-starved and frustrated as the Taliban," he giggled.

Then suddenly, as if reminded of something, he said with a mischievous smile, "By the way, you need a visa to visit any of your brotherly Arab countries!"

"Let me check if there is any fax or message for you," said Sarmad Pathan and made for Dr Ghani's office.

"Did you see those Taliban?" Dr Ghani asked. "They were so untidy and looked so wild!"

"Outright despicable and hideous! Looked like chimpanzees with long beards! What do you think?" I said with gusto.

There was a sudden, tensed silence. Everyone stared at me in disbelief. I realized I had attacked the religion of Islam itself by insulting the beard. Because having a beard is a Sunna—something the Prophet Muhammad did—one must not pass a negative comment about it even if it belongs to a criminal. I felt everyone would start beating me up at any moment.

Then, "Every son of a bitch can bark against Islam! Look what is happening in the Satanic Holland these days! After the murder of that evil Van Gog [!] the Dutch government is planning to stop Muslim immigration and expel practicing Muslims!" It was Sarmad Pathan who had returned from Dr Ghani's office. He surely did not know the type of conversation going on; he must have thought we were denouncing the enemies of Islam. But to me it was a sudden relief. More than a relief.

"No problem, a sol... soldier of Islam killed Van Gogh for... for insulting Isla..." said the emotional reporter.

"Bring 'em on! Quick!" blurted Dr. Ghani, standing up and ignoring Sarmad Pathan and the emotional reporter. His face was lit up; his eyes were shining, too. Three servants entered pushing trolleys. Everyone jumped at the trolleys. Obviously they knew what was on them. On a closer examination, I saw bottles of Johnny Walker and Chivas Regal, cans of beer, buckets of ice, roasted chickens, and salted peanuts, almonds, cashew nuts, pistachios and crackers.

"Hold on!" our host demanded. "We begin with our new friend," he pointed towards me. "Red Label for you," and he poured me a quarter of a glass. Then he gave a can of Heineken to Sarmad Pathan and said, giggling, "Made in your own Holland. Drink it and forget Holland's practicing Muslims for a while!" After that, he addressed the rest of us in a mock serious tone. "Eat something before you swig. Last time you emptied bottle after bottle without eating anything, and someone vomited. But this time I will simply kick you out and call the police to arrest you if you vomit!"

Sarmad Pathan consumed the entire can in one breath. We began to eat, munch, drink, and banter. Initially we gossiped about Lahore's latest high society sex scandals, sodomy in the seminaries, and the forthcoming cricket series between India and Pakistan.

A few drinks and the frivolity of our conversation began to assume seriousness. Someone said the political situation in Pakistan was getting worse and the government's post 9/11 pro-American policies were dividing the people. Dr. Ghani defended the government, saying by acting pragmatically, the government had actually saved Pakistan from being bombed into the dark ages by the Americans. Almost everyone endorsed his view with nods or yeses, but at the same time it was observed that in its obsequiousness, the government had gone overboard in pleasing the Americans. During this argument Dr. Ghani's wife came in with the birthday cake. She was a slim, tall, sharp-featured peroxide blonde wearing shorts and a small size polo shirt exposing her naval. She must have been her husband's age. Slightly drunk, I thought she was beautiful. She put the cake on the trolley, took a sip from Dr. Ghani's glass, briefly sucked his lips, and hummed in English: "Do not eat a lot of cake. It does not go well with alcohol. Be moderate!" Then she left.

"Dr. Ghani, that American David looked as if he was your brother," said Sarmad Pathan. I thought there was a streak of flattery in his voice.

"Dr. Ghani, do you know who David Lentz is?" an unsteady shout flew past.

There was a silence. No one seemed to know the answer till Sarmad Pathan opened his mouth. "He is no ordinary diplomat: He is a Jew! He is the one actually running the American Embassy. The Jewish power has overwhelmed everyone in the world and the only way for us to..."

"Wait!" Dr Ghani cut him short, "You remind me of... Each one of you must not only provide your CVs in two days, you must come up with a proposal in which you will tell why you should be given American scholarships."

Again there was a silence. This time it was a confused silence. Dr Ghani broke it. "If you could argue how you can bring Islam and the West together, you can win elite scholarships, and of course that will lead to American PR, pretty Hollywood-style blondes and much more. There are hundreds of capable Pakistanis like you who are well established in America now with American wives and a lot of money." Behind the high seriousness on his face, I could not miss a very subtle mischievous smile, and when he concluded with, "Look at my own wife. She had to dye her hair blonde to look pretty!" his mock seriousness was phenomenal.

Everything changed right there, just like it had changed in the mosque when David Lentz made his offer. Our focus changed altogether. The night slowly wore off. We drank on and on. As our spirits were lifted and inhibitions dissipated under the influence of alcohol, we passionately debated what was the best way to falsify the myth of the Clash of Civilizations (Clash of Yahoos! shouted Sarmad Pathan) and bring the countries of the world together into a brotherhood till it was pre-dawn and the last drop of alcohol had been consumed and the loudspeakers began to relay the call to the faithful to wake up and pray to God before sunrise. It was time to go home, to mosque, or doze off in the cool of Dr. Ghani's drawing room.