I was in Mazar for a few days. I took a couple of days leave from the work in Kabul, to come back to this city where I lived for so many years, the place where my heart still lies. I was listening to Qorban.
‘…and then I grabbed his hands and held them tight and I kept saying, “Who are you, who are you?” and he kept mumbling, mumbling, saying nothing, and finally when I got him on the ground, he spoke, and he said, “Stop, it’s me. It’s Hazrat.”’
Qorban looks up at me, his hands cupped out in front of him, each fist clenched a little, as though the bony wrists of Hazrat were still tightly held. Qorban is not a tall man, but he is solid. The long peron and tonbon he always wears hide the muscle and bone. And he has big hands. They are huge. They are the hands that belong to a professional killer, though Qorban is not a violent man. He is a good man, at least, as good as the next. He has done us no wrong that I know of, and he is kind and careful and faithful. Though now, having caught and apprehended Ghulam Hazrat, a thief, and an armed thief at that, Qorban is, I detect, a little proud. He has told me the whole story once, and now this is the second time, and some details, like the gun, the darkness, the noise, the fact that he was awake at night – ‘like all watchmen should be!’ – he has told me several times.
I am weary of the story. This is the third time I have heard it now. When I was first told it, by Joel, it was interesting in the way a car accident or failure is interesting: someone else’s pain and grief and failings are intriguing and juicy and bring out the spectator in me. But that feeling passed, and as I thought about it, I just felt sad. And now hearing Qorban tell it again, and again, I want to do him the respect of listening, and Qorban did a good thing too, no doubt, and I tell him that, but still I am wearied by it. Hazrat was my friend. As much as you can have close friends, here. This is Afghanistan.
I think back: 1999. Julie and I had just arrived in Mazar-i-Sharif to live and work. We had nothing much but raw energy and faith and idealism and a few words of Dari. We joined the Community Development Project that the aid agency was then running, and within a few months, after the Project Leader left, I became the new boss, and we began to expand the work. We needed staff, we advertised, we put posters up at the mosque and sent the word around that we wanted four new Facilitator/Trainers. Two men, two women, to join the team, work in remote, scruffy, dusty shit holes in the North. It was Taliban time, the worst time, and jobs were few and people were thin. Women – widows, who the Taliban had forbidden from working to maintain their purity were being forced into prostitution just to survive. We had a hundred applicants, maybe more. We chose the two men and two women fairly easily: a fruit seller, a woman who had been wrapping candies for a living, a university teacher and a vet. They had some skills, some of them, but mostly they had a good attitude: learners, not experts, facilitators, not controllers. Poor rural people do not want city boofheads coming to tell them how to fix their lives up, mostly they know what to do, they just lack the resources. And when they don’t know, they want to be helped by friends, not instructed by pedagogues. We were happy with the new eclectic team.
But there was Hazrat. He had come in for interview sometime in the middle of the first day. He tried to walk in lightly, but he couldn’t hide the sag to his body: the sag of someone who has not eaten well, for some time. He perched on the edge of the chair, afraid to sit back, not able to feel at home. I think he was expecting us to tell him to go. Gaunt and fading, he told us he was a nurse. No, a nursing assistant. He had worked at the Red Cross. Helping nurses. Anway, he could drive. He had a license. No, he didn’t a license. But he was getting one. He would get one. He could work. Work hard.
Hazrat hid his fear well. I don’t think he really was hoping for anything anymore, and he didn’t plead with us. But I couldn’t see any point going on with the interview. He didn’t have medical skills, which he had claimed, that was clear. Maybe he could drive, maybe he couldn’t: practically everyone said they could drive or speak and write English and Dari and Pashto and Urdu, or they could do accounting and use a Codan and they could all use Excel and Word and Photoshop, and some of them claimed they could do everything, including heal the sick and leap tall buildings, and it was almost always total rubbish.
But you shouldn’t think of it as lies. It was just the voices of dying hope, of terrible desperation. The voices of people who has lost so much, again and again, but still dared to believe their lives might be better. Regardless, we couldn’t use Hazrat. He had nothing we needed and Afghanistan was full of sad and hungry and dying people. That was why we were there, after all. So I looked over at Liisa and at Julie, and back at Hazrat. His clothes hung off him, there was dirt on his shirt and under his fingernails and his eyes were dull. No, I didn’t have any questions for him. ‘Tashakor az amadan-e shoma. Man yak maktub dar darwaza beshanem, roz-e se shanbe.’ Thank you for coming, and we will post a list on the office gate on Tuesday.
But at the end of the day, as we talked over the candidates, we couldn’t get him out of our minds. The gait, the drawn skin, the disappointment. He hadn’t eaten for three days. I don’t remember why that came up, probably Liisa, in her usual blunt way just asked it, seeing how thin he was. So. So we invented a job for him. Driver-assistant. He would drive. Keep the cars in order. Help the other facilitators when they needed something. We didn’t need a driver, but it felt like we were letting him die otherwise. Him and his wife and children. Sometimes you have it within your power to help someone, and we had that power then.
So Ghulam Hazrat joined the team, and over the years, he developed some reasonable skills. After about a year, he became a good driver, though he was so slight he always needed a cushion to see over the Landcruiser bonnet. He did do some maintenance work on the cars and he helped the others in their work. He needed prompting and pushing but so did most of the staff. He was one of the ones there when the Talibs came to Saidabad village in 2001, and beat up the staff and ransacked the village rooms, tore the place up. Shot at the staff. Hazrat was struck twice with a rifle butt, and when they came back to the office, fear crazing their eyes, he cried as he told me what had happened. He came to our house at Easter and ate hotcross buns and and I still have a photo of him holding one up. He never put much weight on, but his eyes grew lighter over the years. When we left for holiday in August of that year, before the madness, we embraced, and I think he knew that I loved him, as much as I loved the other staff. After 9/11 and when we were kicked out, and then came back, and started up the work again, in 2002, he was still there, and I helped him get a job in the interim until the project got up to speed again. Then he came back with us, and we worked together again, and it was he and Akbar who were held up by bandits out in Dasht-e Laili desert one day, robbed at gun point. But he was still there with the Community Development Project until it was closing down in 2006. And then late in that year he came to the office one night. He’d gotten into debt. We knew he had a drinking problem. Knew he gambled. Knew he beat his wife, and sometimes his kids, and there were other rumours too. But this was Afghanistan. There were very few pure success stories. I’d spoken to Hazrat, Julie had spoken to his wife, we had loaned money, helped him get out of debt, done all kinds of things. But I guess it wasn’t enough. He climbed over the wall late one night, with a rifle. Who knows if he planned to use it? He had thought the guard would be sleeping, had thought he could just open the office, take the computers and the cash and load them into the Landcruiser and be gone. So when Qorban heard him and came, quietly, and reached for him, it was Hazrat who was terrified, and he swung the gun around and Qorban got the muzzle in his belly, and then it was Qorban who bellowed in fear and lunged out with those big hands, knocking the rifle down and screaming, ‘Who are you? Who are you?’, until Hazrat said in his quiet voice, ‘Stop it. It’s me, Hazrat.’ ‘Hazrat?’ said Qorban, disbelieving. ‘Tu inja kar kadi! Az inja mash grefti! Inja naan khordi, namak khordi’. But you worked here! You took your salary from here! You ate bread here and you ate salt here! After Qorban had tied Hazrat up, the office manager was summoned and then the regional manager, then the police came, and finally Hazrat was taken away and put in jail. He was released three months later, and Joel has seen him in the street and at the bazaar, and they have talked. But I was only in Mazar for a few days, and I didn’t see him.