I am in the bazaar at Pul-e-Surkh. I am buying bolts, screws and a few other things: Ken and I are trying to finish some work on the playground at the kids school. The kids used to have an old steel frame, the same I had when I went to school, full of sharp edges, lethally high, unpadded, an insurer’s nightmare. Someone gave us some money for them to have a proper playground built, so a range of Dads with a range of skills have been working on it for several weeks. Snow, rain and winter are coming and the pressure is on, so I have taken a bit of extra time to try to finish it, and today, Ken has come along.
Though it is only about 10.30, I have already dropped off a washing machine to the guesthouse that needed repair; attended a security meeting where we discussed the new, emerging, discouraging trends (more on that later); picked up the school photos that I got printed for the students; tried unsuccessfully to book flights from Kabul to Dubai, and driven here there and everywhere. It has been a stressful morning. I do not want to have to be at this bazaar again: it is crowded and traffic is at a standstill. But someone had to get the bolts.
To the left of me, a gap clears. Directly ahead of me, a taxi has stopped. In Australia, he has decided to park in what we would consider a traffic lane, but this is Afghanistan, and you can park just about anywhere you want. Though this still infuriates me, I have become used to it. I edge the car out past him. Surprisingly, I nudge his bumper. It is a slow, gentle kiss and as I pull past the driver, I bend down and check: he waves at me, he knows it was nothing. I smile, wave and prepare to drive on, when there is a loud bang on the car, and an angry face appears at the window. I do not know who this is. The man starts to shout and scream at me, he gesticulates furiously. I wind down the window a little and he reaches in and tries to lift the lock. With his other hand he drags at the window, forcing it down. I have no idea what he is saying; though it is Dari, he is incomprehensible. I am beginning to react, I push his hands out of the car and try to wind the window up. The man wrenches at my wing mirror, threatening clearly to snap it off. I sign to him and shout back, ‘Ok, I will pull over’, and he relinquishes. I pull in and try to understand him. He is saying something about hitting his car. What is he talking about? I have no idea who he is. I bumped one car, yes, but we sorted that out. Who is this man? I shout to make myself heard to him: I do not know you, I did nothing to you. I repeat myself, and then tell him, ‘I am going.’
I pull out, but I am blocked by a bus. The man thinks I am trying to flee. He is right. He bangs on the roof, and pulls at the wing mirror again, and now a policeman appears. I round the corner, agonisingly slowly. On every side traffic hems me in. I wind down my window to talk to the policeman. His weapon is cocked, threateningly towards me. I try to explain, and again deny having anything to do with this man, but it is complicated by the fact that I did hit one vehicle. I try to clarify:, yes, I hit a car. But not his car. Another man’s car. And that man, he didn’t mind, it was nothing. No mark, nothing. But no, he is not here. He has gone. And this man? I do not know him.
That’s it. Suddenly I am angry. There are 15 men gathering round. The traffic opens and I accelerate into a gap. I watch in the rear view mirror as the man reaches down and seizes a rock and throws it furiously after me. It strikes the tailgate. But driving away is pointless. The traffic closes again, and now a pickup full of police coasts up beside me, and they dismount. Driving away looks like fleeing, and fleeing looks only like guilt. One policeman positions himself in front of my car, his gun pointing straight at me. He braces, meaningfully. I am about to be killed over a traffic dispute. The original party has caught up with me and again has locked his arms on my wing mirror. His plan seems to be to injure my car, as I injured his. Except that I didn’t.
Resigned, yet seething, I open the window. Another policeman suddenly reaches in and unlocks the door, opens the back door and then a junior cop is seated in the back seat, his Kalashnikov swung towards me. I turn to him. ‘Get out. Step down. This is a no weapons car. You must step down.’ I point toward the sticker on our windows: an AK47 with a line crossing it out. It is unmistakeable. Amazingly, the policeman gets out. A small victory. But another cop is demanding my license. I show him my Western Australian licence. I still have a licence from Taliban times here, but I look like a Talib myself in it. It is not the time for that document.
He studies it, and asks me to step down from the car. I go with him to the back of my car, I am so angry. But here I come face to face with fury. My accuser is pointing at a car. His car. The front bumper. I have never seen him or it. His car is a panelbeater’s daily bread: bent, rusted, warped, a thousand dents and distortions. He points to nothing: ‘See’, he screams, ‘Here! He hit my car. When he reversed. And then he fled! He did it.’
The cop bends down and looks at the man’s bumper. It is about a foot off the ground. Standard sedan height. He looks at my car, a 4WD. It is nearly two feet off the ground. Even to the cop, it is logically impossible that I hit the man’s car. And further, on my vehicle there is no scratch, ding, mark, nothing. The policeman is trying to be fair, I see, and he looks back at the man. ‘Where did he hit you? Come on. Show me. This car is full of marks.’
The man’s anger is incredulous. ‘There! Look! He struck my car! He hit someone’s car, then he reversed at hit mine! And then he ran away! You saw him!’
The difficulty is parts of this story are true. I did hit another man’s car. I did drive off. But I did not reverse, nor did I hit his man’s car. So if there was any hitting, it is because he drove into me. I don’t remember being struck, but such a memory, were it there, would not be much use. I cannot defend myself against such apoplexy. I have seen such altercations turn really violent, and already I can feel rage building in me. I am been used, I am being fleeced, I am being lied against. But I am sure he does not see it that way. To him, I am a foreigner, therefore rich, I am also therefore responsible. And responsibility and guilt are, in such an instance, almost interchangeable.
I hate this. If I hit this man’s car, I would pay up. But he is lying. He has convinced himself, and now is determined to get what he can from me. I resist. I tell the policeman I will not give him a single Af. I am not guilty.
It is useless. There is a crowd now of maybe 30 men, spectators on this exercise in human sin and failure. ‘Give him money!’ ‘ You are rich!’ ‘Look at the outsider!’ ‘He speaks Farsi!’ ‘Where is he from?’ ‘What nice Farsi he speaks!’ ‘ Listen to him!’ And again, and again: ‘Give him some money!’
I pull 100 Afs from my wallet and push it forward, and the man casts it to the ground. ‘Give him three hundred’, the cop advises. ‘Otherwise I have to involve more people, we have to investigate.’ I know he is right. I take out another 100Afs, and fold them together, my blood boiling. I am so angry I can hardly speak, but at least I have not become dumb. I am instead unusually fluent, and as I seize my license back out of the policeman’s hands, I turn to the man. ‘You are a thief. Shame on you. God has seen what has happened. He knows you are lying. Repent!’
It sounds better in Dari than in English, and it is actually the right way to address such an issue, to appeal to a man’s relationship with God. But what do I expect? The man to be convicted of his wrongdoing, to be overcome with righteousness, to turn and humble himself in front of all these other men? To admit he is taking me? To apologise? To let it go?
He laughs harshly, and gestures towards me, in front of his jury, ‘ You call me to repent! You’re the kaffir here!’ Real violence from both of us is very close now.
I get into my car, shouting back at him, ‘I am no infidel. I fear God. Unlike you.’ I spin the wheels as I drive away, raging. Or I try to. Our car has such lousy acceleration that I just kind of pull out sluggishly, at a bit above walking speed.
So petty. Name calling, that’s what it came down to. ‘I’m more honest that you.’ ‘You’re a liar.’ ‘You are an infidel.’ ‘No, you are’. And 200 Afs finished it. Four dollars.
Over what? Nothing. Really nothing. Someone jolted his car and he assumed it was me, and that was suspicion. When he saw I had bumped someone else’s car, and was then driving off, that was the proof he needed. Despite there being nothing, no evidence, no damage. But by then there was something: a foreigner, with money, and then it became about saving face, and winning. He had staked himself against me, and for him, there could only be one acceptable outcome.
But it was about something, or at least it should have been: It should have been about honesty, and justice, and truth. About patience and grace.
On the days when I am a better man, I might have responded with love and patience and quietness and listening. I might have defused, not defended; responded, not retorted; accepted, not accused and attacked. I want to be that better man, but I was not.