An ordinary conversation

I am walking to our kids school for a meeting. A man is adjacent to me, and he looks into my face.

‘Mr Kim? You are Mr Kim? Salaam aleyikum!’

I return the greeting, though I have no idea who this man is. He senses that I am perhaps not Mr Kim and asks again.

‘No, I am not Mr Kim.’

‘Ahh, but you work with [our organisation], do you not? And now, see, you are walking to the school.’

I don’t like that he knows where our kids school is, but it seems pointless to deny it. I suppose it is pretty obvious.

The man goes on. ‘I used to work with your organisation. For 20 years! I worked with Mr Harri, and Mr Tom, the one who was killed in Nuristan. I worked with Mr Dan, who was killed with him. I worked in the eye hospitals. Now I am working in the Ministry of Public Health. I am like a doctor there. I control for quality. You are new in Afghanistan?’

‘No’, I say, ‘we came here 12 years ago.’

‘But I have never seen you!’

‘We were in Mazar.’

‘Ahhh, Mazar. I worked there as well. I worked in Mazar for 10 days! I supervised the eye hospital there. Perhaps we met then. There was that Finnish woman, there, a doctor…’ He gropes for the name. ‘Well, she was there. You remember her? And that other one, the… the.. Well, see, now, here we are at your school.’

Hamid, our school watchman opens the gate for me, and to my surprise, he greets the man with me with clear recognition, and they fall into an animated conversation.

The snow is deep in the school yard, piled into high drifts and though the sun is finally out, it will be weeks before it has all melted.

The man has left, and Hamid comes and stands beside me.

‘That man was a watchman, alongside me, for years. That’s what he was.’ Hamid says, answering my unspoken question. ‘He worked as  a watchman at the eye hospital, with Mr Tom. And then he was the watchman for Mr Harri. When the Taliban imprisoned us, he cried like a baby. Now he is working at the Public Health Ministry. He told me he earns 25,000, sometimes 30,000 Afs a month.’

Hamid pauses.

‘In all my life, I have never earned that much. Here, at the best, I take home 8,000, maybe 10,000 Afs a month. Soon I will end my work and that will be it. That will have been my life.’

Hamid pauses, and then speaks again, but now with more difficulty, as though the memories are locked away, hard to chip out. ‘The Taliban locked us up for three months I think…But that man, he knew someone high up, and he cried and cried and then they took pity on him and let him go… The second time we were locked up was… when the Taliban tried to take Mazar [1998]. There were missile attacks here [when Clinton ordered strikes against Al Qaida training camps]. Everyone thought it was all war again, or maybe that’s what the Taliban thought.’

As I listen to Hamid, I look at him. I try to imagine the life he has led, the chaos and the violence he has seen. The scars it has left on him. He is an old man now, and the lines on his face and around his mouth remind me of my father.

‘After that time, I went to Pakistan. I didn’t want to be locked up again. When I came back, I came to Kabul, and worked at the school again. That other fellow, he is at the Ministry, doing his job. And I am still here.’

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3 thoughts on “An ordinary conversation

  1. Phil, I know you might not be interested in Awards, but I’ve nominated you via my blog for the Versatile Blogger Award. I love to stop by and read what you’re up to and what is going on. I hope it brings a little traffic your way and some awareness back this way. Best wishes,

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