Descending the Khyber Pass from Pakistan, one enters a tan-colored desert that resembles the tough interior membrane of a pomegranate—a wearying, lifeless place. Emerald wheat fields, trees shining with figs and oranges, and armies of snowy hills present themselves from time to time, but the region is mostly sand, pebble heaps, and drum-hard earth, tramped down by glaciers and soldiers. I remember gazing into that desert from Pakistan, back in 1982. The Afghan insurgents I was travelling with had shown me a Soviet sentry box and the road behind it that went on into infinity. It was a reasonably good road then. By the time I returned, last January, hardly a scrap of asphalt remained on its bomb-cratered, potholed track.
I had never driven down it before. In 1982, my companions had led me over the mountains from the Pakistani town of Parachinar in order to avoid the Soviet garrison. Now this border crossing was open. After eighteen years, I was going back to a country that had been my symbol of heroism—a place where poor peasants had risen up against arrogant and cruel invaders and washed them away with their own blood. Those invaders had been gone for a decade. The new government, run by members of the fundamentalist Islamic movement known as the Taliban, was literal-minded and stern, like the freedom fighters who'd inspired me years before. It was despised by much of the Western world, but I wanted to know what the Afghans, who had to live with it, thought.
My translator and I changed money in the border town of Torkham, got a taxi, and rattled down into Afghanistan. For scenic attractions, we had the stumps of a razed orange grove, wrecked Soviet tanks, and refugee mud villages, abandoned now and crumbling into dust. There were warnings of land mines, and once in a great while a listless-looking man could be seen far off on the dreary plain, dragging a golf-club-shaped mine detector through the rocks. I saw virtually no usable habitation, not even a tent. Nevertheless, every few hundred yards there'd be a dirty boy or girl waiting by the side of the road. As our taxi approached, the child would sink a shovel just far enough into the dirt to collect a few clods, then dribble them into the nearest pothole, pretending to improve the road for our journey, hoping for payment. A burning stare, a shout, and then we were on our way to the next beggar.
If I stopped and gave money to a child, others came running. I slipped one boy five thousand afghanis—about ten cents— and when I looked back in the rearview mirror it seemed that the other boys were practically tearing him to pieces. On a road bend where no other beggar could see, I gave a twenty-dollar bill to a boy who stood beside the carapace of a Soviet armored personnel carrier, and he took it and held it as if he were dreaming. I wanted him to hide it before anybody else came or the wind took it from him, but the last I saw of him he was still standing there with the banknote dangling from his hand.
It was like this most of the way to Kabul, some hundred and twenty miles from the border. Inside the capital's war-pocked walls, beggar women and children would wait outside the windows of restaurants, crowding against the glass and drumming on it desperately. If I sent a plateful of food out to them, they'd fall on it in the same way that skates and manta rays occlude their scavenged prey—guarding it with their own flesh while they eat. When I left the restaurant and got into a taxi, the children would try to climb in, too. I couldn't bring myself to slam the door on their hands, so the taxi would roll down the street with the door open, gradually increasing speed until they had to let go. Once I went out alone at dusk, and an army of children fell upon me, clawing at me for money, shouting obscenities, and laughing that the Taliban would kill me because I wore bluejeans instead of the stipulated shalwar kameez—a long shirt and baggy pantaloons. They were the children first of war and then of poverty, growing up hungry and ignorant (although some of the boys claimed to go to school), with not much either to amuse them or to make them hopeful.
But I must have been missing the point: in Pakistan, where I'd spent almost three weeks waiting for an Afghan visa, people had rhapsodized about the quality of life in Afghanistan. Several Afghan women teachers I met in a refugee camp expressed admiration for the Taliban—even though under Taliban rule they wouldn't be allowed to teach. A Pakistani government official in Islamabad said that he adored the Talibs. And in the border city of Peshawar, where I stayed in a six-dollar hotel, the clerk, a gentle, bad-complexioned boy, who came to my room every evening to answer questions about the Koran, told me, "Afghanistan is now the most perfect country in the world." Times had changed. In 1982, every Pakistani male I met had wanted to be photographed. But although this boy trusted me, he refused to let me take his picture, because the Taliban had decreed that doing so broke the rules of Islam.
In Afghanistan's deserts, plains, and valleys live many ethnic groups—the Pashtuns, the Tajiks, the Hazaras, and others— who greet strangers with a welcoming hand on their hearts and devote themselves with equal zeal to blood feuds. The mountains stand sentinel between them, and each group tends to keep to itself. Thanks to Islam, each sex likewise keeps itself apart from the other. So Afghans live both separately and inwardly, whether they sleep in tents or wall themselves away in fortresses of baked mud. They are watchful, hospitable, yet withdrawn, magnificent and vindictive, kind and lethally factional, untiringly violent. In the fierce stewardship of their honor, Afghans sometimes remind me, despite their religious differences, of the Serbs. But, unlike the Serbs, they are repelled by the concept of nationality. Each group tells its own stories—the Caucasian-looking Pashtuns bad-mouthing the Asiatic-looking Hazaras, and vice versa—and "government" operates in a distant dreamland where houses have electricity, women can read, and officials flaunt the money they've extorted from the people. What unites the Afghans, if anything, is the monitory, glorious religion of Islam.
It follows, then, that those who do not pray, or who pray to other gods, must stay forever beyond the pale, while those who believe as the Muslim does, no matter what their color, language, or nationality, are his brothers and sisters. This is why Muslim zealots call for a worldwide Islamic state, and why the Iran-Iraq War was infinitely more distressing to Muslims than any conflict between two Christian nations would be to us in our easy secularity. (So ingrained is this notion of Muslim kinship that the very few secret Christians of Afghanistan, who risk imprisonment to hold clandestine Bible readings at home, unfailingly embraced me and called me "brother.") Therefore, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, in December, 1979, fighters came at once from Saudi Arabia, and, to varying degrees, from Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Tajikistan, and other Muslim regions. There may have been some thirty-five thousand of these nominally foreign volunteers.
Afghanistan had been far from stable before the invasion. The long-standing Afghan monarchy had been overthrown in 1973, in a military coup led by a cousin of the king, Muhammad Daoud. Then, after five years in power, Daoud and seventeen members of his family were killed by pro-Soviet Afghan leftists, who planned to achieve their own form of utopia by forcibly de-Islamicizing the countryside. By the time the first Russian troops arrived, a year later, those Communist Afghans had been largely discredited among the masses, who resented their atheism and cruel vanguardism.
Ironically, the Soviet invasion did much to unite Afghanistan. The country's many tribes and factions banded together to proclaim a jihad, or religious war, against the Soviet infidels. And the United States helped to arm these insurgents. In those days, they were "freedom fighters" to us, not "terrorists." They called themselves mujahideen, or holy warriors, but to the C.I.A. the religious aspect of the jihad was irrelevant—the war was "strategic," a good way to get back at the opposing chess team in Moscow.
When I went to Afghanistan in 1982, I supported the struggle in every way that I could, because it seemed one of the clearest cases I had witnessed of good versus evil. The mujahideen were certainly not guiltless then, but the deeds of the Soviets were unspeakable. They raped women in the name of emancipating them. In the defense of national security, they machine-gunned illiterate peasants who couldn't have found Moscow on a map. They burned people alive and drowned them in excrement. They razed villages, slaughtered livestock, and destroyed harvests. They even scattered mines disguised as toys, to lure people to their own maiming. In 1982, I saw several of these mines lying, unexploded, on the ground. Between a million and two million Afghans were killed in that war, ninety per cent of them civilians. (Of the more than six hundred thousand Soviet soldiers sent to Afghanistan, fewer than fifteen thousand were killed.) The Afghans I met at that time were bright-eyed with fervor. Sick refugees said, "Tell America not to send medicine. Send guns." In the secret insurgent base where I stayed, not far from the Pakistani border, a commander told me, "I am not fighting for myself or even for Afghanistan. I am fighting only for God."
On February 15, 1989, to the world's amazement, the Soviets marched out of Afghanistan. The Afghans had won the war! Within a few years, they had ousted the Russians' last show ruler, President Muhammad Najibullah, and installed in his place a white-bearded Islamic scholar named Burhannudin Rabanni. But, instead of putting war behind them, the mujahideen—who had now organized themselves into seven factions, constituted, in customary Afghan style, along geographical, tribal, and sectarian lines—trained their weapons on one another. Each camp struggled for supreme power in Kabul, some supported by puppetmasters in other countries—Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and, perhaps, the United States—transforming the war for liberation into a bloody and protracted civil war.
With the factions locked in battle like fighting beetles in a jar, five years went by and, according to one estimate, twenty thousand people died. Then, in 1994, the residents of Kabul heard a rumor from the south. It seemed that a group of young men—Islamic students, or taliban—had risen up in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city, which was then proverbial for its lawlessness. In the name of Allah the Beneficent, these Taliban, as members of the movement came to be known, had slain, captured, or driven off every criminal. Then they had confiscated all weapons, promising that they themselves would provide protection for the citizens. The streets secured, they applied Islamic law as they saw fit: they banned photographs, education for girls, and music. They demanded that women cover their faces in the street and leave home only in the company of a close male relative. All men found themselves required to grow beards and could be sent to prison for ten days if they shaved. In keeping with the Koran, the Taliban amputated the right hands of thieves. Kandahar was now so safe, it was said, that anyone could leave a bar of gold in the street and it would be there three days later.
The origins of the movement are murky. It reportedly began with forty Talibs, but no one could tell me how quickly otherAfghans decided to join them. Their leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, who'd lost an eye in the jihad, was reputed to be a quiet, simple man, although it was also said that he enjoyed a legal complement of three wives, one of whom was rumored to be as beautiful as any princess in the Arabian Nights. The fact that almost nobody was allowed to meet him enhanced his mythic stature. Some claimed that Mullah Omar and his followers were soldiers of the old king, Zahir Shah, who'd been deposed more than two decades before and was now in exile in Italy. Others suspected that they might be fanatics who meant to take away what scant freedoms remained in Afghanistan. But they were not rapists or wanton murderers like the other fighters, and most Afghans, paralyzed by decades of war, withheld judgment, as the Taliban spread to other cities and provinces, calling upon each man in their path to lay down his weapons in the name of Allah. For the most part, they were received with respect, even love: they brought peace. "I was proud to give up my arms," a tea-shop proprietor I met told me. "I started my jihad for an Islamic Afghanistan, and so we succeeded." Every time the Taliban disarmed others, their own arsenal grew.
In a few places, however, they encountered significant opposition. It took the Taliban cadres several attempts to conquer the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, which was then occupied by a former mujahideen general. The first time, the Taliban were invited in and then betrayed, thousands of them killed in cold blood. Their second attempt to take the city was repulsed. The third succeeded, at which point the Taliban are said to have murdered a thousand civilians. (I heard this figure go as high as five thousand. In central Asia, as in every other part of the world, atrocity statistics are always suspect.) A Hazara former civil servant told me that after the massacre he had seen stray dogs eating human flesh in the streets, and stacks of corpses, "like piles of firewood."
The Taliban also encountered resistance in Kabul, which, when they arrived in 1995, was still under the control of President Rabanni and his most famous general, Ahmed Shah Masoud, a brave and brutal Tajik fighter. The resistance that Masoud mounted against the Talibs in Kabul, together with the city's perceived decadent cosmopolitanism, made the Taliban especially harsh on the people there, once they had won control.
Still, by 1998, the Taliban had conquered about ninety per cent of Afghanistan. Despite their frequent attempts to complete the takeover—which are said to have caused as many as forty thousand casualties—the other ten per cent, a swath of land in the northeast of the country, remains under the control of Masoud, Rabbani, and their supporters, who call themselves the National Islamic United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, and are also known as the Northern Alliance.
Who are the Talibs who are running Afghanistan now? They are Muslims, only a little more so. At five-thirty every morning, they don black, white, or green turbans and go to the mosque like other Afghans. (The muezzin, whose beautifully quavering song calls everyone to prayer, is now most often a Talib.) They come home and read the Koran or the hadiths—the recorded sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad—until sunrise. Afterward, they take tea. They go to work. Some Taliban are shopkeepers. Some work at the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
Fifteen minutes after I arrived in Kabul, I met one of these worthies (my translator, awed and anxious, warned me how powerful he was). He was walking down a snowy street, across from a park in which children were playing. Kabul is high and cold—a ruin surrounded by mountains—so poverty is more lethal there. Men struggle to support their families, selling their belongings for a little food. They lurk on corners, looking for buyers. When I greeted the Talib, he instantly invited me home for tea. His responsibility at the Ministry was to police the front lines for anti-Taliban sentiment and to insure that all the soldiers wore beards and refrained from smoking opium. He also investigated cases of Talibs who misused the signature turban in order to extort money. He and three colleagues who shared his house—two young men, one shy older man—sat with me on the floor of a bleak concrete room. They treated me with the usual Afghan politeness—handshakes, the most comfortable cushion, hands on their hearts. Even when they learned my nationality, their courtesy did not flag.
Diplomatic relations between our countries were suspended in 1998, when the United States bombed bases in Afghanistan that it claimed were run by Osama bin Laden, a Saudi-born former mujahid, who United States officials believe was responsible for the 1998 bombings of American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya. Later, when the Taliban refused to hand bin Laden over to American justice, the United Nations imposed sanctions. Now most of the Afghans I met hated the United States, and they withdrew from me a little in dignified sadness, but they still, like these four Talibs, spoke with me and invited me into their homes.
The concrete walls of the Talibs' room displayed nothing but cracks; all emblems were prohibited. Even their Korans were wrapped lovingly out of sight. When I unclothed mine, in order to ask them some textual questions, tears started in one man's eyes. They wanted to help me learn. A space heater waxed and waned, according to the vagaries of that day's electricity. As we sat and chatted, they scrupulously filled my tea glass. We passed the time. I asked how I might go about interviewing a woman, and they said that they could arrange a conversation through a black curtain, but once I pressed them they retreated, and after some discussion they concluded that to speak with any female I would first need to get permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I told them not to trouble themselves further in this matter, and their spirits lifted.
We talked about the jihad. All four had been mujahideen. The three younger men had spent their childhoods wandering in and out of Pakistan, as their families changed refugee camps according to the latest military reverse or factional split. When they were about ten years old, their fathers had enrolled them in madrasahs, or religious schools, the only remaining institutions of learning in the country. (This was, and is, the way to become a member of the Taliban.) There they were taught Islamic law without ambiguities: Cut off the thief's hand. The woman must cover herself. How much of herself must she cover? The Koran doesn't tell us exactly, so make her cover everything! Such an edict is easy to enforce. This is army life, and these boys were soldiers. Every summer, they would take up their Kalashnikovs and shoot at Soviet tanks or gunship helicopters. They were taught that if they fell in battle they'd go to Heaven. After the war, they returned to their religious studies, and, when they heard about the corruption of the former mujahideen and the emergence of the Taliban movement, they travelled to Kandahar to enlist.
"Were you feeling happy, or did you simply feel compelled to do your duty?" I asked the man who'd invited me to tea.
"So happy! We volunteered," he replied.
"What was the first thing you did in Kandahar?"
"We instituted Islamic law."
"And were the people pleased?"
"They gave us flowers and money."
Later, a little awkwardly, he pulled up the baggy cotton legs of his shalwar kameez and showed me the scars on his legs from fighting for the Taliban. He had spent a month in the hospital. Smiling, half proud, half ashamed, he gazed down at his wasted purple flesh.
On my innumerable trips between Peshawar and Islamabad to obtain an Afghan visa, I had travelled through the little Pakistani town of Akora Khattak, the site of the most famous madrasah, Darul Uloom Haqqania, where the three younger Talibs had studied. The madrasah stands right on the main road, and an armed guard lazes outside its high white walls. About thirty per cent of the current Taliban leadership, including the Ambassador to Pakistan and the Foreign Minister, have passed through the school's spiked iron gate. The rank and file study there by the thousand.
The head of the school was in Libya on the day of my visit, so I met with his son, Rashid ul Haq, the editor-in-chief of the militant Islamic monthly Al-Haq. If anyone could help me understand the Taliban's interpretation of Islamic law, or Shariah, I thought, it was he. We sat on the carpet of an inner room, attended by bearded, shining-eyed men in prayer caps or turbans.
"What makes the Taliban government different from that of other Islamic states?" I asked.
"You have seen the other countries," ul Haq replied, "but the others are living not according to the Koran but according to their own choice."
"Why have the Taliban made beards compulsory for men?"
"All prophets have beards," he said. "So we want to have beards. Some of the people, you know, live their lives according to the hadiths."
I wondered if he knew how unpopular this edict had become. As slang for "I left Afghanistan," some Afghan men had begun to say "I shaved the beard." Surgeons especially hated the rule, because in their own compulsory beards dwelled their patients' worst enemies: microbes.
"And why is music forbidden?" I asked.
"Islam does not permit it. People who sing create the thing that causes cowardice. And when a person spends his time in singing he loses his time."
"And what about the prohibition on images of people and animals?"
"In the hadiths, the picture is forbidden for the man," ul Haq said, and later added, "But Islam allows it when there is a need, as for visa photographs and pictures on currency."
I had just interviewed two Afghan brothers in a nearby refugee camp who loved the Taliban, except for one thing. Their father had been martyred in the jihad, and all they had to remember him by was a small photograph. They told me that if the Taliban ever found it they might tear the picture into pieces.
"And exactly why does Islam say that such pictures are forbidden?"
"We do not want to see the logic of this talk," one of the other Taliban interjected. "What the Koran says is right. The logic is present."
The Western notion that the Taliban imposed themselves by force on an unwilling population is less than half true. Six years after that first unexpected uprising against the bandits of Kandahar, when one might well expect the Afghans to be heartily sick of any regime in whose name their misery continued, many people I spoke with expressed contentment with the Taliban. Why? Quite simply, because they could not forget how bad it had been before.
Afghanistan was never rich. During the war with the Soviet Union, men used to fight over the scrap iron of Russian bomb casings even as other bombs fell upon them; one entrepreneur actually posted mujahideen slogans in the desert so that the Soviets would bomb them and he could collect the metal. And, by the time the Taliban marched onstage, the civil war had made matters worse.
In a long, thick-walled teahouse in the Abrishini Gorge, on the main road between Jalalabad and Kabul, I sat cross-leg- ged on a concrete platform and ate oiled chicken and bread while a middle-aged former taxi-driver told me how it had been in that vacuum of years between the Soviets and the Taliban. Pointing down at the gray-green river, he said, "That was where they took my two passengers."
Back then, in this part of the country, ex-mujahideen gunmen had established roadblocks every kilometre or two, where they would extort money from the taxi-driver's passengers. One night, when the taxi-driver reached one of these roadblocks, the men gestured with their rifle butts and summoned two men from the back of his car. The driver watched them being frog-marched into the gorge, and then the gunmen told him that he could go. His remaining passengers urged him to resist, but he was terrified. Fortunately, the two kidnapped men were released, although, of course, they'd been stripped of their possessions. The driver never forgot his helpless fear and shame. That was why he revered the Taliban. Not a single one of those checkpoints remained in the Abrishini Gorge: now Talibs sat tranquilly beside machine guns, gazing down at the road from their stone forts.
"You know how hard it is to take the weapon from Pashtun people," one Talib had said to me proudly. "Ninety per cent of the Afghan people now live in weapon-free areas."
"If things keep getting safer," the former taxi-driver said, "I don't care about not being allowed to listen to the radio."
"My two sons were both martyred by Masoud," an old beggar woman in Kabul had told me—illegally, since it was against the law for her to talk to me. "One lay for forty-seven days in a well. My husband was also martyred when the Masoud people stole his car. Now I'm looking for food in the streets. At least the Taliban won't kill me."
"They are better than everyone," another beggar woman said.
How many Afghans truly felt as those women did? Predictably, when the happiness over the restoration of peace wore off and the poverty and hardship remained, some of the gratitude soured. On the street in Kabul, late one cold evening, I met an old night watchman with a long snowy beard. All five of his sons had died in the jihad, he told me. To lose five children—I can hardly even understand the grief, and one must understand it, or at least try, if one wants to come close to experiencing the terrible reality of Afghanistan's misfortunes. One must also consider the plight of the homeless orphans—there are so many of them—and of the hungry widows and the brideless boys. "I have given my children and my brothers for this country," the night watchman added. "Now look at me. I am doing this job for my food only, and it is very cold. What kind of life is this?"
His words were not quite an indictment of the Taliban. I've met many human-rights advocates who, exasperated with the regime's judicial and extrajudicial abuses, rushed to lay blame on Mullah Omar's cadres for everything else—the short life expectancy in Afghanistan, the extraordinarily high infant-mortality rate, and so on. The fact is that the Afghan countryside was always unclean and unhealthy; people have always died young. To me, it is indicative of the regime's popularity (or, in some cases, of the fear that it inspires) that more Afghans do not denounce its turbaned agents of perfection.
But some do. Whereas the jihad and the civil war had harmed the population almost indiscriminately, Taliban policy has created a smaller, more specific class of victims. More than two-thirds of Mullah Omar's cadres are Pashtuns, who make up about fifty-five per cent of the general population, and several of the other ethnic groups feel a certain chill in the air. Some were victimized during the Taliban takeover. Many of the civilians killed by the Taliban in Mazar-i-Sharif, for instance, were Turkmen, Uzbeks, and Hazaras. Some are discriminated against by the Taliban for religious reasons; the Hazaras, who comprise about eight per cent of the population, tend to belong to the minority Shia sect of Islam, whereas most Pashtuns are Sunnis.
Women, particularly urban, educated women, have suffered some of the most painful consequences of the Taliban's interpretation of Islamic law. Many who had lost family members in the jihad or civil war then lost their jobs under the Taliban—along with their freedom of movement and dress—and now have no means of supporting themselves; most are forced to beg.
In the opinion of a Kabuli boy, who resented this strictness— he could not get enough work and was the sole source of money and food for the women in his family—forty per cent of the people support the Taliban now, but only five per cent are true members.
"How can they keep control?" I asked.
"They have Kalashnikovs," he said.
Jalalabad, a city forty miles west of the Khyber Pass, has a rural feel, with long strings of laden camels on the main streets and packed-earth dikes curving crazily through the wheat fields just outside town. Amid the city's wide, slow streets of rickshaws, bicycles, and very occasional cars, I saw boys bearing metal trays of eggs on their prayer-capped heads. The ringing of bicycle bells, the tapping of hammers, the splash as a man emptied a pot of water in the street, the clip-clopping of horses—all these sounds enriched the air, as did the scent of the fresh oranges and the fat, nearly scarlet carrots that lay everywhere on venders' tables. Here came a woman in a green burka—the head-to-toe veil required by the Taliban—holding a dirty little boy by the hand. A woman in a blue burka, whose pleated wake streamed behind her as she walked, carried a baby girl wrapped in a blue blanket. Nothing seemed wrong; it could have been Peshawar, except that the air was less sulfurous and the rickshaws were not adorned with the faces of Indian movie actresses.
To be sure, the scene was overwhelmingly male; after the two women had passed, I saw only men on bicycles, with white prayer caps and brown or gray blankets. But maybe in this, too, Jalalabad was not so different from Peshawar. The wife of my driver in that city never went out except to visit her close relatives; her husband and sons did all the shopping in the bazaar, because (her husband explained) once or twice nothing would happen, but if she went a thousand times alone, why, sooner or later she might cross glances with some bright-eyed young boy and wonder how his kisses would taste.
One Tajik Afghan woman I met in Peshawar spoke for herself. She had fled the capital for Pakistan the year before. "The first day the Taliban entered Kabul, all the people were in a state of panic, especially us women," she told me. "The first announcement was that all women must cover their faces with a black cloth. Later, they decided that we should use the national burka. The teachers went to school just to sign their attendance sheets, then went straight home. I was formerly in charge of the literary programs of Radio Kabul. For about six months, I stayed at home."
On the subject of female employment, the Koran clearly states, "For men is the benefit of what they earn. And for women is the benefit of what they earn." The Taliban got around this by continuing to pay male and female schoolteachers the same munificent three or four dollars a month they got before but prohibiting the women from working in exchange for their salaries. With the exception of doctors and nurses, professional women in Afghanistan were no longer allowed to exercise their vocations.
"And after six months what did you do?" I asked.
"As the Taliban didn't have qualified workers, they had to use some of the former employees, even some women, to help them." She gave me a bitter flash of teeth. "They had to, because they were not fully literate."
"What's the worst thing they did?"
"My worst memory is of when they beat a poetess, a friend of mine. I was not the eyewitness. My friend went shopping one day and wanted to buy some fruit. When she needed to pay the fruit seller, she lifted the burka to see the money in her purse, and suddenly a Talib began beating her with a whip. For about one week, she was in very critical condition."
"What did the fruit seller do?"
"Nothing. He could do nothing. No one defended her."
"And what incidents of this kind did you personally see?"
"Well, I went together with another lady to get our salary from Radio Kabul, and one of my female friends, when she got the salary, thought no one would hurt her, and she opened her burka to count the money in the yard. Then suddenly a Talib whipped her." She cleared her throat and added, "The person distributing the salary was an old man. So they took him into the street and beat him also, two or three times. He kept silent. They asked him, 'Why do you let the ladies show themselves like that?'"
In the most orthodox galaxies of the Muslim universe, the admiration of women's faces is thought to distract men from their duty, to tempt them to fornication, adultery, and rape, and, in cases of obsessive love, to cause them to ascribe, blasphemously, divine qualities to their beloved. "Say to the believing men that they lower their gaze and restrain their sexual passions," the Koran warns. "And say to the believing women that they lower their gaze and restrain their sexual passions and do not display their adornment except what appears thereof. And let them wear their head-coverings over their bosoms."
In Malaysia, a head scarf is often considered sufficient to obey this edict. In Pakistan, however, as you move north and west the weight of seclusion falls more heavily on overt femininity, until by the time you reach the North-West Frontier Province, where the Khyber Pass leads to Afghanistan and the Pashtuns live in mazelike compounds of plaster and baked mud, almost every woman one sees on the street is a generic ghost in a burka or a shroud. In Afghanistan, a man may speak with a strange woman under almost no circumstances. If a beggar woman on the sidewalk stretches out her hand, he may put money in it, but looking directly at her or communicating with her for more than a second or two is indecent. Should any friend invite him home—and Pashtuns are the most hospitable people I've met—then sweets and tea will be presented by the host himself, who brings them from behind a closed door.
Travelling in this area, I often thought of the words of an old major general, a kindly, respected, and powerful Pashtun, who took me into his household in 1982. After I had stayed with him for some weeks, he brought me from the guesthouse into the sanctum, where I met and even conversed a little with his wife and daughters. He was still alive when I returned to Peshawar this year. Since I'd seen him last, he had endowed a hospital with separate entrances for men and women, a boys' high school, and a girls' high school. He said to me, "A woman is a housewife. She raises your children, she gives you food, she keeps everything in order. Can you do as much? Of course not. That is why you must respect her." On another occasion, when we were talking about the Western custom of dating, he said, "How can a boy be so cruel? He takes a girl and he uses her like a football. Then he kicks her away to the next boy. Poor girl!"
Fatana Ishaq Gailani, a politician and the wife of a famous mujahideen leader, detested the Taliban, but when I asked her how she felt about the sura, or Koranic verse, regarding head-covering she replied, her voice rising, "It is for the safety of the woman. It is kindly for the woman. We are so happy we are a Muslim woman."
"The Taliban are giving rights to the woman," Rashid ul Haq had insisted. "That right is to live safely in their homes." He added, "Right now, if a single woman wants to go anywhere in a village without fear, she is free to do so."
That was true, I suppose, if we discounted the fact that doing so alone was illegal. But ul Haq did not see this as a contradiction, perhaps because in the countryside the Taliban's edicts are almost unenforced. Just outside Jalalabad, one sees raised paths subdividing wheat fields into arcs and polygons in which men and women work together and the women rarely wear the burka; indeed, since they are sweating and stooping so much, their heads often remain uncovered. The Taliban has scarcely altered the lives of uneducated women, except to make them almost entirely safe from rape.
A baffled and angry Talib asked me why the American media worry so much about the tiny number of Afghan women who had actually belonged to the educated labor force. And from a practical point of view he had reason to be mystified. But the aspirations of those Afghan city women he dismissed had been utterly dashed.
According to a 1997 United Nations report, less than a quarter of the women in Pakistan can read, whereas almost half the male population is literate. Women receive twenty-one per cent of the national income. We can assume that in Afghanistan the figures are even more skewed. In Kabul, I looked through the shattered windows of a girls' school that had closed long ago, during the civil war.
"Why don't they open it now?" I asked a Talib.
"Because the war is not yet over," he explained. "We need to protect the ladies."
"If a Talib sees a woman wearing a head scarf but no burka, what will happen to her?" I asked a man in Kabul.
"She will be whipped. If they see girl and boy talking together, they will take them to the stadium and lash them."
"How many times have you seen that happen?"
"One. She was speaking with boyfriend. And they punish her in the stadium. They lash the woman. Make her sitting down, and lash her through the burka."
"How many days afterward was she likely to remain injured?"
"For two, three months. Some die from this action."
"Do they punish boys or girls most often?"
"Mainly girls. Boys can run—boys can escape from them," he said, adding shyly, "I have heard that in America the girls can walk uncovered even above the knee. It is true?"
It was strange to think that in the seventies, before the Soviets and the Afghan factionalists destroyed it, there had been a Kabul University, that some of the students there were female, and that some of them even wore miniskirts.
In Peshawar, I met one of those former cosmopolitan girls from Kabul. She had been a member of what the Soviets would call the "possessing classes"—she had a baccalaureate in electrical engineering and had been an employee of the Ministry of Civil Aviation. One might imagine that a person with such advantages would enjoy some protection from war. But by the time I met her she was a beggar and a prostitute. She was twenty-three and looked forty. She told me that, six years before, she had been walking home when troops commanded by a former mujahideen general, Rashid Dostam, entered Kabul. By that time, more than half the city had been destroyed by bombs, and the ruined houses resembled the jagged undulations of the mountain peaks around the city. As the girl was crossing a bridge, four armed men rose up. To save her honor, she pounded on the door of the nearest house and was sheltered by the man who lived there, at great risk to him. After some hours, she assumed that the soldiers had found somebody else to rape, but the moment she appeared on the street they fired a rocket-propelled grenade that wounded her in both feet. Luckily, the man took her back in, and she later returned home. I said that her family must have been relieved to see her. Staring at me wide-eyed, she replied that her father had been killed a year or two before that. Her mother died later, in the fighting between Masoud and the Taliban. The girl had hung on until the edict against female employment ended her government job, and she was forced to beg and prostitute herself to survive.
It was a sharp-edged and pointless story no matter how it ended. A silence ensued, and then the woman remarked that at one time she had known how to speak a little English and Russian. Exhaustion and hunger had injured her memory. She was half broken. She was one of thousands.
In the ruined parts of Kabul, I spoke with a number of other beggar women. For the most part, these interviews were quick and almost sordid, like acts of prostitution. The taxi waited with the motor running; if any Taliban came, I could always speed away. "What if I were to bring one of those women back for tea?" I asked my translator once. "You cannot," he said. "First of all, look at these Taliban behind us." (I looked and suddenly saw a whole squad of them, long-bearded and dark-eyed, in their green turbans.) "And, second of all, it's illegal." Every single time (except in the case of one Hazara woman), the woman would say that she supported the Taliban regime because it was better than any other in recent memory. Then I'd give her money, and we'd flee our separate ways, for fear of the Taliban.
In Jalalabad, a man told me that a beggar woman had come up to him and wept, "Don't you recognize me?" She turned out to be his elementary-school teacher. Then he, too, had burst into tears and given her all the money he had. She was almost inexpressibly sad and furious at the Taliban. The beggar women I met in Kabul, though, either were not educated or had suffered terrible things at the hands of previous factions. Or perhaps they just feared to tell me the truth. I will never know how they really felt. But they spoke to me without shame and let me photograph them through their burkas as much as I liked, and even see their faces if I asked to.
On the sidewalk beside a destroyed department store in Kabul, a blue burka stood looking at me, and I heard a young girl's laughter inside it. Next to the blue burka, a yellow burka was begging, its inhabitant also young, or so I guessed by the speed and mobility of the movements within it. Side by side they stood chatting, their faces shining vaguely through the mesh. It was a chilly day, and a steam of pure-white breath came from them. What were they saying? They gestured within their shrouds, then sat down on the sidewalk, and suddenly their burkas flowed together, forming a tent beneath which the girls could meet face to face. To the girls, no doubt, what they were doing was quite ordinary. To me, it was nearly a revelation. Now the one in blue separated herself, then raised her burka over another girl, maybe her little sister, who was so young that she could go about with her face uncovered. I could see, within the warm and secret tent, the two heads moving together, maybe whispering—no, they were sharing food! Remembering the story of the Tajik woman's friend who'd been beaten for raising her burka to count money, I realized that this must be the only way for women to eat in public. There was something mysteriously amoebalike in the way the blue tent rippled as the two heads touched beneath it, the mouths tearing at bread or a scrap of chicken.
This transitory zone of female privacy struck me as ingenious. Perhaps, under the best of circumstances, it might become an actual shelter, like the red-carpeted rooms into which Afghan men retreat to sit on soft cushions, unwrapping themselves from their tawny blankets. In those rooms, the men hatch business schemes and tell tall tales about their deeds as mujahideen, while outside the plastic-sheeted windows prayer songs emanate from loudspeakers. If the men are not Taliban, they boast about the women they've spoken to on the telephone—human nature being what it is, men and women court as they can. A young man in Kabul gleefully pointed out to me how a woman in a blue burka showed her ankles; she was wearing fancy socks. He said, "When you are living in a society with the burka, when you see even her hand, you think maybe she is beautiful." Another young man said, "Some of my friends have girlfriends, if the girls' parents are democratic. They talk to them by telephone. Taliban cannot listen, because our phone system is primitive. So it goes like this: She will come to the corner at such and such a time. That way, she will see the boy, although of course the boy cannot see the girl. But if she likes his face, then maybe some go-between can bring him her photo." And a taxi-driver proudly confided that he was carrying on an affair with a beautiful beggar woman; he'd pick her up in his car as if she were a passenger, and no one suspected.
So much of Afghan life occurs in secret. A young woman I met in Jalalabad had, in defiance of the edict against female education, taught herself English by book and radio. Now she was thinking of organizing an illegal home school. I'm told that women often smuggle heroin and other contraband because they feel immune from search—no women are still employed by customs to search them. What other dreams, successes, and business dealings take place in that world beneath the burka?
I have promised not to say where I met the brave girl, or who she was, but I can tell you that she lived in Kabul and that her family was cosmopolitan and affluent. They had chairs in their apartment, and they seated me at a table laden with pastries, apples, and oranges.
The brave girl's father had given me permission to meet her, and I asked her how she had felt when the Taliban came. She said, "At that time, I thought they were mujahideen. Then when I learned that they hated people, especially women, I knew that they understood nothing about civil rights, especially human rights. When a person hits a woman on the street, what must that person be thinking? It is against humanity."
"And have they improved at all?"
"I never used to go out even to the bazaar," she said. "But now I think their behavior has been affected by humans. Really, I don't have any clear idea about them. Of course, they started a hospital for us, but what about the other women who stay at home without anything to eat?"
She and I were, of course, not alone together. Her father sat on the sofa beside her, listening with increasing disappro- val. Her husband sat across the room; he was angry at me for seeing his wife, whose dark hair and eyes were not covered. There were also two male cousins, my translator, and me. By now, they were all shouting furious interjections at her, and the thought crossed my mind that perhaps they had never really put themselves in their own women's shoes. She bit her lip and lowered her head whenever she contradicted her father.
"Do you believe that the Koran requires you to wear a burka?" I asked her.
"No, I think there is no need to wear the burka," she said bitterly. "I myself don't like it, because I think I'm a human. Because I have my human rights. And it's difficult to see, especially for the girls who wear glasses—all my friends agree."
"Do you have anything else to say about the Taliban?"
Twisting her hands in her lap, she said, "Peace is the most important thing in our country."
"Can you tell me about something you have experienced that might—"
"But she cannot go anywhere!" her father interrupted testily. "She has seen nothing until now."
"May I take your photo?"
"No!" they shouted—all of them except her. She smiled sadly. When I thanked her, she covered her face and went back behind the closed door.
PUNISHMENTS AND OTHER STRINGENCIES
Again and again, I was faced with contradictions, with the question of how to balance the feelings of the people for whom the new regime was a welcome kind of peace against the rights of those for whom it was a form of oppression.
I remember a sallow boy who hated the Taliban and whispered hideous details of punishments he'd witnessed in the stadi- um at Mazar-i-Sharif: a thief's right hand severed with a scalpel (by a doctor; it took ten minutes); the shooting of murderers. He claimed to have seen about thirty executions over the last two years—not because he had to but only "to see something new." Without music or movies or magazines, one might as well go to watch the punishments. Once he had seen a couple stoned for adultery. "They were in one bed, and Taliban see them. First, judge begin with one stone, then all of the people hit them with stone. They cry—they cry! Very high cry."
"How long did it take?"
"I think for one hour or one and a half hours, maybe two hours." He went on, "It's too bad, in my opinion. I feel the Taliban are wild. Please, I never tell any other foreigner these things. You are my brother. Please, dear brother, you will not tell them what I say? Because they will cut off my head!"
He went to the door of his room to see if anybody might be listening. No one was.
"What do you think?" he asked me.
"I don't know what to think," I said. "I'm only a Christian. Those punishments you speak of, they're all here in the Koran. What do you think?"
He took my Koran in his hands and began kissing it, agonized, whispering, "Koran is a very, very good book."
Afghans insist upon the Koran's absolute legitimacy in all walks of life—as an ethical guide, a primer on hygiene and food preparation, a marriage manual, a tax code, a dress code, a body of criminal law. In that last capacity, it clearly conflicts with several articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Afghanistan signed in 1948. The stoning of adulterers presumably falls under the category of "cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment"; the constraints on relations between the sexes violate the declaration's "right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association"; and so on. But if a believing judge sentences a believing thief to lose his right hand it is none of my business.
There are times, however, when the Taliban rulers winnow from the hadiths the most punitive interpretations of Islam. In the Koran, we read over and over that the compassion of Allah forgives transgressions in emergencies. A man in Kabul, who had just served a prison sentence for having defied the prohibition on images, told me about a scene he had witnessed: a thief whose right hand had already been cut off had stolen again, and so the Taliban cut off his left foot. Afterward, when they were beating him in prison, he shouted, "If you cut everything off I will continue stealing with my teeth! Because I have nothing to eat!" Yet the punishment was still carried out. And why was it that the boy who told me those tales of public penalties enforced on legally convicted criminals found it necessary to scutter to the door every minute or two, terrified that someone might be listening?
"They misuse the Koran," the woman who had worked for Radio Kabul insisted. "In the Koran, it is not written that even for pilfering you must cut off the hand. No, the real meaning of that verse is metaphorically cutting the hand from robbery, for instance through imprisonment." Her argument is somewhat plausible; the Koran explicitly warns against literal interpretations. But I assume that the allegorical suras are not the laws. Otherwise, why not say that the requirement to pray five times a day or to keep Ramadan can be satisfied metaphorically?
I am not a Muslim; I have read the Koran only twice. I needed to question a Talib whose authority allowed him to take some responsibility for legal questions of right and wrong. The Minister of the Interior, Mullah Abdul Razzaq, was kind enough to see me without advance notice.
After being searched by Kalashnikov-adorned young cadres at the entrance to the Ministry building, I was conducted upstairs and through halls where Talibs flurried around my foreignness. When the interview was over, I gave a chocolate bar to the dirtiest, hungriest-looking one of them. He was wearing a T-shirt that said "Oakland Raiders." When I told him that the Oakland Raiders were American, he was crestfallen, and the others all laughed at him. He did not seem to know what the chocolate bar was, although I had bought it in Kabul, at one of the few fancy stores still in existence. He peeled off the foil wrapper with a filthy thumbnail, then stared at the chocolate in amazement, while the other Talibs gathered around, crowding so tightly against me that I could hardly breathe.
In the inner offices, however, a glacial decorum reigned. Ten farmers involved in a land dispute sat silently around a stove, wrapped in blankets, while the official to whom they'd referred their case was seated at a low coffee table, his great desk swept clean behind him. Beyond them lay an unheated conference room, and then a sanctum with carpets, cushions, and a little bed, where perhaps the Minister of the Interior took catnaps when he had to work all night. I took off my shoes and sat down on the floor to wait for him.
Mullah Abdul Razzaq is said to have been one of the founders of the Taliban movement. Of course, he'd fought bravely in the jihad and attended the madrasah. He'd been captured by Dostam during one of the battles for Mazar-i-Sharif. I had heard that he could be very emotional, but he and his colleagues entered the room calmly. His turban was white, and his black beard was very long. The other Talibs in the room bowed and nodded when he spoke, and his hands gestured slowly, serenely, in his lap.
"Why did you decide to become a Talib?" I asked him.
"It is said in the Holy Koran that when there is crying and corruption the people should fight against that," he said.
"As Minister of the Interior, you are in charge of security. Who controls crime in the streets, the police or the Taliban?"
"We control the crime," he said. "We control every department."
"What is the most frequent crime against the Shariah?" I asked.
"The Taliban have full control," he replied. "Right now, there is no crime."
A police officer I met in Kabul, a twenty-seven-year veteran, had written a letter for me to smuggle to distant relatives in California, and he whispered that the Taliban had robbed the police of their power. Possibly he and his colleagues had been corrupt before, as is frequently the case in Third World countries where the salaries of officials are so low that their only hope for survival is graft. If so, then Taliban rule might have been a change for the better. On the other hand, one can easily imagine the impatiently righteous graduates of the madrasahs preferring lampposts to courtrooms. There had been highly publicized instances of this already: on the night that the Taliban entered Kabul, Afghanistan's former President, the pro-Soviet Najibullah, was plucked from the United Nations compound, in which he had been cowering, and was tortured, castrated, shot, then hanged outside the palace. A similar fate befell his brother. (I was told by a reliable source—the same person had informed me that Osama bin Laden had a kidney complaint a day before the international media picked up the story—that Razzaq had personally ordered these executions.) No Afghan I've met has ever lamented these two men, but the speed of their killing, which was carried out within a couple of hours of the Taliban's arrival, not to mention the absence of judge, jury, and other formalities, occasioned some brief international embarrassment.
"Is it true that the penalty for beardlessness is ten days in jail?" I asked Razzaq.
"Yes, that is true."
"And why not nine or seven days?"
"That is the job of the Department of Religion. Only security is our job."
"Why is a burka better than a chador?" I asked.
"A burka covers all, so it is the real thing for women."
Razzaq became glum at this mention of the Taliban's treatment of women, much as he did when I later raised the question of Osama bin Laden, and we moved briefly to other subjects. "Sir, do you have any special message for the Americans?"
"We fought against Russia for years, and the Americans helped us," Razzaq said. "And we ask them and their government to help us again. As Afghanistan is destroyed, we expect help in reconstruction, and facilities for widows and orphans."
The matter of widows and orphans had particularly weighed on me. I felt that the Taliban government had no Islamic justification in its treatment of them. Since Razzaq had brought the subject back around to women again, I asked him, "Who is helping those widows now?"
"The Minister of Religion has promised some programs. And also the N.G.O.s"—nongovernmental organizations, or charities—"have done something."
"Does Islam permit widows with no other resources to go out and beg?"
"We are trying our best to prohibit them from this, and we are trying to give them facilities."
"But if they have no such facilities, if they are hungry, is it permitted?"
"It is still prohibited."
A GLANCE FROM ACROSS THE DIVIDE
The Minister's answer gave the Taliban a pitiless public face indeed, scorning the needs of the literally faceless. In truth, though, this regulation did not seem to be enforced. The beggar women plied their trade quite openly, even when Taliban passed by.
Afghans are no less pragmatic than other people, and continued exposure over the years to the realities of government and society seemed to be helping these Taliban children of war to mature. Year by year, even in Kabul, the theocracy was growing more moderate. As the brave girl had told me, the behavior of the Taliban has been "affected by humans."
When the Taliban first came to Jalalabad, in September, 1996, they searched house to house, for televisions, videocassettes, and other irreligious items. They used the confiscated televisions for target practice. They required stores to remove labels from shampoo bottles wherever a human face was shown. But this February a retired professor there told me that the searchers had quickly tired of their unpopular investigations. Originally, he said, they'd believed that all urban dwellers were corrupt, but now they'd begun to realize that most citizens were not so bad; or perhaps some of the Taliban were growing corrupt themselves. (The Talib who worked the reception desk of my guesthouse in Jalalabad kept hitting me up for film in a most un-Islamic manner.) The professor watched television every day now—an activity that, in 1996, would have meant a fifteen-day jail sentence. Now the Taliban would not bother to come to his home unless someone proffered eyewitness testimony against him, and even in such a case they would merely confiscate his television—and possibly keep it for themselves, he said, laughing. He felt safe, and pleased to have the Taliban in power. They didn't care anymore if women went out alone, he told me. (I myself had verified this: when I visited the Talib dignitary from the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, he had tried to persuade me that women didn't have it so bad in Afghanistan. At one point, he and his three friends had called out excitedly for me to come and look at the street. "Look, look! Do you see? A lady, and her face is not covered, and no one is caring!")
In Kabul, I discovered in store windows one or two soap labels that bore the likenesses of women. And there was even a photograph of people (with no faces showing) mounted on the door of a taxi. Outside the cities, my taxi-drivers always listened to music, lowering the volume when they approached Taliban checkpoints, but not troubling to turn the radio off. In Pakistan, I'd met a doctor who had emigrated when the Taliban banned the possession of anatomical diagrams. But a doctor who'd stayed told me that things were not so bad now. "Before, we saw them beating women in the street. Now for a long time I don't see these beatings anymore. And now we have a camera in my operating room, and even projectors. I'll tell you a story. One Talib brought his wife to me. I refused to treat her without a letter of authorization, because that is what they make everybody else do. So he brought his wife to Pakistan. And I think he started to wonder about this policy."
One United Nations official, speaking of the Afghans, told me, "What they need is more outsiders, more exchange of ideas." Thanks to the United Nations, that is precisely what they aren't getting. The sanctions have begun their strangling work. Gasoline and wheat are smuggled in from Pakistan (and duty-free appliances and cars are smuggled from Dubai through Afghanistan and out to Pakistan), but the price of bread is rising in Kabul, and hungry families blame the Americans. An Afghan rug merchant told me, "First you created one Osama. Now you are creating many, many Osamas."
Americans worry that Afghanistan has become a petri dish in which the germs of Islamic fanaticism are replicating—soon Afghans will be hijacking American planes and bombing embassies everywhere. And their fears are not necessarily unfounded. The Taliban are unemployed war veterans, ready and even eager to return to the battlefield. "In the nineteenth century, we beat the British more than once," Afghans often told me. "In the twentieth century, we beat the Russians. In the twenty-first, if we have to, we'll beat the Americans!" Sarwar Hussaini, the director of a Peshawar-based human-rights organization called the Coöperation Centre for Afghanistan, told me that Afghanistan was full of terrorist-training camps, that Pakistanis, Chechens, Uzbeks, and Arabs were there, learning to fight for Islamic supremacy in their own countries.
But is Afghanistan the puppet-master or the puppet? Masoud is said to receive money from Russia and Iran. Pakistan, a patron of all seven factions during the jihad, is now closely allied with the Taliban. The Iranians have financed some Hazara groups in Afghanistan. China is also dabbling, for fear of Muslim power invading its own territory. And Saudi Arabia has broken off diplomatic relations with the Taliban, and therefore is suspected of aiding either Masoud or Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another former mujahid. The Afghans themselves blame neighbors and superpowers for everything that has befallen them.
The Taliban could have come to power in any war-torn Islam- ic country. They gained supremacy in Afghanistan be- cause all other leaders and movements there had discredited themselves through selfishness, vanguardism, gangsterism, and, above all, factionalism. Barring further mischief on the part of the superpowers, the Taliban may defeat Masoud and win their civil war. And it's entirely possible that as rulers they are preferable to any of the competition.
"I think Afghan people should choose neither Taliban nor Masoud," Hussaini told me. "Masoud is not a good alternative—he's proved that by his corruption. And the Taliban are not the kind of people one should like." But whom should the Afghans choose instead? A few old-timers long for the King to come back, but most people just say flatly that no good leader exists. Should the Taliban fall apart, it seems likely that the political and educational vacuum in Afghanistan will remain.
In Kabul, I stood in a grimy, unheated bookstore, some of whose books had been Islamicized, the faces on the jackets blacked out with splotches of Magic Marker. The bookstore seemed to have been subjected to this process randomly, though, as if the morality police had got tired or wandered off to look for something to eat. In the corner stood a rack of postcards from before the war, the faces depicted on them untouched. Dusty travel posters of "exotic" tribesmen remained on the wall.
As I talked to the bookseller, three Talibs entered the store, with black turbans wrapped around their faces like coiled cobras. Slowly, with wide eyes, whispering each word, they began to sound out the titles of the books. Soon, another joined them, whether searching for vice or merely passing the time I didn't know, and neither did the bookseller, who hung his head in breathless silence. They were looking for something—they seemed suspicious and disapproving—but perhaps they doubted their ability to find what they sought. Or maybe they were just cold. We could all see our breath condensing.
With the frightened bookseller translating, I asked one of them to tell me his happiest and saddest memories, and he said, "In my twenty-eight years of life, there's been nothing but war. Of course I have never been happy."
"Not even when you took Kabul?"
"That one day," he conceded without interest.
The Taliban asked me where I was from, and when I told them they fixed me with looks of rage.
"Tell the Americans that we believe their government is responsible for all our problems, and that they must stop this terrorism against us," the leader said curtly.
But they meant well. What they really wanted to do was to invite me into Islam. I showed them my Koran, and, as all their comrades had, they took it eagerly into their hands, kissed it, and slowly and silently began reading from it, their lips moving in a rapture. They promised me that if I became a Muslim they would take care of me forever. They'd feed and shelter me for the rest of my life. They'd find a special teacher for me. I'd become their brother. They gazed at me from across the divide, waiting.