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Her Ears, Her Window

July 28, 2002|MEGAN K. STACK

The day I left Afghanistan, Naseer drew me aside. "A promise?" he said.

We looked at each other in the grimy light of a winter noon. We'd spent every day together for nearly a month. It was only then that it occurred to me-and the thought felt funny, somehow-that he was the best friend I had in this battered place.

Naseer Ahmed is a 28-year-old translator, a dark, soft-bellied man with fingers like sausages and a quick laugh. He is an engineer who has been unemployed for months. "No problem," he says. He applies this maxim to everything-that, along with "this belong to you," which is a nice way of saying, "Don't ask me; you're the reporter. That's your problem." He eats too much, argues a lot and grumbles bitterly over the social and gastronomical constraints of the holy month of Ramadan. He is a guide of saintly patience but spotty lucidity. Some days he launches on eloquent philosophical treatises; other times his face goes blank when I ask him where I can buy a pen.

That Sunday a rented sedan waited to take me from Jalalabad back to Pakistan. That Sunday there was no gunfire, no mob, no shouting. That Sunday there was no story, just goodbye. The calm felt unfamiliar, and I was pretty sure I'd never see him again.

"Promise what?" I asked.

"You have photographs of the women in my family. Promise they will never be printed in my country."

"I'll try," I said. "But they already appeared in the newspaper in Los Angeles." "That is no problem," he said. "But I told you here it is shameful for a woman. It is my family's name. Please understand."

He pressed a grubby scrap of paper into my hand. He'd printed his address in block letters. "You are my sister," he said. "You are always my sister."

"Thank you, Naseer." I groped for a farewell that fit into the simple language we traded-but the words weren't there. So I stuck his address into the pocket of my pants and swung the backpack over my shoulder.

"Goodbye, Naseer."

"Will you forget me?" he asked. His face bore honest curiosity. I was strange to him, and he studied me, even then, in the last seconds of our acquaintance.

"No."

He grinned and turned away. He had a new client to tend: Another reporter had come to take my place amid the mountains and mullahs and moujahedeen of eastern Afghanistan. I'd bequeathed my replacement a filthy hotel room, one tiny packet of shampoo, a ratty Pakistani sleeping bag-and Naseer.

Which is to say, I left him a lot.

If I came to know Afghanistan at all, it was because Naseer followed me around for weeks and explained it. He was my ears, my tongue and my window, a sort of bumbling Virgil in the vibrant warscape of his country. He spoke of the regimes that had come before and those that might come again; told who was lying and who was powerful. He steered me high into the snowy mountains when the shooting began in Tora Bora, and he led hikes through the bombed ruins of abandoned Al Qaeda training grounds. He crouched at the bedsides of children whose arms or eyes or legs were blasted off when midnight brought bombs from the sky. Those hospital rooms stank of rotting wool, vomit and sweat, and the wounded Afghans twisted in bloody sheets and rolled their eyes at the stained ceiling. At times like those, I think Naseer hated his job.

When I wanted to write about Afghan women, Naseer took me home to his sisters, mother and wife. When I asked him to show me his favorite place, we visited his brothers in the slanting light of the old grain market, where wheat pours like honey into rusting scales and old men tick off the seasons on prayer beads. I ate lamb and rice on the dirt floor of Naseer's house the night his baby daughter was born. It was a night of feast and possibility, rich with buttery light and spice. The aunts and cousins swept me into a candle-lit bedroom to dance, draped a scarf over my head and giggled. They named the girl Kathleen, after my mother.

This is how I found Naseer: I was with a photographer named Brian in Jalalabad, at the family home of a warlord named Haji Zaman. It was a great stone house that rose from a sea of gated orange groves and grape arbors and herb gardens, and every time Zaman walked the rows of vegetables, he'd tell us the same thing: "I can grow a salad here." He'd been to America. "I know you people like to eat salads."

Kabul had fallen, the Taliban were disappearing from villages all over the country, and Brian and I were sent to cover the changing times. When I asked Zaman to help us hire a driver, car and translator, he was nonchalant. "Yah, there is no problem," he said. The next morning, we passed the clusters of aimless armed boys who spent their days lolling in the grasses at the edge of the compound. At the gate, as promised, we found a blue sedan, complete with driver, guard and translator. But Zaman was wrong-there was a problem: The translator didn't speak but a few words of English.

We piled into the back of the car, and I turned to him. "What's your name?" I asked.

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