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the taliban

cricket club Timeri N. Murari

% Kabul under the Taliban is a wasteland, its gangrenous breath reeking of explosives, smoke and despair. Its only colour comes from the roses, the sweetest-smelling roses in the world. Rukhsana, spirited and beautiful, is desperate to escape the blighted city and the attentions of a powerful Talib who fancies her, but she has a sick mother and a younger brother to care for. As life in the Afghan capital gets even worse, it is clear that she will have to flee if she is to live‌

It was four years ago, when winter hovered beyond the Hindu Kush and sent a warning chill through the streets, that I first saw Zorak Wahidi. A rumour had been spreading along the streets, slipping through keyholes, sliding under doors, over windows, and into bedrooms. It woke me while it was still dark. It told me about a crime, one that we had long expected to happen, and which none of us could prevent. I dressed quickly in jeans and a blouse and shrugged into a jacket. I wrapped my head in a chequered hijab that only partially covered my head and fell around my shoulders. I left home as quiet as the dawn, through the back door and out the side gate, while the others slept. There were no taxis waiting. I thought briefly of taking the silver grey Nissan parked in our garage, but opening the main gate would wake up the whole household. So, I caught the small, 26/27

white-and-blue tram at Karte Seh Square. A few men sat in the front, four of us women at the back. Two were nurses on their way to work; the third was a teacher with her bundle of books. I sat beside her and, after exchanging glances, we ignored each other and she sat silently as the tram swayed and tilted on its rubber wheels along Asamayi Wat toward the city centre. The tram stopped frequently, either to pick up and drop off passengers or when it lost contact with the overhead cable. At Pastunistan Square, it hesitated a long time and then the driver, instead of moving north along the road like he was supposed to, continued straight on along Awali May. ‘Why are you going straight?’ I demanded. ‘What’s happened? Is it true about ex-President Najibullah? Tell me…’ The driver looked back, and I saw the fear in his glance. The guns and rockets had fallen silent, and we sensed the eerie stillness of the city. I jumped off the tram at the next stop and walked toward

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Ariana Square on my way to the office, keeping close to the high palace wall that was pockmarked with bullet holes. The mist spun a ghostly cobweb over the city, and muffled figures materialized out of the wispy net, looking back fearfully, as if pursued by demons. They vanished in an instant, leaving me alone. I wished I had ignored the rumour, pulled up the covers and remained in bed. Then the mist dispersed, and I saw what I thought I had only dreamed. A handful of people crossed the road to hurry past the palace gates and turned their faces away from the mutilated corpses of ex-President Mohammad Najibullah and his brother, Shalpur Ahmadzi, hanging from the traffic-signal posts at Ariana Square. I crossed the road too, though I didn’t avert my head. They wore clothes, their mouths and ears were stuffed with money, and there were unlit cigarettes stuck between their fingers. Najibullah had been a heavyset, imposing man but death had shrunk him. I felt a sense of dread now. I had believed, like many others, that the Taliban, with their religious beliefs, would bring compassion, justice, stability and good governance to our poor nation, but the lynching of Najibullah revealed their murderous intentions. What would they do next? I wondered in fear. I had a Nikon in my bag, and thought briefly of taking a photograph, but I couldn’t film such terrible humiliation of human beings. Instead, I wept. Five Talibs with AK-47s and canes lounged by the wall, as proud of their craft as children would be of their paper puppets dangling from strings. They stopped those who didn’t have the presence of mind to cross the road, and forced them to stare at the corpses. A whack from a cane moved them on. When I turned the corner, I looked back. A fighter climbed out of a pickup and began to walk in my direction. Two of his men trailed him. I looked around. Apart from me no one else was in sight at this hour. I hurried now and caught a bus toward Sherpur Square, where

The Book of Aleph

SP    R I NG

Š Shahu John

A lovely, diverting and moving tale of contemporary Kabul, about love, courage, passion, tyranny and cricket. Murari has an uncommon tale to tell, and does so with imagination and empathy. —SHASHI THAROOR

the blackened walls on either side of the road reached up to the sky like burnt fence posts. The bus moved slowly, avoiding the potholes, and when I looked back, the three men were still following. I jumped off nimbly at my stop and ran into the office of the Kabul Daily on the corner of Flower Street. I was sure the men wouldn’t follow me inside. I hurried into the office, devastated by what I had seen, but aware of the responsibility I had to report breaking news. Yasir, the editorin-chief of the Kabul Daily, had been a friend of my father and granted me a small desk from which I reported on nonpolitical features: profiles of musicians, women’s issues, education, civic problems and movies. But last September, after I had nagged him insistently, he had permitted me to accompany him to Jalalabad to report on the fighting. We had crouched and scurried through the ruins together, talking to the wounded, tripping over the dead, being afraid, and trying to stay alive. I learned that war was chaos and no one knew who was winning and who was losing. Even at this hour, the room stank of cigarette smoke and my eyes watered. The other reporters were speaking in low whispers. ‘Have you heard…?’ Yasir asked me. I nodded. ‘I saw. It was terrible.’ ‘Write eight hundred words to start with,’ Yasir said. ‘Then you can do a longer piece. Every detail of how they looked, readers want that.’ He retreated to his office, stopped at his door, and added, ‘Let’s see what this new government will allow us to report.’ ‘It’s going to get worse, much worse, I know that. Poor Najibullah, he didn’t deserve such a death,’ another reporter said and they hurried to their desks. They pecked at their machines between puffs. The only other women employed by the paper were Fatima and Banu. They had yet to

come in, and I wondered whether they would. I slipped off my jacket, dumped the hijab on my desk and removed the plastic cover from my ancient Underwood typewriter. I wished I could use my laptop, on which I could cut and paste easily… I prayed the telephone line was working—I would need it later to fax my story to HT. I reread old files, jotted down some notes, rolled paper into the Underwood, and stared at the blank space, wondering if my thoughts would flow better if I smoked. w I stopped writing when I sensed the silence, and looked up. Three men stood in the doorway, silhouetted against the morning light, black as shadows. They carried AK-47s and the leader scanned the room until his eyes settled on me. Buried in my writing, I had forgotten about them and never expected to see them here. He did not smile as he 30/31

approached my desk. I remained seated, frozen, fingers poised over the typewriter’s keys like a pianist waiting for the conductor’s baton. The man wore black from head to toe; his turban coiled like a snake on his head. He was a fierce man, over fifty, I guessed, with unusually thick lips and dark brown eyes. A scar slashed down the right side of his face, and part of his right ear was missing. He stopped at my desk and looked down at me with impassive eyes. I smelled the dust of war and blood on his clothes, mingled with sweat. Two fingers of his left hand, the small one and the fourth, were missing. He carried these badges of a warrior with arrogance. ‘Your father must be ashamed of you, letting strangers look you in the face,’ he said finally in a smoke-ravaged voice. I stood up, brushing back the hair from my eyes. ‘My father has no objection to my working. He’s proud of me,’ I replied. He looked very surprised that I would answer him back. I was proud of my profession,

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of my degree: a BA in journalism from Delhi, where my father was the deputy ambassador in the Afghan embassy. ‘I am Zorak Wahidi,’ he announced softly.

Timeri N. Murari is an award-winning writer, filmmaker and playwright. Time magazine chose his film, The Square Circle, as one of its top ten films of 1997. His works include the bestselling novel Taj, which has been translated into twenty-one languages. The Taliban Cricket Club, his latest novel, which is based on a real-life incident, will be published around the world this year. He lives with his wife in his ancestral home in Chennai.

% SP    R I NG

The Book of Aleph

An extract from The Taliban Cricket Club  

Kabul under the Taliban is a wasteland, its gangrenous breath reeking of explosives, smoke and despair. Rukhsana, spirited and beautiful, is...