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By J. M. WINDLE
TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC.
Copyright © 2011 Jeanette Windle
All right reserved.
Chapter One Kabul, Afghanistan
"Why did you permit him to walk out alive?" Fury vibrated the cell phone's speaker unit.
"I told you of the recording." Afghan Deputy Minister of Interior Ismail swept the smashed DVD player into a waste receptacle beside the police chief's desk he'd commandeered. "Perhaps such ammunition would not damage you. But it would destroy me!"
"And you are a tool I cannot afford to lose at this time. So perhaps you made the wise decision."
Ismail didn't find the other man's chuckle so amusing. "It has not worked out so ill in any case. We have still advanced our objectives. And he is aware the price of his life is silence. He will not speak further of what he knows."
"Which is little enough. Can he have guessed that wreaking vengeance on Khalid Sayef was not, after all, the end purpose of his mission? Could this be why he turned from his path?"
"There is no way he could know. No, it was the girl. To lie was a mistake." Such admission was another mistake. Ismail hurried to fill cold silence. "In any case, he has made it clear his heart is no longer committed to jihad."
"With the right leverage, he may yet change his mind. If only this had arrived in time, we would not have failed today."
The same image filled both speakers' cell phone screens.
"Who could have known it was under our noses all this time?" Ismail said.
"And his. You should have investigated earlier this American tenant and her doings."
"Only chance brought the trail to my door."
"Or Allah's gift."
The photo was not one a decent woman would exhibit outside her own family. But even in Afghanistan, mug shots required that more than a burqa be visible. Escaping, brown curls under a headscarf framed pale, oval features, an expression of combined despair and defiance incongruous in so youthful a face. But it was the eyes glaring at an unseen camera through a fringe of long and curling lashes that drew a murmur of satisfaction from both speakers. Scornful, a sheen of tears discernible even in JPEG, they glimmered the deep lapis lazuli of a Band-e Amir mountain lake.
* * *
Kandahar Province, Afghanistan
When Jamil had saved that burned child's life, he hadn't expected to find himself running for his own.
Jamil glanced back over his shoulder. He was pulling away from the mob. No, the mob had chosen to drop back. Though another hail of rocks hissed through the air, the throwing was halfhearted. But then the men weren't trying to kill him. Only to drive Jamil—and his words—from their village.
All had begun so well too. The village was like any other in southern Afghanistan, dirt cubes behind dirt walls on a parched plain. A riverbed that ran full during wet season was now only dry boulders, but a communal well permitted survival year-round. Jamil had been refilling his water bottle when a villager invited him to share the evening meal. The hospitality of the Pashtun tribes was as legendary as their ferocity.
And their poverty. Mud walls of his host's reception chamber bore no whitewash. Threadbare carpet and tushaks covered a dirt floor. A platter set before Jamil and male household members held only rice with a scant topping of lentils. Thin faces and eager eyes of children peeking around a doorway to watch the men eat restrained Jamil's own hunger. An injustice, Ameera would protest.
A reminder that Ameera was gone now from Jamil's world. The woman who'd first introduced him to Isa. He'd heard her voice only once since being expelled from Kabul. When he again reached a place where his cell phone functioned, her own phone was out of service. He'd called Rasheed instead, only to be told that Ameera had returned to her own country and he was never to call again.
A burqa was pouring tea when Jamil heard the scream. Its anguished pain was too great to consider propriety. His host's own distress was such he hadn't objected to Jamil following into the family quarters. The screams came from a boy no more than two years old. Water boiling for tea had been removed from a cookfire onto a nearby stone block. The toddler had pulled the entire pot over himself. Panicked women were yanking off wet clothing, blistered skin sloughing away with it.
Jamil reacted with pausing for thought. Grabbing a pottery jar of water, he elbowed through the shrieking circle to pour its contents over the child. A chill winter breeze made the wetting as effective as an ice pack.
"For such burns, you must cool the victim immediately so the fire does not burn deeper. And you must not disturb the skin." Jamil indicated raw, red flesh where scalded skin had been peeled away. "It will protect the boy while new skin grows."
The boy was moved to a tushak in the reception chamber, and Jamil urged to stay on as guest. Jamil showed the family how to rinse burns with mildly salted water against infection, how to spread petroleum jelly so healing fingers and joints didn't become fused together.
In return, his grateful host not only allowed Jamil to read Isa's words, but summoned the rest of the village to his compound. As news spread of the visiting healer, they arrived with their own aches and pains. An abscessed boil. A poorly set broken arm. An infant with diarrhea. An infected eye. Nothing Jamil couldn't handle. One advantage of these people's harsh lives was that if they survived to adulthood, they were as tough and enduring as cured goatskin.
And they stayed to listen when Jamil spread his patu to read from his Pashto New Testament. After all, did not everyone know that Islam's most prominent prophet beyond Muhammad himself had been a great healer? If not usual, there could be no harm in hearing words purported to come from Isa Masih. Especially when spoken by one gifted with healing hands.
Yes, whether or not Jamil had actually saved the boy's life, he'd certainly saved him from serious infection and scarring. Though not from pain. Which was why Jamil now fled for his own life into the darkening twilight.
By the time Jamil had settled his primary patient that first evening, his host had ended the toddler's moans with a pinch of opium paste. Jamil hadn't been happy, but his own supply of painkillers was long gone. Opium was the only medicine available to poorer Afghans. So Jamil held his peace and kept a sharp eye on his young patient. Though useful, opium paste was harder to regulate than its processed cousin, morphine. An overdose slowed breathing. Every winter across Afghanistan, hundreds died of respiratory failure after taking opium to calm flu or pneumonia symptoms. Within days, Jamil had coaxed his host into curtailing the opium to a single nightly dose. By now he was no longer a stranger but a favored community member. So much so that his host had invited Jamil to tour the commercial venture that fed the village during harsh winters.
The carpet-weaving workshop was a dark, dank place, its air thick with dust and the acridity of fresh dye so that Jamil had to smother a cough as he followed his host among the looms. Once created by Afghan peasant women to adorn their own homes, the beautiful patterns were now far too valuable to be wasted on the poorest caste who toiled over them. As long as light slanted through the small windows, these weavers would not stir from their crouched positions. But neither women nor children working as steadily as the adults displayed any objection to the tiresome squatting and repeated motion.
Then Jamil took in pinpoint pupils. Quickly, he searched faces around him. Yes, that slow, easy breathing. The slumped relaxation even while fingers never stopped knotting those endless threads. All these workers were under influence of opium, even the children. Along the walls lay babies wrapped in patus. Not just small ones, but well up into walking age. Every one so limply asleep, Jamil had to lean close to assure himself they breathed. Here was a face of Afghanistan Jamil had never known in his own earlier, privileged life. Now in each dreaming, vacant face, Jamil saw his own mother and sister. If they still lived, could it be they might find themselves in just such horrific circumstances?
To Jamil's concern, his host shrugged. "It is difficult labor. They cannot work well and long without the opium. The women cannot work either if their babies demand attention."
"But these women and children are now addicts. These infants as well. Perhaps they will not die from it, but they will not grow as strong nor as intelligent. And they will always need the opium even when they are not weaving."
"They do not need intelligence to weave. Nor to bear children. And they will always be weaving. Tell me, do your words from Isa speak of carpets?"
"Not specifically," Jamil admitted. "But Isa was a healer. He taught kindness to women and children as well as men. If the work is too tiring without opium, there are ways to make it less so. Better air and light so their eyes and breathing are not troubled. To take turns with the small ones so they are cared for and the women too have a rest."
"Those things do not produce as many carpets," Jamil's host answered flatly. "We will not hear more."
And that was that. There'd been a hasty conference of village leaders. His host had at least sent for Jamil's pack while the men gathered around the well with stones in hand. Now, as the mob headed back to the village, Jamil slackened his steps further. He hadn't felt so disheartened since beginning his new quest. Arriving at this village, finding welcome at the well, these past days of healing and reading, Jamil had felt he was truly following Isa Masih's footsteps.
Now here too it seemed Jamil's path emulated the prophet. Hadn't Isa's own neighbors driven him out of town? Hadn't he instructed his own disciples about those who rejected his words? They were not to resist or plead, but to shake the dust from their feet as witness against that town's unbelief.
But Jamil did not want to shake this village's dust from his feet. Despite those hurled stones, he couldn't forget their earlier kindliness and hospitality. If they could only come to see Isa Masih as Jamil had. To understand how following his ways could transform their lives and community.
Jamil found himself wanting this as fervently as he'd once wanted revenge and retribution. Had Isa's heart wept over those who'd refused him as Jamil's heart wept now?
The noise of an engine approaching rapidly from behind whirled Jamil around. A small motorcycle was racing up the mountain trail. Jamil ducked behind a boulder, but he was too late. As the motorcycle drew abreast, it stopped. Jamil heard footsteps as the rider dismounted. "Salaam aleykum. I come in peace."
The boulder offered no further retreat, so Jamil stepped warily into the open. "Wa aleykum u salaam. And upon you also be peace."
The rider dwarfed his motorcycle, strongly built under his patu, standing head and shoulders above Jamil's slim medium build. Like most in these parts, his speech and coloring were Pashtun. He was also no older than Jamil's own twenty-seven years. "You are the healer named Jamil who has been staying in the village back there? They told me he had come this way."
Jamil's wariness hadn't dissipated, but the stranger displayed no evidence of hostility, so Jamil acknowledged, "I am a healer, and I have been staying in the village."
"And is it true that, like the prophet Isa, you will heal any in need, rich or poor, male or female?"
Was this a trap? an ambush of some kind? Jamil's blood was throbbing in his ears, his heart suddenly racing as he admitted cautiously, "If such need is within my ability, yes."
Stepping forward, the man embraced Jamil with a hearty kiss on both cheeks. "I am Omed. And you are a miracle. When a guest at the chaikhana told of such a healer in a village over the ridge, I knew the Almighty had heard my prayers."
His new acquaintance seemed to take for granted Jamil would follow as he headed back to the motorcycle. Gingerly, Jamil squeezed on behind Omed. Twilight had now faded to full night, and the motorcycle had no headlight. But Omed gunned the engine unhesitatingly up ridges and down into ravines until Jamil could not have turned back had he wished, because he'd never have found his way. Then their zigzag trail dropped onto the smoothness of a road, and Jamil spotted a twinkle of lights ahead.
As the motorcycle sped between cubic shapes, Jamil could see this town was much larger than the village where he'd last lodged. Shopfronts and the minaret of a small mosque fringed a dirt commons along with the town chaikhana, a combination tea shop and inn for passing travelers. Lighting came from kerosene lanterns, not electricity. Omed was speaking now over his shoulder, but Jamil could make out only an occasional word above the engine. The motorcycle pulled up in front of a long, single-storied concrete building.
"If you will wait here, I will return immediately." As Omed strode toward the chaikhana next door, Jamil walked along the length of the concrete building. A red crescent above one door, the Muslim adaptation of a Red Cross symbol, identified a health clinic. So the town had its own healer. Then why was Jamil here?
Another symbol marked a schoolroom. But Jamil's attention was drawn immediately through a door that stood open. Inside was a familiar village scene. A carpet-weaving cooperative such as Jamil had encountered in the last village. But here a single large room was airy and dry. Kerosene lamps reflected brightly from concrete walls painted a cheerful sunshine yellow. Windows paneled with translucent plastic would provide ample light during day hours. More strikingly, the looms were not backbreaking floor models but vertical wall units, adjustable so that the section being woven was within easy reach of weavers. Benches permitted sitting instead of crouching on the floor.
Just inside the door was a stall where shoppers sorted through finished rugs. The nearest was not a local Pashtun with his light brown hair and round, sunburned features. Rather than shalwar kameez, the tunic and pantaloons of local dress, he wore jeans and a T-shirt, an olive green Army parka instead of a patu. He was also bareheaded and clean-shaven, a fashion becoming popular among Afghanistan's younger urban residents. In this rural community, he stood out like a jungle parrot among Kabuli homing pigeons.
"Jamil, forgive me for tarrying so long." Omed had returned.
Jamil swung around, exclaiming, "But this is truly wonderful! You would not need opium to work such looms as these. Where did all this come from?"
"Foreign soldiers built the community center. And an aid organization supplies such looms. I—knew some of their people." There was hesitation in Omed's answer. "It was I who convinced the elders to make this change. Though the looms cost the village nothing, they did not at first wish to agree because there are conditions. The women do not weave on Fridays. No opium is permitted. Children may work if their families need them, but only after they attend classes, both boys and girls. Women with small children do not work unless there is someone to watch their child.
"Still with all that, these new looms permit weaving of more carpets than before. The elders have come to see how much better it is for children to be in school and their wives free of the opium. So you see what a terrible thing it is that the accident should happen at this time."
Accident? Just how much had Jamil missed earlier? But the jerk of Omed's head indicated a group of men wandering leisurely over from the chaikhana.
"The mullah and some elders are saying it is a sign we should not have changed to the new looms, that they are too dangerous. The healer has refused to touch her because she is a woman. I begged Haroon to take her to the city, where there are hospitals for women. But he says there is no money. I prayed the healer would change his mind and show mercy. When word came instead to me of you, I knew it was the answer to my prayers."
If Jamil was straining to fill in gaps, the gist became clear as the approaching men swirled around him. A man in lab coat over shalwar kameez pushed open the door under the red crescent. The health clinic was a single room lit by a kerosene lantern hanging from a ceiling hook. Metal shelving and a glass-fronted cabinet held few supplies. On a wooden table a burqa and blanket draped a female shape curled up in fetal position. The woman looked curiously deformed, her shoulder thrusting oddly under the burqa as though a hunchback.
A second burqa was watching over the patient. She retreated into a corner as the men crowded into the clinic. Omed murmured an aside to Jamil. "My wife. The injured woman is her sister."
Then he addressed his wife gently. "Did I not promise you, Najia, that I would find another healer? This is Jamil, the one of whom we were told. He has agreed to make an examination."
Excerpted from Freedom's Stand by J. M. WINDLE Copyright © 2011 by Jeanette Windle. Excerpted by permission of TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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