Raza, a poor orphan trapped in the slums of Pakistan, is sent to a strict madrassah where he meets and falls in love with Perveen. They attempt to flee the city to escape their respective fates but fail. Perveen, pregnant, is sent back to her family, and Raza is sent to Afghanistan to fight as a Taliban solider. American journalist, Rachael Brown, travels to Afghanistan to cover the political unrest. When she meets Raza for a brief interview, she sees for the first time the true face of the Taliban: poor and desperate young men with nowhere else to go. As the war unfolds, their paths cross again, and each must decide what they owe the other.
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About the Author
Imran was born in Karachi and studied in Karachi and Chicago. A graduate of the University of Illinois and American College of Education, Imran teaches Art and English as a Second Language (ESL). He has taught in the United States, Oman and Saudi Arabia. He loves teaching but his passion lies in painting and writing. His artwork and some of his articles can be seen at www.imranomerart.com He resides in Homewood, Illinois.
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I, Suleiman, and Him
I took my coffee and went into the living room, leaving Sebastian and my mother in the kitchen. Another morning and another cup of coffee. Another day with just a little work — too little work. My career felt frozen, my self irrelevant. Motherhood agreed with me, but it wasn't enough. I had led a life of adventure — not danger so much, but excitement, curiosity, the thrill of discovery, and the satisfaction of unraveling the truth from the threads of lies. I used to step from airport to war zone, from lie to truth, the way I now went back and forth from kitchen to living room to bedroom.
I had a moment's opportunity to listen to some news before Sebastian finished his breakfast and demands for Cartoon Network began. Between his cartoons and my mother's fervent love of Law and Order, I felt like my own TV was some kind of front line in a battle of wits and stamina.
The four-and-a-half-year-old was winning.
I flipped through the news channels. On a Saturday morning, in an election year, every studio was full of pundits forecasting the ever-changing political weather. Some were stuck like a needle on a broken record, crying for change while the others competed in a contest over who was the most patriotic, insisting that only the most conservative could save America from the shameful enemy that had attacked us — the enemy that dragged the country into two wars and a few hundred billion dollars in debt.
Chris Matt hews tried to squeeze from his guests what he wanted them to say on one channel. David Gregory reported from the campaign trail of one of the Democratic candidates, searching zealously but sometimes unsuccessfully for differences among the three major candidates. Meanwhile Bill O'Reilly harangued his guests with his own answers to questions no one could remember him asking. Then on another channel I caught a glimpse of a familiar face — I couldn't recall where I had seen him — that vanished the next moment when the moderators moved on to the next story.
I left the TV on but stepped out of the living room. As I passed the kitchen, I heard my mother trying to convince Sebastian to finish his cereal. I went upstairs and picked up my laptop the moment I got into my room. The last news channel's website yielded a photograph of the man I had recognized. Soldiers hustled him into the notorious prison that one of the Democratic candidates promised to close.
A breath I didn't realize I was holding hissed through my lips.
The caption on the photo gave no relevant information and I was left asking myself, Was he the man?
Was he the man who let me live, probably out of pity? The man who saw me as a fragile creature, just "a woman"? I went through a couple more websites to see a few more shots of him. Despite his haggard appearance — torn clothes, long beard, scattered hair, dark pockets under his eyes — I did recognize him. I clearly recalled the young man's face, framed by a turban. It was the face of the man who had broken into Laila's house with his comrades in arms to wipe us out, but who had ended up killing his partners in crime instead.
* * *
Through the glass in the door, I watched as they took the black bag off his head. He blinked then squinted against the light as they hustled him through the door and pushed him onto the chair in front of us. He wore a dull orange jumpsuit, dirty and worn at the knees. Shifting on the cold metal chair, he still kept his chin close to his chest.
"Take those handcuff s off , please?" I asked the guards.
The two men, dressed head-to-toe in black, looked at each other. One of them shrugged and the other fished in his pocket for a key.
While he unlocked the handcuff s, the prisoner leaned away, turning his face down even more, clearly trying to protect it.
"The leg iron, too," I said.
The guard who'd now removed the handcuff s and stood up glanced down at the chain that was strung between the prisoner's ankles, then turned a grim, cold-eyed look to me and shook his head. My throat went dry and I swallowed. I tried not to look at him but the hint of a self-satisfied smile on the guard's face was plain to see. Then the two of them stationed themselves behind the prisoner. Two more stood outside the door.
Once the prisoner's eyes adjusted to the light, they rested a few moments on me, and then slid to the side to look at my interpreter, Suleiman.
This young man looked very different from the man who saved Laila and me on the other side of the world. The man who had the courage to help me seemed bitter and angry, but the man in front of me now had lost all hope, exhausted beyond measure.
"Kiya hall chall ha, Raza?" I asked him using one of the few full sentences of Urdu I had learned.
"Behtreen," he said with a smirk.
"Fabulous," Suleiman interpreted.
I realized the ridiculousness of the greeting.
He looked around, seeming to take in the décor of the room. A blue plastic tarp covered the floor, its implications making my skin crawl. Four chairs, upholstered with a pyramid design in red and orange fabric, were crowded on one side of the table, facing the chair in which the prisoner sat. I'd set my bag on the chair on the right end. The walls were cinderblocks painted in a thick coat of cheap paint, the color of stomach medicine. From the look on his face I knew this man had lived long enough in an environment of concrete walls, iron bars, razor wire, orange uniforms, and black bags that nothing there — even, strangely enough, me — seemed to surprise him in the slightest.
"This is Suleiman," I said, blushing at the struggle to begin our conversation again. "He will interpret for us."
I pushed the cup of tea I had brought for him to the other side of the table. He only watched me, not looking at the tea. I forced a smile and worried it looked more like a grimace.
He asked something of Suleiman, but I could only understand the word "Muslim."
Suleiman did not respond to him.
Then the prisoner added something to his question.
My interpreter scowled at him, forcing me to ask, "What did he say?"
When Suleiman only shook his head, I asked the same question again.
His eyes locked on the prisoner's, Suleiman cleared his throat then said, "He has asked me about my faith in a very demeaning manner, and that he does not want to talk to me or you."
I took a few books from my bag and said, "I went online to find books in Urdu, Pashto, and Arabic, but didn't know which ones you would like. Here are some ... fiction and non-fiction ... I thought might interest you."
This seemed to pique the curiosity of the two guards in the room, and the prisoner turned his head almost imperceptibly.
Through Suleiman, he said, "I don't speak Arabic and can read little Pashto."
"Oh! Okay ... but you can read Urdu, right?"
The prisoner folded his hands in his lap and sat up straighter in the chair, glancing back behind him when he spoke.
"They won't let me have them," Suleiman translated.
"I'll see what I can do about that," I said, making brief eye contact with the guard who'd unlocked his handcuff s. The man in black shook his head, wearing a tight-lipped frown. "You helped me and I want to help you," I said, turning my full attention back to the prisoner. "I want to know about your life. ... Who you are, why you fought in the war, and ... Why did you save us?"
He listened to the Urdu translation with an increasingly furrowed brow then shook his head and asked a question Suleiman translated as, "And how will your knowing my story help me?"
"I want your story to be heard," I said. It felt like a lie even though it wasn't. "You must have something to say to the world."
He barely waited for the translation to finish before ratt ling out an answer.
"No, I don't." But his words sounded even shorter than the ones Suleiman chose in English.
I shook my head and spoke directly to the prisoner. "Your story may help you in court."
I swear I saw the two guards smile — one of them might even have laughed a little. I closed my eyes waiting for the translation: "Which won't happen. Not before my death."
I sighed and told him, "You never know ... elections are coming up, and a new president, a Democratic president ... a more liberal president, may allow proper trials to begin, and even grant access to civil courts."
"Change of governments won't change the attitudes of Americans towards us," he translated back from the prisoner. I heard the doubt in Suleiman's translation and I sighed again when he looked at me sideways.
"Don't you want people to know your side of the story?" I asked. "Don't you want to tell people your experience of this war?"
Another long pause while he looked down at the floor. He sagged for just a second then sat up straight again. When he spoke this time he spoke directly to me, while before he mostly looked at Suleiman.
The translation, which came in parts, had Suleiman's inflection matching the prisoner's for the first time in the interview. "I had no views about this war when I became part of it and I still don't understand it ... but even if I tell you whatever I think, and what they think, your prejudice will corrupt it."
"No," I said, maybe a little too harshly. The guards looked up. I shook my head, leaned in over the table, and said, "I will tell your story in your words — a book, not just an article. And the book won't be published, not a word of it, until you approve it. Suleiman here will translate it for you to the last syllable." I patt ed Suleiman on the shoulder, who looked at me with the narrowed eyes of undisguised surprise.
While he translated the two guards looked at each other and some kind of silent conversation passed between the two of them. They both shrugged and turned their attention back to their prisoner.
"And I am supposed to trust you" — Suleiman translated the prisoner's smirking reply, then smirked himself when he finished — "and this man who shies away from his faith?"
Suleiman added, "I never agreed to —"
"Yes, you can trust me," I interrupted. "I can't let you down after what you've done for me ... and Laila."
While Suleiman translated that I added, "Don't you remember?"
"It's hard to remember anything in this hell," was the translated reply. Then Suleiman hesitated, thinking about what seemed to be a difficult-to-translate word. "It's ... comical, though. That's exactly what they want us to do, to remember and tell."
I could clearly see that he was struggling with the decision even as Suleiman struggled with the translation, the emphasis — while ignoring the feeling.
We sat in silence long enough for the guards to seem impatient.
"Do you think it was easy for me to get permission to come here?" I asked. I let Suleiman translate the question but didn't wait for a reply. "Do you think I would have left my child and come to Cuba if I didn't think what you had to say was important?" The prisoner winced a little at one of Suleiman's words and I imagined it was the word child.
"I didn't ask you to come here," Suleiman translated, nodding along with the prisoner. "And anyway don't you journalists sniff around everywhere to smell stories like dogs, to make money and fame ... to sell private lives of people with extra dressings as a malicious butcher sells rott en meat under a good wrapper?"
The young man didn't look as angry as his words sounded in translation. His eyes, dark and cold but shimmering with intelligence, never left mine.
"I have no interest in fame," I said, and I meant it but at the same time didn't think he would believe me. "And I'm not doing this for money. In fact, I'm happy to have all proceeds of the book go to paying a lawyer to defend you."
One of the guards let loose an exhausted sigh and the prisoner chuckled grimly as he listened to the translation. He remained silent for a while, pondering his options. Then Suleiman slowly translated his answer.
"I don't know your reasons and up to a certain limit I don't care ... telling you my story can be a good amusement for a dying man; it's not a bad idea to spend some hours of the leftover life in this comfortable chair of this comfortable room. ... But you have to promise me one thing: If you really get any money by writing about me then you will not spend it on me in any way. I want you to use it to get my son out of that madrassah ... bribe that bastard Bayfazal, he is very greedy, he will give up my son if he finds it profitable enough. ... If you do that for me, I'll not only tell you whatever you ask me but I'll also be thankful to you for the rest of my life ... well, the rest is short but you know what I mean."
"Where is that madrassah?" I asked Suleiman, then whipped my head back to the prisoner.
I didn't need Suleiman to translate: "Karachi."
"Who is Bayfazal?"
The prisoner frowned and closed his eyes. His lips moved a little as though he was silently speaking, then he spoke and Suleiman translated, "I will tell you all about him."
A smile crossed quickly over my face, but I couldn't allow myself to celebrate what I knew just from the fact that it was being told to me in an interrogation room in Guantanamo Bay wouldn't be a happy story.
I looked him in the eye, leaning forward again, and said, "I promise I'll do my best."
I took a tape recorder from my bag and turned it on.
Massi Museabate — Maid Miserable
And then one day I found myself living in a hovel with my mother in the Gizri neighborhood in the center of Karachi, a slum surrounded by the posh areas of Defence and Clifton.
My mother was ill, and lay in bed most of the time. I never knew precisely what illness she had. I was only a child, and this was just one more thing that was beyond my comprehension. Long days would become longer weeks and she barely stood, didn't leave the house. Then she would seem to recover, just enough to get a few full breaths, and she would go away to find work, leaving me with Massi Rehmatea who taught the Quran to children and lived in the hovel next to ours.
Rehmatea was a stern prison guard, and she had a way of looking at me that made me feel like some kind of sinner despite the fact that I had no understanding of sin in my little body. It took only a few slaps and half a dozen of those disapproving glares before I decided not to off end that woman — or at least try not to. I knew she would use the same cane on me sooner or later that she lavishly applied to her students.
I kept myself busy in what was really only a three-meter radius around that little shack. My only toys a rubber duck and a lion that my mother brought with me to Massi Rehmatea's hovel.
Though her name, Rehmatea, means blessing, as I grew up I discovered that all her students called her Massi Museabate — "Maid Miserable"— behind her back.
It was an apt name. She certainly made me miserable. I still try not to think about that time, even though I was so young those memories are hazy and unreliable.
At the age of seven I learned that however terrible a situation might seem, it can always get worse.
When I was seven, my mother died.
When I look back to find an image of my mother in my mind, I see her in bed, sick, staring blankly at something only she could see, and whatever it was, she wished she couldn't. I think she wanted to die, wanted to be done with it all. I don't know why — and that's not the only thing I don't know.
I don't know who my father was, and I don't know who those people were that Museabate took me to after my mother's death.
Who was the man that yelled at her when we visited that big house? His growling voice made me hide behind Museabate — to seek refuge with what seemed to be a lesser ogre.
Who was the crying woman that pushed him to get hold of me, to take me away from both Museabate and the man? Why was she doing that?
I knew the man would not let her get to me. Finally Museabate dragged me out of there, the sound of the crying woman fading behind us.
After that, Museabate reluctantly took me in. She beat me when I wouldn't read the Quran. She made me work all day, inside and outside the house. And to describe where we lived as a "house" is to be irresponsibly generous. The wood frame was patched with whatever materials could be harvested from the filthy streets. The "door" was rough and dirty sackcloth. But it was a roof over our heads in a city where not everyone enjoyed such a privilege.
Museabate set me to the task of carrying water back in a big bucket from the water tap — a mile away from our little shack, and I used some of that time finding the necessary detritus to keep our little hovel standing. Thin and desperate, I was fast and soon found my circle expanding as I went a little farther out every day and came back with a little more of use. I once came back with a full two-liter bott le of orange Fanta and this was the only time I remember seeing Museabate smile.
Excerpted from "Entangled Lives"
Copyright © 2017 Imran Omer.
Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
I I, Suleiman and Him, 1,
II Massi Museabate — Maid Miserable, 9,
III Bayfazl — Anti-Blessing, 15,
IV Perveen, 19,
V Shahbaz Khan, 28,
VI Hajji Badruddin, 41,
VII Ahmed, 57,
VIII Tara, My Mother, 65,
IX The Training, 91,
X Into the Mountains, 112,
XI Arshad, 120,
XII Commander Masud, 128,
XIII Kandahar, 140,
XIV Taliban in Kabul, 152,
XV Interviews, 161,
XVI Mazar-i-Sharif, 174,
XVII The Real Battle, 190,
XVIII End of Us, Beginning of We, 198,
XIX The Riddle, 207,
XX The Empathetic Man, 214,
XXI Another Massacre, 229,
XXII The Drug Dealer, 235,
XXIII The Addict, 244,
XXIV Boston, 248,
XXV Caves, 255,
Epilogue Faiz, 258,