A brutal and “fascinating” novel of an American held captive in an asylum in Afghanistan (Stewart O’Nan).
Set in Afghanistan in 2002, No Space for Further Burials is a chilling indictment of the madness of war and our collective complicity in the perpetuation of violence. The novel’s narrator, a US Army medical technician in Afghanistan helping to “liberate” the country from the Taliban, has been captured by rebels and thrown into an asylum. The other inmates are a besieged gathering of society’s forgotten and unwanted refugees and derelicts, disabled and different, resilient and maddened, struggling to survive the lunacy raging outside the asylum compound. The novel becomes a powerful evocation of the country’s desolate history of plunder and war, waged by insiders and outsiders, all fueled by ideology, desperation, and greed.
This astonishingly powerful story unfolds the tragedy of Afghanistan, as told by the captive narrator in hauntingly beautiful prose. While the characters try to cope with their individual destinies, the terrible madness of war is counterpointed with the poignancy of their lives and the narrator’s own peculiar predicament—the “victor” now a victim, his ambivalence a metaphor for everything Afghanistan symbolizes.
“A novel of unrelenting truth held in transcendent prose and an exquisite grace. There is no easy redemption here, but there is light and more light.” —Chris Abani, author of GraceLand and Song for Night
“In writing through the eyes of an American captive in Afghanistan, Feryal Ali Gauhar has fashioned a fascinating two-way mirror in which we see the author creating an Other confronting Otherness. As in Richard Powers’ hostage novel Ploughing in the Dark, the mask of character reveals as much as it conceals.” —Stewart O’Nan, author of Songs for the Missing
“An unbearably beautiful book, one you will not soon forget . . . What Gauhar shows us is that in a war there are only those who die and those who survive, and sometimes even those lines get blurred. And that’s what keeps you hungrily turning the pages.” —Radhika Jha, author of Smell
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September 18, 2002
They are going to attack the compound again. I can tell by now when a raid is about to begin because of the silence which precedes it. These people here, the inmates of this asylum, may not be as crazy as they look, for they seem to sense the coming of death and destruction as acutely as animals before disaster strikes. I have watched them from my cell, the ones directly across from me in the courtyard, the ones who have found their way out of their cells since the locks were broken at the time of the first raid. I was not here then, but Bulbul told me in his combination of many languages that the looters came through a hole in the wall after the first bombing, which killed many of the men who had been let out by the staff to stroll in the compound or to get some sun. Bulbul winked at me when he described the rape of several of the younger boys, and of the old nameless crone who weaves anything she can find into her hair. Bulbul winked and grinned and wet his mouth and then held up his forefinger and thumb in a circle, passing the middle finger of his other hand rapidly through that circle, grinning the whole time, almost laughing. He stopped suddenly, when some memory slipped across his eyelids.
Anarguli too, he said. And then he was silent, as if something had broken in him the day the marauders raped the girl he loved so deeply.
I saw him from the bars of this cell the day I was taken, having made the mistake of going on a reconnaissance mission alone, desperate to seek something which constantly slipped through the haze of my consciousness. Since my arrival in this country, I had felt restless at the camp where we waited out the days in boredom and the nights in fear. Most of us had no idea what to expect, rarely having stepped out of our homes in small towns across America. For many this was the first real adventure of their lives, hunting down the enemy, killing for sport. This was not boot camp, this was the real thing, the actual arena where all that we had trained for would unfold before us like the video games we played at the local arcade.
At the base we were told that a dissenting warlord had begun attacking the villages outside the city, many of them perched like sentinels on the edges of the surrounding mountains. I had not intended to go alone but found myself unable to endure the long days at the camp, waiting for something to happen, waiting for orders to pursue what we were here for, liberty and democracy, both of which seemed as elusive as the enemy.
Perhaps going on the mission was not really the crucial mistake. Perhaps it was the fact that I clambered out of the jeep to peer inside the large, gaping hole blasted into the boundary wall of a dilapidated building clinging precariously to the peak of the hill nearest the city. I strayed, following the rutted trail of other jeeps which had traveled this path on unknown missions. At a certain point outside the damaged wall, the ruts in the trail sank deeper into the ground and the wheels of the jeep began to slip on sandy soil. I left the jeep to see how badly wedged the tires were, and that was when I made the mistake of peeking into the courtyard of this place where I will probably spend the rest of my days, looking out at the madness around me, locked into a cell with an earthen floor and one small window with bars protecting me from the outside.
The rebel soldiers saw me as soon as I bent down outside the wall to pick up the radio transmitter which had fallen off my lap when the jeep came to a sudden halt, hitting a large rock and then sliding into a ditch. It must have been the sound of the tires slipping and the engine revving which alerted them — it seemed as if they had just looted the compound and were beginning to return to their mountain hideouts when they saw me. They dragged me to the man who appeared to be in charge, yelling orders and shouting abuse.
Even in the frenzy of the assault, I remember him carefully wrapping the charred remains of what was probably a chicken that had been hastily barbecued over an open fire. He looked at me cursorily, picked his teeth with a chicken bone, burped, and wrapped up the meat in a piece of paper he had picked up from the ground. There were many such scraps flying around the courtyard, leaves too, and feathers from the recently slaughtered chicken.
The man had come right up to me and grabbed my face with his hands, squeezing my jaws in a powerful grip. He looked me straight in the eyes and then slowly lowered his hand to my chest, stroking my uniform as if it was silk, lingering over my name tag. He probably couldn't read, but he peered at it for a while and then turned his head aside and spat on the ground. He grabbed one of my arms and pushed me toward another man who stood by, his Kalashnikov held in one hand as if it were a reed or a stalk, weightless. The commander pointed at the rooms along three sides of the courtyard and his soldiers pushed me toward one of these rooms, this cell, this terrible space which is like a grave, a tomb for the living. Inside the cell they shoved me to the ground and removed my shoes and socks, then my uniform. They hit me when I resisted. I heard the commander yelling to Waris that I was to be kept in the cell until they returned, that I was not to be let out under any circumstances. That much I understood from the gestures he made. It would take a little longer for me to understand the words he barked in his guttural voice.
I saw the boy who calls himself Bulbul that evening, just a glimpse of him. It must have been the outrageously red scarf he wraps around his filthy shirt collar that caught my eye. I stood at the bars of the small window, staring out at the courtyard, trying to make sense of what had happened, wondering whether this was real, whether I was imagining this insane scenario.
It started to quiet down, one or two seemingly able-bodied men had herded the sick ones into their cells, and a woman began to collect the odd bits of paper still floating around in the evening breeze. I watched her talking to a child, a thin young boy about eight, scrawny and ill-clothed, his mouth dark where saliva had dried in a circle around his lips. The child never answered, but kept playing with a wooden cart that had only three wheels. The woman did not look at him while she gathered the bits of paper and tucked them into her shawl. She just continued talking to him as if he was part of the conversation, as if his silence spoke words she could understand.
That's when I saw the edge of the red scarf float out of a clay oven fixed in a corner of the courtyard. In my confusion I thought it was a flame, for that is what one would expect to see leaping out of a tandoor meant for baking large, unleavened naan. Upon glimpsing the long, sinewy fingers which intrigue me so much now, I looked again, pressing my face against the cold bars of this cell, wondering if I had begun to hallucinate. First his head appeared, his eyes narrow slits assessing the situation, testing the air. Finally, after the woman and the child had made their way inside the compound, the rest of him emerged from inside the oven. He wore a pair of faded denim jeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo of a sports shoe company. And the red scarf, which he unwrapped and then wrapped again around his neck, carefully, as if he had all the time in the world, as if nothing was wrong, as if this is the way it had always been, this state of war.
He sauntered across the courtyard toward the rooms, rolling on the balls of his feet while patting his disheveled hair into place, on a casual evening stroll. Just before disappearing into the compound he looked toward my cell, shook his head, and whistled. I kept staring at him until he vanished into the veranda running along three sides of the compound. There was nothing after that, only the wind and the dust and the rustle of dry leaves.
September 24, 2002
This is Tarasmun, this place. It is an asylum for the mentally ill, the physically handicapped, the blind, deaf, and dumb, and the unwanted. There are roughly forty inmates here — Waris the caretaker tells me there were twice as many before the raids started. Many of the men were killed in the bombing, some of the younger ones had died of illness, others of poor conditions, and still others for lack of care. Each time there was a raid, the looters would take away the medicine and whatever remained of our rations. The food they consumed in their hideouts, deep caves carved into the sides of these impossible mountains, and the medicine they sold on the black market.
Everything is available on the black market — cans of condensed milk, cigarettes, even alcohol and videos of lewd film songs with cavorting women in tight sheath like clothes. Waris says Bulbul is the one who told him this; the boy even carried a picture of one such woman in a pink shift and black Rexine boots. This picture was cut in a circle and placed in the cap of a small tin which held his many treasures. I saw it when Bulbul came to exchange things with me, offering his plastic comb and a snort of the tobacco he held in the box if I would give him my underwear. I told him I would rather die than let him strip me of my shorts, but he didn't understand, and laughed at me, telling me that I was going to die in any case, that it didn't make any difference if I had my shorts on or not. When you're dead, he shouted, you're naked in front of God. And in front of the men who will bury you.
I have never really known if Bulbul is sane or not — sometimes his kindness is overwhelming, and at other times his cruelty cuts into the flesh like a dagger.
The day after Bulbul saw me in the cell, he appeared at the small window with a dented enamel mug and peered at me through the bars. I had spent the night huddled in a corner on the damp floor, nothing but a filthy burlap sack to cover me. Bulbul handed me the mug of hot tea and then stared at my near-naked state. After a while he smiled, then extended his hand through the bars and gestured for me to offer him mine. I did so, hesitating only because he seemed to not have washed in a long time. But his hands were clean, his fingernails scrubbed and polished. I shook his hand tentatively, fearing this gesture on his part, fearing what was to come next. Who among these people would befriend me, who could I trust? Bulbul squeezed my hand for a moment, then he stroked the inside of my palm with his finger. I dropped his hand as if it had passed an electric current through the contact. When I looked up at him he was grinning, rapidly flicking his tongue in and out of his cavernous mouth. I wanted to throw the hot tea onto his face, but thirst compelled me to calm myself. He stood at the bars for a while, then saluted me sharply and left.
September 25, 2002
I am trying to keep count of the days I am here by drawing a calendar on the last page of this book which must have been a register of some sort. There is a list of medicines on several of the pages, a kind of stocktaking. The rest of the pages are empty. The book is bound with red tape running along its spine. Bulbul found it in the office, which has already been ransacked by several groups of looters. He is fascinated by the fact that I can write — he showed me his own name in the Arabic script and then asked me to write it for him in English. I did, and then I watched as he traced the lines of the letters with his finger, as if he were caressing the cheek of a young child.
September 26, 2002
This morning the soldiers came again. They were not the ones I had been captured by; I couldn't recognize a single one. It seems that anyone can gain access to this place because of the hole blasted into the wall. I watched them from my cell as they went around exploring the compound, looking for things to loot, for people to harass, women to brutalize. There is a system to these raids — Waris the caretaker does not resist them anymore, probably having learned that to do so would amount to nothing except more harshness, more cruelty. Bulbul says the last time soldiers came through the hole they locked Waris in the kitchen and took his wife into an empty cell. Bulbul had heard her cries. The child they have adopted, Qasim, does not speak, a deaf-mute probably. Bulbul says he heard him cry that night. The rest of the compound was silent, as if the tongues of all the people here had been pulled out and chopped into pieces and scattered to the wind.
Bulbul tells me the stories about what goes on in the compound during the raids. I have begun to understand his language, the combination of foreign words he uses to explain the violence and desperation of the soldiers. We communicate in a jumble of words, even sounds, as Bulbul paints pictures of what has transpired here, what he thinks will happen, and where he would rather be: America, he tells me so often, and shows me the Sears catalog again and again, smiling and nodding as if his departure were imminent, guaranteed on the first flight out.
Bulbul tells me that this place was supported by the government before the country fell apart and power was hounded like a sack of grain in a famine. There was a doctor and several nurses, some ward boys, and a few janitors who tried to keep the place clean, washing out the cells daily, even airing the dirty blankets and dousing the inmates with lice-killing solution every so often. Bulbul remembers the time he was taken to the dispensary to be inspected for lice — he had protested that he was clean, but the ward boy stripped him down nevertheless and threw a bucket of cool antiseptic lotion on him. Khushboo, good smell, Bulbul said, taking a deep breath and flaring his nostrils. He insists that he still smells good, although I try to avoid breathing when near him. There is a sour odor in the air all the time — obviously, the janitors no longer clean the cells, the latrines have not been cleared since the first raid, and there is hardly any water left for bathing. Bulbul, in fact, is among the cleanest here, after Waris and his wife, Noor Jehan. She always looks like she has just washed, and sometimes I wonder if she is siphoning off the water in the well and keeping it for herself and her family.
The well stands in the middle of the courtyard, under the only tree which still has its limbs intact. This is where the inmates usually gather during the day, sitting under the shade of the tree, trying to remember the resonance of their own voices. The well had been covered with a wooden lid but that seems to have disappeared, and now all kinds of things float on the surface of the muddy water — once, I believe, I even saw a severed finger, or perhaps it was a twig, or my imagination playing tricks, or the distance from my window. It's hard to know what is real here — it's hard to know anything at all except the fact that the nights are longer and colder, and the days bleak and hopeless.
September 27, 2002
I have asked Bulbul to get me some more paper and some of the pens he managed to save from the bonfire that the rebels built the last time, burning everything they could find in the office of this asylum. I saw the fire rage through the middle of the courtyard, and heard the vials of medicine shatter in the heat, glassy screams of protest punctuating the deep breathing of ravenous flames.
Bulbul promises me plenty of writing material. He holds up a charred twig and scratches it along the wall, drawing a picture of a girl with large eyes and full lips. He looks at me and then smiles as he draws a heart around the girl. Then he leans forward and kisses the girl on the mouth, making a long, drawn-out sound like a man dying. I do not know how to react — I see a young man kissing a charcoal drawing of a girl etched onto a wall and I don't know how to feel. Even as I smile I am aware that there is a great sadness here, behind these walls, outside that wall with the gaping hole in it.
* * *
September 29, 2002
Bulbul tells me that Waris has asked him to help the few able-bodied men rebuild that hole in the wall. Waris believes it is the only way they can keep the looters out. I believe that after his wife was taken into that cell and possibly assaulted, Waris wants to make sure nothing of the sort will happen again. It is a good plan, to repair that hole in the wall. It will secure the compound.
It will also remove any chance I may have of getting the hell out of here. I don't know what to say to Bulbul — he looks at me as if he needs to report the day's events to me. I really don't want to know half of what he tells me — most of it seems implausible, much of it doesn't make any sense, and quite a bit is probably his own imagination. But at least it gives me something to look forward to, locked up here, waiting for this young man with the incongruous red scarf to saunter across the courtyard and disclose the day's details to me in a strange combination of tongues.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "No Space for Further Burials"
Copyright © 2010 Feryal Ali Gauhar.
Excerpted by permission of Akashic Books.
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