Every Man in This Village Is a Liar

An Education in War

by Megan Stack

28 June 2010


We Are Dust

One day I was in an abandoned Al Qaeda compound with a French reporter. We pored through trunks of documents and the mujahideen stood around smirking at our interest in worthless paper. The sun was hot and they were fasting for Ramadan, irritable and armed to the teeth. They bickered, and then they were screaming and I heard the safeties click off and looked up. Patrice let out a roar and lunged at them just before they start shooting. “No, no, no!” he hollered. “You stop that! You will kill us!” They looked at his white hair and slowly lowered their weapons in deference to his age and gender. Like lion cubs, they responded to shows of dominance.

War cannot be innocent, but sometimes it is naïve. And so we plunged forward, and our eyes were bound in gauze.

For a long time, it didn’t matter what happened. I was high on Afghanistan. The aching beauty of rock and sky, and the thick light smearing everything like honey. The jangle of tongues, confusion of smells, every human enterprise a cheap trifle of origami against this massive, unchanging earth.

War cannot be innocent, but sometimes it is naïve. At first the fight in Afghanistan felt finite and comprehensible. There had been an attack, an act of war, and America responded with conventional warfare against an objectively violent and repressive regime. You could disagree with the choice to invade, you could question the sense and bravery of bombing a country built from mud, but at least there was an internal logic, the suggestion of a moral thread, of cause and effect. And so we plunged forward, and our eyes were bound in gauze.

I was acutely aware that in witnessing war I was experiencing something both timeless and particular. I expected awful sights and I accepted them when they came. The war was an adventure and an exhilaration, an ancient, human force that had found its shape for this country, in this age. Perhaps only by comparing it with all that came later can I remember it as naïve. Death was everywhere, in the fields full of land mines, the villagers who hobbled without a leg, without an arm, staring from crutches. When I came to Afghanistan I had decided to look at the deaths of others, and to risk my own life. I had expected everything from war, danger and blood and hurt, and the war produced all of it.

Afghans lived on the edge of mortality, its tang hung always in the air, in their words. If death would come to us all, the Afghans couldn’t be bothered to duck. I was interviewing an Afghan commander one afternoon in the mountains when somebody started shooting at us. I backed down the ridge, lowered myself out of the line of fire. “Can you please ask him to come closer so we’re not getting shot at?” I asked the translator. The commander looked at me and laughed. He sauntered slowly down out of the bullets smirking all the way.

“We are dust.” The mujahideen liked to say that. We are dust.

One day, a messenger came to the Spin Ghar hotel. Zaman was inviting me back to his house for iftar, the sunset meal that broke each day’s fast through the holy month of Ramadan.

Zaman was about to command the ground offensive in Tora Bora and was therefore the closest voice I could find to an American representative. I wanted the story badly enough to return to his turf, but I couldn’t go alone. I needed a foreign man, somebody Zaman would feel tribally compelled to respect. So I invited the AP reporter Chris Tomlinson. “Whatever happens,” I told him, “don’t leave me alone with him.”

A flicker crossed Zaman’s face when he saw Chris. We settled onto velvet cushions, and Zaman’s servants heaped the floor with steaming flatbread, biryani, crisp vegetables, a shank of mutton. Chris and I had our notebooks at our sides, and we jotted away while Zaman held forth on the ground assault.

Suddenly Zaman looked at Chris.“Would you excuse us, please?” he said icily. “We need to talk in private.”

Chris stared at me, telegraphing: What should I do?

I glowered back: Don’t leave.

“Um, well,” Chris stammered, eyes flying around the room. He pointed at the door to the terrace. “I’m just going to step outside and smoke a cigarette. I’ll be right outside,” he added, looking at me.

As soon as the door closed, Zaman announced, “You’re going back to Pakistan.”

I laughed. “No, I’m not.”

“Yes. My men will take you there.”

“I’m sorry, but that’s a joke. I’m not leaving.”

“You can’t stay here anymore. Every time I see you, I forget what I’m doing. You are making me distracted.”

Through the windows, I watched the lone red ember of the cigarette float up and down the terrace.

“I’m sure you can control yourself,” I said slowly, trying to prolong the conversation. He was sliding my way on the cushions, his body closing the distance between us. His eyes were fixed on me, long face like a sly old goat.

“I’m in love with you,” he said. “I love you.”

“You’re not in love with me!” I spat out. “You don’t even know me.”

“I do know you,” he assured me.

I looked at him, his gray, dirty hair smashed down from his Afghan cap, lanky limbs swathed in yards of shalwar kameez, crouched in slippers on the floor.

“Look, I’m very flattered, but we are from completely different worlds. Where I come from, you can’t just—”

He interrupted me.

“I want to see your world,” he said. “I want to go there. With you. To know your family . . .”

I imagined Haji Zaman, decked in tribal dress, sipping coffee on my mother’s front porch in Connecticut, faithful AK-47 casually propped against the rocking chair. Haji Zaman and I, holding hands, peering over the rim of the Grand Canyon.

“It’s completely out of the question. And so’s Pakistan.”

With a sheepish look in my direction, Chris returned.

“Thank you very much for dinner,” my words tumbled out. “We have to get going now, to write our stories.”

Zaman protested, but I was already on my feet, swaying unsteadily on the pillows, tugging at the ends of my head scarf. We scrambled down the stairs and burst out into the orchards and vegetable gardens hemming the house, but the driver was nowhere to be seen.

“I can’t believe he left us!”

“It’s not too far back to town,” Chris said. “We can make it walking.”

“Do you remember the way?”

“I think so.”

The black night opened its mouth and swallowed us whole. Darkness quivered before us, taut as a stretched canvas, demanding to be filled. Our feet fumbled forward. I couldn’t remember the way; I hadn’t been paying enough attention. I’d been letting myself get carried along in days, flooded by experience, and now I was lost. Stars glittered overhead, brilliant scattershot. Beyond the road sprawled unseen fields, and land mines festered in the dirt. Figures moved in houses. A flush of light bruised the edges of black in the distance, and we kept walking toward it. The light grew and swelled, a distant peach rising into the night. Finally we could see the road ahead, the lights of cars swimming.

On the road, we flagged down a bicycle taxi. “Spin Ghar hotel, please.” We climbed into the tiny carriage, and the man pedaled off. Everything was color and light, chasing the black from my eyes. Music was playing somewhere, night rushing past. No steel car doors, no glass, no roof split us from the world. The bicycle cab trembled over ruts, plastered with diamond-shaped mirrors, gaudy with pink and blue and yellow paint. Strings of coins jangled as we careened through the electric wildness of open air.

The night pressed cool hands against my hot cheeks, ruffled my hair. Wind caught in my throat and then I was laughing, laughing to think that luck can change, just like that. The night was right there, choked with mysteries, shadows sliding down rutted roads, smells of sweet and dank from cooking pots, and the vastness of countryside. For a few minutes, death fell away, and it felt like freedom.


Photo (partial) by © Sergei Loiko

Megan Stack is currently Moscow Bureau Chief for the Los Angeles Times.  She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in international reporting in 2007 and won the Overseas Press Club’s Hal Boyle award for best newspaper reporting from abroad.

© 2010 Megan Stack

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