Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War

[28 June 2010]

By Megan Stack

Excerpted from Chapter One of Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War by Megan Stack Copyright © 2010 by Megan Stack. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Cold dawn broke on the horizon outside. The bedroom door shushed open, bringing the morning air and a warlord on predator’s toes.

I lay in a nest of polyester blankets and listened to his footsteps cross the carpet. Every muscle pulled tight. You reveal yourself in breath, in the nerves of your face. Count the breaths, in and out. He sat on the edge of the bed. Smooth breath, relax your eyes, don’t let the lids shake. Then his calloused old hand was stroking my hair, cupping my scalp, fingers dripping like algae onto my ears and cheeks.

The warlord lived in Jalalabad, in a swath of Afghanistan where the soil is rich with poppies and land mines, in a house awash in guns. People whispered that he was a heroin trafficker. His tribal loyalists clotted the orange groves and rose gardens outside, AK-47s in dust-caked fingers. They said he was ruthless in war, that his skin was scarred by an arrow. There was a vague whisper about a legendary ambush, the warlord killing enemies with his bare hands. And now those ropey hands were petting my hair, silent and brazen.

cover art

Every Man in This Village Is a Liar: An Education in War

Megan Stack

(Knopf Doubleday)

I clung to one thing: Brian, the photographer, was in the bathroom. Water slapped the floor. How long would his shower last, and how could I escape the warlord’s lechery without offending him? The truth was, we needed him. He was an enemy of the Taliban, funded by the U.S. government, making a play for power in the vague, new order that had begun when American soldiers toppled the Taliban government. I was a stranger here, and he was my best source. He said he knew where Osama bin Laden was hiding. And now he was petting me like a puppy; nobody could sleep through it. The bed creaked. Stale breath sank in my face. Papery lips pressed my forehead. I opened my eyes and tried to look groggy.

“What are you doing?”

“Sshhh.”

I struggled upright, cleared a phlegmy throat, and tried to sound dignified: “You are putting me into a very awkward position.” A black-and-white movie line, spilling out in a moment of panic.

He smiled and reached for my face.

“Please don’t do that,” I snapped.

Then, suddenly, silence. The water stopped, the pipes fell quiet. The warlord glanced around, stood, and slipped back out of the room.

Brian stepped out; his hair gleamed with water.

I turned my eyes to him and hissed: “We’ve got to get out of here.”

I had met Mohammed Zaman weeks earlier, in Peshawar— a cramped kaleidoscope of a city perched on the last edge of organization and authority in Pakistan. To the west stretched the lawless tribal territories, the Khyber Pass, the Afghan frontier. Driven away by the Taliban, Zaman had been living an exile’s life in Dijon, France, before September 11. Under chilly French skies he’d pined after his family’s lands, the service of armed tribesmen, and, presumably, the rich, fresh fields of Afghan poppy. When U.S. jets started dropping bombs on Afghanistan, Zaman raced back to Peshawar and holed up in a rented house, waiting for the Americans to dispose of the Taliban and clear the path home— and eager to make some money while he was at it.

I sat in the shadows of a taxi late one night, my face and head draped in scarves, making my way through the jangling streets of Peshawar for an audience with Zaman. I liked it, all of it, enormously— the poetry of the place, the intrigue of war, imagining myself veiled in the back of a clopping carriage, bringing secrets to a bootlegger. The warlord’s return had drawn throngs of men for endless meetings; I picked my way around the crowds on the lawn and sat waiting in a long drawing room. A door opened and out marched an American diplomat I’d seen at the embassy. His eyes skimmed mine and he hurried on, stone-faced. He didn’t like being spotted there. I sat and watched him leave.

Zaman came out, tall and deliberate, face sagging from his skull. We sat with tea between us, and I asked him to take me to Afghanistan when he went.

He was solemn. “I take your life on my honor,” he said from the heights of his mountainous nose. “They will have to kill me before they can harm you.”

A few days later, we set off for war. The sun sank as we drove toward the Khyber Pass, storied old route of smugglers and marauders. Men pounded through a field hockey match in a haze of setting sun and rising dust. “Dead slow,” ordered a traffic sign. “These areas are full of drugs,” muttered the driver. In my head shimmered gilded pictures of the Grand Trunk Road, the Silk Road, Kim. On the edge of Afghanistan, stars crowded the sky, dull and dense. We crossed the border and plunged into the enormous uncertainty of this new American war. Forty Afghan fighters waited for us, young men and boys nestled together in pickup trucks. They shivered in the stinging night and gripped grenade launchers, chains of machine gun rounds trailing from the trucks. We drove alongside the Kabul River, past the shadowed bulk of mountains and tractors, along fields of tobacco and wheat. At the edge of Jalalabad, the deserted dinosaurs of rusted Soviet tanks reared from the ground.

In the core of the dusty night, we pulled up to his house. Zaman served a feast and stayed awake with us, lolling on the floor around the vegetables and lamb and spinning out long, fatigued stories. We blinked and yawned but Zaman pushed on toward sunrise. He was selling his case even then, from those earliest hours. Osama bin Laden had fled to the nearby White Mountains, he said, to the caves cut into stone, to Tora Bora. The terrorist and his followers still lurked nearby. If America was serious about this war on terror, the terrorists needed to be flushed out. He could do the job; he only needed guns, money, and equipment.

He talked on and on, weaving French into English, until the dawn call to prayer rang from a whitening sky. His words melted together. My chin was falling. I slept on the floor, and woke up in the new Afghanistan.

The first days with Zaman were easy. The stories fell like ripe fruit. But when he tiptoed to my bed, I knew we had to scrounge for another roof. There was nowhere to go but the Spin Ghar hotel, a crumbling Soviet relic rising from tangles of garden and derelict trees. Rank smells wafted through the cold corridors, over chipped linoleum, past cracked plaster walls. Mad jumbles of bodies crowded the lobby— foreign reporters, Afghans, hired gunmen in their robes and eye paint, all sprawled on the grass, smoking on the steps, flooding over the balconies.

The electricity died that night, and gas lanterns shivered in the dark cavern of the hotel dining room. Everybody was very quiet. There was bad news.

Some of the reporters had set off for Kabul in a convoy that day. Two hours out of town, Afghan bandits stopped the first car and shot the passengers dead: a Spaniard, an Afghan, an Australian. There was an Italian woman, too, who was raped and then killed. The rest of the reporters squealed their cars around and came back to Jalalabad. The bodies were abandoned on the road. It was the first lost gamble, and it pulled us a little farther into war.

Now we in the dark dining room were rendered survivors, the ones who hadn’t died. The faces swim out of darkness, painted in wisps of gaslight. They are talking about the abandoned bodies, about who fetched them. I feel empty. I have no reaction. It is a gap inside of me, like putting your tongue where a tooth used to be. I know that I should feel something; to feel something is appropriate and human. I stay silent so that the others will not realize that I am gaping like a canyon. I am not absolutely sure this is real; it’s so very far from where we started. On September 11, I was in Paris, and then in Bahrain, an aircraft carrier, and Pakistan, moving slowly, unconsciously closer to here, tonight. America is at war, and we are all here too, at the edge of death, just like that, in just a few weeks. And so we are on an island, and so the roads are a place to die.

The Punch Line to a Parable

In my room the darkness is thick as tar. My fingers can’t find a lock on the door. I am groping when the door cracks forward with a grunt of Pashto. I can’t see the Afghan man but I push at him, throw my arms into the darkness and find flesh, drive him back. His cries are pure sound to me. I don’t care. After Zaman at my bedside and reporters dead on the road, this man cannot stay. Our American and Afghan words mean nothing when they hit the other ear. We are stripped of all understanding, battling in the blackness. I shove him into the hall and force the door closed against the last pieces of him, a kicking foot, a grasping arm. Later on, I realize he was probably the sweet-faced cleaning man who shuffled like a kicked stray through the corridors at night. Later I laugh, a little embarrassed. But on this night, I have vanquished. I lean limp against the door of my stinking little cave, conqueror of misunderstood forces.

It’s one of the world’s oldest logic problems, folding in on itself like an Escher sketch. If he’s telling the truth, he’s lying. If he’s lying, he’s telling the truth.

Back in Pakistan, before I crossed over into Afghanistan, somebody said to me: “Every man in this village is a liar.” It was the punch line to a parable, the tale of an ancient Greek traveler who plods into a foreign village and is greeted with those words. It is a twist on the Epimenides paradox, named after the Cretan philosopher who declared, “All Cretans are liars.” It’s one of the world’s oldest logic problems, folding in on itself like an Escher sketch. If he’s telling the truth, he’s lying. If he’s lying, he’s telling the truth.

That was Afghanistan after September 11.

You meet a man, and his story doesn’t sound right. You stare at him and your brain is chewing away, and out of the corner of your eye something bizarre and fantastic trails past— a pair of mujahideen with their fingers intertwined, plastic flowers glowing in black hair, winking and fluttering with the kohl-rimmed eyes of two besotted lovers. And you can’t help but look, but then all you can do is watch these strange peacocks, stunned by the magenta homoeroticism of this dry, pious land. By the time you peel your attention back and stop your thoughts from whirling, the man you were trying to weigh out is long gone. Afghanistan was meaning washed away in floods of color, in drugs, guns, sexual ambiguity, and Islam.

I met a young man who spoke Arabic and English, which was rare and fancy for provincial Afghanistan. He had worked for bin Laden, and I was certain his sympathies lay with the Taliban, with Al Qaeda. We sat together and had long interviews. Later I found out he worked for the CIA. They gave him a satellite phone, and he was calling in coordinates for bombing targets.

Maybe that’s why nobody believed the warlords when they kept saying that Osama bin Laden was hiding in Tora Bora. A pity, because it was true: Osama bin Laden packed his bags and fled into the mountain redoubt near Jalalabad after September 11. The caves were his last stop before he lost his substance and melted into the world’s most famous phantom. Catching bin Laden was the first important thing the United States set out to do after September 11. The job was bungled so thoroughly that the war never really found its compass again. Here in eastern Afghanistan, the Americans would begin to lose the plot.

Those days were deep with dimensions; conflicting things happened at the same time, on top of one another. Kabul had fallen to the Northern Alliance, but in the east, the war pounded on. The Afghans who’d opposed the Taliban were in a renaissance, and neck deep in the swirl of their ancient clan rivalries. The warlords plotted tribal revenge, scrapped for control of the heroin trade, lined their pockets and trolled for power. They tossed enemies into moldy jail cells, and sold them to the Americans who were rounding up jihadis. If you asked them why, they’d smile in chilling self-satisfaction and say, “He’s a terrorist.” Maybe it was true, and maybe it wasn’t, but the days were slipping away too quickly for anybody to quibble.

Jalalabad had been a headquarters for Al Qaeda, home to a training camp and vast housing complexes built by the influx of Saudis, Kuwaitis, Chechens—“Arabs,” resentful locals called the rich Al Qaeda members who had taken up residence in sequestered communities. Osama bin Laden, with his wives and children, called Jalalabad home years before September 11. Now he huddled a few hours’ drive away in Tora Bora, the masterfully defensible cave complex built with CIA money back when America was fighting the Communists instead of the terrorists. U.S. warplanes hammered the mountains, but their intelligence was coming from Afghans who manipulated the firepower to suit their own interests.

I learned to count the fighter jets that passed overhead in my sleep. There were no other airplanes in the Afghan skies; there was only the war. When thin dawn light creaked into the room, I’d know that three warplanes had passed. I woke up knowing, and remembering nothing.
I have this memory, clear as glass: Sunset spilled all over the horizon. In the velvet grass below the hotel terrace, the drivers were bent on their prayer rugs, the guerrillas paced in the gravel, the palms and pines deepened in the dying light. Then a B-52 sliced a white gash into the sky. All of the reporters and translators and soldiers stood still, stared at the heavens, and waited to see where the bombs would fall. The planes thundered past every day, but for some reason on that day we stood there in collective awe. Maybe everybody had forgotten about the war for a minute, and then it was there again.

One day, Zaman’s men brought the bodies of eight dead guerrilla soldiers down from the mountains and laid them out on the hospital floor. Then he herded in a great swarm of reporters to gape and snap photographs. He stalked over the dead, face twisted with rage, railing about the bombings. The Americans were killing peasants loyal to him, and now his mujahideen. They must be using old maps, he thundered. Who is telling them where to bomb? Do these look like Al Qaeda to you?

The dead men were skinny, all of them, muddy and ragged. One man’s face had been blown off. Another lay with the back of his head gone, his brains leaking. Filtered sunlight spilled onto the floor; the smell of death was heavy. An American reporter fell on the ground and lay there crying. I looked at her, and at the corpses. Intellectually, I knew that her reaction was appropriate, but I felt disgusted by her weakness. Staring down at the bodies, I felt numb, light, as if my own body might vaporize, as if I didn’t need to breathe.

The dying were worse than the dead. They came down from the hills in rattling caravans, slow as torture over bone-cracking roads of mud and rock, bleeding all over the backseats of rattletrap cars. Three hours, four hours, bright red lives seeping away.

They wound up in the dim wards of Jalalabad’s filthy hospital. There weren’t enough antibiotics or antiseptics. Little girls who wouldn’t live through the night were stacked two to a cot, covered in blood. A baby with its head caked in scab and pus and one eye full of blood cried in the listless arms of a young, young girl. A little boy who had lost his arms, his eyesight, and his family lay motionless in the hot afternoon. The rooms smelled of sweat and infection; flies and woolen blankets. All of it coming down from those American planes.

We drifted out of the hospital. In the car I tasted metal. After a long time, Brian spoke.

“That was pretty bad.” He cleared his throat.

“Yeah.”

We looked out the window, and the driver turned up the music. The sunlight and the dust were gilding everything to silver. The spindly dome of trees cupped the road, bicycle spokes flickered and goats plodded in the blue fog of exhaust. Afghans were rushing home from the market, arms loaded with fresh meat and vegetables to break the Ramadan fast. The hotel room was dark and cold. I opened a pad of paper and tried to make some notes. This is what I wrote:

I didn’t mean to really see these things. I didn’t know how it would be. Late one night, bombs fell on the village of Kama Ado, a tiny, isolated hamlet of mud houses. I interviewed people who were hauled from the wreckage. I wrote a story about it. I fell asleep.

By morning, my story wasn’t the same. Instead of leading with the news of the crushed village, the top of the story had Pentagon officials denying reports of the bombing. The first voice in the article was no longer that of an Afghan victim. Instead, it was a Pentagon official who said: “This is a false story.”

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the same: “If we cannot know for certain how many people were killed in lower Manhattan, where we have full access to the site, thousands of reporters, investigators, rescue workers combing the wreckage, and no enemy propaganda to confuse the situation, one ought to be sensitive to how difficult it is to know with certainty, in real time, what may have happened in any given situation in Afghanistan, where we lack access and we’re dealing with world class liars.”

I read it once. I read it twice. Were we to believe the village had spontaneously collapsed while U.S. warplanes circled overhead?

Jalalabad slipped out of the Taliban’s hold as easy as a boiled tomato loses its skin. No bloodshed, just a lot of abandoned buildings and cars, ripe for the grabbing by guerrillas who rushed down from the mountains. The mujahideen swarmed the streets, dirty children run amok in an empty house. They were old and weary, or young and wild; the middle-aged men were mostly dead. Mujahideen is Arabic for “strugglers,” but it’s understood to mean “holy warriors.” In Afghanistan, they are the men with guns, the ones who sleep where they lie and fight for their tribal patriarchs in a senseless string of conflicts.

Stoned on hash and hopped up on war, draped in ragged smocks and blankets, the young mujahideen lingered on every corner, fired into the night skies to hear the guns scream in the empty streets. They imposed curfews, lit bonfires in the middle of the roads, and lorded it over the city until sunrise. They beat people to feel powerful, to watch the peasants scamper away from their clubs in the bazaar.

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.

CAPTION XXX

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

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/125567-every-man-in-this-village-is-a-liar-an-education-in-war/