Atiq Shaukat flails about him with his whip, trying to force a passage through the ragged crowd swirling around the stalls in the market like a swarm of dead leaves. He's late, but he finds it impossible to proceed any faster. It's like being inside a beehive; the vicious blows he deals out are addressed to no one in particular. On souk day, people act as if in a trance. The throng makes Atiq's head spin. In thicker and thicker waves, beggars arrive from the four corners of the city and compete with carters and onlookers for hypothetically free spaces. The porters' effluvia and the emanations of rotting produce fill the air with an appalling stench, and a burden of relentless heat crushes the esplanade. A few spectral women, segregated inside their grimy burqas, extend imploring hands and clutch at passersby; some receive a coin for their trouble, others just a curse. Often, when the women grow too insistent, an infuriated lashing drives them backward. But their retreat is brief, and soon they return to the assault, chanting their intolerable supplications. Others, encumbered by brats whose faces are covered with flies and snot, cluster desperately around the fruit vendors, interrupting their singsong litanies only to lunge for the occasional rotten tomato or onion that an alert customer may discover at the bottom of his basket.
"You can't stay there!" a vendor shouts at them, furiously brandishing a long stick above their heads. "You're bringing my stall bad luck, not to mention all kinds of bugs."
Atiq Shaukat looks at his watch and clenches his teeth in anger. The executioner must have arrived a good ten minutes ago, and he, Atiq, is still dawdling in the streets. Exasperated, he starts hitting out again, wielding his many-thonged whip in an effort to part the flood of humanity, futilely harrying a group of old men as insensible to his blows as they are to the sobs of a little girl lost in the crowd. Then, taking advantage of the opening caused by the passage of a truck, Atiq manages to squeeze into a less turbulent side street and hastens, despite his limp, toward a building that stands oddly upright amid an expanse of rubble. Formerly a clinic, but fallen into disuse and long since ransacked by phantoms of the night, the building is used by the Taliban as a temporary prison on the occasions when a public execution is to take place in the district.
"Where have you been?" thunders a large-bellied, bearded man stroking a Kalashnikov. "I sent someone to fetch you an hour ago."
Without slackening his gait, Atiq says, "I beg your pardon, Qassim Abdul Jabbar. I wasn't home." Then, in a resentful voice, he adds, "I was at the hospital. I had to take my wife. It was an emergency."
Qassim Abdul Jabbar grumbles, not at all convinced, and puts a finger on the face of his watch, indicating to Atiq that everyone's growing impatient, and all because of him. Atiq hunches his shoulders and heads toward the building, where armed men waiting for him are squatting on either side of the main door. One of them stands up, dusts off his behind, walks over to a pickup truck parked about sixty feet away, climbs inside, guns the motor, and backs up to the prison entrance.
Atiq Shaukat extracts a ring of keys from under his long vest and rushes into the jail, followed by two militiawomen hidden inside their burqas. In a corner of the cell, in a pool of light directly under a small window, a veiled woman has just finished her prayers. The other two women, the ones from the militia, ask the prison guard to withdraw. Once they are alone, they wait for the prisoner to rise to her feet. Then they approach her, unceremoniously command her to keep still, and begin to bind her tightly, pinioning her arms to her sides and trussing her legs together at midthigh. Having verified that the cords are pulled taut and solidly knotted, they envelop the woman in a large sack of heavy cloth and push her ahead of them into the corridor. Atiq, who is waiting at the door, signals to Qassim Abdul Jabbar that the militiawomen are coming. He, in turn, tells the men in front of the jail to move away. Intrigued by the proceedings, a few onlookers form a silent group at some distance from the building. The two militiawomen step out into the street, seize the prisoner by her armpits, push and haul her up into the back of the truck, load her onto the bench, and sit beside her, so close that she's pinned between them.
Excerpted from The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra Copyright© 2004 by Yasmina Khadra. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, 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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