The most important business of the day was scheduled for late afternoon, when
Najeeb would meet yet another foreign journalist who wanted to hire him for
guiding and interpreting. A fixer, the job was called, and today's client was
With most of the journalists so far the routine had been pretty standard. They
spent their first few days doing interviews in the streets, liking the lilt of
the word "bazaar" in their copy and enjoying the way every merchant
invited them inside for tea. Najeeb translated while fending off hordes of
curious barefoot boys and legless beggars.
If there happened to be a demonstration that day, they covered it, taking care
to stay upwind from the tear gas. Then came the obligatory visit to a madrassah,
one of the religious schools that supplied the Taliban with so many foot
soldiers. Black-haired boys kneeling in straight lines on scrubbed marble
floors, heads bobbing as they recited the Koran. Then perhaps a chant or two of
"Death to America," before collecting quotes from the resident Holy
Najeeb and his clients always shared an awkward laugh in the taxi afterward, the
reporter never quite sure where Najeeb stood on these matters, and Najeeb never
eager to say, not when every cabbie was a potential informant.
Then, unless there was some new wave of refugees to badger, Najeeb would escort
his client east, three hours down the bouncing highway to the calm green
sterility of Islamabad, to seek out bureaucrats and diplomats who might grant
travel papers for the Afghan border--because Afghanistan was the ultimate goal
of every client, even if the border had been closed for weeks and would likely
stay that way awhile longer.
If it ever opened, Najeeb would probably cross it as well. Not that he enjoyed
gunfire. But at a pay rate of a hundred fifty dollars a day he couldn't afford
to say no, because the one thing that might yet get him out of this place was
Yet even as his supply of cash reached three thousand dollars and counting, the
American embassy grew ever more remote. A hasty security cordon that had gone
into place after September 11 had crept ever farther down the surrounding
boulevards. Now, a mere five weeks later, you couldn't get within blocks of the
place, and for the moment a visa was out of the question. Not only had most of
the embassy staff left the country, but there was now a waiting list, a clerk
told him by telephone. It might take weeks, even months. Meanwhile, reports
filtered back from the United States of young Pakistani men disappearing into
jails by the hundreds, gone without a word of explanation. So Najeeb bided his
time and stacked his crisp fifties and hundreds, stockpiling ammunition for a
battle that might never come.
Such was the drift of Najeeb's thinking that morning when, still on his knees,
he was startled by a whisking sound from over by the door. Had he completed his
prayers? He wasn't sure. The loudspeakers of the mosques were silent. A rickshaw
whined past outside, scouting for the day's first fare. He checked his
watch--still time for another cup of tea--but his eyes were drawn to a spinning
white object on the floor tiles. It was an envelope, just coming to rest.
Someone had shoved it beneath the door. He listened for departing footsteps, but
there was only the clopping of another horse, so he rose stiffly and crossed the
room, throwing open the door in expectation of discovering the crouching
messenger, caught in the act.
But there was no one. Nothing. And the stairwell was silent. It was as if the
envelope had fallen from the sky with the first shaft of sunlight. Shutting the
door, he picked it up. Whoever had sealed the cream-colored envelope had done so
without a single smudge, meaning he was either clean or careful.
Najeeb tore it open at the top and pulled out a folded sheet of paper of the
same creamy complexion. There was no letterhead or official markings, only a
handwritten message in black ink, neat and cramped, giving the impression of
someone not accustomed to writing. At the top were the numbers
"24:30," and the writing below was in Arabic. It was a passage from
the Koran. With no one there to watch, Najeeb allowed himself an irreverent
smile. No doubt he was about to receive a scolding from a neighbor, some lesson
in morals from a well-meaning meddler.
A Man Called Intrepid author dies aged 89(Dec 03 2013) William Stevenson, a journalist and author who drew on his close ties with intelligence sources to write two best-selling books in the 1970s, A Man Called...