"She is a very bad Muslim," Farouq agreed.
I continued to grin wildly, attempting to charm Pacha Khan.
"Is she scared of me?" he asked.
"What's going on? What's he saying?" I interrupted.
"He wants to know if you're scared of him," Farouq said.
"Oh no," I said. "He seems like a perfectly nice guy. Totally harmless. Very kind."
Farouq nodded and turned to Pacha Khan.
"Of course she is scared of you," Farouq translated. "You are a big and terrifying man. But I told her you were a friend of the Chicago Tribune, and I guaranteed her safety."
That satisfied him. Unaware of Farouq's finesse, I proceeded with my questions about Pacha Khan's deteriorating relationship with the Americans. Then I asked if I could have my photograph taken with the warlord, who agreed.
"Make sure you get the flowers," I told Farouq.
In one picture, Pacha Khan peered sideways at me, with an expression suggesting he thought I was the strange one. I snapped Farouq's picture with Pacha Khan as well. Souvenirs in hand, we left. But we still had two more hours of bumpy, unforgiving road south to the town of Khost, an experience similar to being flogged with baseball bats. Farouq taught me the numbers in the Dari language and told me about the real conversation he had with Pacha Khan.
"I don't think it's ethical to say I'm Turkish," I said.
"I don't think it's safe to say you're American. The Americans just killed his son. Trust me. I know Afghans. I know what I'm doing."
I shut my mouth, but I still didn't see what the big deal was. I had glasses. I was obviously harmless. And Pacha Khan seemed more bluster than bullet.
As we wandered around Pacha Khanistan, calling me naïve was almost a compliment; ignorant was more accurate. This was only my second trip to Afghanistan as a fill-in correspondent for the Tribune, and I was only supposed to babysit a war that nobody cared about while everyone else invaded Iraq. With my assumed swagger and misplaced confidence, I was convinced that I could do anything. Meeting a warlord whose son had just been killed by the Americans was nothing but a funny photo opportunity. I felt I was somehow missing out by not being in Iraq, the hitter sidelined for the championship game. Like everyone else, I figured Afghanistan was more of a sideshow than the big show.
Back then, I had no idea what would actually happen. That Pakistan and Afghanistan would ultimately become more all consuming than any relationship I had ever had. That they would slowly fall apart, and that even as they crumbled, chunk by chunk, they would feel more like home than anywhere else. I had no idea that I would find self-awareness in a combat zone, a kind of peace in chaos. My life here wouldn't be about a man or God or some cause. I would fall in love, deeply, but with a story, with a way of life. When everything else was stripped away, my life would be about an addiction, not to drugs, but to a place. I would never feel as alive as when I was here.
Eventually, more than six years down the road, when the addiction overrode everything else, when normalcy seemed inconceivable, I would have to figure out how to get clean and get out. By then, I would not be the same person. I would be unemployed and sleeping at a friend's house in Kabul. Dozens of Afghans and Pakistanis I met along the way would be dead, including one translator. Other friends would be kidnapped. Still other people would disappoint me, sucked into corruption and selfishness precisely when their countries needed them. I would disappoint others. None of us would get it right.
Excerpted from The Taliban Shuffle by Kim Barker. Copyright © 2011 by Kim Barker. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, 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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