Somewhere in Afghanistan,
Sunday, October 23, 1983
Ibrahim's band, some sixty in all, traveled by night, sometimes on foot, sometimes on donkeys, occasionally in canvas-covered trucks driving without headlights not only as a matter of security, but because Afghans believed vehicles used less gasoline when they ran without headlights. Everywhere they went, peasants offered them shelter and shared the meager rations of food left to them after the passage of Russian commando units. Everyone recognized Ibrahim and he seemed to know dozens by name. The group would turn off the trail as soon as the first silver-gray streaks of light transformed the tops of the mountains high above them into murky silhouettes. Closely guarded by the mujaheddin, Anthony and Maria were led along narrow tracks marked by whitewashed stones. Scrambling up footpaths, they would reach one of the half-deserted, half-destroyed hamlets clinging to the sides of steep hills. Each hamlet had its mosque, surrounded by the stone houses that had not been destroyed in Russian air raids, and the rubble of those that had been hit. Inside common rooms fires blazed in soot-blackened chimneys. Calendars with photographs of the Kaaba at Mecca or the Golden Dome Mosque in Jerusalem were tacked to unpainted plastered walls next to the mihrabthe niche that marked the direction of Mecca. Pistachios and nabidth, a mildly alcoholic drink made of raisons or dates mixed with water and allowed to ferment in earthenware jugs, would be set out on linoleum-covered wooden tables. One morning, after a particularly arduous night-long march, a boy set a porcelain bowl filled with what looked like cooked intestines in front of Maria. She made a face and pushed it away. When Ibrahim taunted her, Mariawho had been raised in Beirut by her Lebanese-American fatherretorted with an old Arab proverb, "Yom asal, yom basal""One day honey, one day onions."
Ibrahim, a moody man who could explode in rage if he thought Islam was being mocked, spit out, "What do you Westerners know of onions? Here everyone has suffered, and deeply, at one time or another."
Hoping to draw biographical details out of Ibrahim, Anthony asked, "Are you speaking from personal experience?"
His eyes clouding over, Ibrahim stared out a window; clearly the story was distressing to him. "It was in the middle seventies," he recounted. "The Iranian SAVAK arrested me when I was transiting Tehran in the mistaken belief that I worked for Iraqi intelligence. This was before the start of the Iran-Iraq war when tension between the intelligence services ran high. The terrible part was that I did not know the answers to their questions so I was powerless to stop the torture, which lasted for three days and three nights. There are still moments when I feel the pliers biting into the nerves on my right arm and the pain shooting to my brain, and I must clamp my lips shut to keep from screaming." Beads of sweat materialized on Ibrahim's upper lip as he sipped nabidth from a tin cup. "I live with the memory of searing pain," he continued. Ibrahim retreated into himself for some time. Then, almost as if he were talking to himself, he picked up the thread of the story. "Believe me, I do not hold it against the Iranians. In their place I would have done the same. I have been in their place, here in Afghanistan, and I have done the same. When I convinced the SAVAK of my innocence they again became my comrades in the struggle against imperialism and secularism."
A thin boy who had lost a leg to a mine hobbled in on one crude wooden crutch deftly balancing a straw tray filled with small cups of green tea. Ibrahim distributed the cups and sat down cross-legged on a frayed mat to drink one himself. From high above the hamlet came the whine of jet engines. A mujaheddin darted into the room and reported something to Ibrahim. He muttered an order and his men quickly extinguished all their gas lamps and candles, and the small fire in the chimney. From another valley came the dull thud of exploding bombs. In the darkness Ibrahim murmured a Koranic verse. From the corners of the room, some of the fighters joined in.
Excerpted From The Company: A Novel of the CIA, starting at page 716 (hardback) by Robert Littell by permission of The Overlook Press, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © April 2002, Robert Littell. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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No Man's Land
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