And for hours he would sit reading, surrounded by his books. His favorite, in two beautiful leather-bound volumes, was Afghanistan in the Path of History by Mir Ghulam Mohammad Ghobar. The title was embossed on the cover in gold. Sometimes he read to me from it.
He also had the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, which had beautiful covers as well; but he did not read those to me. When I asked about them, he said he would give them to me when I was old enough.
In winter, he studied the poets Rumi, Shams Tabrizi, Hafiz, Sa'adi, and Omar-e-Khayyam. Sometimes he invited his friends to discuss the political affairs of Afghanistan and the world. But before long, the talk would turn to poetry. He always wanted me and my boy cousins to listen to what was being said, and to ask questions.
My sisters and girl cousins were never part of those discussions. Their lives moved on a different path from those of the boys, but they were always allowed to read Grandfather's books. Indeed, Grandfather always encouraged them to do so. "Education," he would say, stressing the word, "is the key to the future." They read lots of poetry, as well as novels by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, and some Afghan and Iranian novelists whose names no one knows in the rest of the world. All these books were in Dari.
Some of the older girls, including Wakeel's sisters, read Grandfather's books by Sigmund Freud long before I did. We could hear them whispering about something called "the Oedipus complex," and then laughing. As soon as any of the younger cousins got too close to them, though, they stopped talking and looked at us in a way to make us understand that we were not welcome.
One day during one of Grandfather's discussions, Wakeel raised his hand and asked what politics was all about.
One of Grandfather's friends answered, "In fact, politics is really just a bunch of lies, and politicians are very gifted liars who use their skill to control power and money and land."
"They must be devious people, then," Wakeel said.
"Which country has the most devious politicians?" Wakeel asked.
"Let me tell you a story, my son," Grandfather's friend said, clearing his throat. "Someone asked Shaitan, the devil, 'Since there is such a large number of countries in the world, how do you manage to keep so many of them in turmoil all the time, like Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and Palestine? You must be very busy.'"
"Shaitan laughed and said, 'That is no problem. Not for me.' He leaned back on his cushion and raised the mouthpiece of his chillum to his scaly lips. He drew in a sour-smelling smoke that made the water in the pipe turn black with oily bubbles, then let the smoke drain out of the corners of his mouth. 'There is one country on the earth that does a better job than me in creating problems everywhere.'"
"Really?" Wakeel asked. "Which country is more devious than Shaitan?"
"'It is called England,' Shaitan said."
My grandfather and his friends all laughed, and then they talked about poetry again.
It would be years before I understood the bad feelings that many Afghans have for England, which three times invaded Afghanistan and three times was driven out. For nearly three centuries, the English used Afghanistan like a playing field to challenge the Russians in a very ugly game. Neither side won, and neither side cared how many Afghans they killed or how much suffering they inflicted on Afghan people.
* * *
Those days were long in the past, like the battles between the ancient kings who had fought to rule our country. Life was smooth, and easy, and full of joy, except maybe for Jerk when we played tricks on him. Time moved graciously with the pace of the seasons, and nudged us gently through the stages of life. But then one night the air was filled with the unexpected cries of "Allah-hu-Akbar," and nothing has ever been the same since.
Copyright © 2013 by Qais Akbar Omar
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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