A Mercy Killing in Kabul
The restaurant opens to the street and the jumble of Kabul’s downtown bazaar.
Stray dogs move in uneven packs past vendors whose listing burlap stalls lean into a quicksand of low lying fog. Police flatten the tires of illegally parked cars and the cars sink into the mud and potholes of the ruined road wheezing air in an odd sort of gasping unison while their irate owners shout obscenities at the police. In the sky above this splintered section of city, a plane’s white contrail cuts lazy curls that vanish almost as fast.
Inside the restaurant, wood tables full of bearded men wrapped in shawls crowd the uneven floor, the air heavy, the room seeming to swell and pulse against the smudged walls with the odor of sweat and unwashed bodies and the heat from burning charcoal. I see no place to sit. Then a man waves to me and points at a space open beside him.
I wash my hands in a sink by the door. Frigid water trickles from the faucet. A cook stands nearby in clothes blackened with grease; behind him hangs the carcass of a lamb, its fur a bundle at his feet, a bloody knife entangled in the matted hair. He hacks off chunks of meat and throws them into a pan popping with oil; then, as it browns, he cracks an egg over the meat. The yolk slides off and dances in the hissing, popping oil until it floats white and bubbly. I shake my wet hands, and the cook throws me a grimed washcloth to dry them. I hand it back to him and make my way through the crowd toward the table where the man who had waved me over waits.
He tells me his name, Ghul Rahman. Deep lines river out from around his eyes and mouth. Beside him sits a gaunt man who stares at me as do the rest of the men seated at the table, a singular contained attention focused entirely on me. Westerners don’t often go downtown by themselves for fear of being kidnapped or targeted in some other way. A drive-by shooting perhaps or a bomb or a rogue Afghan policeman emptying his gun into the chest of a western contractor. But I get more than a little stir crazy remaining behind the walls of my hotel when I am not working until I get hit with the feeling that I must leave, go somewhere. However, as an American in Afghanistan, I remain caged no matter what I do. There is a quality of “whites only” when I leave my hotel for some other place—a restaurant usually—considered safe for Westerners. Afghans are not allowed in these places and armed guards stand at every entrance.
So today, I’ve decided to venture out on my own away from the sanctum of my hotel, restaurants and other safe retreats. With so many eyes on me, however, I wonder with the growing unease of a child who cavalierly entered a dark room on a dare only to imagine the sounds of ghosts, if I’ve made a terrible mistake.
“Where are you from?” Rahman says leaning back as if he needs to regard me from a distance.
“United States,” I tell him. “Journalist. Where did you learn English?”
“The university. Do you need a translator?”
“No. I have one.”