My Forbidden Face by Latifa
The White Flag on the Mosque
Tuesday January 29, 2002
|My Forbidden Face
27 September 1996, 9.00 a.m. Someone knocks violently at the front door. The entire family jumps. We've been in a nervous state since dawn. My father walks hastily out of the room. My anxious mother follows him with her eyes. Her features are drawn in fatigue. She hasn't slept all night. No one has slept. The rocket fire around the city went on until two in the morning. My sister, Soraya, and I whispered in the dark. We didn't stop even once it had grown quiet. There was no real rest to be found anywhere.
You'd think that in Kabul we'd have grown used to being rocket targets. I'm sixteen and I'm convinced I've always heard them. The city's been encircled for so very long. It's been attacked and bombarded and attacked again. Murderous gangs have set us on fire and smoked us out, sometimes sent us running down to the distant cellar for shelter. One more night of upheaval should be just part of the routine.
But today feels different.
Father comes back into the kitchen. Right behind him is our young cousin, Farad. He's breathless and a ghastly colour and looks as if he's shivering on the inside. His whole face is fear. He has trouble speaking, the words fall all over each other interspersed with strange gphps.
'I came... to get your news. Is everything OK? You didn't see anything? You don't know anything? But they're here! Yes, they've taken Kabul. The Taliban are in Kabul. Didn't they bang on your door? Didn't they demand all your arms?'
'No. No one came,' my father mutters. 'But we saw the white flag blowing above the mosque. We've been fearing the worst. Daoud saw it this morning.'
This morning at about five when he went down as usual to fetch water from the building's communal tap, my young brother, Daoud, rushed back up quickly, the bucket in his hand still empty. 'I saw a white flag on the mosque and another on the school!'
The flag of the Taliban. It had never yet fluttered above Kabul. I've only ever seen it on television or in newspaper photographs.
We knew the Taliban were close. It was repeated around town that they held a position only some ten or fifteen kilometres away from the capital. But no one really thought they'd get as far as this. As far as Kabul. We kept trying to find some news on radio or television, but there was nothing. Nothing at all. We've had neither sound nor image since six o'clock last night. This morning, my father tried once more to reach the rest of the family in Kabul. But all in vain. The telephone was still dead.
Nervously, I fiddle with the knob on the radio. It's meant to work on batteries, but it only crackles. Neither Radio Kabul, the local station, nor the BBC, nor the Voice of America, which I look for on the off-chance, manifest themselves... If Farad hadn't dared to cycle like a madman to get here, to cover those two dangerous kilometres which separate our neighbourhoods, we would still have no news, nothing apart from those billowing white flags.
What Farad has seen is so terrifying he's rendered almost dumb. Then suddenly, everything pours out of him in one long breathless exclamation.
The five of us have turned to stone. We can't find anything to say in response.
Since the early morning, despite the white flags reported by my brother, I've been in denial. The government forces must have pulled back only to retrench and do battle again, I tell myself. They've merely taken momentary refuge a little further north, in another suburb of the city. The Mujahidin couldn't have abandoned Kabul.
I've heard and read so much about the Taliban that I want to ignore the reports, pretend they're not true. Radio Kabul has told us they're locking up the women, preventing them from going to work or school. Women don't have lives anymore. The Taliban take away daughters, burn peasants' houses, enlist men by force. The Taliban want to destroy our country.
Yesterday life was still 'normal' in Kabul, despite the ruins and the civil war. Yesterday, I went to the dressmaker's with my sister to try on the dresses we were to wear at a wedding that was to take place today. There would have been music. We would have danced.
Life can't just stop like this on 27 September 1996! I'm sixteen and there's still so much to do - get through my entrance exam for a journalism course at university, for one thing. No, it's altogether impossible that the Taliban will stay in Kabul. This is just a temporary setback.
I hear my father arguing with Daoud, but I only take in bits of their conversation because I'm so upset.
'Najibullah's a Pashtun, just like them. It's mad that they're taking it out on a fellow Pashtun. And they seized him in the United Nations Building. Then they hung him. It doesn't make any sense.'
My father, too, is a Pashtun, the dominant ethnic group in our country. Like many others, he thought that if by some misfortune the Taliban invaded the capital, they'd certainly round up Najibullah, not in order to hang him, but to liberate him and to propose that he participate in their new government.
The Kabulis don't like Najibullah much, our one-time head of government. He's a man who can move from one side to the other as easily as the drug and arms traffickers move across the border with Pakistan. My father judges him harshly and thinks he's a traitor to our country, corrupt and criminal. Najibullah was the head of the Afghan Communist Secret Service, the Khad, our very own and sinister equivalent of the Soviet KGB. At the time of the last coup in April 1992, when the Resistance laid siege to Kabul, he simply fled. The army caught up with him at the airport where he was about to get on a plane bound for some foreign destination. When they forced him to stay, he took refuge in the UN building not far from Ariana Square, and he hasn't come out since. Until today, that is.
I was still a child when President Najibullah made a speech calling for reconciliation between the various sides of the Resistance. He stood on the very square where Farad just saw him hanging. If the Taliban can go and get a former president out of the United Nations headquarters in Kabul, that can only mean that terror and chaos are now our rulers.
My cousin Farad is still in a state of shock. He's worried about his parents, too, and doesn't want to stay away from home for too long.
'If you have to go out, Uncle, take care. I've seen them hitting people with huge whips. They're terrifying, dressed like Pakistanis in long floppy trousers. They're parading round in pick-ups, and only stop at random to beat people in the crowd - especially anyone without a beard. And you haven't got a beard.'
Farad doesn't have one either. Does one grow a beard when one's a sixteen-year-old in jeans and trainers? A sixteen-year-old, like so many others, who listens to rock and dreams along to the sentimental Indian love stories we like to read.
The Taliban all wear beards. They state that beards have to be as long as a hand. They never wear a pakol, which is our traditional Afghan beret, sign of the Resistance. A lot of them aren't Afghani, or even Pashtun. Pakistan supports them and recruits them abroad. The pictures we see on television and the reports from witnesses in the Taliban-occupied provinces attest to that: in their ranks there are lots of Pakistanis, but also Arabs who've come from various other Muslim countries. The majority of them don't even speak our language.
My father's watching the street from the terrace of our apartment. The neighbourhood is quiet. The Taliban flag is still floating gently above the mosque. But in our heads there's a storm. We look at each other. Farad quickly swallows a glass of hot tea. Father comes in from the terrace and shakes his head. He can't make himself believe that the Taliban have really hung Najibullah.
This morning my father and I won't go jogging with our dog, Bingo. This morning, Father's asking himself a thousand silent questions. He keeps them to himself because he doesn't want to trouble Mother any more than she already is after the ordeal of seventeen long years of war. War, fighting, that's all I've known, really, since my birth on the first day of spring, 20 March 1980. But even under the Soviets, even under the rocket fire of enemy factions, even amidst the ruins, we still lived freely in Kabul.
What kind of life will my father be able to offer his family now? What kind of fate awaits his children? I've had the good fortune to be born into a loving and united family, at once religious and liberal. My oldest sister, Chakila, is married and lives, as custom would have it, with her parents-in-law. They're in Pakistan and she's waiting for her husband to send for her from the United States where he is. Soraya, who's twenty, is single and for the last three years has worked as a flight attendant on Air Ariana. She came home the day before yesterday from her regular Dubai run and was meant to leave again this morning. Daoud is an economics student, and I, well, I've just passed the first part of the exam which will enable me to become a journalist. That's what I've always wanted to be. My father and my entire family have been hoping that I'd succeed in my studies, become a reporter, and travel the country to earn my keep. Can all that have changed from one second to the next?
I need to go to Ariana Square to see what's happening. So does my sister. We have to see to believe. To believe that the Taliban really are here in our city, that they've really hung Najibullah and his brother, that the catastrophe whose reality I refused to consider until yesterday is now actually upon us. My elder brother, Wahid, who was in the army at the time of the Soviet occupation and who was then wooed into the Resistance ranks of Commander Massoud, always said about the Taliban as they made their way south, 'You can't imagine the support they've got from foreign powers. Nobody in Kabul has any idea. They're really powerful. They've got modern means. The government will never hold up against them.'
At the time, we thought he was a pessimist. Now we know he was probably right. But in order to convince myself, I have to go and see these Taliban with my own eyes.
My father wants to go too. We'll take the car. Daoud will stay with my mother, who's too fragile for this kind of spectacle.
Farad tries to deter us. 'You shouldn't go out,' he tells my father. 'It's not safe. Stay home.'
But we need to witness these incredible events for ourselves. If I were really a reporter, it would be my duty to go to the square. I've never seen Najibullah, except for a few appearances on television, which I don't remember properly because I was too small. Of late, people said that he was writing his autobiography. I was eager to read it. Even traitors, even supporters of the Soviets, are part of our recent history. If you want to be a journalist, you have to read everything, know everything, understand everything.
Soraya and I prudently put on long dresses and our chadors, the veils we normally only wear at home for prayers. My usual gear is jogging trousers, a polo neck or pullover and trainers. But not today. We've been forewarned. Father goes to get the car, which is parked near the mosque, not far from our building. Farad follows us down the stairs, his sturdy made-in-China bicycle on his shoulders. We wait downstairs together for the car to arrive.
One of the neighbours calls out to us, 'Have you heard? It seems they've hung Najibullah on Ariana Square. What do you make of it?'
My father signals discreetly to us to be wary. In Kabul and even in our quarter, which is called Mikrorayan, you never know quite whom you might be talking to. The four modern boroughs that make up this eastern quarter of the capital were built by the Soviets and constitute a kind of concrete village. The great blocks of apartment buildings are numbered block one, block two, and so on in Soviet style. We also have our own commercial centre and school. A lot of high-ranking Afghan Communist Party civil servants lived here, because the area was considered to be more comfortable and luxurious than those with traditional houses. Most of the residents know each other and we, of course, know this neighbour. What we don't know is what banner he might have chosen to shelter himself under this morning.
Soraya answers him politely and with her usual calm sweetness. 'We heard about it, too. We're going to see what's going on.'
'My daughter would love to go with you.'
Farad whispers to Soraya, 'It would be better not to have anyone with us. You never know what might be happening over there.'
Farad has little sisters and a sense of responsibility. And though the neighbour's daughter persists, our 'no' remains a 'no'.
We drive along the road to the main Kabul square. Sitting in the back with Soraya, I think of the wedding we won't be going to. Earlier, when I mourned the dresses we were meant to pick up from the dressmaker's today, my mother reprimanded me harshly. 'Have you got any clue what's going on, Latifa? And here you are talking about dresses!'
My father intervened. 'Don't worry, I'll go and pick them up later.'
I know that I'm a teenager spoiled by her father and pampered by her older sisters. Up until now, I've grown up with a lot of freedom. School, college, the pool on Sundays, shopping expeditions with my friends in pursuit of the latest cassettes and videos, novels to devour late at night in my bed. I pray that the Resistance hasn't let us down.
Father stops on the road. A friend of his, a pharmacist, seeing him at the wheel has signalled to him. The man's brother has an important government post. 'If you're heading towards Ariana Square, I'd turn back right now.'
'We want to see things with our own eyes.'
'All right then. But take care. And stop on your way back. There's something I want to tell you.'
There are fewer people than usual on the streets. We see men, but very few women. The faces I notice are stiff, expressionless. People seem to be in a state of shock. But everything is oddly calm.
It takes us about fifteen minutes to reach the avenue which runs between the airport and Ariana Square. Traffic is congested here. This is the modern centre of the city. My father announces that he's going to circle it once very quickly and then will park further along. We drive in front of the American Embassy, the television headquarters, the Air Ariana building. All the doors are solidly shut.
Tears fill Soraya's eyes. 'Maybe I'll never be able to come and work here again. Even the television centre is closed.'
My father turns at the angle of Peace Avenue where the UN building stands. In front of us is the Ministry of Defence, where Commander Massoud used to have his office. And that's where we see it. Just opposite the Ariana Hotel, Kabul's most luxurious and largely frequented by tourists and western journalists, there's a kind of observation platform used by police to guard the Ministry. Two bodies swing from the improvised gallows. Father tells us to look quickly: he's not intending to go round the square twice.
'Look carefully at their faces. We want to be certain that it really is Najibullah and his brother.'
It really is. They swing side by side, the former president, Najibullah, in traditional Afghan clothes, and his brother in a western suit. One hangs by a plastic pipe passed under his arms, the other by the neck. Najibullah's face is recognizable though blue and covered with great brown and yellow bruises. He must have been lynched before they hung him. His brother's face is intact, but has the pallor of wax. They've shoved cigarettes into Najibullah's mouth, stuffed his pockets with visible banknotes as if to prove his greed. He looks as if he's vomiting cigarettes.
The spectacle is humiliating and so frightening that I burst into tears. I'm both disgusted and afraid. So is my sister. But neither of us can stop staring.
Father parks the car a good distance from the crowd. As he turns off the engine, he says, 'I'm going back there now, but you stay in the car. Don't move. I noticed my friend, the pharmacist. He must have changed his mind and decided to come as well. I'm going to have a word with him.'
We stay alone, huddled against each other and gazing at the little groups that form and disband in the distance.
Farad hasn't exaggerated. The Taliban are wielding whips - or rather, some kind of metallic cable. They hit out at random and with no care for passers-by. They're forcing them to assemble on the square and take in the horrific spectacle. I can't altogether make out the details of their whips. Soraya thinks they have leaded tips. I'm not sure.
'But yes,' she insists. 'Look properly. That one's hitting a boy. Look how he doubles over. An ordinary cable wouldn't hurt that much.'
Ten minutes go by. Alone in the car, hidden beneath our chadors, our heads lowered, we're silent now. We're both thinking of the disaster that has just fallen on our city and we're worrying about what will happen to us. Rumours about the Taliban abound. I fear I won't be going to university. I won't even have the education our mother did. She studied at the senior school in Zarghouna. She didn't wear the veil. Her father had bought her a bicycle, just like mine, so that she could get to school. She grew up at a time when girls wore knee-length skirts. She got a nursing diploma, worked in a hospital, then specialized in gynaecology and got a further degree. Now she's forty-eight, retired and tired out, after having brought up five children and spent most of her life looking after sick women. But two or three times a week, she still sees patients at home and for free.
Our country needs its women. For years now, it's been women who've taken on posts in administration, teaching, health. So many widows, so many children, so much preventative care and emergency work to be done. So many daily battles to be fought against people's ignorance of modern medicine. Mother has lived through so much suffering that the Taliban's arrival in Kabul will take a great toll on her.
Father is on his way back. We can see him in the distance. His shoulders are hunched. He sits down at the wheel without breathing a word. His head is bowed. We respect his silence.
Then, as he starts the engine, he begins to speak.
'I talked with the pharmacist. His brother told him that just before Massoud's troops left the city, one of the Commander's friends came to find Najibullah in the UN building in order to warn him and to propose that he leave the city with them. Najibullah refused. He said he was in the midst of writing his book. He also said that the Taliban would be giving him an important position, maybe even that of prime minister. So he was going to stay.'
In fact many people thought that if the Taliban took power, the king would come back and Najibullah would once again take on some official function. But now, there he is hanging on Ariana Square.
Father is speaking again. 'He stayed on in the UN building without protection. At about four this morning, he saw the head of the Pakistani Secret Service arrive. They had a document that he was to sign instantly. It had been prepared in advance and it signalled his official acceptance of the current Pakistani borders, which gives them all the Peshawar zone that once used to belong to Afghanistan. Najibullah was also asked to give them a list of all the arms and munitions depots that the Soviets had left in Kabul. He didn't want to sign. They beat him and killed him, then hung him on the square. It's his fault if he's died like this. His fault... He didn't think the Taliban would dare invade UN headquarters. But they did. God only knows what else they're capable of.'
The information our neighbour has given my father can be taken on trust. They're good friends. They play chess together and have become intimates. It appears that the pharmacist's brother left Kabul this morning. There was no question of him offering up his arms.
We return to our apartment slowly, taking in everything that's going on in the streets. Women carrying children or dragging them by the hand are heading home briskly after having been to the centre to get news. The city is so quiet that we can hear the echo of their footsteps. A few teenagers have gathered to discuss what they've seen. They gesture dramatically. Najibullah's name is on all lips. When we reach our building, we go up the stairs quickly in fear of possible questions from our neighbours.
Mother sighs with relief as she sees us coming through the door. 'Were you able to see him? Was it really him?'
We tell her everything. She suddenly needs to sit down.
Soraya, who has stayed fairly quiet up until now, starts to talk about the Taliban's whips, but Father signals for her to refrain. The doctor has told us to keep Mother as calm as possible. Her nerves won't stand up to any more emotional shocks. Her face is terribly pale beneath her hair, which is already grey and which she wears tied up in back. The look she gives us is full of anguish.
Father goes back out to see his friend, but returns with no news. Neither telephones nor radios work yet. He thinks he'll go out again to get a supply of batteries before night falls. We already have a small stockpile of essentials - rice, which is our daily bread, noodles, oil and flour, in case the bakeries no longer function. My father put down these stores at the beginning of the week when the fighting already showed signs of rising to unprecedented ferocity.
We're used to not having electricity. Electricity is an unstable sprite in Kabul. She comes at precise times for two or three days, then vanishes. So we make do with gas or oil lamps. For cooking and hot water, we use one of those gas-rings fed by a container which holds about ten to fourteen litres. They're easy to get, but cost a fortune. We have a bathroom and taps, but these have long been dry. No plumbing works in our neighbourhood or anywhere else. Ironing is done with an ancient iron we heat on an open fire. While the iron is hot, we lend it to our neighbour. We share and exchange a great deal in Kabul. Nothing that might be useful to someone can be wasted.
At eleven o'clock, we're startled by the sound of the radio. It's been rebaptized Radio Sharia, the name for the rules drawn from the sacred texts of Islam. First there are religious chants. They last for a very long time. Then a man's voice recites a verse from the Koran, before continuing,
The Prophet said to his disciples that their work was to prohibit evil and promote virtue. We have come to reinstate order. From now on, law will be established by the clerics. Preceding governments had no respect for religion. We chased them away and they fled. But all those who participated in the old regime will be safe with us from now on. We ask our brothers to give up all their arms, to deposit them in front of their buildings or at the mosque. And for reasons of security, we ask women not to leave their houses for the time being.
This speech, declaimed with spitfire violence, is followed by religious chants until noon. Then there's silence again. We'll have to wait until the evening to get anything more. Maybe then we'll be lucky enough to hear the BBC or Voice of America's Persian broadcasts.
What to do in the meantime apart from dwell on the worst possible scenarios and rehearse horrible images? We even forget to eat.
There's a knock at the door. It's the building manager come with orders from the Taliban. He alerts my father that he has to go to the neighbouring mosque to deliver up any arms. We don't have any guns, apart from two antiques hanging on the wall.
Father contemplates the old rifle that dates from the twenties and his own grandfather's military service at the time of the war against the British. He hung it carefully up on the wall after his grandfather's death. It's now purely a decorative object. There's a sabre next to it. What could the Taliban do with such arms? I can see from the emotion in my father's gaze that he's unwilling to give up these family treasures. But Mother insists. She begs him to be reasonable.
'To hide anything would be too dangerous... in case they search the apartment.'
Sick at heart, Father unhooks the old rifle. It leaves a light trace of its presence on the wall just above a splendid portrait of my mother painted by her brother. She's so beautiful with the black hair of a twenty-year-old girl waving over her shoulders, her vast eyes illuminated by happiness. That beauty has stayed with her, though it has grown a little tarnished with the tests of time.
Father unhooks the sabre as well. Silently, he wraps them up. He'll go off alone to deposit these family heirlooms in the mosque with the white flag.
I want to cry. Our family's not one for baring its emotions. We each keep our sorrows to ourselves. Pointless to inflict your own pain on your loved ones, since it will only double theirs. This is a particularly Afghan way of proceeding. It entails a certain dignity and a modesty of emotion in all circumstances. As chattering and expansive as we may be about subjects external to us, we keep silent about our sufferings. The civil war has, I think, increased this dignity and this muteness. We survive with a kind of economy of emotions. It's necessary in order not to go down, or go mad with rage or fear. When my own pain gets too heavy, when I feel it rise up and get close to the point of tumbling over in front of the others, I take refuge in my room and cry savagely, but alone, on my bed.
That Friday, 27 September, heavy with visions of terror, Soraya and I discuss events and what we witnessed over and over. After Chakila's marriage, I had abandoned my single bed to sleep with Soraya. Until now, she'd always told me stories about her trips and the cabin crew or we'd listen to music and she'd make me burst into laughter by holding my nose. That was our way of putting up with the fury of the rocket explosions all around us. My brother, Wahid, had taught us a technique he'd learned at the Front while he was a soldier. In case of violent explosion, you have to open your mouth as wide as possible to prevent any ruptures in the tympanum.
Our girls' room is a refuge marked out by all the little passions of my adolescence. On the wall, there's a poster of the American actress and model Brooke Shields. Soraya has often made me laugh by playing the model: perched on high heels, hands on hips, made up extravagantly, she flounces along an imaginary catwalk and strikes poses. She liked dressing up for me even when I was small, disguising herself in my mother's shoes and dresses.
There's an Elvis poster next to the one of Brooke Shields to show my love of rock music. I have stacks of cassettes. I also have lots of videos of Bollywood films that Daoud goes to fetch for me from my cousin Farad's father who has a video shop we use a lot.
But today, I don't feel like music. Nor can I read. I need to talk. And Soraya is in a worse state than I am. She's even more pessimistic. Her flight assistant's uniform will no longer be able to come out of the wardrobe. She's certain of that. And it suits her wonderfully. Yesterday she came back from Bagram Airport wearing the long white shirt and turquoise trousers that make up Air Ariana's uniform and looking beautiful. Soraya is like our father. She has the blackest hair, cut mid-length, luscious eyes and amazingly thick lashes. Like Chakila, she's always spoiled me. Since I was a baby, she brooded over me, did the housework for me whenever I felt like shirking my duties. Soraya is gentle, rounded, tender, greedy too, but tonight she hasn't swallowed even a mouthful of rice.
We ponder all that we've heard on the BBC about the advance of the Taliban to Kabul, about the massacres in the city of Herat in the spring of 1995. Television showed us pictures of widows, blinded by their burqas, whipped and forced to beg in the streets. As of today, these are no longer distant images, frames on the screen, pictures in the papers. They're an immediate and present reality. They're here.
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