I haven’t shared one of my own stories here for a while. In the light of what is going on in Afghanistan at the moment, and our fears for the rights of women and minorities, I thought I’d share something set in Kabul. It is a bit of action / adventure I wrote for a competition and it tries to look beyond the tropes of terror and insurgency to a more hopeful future. That hope is in pretty short supply right now.
The story got me into the next round of the competition. I hope you enjoy it.
The Healer of Kabul
Hana took a deep breath and steadied her nerves. From across the room Ester gave her a thumbs up.
“This is my signature piece,” Hana said, lifting a creamy bowl decorated with vivid poppies in bloom. She remembered the instruction to smile. “Anti-tank mines have a porcelain liner to make them harder to detect.” She put the bowl down and lifted another, dull beige with a hole in the base to show the original state. “Each liner is hand-painted, with a resin insert to make it watertight.” She gestured to the side. Ester panned the tiny GoPro around to show the display. “You can use them as planters, or for decoration, maybe to serve your favorite sweets. My country has seen so much violence. The reminders of it are everywhere. I hope to take these objects and show my people we can grow beyond war to lives of peace and beauty.”
Ester tapped the GoPro to stop recording. Hana took the opportunity to shrug off her abaya. It was stifling in the tiny shop.
“Perfect,” Ester said, “I’ll splice it together with our other segments. We’ll have your first promotional video ready in no time.” She clipped the little camera around her neck and glanced at her phone. “This is going to be a real success Hana, I can feel it.”
“A success for us both, Ester. We should be partners.”
Ester laughed and reached out to touch Hana’s cheek. “That’s not allowed, my dear. Anyway, no one works for a charity to get rich.”
The door to the tiny room opened, letting the clamor of Kabul’s traffic flood into the room. Ashar popped his head in.
“Finished?” he asked. Hana nodded, trying not to smile as she watched her brother’s eyes swing to Ester, softening in adoration. He was smitten by the tall German woman, even though she was technically old enough to be their mother.
Without shifting his gaze he waved a satchel by its strap. The flap was thrown open. The shop lights glinted off the grenades stuffed inside. “Delivery,” he said. Ashar didn’t have many words in any language, but he was smart enough to use them effectively.
Ester’s eyebrows shot up. “Are those…?”
“Hand grenades,” Hana said. She snapped her fingers to get Ashar’s attention and gestured for him to keep hold of them. He swung back into his seat under the awning in front of the shop.
“Are they safe?”
“This is Kabul,” Hana said, a little surprised that Ester was rattled. The flare of her nostrils gave Hana away, Ester shook her head and laughed. The German worked for a non-profit organization that promoted local artists in some of the world’s most troubled countries. She had an office in the highly protected Green Zone, and while she had arrived in a rickshaw, her armed guards had followed in a dented Pajero and now watched from the tea shop across the road.
Ashar’s shout from outside stalled the conversation. Hana bumped her hip hard on a table corner as she hurried to see, Ester hot on her heels.
A skinny man with a scraggly beard pulled at the strap of the satchel. Ashar tried to keep hold of it. With a yank the thief snatched the satchel, still loaded with its contents, from the boy’s grasp and leapt away onto the back of a waiting motorbike.
“Hey!” Ester yelled. She grabbed Hana’s arm and ran out into the street. A rickshaw idled by the side of the road, the driver squatting beside it, dragging on a cigarette and watching with disinterest. Ester leapt in. Without thinking Hana got in beside her.
The driver shrugged and looked away.
Cursing in German, Ester hopped into the driver’s seat thumbing on the GoPro. She stabbed the throttle and the rickshaw lurched away. Hana yelped as she over-balanced, shoulders slamming into the rickshaw’s metal frame. For a few paces the barking driver kept up with them. He reached in and grabbed a handful of Ester’s light headscarf. It fluttered away as they sped off down the little side street.
The motorbike was an aged, sputtering Honda. It hadn’t got far ahead. Ester twisted the handlebars to swing the rickshaw into the stuttering traffic on the main street. Horns blared as the rickshaw tipped on two of its three wheels. Hana threw herself the other way to counterbalance it.
“Hundesohn!” Ester swore at the slow-moving traffic and hawkers with wheeled carts. She pumped her palm on the horn.
A gout of diesel smoke from a brightly-colored bus hid the motorbike for a moment. The air cleared. Two men pushing a heavy wooden cart laden with cages blocked the road, stalling the motorbike. The thief and his getaway driver twisted and backed up.
“Hold on,” Ester called over her shoulder.
They careened towards the motorbike. A crash was inevitable. The world slowed. Hana looked into the dark eyes of the thief. Cold, calculating. There was a menace there. Was it a crime of opportunity, or were they targeting her? A woman running her own business in this fiercely patriarchal country. A woman bringing a message of peace with the relics from fifty years of near-constant war.
In those agonizingly slow seconds, she realized this wasn’t about theft, it was about her.
The motorbike leapt away. Ester slammed on the brakes, hurling Hana forward. Hana’s face planted between Ester’s shoulder blades. Ahead of them chickens pecked and shuffled in their cages, entirely unconcerned.
“Sheisse.” Ester hauled on the handlebars, manoeuvring around the cart and back into the chase. The road cleared for a few meters. The thief looked back from his pillion seat, held out the satchel and dropped it in the road.
“Stop.” Hana grabbed Ester’s shoulder and jumped from the slowing rickshaw. Her sandal twisted away from her foot. She hopped, jumped and landed on the satchel, smothering it with her body. She counted the seconds, dimly aware of horns blaring, shouts. From somewhere a long way away – Ester’s voice.
The grenades were all meant to be safe. Dismantled, fuses and explosive material removed, then reassembled. But the thief had known her and had dropped the satchel for her to pick up. He could have added a real grenade. She couldn’t allow innocent bystanders to be harmed for a vendetta against her.
Three breaths. Four. Plus the time it took to get to the satchel. If it was an old grenade the chemical fuse could have degraded. Five, six.
“It’s OK. I think we’re safe.” Ester’s shadow fell on Hana. It was brave of her, Hana thought, to come so close. She gripped Ester’s outstretched hand and got to her feet. Hana’s hijab was awry and a crowd of onlookers had gathered, unaware of the potential for mortal peril. She glanced around. They were more interested in the tall blonde woman in jeans and boots who had been driving a rickshaw. There was a beep as Ester switched off the GoPro that still hung around her neck.
Hana slung the satchel over her shoulder. “We’d better take that rickshaw back.”
Business boomed for a while. The promotional material Ester filmed in the shop may have won Hana some international sales, but it was the jerky video of an expletive-laden chase through the streets in a rickshaw that won Hana brief renown. The “Healer of Kabul” – a slightly built, modestly dressed, hijab-wearing young woman became a social media star. Those dignitaries that ventured outside the Green Zone looking for a photo opportunity or a souvenir from the real Afghanistan asked for her by name. Hana smiled and sold them her hand grenade candles and bullet kohl bottles.
Hana’s fame was waning by the time Ester managed to arrange an exhibition of Hana’s painted porcelain in Berlin.
“It seems a terrible risk,” Hana said, as they sipped tea in her small apartment. “You can’t seriously mean to buy all those pieces yourself.”
“The gallery is threatening to pull out and the sponsors are losing interest.” Ester shook her head. “There’s a Rohingya kid in Burma who makes kites that everyone’s gushing over now. That’s just the way of the world. But I believe in what you are doing here, Hana. I want the world to see it properly. I’ll buy the inventory and underwrite the exhibition. Are the crates ready to go?”
“Ashar has been packing everything carefully.” She smiled across at her brother. He’d grown more accustomed to Ester but was still clearly besotted.
For a moment Ester stared into her tea. Lipstick marred the edge of the glass. “I have an appointment with the customs people,” she said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Ashar, see Ester to her car please, then buy us some bread for dinner.”
Hana tidied while she waited for his return, humming to herself. The fading of her fame did not bother her the way it seemed to bother Ester. Her items still sold enough to make a decent living and Hana felt happy to be independent, able to support herself and look after her brother. For a long time that had been a distant dream. In a way her independence was a greater symbol of Afghanistan’s healing than the art she made.
Ashar was late getting back. He’d probably stopped to watch the local boys play soccer. By the time he wandered home the bread would be stiff and cold. With a sigh Hana readied herself to go and find him, tying on her hijab with practiced efficiency and shrugging into her loose abaya, and checking the deep pockets for all her necessities.
She opened the front door and stopped. Ashar stood in the doorway, his pose still and unnatural. There was a sharp stink. He’d wet himself. Tears stood in his eyes
“Ashar!” she started, angry and upset. He hadn’t done this for years. Then she saw the muzzle of the gun pointed at his ribs.
“Take the boy inside, tie him up and leave him. Someone will find him eventually. It’s the woman we want.” The gunman spoke in heavy, hill tribe Pashtu. She knew those eyes. The grenade thief. Fear rooted her to the spot as a bag went over her head and rough hands tied her wrists together. She stifled her scream into a sob. They had her brother.
Hana gasped as her shins caught on something hard. Someone pushed her into a van. They didn’t travel far, she guessed no more than fifteen minutes of bumping on the uneven roads and stuttering through traffic.
The bag came off in a large spartan room. There were two men. The thief and his getaway driver. Hana’s mind whirled. Why them? Why now?
The room was well lit. Her blood went cold. One wall was adorned with an ISIS flag. She turned around. On a heavy wooden table a GoPro pointed at the flag. The thief untied her hands and gave her a shove.
“On your knees.”
She slumped down. Tears dripped on the black cloth of the abaya. The thief wound a cover over his face, leaving only those cold eyes showing. He ranted a speech to the camera. Hana vaguely registered something about the erosion of values, the disease of liberalism. She couldn’t focus, she knew what was coming. Everyone knew someone who had been lost to war or insurgency. Not third or fourth hand but direct relations, close friends.
She’d made herself a target, the symbol of a different life, the different country Afghanistan could be. She could accept her fate, but who would look after Ashar?
She blinked away tears and stared into the camera. The camera. She knew that GoPro. She’d rehearsed in front of it, the scratches on the casing were etched into her memory.
“Ester,” she said, her voice hoarse.
The ranting thief stopped.
“Ester,” she said again. Clearly this time. Her voice pitched to carry. A shadow crossed the doorway.
“We’ll have to edit that out of course.” Ester stepped into the room. She nodded to the thief who took a couple of steps away from Hana towards the door and stopped, his hand resting on his gun.
“Is this some kind of game? A publicity stunt for the exhibition?” Hana asked, her voice rising as panic gave way to incredulity. She started to get to her feet but the jerk of the muzzle sat her back down again.
“Publicity, yes. But not a game.”
“You can’t be serious. Who are these men? Are they actors?”
Ester dropped to her haunches, eyes almost level with Hana. “Deadly serious, my dear. We had a good run, you and I. But I’m cashing out now. Can you see the headlines? The Healer of Kabul, a martyr for peace. If it’s any consolation your exhibition is guaranteed to be a success.”
“You said no one ever joined a charity to get rich.”
“I won’t be. Just comfortable, without worry.” Ester reached out to touch Hana’s cheek. “I’d need several more like you to be rich.”
Hana jerked away, slipping her hands into her abaya as she did so.
“Kill her,” Ester said to the thief, stepping back.
“Wait.” Hana pulled her hands out of the abaya. In her right hand she held a grenade. In her left, she held the pin.
Ester laughed. “Really? I know all about your grenades.”
“Do you? I want to heal my country Ester. I may dream of a better, peaceful Kabul. But I live in the real one. Do you really think I go about without protection?” The thief was backing away, the driver had his back to the wall and was sidling to the door. “Your henchmen don’t seem too confident.” Hana taunted, rising slowly.
“It’s a bluff. Kill her.”
Hana gave the thief a chill smile and tossed the grenade towards the door. One breath. There was a plink as the lever released and fell away, a pop as the fuse lit. The grenade skittered across the floor stopping just outside the door. Two breaths. Hana was already diving for the table, tipping it as she fell, the GoPro sliding off beside her. Three breaths. Hana’s shoulder hit the floor as she curled and covered her ears. She heard heavy footsteps pounding.
The explosion rocked the room, ripping plaster from the walls and ceiling, filling the air with dust. The house groaned, a crash reverberated over the echoes of the blast. A billow of new dust wafted over the edge of the table.
She crawled out into a monochrome world of plaster dust. Ester’s booted foot poked out of the rubble, motionless. A messy pile of spattered blood and shredded cloth was all that was left of the thief. Hana stumbled out of the room. The explosion had torn through the wall of the hallway leaving a gaping hole to the courtyard below.
The driver had made it some way down the hall. The blast had taken him in the back. His handgun lay a little distance away. She picked it up and slipped it into the pocket of her abaya, opposite from Ester’s GoPro.
Kabul was not yet the city she dreamed it could be, and it would take her a while to walk home to her brother.
You can find out more about my writing here
* If you’d like to lend me a Kabul streetscene to replace the Karachi scene above get in touch