As he walked he invented a life for himself. Ahmad Katswah, born in Edeni, Afghanistan. Ahmad’s mother was his, and Ahmad’s father who had been killed by the Uzbeks when they stole his sheep. A year of university in Kabul, returning to teach in Edeni’s schoolhouse under the yew tree. Now he spoke aloud in Arabic, trying an Afghani accent.
“That’s a strange story,” said a voice behind him.
He spun round. A barefoot boy with a stick in his right hand, a plastic bag in his left, something moving inside the bag. “Where’d you come from?” Jack said.
“Catching frogs in that ditch. What are you doing here?”
“Going to Baalbek to find work.”
“There’s no work in Baalbek since this War. Should’ve stayed where you were.”
Jack sat on a stone to tighten the twine on his sandal. “I didn’t hear you.”
“Shouldn’t talk to yourself. Anybody might hear.”
Jack noticed Roman letters and numerals carved into the stone. A Roman mileage marker. “Hey,” he started to say – but how would an Afghani know Latin?
“I can’t believe a guy like you ever went to university,” the boy said. “Look at you, all dirty and dusty! University people drive cars and wear nice clothes.”
“I only did one year. I was poor.”
The boy squinted up at him. “You still are.”
Baalbek’s Roman columns jutted up from sprawling slums as if left behind in some hasty departure. In a café two men were drinking mint tea and another with burly arms was shelling walnuts into a plastic bowl. Feeling out of place Jack asked for a tea which the burly man brought him wordlessly. He tried to understand their conversation and realized they were talking about rebuilding an engine. He shouldered his blanket roll and left, wanting to take a bus back to Beirut.
Four delta-winged Mirages passed over. Minutes later he thought he heard distant explosions. For a while he sat on the edge of the ruins. Temple of Jupiter, a sign said in French. Beyond it were more ruins, rows of columns like organ pipes reaching for the sky.
There were many things to think about but most of them were dangerous. That he might die here. What they’d do to him if they found him out. Like all liars, he realized, he wanted to convince himself of the safety of his lie.
He ate lamb mishwi for dinner in a café and slept under the stone lid of a sarcophagus, nosed by a dog whimpering with hunger.
He gave her bread and she fell on it, choking. I never felt alone, he told her, when I had Bandit. When I had Thor. She begged for more and he gave her a little, then tried to shoo her off, but she turned round three times at the foot of his sarcophagus and went to sleep.
Next morning he stopped two men in the street carrying Kalashnikovs. “Can you tell me where the fighters are?”
“Who are you?” one said. He was taller, with red hair, blue eyes and freckles.
Jack told his story. “How did you get here?” the red-haired one said.
“From Karachi, a port in Pakistan, to Mecca for the hajj, then Alexandria with a boat of pilgrims going home, then Beirut.”
The other thumbed the rifle slung from his shoulder. “Know what this is?”
“I’ve killed seventeen infidels with a gun like that –”
“You have your own war. Why come fight ours?”
“It’s the same enemy. And because we’re backwards in our fighting we may not win. I’ve been sent to learn your ways.”
“Our ways? We may not win either.”
They took him to a hut near the ruins, blindfolded him and handed him an empty gun. “Strip and reassemble it,” one said.
The blindfold pinched the bridge of his nose. He heard them taking apart his blanket roll.
The gun was an old AK-47 with a metal plate around the front of its stock and a flat metal receiver cover. Willing his fingers not to tremble he felt for the catch on the cover, shoved forward the recoil spring guide, lifted out the recoil spring and guide assembly, slid back the bolt assembly, snapped the bolt to the rear of the carrier, twisted it and shoved it forward. It was too loose, worn on the right side. How many men, he wondered, has it killed?
He slid the bolt back into the carrier, replaced the gas cylinder and twisted the bolt carrier assembly back into the receiver track. They tugged off the blindfold. “You carry no weapons?”
“A pistol here, under my arm.”
They took the Makarov and made him drop his trousers to show he was circumcised. “So maybe you’re a Jew?” one snickered. They took him through the alleys to a stucco house with a radio antenna in a plane tree in the courtyard. The red-haired one went inside and came out with a slender limping man. He had been wounded in the face and the scar had contorted his lips into a permanent snarl, the teeth on the left side of his mouth visible. He placed Jack’s Makarov on the table between them. “I am Ismael al-Haji.”
It took Jack an instant to realize the man had spoken English. “I understand your name,” Jack said in Arabic, “but not what you say.”
Ismael al-Haji slid the Makarov from the holster. “You have a strange accent.”
“Arabic is different from our Pashto tongue.”
“Speak some of that –”
It was easy and very comfortable to drop into Pashto, telling him of the war in Afghanistan, the Soviet invaders.
“Enough. I do not understand you.” Ismael thumbed the magazine catch and slid the magazine from the grip. “These are Soviet bullets?”
He snapped in the magazine and thumbed the safety. “Down is safe?”
Jack ignored his fear. “Up is safe. Down is fire.”
Ismael nudged the safety down. “Now tell me,” he said in English and pointed the gun at Jack, “why are you here?”
Fear drained him. “Why do you aim my gun at me?” Jack said in Arabic, “when I have come all this way to learn from you?”
“This is your first lesson. That we watch everyone. And if you’re not true we will kill you.”
With his good left hand Jack tugged open his shirt. “You see this shoulder? An infidel bullet did it. Why do you doubt me?”
“Permission is granted unto those who take arms against the unbelievers, for they have been unjustly persecuted by them…”
“I give you back the same Sura: Those who have fled their country for the sake of God’s true religion – on them will God bestow an excellent recompense –”
Ismael pushed up the safety, snapped the magazine catch and piled the bullets on the table. “Where did you learn your Arabic?”
“From the Koran. And from the mujihadeen who come from Saudi Arabia to help us fight the infidels.”
“It’s for that you have the Saudi accent –”
“In Afghanistan we don’t understand explosives.” Jack scooped up the bullets, reloaded and holstered the Makarov. “How to blow up a truck among the infidels.”
“And if you learn?”
In this Jack could speak the truth. “I’ll go home and use this knowledge.”
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