The road beneath shook just as Engineer Aziz’s phone buzzed, and for a moment he feared that he had triggered the explosion. Beads of sweat squeezed through his pores. Curses poured from Lieutenant Colonel Trotter’s mouth. A half-kilometre ahead, a column of smoke rose.
“Better not be that culvert,” the colonel said. “We cleared it at 0600.” Leaving their armoured vehicle, Trotter marched past pavers, graders and barrels of asphalt towards the scene of the attack. Aziz – short legs, smoker’s lungs – scrambled to keep up. His urge for a cigarette was immense, so much so that his second thought after the explosion (the first being the misapprehension that he had caused it) was that his next smoke would be delayed. He hadn’t had one in an hour – Lt Col Trotter didn’t like smoking anywhere near him – and getting out of their vehicle only increased the demand. Since Aziz always took his cigarettes outside, his body thought fresh air cued nicotine.
Fear cued it, too, or so his cells, screaming for a fix now, seemed to believe. The detonation of an improvised explosive device was often only a prelude for a secondary attack from the steep hills above, small-arms fire raining down on soldiers come to inspect the damage. Trotter knew this but chose not to acknowledge it; he believed in modelling everything for his men, from a close morning shave to bravery. Aziz kept imagining he saw snipers stealing among the rocks in the rises above. The colonel’s purposeful stride didn’t allow for tracking them.
A hole had been torn in a personnel carrier, an American maimed. Aziz didn’t know the soldier, who had just rotated in and would now rotate out. As the medics worked to stabilise him, the colonel stayed at his side. Aziz hung back, feeling, as always at these moments, oddly superfluous. The helicopter descended like a jittery butterfly, and a collective breath was held against an incoming rocket-propelled grenade. The copter lifted off, bearing newly uncertain life.
Trotter began querying his men, Aziz’s interpretation unnecessary. “Didn’t we have eyes on the culvert after we cleared it?” he heard the colonel ask. “It’s like they’re inside our goddamn heads ... ”
Aziz checked his phone. Three new texts.
“On the lute of my heart plays only one song of love,” the first read, in Dari. “Because of this melody, from head to foot, I am in love.”
Aziz’s heart, or something, fluttered. Ever since Habiba, his fiancée, had begun reading the poetry of Jami in university, her messages had grown more provocative, but chastely so. If her father ever got hold of her phone, she could say she was quoting love poems to God.
Next, another photo of her. The fuzzy focus suggested that she had taken the picture herself, and Aziz resolved to keep it to himself. He had made the mistake of showing the first photo she sent to a friendly American soldier, and before long his phone was smudged with the fingerprints of Americans wanting to see her. It felt like they had gotten to touch her before he had.
Last message: “My father is very impatient this week.”
Aziz’s insides froze, but his legs had to function: Trotter was moving. Scuttling behind, Aziz heard himself addressed. “Afghanistan’s not the quagmire,” the colonel was saying. “This kilometre is. Kilometre 54. All I want for Christmas, Aziz, is Kilometre 54.”
Christmas. Two weeks away, and Aziz was already sick of hearing about it. This would be his second Christmas with the Americans, though his first working for Trotter. Last year he had watched the troops grow melancholy, belligerent, sentimental as the holiday neared. Some of them compared it to Eid, although the holidays were nothing alike. A fat man in a red suit bringing more gifts than you knew what to do with: an idea as foreign to Afghanistan as the American presence was.
“Yes, sir,” Aziz said. All he wanted for Christmas was Habiba.
On the map of roads completed or under construction by the Americans, Trotter’s looked like a loose tendril of a woman’s hair. The road they were paving curled off the main ring road, up through steep hills. The completed sections were marked in red, and the red extended an impressive two-thirds of the way towards the end.
Had the map documented the pace of work, its picture would have been less hopeful. The paving of the 80-kilometre road had started out well: 30 kilometres in the first three months. The pace had halved in the next three, and in the past two months, only seven kilometres had been completed. The insurgents weren’t just interfering with construction. They were blowing up “red” – sections of already-completed road – almost as fast as the contractors could build. Explosives erupted from new, ingenious hiding places: culverts and cliffsides, the asphalt barrels themselves. Assailants haunted the hills, hunted from them. A night raid on the road workers’ camp left 13 Afghans and four Nepalis dead. A sniper shot felled a respected Turkish engineer, and stopped work for two days while American and Afghan forces combed the rises.
The colonel tried to take more territory alongside the road just to get it built, but terrain cleared was soon lost: the heights couldn’t support a continued military presence. A war to win a battle, Aziz sometimes thought, but he held his tongue. Winter had arrived. Soon the snows would come, stopping work until the spring. Aziz was beginning to despair that he would be grey-bearded, and still a virgin, before the road was complete.
His beard was far from grey – he was only 26 – but he was, indisputably, a virgin. His hopes for happiness centred on Habiba, but it was a contingent hope. After arranging the marriage, her father had grown distrustful of Aziz, specifically of his ability to marshal $15,000 or more for the wedding and bride price.
Earning $900 a month, Aziz had been salting money away, but family crises – a sister’s surgery, a leaky roof – had depleted his reserves. He had learnt, from Lt Col Trotter, the value of consistent quantification, so he knew that he was less than 70 per cent of the way towards his goal. Habiba’s father was threatening to break the engagement and marry her to an interested cousin. Aziz’s ability to dispatch this rival was hampered by his decision, for safety’s sake, not to disclose that he was working for the American military. His prospective father-in-law, his fiancée, even his own family, all thought he was working for a de-mining non-profit, where the pay would be less.
In fact, he had worked for a de-miner, briefly, during the Taliban years. The memory of it, the everlasting toll it had taken on his back and knees, the old man’s aches that still visited his young frame, as well as the sheer terror, had convinced him never to do so again. Crouching over dirt eight hours a day, inching forward knowing an instant of lax concentration could kill you – interpreting for soldiers was singing Hindi love songs by comparison. It needed concentration, true, but he could stand or sit while doing it, and the consequences of getting things wrong were less likely to be fatal, at least for him.
But the secrecy of his current situation, these hidden compartments within him, was corrosive. To no one could he unburden himself about the threats from the Taliban, the prospect of being injured or killed. Of late, Afghan soldiers had begun turning on their American counterparts: Aziz knew of three interpreters who’d been killed in the crossfire. As soon as he was married he would quit.
In the meantime, he was lucky to have landed with Trotter, an American who seemed to want to do right by Afghanistan, even if he didn’t exactly know how. The colonel liked to share meals with the Afghans, eating, inexpertly, with his fingers. He wore a salwar kameez to a local assembly, which struck Aziz as ludicrous, but well-meaning.
Aziz had never seen anyone – other than his mother, who rose at dawn to collect wood and boil water for his father’s tea and didn’t stop moving until she slept – work harder than Trotter. The colonel was a reprimand to the Afghan government officials who liked to end their workday at noon, and to the police who considered chai-drinking an investigative technique. The colonel seemed to sleep about four hours a night. Aziz himself preferred seven.
“You work very hard, sir,” he once told Trotter.
“I can’t ask my men to work their hardest if I don’t work mine,” the colonel answered.
Aziz often asked himself if he was working his hardest. Mostly the answer was no. At first he had been vigorous in his translation, to the best of his abilities. But those abilities were more infirm than he would have liked. His English had been learnt in night courses offered by an NGO, during the period when he was de-mining by day. Often he fell asleep during the lessons, jolting awake to a conjugation already half-gone. His facility, while improving with use, was nowhere near what he had claimed it to be to the American contractor charged with supplying interpreters to the US military. Yet he had been selected not just for a job but, later, for a job with the “Big Kahuna,” as the contractor called the colonel. They needed bodies, and Aziz’s bright eyes suggested intelligence.
Fear that this assessment would be proven wrong gave Aziz a constant stomach ache during his first three months interpreting. The Americans’ words whizzed by, bullet-fast. Idioms and acronyms cluttered their speech. Ever efficient, they resumed speaking before he finished interpreting, forcing him to choose between truncating the old or missing the new. Words, English, Pashto, sometimes Dari just to further muddle things, jumbled in his head. His habit went pack-a-day.
“Could you repeat, please?” he would say sometimes, but his confusion had to be rationed. To reveal it too often could jeopardise his job. Nor could he let on that sometimes the right phrasing in English for what he heard in Pashto, or the right words in Pashto for the English, eluded him, for Dari was his first language. The contractor who placed him with a commander overseeing a primarily Pashto-speaking area had seemed not to care. Under pressure, Aziz would grasp for an approximation, something that seemed close: “By day they are strong but at darkness there is pressing on their head.”
“I don’t understand,” the Americans would say gruffly, and Aziz would scramble for sense, even if it stood apart from the true meaning: “They want peace.”
With time, he realised that his linguistic limitations had few, if any, consequences. It struck him that a full translation was not always necessary, not even desired. Americans, fixated on the “point” of any exchange, disliked the Afghans’ use of parables, proverbs and history to convey information, even though sometimes the history was the point. They didn’t want a word-by-word translation. Abbreviation became Aziz’s art: he translated as little as he could get away with. Even as he did so, he couldn’t help feeling he was letting the colonel down, and, worse, without Trotter knowing it.
The colonel kept calling him Engineer Aziz, which was how the interpreter had introduced himself, with a stiff pride that now embarrassed him. One day Aziz confessed that he wasn’t an engineer: the title was merely an honorific to acknowledge his engineering studies (and in Aziz’s case, since those studies were unfinished, an especial stretch, although this he didn’t say). He hoped honesty about this would make the colonel pay his deficiencies less attention.
“You’re a good man, Aziz,” Trotter took to saying, “even if you’re not an engineer.”
Under ordinary circumstances, Aziz might have taken the compliment to heart. But the colonel seemed to consider every Afghan, other than those shooting at his men, good.
“A good man,” he would say, after a visit to the sleazy provincial governor, whom everyone knew to be corrupt.
“A good man,” after a meeting with a district police chief, who was soon replaced for colluding with drug traffickers.
And, of the warlord who controlled Kilometres 50 through 66, and who regularly offered them tea, sugar-dipped almonds, and lies, “he’s a good man, isn’t he?”
Aziz wasn’t sure how to answer. Afghans did not believe in “good” warlords; Aziz figured he would wait his whole life for such a specimen. This warlord’s ungoverned body – unruly hair and moustache, distended paunch, a tendency to sprawl where others reclined – also described his relationship with authority. He had shelled the district centre, killing 12, to dislodge a rival. He forcibly extorted “taxes” from poor truck drivers. Every time Trotter asked for help stopping the attacks on the road, the warlord insisted he needed funds to raise a militia. Aziz knew he already had a private army. To demand money from the Americans was pure extortion.
But it was tricky deciding when to be honest – “straight,” as the Americans said – with the colonel. Aziz had learnt this at their first meeting with local tribal elders. Some of them had groused that paving the road was going to cause more problems than it would solve. Members of the neighbouring sub-tribe would resent the advantages the American road conferred. Insurgents could use the road more efficiently to terrorise the locals. The elders preferred to leave things as they were.
Aziz translated these elaborate explanations faithfully even as the colonel’s toe tapped impatiently. Trotter’s expression stayed polite but uncomprehending, until Aziz said, “So they would like that you take the money for the road and instead help irrigate the fields.”
“Don’t tell me what I don’t want to hear, Aziz,” the colonel interrupted, his tone brusque. “The road will benefit everyone. They’ll see when it’s finished. And the Taliban won’t make use of it as long as we’re here. They want to leave their country in the dark ages so they don’t piss off a neighbour? America was built on roads. Inter-state highway system. Screw it, just tell them they’ll be happy when it’s done.”
Aziz, instead, had told them that it was out of Trotter’s hands, that the colonel was just following orders from above, that he had no choice but to push ahead with building the road. When the elders insisted on compensation for the trouble the road was sure to cause, Aziz assured them he would convey this to the colonel. He didn’t. He described the elders as grateful. Trotter was pleased.
It was like this always, Aziz having to make decisions about what to convey, what to withhold, what to transfigure. It astonished him, sometimes, how much power he had, all the more because no one seemed aware of it. The idea that his meagre language, a cloth full of holes, was to be stretched across gaps that could not otherwise be bridged at first frightened him. But he had assumed his authority, because that was what needed to be done.
Aziz’s primary experience of life had been of precariousness. Since the same was true for every Afghan he knew, he was unaware – until he began meeting Americans – that there were people who lived any other way. An aunt lost to childbirth, a brother to pneumonia, his father imprisoned by the Taliban, his family twice displaced. School, work, dreams, home, love – war had disrupted all. War had enfeebled his father, who once had been, or so his mother said, as vibrant as Aziz himself. Wan was what his father was now, whiling the days waiting for food, tea, visitors, and for Aziz’s earnings, which sustained the family. Aziz, in response, had not become bitter. He had become adaptable.
“Yes, sir,” he said of the warlord. “A good man.”
He knew his statement to be false; just how false, he was soon to learn. The local labourers who came to base to do the menial work often shared lunch with the ’terps, all of them circling around huge platters of rice and meat. The labourers regularly chattered about the warlord, base being the safest place they could do so. They owed him their jobs – he controlled all local employment with the Americans – but reviled him still.
One day an argument broke out between two labourers over whether they could earn more money planting bombs for the warlord than they could clearing debris for the Americans. Aziz’s ears perked up. Was the warlord behind the attacks on the road, Aziz asked delicately. Of course, one labourer replied, with the illiterate’s pity for the overeducated and naive, the tone Aziz sometimes was tempted to take with Trotter. Everyone knew it. Keep the Americans bogged down long enough, make the violence bad enough, and they would finance his militia out of desperation to finish the road.
Even some of the Afghan subcontractors were in on it, another labourer whispered, for every time a piece of road was destroyed, they profited from the need for repairs. Now Aziz understood how explosives were finding their way into sealed asphalt barrels.
His appetite vanished instantly. There was no way to prove the labourers’ tales true, yet nothing to suggest them false. The news sat heavily in one of his secret compartments. Day and night he carried the weight. The moral course would be to tell the colonel about the warlord, but this would not necessarily be wise. Aziz didn’t want to be seen as an intelligence-gatherer. Trotter might come to rely on him for that, and some Afghans, whether Taliban or on the take, would surely hold him to account for it. Whenever he felt cowardly for keeping silent he counted the number of people he was earning bread for. Eight. Nothing cowardly in that.
Still, he eased his mind by imagining the untenable position in which the information would place the colonel. The warlord, leader of his powerful sub-tribe, was thoroughly embedded here; any attempt to remove him would cause protests, even violence. It would be difficult to prove the charges; Afghanistan’s justice system barely worked. The Americans, of course, had their own justice system, in which trials or evidence were optional. But to cast the warlord into that gulag would derail the effort to build the road. To give the colonel this foul knowledge when he couldn’t act on it was cruelty disguised as honesty.
But then another makeshift bomb sheared the leg off a soldier Aziz liked, the one to whom he had first shown Habiba’s picture. He felt sick all the time, barely able to glance at Habiba’s texts, though he noticed that his failure to reply to her promptly, or at all, only increased their frequency.
Two days later, Trotter summoned Aziz – once again, he wanted to seek the warlord’s help in flushing out the insurgents. Aziz could barely contain his queasiness on the ride over. The colonel was talking about Christmas again. He didn’t mind being away from his family, he said. He minded keeping his men from their families for a mission that couldn’t be completed, not even a single goddamn kilometre. He minded seeing good men ruined.
In the courtyard of the warlord’s compound, small groups of men traced arguments in the dust, reminding Aziz, in their pettiness and powerlessness, of birds. The dim interior hallway was crowded, as usual, with petitioners, among whom Trotter and Aziz obediently took their place. They would make a pretence of waiting their turn, though they would be called first. But the call didn’t come, not for them, not for anyone. The warlord was closeted in an important meeting, they were told. The colonel paced, fidgeted, checked his watch, asked Aziz three times to remind someone, anyone, he was there. Trotter hated wasting time. Worse was having his time wasted.
“Just a few minutes,” one of the warlord’s men placated them every time the colonel threatened to leave. The intentional humiliation in forcing this powerful American to wait was obvious to all. Aziz squirmed, anxiety fermenting within him.
“I’m going to talk to someone else, get an answer,” he told Trotter. Instead he ducked outside for a few drags. One. He exhaled slowly, let the ash extend. Two. He inhaled deep, tried to sear his lungs. Three. The smoke pooled in his mouth, then spilled forth like anger. He stubbed out the cigarette, tucking it into a pocket and a Chiclet into his mouth, and returned calmer, perhaps too much so, to an even more agitated colonel.
“I found someone who will hurry this meeting, so just a few minutes more,” Aziz murmured. His words seemed to make it true: soon three unimportant-looking old men shuffled from the warlord’s sanctum. They nodded politely at Trotter, whispered greetings to Aziz. Without invitation, the colonel strode into the room, where the warlord stretched on the floor beside a plate of sugar-coated almonds.
“I did not know you were waiting,” he grunted lazily. “Those elders were complaining about the mullah. Chai?” He clapped for an underling.
“He apologises for keeping you waiting,” Aziz said to Trotter. “Green tea?”
The colonel shook his head. His mood was sour, which made Aziz insecure. “Make sure you translate exactly,” Trotter ordered as they seated themselves on the floor, across from the warlord. What if the colonel blamed Aziz’s incompetence for the quagmire? His body erupted in aches.
“I’m tired of losing my men, losing contractors, losing your people,” the colonel told the warlord, via Aziz. “We know locals are harbouring the insurgents, sheltering them, helping them. This is your place. You know who’s doing what, you know how to pressure them. We need progress on this road. We’re coming up on our Christmas. I don’t want to send another family in America their boy in a box.”
Aziz translated the warlord’s reply: “I have told you many times, that to do this, to guard the road, to clear the hills, requires a local militia, not an army from outside. I could do it – I could find the men. But I cannot afford to pay them.”
The colonel cleared his throat and told Aziz to tell the warlord that if they financed a militia for him, they would have to do the same for every other sub-tribe. “Tell him we want to build a national army,” Trotter directed Aziz, “not a patchwork of private ones.”
Aziz sometimes imagined himself putting the words he was meant to translate in his pocket, where he could finger them. Usually it was meaning he sought, but today, hand in pocket, he searched for something beneath meaning, behind it. Trotter’s sentiments were sensible, certainly, but Aziz wondered, for the first time, if they camouflaged a blunt character assessment. Maybe the colonel did not think the warlord a good man, either.
And yet the colonel had holes in the cloth of his understanding if he believed that the warlord would offer his help for nothing in return. The warlord’s reply could be predicted: he would say, again, that he needed a militia, and they would be stuck. No Kilometre 54 by Christmas. Relaying what Trotter said would not end up making the colonel happy, even though it was what he thought he wanted.
Aziz had the sudden sense of the whole world being like this, everyone wanting, without knowing, the wrong thing, the error only obvious to someone else, and a great anticipatory sadness came over him at his longing for Habiba, and the disappointing life certain to come even with her, and he wondered if it would be better if her father broke the engagement after all, just as it would be better for Trotter if Aziz did not translate his words.
Trotter’s words still in his pocket, Aziz took a deep, shaky breath and told the warlord in Pashto, “For Christmas, Americans give and receive many gifts. As his gift the colonel wants Kilometre 54. He says he’ll give you the funds for a militia by the new year if we can finish this kilometre by Christmas. If there are no more attacks. He says if he gets his Christmas present – Kilometre 54 – you get yours.” His own effrontery – his implication that he knew the warlord had the power to call off the attacks – terrified him.
The warlord’s mien remained impassive, as if he hadn’t heard. Then, without moving his bulk an inch, he leaned his face towards Trotter with such directness and confidence that Aziz feared he would break into English, tearing the interpreter’s veil away. Instead he said, in Pashto, “Your shift in position relieves me. But it is as if you have asked a single helpless woman to defeat a colony of ants. They are everywhere; what can one poor woman do? I cannot stop the attacks, even on this one kilometre, without a militia.” He helplessly, almost coquettishly, turned up his unwomanly hands.
His words also went untranslated by Aziz, who instead told Trotter, “What he says is that it is a very difficult problem, but he will try. He cannot promise, but he is sure he can make things better. The road is very important to his people. He wants it to finish. The insurgents are like ants, he says, but he will see what can be done. He will stamp them out.” Aziz put his fist in his hand for emphasis.
The colonel looked cheered at these words. “I’m glad to hear that; I knew you were a good friend,” he told the warlord. At least that is what he believed he was telling him. Instead, Aziz hardened his shining eyes and said, “The colonel says, you’ll have your militia if the attacks stop, if we finish this kilometre. No other way.”
The warlord emitted a noise – a huff, a laugh, it was hard to say. His curled lip showed teeth as stained by tobacco as Aziz’s one day would be. Aziz wondered what his own face showed. Trotter, baffled by the warlord, was watching Aziz closely. What must it be like to never know what was going on around you, Aziz suddenly wondered. The colonel struck him as a child surrounded by adults, and for a flash Aziz grasped this as more than a problem of language.
“There must be peace until Christmas,” Aziz told the warlord again. “Then your militia.” He turned to Trotter: “I am reminding him, ‘no bodies in a box for Christmas.’”
The warlord was quiet. Only tiny twitches around his eyes betrayed the elaborate calculations under way. That, and his extended gnashing of almonds. Usually he seemed to swallow them whole.
“Aziz?” Trotter said, into the silence.
“Peace until Christmas,” the warlord said.
“And then a very good Christmas, a very good year,” Aziz said.
“We will see what can be done,” said the warlord.
“I think he will help,” Aziz told the colonel.
Trotter looked relieved, if confused. They said goodbye, returned to base. Aziz excused himself to light, with shaking hand, a cigarette. Soiled or virtuous – he didn’t know how to feel, the same act reading so dirty, so clean.
On Christmas morning, the Afghans on base assembled to watch the Americans parade. Soldiers shimmied in Santa hats and taped-on white beards; eight men wore fake red noses to invoke a popular tale about a reindeer, or yak. “Merry Christmas,” they called to the spectators, merrily. It was all very American, Aziz thought: not just the parade, but the expectation that the Afghans would find it as winsome as they did.
His breath in the frigid air looked like smoke, which was enough to set him craving. But he was due to meet the colonel. They would drive to the road, cut a ribbon to mark the completion of Kilometre 54. The attacks had stopped right after the visit to the warlord, although only Aziz had registered the truth of the connection. It took some time for the contractors, the soldiers, the workers, to lose their wariness, to believe they weren’t under constant siege. Once they did, the kilometre was done in no time.
The light was stone-grey, the hills morbidly still. For once Aziz had no fear of what would come from them, or from beneath his feet. The only blemish on his ease was Trotter. Where Aziz had expected him to be jubilant, the colonel was edgy, glum.
“Stop dawdling,” he barked at the two young soldiers unfurling the ribbon, as if he had been brought to the road against his will.
“Merry Christmas?” Aziz said, unable to keep the question from his voice. The colonel seemed not to hear.
The warlord’s mood was sure to be more sanguine. At this moment he was probably cutting deals as the Americans’ soon-to-be proxy, probably promising his wife, or wives, a fat calf and his men higher pay. They, in turn, would promise their wives more money for food. The women would promise their children candy. Everyone would be excited by the American Christmas, as if the fat old man in the red suit had decided, this year, to bless Afghanistan with his bagful of gifts.
Except he had decided no such thing. Aziz was the fat man in the red suit, and his bag was empty. Everyone would be disappointed. After new year, the warlord, awaiting his funds, would, no doubt, try to communicate to Trotter what Aziz had promised. Aziz would say, in response, that the warlord had misunderstood or was lying, and the colonel would likely believe him, yet another murky instalment in a war of confusions. Or Aziz would keep extending the promise, saying the money was on its way, until the warlord’s patience expired.
Then would come renewed attacks on the road, all the uglier for the warlord’s rage at being deceived. Aziz would not pay in blood for his lie, but someone would, and he almost wished he wouldn’t be around to see it. But he had no choice, with his own deadline ahead. His father-in-law now wanted the bride price by the Afghan new year, less than four months away. Habiba, happiness: he had to try.
War had long ago foreshortened his horizons. To take the road kilometre by kilometre – to solve this problem today, even if it created new problems tomorrow – was all he knew how to do.
The grit of the still-unpaved road crunched beneath his boots. Across the ribbon to mark the completion of Kilometre 54 stood Lt Col Trotter, feet on smooth tarmac. In the quiet, he didn’t need to speak loudly for Aziz to hear him say, “We’ll have hell to pay on the next one.”
Amy Waldman is author of ‘The Submission’ (William Heinemann)
© Amy Waldman, 2011