That summer afternoon in 2013 it rained but within an hour the rain had stopped and when my Afghan colleague Zabiullah and I left my hotel to meet his friend Ali the sun had heated the air so much that it was hot to breathe and thick with humidity, and except for a few shrinking puddles in empty lots the ground had already begun shriveling back to dust.
We walked toward an office complex where Ali agreed to meet us, at Tasty, a new restaurant below a bank. I’m a reporter. Zabiullah had arranged the meeting. Ali, he said, had connections with “conservative Muslims.” I needed someone with those kinds of contacts, someone I could talk to about a boy in one of my stories.
The story described the plight of the hundreds of street children in Kabul, many of whom were orphans, who had not benefited from the billions of international aid that had poured into Afghanistan since 9/11. With the planned withdrawal of most Western forces in 2014, the plight of these boys and girls, I knew, would only worsen.
However, most Afghans I spoke to were far more concerned about the departure of Western forces than street waifs. Word of the withdrawal alone had sent the economy plummeting. The absence of Westerners would mean restaurants like Tasty and the bank above it would lose most of their business. At the same time Westerners were leaving, and not so coincidentally, the Taliban were making significant gains in the south.
Only the poor will stay and fight, one boy, Jawad, told me.
“The rest,” he said, “would skip” — leave Afghanistan.
Jawad was 16. His father had died two years before of a brain tumor. Jawad polished shoes after school to help support his mother. He looked much younger than 16, thin with a mop of black hair that brushed against his high forehead. No matter what he wore, dashes of black shoe polish stained his shirt and pants. Even his torn sneakers had dabs of black polish. “You’re a mess,” I would tell him and Jawad would laugh. He had a quick smile and was always happy to answer questions. I liked him. Given the difficulties of his life, I thought his good nature was admirable and I decided to make him the primary subject of my story.
Jawad polishes shoes outside the Wazir Mohammad Akbar Khan Mosque near downtown. One recent afternoon, a man stopped at the mosque and spoke to him. The man said he taught at the Omar Madrasa, an Islamic religious school. He offered to enroll Jawad without charge. He said he would also support Jawad and his mother financially as long as he attended the madrasa. Jawad was very excited. He anticipated a future other than polishing shoes. I took notes, said nothing. Some madrasas, I knew, recruited boys for jihad. Zabiullah and I wondered about the man’s intentions.
“He is either a good man or he is not,” Zabiullah said. “I don’t know. All we know about him is what Jawad has told us.”
I felt conflicted. I liked Jawad. I did not want bad things to happen to him, at least any more than had already. I hoped that the man represented nothing harmful. Still, it would be a more than an interesting twist to my story if I showed that some street children were being recruited for jihad.
Zabiullah and I stopped by several mosques and asked about the Omar Madrasa. None of the mullahs we spoke to knew of it. Zabiullah then suggested we meet with his friend Ali.
He and Ali taught English together before Zabiullah began to work as a translator for NGOs and journalists in 2010. For a while Zabiullah lost touch with Ali. Then in 2012, he ran into him on the street in the downtown bazaar. Ali said he had been traveling between Kabul and Peshawar visiting family. I have been to Peshawar a few times. Each time I dressed in salwar kameez and hoped to pass as Pakistani. I doubt I fooled anyone but the area around Peshawar and parts of the city, too, were then and remain heavily Taliban. I felt more secure not wearing Western clothing.
After walking about five blocks, Zabiullah and I stopped outside Tasty. The new entrepreneurial class in Kabul, boosted by thousands of dollars of international investment and hundreds of Western troops, contractors and aid workers with money to spend, have adopted these kinds of visceral, sensory names for new Western-style restaurants. Zabiullah and I often ate at another place called Yummys near downtown. It served pizza.
Tasty stood among new skyscrapers and office buildings. Sunlight glinted off the buildings, and through the blue-tinted windows of Tasty you could see mountains on the outskirts of Kabul lined with mud huts. The blue tint gave the impression that the mountains stood underwater. In reality they were bald and dry and boulder strewn. The mountains formed a ring around Kabul, rendering it an island marooned in a valley. Tiny figures who seemed to have come from another century moved about the mountains leading goats and donkeys on narrow paths far from the roads leading into Kabul and the crowded shopping malls and the enterprising spirit that gave rise to Tasty and Yummys.
Dim lights cast much of the interior of Tasty into a deep pall. Zabiullah and I paused inside the door until our eyes adjusted to the dark. Square glass tables stood arranged in rows by the front door. At one end, sofas and deep chairs encircled a flat screen TV. Fans stood behind the sofas but had not been turned on. The air was cooler than outside but heavy and damp. A Bollywood movie played without sound. Three woman danced across the television screen, their bare, flat stomachs stretched between their concealed breasts and rolling hips.
Zabiullah noticed Ali sitting on one of the sofas, his back to the television. He looked up at the sound of our steps against the tile floor and stood. He hugged Zabiullah. Zabiullah sat beside him. I took a seat across from them facing the TV. Ali watched me and I had the impression he was interested in my reaction to the movie. I glanced at it from time to time.
“The women are beautiful but without sound it makes no sense,” I said.
“I don’t like these kinds of movies,” he said.
He made a face, shrugged but said nothing. I didn’t pursue it. I was not there to discuss Indian cinema. Ali was 24. He wore jeans and a button-down shirt. He held prayer beads in his right hand and rubbed them with his thumb. If it had not been for the prayer beads, Ali would have passed as a member of the post-9/11 generation of young Western-influenced Afghans.
Zabiullah, on the other hand, unmistakably fell into the post-9/11 camp. He wore blue jeans and button-down shirts sans the prayer beads and he left buttons open to expose his chest. He had an infant son but he did not object to his wife working. He never stopped to pray when we worked even when mullahs announced the call to prayer on loudspeakers heard throughout the city. He thought the Taliban were ridiculous. A friend of his was arrested by their morality police for licking an ice cream cone in public in 1999. He was charged with suggestive behavior and jailed. Zabiullah laughed at the absurdity of his arrest.
On another occasion, the morality police stopped at the school where Zabiullah taught English. A policeman shouted that a mullah had accused the English students of not attending their mosques. Zabiullah locked the front door so the police would think the school was closed. He and the students lay down away from the windows so they would not be seen. The police pounded on the door and did not leave for three hours.
Ali, Zabiullah and I sat quietly for a moment. Ali looked at me as if I was a curiosity, someone to be examined. I pushed past my sudden self-consciousness and told him about my story on street children and specifically about Jawad and the Omar Madrasa.
“I can see why he would be drawn to the madrasa,” I said. “I can see why he would want to be taken care of. Islamic teacher as father figure. Everything taken care of. Pretty tempting.”
“Jawad has no father?” Ali said. He spoke in a pleasant voice. He asked the question as if we had been engaged in an ongoing conversation when instead he had been silent watching and listening to me.
“No, he doesn’t. His father died a couple of years ago.”
“I don’t know the Omar Madrasa,” Ali said. “I do know madrasas look for students they think are already being good Muslims,” Ali said. “They recruit people we can count on.”
“They, we, with my English I get tenses confused. I was born in Peshawar, did Zabiullah tell you? When I was 18, I moved to Kabul with my family. 2008 it was. I still have connections in Peshawar. Sometimes at wedding party or a funeral I meet them. Connections help me when I travel to Pakistan because the areas between Kabul and Peshawar are so insecure.”
“These connections, are they Taliban?”
“Inside the Taliban there are so many people. The Taliban can’t count all the people working with them who have different ideas and answer to different philosophies. Let’s just call who I know as my connections.”
“And the people they do recruit, what do they want with them? Jihadists?”
“In the holy Koran, God never forgives anyone if they take even a penny without that person’s permission. If God forbids taking a penny, how can he condone taking a life?”
“There is a verse in the Koran: Whoever kills without reason, he will be in hell forever.”
“But if they don’t agree they will find another verse,” Zabiullah said.
Ali gave Zabiullah a look of surprised annoyance.
“Not everyone believes the same,” Ali said.
“Not everyone,” Zabiullah agreed.
I tried to ignore the discomfiting silence between them. I watched a woman in the Bollywood movie dance up a flight of stairs to a balcony overlooking the sea. Her hands pressed against her stomach. She sashayed in circles around a young man who reached for her, but she remained beyond his grasp.
“Teachers with madrasas don’t recruit on the street,” Ali said after a long moment. “The people on the street are not reliable. They are just surviving. They have no convictions. They steal. They are not good assets for the country and not even for their family. I’d be surprised if a mullah is interested in Jawad.”
“He polishes shoes at a mosque.”
“Wazir Mohammad Akbar Khan Mosque. On the main road.”
“Yes, I know it.”
“In exchange, he sweeps and mops the floors. The mullahs must like him.”
“I see,” Ali said. “If he helps at the mosque, then he may be recruited. He sounds like a good boy.”
A waiter stopped at our table. We ordered Cokes. The waiter put a box of Kleenex on the glass table between us for napkins. He called for the Cokes and another waiter hurried over with them. Both waiters wore white shirts and black vests and black pants. The first waiter offered us menus. Piza. Hamurgers. Ches burgers. Chic burgers. Chic wings. I looked at the waiters. Their clothes sagged on their lean bodies. It seemed as if we all were participating in a farcical game of imitating another culture by mocking its fast-food culture with misspellings and ill-fitting clothes.
“Just Cokes,” Zabiullah said, handing back the menus.
The waiters nodded and left.
“The people I know, some of them are with the armed side, others the political side,” Ali said, inserting a straw into his Coke. “The political side is filled with well-educated people. Someone who would recruit boys would be part of the political side. They have networks or departments within the group, say the Taliban. The youth network observes schools. It confronts boys, ‘Why aren’t you going to school? Why are you absent?’ They pressure schools to fire teachers not teaching true Islam. They see which boys have potential. When is Jawad at the mosque?”
“Afternoons. After school.”
Ali sipped his Coke.
“From my point of view, the youth networks are taking care of boys so they don’t become problems. So they don’t end up on the street like Jawad. When does he attend school?”
I took notes. Ali glances over his shoulder at the dancing women on the TV. When he turned back to face me, he was blushing. We finished our sodas and I paid our bill. The two waiters slouched on chairs by the front door with bored looks. They didn’t acknowledge us. We walked outside.
The unrelenting heat stopped us like a wall and we squinted our eyes against the intensity of it and the glare of sunlight. I shook Ali’s hand and thanked him for his time.
“When will you see Jawad again?”
“I don’t know,” I told him. “He has a mobile phone but he doesn’t have the money to pay for minutes. Zabiullah and I usually just drive by the mosque. Sometimes we see him. Sometimes we don’t.”
“He has a mobile?”
Ali asked for Jawad’s number. Zabiullah tapped a file on his iPhone and gave it to him.
“I’ll better understand the Omar Madrasa, what the man said to him, if I talk to him,” Ali said.
“He never answers. He doesn’t have the money for minutes. It would be easier if you come with us when we go to the mosque. We’ll call you. You can meet him then.”
“I will try calling him,” Ali said.
We shook hands again. He walked toward downtown, merging into the crowded sidewalk until he was indistinguishable. I had an uneasy, sinking feeling that I had told him too much about Jawad.
The first waiter offered us menus. Piza. Hamurgers. Ches burgers. Chic burgers. Chic wings. I looked at the waiters. Their clothes sagged on their lean bodies. It seemed as if we all were participating in a farcical game of imitating another culture by mocking its fast-food culture with misspellings and ill-fitting clothes.
Zabiullah and I saw Jawad once more before I left Kabul. We called Ali but he said he was busy and could not come with us. I suspected he wanted to talk to Jawad alone.
Jawad showed us his father’s grave, a small mound on a rocky hill in west Kabul, strewn with torn, wind-blown plastic bags and brown spouting spirals of dust. He had not heard again from the madrasa man. He expected to continue polishing shoes until he did.
I gave him some money. He smiled and thanked me. I told him to be wary of all strangers who make tempting offers, not just the madrasa man. Then I returned to my hotel and packed. The next day, I flew to the states and wrote my story.
I often think of Jawad. I wonder if he enrolled in the madrasa. I wonder if Ali met with him. If he did, he would have seen a decent teenager who attended school and polished shoes, a kid who wanted to be liked and who wanted the best for himself and his mother. There is a boy you should meet, I have imagined Ali telling his connections. A good boy for the youth network.
This imagined scenario should not suggest I am critical of Ali. I’m not. I think he was getting by in his own way as much as Jawad was in his.
I have not been back to Kabul for more than a year now and try not to think too much about Jawad. But sometimes I can’t avoid him. A friend of mine said recently, “You can imagine Jawad, full jihadi, being the driver for the two guys in Paris” — the alleged Islamic terrorists who killed staff at a Parisian satirical magazine in January 2015.
I Skype Zabiullah from time to time. His wife and son are well but he has received anonymous phone calls warning him not to work with Westerners. The callers refer to him as bache Americaya, “son of Americans.”
“ ‘We will see what happens when the Americans leave Afghanistan’ is a common expression now,” Zabiullah told me.
He has not spoken to Ali since the three of us met at Tasty. Every now and then he stops by the Wazir Mohammad Akbar Khan Mosque. He wears black leather shoes Jawad can polish but he has not seen him either.
Photo: Kabul Kids by Mark Knobil