by Kamila Shamsie
(Extract from “Burnt Shadows” – a man in Afghanistan has to find a way into America without being caught by the authorities. This is the story of the route he takes, after paying a large sum of money.)
Raza left Kandahar at sunrise in a pick-up truck, squeezed between the driver and an armed guard.
The guard and driver in the pick-up were taciturn, showing no more interest in Raza’s attempts to engage them in conversation than they did in the NATO convoys that hulked past as they made their way out of Kandahar. He slept, and when he woke there was no road, only sand and at least a dozen pick-ups – each one identical in its tinted glass, its gleaming blue paint. More armed guards had appeared from somewhere and had taken position at the back of the pick-up. The vehicles raced across the desert at unnerving speeds – a pack of animals evolved in a world where nothing mattered but chase and escape.
‘All this for me?’ Raza said to the guard beside him.
The men gestured to the back where the other guards sat on gunny-sacks piled on top of each other, and Raza thought of the effete quantities of heroin which he used to personally deliver to the most valued hotel guests in Dubai as part of his duty to give them whatever it took to ensure they returned.
At a certain point, when it seemed to Raza that his eyes would never see anything but sand outside the window something extraordinary happened. The convoy passed a group of nomads, making their way across the desert on foot. And there they were – finally, miraculously: women.
Faces uncovered, arms laden with bangles, clothes bright. He always thought they had to be beautiful – those women of fairy-tale who distracted princes on mythic quests with a single smile. Now he saw it was enough for them to simply be.
‘Stop,’ he said to the driver, but of course no one did, and within seconds the landscape was sand again.
But just that glimpse moved Raza into a profound melancholy – no, not melancholy. It was uljhan, he was feeling. His emotions were in Urdu now, melancholy and disquiet abutting each other like the two syllables of a single word.
Raza didn’t know that even as he was thinking this he was nearing the edge of Afghanistan. The pick-up climbed a sand-dune, and on the other side there was a habitation of sand-coloured structures.
‘You’ll get out here,’ the guard said. He pointed to the men who were watching the convoy approach. ‘They’ll take you now.’ The guard had answered all Raza’s questions with monosyllables and shrugs but now he looked at him with compassion. ‘Just remember, it will end. And the next stage will end.’
By early morning the next day, Raza was repeating those words to himself as though they were a prayer to ward off insanity.