The Taliban Cricket Club
[ fiction - march 12 ]
“No one could be—” I stopped when I saw the Land Cruiser race into the courtyard in front of us. “Oh god.”
In the back lay a man and a woman, their arms and legs bound. The woman wore her burka; the man had a sack over his head. Two Talibs, along with two police officers who had guns, stood above them. The vehicle stopped, the Talibs jumped down and pushed their prisoners out onto the ground as if they were sacks of grain. When they fell we heard their muffled cries.
The minister for the propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice, Zorak Wahidi, the man who had summoned us here, stepped out of the passenger seat and walked slowly back to the fallen couple. I felt a shudder of recognition. His beard was whiter since I’d last seen him four years ago. There was a stoop to his shoulders, as if a thousand dead souls pressed down on him. He wore a black shalwar, a black lungee and new black sandals. He also carried a pistol and looked down at the prisoners, and then across to us. I wanted to shield Jahan from what was about to happen but he had moved to stand between Parwaaze and Qubad and watched with the fascination of any teenager. He had never witnessed an execution before— mother had forbidden him to accompany me and Parwaaze last November when Zarmina was executed. “Look away, look away,” I whispered, but he didn’t hear me. Wahidi pointed the pistol down toward the man and shot him in the head. The man appeared to rise briefly before falling back. Wahidi moved to the crying woman and shot her in the head too. The shots sounded flat and harmless in the empty space surrounding us. He walked toward us holding his pistol, as casually as a man crossing a drawing room to greet his guests. The two Talibs, and the policemen followed him. He turned to give them an order, and then turned back to us.
“Do you know why they were executed?” We remained silent. I felt his eyes penetrating my veil, trying to remember the face he could not see. He angrily answered his own question. “They were traitors to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They were committing adultery, which is against our laws, and they deserved to die. We will not tolerate such vices. The press too...” Here he paused and surveyed us, noting each one present, focusing again on me. “...are responsible for projecting in the foreign media a very bad image of our legitimate government.” He paced in front of us, and shouted, his face snarling in fury. “From here on out, you will write exactly what I tell you.” The men took out their notebooks like obedient schoolboys. I hadn’t brought one.
“The ruling council of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and I, have decided to show the world that we’re a fair and just people. To that end, our government has decided to promote cricket in Afghanistan. We have applied to the International Cricket Council for membership.”
Like the others, I raised my head in surprise.
“We wait to hear from them on this. The Pakistan Cricket Board will support our application. Cricket will show all those against us that we too can be sportsmen. As our young men have much time to spare, we wish to occupy them to prevent any vices. We banned cricket because it was a legacy of the evil British. But we studied all sports and cricket is modest in its clothing. The uniform covers the player from his neck to his feet and covers his head as well. Therefore, we will encourage the sport, strictly according to Islamic rules of dress, and we will hold a tournament in three weeks. We will welcome an official from the International Cricket Council to observe the matches and know that we are genuine in our interest in promoting the sport, openly and fairly. The tournament is open to all Afghans and we will send the winning team to Pakistan to perfect their playing skills. They will return to teach other young men to play this sport. Women, of course, will not be permitted to play.” He ended the announcement and dismissed us.
“What do you think?” I asked Yasir.
“I write what they tell me, and I do not think. But let’s see how many Afghans turn up for the matches when they read about this. A free pass to leave the country—I wonder how many will return. Are you going to write this up?”
“Yasir—I don’t write anymore.”
When I moved to leave with the others, the two policemen grabbed me. Jahan tried to stop them but one Talib hit him in the stomach with his gun butt. Yasir moved to help, but the second Talib pointed his gun at Yasir’s chest. I struggled, trying to get a last glimpse of Jahan, but the men dragged me out of the courtyard and into a small, bare room and forced me to kneel. They pressed their gun barrels down on my shoulders so I could not move. We waited in oppressive silence. Finally, I sensed someone entering the room. I couldn’t see through the mesh and tried to lift my head, but a hand pressed it back down to supplication. I smelled perfume, a cloying, sweet odor. I glimpsed dusty feet slyly circling me, and then he and his cologne walked out of the door. Minutes later, Wahidi walked into the room in his black sandals. I heard the rustle of a paper, and he held a newspaper before my eyes. The English headline read “Taliban Execute Mother of Five Children.” It was my story and I felt my heart miss a beat, then another. This was why I had been summoned here and he was about to kill me. But I also knew he had no proof I had written it—it was filed under my pseudonym. He is only trying to frighten you, I told myself, and tried to stay calm. I did not speak; thankfully I wasn’t expected to. He crushed the paper deliberately into a small ball and dropped it on the floor. Then he lowered a pistol to my line of vision, and I smelled cigarette smoke. Through the mesh, I saw his finger around the trigger, the gun like a natural extension of his hand. Its black barrel was worn gray, the butt chipped along the edges. His finger curled and uncurled as if it had a mind of its own, and was thinking over a decision. The finger was surprisingly long, almost delicate, and manicured. Then the hand lifted the gun out of my small window of vision; it was somewhere above my head. I shut my eyes and waited. I tried prayers, but I couldn’t form the words or sentences that would accompany me into the next life. I opened my eyes when the cigarette’s smoke stung my nostrils. The cigarette lay on the floor, a serpent of smoke curling up. The ball of paper began to burn. He let it come to a small flame then crushed it with his sandal. He lowered to squat in front of me, his eyes almost level with mine. I shut mine tight and yet I felt his eyes piercing the mesh, as if searching the contours of my face. Then, with a decisive grunt, he stood up. The police lifted the gun barrels off my shoulders and followed him out.
I remained kneeling, waiting to open my eyes until I heard no further movement. The door was partially open and I was free to leave. Involuntarily, I laughed in relief. I struggled to stand, my foot caught in the edge of the burka, and I fell. I stood up, swaying, and moved to the door. I stepped out into an empty corridor. To my left, men were loading the executed couple into the back of an old Land Cruiser. For once, I was thankful for the burka. I had wet myself. My legs were rubbery and I leaned against the wall for strength. I moved cautiously out of the building, back into sunlight. Yasir waited by the entrance, while Jahan, Parwaaze, and Qubad were sitting on the low wall, across the street, along the river. They jumped up and hurried over when they saw me. I was more concerned for the abuse Jahan had suffered, and though he walked carefully, he appeared to be all right. He lifted his arms to embrace me but dropped them quickly in embarrassment, looking around to see if such an intimate gesture was noticed by the religious police. When Yasir saw my companions, he said, “Be careful,” and hurried away.
“Are you okay?” they chorused.
“Yes. Jahan, are you alright?”
“Just a stomachache. It’ll pass.”
“We didn’t think we’d see you again,” Parwaaze said, leading us away, our feet leaden on the broken pavement. “Did they hurt you?” he asked me, checking back over his shoulder.
“No, and they didn’t say a word.”
“Then why did they take you inside? What did they want?”
“I don’t know. Wahidi came into the room, smoked a cigarette, and left.” I didn’t mention the gun barrels on my shoulders, the article, or the pistol. I was frightened and I didn’t want to frighten them more.
“I didn’t want you to see . . . that,” I said to Jahan.
He was almost in tears, as he was remembering the impact of the bullets. “I didn’t want to watch, but it was so sudden and I couldn’t move my eyes, I couldn’t even shut them.
“It’s better to cry for them than just look away.” I looked at the other two. They too had moist eyes, flickering with horror at what they had witnessed, and their faces were a shade paler. “Are you both okay?” I asked them, wishing I could take back everything they had seen.
“Another execution. How many more will I see before I can get out of this country?” Parwaaze asked aloud.
“Rukhsana, next time we’ll be carrying out your co-corpse,” Qubad said, “You must leave Kabul. Go to Shaheen, he’s waiting for you in America. He was lucky to get out.”
“I can’t—there’s just no way. I’m not going to leave Maadar while . . .” I didn’t want Mother to die. Somehow, I had to survive and see my mother through her illness, and then escape. I prayed hard. “Please let me make it safely through Maadar’s death and I will leave an instant later. Please protect me until then—just a little more time before I join my bethrothed.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Jahan said.
We hurried toward home. My shoulders still burned from the gun barrels and I felt Wahidi’s breath on my face. Why had he called me? Was he setting a trap to see if I’d report today’s executions and write about the cricket announcement? If he was certain I’d written those other stories, I wouldn’t be walking home. I’d be in prison.
In my preocupation, I wasn’t listening to the boys until Parwaaze’s excited voice broke through my thoughts.
“. . . in three weeks and the winning team will go to Pakistan,” he said. “We get out if we win that match . . . go to Australia . . . America . . . to university . . . finish our studies . . . work . . . wasting our lives here . . .”
“Then we’ll have to come back here to teach the others,” Jahan said.
“I’ll keep going and going,” Parwaaze said.
“But we have one small pr-problem with that brilliant idea,” Qubad said.
“We don’t know how to play cricket,” Parwaaze admitted, crestfallen.
“We don’t,” Jahan said. “But Rukhsana does.”