Reproduced by permission from Karakoram Press, an imprint of QMarket Corporation. Copyright (C) 2011, QMarket Corporation.
Open up! open up! hurry!” called out a frantic voice from outside. It was Jamil returning home after staying late at the office. He was expected back around this time but with far less commotion. Kausar heard him and hurried to the gate to let his car in. As soon as it was feasible, Jamil drove through the opening not waiting for it to be completely open. Slamming the door of his car after spilling out, he ran into the house, calling for his brother.
“Excuse me?” exclaimed Kausar. With her ego bruised, she followed her husband who had all but ignored her upon his arrival as he barreled into the dwelling. His additional failure to acknowledge her exclamation simply piled on the injury.
“Sikander bhai! Sikander bhai!”
Sikander put down his magazine and headed out of the lounge to find out what the fuss was about when, gasping for breath, Jamil bumped into him.
“Sikander bhai…CNN! Switch on CNN!”
“Jamil, what is it? What’s happened?” asked an alarmed Sikander.
“Please, bhai-jan! Just turn it on. Turn it on…there’ve been attacks in America… World Trade Center in New York. Hit by aircraft!”
“Jamil!” Sikander had barely absorbed his brother’s words. “Calm down! An airplane hit the World Trade Center? Why… why do you say it was an attack? Couldn’t it just have bee–”
“Bhai-jan, I didn’t say an aircraft, I said aircraft! There have been two planes flown into the two towers and now there’s smoke pouring out of both of them and…and oh God! The people in there!”
“Alright. Alright, come on.”
Flanked by Rabia and Kausar, Sikander and his brother hurried into the TV room. Kausar’s indignation at having not been acknowledged upon opening the gates quickly evaporated as she began absorbing the gravity of what appeared to be unfolding. Likewise, sensing something was amiss, Sofie picked up the children, handed them to Atiya, and asked her to get them to bed. She too proceeded to the TV room. By now the TV was on and tuned to CNN. As the picture took shape on the screen, news anchor Carol Lin had been describing a third aircraft–this one having impacted the Pentagon–while the video image cut away from the studio to a street in New York as people were screaming and running from the buildings.
At that moment, the unthinkable happened.
Slowly, surreally, the south tower started sinking into the ground as if a giant trap door had been opened beneath it by some evil, unseen hand. What had a moment earlier been a pall of billowing black smoke streaming away from the building was now replaced by a giant inverted mushroom cloud of dense gray smoke and dust followed by debris and paper. Millions of pieces of paper–some laden with meaning, others with meaningless doodles scribbled during a dull meeting rudely interrupted just an hour or so earlier, yet others blank, vacant, and simply awaiting meaning, but now acquiring one neither imagined nor imaginable. It didn’t matter now. They descended fluttering and wafting, like so many white autumn leaves into the ghastly, unrelenting gray accumulating rapidly below.
The dust engulfed everything on the ground, blotting out the sun and the lapis lazuli beauty of that fateful New York sky. About half an hour after the first tower fell, now all too imaginably, the north tower followed suit in a near carbon copy collapse. All that remained was air in the space where two buildings with over seventeen thousand people in them had been standing just a couple of hours earlier. The family remained pinned to the TV for almost the whole night. Early talk show hosts, commentators, and various experts began reflecting that all signs pointed to al-Qaeda and Afghanistan.
By the early morning in Peshawar, which was still the evening of the 11th in Washington, George W. Bush delivered a speech on national TV, which was seen live throughout an increasingly worried world, including Peshawar, and the most alarming point came when he uttered the chilling words:
“…We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them.”
Even though by now they had lost a night’s worth of sleep, the family members in the TV room glanced anxiously at each other when Bush completed his speech.
The attacks resulted in almost three thousand lives lost from over eighty different nationalities. They had the additional effect of liberating the US government to do whatever it felt was needed to address the threat of al-Qaeda and, to whatever extent American interests were otherwise at stake, to pursue the adventure anywhere in the world that circumstances might dictate. Speculation mounted about counterattacks on Afghanistan or potential raids to seek out and perhaps kidnap or kill Bin Laden and his entourage. Whether the USA wished to be back in Afghanistan or not, it would indeed be back–and this time, directly. Inevitably, its actions would hit home for Sikander and his family.
Sikander and Rabia began increasing their cell phone contacts with Abdul Latif whenever they got the chance just to be sure that things were alright, but communications grew even more patchy than normal, and due to circuit overloads, calls were often dropped. From what he and Rabia could learn in snippets of conversation, Abdul Majeed and Saleem were heading off to join other Taliban to the west of Laghar Juy up in the Spin Ghar region. The Tora Bora caves were well fortified and supplied, so that would be among the preferred locations. Before they left, Sikander tried to impress upon them to avoid any place likely to be a known target for American attacks. At the time, Sikander imagined an American response involving more Tomahawk cruise missiles, similar to those following the embassy bombings. Abdul Rahman and Ejaz were both on the Pakistan side of the border with their families and Sikander tried to persuade Abdul Latif and the rest of them to come back. Yet Abdul Majeed and Saleem remained undeterred, refusing to hear of such a move for themselves as they felt this would be a gross dereliction of duty to their fellow Taliban brothers.
All consternation focused on the likely US response as American public opinion now squarely anticipated that it would be comprehensive and would inevitably result, contrary to Sikander’s naive hopes, in more than simply another round of cruise missiles at a few training camps. In Peshawar, as elsewhere, this was the only subject on people’s minds and lips.
Five days after the New York attacks Sikander was in the office mulling over the likely scenarios that might well be unfolding in Pakistan and Afghanistan over the coming weeks and months. The talk around the place was incessantly about how terrible the attacks had been, how years of bad US foreign policy had created the monster that had attacked it, how this would affect life in Pakistan, how India might capitalize on the situation, and, of course, how everything had been secretly organized by the US government anyway. The existence of the Project for the New American Century and its neoconservative adherents received wide exposure in Pakistan as further evidence of the “conniving ways of the Americans.” Indeed conspiracy theories were ripening just about everywhere, from society functions to sports events to local kebab and paan shops, and were part of the entertainment in just about every taxicab ride in Peshawar. Whatever the station in life of any individual, he or she always seemed to have the inside knowledge of what the Americans had really done and how the whole thing on TV was more or less staged.
It wasn’t long before Sikander himself was drawn into one such discussion with Jamil and Rehan. He caught them in a conversation vying with each other as to whose theory was more Machiavellian, each seeking to outdo the other’s supposed insights into what was really happening in the corridors of power in Washington, Islamabad, London, Riyadh, and New Delhi.
“They wanted to create another Pearl Harbor for themselves,” declared Jamil. “Now they can pretty much do as they please and everyone in their own country will be too frightened to stop them.”
Rehan nodded fiercely in agreement. “This has to be the work of the CIA. No doubt about it. And pretty soon–”
“Pretty soon you’ll run out of conspirators and conspiracies, Rehan!” interrupted Sikander’s voice from behind him.
“Khan-sahib! I…I…didn’t–” stammered Rehan.
“Oh relax, Rehan. I didn’t mean anything by it. But you know, it seems to me you people are talking about the wrong thing. At least right now, instead of discussing how these things came about, we should be trying to understand how they’ll unfold and what options we have, and I’d begin with the facts on face value before inventing plausible unproven conspiracies.”
“Meaning?” asked Jamil.
Sikander looked at his watch, glanced over the mezzanine balcony, and saw that there was a lunchtime lull in customer activity in the sales section. He motioned to Rehan and Jamil to follow him into his office. §
M. Salahuddin Khan is the former publisher of the award winning Islamica Magazine, coexecutive producer of The Boundary. Sikander is his first novel and has won first place at numerous book festivals including LA Book Festival, Paris Book Festival, National Indie Excellence Book Awards, and others.
Jamil: Younger brother of Sikander. Sikander and Jamil run their family business (Javelin – Javed Electrical Industries of Peshawar)
Kausar: Jamil’s wife
Rabia: Sikander’s Afghan wife
Sofie: Sikander’s mother
Atiya: The family’s Afghan housemaid and child minder
Abdul Latif: Rabia’s uncle and Sikander’s mentor during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan
Abdul Majeed: Abdul Latif’s youngest son
Saleem: The younger of Rabia’s two older brothers.
Abdul Rahman: Abdul Majeed’s older brother
Ejaz: Saleem’s and Rabia’s older brother
Rehan: An employee of Javelin who runs the floor sales of their electrical products wholesale supply company.