THE BOY WITH MAGIC IN HIS FINGERS
When the Kebir twins were born in April 1960 it seemed like their timing was pretty good. Having hung on to its own unique version of the Dark Ages for hundreds of years, Afghanistan was finally emerging into the light like a bear off the back of a long hibernation. They were lucky to be born and then raised in Kabul which was slowly but surely finding its feet as a twentieth-century capital city. They were lucky to born into a liberal family who ran a thriving business meeting the growing demand for electrical goods. They always had enough to eat and they were beaten much less than the majority of their contemporaries.
To start with, the boys were peas-in-the-pod close. Inseparable and identical. They wore the same clothes and they did the same things. They were polite and respectful and like all young Afghan boys, they loved to fly kites high in the thin mountain air.
In the early 1970's their paths started to drift off in different directions. Both were star students in high school. Malik loved to spend every spare hour in the family shop where he took things apart and put them back together again whilst his father watched approvingly. By now Kabul was well and truly catching up with the rest of the world and everyone craved the kind of goods the Kebirs had on the shelves. Malik won the Science prize every year and set his heart on winning a place to study physics at university.
His twin brother traveled a very different road. For Akram, the mosque held a much greater fascination than the classroom. He was every bit as bright as his brother and soon the local Imams were purring at the boy who could recite the Koran to such perfection.
By the time the Red Army arrived in 1979, a chasm separated the Kebir twins. Malik welcomed the Soviets and their determination to frog march his country into a better future where socialism and science would replace the repression of the feudal chiefs and the Imams. Akram held a very different view. He seethed at the infidels who strutted the streets with such arrogance. He despised the sight of Kabul's women flaunting themselves in whore clothes. He became an integral part of the whispered conversations in the mosque.
As the seventies gave way to the eighties, the twins had drifted so far from each other it was becoming clear the gap could never be closed. The family shop was by now a favourite haunt of Red Army soldiers who had a nearly insatiable appetite for the kind of cheap Japanese electrical goods the shops at home in the Soviet Union never stocked. Malik won his place at university and thrived under the idealistic young Russian tutors who shared his belief in the wonders of science and their promise of a better future for the world. Malik learned enough Russian to be able to sell enough of the new Sony Walkmans to ensure the business thrived.
Life was good. Malik Kebir was living the dream.
Akram's life was in a very different place. Every day he heard quiet talk of the Mujahideen fighters who were taking the fight to the Red Army in the mountains. The Imams lit the fire of Jihad deep inside him and he yearned to join the fight. Only one thing kept him in Kabul and it was the same thing which had taken the rift between the twins and turned it into a deepening hate.
Aleema's family ran the book shop two doors down from the Kebir store and she had owned the hearts of Malik and Akram for as far back as either of them could remember. Both boys urged their father to open negotiations for her to become their wife. As time passed, it became obvious Malik would win the race to claim Aleema. Her father had also embraced the new world with enthusiasm and was more than happy to see his daughter wear the clothes of the west and walk the streets plugged into the Walkman Malik had given her as a birthday present. She was training to be a primary school teacher and she shared jokes with the young Russians who bought second hand paperbacks in the family store.
Akram watched and hated the life she was choosing with such evident enthusiasm. He urged her to the mosque, but she laughed him off. She loved the twentieth century far too much to listen to his entreaties to join him in the sixth. She liked her clothes and her music and joking with the homesick conscripts from Volgograd and Novosibirsk. She mocked his piety and recoiled from his burning hate.
And she made her choice clear to her father who was more than happy to allow her to make the choice.
She chose Malik and the date for their wedding was duly set. Something died inside Akram that day. He left Kabul a few hours later to join the great Jihad in the mountains.
Soon the name Akram Kebir started to be whispered in the mosques and markets. He became one of the stars in the Mujahideen firmament. When the shipments of American Stinger missiles found their way across the mountains from Pakistan, the legend of Akram became super-sized. On four occasions he dropped Hind attack helicopters from the blue mountain skies. His legend made life hard for his family. Almost every week Soviet intelligence officers would ransack the shop and demand to know where he was hiding. Malik was arrested and subjected to days of torture before his interrogators were willing to accept he knew nothing about his brother's whereabouts.
The days in the torture room with the damp peeling walls and the electrical wires changed Malik. Kabul changed with him. Now there were no more free spending soldiers in the shop. The locals were similarly absent as city's economy started to grind to a halt. The only moment of light in the midst of the growing darkness came in 1988 when Aleema finally produced a son and heir.
If 1960 had looked like a pretty good time to be born an Afghani, the same could not be said for 1988.
The Russians left and the country descended into bloody chaos. A brutal civil war was the backdrop to the first years of Omar's life. In 1996 the Taliban finally emerged as the top dog after many years of dog eating dog. They marched into Kabul swaggering and brutal and they duly reset the clocks back to the sixth century. And then one baking hot day in August, a stranger wrapped in weapons entered the Kebir shop whilst a pickup truck full of fighters waited outside. Omar was manning the desk whilst his father was fixing up an air conditioner in the workshop out back.
The stranger's hard dark eyes made Omar shudder.
“Who are you boy?”
“I am Omar. Omar Kebir, sir.”
“Where is your father?”
“He is in the workshop, sir."
Omar fled and told his father a stranger wished to see him. A Taliban stranger.
Malik froze at the sight of his twin brother. For a moment his mouth was too dry to speak. At last, he managed a few words.
“Omar, this is Akram. Your uncle. My brother.”
Once again the dark eyes seemed to burn through Omar.
“So this is the son of your whore."
“Shut up. As you can see, I am back. I will speak and you will listen. I will not accept any behaviour that will bring shame to me. I expect your whore to dress like a Muslim wife. I expect you to abide by our laws. You can expect no favours from me. Do you understand me, brother?"
Omar shrank back into the corner of the shop and watched the unfolding scene with a wild mixture of emotions. He had heard about is uncle Akram. Of course, he had. Everyone had heard of great Akram. And of course, he also knew his uncle Akram was his father's twin: his identical twin.
But now as he stared at the two brothers there was almost nothing identical about them. His father had shrunk in the years which followed his torture at the hands of the Russians. Weight had fallen off him leaving brittle bones. His clothes hung off him and his skin was grey and pale. The lines of a much older man criss-crossed his face and his eyes were those of a frightened animal.
Akram seemed at least twice as big. He filled the room with an overwhelming presence. His black robes did nothing to hide the power of the man underneath. Years under the mountain sun had burned his skin almost black and his ferocious dark eyes brimmed with violence.
It seemed to Omar like his uncle stood and stared at his father for a very long time. Maybe it was a very long time. Maybe it was merely a few seconds. At last, Akram turned and stalked out into the street without another word leaving Malik Kebir staring down at the floor.
And shaking from head to toe.
The first eight years of Omar's life hadn't exactly been a picnic. He had never known a Kabul other than the war torn Kabul. He was used to the sound of shelling and the constant dull pain of hunger. He had never known the smiling Malik Kebir who had so impressed his Russian tutors at the university. He had never seen his mother in a pair of jeans or a summer dress. Instead, he had only ever known a broken, terrified father and a mother hidden away behind her black Burqa.
Omar had never attended a school and he had never flown a kite. The only world he had ever known was the shop and the two dark rooms at the back where they lived. His furthest horizon had never extended further than the end of their street. He had never had the chance to make any friends. He had no brothers and no sisters. He had no grandfather or grandmother. He had no toys. Instead, he spent the hours of his days taking apart the old radios and televisions and kettles which lived in a pile in the back yard.
His life had been hard and hungry and restricted and lonely and frightening and bleak. He fell asleep to the sound of shelling and distant explosions and he woke up to the sound of shelling and distant explosions. The only two human beings in his life were his mother and his father and they were broken human beings.
So it hadn't been much of a childhood. But now his first eight years were about to seem like some kind of a golden era. For now, Omar Kebir's life moved into the darkness of a nightmare.
Three days later the battered Toyota pickup truck returned. Once again every door and window on the street closed as it skidded to a dusty halt outside the Kebir store. Five black clad figures jumped down from the back. Three took up station on the road with weapons at the ready.
Two stood and waited for Akram who took a moment before climbing out from the front seat. He stood for a long moment staring at nothing in particular. His men waited with expressionless faces. He was Akram Kebir. It was enough.
At last, he seemed to give a small nod and entered the shop. Once again his twin brother was a picture of naked terror. A shrunken man locked into a shrunken life.
But Malik did not need to bring his wife from the rooms at the back of the shop. She came out on her own with her head held high and her fierce eyes matching those of the Taliban fighters
“I am here.”
Akram looked her up and down with disdain. And when he spoke his voice was flat. Quiet. Uninterested
“Aleema Kebir, you have been found guilty of behaviour abhorrent to the teachings of our Prophet Mohamad and the laws of Allah. You have been found guilty of behaving like a filthy whore. Sentence has been passed and the sentence is death by stoning. I am here to make sure the will of Allah is carried out."
Without further words, he turned and walked out. His men grabbed a hold of Aleema and dragged her from the room. Malik tried to hold one of them back. He clung hard to the man's robe all the way out of the door and onto the street until he was felled by the butt of a rifle which splintered his nose. Omar ran out in time to see his mother force her face forward to spit in the face of his uncle.
She didn't utter a sound as they beat her to the floor and kicked and kicked. Akram never said a word either. He just watched. He didn't bother to wipe the saliva from his face.
As they kicked, the dull thudding sound of heavy boots crashing into half-starved flesh crawled deep into Omar's mind.
At last one of the men looked to Akram and Akram gave a curt nod. They picked Aleema from the dust like some kind of broken toy and threw her down onto the hot metal floor of the truck. They climbed on board and drove away leaving nothing but a burning silence.
Aleema Kebir was stoned to death two hours later in the centre of Kabul.
Malik's face eventually healed, but the last part of him which hadn't been broken before was now broken for good. He functioned at the most basic of levels. He ate. He slept. He carried out basic repairs. But never again did he speak so much as a single word. He locked himself down. He departed the scene.
Omar had no choice other than to grow up fast. He ran the shop and bought their food and cooked their basic meals and washed out their threadbare clothes. Only the small donations of food from their neighbours kept them from starving. Aleema's mother would call round most mornings from her family's long closed book shop to tutor Omar in his domestic tasks.
Father and son found a way to get through one day and then another day and then another. There was no more shelling in the night. The city belonged to the Taliban now. People hid behind their locked doors and prayed for it all to end.
It was the time when there was no music. Only the call to prayers from the city's minarets broke the oppressive silence that gripped the city. Only the kites soaring the thermals of the mountain sky brought any kind of colour.
Akram returned three months later and this time his brother didn't shrink back in fear. Malik never looked up from the toaster he had been trying to re-wire for three days.
“Will you not greet your brother?”
Nothing. Just the scratch of a screwdriver.
Omar swallowed hard and forced out some words. "My father doesn't speak anymore. I don't think he can."
Akram nodded. This was nothing new to him. He had seen the fiercest of warriors struck dumb by the horrors they had all witnessed in the mountains.
He dropped the cardboard box he was holding at the feet of the boy. Inside was a walkie-talkie set which had been stripped out of a Soviet jeep.
“Can you make it work, boy?”
“Good. I will return in two days.”
Omar fixed the radio set and a new routine was established. Every week Akram visited with a new batch of electrical equipment and the kind of food supplies which could no longer be found on the stalls of the city's markets.
Omar fixed everything brought to him. Soon other Taliban commanders came to call bringing him electrical items to bring back to life. Many of the items were banned, but it seemed most of the hard faced men felt no requirement to abide by the Shia Law they enforced with such brutal vigour.
Word of Omar's strange brilliance spread. He became known as 'the boy with magic in his fingers'.
In March 1997 Akram visited with supplies but no broken electronics.
Omar made tea whilst the two brothers waited in silence.
Once the tea was served Akram gestured for his nephew to sit.
“Many are impressed by your skills Omar. We must nurture these skills if you are to make a proper contribution. You must do the work of Allah. I am sending two men to tutor you. They will come every day. You will learn from them. Do you understand?”
Omar nodded. He understood. Nothing more was said. Both of the men had once been professors at the university. One taught Omar English. The other introduced the boy to computers. After a year his English was good enough for him to understand the thick manuals Akram brought to him. After two years he was as at home with the logic of the silicon chip as he was with the physics of electricity.
By the time he was thirteen, the men sent by Akram to teach him informed the Taliban commander there was nothing more they could teach. The pupil had left the masters far behind. They said the boy was a genius.
Sometimes in the years that followed Omar wondered what his uncle had planned for him. It was something he would never know because in September 2001 everything changed. In a city far away, men crashed planes into high buildings and within a few short weeks, the Kabul night was once again shaking with high explosives. This time the high explosives were American and within weeks the Taliban were nowhere to be seen.
Akram Kebir returned to the mountains and the boy with magic in his fingers became a thriving shop keeper. Kabul was a city broken by thirty years of more or less constant war and it was filled with millions of broken items which needed fixing. Now Omar worked sixteen hours every day and he and his silent father wanted for nothing. No longer were they reliant on Akram's weekly visits for their daily bread. Now they stood on their own.
There was nothing about the chilly day in February 2006 to suggest anything momentous. People came in and out in a steady flow. Omar agreed on prices and lined up appliances to repair.
The stranger came in a little before lunch. A white man. A European. And straight away there was something about the man Omar warmed to. The man wore jeans and a padded jacket. His face was tanned and his hair uncombed. He smiled and spoke.
“I don't suppose you speak English do you?”
“Yes sir. I speak English. Can I be of assistance?”
The smile widened a notch. “Hope so. People say you're the man I need.”
“I will do my very best sir.”
A battered laptop emerged from a well-used back pack.
“Bloody thing won't boot up. The lights go on but the screen stays black. I'm useless with this stuff. Any chance you could take a look at it?”
Normally Omar would have explained his strict first in last out policy, but this seemed different somehow. He had never had a European in his shop before.
“I will try sir. Would you like some tea?”
“Yeah. Please. That would be great.”
“You can sit here sir. This is my father. He does not speak.”
“Right. Nae bother." The man waved at Malik whose eyes hadn't once lifted from the same toaster he had been fixing for years.
“Nice to meet you sir. I'm Davie. Davie Fisher.”
The words washed over Malik as if no words had been spoken at all. The son stepped into the father's silence and filled the void.
“I am Omar. I will make the tea.”
“Thanks Omar. That's great.”
It took the boy five minutes to coax the laptop back into life. His thin fingers raced across the keyboard as line after line of unintelligible script rolled across the screen. At last, he sat back with a small smile.
“It is working now. If it is OK I can install some anti-virus software. Would you like this please?”
“Yeah. Great. Whatever you think. Seems you're as good as they say you are with this stuff.”
Omar shrugged and continued with his work. The man called Davie waited in comfortable silence, every now and then taking a sip of mint tea. There was something about him which made Omar comfortable enough to speak.
“Are you in Kabul for long, Sir?”
“No idea. Maybe.”
“You are English I think.”
This was almost enough to cause a spitting out of tea.
“Christ no. Bloody hell Omar, never call me that. Jesus. No. I'm Scottish, my friend. Do you know it? Scotland?”
“Only from books and the internet. I only know one place. Here. Kabul. I have never been anywhere else.”
“Fair enough. So tell me. Do think Kabul is a beautiful city? You know. All those snow-capped mountains and the big sky and everything?”
Omar paused and considered. Nobody had ever asked him such a thing before. Kabul had never given him much of a reason to feel any affection for his home town.
“Maybe. I like it when they fly the kites when the sun is going down. It is pretty I think."
“Well if you like that kind of thing I reckon you would like where I come from. Here. Pass me the laptop. I'll show you.”
Davie Googled his way into a selection of images of the Highlands of Scotland and Omar nodded in grave agreement. It was indeed a beautiful place.
“I think there is a very big difference between Scotland beautiful and Afghanistan beautiful. You have beautiful and life. We have beautiful and death. It is a very big difference I think.”
The older man smiled at the accidental wisdom. His mind locked down the sentence which would become the centrepiece of his next feature on the war ravaged city. He pulled a well-used notebook from his inside pocket and scribbled.
“Here. Name, address, mobile number and E mail. Check me out if you're ever in Scotland. I'd enjoy showing you round.”
Omar took the paper and stared down at the selection of letters and numbers from another world.
A better world. A world where fathers were not taken away to be tortured and mothers were not stoned to death.
“Thank you sir. If I ever come to Scotland I will make contact.”
“You do that Omar. I look forward to it. Anyway, I'm taking up too much of your time. How much do I owe you? I guess you'd prefer dollars?”
“Dollars are very good. Can I say twenty please?”
“You can and I'm not in the mood to haggle so twenty it is.”
The man from Scotland settled his account and Omar filed away the encounter. He had never spoken with a European before. A white man. One his uncle Akram would have called Kuffar. Unbeliever. Enemy. His uncle Akram would have opened up the man's throat and thought nothing of it.
He never expected to see Davie again but he was wrong. For the next few months, the Scot became a regular visitor. Occasionally he had something in need of fixing up, but mainly he just called in to drink mint tea and pass the time of day. Omar told him all about the desperate realities of Kabul and asked question after question about Scotland. For the very first time, he managed to find the words to describe the worst day of his life when his uncle had dragged his mother out to the pickup truck. Davie hadn't said anything. He understood there were no words available to say anything. Instead, he met the despair in the boy's eyes with what he hoped was compassion in his own eyes.
Inside he felt sick to the stomach. And inadequate. And useless and worthless and fraudulent and despicable. He tried to stretch his imagination around the utter horror the boy had lived through. He tried to comprehend the extraordinary strength the boy had managed to find in order to carry on. To run the shop. To look after his broken father. To get through one day and then another and then another hundred. And what was there to say? There was nothing he could say. He was just a man who was passing through. Taking snap shots. Penning colour pieces. Pretending to himself and the world that it all washed over him.
In the end, he said the first thing to come into his mind.
“One day you need to leave, Omar. And when you do leave, you should come to Scotland. And call me. Will you do that?”
Omar thought for a moment and then gave a slow nod of assent.
“That a promise?”
“Yes sir. It is a promise.”
Davie left Kabul a month later but they kept in contact via e mail.
Time passed. Many people continued to bring their broken things to the boy with magic in his fingers. Malik spent all the hours of his days trying to mend the same toaster.
And failing. And still he never spoke. He ate, he slept and he fiddled at the toaster whilst his son managed the business.
And then two months before Omar's 20th birthday in the autumn of 2008, the darkness once again reached out and dragged him into the pit. It was a sunny morning and the air was carrying the chill of the coming winter. The street was busy and buzzards glided the thermals. Omar was buying vegetables when the air around him squeezed into itself and then burst through his ears and deep into his brain. One moment he was filling an old carrier bag with apricots, the next moment he was down in the dust and the apricots were spread out all around him.
The street was no longer his street. Everything was incomprehensible. Black smoke billowed up into the blue sky above. There were bodies everywhere. Some were whole. Others were in pieces. Some were oddly naked. Old cars had become crushed tin cans. Faces were screaming but the screams were silent. Everything was silent.
He sat up and felt at himself as his brain slowly caught up with the mayhem all around him.
Bomb. Big bomb. His ears were damaged. But not forever. For now, the sounds to go with the pictures were starting to make their way into his brain. He slowly registered the fact that he was OK. Intact. Whole. Just deaf and breathless. As as the pieces slotted into place, he realised the bomb must have exploded close to his shop.
He clawed his way to his feet and half staggered, half ran through the screams and the blood and the pieces of people.
And now he was a part of the screaming. He wasn't aware of it. He was beyond being aware. And there were no actual words in his screams. Just a howling sound.
He knew what he would find thirty metres before he got to the place where his shop had once stood. There was no shop any more. Instead, there was a roaring inferno of flames. Instead there was hell come to earth. He started towards the flames only to be dragged back by neighbours.
He never saw his father. And he never heard his father. It would be two more days until the embers were cool enough for Malik Kebir's bones to be put into a cardboard box and buried.
Later he learned some of the facts behind the nightmare. A Taliban suicide bomber had been tasked to get as close as he could to a NATO vehicle check point situated at an intersection half a mile away from the Kebir store. Nobody ever knew why the bomber detonated so early. Most who considered themselves to be in the know guessed at nerves and agitation. An involuntary twitch of the finger. A trip caused by a cracked paving stone. An accidental collision. Nobody for a moment believed the shop had been deliberately targeted. It was just another act of accidental carnage, hardly uncommon in Afghanistan in 2008. Sometimes these accidents were delivered to earth from 30,000 feet care of an F16 fighter. Sometimes they were delivered from the level of the pavement by a terrified teenager in a suicide vest. Shit happened. All the time.
Aleema's parents took Omar away from the street and into their home. They washed the ash from his face and spread butter on his burned skin. They forced him to drink tea. They forced him to eat. And he wondered if he was going to find himself in the same place as his father for he had no words to speak. They put him to bed like a baby and he was certain he would not sleep.
But he did sleep. He slept until he was woken by a hard kick to the ribs.
There were two of them in all to familiar black robes. One levelled an AK47 at Omar's chest whilst the other yanked him to his feet.
No words were spoken. There was no need. Omar knew only too well what was happening. These were his uncle's men. They took him out into the night and threw him into the back of their pick up just like they had thrown his mother into the back of their pick up. Two more robed men sat up front. The two who had taken him tied him and gagged him and kept him down with their boots.
They left Kabul in the dark hour before the dawn. They drove for ten hours on roads which were little more than tracks. Then they walked. And walked, and walked, and walked.
They walked all through the night. They walked until Omar's feet were screaming with blisters. They walked until the pain in his thighs sent tears streaming down his cheeks. They walked until the air was thin and bitter cold in his lungs. They walked until he felt like he was at the gates of death.
At last, there were dark figures on the ridgeline. The sentinels. The camp emerged out of the barren mountainside.
They took him to the tent where his uncle waited. There was a well-used carpet on the floor.
Omar sat and took the tea he was given. He chewed on the flat bread he was given. He didn't speak.
At last Akram Kebir laid down the bones of his new life. “I left you in Kabul to care for my brother. Now Malik is dead. Now you are here. You have great skills. It is time for you to use the skills Allah has blessed you with to fight the Kuffar. It is time for you to embrace Jihad. It is time for you to become Mujahideen. Now you are weak. You are a city boy. We are men of the mountains and you too will become a man of the mountains. It will be a very hard journey. If you complain, I will beat you like a dog. You will become hard. And then you will achieve your destiny. That is all. You will sleep in the tent of my two sons. You can go.”
ALL PREVIOUS CHAPTERS
I HAVE WRITTEN THIS STORY TO RAISE FUNDS FOR THE FOODBANK I MANAGE IN DUMFRIES, SOUTH WEST SCOTLAND. OVER THE COMING WINTER OVER 3000 PEOPLE WILL COME THROUGH OUR DOORS AND RIGHT NOW WE DO NOT HAVE ENOUGH CASH TO HELP THEM ALL OUT. MAYBE YOU MIGHT BE WILLING TO HELP US OUT BY BUNGING A COUPLE OF QUID ONTO OUR JUSTGIVING PAGE? I HOPE SO. JUST FOLLOW THE LINK BELOW. I HOPE YOU ENJOY THE REST OF THE BOOK AND IF DO, PLEASE SHARE IT. MARK.
OUR JUST GIVING FUNDRAISING PAGE