|The windows of the old apartment building are alive with faces, shoved against the glass to see who has gotten out of the strange van in the alley below.
You nod hello, then look around to get your bearings. Above, strings heavy with laundry hang from the side of the building, curving in the Sunday morning light. At your feet, children play in puddles of brown water.
Up the stairs, to an entryway where five boys are already waiting. They stand formally, shoulders back, chins held high, like dignitaries in a reception line. One by one, as you move past, they solemnly shake your hand. Several adults stand behind them, nodding.
“Please, can you help me?” a woman says softly in English. She is holding a thin white veil across the lower half of her face.
You don’t know what to say, and you are already being ushered forward. So you smile politely and keep your eyes away from hers and step into the apartment.
The front door is pasted over with a mosaic of photos of Madonna, Chuck Norris, Sylvester Stallone as Rambo, a couple of Russian soccer players. The room you have entered is dark and almost completely empty of furniture. The floor is covered with a faded red carpet. In one corner, on top of a mini-cabinet, there is a small TV and a boom box. On the floor, near another doorway, you see a worn deck of cards.
Your host, the man you came here hoping to meet, invites you to sit down across from him on the carpet. The others from the entryway—including the woman in the veil as well as the boys who greeted you—come in and crowd behind him and beside him. Too late, you notice they have all left their shoes at the door, while you are still wearing your hiking boots.
If your host is offended, his face does not show it. He kneels on the carpet and silently watches as you get settled and pull out your notebook and pen.
He is waiting until you are ready. He will wait as long as it takes.
His name, he says, is Hashmatullah Sharifzada. He prints it out, in your notebook, so you will get it right.
He explains that he was born on January 1, 1971—he puts the date down for you, too—in Kabul. He grew up there and lived in the city until two years ago, when he fled Afghanistan.
“Why did you leave?” you ask.
“The Taliban captured me,” he says, not taking his eyes off yours. “They hit me in the head with a pistol. They broke my toes. They pulled out my toenails.”
Sharifzada runs a hand over his bare cheeks. “I was not a military person,” he says. “I was not a Taliban. They are Wahhabites and Pashtuns, but I am a Tajik, and I didn’t wear a beard.”
It takes time for these words to travel from his mouth to your notebook because they must be relayed across several continents. Sharifzada speaks in Farsi. A boy at his side translates the Farsi into Uzbek. Another man in the room, an Uzbek guide you have brought with you, translates from Uzbek to Russian for another guide. This second guide then translates from Russian into English, so you, an American, can write down at least some version of what was originally said.
Still, the essence of Sharifzada’s story comes through. It’s written on his face. It’s in the flatness of his voice.
He shows you what the Taliban did to him. Barefoot, he points to the toes that were broken and the nails that were pulled out. Two years later, they are still black.
“I was an ordinary person,” he says, “and that’s why they did this to me. They wanted me to become a Taliban, and I was running away. That’s why they caught me and tortured me.”
He is trying to explain what he did for a living before these things happened. It seems he was some kind of a low-level government official. But he can’t find the exact word to describe his position; at least he can’t find a word that survives the chain of translations. He turns to a Farsi-English dictionary and flips through the pages. As he searches, the woman in the veil uses the opening in the conversation to speak.
“Please help me,” she says again in English. “We don’t have any work here. Can you help us?”
Again, you don’t know how to respond. You’re not sure how she learned English, or even who she is. A relative? A neighbor? With the language barriers, you haven’t figured out who any of these other people are. You understand that they are refugees from Afghanistan. But that’s all.
Finally, Sharifzada finds the word he was looking for in the dictionary.
“Petty official,” he says. Yes. He was a petty official in the Ministry of the Interior. He stamped papers that allowed consumer goods—cars, appliances, shipments of grain—to be distributed around the country.
For a moment, he pauses. Then he explains that he had a family in Kabul, a wife and a little boy, and that two years ago, just before he was captured and tortured, his wife was killed.
“Talibans were fighting, and they were shooting,” he says. “My wife was at the bazaar, and the Talibans got into a shootout, and she was killed. I don’t know if they did it on purpose or if it was an accident.”
You try to find out more. You want to know his wife’s name, how old she was, any other details he can share.
The woman with the veil—it turns out she is his sister—lowers her gaze.
Sharifzada shakes his head.
“Please don’t ask me about this,” he says, his eyes filling with tears. “Please don’t ask me.”
His son, Farshad, was 3 when his mother was killed. Now 5, he is the smallest of the boys who shook your hand at the door. He is gaunt and pale, with dark brown eyes that seem to never blink.
While you wait for questions and answers to wend their way through the languages, you watch Farshad. He is holding a bow made of a stick and a piece of string; he seems to have no arrow for the bow, but plays with it anyway, pulling on the string. He says nothing. He stands back, near the door, studying you while you study him. At last he comes forward and sits beside his father and lays his head on his lap.
Sharifzada talks about his parents and the rest of their family. There were nine children in all; three girls and six boys. He and his sister, the one sitting here now, don’t know where their other siblings are. Nor do they know what has happened to their parents. At last contact, their mother and father and at least two of the siblings were still living in Kabul.
He leafs through the Farsi-English dictionary again. He is looking through a section that translates phrases. He finds the one he wants and points to it for you to read.
I am thinking about my family. I haven’t heard anything about them.
Behind him, his sister knows without looking what phrase he has chosen. “Thinking about my family,” she says.
By this point she has taken off the veil. Her name is Fawziy Saedi. She’s a year younger than her brother. She is married, with two sons of her own; her boys were also in the line that shook hands at the door. She and her husband and their sons live in this apartment with Sharifzada and Farshad.
“How do you know English?” you ask her.
Before the Taliban came to power, Saedi says, she was a schoolteacher in Kabul. She taught English. Years have passed since then, and she has lost most of the language. Now she spends her days teaching her sons and her nephew. They can’t go to school here in Uzbekistan, because they don’t speak Uzbek. So she teaches them in Farsi and what she remembers of English.
To show what he has learned, her 8-year-old son gives a recital.
“A-B-C-D-E-F-G,” he says, running quickly through all 26 letters.
Then he sings. “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are. Up above the sky so bright…”
The interview unfolds in slow motion. It stops and starts and then stops again.
The boy who has been converting the words from Farsi to Uzbek has to leave. Another boy, slightly younger, takes his place. He was born with polio and walks with braces. You study this child, too. As he translates, you try not to stare at his withered left leg, but you can’t help it and stare anyway.
Hours are going by, and your own legs, you are ashamed to admit, are aching from sitting so long on the floor. One of the other children sees your squirming and gets up and brings you a pillow. You try to tell him no thank you, because no one else has a pillow. The boy insists you take it.
Saedi’s husband wanders in and out of the room. Others come and go as well. Through it all, Sharifzada keeps talking. He tells how he escaped the Taliban after bribing his guards, how he and his son and his sister and her family spent weeks trying to find a route out of Afghanistan.
Sometimes the six of them traveled in a car. Sometimes they walked through mountain passes covered in snow. First they went to Pakistan, where so many Afghan refugees have fled. But after two weeks they were sent back across the border. Then they tried Tajikistan. Then Iran. Then Tajikistan again; this time they were allowed to enter the country. They stayed two years. They were easy prey for profiteers; by the time they left, their savings were gone.
Finally, they obtained permission to come to Uzbekistan, arriving in Termez on May 15 of this year. Their papers are only good for a few more months; soon they will have to apply for an extension.
With no savings, they get by as best they can.
“We live here,” says Sharifzada, looking around the room. “We are doing nothing. There is no work for us.”
He has not been able to find a decent job. Instead he sells plastic bags down at the bazaar; he has learned enough Uzbek phrases to conduct the transactions. He makes 300 to 400 sum a day—roughly 20 to 30 cents, not nearly enough to cover their rent and expenses. So they borrow the rest from other Afghan families in Termez who know they will pay them back eventually.
In Kabul, he says, they had a car, a house, furniture, beds. Here, they own nothing aside from a few clothes; the TV, which is blurry and only gets one channel, belongs to their landlord. The six members of the family stay in this room together, sleeping on the carpet.
“Do you have enough to eat?” you ask.
“Sometimes there is enough,” he says. “Sometimes not.”
“Do you have any photos of your wife?”
None here, he says. There were some at their house in Kabul. But he doesn’t know if the pictures are still there or if they’ve been destroyed. He doesn’t even know if the house is still standing.
From the boom box in the corner, he and the rest of the family listen to the BBC news broadcast in Farsi. They followed the events of September 11; they have also tracked the progress of the war across the river to the south of this city.
Sharifzada says he believes America has done the right thing, pursuing the Taliban. But he hopes that when the war is over, the bombs will be replaced by food and other supplies.
Another pause during the translation, another plea from his sister.
“Please help me,” she is saying again. “Please help me. Please help me.”
Sharifzada does not comment on what she is saying; since he does not speak English, it is not clear if he even knows what she is saying.
Instead he talks about his faith in Islam. About observing the fast of Ramadan. About how he kneels inside this room every day and prays.
“I ask Allah for peace to come to Afghanistan,” he says, “and for peace to be in the whole world.”
Now that the Taliban have been driven from Kabul, he and the others are talking about returning to their home. What they really want, though, is to be allowed to immigrate to America. That’s why the children are working on their English. It’s why Sharifzada has a book, written in Farsi, that describes what life in America would be like.
This book is in another room, the one where his sister teaches the children. You ask if you can see the book. He is reluctant to show it, but finally he allows you to glance through its pages for a few moments. There are pictures of doctors and nurses, police officers and teachers, parents and children smiling together.
“We want to go to America,” he says. “We want to live in America.”
One of his sister’s sons—the boy who sang for you a little while ago—stands at your side, pulling on your sleeve.
“Please help me,” he is saying now, echoing his mother. “Please help me. Please help me.”
As you stand in this room, hearing his words and looking through the book on America and seeing its photos through the eyes of this family, Sharifzada’s son wanders in, eating a chocolate Power Bar. He has another bar in his hand, a Dipped Harvest Energy Bar; one of the visitors has given them to him.
Farshad offers the uneaten bar to you, and your face burns.
Back down the stairs, to the alley where the van is waiting. Another look around, so you will remember.
Sharifzada shakes your hand. The boy with the withered leg, standing with his braces, actually winks at you.
You look up at the side of the apartment building and see the faces pressed against the windows once more. They watch you drive away.