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Words Without Borders is one of the inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winners!
from the July 2015 issue

Aladdin

The barrel of a gun is trained on my head. I stare at the wall, the unplastered bricks that have to be scenery so that this doesn’t stop being a game. Faruq is lying behind me. I want to turn my head, expecting the shot, blanks, a bang as my eardrum ruptures. The soldiers yelling, the supervisor’s voice, and I feel like I can hear Faruq gasping. Don’t move!—it’s my own breathing. The moment we were supposed to prepare for. The instant when the situation starts to tip over and you forget you’re playing a role, forget it’s someone else down there on the ground, a knee pressed against his back, a hood pulled tightly over his head; forget you’re not looking into the barrel of a gun yourself.

Every morning I open the door to the café. It’s not locked; there aren’t any locks on the doors to our houses, lined up along the village road like empty boxes. The seating area is dark and airless. It smells of mouse droppings and I can hear the mice rustling underneath the boards, the uneven floor a provisional solution for years. I feel my way along the wooden wall so as not to bump into the tables or the sink, and when I open up the shop the light surveys the boarded shack. At night dust slips in through the chinks between the planks, dust that will swirl up red outside the windows at midday, once the convoy has driven along the roads. It settles on the sink, the tables, the chairs, which I wipe down with damp cloths in the morning although they’ll be coated again by midday. It doesn’t bother anyone. Faruq was my only customer—but it’s good to keep moving.

The soldiers’ camp is up on the hill. I can see from the terrace when the camp gets moving early in the day and the Humvees drive around between the tents. Then I’m visible too from the hill, and I start sweeping the terrace. Our village has to look lived in, that’s the first rule of the game, the game in which we’re characters and start to dance as soon as someone casts a glance at us. The supervisor walks through the streets. Village life! he calls out and waves both arms, Village life! and a wave expands outward, carried on by us, through the streets and into the houses, until its echo ebbs away listlessly. I reel off my motions, a limited repertoire of steps and hand movements, and I’ve got into the habit of sweeping slowly so I don’t finish too soon.

Later, I sit on the terrace and read. The chair’s leather warms up in the sun, scaly as the skin of a lizard, and the supervisor doesn’t mind my books as long as he sees me sweeping and walking around the village often enough. Only the women aren’t allowed to read. They’ve never learned, in this place, and they never set foot in the café, either. I see them moving ghostlike through the streetscape, beneath blue swaths of fabric, in pairs or behind the men the supervisor has married them off with. I can distinguish them by their husbands, the wife of the village elder, the doctor, the barber, and their shadows are visible at the windows of the houses on the other side of the street, as they expend minimal energy, like me, not to freeze in place and to be ready for the next patrol. We spend most of the day this way, in a reptilian sleep, motionless and waiting for something to happen.

When the convoy approaches I take a walk around the village. Past the school where the teacher has no pupils, past the hotel that accommodates no guests, past the hospital where the patients are only feigning. I go to the bazaar, haggle over props, and exchange a few words with my neighbors, sentences that look like a conversation. Along the way, I collect stones. I bend over and pick them up, brush off the earth and put them away, in the pockets of my salwar, in the sleeves of my caftan, which are already stained red by the dust. The earth is everywhere. It gathers underneath the harness fitted with sensors that I’m not allowed to take off until the evening, when it’s written rust-red on my body as though I’d been sweating blood instead of water underneath the straps.

I pile up the stones into cones on the edge of the village. The soldiers have to destroy my cones before they can drive into the village; that’s another rule of the game—my piles of stones could be booby traps. The men don’t come every day. There are other villages in the valley, too, places like ours, which we’re only allowed to leave to go to the barracks in the evening. I have a lot of time for watching the clouds banking up. The sky goes deep down, and on the horizon—on the other side of the security fence—I can make out the bulbous spire of a church. Sometimes I spot deer on the edge of the woods, a buzzard circling above the fields, or a herd of sheep driven close to the village by rain. Their bleating makes the place seem almost real until sirens, signals, or loudspeaker announcements ring out again from the camp, and three times a day comes the muezzin’s call through our streets. We follow it single file to the mosque, where the tape falls silent and we wait for the appropriate amount of time that a prayer might take, until the supervisor comes to send us back to our places.

Faruq was the only customer at Café Aladdin. No one apart from him seems to realize I have an electrical socket. And a kettle that nobody’s noticed is missing from the barracks. Every morning, I collect tea bags and sugar from the breakfast table. I make the tea strong and sweet, the way I think it’s typical here, not knowing that cardamom and a dash of cream are missing. But even Aladdin doesn’t correct me, because he doesn’t know any better than I do. Aladdin: I don’t know what thoughts he’s come with his role or whether he’s allowed to keep out of things, in his café on the edge of the village. Once the Taliban came to call, six men in their costumes, but they didn’t come to drink tea in my café. Hadn’t I had enough of not being able to move freely around the village, they asked, and I held onto my harness, to the top strap that always presses against my throat slightly, and thought of Faruq, who’d been sent back home because he’d lost control of himself at some point.

In the village, Faruq lived from planting wheat. In the fields that didn’t surround the village; a myth, like almost everything else in the village. He spent his days at Café Aladdin, at the table at the back, where he studied for an exam that was to take place after his time in the village. He pored over illustrated books, and in one of them I’d spotted Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup tin. Andy Warlord, the supervisor joked when he came by to check everything was OK at Aladdin’s place. His two priests, he called us; he spoke with an American accent, and Faruq called him our choreographer, ever since the supervisor had us present ourselves on day two. We were supposed to tell our stories, and I stood there sweating and barely got a word out, I stuttered and felt naked in front of the others, despite my costume and the guise of Aladdin’s name.

I don’t know much about the man I’m supposed to be playing. Only what the supervisor can ask me. Aladdin’s village is at the foot of the Marmal Mountains, not far from Mazar-i-Sharif. He’s a Pashtun, twenty-eight years old, the same age as me, and I’m Aladdin, a married father of three. I live at the foot of the Marmal Mountains, with my wife, one son, and two daughters. Their names remain unfamiliar to me, my wife’s features are veiled, and I wonder whether Aladdin’s children look like me, because Aladdin looks like me. He always looks like the man who runs the café on the edge of the village, and I want to try to forget the names of my wife and children again soon, because I’m not allowed ever to say them in front of the Taliban or the soldiers.

Aladdin owns a piece of land. Five hectares, with an apricot grove. All the paperwork was lost in the war and there’ve been arguments since then, which I took over along with the café, from a man whose name was also Aladdin. He took off his clothes, collected the money, and left the village at the foot of the Marmal Mountains behind him, like I’ll soon leave it behind me. They swap us every six weeks and only the squat buildings have been here for many years, between them a few gabled houses left over from another time when our village was in the Balkans, the extras had different names, and the soldiers rehearsed house-to-house fighting with them.

Faruq didn’t take his name with him either. We still use it in the village when we talk about him, Faruq, a man who doesn’t exist outside the village. He’s the only one to bear responsibility, Faruq, a man who can’t be reported to the police outside the village, and that’s part of the rules of the game, too—the role stays here, and along with it everything you’ve experienced. We had to sign a nondisclosure agreement, there’s a signature, but right now I’m still here and I can ask the supervisor about Faruq. Whether the soldier will press charges over his broken finger, and the supervisor laughs, then leans back and says he should just be mad that he didn’t shoot Faruq quick enough!

That’s why we wear the harness, so that they can shoot us and kill us. The soldiers fire assault rifles, using blanks and infrared rays, and when they hit us an alarm tone goes off. Then we throw ourselves down in the dust and the supervisor comes running to check whether we’re just wounded or dead. If you’re dead you can go back to the barracks. You get the rest of the day off and you can use the time to wash the red earth out of your clothes.

The women take their harnesses off as soon as the supervisor is out of view. They fold back their burqas, which they wear like cloaks, with little tops and shorts underneath them, and it confuses me to see them in these outfits. It’s an effort for me not to forget that my arousal is a pretend feeling—none of my business, a matter for Aladdin, like the tension before each footstep, or the paralysis, the stiffness we fall into until the next command sets us back in motion. It’s not the commands that scare me, it’s the way I’ve begun to wait for them.

We speak the same language, Aladdin and I. In the village it’s called Pashto, and some of the neighbors speak Dari—languages that sound like German or Turkish, Polish or Russian, Frankish or Saxon, the Afghan or Persian dialects the soldiers don’t understand. They give their commands via hand signals, and we understand them as though they were dumb and we were deaf. Leda speaks five languages. She’s a translator, but here she wears a harness with sensors on it and it doesn’t matter who you are on the outside or what you can do.

We arrived on buses from all parts of the country, men and women, young and old, freelancers, pensioners, students, and since the first night there have been no differences between us. We had to hand in our telephones and valuables and now we possess nothing but the borrowed clothing, the unfamiliar name, and a place in one of the villages, allocated to us by the company. Some of the men greeted each other like old friends. Veterans who seemed strangely united in their knowledge of what lay ahead of us. Anyone who stuck out the full six weeks could come back next year, they said—but not everyone planned on staying that long. Some got sick and went home again, and someone said it was the job center that sent them as civilians to this military service, a duty they weren’t allowed to refuse. 

Faruq won’t be invited back, either. I don’t know his address, and the last image I have of him in my mind is the one where he’s wearing a hood. He’s lying on the floor and a soldier is pressing a knee against his back. Faruq gets hold of one of the soldier’s fingers as he goes to pull the hood tight around his head, and he twists the finger out of its joint, into the soldier’s screams, into the commands yelled in different languages. The Taliban have come in from the roof, the sensors are wailing, a dead man stands up and a gun is aimed at my head. I stare at the wall, expecting the shot to come and rupture my eardrum. But nothing happens. They take Faruq outside, and later someone says they shouldn’t have kicked the hostage in the back of the legs. The hood was wrong, too, and when they lead me away I have to hold a stick behind my back because they’re not allowed to tie my hands. They give me a helmet to put on in the Jeep, for safety reasons, and when they want me to make a statement in the camp I don’t know if they’re asking me or Aladdin.

The sixth week has started. From today on, every day will be a last day, and I watch the clouds drifting too far up to brush against the hills. Sometimes a helicopter lands in a whirlwind of red dust. Once the noise has died down, I hear one of the old men singing, Ibrahim or Saheed, men who bear their names outside of the fence as well and have spent many summers in the village. They always give the main parts to Afghans, and I wonder where they’ll go back to soon. One more hour and then we can go to prayers, make it look like we might be praying—for Faruq or the soldier with the bandaged hand, who someone said had just become a father. If he’s lucky he’ll be sent home, too, and until it’s my turn I’ll sit on the terrace. My books are all read, my skin has turned leathery, and on clear days I sometimes spot deer on the edge of the woods.

"Aladdin, COB" © Isabelle Lehn. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Katy Derbyshire. All rights reserved.

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