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from the December 2018 issue


When a lawyer and his interpreter visit a Hazara woman in a Japanese prison, they discover there are questions she can't—or won't—answer.

Mr. Tanaka filled in two copies of the visitors’ application form and passed them to the man on the other side of the small reception window. A few minutes later, a heavy iron door opened in front of us, and a tall, sturdy policeman appeared. He was almost too well built to be Japanese, his muscles bursting out of his uniform.

“Please come this way,” he said. He ushered us through the door, entered himself, and locked the door behind us. We found ourselves in a long, narrow corridor. Iron doors lined both sides, with the occasional small window, so it was very dark. Though it was morning, little daylight reached here, but some small lamps provided just enough light to see right in front of you. The corridor would be pretty scary at night, like something out of a horror film.

The big policeman guided us to one of the rooms off the corridor. It was filled with lockers. We were told to leave all our belongings here. My bag was searched thoroughly at a security check before we entered the building, and we had left our mobile phones and keys downstairs, so I assumed we were ready to go into the interview room without yet another layer of screening . . . Mr. Tanaka mumbled unhappily to himself. This was inconvenient: he had too many files to carry without a bag. Frowning, he emptied his bag. If I had known my bag would be searched, I wouldn’t have brought that pink sparkling cosmetics pouch or the spare nylon stockings. Worse still, my bag was full of used tissues because I had a runny nose . . . I was flooded with embarrassment when the guard saw them.

I took out my essentials—a dictionary and a pen case—and left the room. Mr. Tanaka had a little argument with the policeman over whether he could take his bag with him, but in the end he took out a pen case and some very thick files and put his bag in the locker. The big policeman guided us further along the corridor where a second policeman appeared. He greeted Mr. Tanaka, unlocked the door in front of us, then stood aside to allow us to enter. I followed Mr. Tanaka into the room, and the tall policeman followed us, closed the door, and stood guard.

The room was relatively small and as gray as the rest of the building. A glass panel divided it in two, which made the whole room look much smaller. There were three chairs in front of the glass panel, and Mr. Tanaka chose one at the end. I sat at the other end, leaving a chair between us. A little later, on the other side of the panel, a door opened and a policeman came into the room, bowed slightly to us through the glass, then turned around and gestured for someone to enter. Behind him, a slender girl of medium height entered the room, her eyes downcast. She was wearing colorful, baggy clothes of the traditional sort and a long khaki headscarf with sparkly patterns tied around her hair. She reminded me of a nomad out in the countryside, the sort of person you only see in films. The policeman pointed at the single chair on the other side of the panel, and returned to his position by the door. She was still looking down, not at us, and just sat, hands in her lap, without uttering a word. She never made eye contact with us as we stared at her intently.

Mr. Tanaka cleared his throat and began the session.

“Salam!” He greeted her in Dari to be friendly. I saw the large transparent file folder by his feet, and noticed a thin, colorful leaflet for children in it, listing “greetings from around the world.”

The girl kept looking down, without reacting or raising her eyes.

Mr. Tanaka glanced at me. That was his sign: please interpret.

“I’m Tanaka,” he said, a bit nervously. “You must have been told that, as of today, I am here to defend you. There’s nothing to be afraid of, so let’s work together.” It was a very Japanese greeting, and after saying what he wanted to say, he looked relieved. He shifted in his seat and turned to me. But just as I began to translate, he suddenly stood up from his chair saying, “Oh, excuse me!” as if to himself. He pulled out a business card from the inside pocket of his jacket and slipped it through a small hole in the glass. She couldn’t hide her surprise at his sudden action, and looked up to glance briefly at us.

It was only for a moment, but I was struck by the look on her face. Her eyes were cloudy and without expression, as though the lights were turned off. They didn’t look at all like the eyes of a living creature—it was as if they were made of plastic. There was no movement or expression, and I couldn’t help wondering if she could see anything with those quiet eyes.


Mr. Tanaka’s voice brought me back to myself. As he watched me, I began to translate his words, slowly, so she wouldn’t find it difficult to understand my accent.

She didn’t react at all. I had expected her to be happy to hear Dari again after a long time. But she showed no recognition. Mr. Tanaka gave me a doubtful look, and continued.

“In order to work together, you need to answer all my questions. I need to ask you various things, and it may be a bit hard for you, but it’s all for your sake, so please try to answer.”

She still didn’t respond. Mr. Tanaka gave me a sidelong glance. I protested quietly: “I translated exactly what you said!”

She took hold of the edge of the long khaki headscarf and started to wind it around the fingers of her other hand. Her hands were tanned, wrinkled, hardened, the skin of her fingers cracked. Dirt had accumulated and blackened her short nails. They were the hands of someone who had never heard of hand cream.

She didn’t seem to listen to Mr. Tanaka or to me. His business card lay there ignored. Mr. Tanaka took out a stack of documents from his clear plastic folder and looked at his list of questions.

“What is your name?”

I interpreted his words for her. After a short silence, she replied “Leyla.” Her voice was faint, hard to hear, and surprisingly husky. She would have had no idea how sexy and exciting it would sound to male university students. As soon as he heard her response, Mr. Tanaka straightened up, looked at her happily, and then back to his questions. His voice rejuvenated as if his batteries had been recharged, he moved on to the next question.

“What is your family name?”

“Gholam ‘Ali.”

“When were you born?”

 “In the summer.”

“I meant dates or years . . . ” He looked at me. The simple expression “date of birth” completely disappeared from my mind. I quickly took the Dari dictionary I’d bought a while ago from my bag and searched for the words I needed. Once I found the expression in Dari, I repeated the question. I closed my dictionary and looked up to find her looking at me with her enigmatic eyes. Perhaps my action of searching for the words was interesting. When our eyes met, I got goose bumps.

“I don’t know. My mother only told me I was born in the summer.”

Leyla’s eyes dropped again. I took a closer look at her face, her tanned skin, the beautiful bone structure. The wrinkles around her eyes and mouth deepened as she spoke. She looked like a teenager, but her skin seemed thirty years older. She was young, but her skin was worse than a hardworking middle-aged woman’s, completely dried out.

Mr. Tanaka looked puzzled. “Do you know how old you are?” 

She raised her eyebrows. “Probably seventeen or eighteen!”

“Which one?”

Mr. Tanaka was beginning to sound frustrated at the prospect of having to defend someone who didn’t even know how old she was.

“I don’t know. My brother says I’m seventeen, but my mother always said a year older.”

Troubled, Mr. Tanaka looked up at the policeman in front of the door, as if asking for help. The policeman said, matter-of-factly, “A lot of people don’t know their age. They don’t have proper ID cards or passports.”

“Well, what can I do?”

Mr. Tanaka held his head with one hand, tilted his body a little. With the other hand he took a small hand towel from his trouser pocket and wiped sweat from his forehead.

“It’s OK not to be too precise. It’s the same with everyone,” said the policeman, clearly used to this sort of answer.

“OK, let’s say seventeen, then. Or should I believe her mother and say eighteen?”

He wrote something down on the sheet of paper in front of him.

“Where were you born?”

“Mazar-e Sharif,” she replied in her low, nearly inaudible voice.

“Mazar . . . You must have had a hard time.”

Mr. Tanaka looked at his documents.

“You are a Hazara, aren’t you?”

She paused for a moment then nodded slightly, without saying a word.

“I see . . .” Mr. Tanaka mumbled to himself.

“Where are your parents now?”

She replied, looking down, “My mother died.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. That’s very unfortunate.”

While jotting down his notes, he did not forget to add a word of condolence. Then he mumbled something, which I didn’t need to translate.

“And your father?”

When I translated this question, Leyla suddenly looked up. She gazed at me with those blank, enigmatic eyes. I’d never seen eyes of such a color: neither brown nor gray, they could be described as khaki, reflecting the scarf around her hair.

Mr. Tanaka’s radar picked up her concern, and he added quickly: “As you already know, we are friends. We are here to help you, so please don’t worry about telling me anything.”

While translating, I realized that I had become a part of this circle of “friends” who were strangers to each other. Who were the friends of this young girl without hand cream? An idle student and a plump lawyer!

“My father is in Pakistan.”

She stopped winding the khaki material between her fingers. Still blank, unlit, motionless, her eyes were gazing into the far distance.

“What for?”

“I don’t know.”

“What does he do?”

Leyla looked down. A few minutes passed without a word. She clearly had no intention of answering any questions about her father. Mr. Tanaka sighed deeply.

“I can’t do anything until you tell me what you know.”

She didn’t react. She was absolutely determined not to give away any information about her father.

“Do you have any brothers or sisters?”

Giving up on the father, Mr. Tanaka had changed tack.

“I have two older brothers.”

“Where are they now?”

“One is dead. The other is with my father.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Could you tell me how he died?”

“In the war. A piece of shrapnel hit his head. I didn’t see his body.”

As I translated the cold facts that she disclosed in a matter-of-fact tone, I felt cold sweat run down my spine.

“What does your brother do with your father?”

“He is helping my father.”

“Can you tell me what he does?”

Again, a few minutes passed without a word from Leyla.

Mr. Tanaka looked at his watch.

“It’s about time.”

I followed his eyes to his watch. So late! Without realizing it, we had been in the room for two hours. This interview was not what we had hoped for. Mr. Tanaka had warned me that the first interview was always tiring—the goal was not to get a lot of information, but to build trust.

Many people don’t like to be interrogated by lawyers. You are bombarded by someone you don’t really know with questions that required accurate answers and a clear memory. Lawyers wade into the depths of privacy with their shoes on until they get information that will appeal to the court. However you see it, the questioning will reach the point where the word “privacy” means nothing. Clients answer questions because the lawyers are there to defend them, but they never open up their hearts. Mr. Tanaka must have thought his job through and understood that he had to proceed gently so the client wouldn’t clam up. Crossing his arms, shaking his head, he told me:

“These days we’re in the IT era, and some young lawyers are so careless that they type private information into a computer in front of the client. They’ve got no idea how cold-hearted and unconcerned it makes them look. My policy, at least, is never to enter information into a PC in front of a client. I may waste time later transferring the info from a notebook to a PC, but it means I can spend the precious time with the client chatting like friends. That’s really important to building a relationship. Making eye contact with the client while talking is the most important thing. If you do that, you’ll be able to understand each other’s small reactions and facial movements, then eventually you can talk about everything.”

Quite surprisingly given his appearance, Mr. Tanaka spoke passionately about his method of working with clients. But would it work with this girl on the other side of the glass panel, eyes downcast, headscarf wound around her fingers?

“Thank you very much for speaking with me today. I’m planning to come again next Tuesday.”

While talking to Leyla, Mr. Tanaka glanced at the policeman standing behind her as if to confirm that this was OK.

“That’s fine, just leave your name and the time slot with the guard outside,” the policeman said.

“Thank you.” Mr. Tanaka stood up and nodded.

The policeman called to Leyla and opened the door behind her. She stood up without a word and disappeared through the door, without looking back at us.

The policeman behind us unlocked our door, and we were soon back in the locker room where we had been before. Our mobile phones and keys were on the table. We gathered our belonging and signed out. Mr. Tanaka offered me a lift to the station. We left the building together and got into his car. Before we left the premises, we passed a final check at the gate. The passenger-side rear-view mirror reflected the big, shining letters that spelled out “Border Agency” on the wall behind us.

Mr. Tanaka dropped me off, but I didn’t go straight to the train. I didn’t have any plans for the rest of the day. That didn’t mean that I could do whatever I wanted, but I didn’t feel like going back to the university. I just needed to get some fresh air outside the Border Agency center. It was nearly lunchtime, so the big shopping mall in the station was crowded with salarymen looking for somewhere to eat, housewives shopping for groceries at the supermarket, students who had finished classes early, and “freeters” who had nothing much to do.

The dark and scary Border Agency center only a few miles away seemed completely foreign here. The bustling station was bright and spacious, with a small park and even a play area, and ringed with advertisements for cram schools and English language colleges—so many schools of different types that made it hard to believe there was somebody who couldn’t even read or write her own language just a short distance away. There were signs for izakayas, karaoke bars, game centers—none of which Leyla had ever heard of. She had never even used hand cream.

I went into a small coffee shop, ordered a coffee, and sat by the window. The aroma of roasted coffee beans teased my nose. It was still too hot to drink, and as I waited for it to cool down a little, I looked around the café. Sitting there comfortably, in these relaxed surroundings, brought me back to my reality. This was where I was living, in this rich country. I picked up the cup of coffee and brought it closer to my face. It smelled wonderful.

© Shirin Nezammafi. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright © 2018 Aoi Matsushima. All rights reserved.

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