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from the December 2020 issue

Turn this Air Conditioner On, Sir

A young man makes his way to work in Kabul, preoccupied with the thought of his own death, in this story by Maryam Mahjube. 

Sir, please turn the air conditioner on.

If he says this out loud, everyone around him will scold him. Or they will ridicule him about how cold the weather is at this time of year, happy that space is tight in the car and they have to sit close to one another. As the number of vehicles grows and traffic gets worse, his sweat increases and a warmth spreads from behind his neck and over his whole body. When a bigger truck, full of bricks, stops beside their car, his body clenches. If that truck is full of gas and petrol, he grips the handle on the roof tighter and turns his face to the person sitting next to him, but without any smile that might at least offset his fear, his anger, and his distress. So no one will fight or make a scene, so they will not ask what they have done wrong to deserve such a look. He pretends that he wants to look at the shops or vehicles on their side. As he warms up, his cologne permeates the packed space inside the car and mixes with the smells of smoke and petrol and dust.

There is no escaping from this crowdedness. When he looks beyond the window to his left, there is a loaded trailer. To his right, there is a person sitting, and another person after that. When he looks past them, through the window, the vehicles are also full of people and are moving slowly, slowly, one after another. Beyond them, there are grocery stores whose insides are full of rice and oil and whose outsides are surrounded by crates of yellow and red apples, pomegranates, and oranges. Their color spreading warmth. The smoke of kebabs slowly wafts upwards from a restaurant and disperses. On the floor above it is a café. Its sign darkened by the smoke.

Slowly the Silo comes into view. The Silo building is so tall that it covers the silhouette of the mountains.

There are two things no one has seen—the Silo painted any other color than yellow and white and the daily arrival or departure of its bread-makers. Although Hamed has been taking this route for the past eighteen years, he has never met or seen a single person who works there. Upset by this, he breathes deeply. The pavement is full of people. People with flesh and skin and veins and blood. People full of joy and sadness and wishes and God.

Oof, people—bags full of blood with green veins and black hair. And the eyes that are black and white, green and white, a few blue and white. People full of sorrow and depression. And with the hearts that are blackened by the world. And hearts full of hope and joy from a few pieces of paper and thanking God that life is still good.

Outside the vehicle, steam comes out of the mouths of men and young children selling souvenirs in the streets. Thanks to the cold weather, it is as if everyone in the city is smoking a cigarette. This is the crowd who might at this moment or a few moments later explode with Hamed. With their veins full of blood and their skulls full of brains and nerves, they might disappear. Then he remembers the piece of cheese he left in the fridge for tomorrow morning.

Will it stay there until tomorrow morning and forevermore? Tomorrow morning will not come. Tomorrow morning—when I would have eaten that piece of cheese with sweet tea—will never come.

For these twenty-eight days he has gone to the office and come back. In two days, he will get his pay. Two days from today. Hamed speculates. For no reason at all, in utter stupidity and ignorance, on this road, inside this vehicle, his veins full of blood, would have been torn apart. In two days’ time, his pay will be transferred to the bank.

He checks one pocket, then the other, but there is no handkerchief. He puts his hand inside the pocket of his jacket and then pulls out a light turquoise colored handkerchief––on one corner of which a pear is embroidered in pink––and cleans the sweat from his forehead and neck. The handkerchief smells of cologne, the one he bought for three thousand Afghanis from Gulbahar Centre. Its bottle is really small but still full of cologne, like the people who are full of blood and wishes. It is too much—it isn’t only the thought of death and being unexpectedly broken into pieces. What if, after this, his son becomes a gum seller or an addict, or if his daughter has to beg in this country, where …

Oh God, I seek refuge in you, but all these orphans and beggars haven’t fallen from the sky. They have been left behind. Left behind by people—half of whose blood seeped into the ground in the street while water washed the other half away—buried, unwashed, as martyrs in the most crowded graveyard.

The sky is blue and clear and there is a gentle breeze.  It is one of those days when the winter sun is gorgeous, and you don’t want to even think of death. The alley near the school is crowded for a winter’s day. Little and big girls, with their white chadors and colored jackets that cover half the blackness of their shirts, crowd around the man selling candy floss. Those who had eaten it first had pink colored lips and tongues. The memory of childhood turns to water in people’s hearts, just like that sweet pink cotton wool in their mouths. Mothers take the hands of their small boys and pull them into the school. The car now stops at the school lane. As the north wind blows onto Hamed’s body and dries his sweat, his phone rings:

“Hello Hamed, are you OK?”

“Hello yes, I got here fine!”

“There’s been an explosion on Pul-e Charkhi Road. I called to check on you. Thankfully, you have got there.”

“Pul-e Charkhi was not on my way, but thanks.”

“Bye.”

“Bye.”

He says goodbye and goes into the school, his secretary Kaka Kheir Mamad runs toward him:

“Good morning, Mr. Headmaster. Come, someone has been bothering me. He has been waiting for you since early morning. Mr. Headmaster, these girls want to transfer to another school. Their father has brought papers.”

Hamed doesn’t consider it necessary to ask: “Are they not content with their studies or teacher?”

Hamed knows that in government schools, one doesn’t ask these kinds of questions. It is completely against pride and honour in these hallowed places. It is only the private schools which put themselves at the feet of their students. He himself understands that no one makes their journey to school longer because of the quality of their studies. It’s possible that their father, like others from this area, has migrated to another place.

He looks at the document. Yes! Rabia Balkhi––so they have moved to Karteh-e Seh or Karteh-e Char. He is now curious whether they got the house with a mortgage or if they rented. He can’t imagine that these girls’ father, with his shabby appearance, bought a hou­se.

Kaka Kheir Mamad brings tea and chocolate from the day before, which one of the students had brought as his graduation sweet. Hamed recalls that its wrapper was red and inside was chocolate mixed with nuts. It is now lunch time. The smell of fried onions rushes in with every opening and closing of the door of his office. A sense of hunger makes Hamed’s mouth watery and at last he asks his secretary, “Kaka Kheir Mamad, what are we having for lunch?” And Kaka Kheir Mamad answers: “What do the poor have for lunch, Mr. Headmaster, potato curry.” Headmaster Hamed approves the transfer documents and hands it back to Kaka Kheir Mamad. When Kaka Kheir Mamad goes away, he is alone. It was during his tea break that suddenly he felt crowded and restless again. Today his heart and mind won’t rest on anything. The tea doesn’t taste the same as normal. Why? It is as if demons are chasing him and even though now they are hidden from him, Hamed can sense them. As he remembers his sister’s call, fear runs through his heart and body––why did his sister call him so randomly and ask how he was when she knew that the explosion wasn’t on his route? Her asking how he was gives him a bad feeling. What if today, on the way back, he gets caught up in a suicide attack and that is the last time that his sister heard his voice? Don’t let it be that his sister has sensed that his death will come soon. He feels intensely low and his whole being is tangled up like a knot. He swallows, takes a deep breath. If he was a smoker, he would definitely smoke a cigarette.

He prays to God for strength, as he gets up from behind the table, and walks himself to the yard. The sun is high in the sky, warm and gentle. Hamed sits on a bench. The air is fresh and worth breathing. He moves bits of gravel around with his feet and doesn’t notice at all that he is playing with the little stones. Yes, his heart and his whole attention are on the other side of the city, with the people who died today. Who are they to him and had they known that they would die today?

Had someone informed them:

Hello, this morning at eight twenty-three you will die and afterwards explained that next to you is a vehicle full of explosives, we still don’t know what kind of explosives but we know it will explode––it will suddenly burst into flames and you will be consumed by the flames. The people would have said if it will catch fire, let it catch fire, we will die anyway, your information is not that useful. It would have been better if you had said today the weather will be cloudy or whether it would rain or not at eight twenty-three. Death is certain and we are not afraid of it, but we do fear that our children will be orphans.

Hamed raises his head and looks around him at the dry, leafless trees and the empty courtyard of the school. It is a space he has seen over and over again for many years, but it has never seen him so remorseful. He gets up and looks at his watch, it shows it is ten past two in the afternoon. Every day, he goes home from school at two thirty, so why does he want to go now? What game is he caught in? Who wants to ensnare him? Or is it a mysterious good force prompting him to leave at this hour? Should he go or not? Afterwards, they will say:

Hamed left school at two thirty every day, on the day he died he left at ten past two, damn it!

 

“Turn This Air Conditioner On, Sir” © 2020 by Maryam Mahjube. Translation © 2020 by Parwana Fayyaz. Developed with Untold, a development program for writers in conflict and postconflict areas, supported by the British Council and the Bagri Foundation. All rights reserved.

Read more from the December 2020 issue
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