Number One Khan
I am standing before the devil’s instrument. Allah has saved me from the humiliation of departing from this temporary world unclean. Last night’s temptation forced me to mount Ponba Gul (Cotton Flower) and laziness led me not to wash immediately after coupling. I slept with a dirty body and – God forbid! – that sin shall not be repeated. This massive thing, the instrument of the devil, missed my house by just two hundred metres. No one knows if it will happen again. Next time temptation forces me to mount Ponba Gul I will make sure that hot water is ready in a bucket and I shall wash immediately after the act. Half a bucket of water is enough for me.
My name is Talwar (Sword) Khan. I married Ponba Gol seven and a half years ago. We have four children: two boys who sleep with me in mardana, the male quarters, and two girls who sleep in zanana, the female quarters. It is forbidden for me to enter the female quarters, where the wives and female children of my brothers also sleep. My wife is not allowed to frequent the male quarters. Don’t ask me how we are expected to perform the act of husband and wife. It is a secret that belongs to our tradition, and best not to share it further. I have already told you the name of my wife, and to do so is in itself a great dishonour, and I am sufficiently ashamed. However, I do want to tell you this: the whole appalling act takes less than two minutes. The faster the better. You just finish it and go for a wash.
‘But this one is really big, Talwar Khan!’ Jangi (Fighter) Khan shouts.
‘Yes, you’re right. It is indeed very big,’ I agree.
‘What do we do now?’ Baz Gul (Eagle Flower) asks.
‘Nothing until Awal Khan comes. He will decide.’ I say this without showing too much impatience at the silly question.
Awal Khan (Number One Khan) is my cousin. Our great, great and even greater grand fathers fought the Arabs, the Moghuls and then the British on the Khyber Pass. This bastard war is different. We are not cowards, and we are no less than our ancestors in bravery. In fact this kind of war against foreigners is a welcome break from our normal clan wars. War is in our blood. What to do? Having only mountains and goats, we have to find some sort of activity to keep us occupied. Before the Russians started bombing we were a quiet people. I had been scheming on how to eliminate Awal Khan and no doubt Awal was doing the same, planning my demise. But for now we are not enemies. As long as the Russians are here we are brothers.
I don’t like it that Awal has assumed the leadership of our tribe. We fought each other over this but Awal was more successful. In our tribe there is no number two. We are all number one, and somehow we agreed that Awal Khan should be our commander against the Russians. This must have been because of his name and his friendship with the mullah. I am sure he bribed the mullah in advance and the mullah used the Quran to confirm that Awal should indeed be our commander in war. Where on earth in the holy Quran is it suggested that Awal should be our commander? Never mind. Our villagers are all illiterate and our mullah loves the gur halwa made by Awal’s zanana.
And here it is, the devil’s instrument. Two metres in length, half a metre in diameter, buried in the ground and arse-up in the air.
‘Dair ghata da!’ It is very big, Jangi Kahn repeats. To tell you the truth, I would like to pick up my Kalashnikov and blow his mouth away but I swallow my anger. I find myself thinking again of what would have happened if it had landed directly on my house. But now it is here, just about four metres away from the brook, standing upright, under the broken branches of a walnut tree.
People from our village and from villages all around are gathered around it. Men with long beards who have never shaved in their entire lives stand side by side with young men who will grow the same beards one day. Children who do not yet have a beard have faces covered in mud. There is no woman in the crowd and there never will be. No stranger knows that we have women and that they are safely locked up in our homes. Oh, and the crazy mullah is also here. He mumbles something under his breath, pretending that it is a prayer. He does the same even when he goes to the bushes to relieve himself.
Ah, finally! Awal arrives. I see him. He is wearing his blue piraan wa tonbaan with an army green jacket on top that he wears even in the heat of summer. His head is covered with a pakool hat and I see his toes sticking out of those shiny chaplee sandals. There is no Kalashnikov on his shoulder. Instead, he carries a saw and heads straight towards the instrument of the devil. As he approaches it, our mullah rushes towards him and we all start praying with him.
‘Almighty Allah! Please give us strength to fight our enemy. Humiliate and destroy our enemy. Amen.’
In addition to this standard prayer I also pray that Allah will grant me a new wife, a young one, because Ponba is getting old. She is 27. In our village our women marry very young, from the age of ten upward, but never exceeding the ripe old age of 25. Should a woman not find a husband by the age of 25, she will only be considered good enough to marry an old widower. Her duties will be to cook, keep his house clean, wash his clothes and look after his children. It would be a miracle if she were fortunate enough to be blessed with a child of her own.
Awal Khan now smiles at us. ‘Ma darizhy kho leg liray shay,’ he says. Has he lost his mind, this donkey’s arse? When have we ever been scared of anything? And now he orders us to keep away! Of course, no one moves. He may be Awal, Number One Khan, but surely he cannot tell us what to do and what not to do? Deeply absorbed in these thoughts, and not really paying attention to him as he displays his bravery, I hear a loud bang.
Before me there is a mixture of dust, smoke, broken branches, and horrid-faced men running in different directions. Yet I can’t hear anything. I am trying to run but my legs won’t move. I see blood on my legs. Where has Awal gone?
When the dust and the smoke recede and some of the villagers have returned to pick me up, they look around for Awal. I am carried to my house and hours later someone informs me that they found half of Awal Khan’s trousers along with his pakool hat, hanging on the branch of a tree.
Yes, that instrument of the devil was big and tricky. It dropped quietly and made itself explode in our own hands. God bless Awal. Now he is with many virgin hoors in heaven. I don’t think the village will accept me as their next leader because I am crippled. That crafty Awal made sure that he would not leave me to take over his position once he was gone.