The American officer had just recently arrived to coordinate supplies, but a comfortable life in Peshawar wasn’t for him, and he had challenged both Ibrahim and him to do more than opening religious schools throughout the Northwest Territories or handing out Saudi funds to the warring groups of Afghan freedom fighters based in Peshawar. In the end Ibrahim had given in and now Hassan was cold, hungry, and angry at both the American and the Saudi for forcing him to risk his life in a tour of the multiple Afghan battlefields from the North where the Tajik’s were fighting and through to the southern lands where the Pashtun tribes were fighting both the Soviets, the puppet government in Kabul, and each other.
The truck stopped suddenly sending him pitching forward. He listened while the driver spoke to the American in Pashto, a language he barely understood. The American stood up and reaching down helped him to stand.
“Come,” he said in Arabic, “we’re here.”
The driver helped them down from the truck and pointed to the mud brick building with a dirt-encrusted sign in English with the word Café barely visible in the moonlight. The American now took the two packs and rifles from the truck. Without waiting, he lifted one on each shoulder and walked towards the light, leaving the Arab standing in the cold. Reluctantly, the Qatari followed. He was enough of a mystic, despite his Western education, to realize that from this point on their lives would be intertwined, like vines on a tree, so that even if they went in different directions, at some point their lives would intertwine again.
Once inside, the driver pointed towards the back of a smoky room smelling of stale tobacco smoke and fumes from the open fireplace. The table was set back, away from the others, and there was one man seated, the face hidden by a hood so that only the eyes could be seen in the shadows. The building was old, the thick adobe brick walls holding in the heat from the open fire at one end providing what little there was. On one wall was a torn poster for an Indian movie complete with a half clothed young woman.
The face was hidden under the patu, the warm blanket that Afghan men used to keep warm in the mountains. The voice that greeted them, however, was that of a young woman. The Arab startled. The American pushed the hood back to see the face more clearly in the dim light of the kerosene lamps. Her eyes were gray-green, deeply set, and penetrating.
“A girl?” the Arab said surprised.
“I’m mujahedeen!” She corrected.
Before any more could be said, three grizzled men walked to where they were seated. The girl rose, motioning them to sit, but the men continued to stand speaking quickly in Pashto. They left and then she sat down again watching as they withdrew to a table closer to the door.
“They’re to take us into the Khost region tomorrow, just over the mountain from here.”
“How long to the first village?” the American asked in English.
“Depending on the Russians, a few hours, or days, or never,” she said in English, her accent lilting, but her words clear. She was thinking about the road ahead. She stared at the American. He was ruggedly built; there was the look of a man who could not be stopped by high arid mountains and cold winds. Then she stared at the other man, the Qatari. He looked too frail to survive the mountains and the Russians.
“Will he make it?” she asked in Pashto, looking directly at the American officer.
The American looked at the Arab. There was something in his eyes that told him the truth. He translated the girl’s words into Arabic and the answer was quick in coming.
“He says if a girl can make it, then he can too.”
A thick stew of lamb, with warm Afghan bread, and richly brewed black tea laced with cardamom, was brought to the table. The woman ate sparingly; with wary eyes she watched the two men, wondering which would crack under the strain. It would be a long journey through a dangerous land from the Panjahir valley, where the Tajik’s fought the Soviets in the north to the plains of Kandahar in the south.
They finished their meal and were about to follow their Pashtun guides out to into the night when an old Sufi hobbled over to their table. He spoke in a whisper in a dialect neither man could understand. The girl listened carefully, and then she smiled. She translated into English.
“He’s Iranian, a Sufi holy man. He reads fortunes. He asks if you would like to have your fortune told?”
“Why not?” the American answered intrigued. So far his life had been charmed, but what might come now was more of a gamble, risking his career as well as his life, in these high, dry mountains. Far more dangerous even than when he had flown deep into Vietcong territory as a forward air controller during the last years of the Vietnam War.
“Only Allah knows the future,” the Arab answered looking towards the door.
The old man sat down at the table as the girl laid a few coins in his cup.
With his gnarled, arthritic hand, he took her palm first. He studied it for a long time and then closed his eyes; his face turned dark, as he let go of her hand. As the old man spoke, the girl’s smile disappeared
“What did he say?” the Saudi asked anxiously.
“Some futures are best not told,” was all she could say through tears.
Next, he reached for the American’s hand, studying it. When he finished, he motioned to the Arab. The Qatari pulled away, but the American reached for his wrist and pulled it forward placing it in the old man’s hand. The old man gripped it tightly and for a long time he stood very still mumbling words that only he understood. Finally, he spoke, his voice almost a whisper. The girl listened carefully, and then translated from Farsi.
“Brothers in blood, owing a life, separate paths to the same end at the place where it all began. Death will find both in a blinding flash of fire as bright as the noon-day sun.”