Authors: James Meek
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary
t four a.m., when it was still dark and an hour before the Fajr prayer, Sarina Najafi got up, washed, dressed, ate a hasty breakfast of lavash and cheese and left her family’s apartment on the tenth floor of a modern block on the southern outskirts of the Iranian city of Esfehan. Her father, mother and two brothers were still asleep. They were strictly Friday mosque-goers, and fifteen-year-old Sarina was no more devout than that, at best. But the director of her school was trying to make herself look good in the eyes of the basiji, the vigilantes of the Islamic Revolution, and all this week, Sarina and the six hundred other girl students who attended the Liberation of Khorramshahr High School would be praying five times a day. In Sarina’s opinion, which she shared loudly and often with her friends, it was too much. Of course, girls had as much right to pray as boys, as the director said. But how would she ever get her class project finished, and study for her English test, with all this praying, all this getting up so early?
Sarina took the lift to the ground floor. Over her favourite lilac manteau she wore a black chador which left only her face showing, and over that, a satchel with her schoolbooks and the borrowed video camera for her class project. She tugged at the top of her chador where her stubborn fringe kept poking out. Whenever Sarina and her friends were a respectable distance away from the mosque, off would come the chador. Five times a day! It was a bore. She didn’t like the thought that Faraj, her cousin, would see her in the drab garment, with his way of smiling at her in the street.
Outside it was cold. The harsh streetlights lit the bare earth and concrete. This was a new housing development, built to accommodate
engineers and technicians who, like Sarina’s parents, worked at the nuclear plant. There were no trees or grass yet, but the apartments were big and bright and the families were delighted with them. A kilometre away, Sarina could see the green neon signs hung on the temporary mosque. It had been converted from a sports hall the previous week. Just beyond, behind a high concrete wall and razor wire, was the nuclear plant. The president had visited a few months earlier, and had said some quite silly things, although Asal had whispered to Sarina that she thought he was good-looking and Sarina had hit her friend’s arm.
There was little traffic at this time. Over the sound of the few cars and her own footsteps, Sarina heard a strange noise in the distance, a deep, fast thudding, like the lathes in her uncle’s furniture workshop. Or like the sound when the president came. Yes, that was it: a helicopter. More than one, perhaps. Sarina walked on. Gradually other girls, dark ghosts in their chadors, began to fill the street. The sound of the helicopters faded and Sarina heard the giggles and murmurs of her fellow students. An amplified ‘click’ rang out across the district and the muezzin began their calls to prayer.
A new four-lane highway ran right to the gates of the plant, but the quickest way to the mosque lay across a large empty lot and down a much narrower street, between two rows of comfortable villas where the most senior nuclear engineers and their families lived. For the fourth morning in a row, Sarina found herself in a slowly moving, chattering column of girls dressed in black, sauntering through the pre-dawn darkness in their hundreds, passing under the streetlights like a river.
Sarina saw Asal waiting for her outside her house and greeted her.
‘Come on, slowcoach,’ said Asal.
‘I hate these early starts,’ said Sarina. ‘Can you see how bad they are for my skin? Did you hear helicopters?’
‘Yes!’ said Asal, her beautiful eyes widening with fascination. It was the last word Sarina would ever hear her speak.
It all seemed to happen at once. Another sound came from the plant ahead of them, a sort of rattling and scraping, like a ruler
dragged along a fence. From the front of the column of girls, they heard the sound of vehicle engines, and screams. Behind them, from the patch of empty ground, was the sound of the helicopters again, now deafeningly loud. Sarina looked back. She saw girls running in panic in different directions and enormous black shapes approaching the ground in clouds of dust. A siren began to moan from the direction of the plant. Sarina turned in time to see a series of blinding white flashes, followed by blasts which made her crouch down and cover her head with her hands. When she next looked, she saw something she could not make sense of. A column of trucks was driving up the street towards her, from the direction of the plant. Soldiers were hanging out of the windows and through holes in the roofs, carrying weapons and screaming in a language she thought she didn’t understand but realised, with a shock, was English, although she didn’t know all the words. The trucks kept stopping because there were hundreds of shrieking, panic-stricken girls blocking their way.
Without knowing why, she crouched against the wall and took out the borrowed video camera. She began to film. She recorded it all, under the harsh lights. The American soldiers screaming at each other. The stopping and starting of their trucks. The cry: ‘Move forward! Move the fucking trucks forward! Any raghead bitch gets in the way, fucking light her up! Move!’ The moving of the trucks into the mass of schoolgirls. The screams as their bodies went under the wheels. The shooting. Even when the bullets pierced Sarina’s body, the camera continued to record, writing the billions of digits of information that would be found intact in her cold hand, later that morning, among the heaped bodies of the dead.
Adam Kellas halted the free scurry of his pen along the feint of the notebook, read back the last few sentences, crossed out ‘raghead’ and inserted ‘towelhead’. He crossed out ‘towelhead’ and ‘fucking’.
Any bitch gets in the way, light her up!
The extra pejoratives were superfluous. Without it, the sentence was tight, effective craft. Depending on the reader’s view, it would provoke anger towards the US troops, or towards him, Kellas, the author. The direction
didn’t matter; the emotion did. It had the added virtue of distracting attention from the blandness of the petite paragon Sarina, whose only purpose from the off, it might otherwise be clear, was innocence and martyrdom. Six hundred elderly Iranian goatherds slaughtered in their claggy robes wouldn’t make such a promising start.
Kellas put the pen down on the rough surface of the desk, locked his hands behind his neck and arched his back as far as it would go. He was surprised at how easy writing the beginning of the novel had turned out to be. He had covered four pages with handwriting in two hours, with not many crossings-out. The acquisition of the desk and chair had helped; he no longer had to write with the notebook resting on his knees, or the floor. Perhaps there’d be time to sand it down and varnish it, if Mohamed could obtain varnish and sandpaper here.
Kellas turned round. Mark was sitting on his mattress, holding his notebook in the crook of his handless right arm, while his good left hand flipped pages and worked his laptop. The room had whitewashed walls and windows on two sides. There was a recessed cupboard, which Mark and his photographer Sheryl had made their own before Kellas moved in; the three roommates each had a cheap tin trunk with brass clasps, along with their rucksacks. The floor was covered in a red fitted carpet and every square foot not covered by their mattresses had cables, power strips and chargers tangled across it. At night, when the main lights went out, and the generator was still on, the room shone with the red and green dots of batteries charging. It was ten p.m. Lately there’d been a great many aircraft overhead, gouging thunder out of the sky. Tonight the generator was the only sound.
Kellas liked Mark, but there were three reasons he disliked him. In fact, liking him – that was a fourth reason. Kellas wanted to know what had happened to Mark’s hand, and he couldn’t think of an excuse to ask him whether he’d been born that way or whether it had been accidentally severed, or blown off in an explosion, or the subject of a judicial amputation; so he did not ask. He shouldn’t
have had to. A man with a missing hand had an implied obligation to explain it to his roommates. That was the first reason. Another was that Kellas had overheard Mark yelling at one of the Northern Alliance functionaries, whose job was to shuffle the drivers around among the reporters, that he was an
reporter, that he didn’t work for ‘some bullshit European newspaper’. Kellas was cold with Mark for a while after this until Mark found out what was bothering him and told him not to be offended, that he had never considered Britain to be European. What Kellas most begrudged was how hard Mark worked. Their editors were in different time zones. Kellas’s were in London and Mark and Sheryl’s were in California. Mark had to work twelve hours of his Afghan day, and then he had to work twelve hours of his Californian day, the whole twenty four, no overlap. Kellas never saw him sleep. It was not that Kellas was lazy, but if a day passed and he wrote nothing, he wouldn’t worry. Mark would. He was always interviewing people and trying to find out what was going on. He didn’t spend enough time waiting for things to happen.
Kellas asked Mark if he could borrow a couple of AA batteries.
‘Borrow?’ said Mark.
‘I’ll get fresh ones back to you by the end of the week.’
‘From where? You know the Irish guy? You know the one. The photographer. He came overland from Pakistan, horse and foot. Took him ten days. He’s leaving tomorrow because he ran out of AA batteries and nobody’ll dip into their stash to help him out.’
‘I need a couple.’
‘I don’t have any. I don’t use them. Those are Sheryl’s. Ask her.’
‘She thinks I’ve been taking her coffee, but I want her to know I bought my own. The jars look the same.’
‘Why don’t you tell her?’
‘You could tell her when I’m not here.’
‘What, are you afraid of losing face?’
‘I don’t like her.’
‘Like her? You don’t have to like her.’
Kellas turned his chair round so it was facing into the room. ‘You work too hard.’
‘So do you. You were out all day, you came back and filed a story, and you’ve spent the past two hours scribbling in that book.’
Kellas closed the book and put it underneath his laptop.
‘What is that, a journal?’
Mark laughed and flipped a page in his notebook. He stuck a pencil between his teeth and frowned so that his thick black eyebrows joined together. Kellas could see from the way his shoulders shook that he was still laughing. Shadows moved across the window and indistinct voices came from outside. The compound was crowded. Kellas was lucky to have even a third of a room.
Mark shook his head. His eyes were wrinkling up now.
Mark spat out the pencil, which bounced off his laptop screen. ‘“Dear diary! Sheryl wouldn’t talk to me today! She is such a bitch! She’ll soon find out that two can play at that game! And, oh my God, in Mazar-i-Sharif, six traitors were hanged in front of the shrine! Gross!”’ He looked up. ‘You know who else has AA batteries? Your friend Astrid Walsh. Right next door.’
‘Are we friends?’
‘She came across the mountains with you.’
‘Some of the way. We parted company after we came over the Anjoman pass.’
‘So ask her.’
‘I should,’ said Kellas, fidgeting with his pen. ‘I went up to the hospital with her last night.’
Mark snorted. He was reading the wires. ‘Can you believe it?’ he said. ‘This war’s hardly started and they’re already talking about the next one.’
Mark and Sheryl had been to their regular hangout that day, the mujahedin house near the front line. The roof had a view. It was
more of a stakeout than a reporting opportunity. Sheryl would come back with photographs of explosions on a particular distant ridge where B-52s dropped bombs by the ton. She would spend most of the night editing and transmitting the pictures to her paper in the US. The Californians had an appetite for looking, over coffee, at the exact monumental broccoli shapes their bombs made in the sky after they were dropped. Once, Sheryl showed Kellas a much enlarged detail of one of her photographs on a laptop screen. He could see the bleached fangs of the ridge, the smoke and dust from the explosions wasting away into the blue, and perhaps, under Sheryl’s tapping fingernail, something else.
‘See him?’ said Sheryl. ‘See the lil’ Taliban man?’ Maybe he could. There could have been a black vertical a few pixels high, and a horizontal. The beige point could have been a face. There could have been a Taliban fighter there, standing up from under his rock, deaf, exultant and choking from the bombs, opening his arms out wide and yelling to America that he was not martyred yet. Kellas couldn’t be sure. Maybe it was a gap in the rock. Sheryl had lenses the size of buckets but the ridge was far beyond Alliance front lines. It was halfway to Kabul.
Mark was lost in his work. Kellas slid his notebook out and read through the opening again. He’d decided to write it a year earlier, a novel crafted to sell as many copies as possible in the shortest time, to be made into a movie and video game, to make Kellas enough money to spend the rest of his life writing whatever he liked, which might be nothing. He was thirty-seven. Up to that moment he’d written two novels in the time left over from reporting. He’d wanted them to be great literature, but they were neither great nor bad. Nor were they popular. This had been discouraging, rather than devastating. He reassured himself that each book was an end, and not a means to an end. It would have been difficult to believe if he didn’t know that others were telling themselves the same thing. The poet Pat M’Gurgan told him in 1981, when they were about to leave school, that as a writer you could settle for being one year’s good harvest from the
land, or you could be the land. The characterisation appealed to Kellas. It became one of the expressions he considered wise and original when he was young. Later he might have thought it over, but in the interval, its value as wisdom had been replaced by its value as souvenir, and it didn’t occur to him to touch it, particularly since M’Gurgan held to it, until one evening when Kellas, who by then lived in London, called M’Gurgan at his home in Dumfries.