At home with the Taliban

While U.S. bombs dropped on his country, a Taliban official and his two wives welcomed me into their living room and talked of marriage, music and his memories of dining in the World Trade Center's starry restaurant.

Published October 11, 2001 12:03AM (EDT)

Welcome to the other White House.

It sits here at the intersection of two narrow dirt lanes, pocketed with bumps and jolts, very different from the wide, tarred streets in the posh neighborhoods diplomats call home. There are no chokidars, guards, sitting outside the squat attached houses virtually atop each other. There is a tin shack, a khoka, at the corner with a sign for Al-Asif Paints on one side, sundries for sale inside, including 3-rupee packets of Pantene hair conditioner attached to each other like a necklace from the low ceiling.

The house at the corner has its name carved onto the front wall, much like many houses in this part of the world: White House, in curling Urdu script. Inside lives the No. 2 diplomat representing the Taliban government here in Pakistan. Mohammad Sohail Shaheen, burly, bearded and wearing a turban, has frequently stood at the right hand side of Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the Taliban ambassador in Pakistan, as both have denounced the U.S.-led coalition's attacks on Afghanistan as an act of terrorism. Surely for many Western viewers, after Osama bin Laden, these men have represented the faces of 21st century caveman barbarism.

On Tuesday, word trickles out of confirmed civilian deaths. The latest: four Afghan United Nations workers. The first day's bombing has the Taliban claiming as many as 20 civilians have died. The Taliban spokesmen say the death of civilians in Kabul is no different than the murder of thousands in the World Trade Center. "That was terrorism. This war is a terrorist act."

What I am warned in my two visits to the home of this Taliban representative, drinking green tea with his two wives, many of his eight children trickling through, is that America may win Kabul but it won't win the war. "It will be a very long, long war. Bloodshed. Destruction. We have fought the Soviet Union for 10 years. We know." It's a grim prediction that more echoes President Bush, with his warnings of a long-fought war on terrorism, than Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, who has asked for a "short, sharp" attack that will end it all quickly.

Even if the Taliban loses power, Shaheen says, they will fight as rebels against a new leader in Kabul. "They will be like somebody in a cage. We will take over the highways and provinces. They will be in a prison in Kabul. Life will not be normal. Then, one day, they will have to negotiate after destruction."

"We have thousands of caves in the mountains which cannot be destroyed by bombing," Shaheen continues. "If this problem had been solved by talks, it would have been better for America and for Afghanistan. History shows superpowers become micro powers. Look at British. Once such an empire. The sun never set on the British Empire. Now, its power is limited to an island in Europe."

He uses the kind of American colloquialism you'd expect from a retired three-star U.S. Marine. "We know war is not a picnic."

His mobile rings once while we speak. Maybe 450 civilians have died? He calls the Taliban foreign minister in Kabul. The report is false. He laughs into the phone. He relates that he has asked the 20-something foreign minister: "Are you afraid?" The response in Pashto, he says: "Hitchkulah." Never.

This is my second visit to Shaheen's house. The first time was before the bombings and I was escorted and expected. This time I arrive only with my cousin, who joins me because she too is curious to see the face of a Taliban. We stand outside, able to hear the crackle of a shortwave radio through the door that leads into the sitting room. This was where Shaheen sat during my first visit -- without a turban but rather a simple white cotton topi, hat. The room is used for male visitors, and I wonder if a meeting is in process.

I come back wondering if stepping into this private world -- under a massive attack seemingly from the entire world -- would possibly dismantle the enemy image. I've brought along a few of the souvenirs that I bought before leaving New York: three New York City skyline postcards (one for Shaheen, one for his first wife, one for his second wife), three New York City key chains (one for each of them) and a New York Police Department pen (for the second wife). When I couldn't find my pen during my first visit, she gave me one and said, "Thofa," in Urdu, gift. On the pen were images of foreign currency emblazoned with a simple word, "Euro," and I smiled at this symbol of Western capitalism from a woman literally behind purdah, the rule that separates women from men.

I knock on another door, one through which I can't hear the radio. I know it leads to the very small hall where, during the last visit, the women ran, scampering in bare feet on the terrazzo floor from the sitting room when they thought a stranger, a man, was about to venture inside. I wear my dupatta like an aunt taught me to do when I was 13, so not a strand of hair tumbles out. It's pulled back a little farther than regulation; the top of my hair at my forehead peeks out. My cousin impresses me; she's a practicing Muslim but wraps her dupatta lightly over her head. I bind mine tightly, to keep it from falling off. Or, perhaps, out of fear that it might come off.

I can't remember the name of the second wife, even though I can describe her porcelain face to the slightest detail, from the black liner that frames the inside of her eyes to the faint pink lipstick that brought a gentle color to her face. Shaheen politely asked ("It is my wish. It is our culture") that I not publish her name for the traditional reasons of privacy that keep her inside the house, so I let it slip from my mind, and I suddenly feel terrible about that.

I peek inside and see a little girl on the stairs beside the window. She sees me. She wails in fear and runs away. Whoops.

We stand long enough for me to notice the screen bent from the doorframe like a dog-eared worn novel. The door creaks open. It's the second wife, her dupatta draped gently over her head, like my cousin's. She greets me with a long hug. I introduce my cousin, and we enter.

My cousin crosses her legs to sit on the floor upon one of the thin, deep purple cushions that line the edge of the small sitting room. I spot her through the frame of the door. She looks more than a slight bit uncomfortable in this room of only men. I slip off my scruffy black rubber sandals that look perpetually dirty and step into the sitting room, relieved that Shaheen, talking on the phone, greets me with a broad smile. I move to sit down, but then remember the pen I want to give the wife, so I step into the kitchen where she stands at the stove and give it to her.

She smiles and takes the NYPD pen and postcard, with the Empire State Building and World Trade Center sparkling in the night skyline.

I slip back into the sitting room. There are two kind-of scary looking men opposite my cousin and me. Big, burly, bearded. The blades of the ceiling fan cast dark shadows spinning above them. Shaheen gets off the phone and I apologize for arriving unannounced. "No problem," he says.

Shaheen is a young-looking 45, given to smiles and wistful thoughts. I give him one of the postcards of the New York night skyline and a key chain. Perhaps it seems odd that I'm giving this man, a Taliban leader, a picture of the World Trade Center. The postcards, unfortunately, were among the only cheap gifts I stocked up with in New York before I left. Though they're cheap gifts, I knew that, even over here amidst anti-American slogans, there is an intrigue about the West, transforming these otherwise tacky souvenirs into sentimental treasures. And the towers were also the topic of a previous conversation I had with Shaheen two days earlier. He had once lived in Flushing, N.Y., as the Taliban's representative to the United Nations, he said, and had even visited Windows on the World, the restaurant on top of World Trade Center Tower No. 1. He smiles when I hand him a postcard.

I put my finger over the image of the World Trade Center.

"Now it's gone," I say, stating the obvious.

"Yes," he says, "very sad."

He says that he, like many from this part of the world, would like to return to America. "We are not against America or Americans," he says. "We are against the arrogance of intimidation.

"We are also human beings. We have not sprouted in the soil, not come down from the skies. We have families, fathers, mothers, like other human beings.

"I like America. I like Americans," he says. "I just don't like American foreign policy."

What is it that he likes about America, I ask. The spirit of rigorous research in all fields, he says. The professional work ethic. The strength of technology. Freedom of speech.

"I like that they can freely criticize," he says.

He used to criticize even the Taliban, Shaheen says, as a journalist covering the mujahedin uprising against the Soviets, and the days afterwards when he was editor of the Kabul Times. What kind of criticism? Like money laundering, he says. Like the time electricity poured through a Taliban official's house even though the other houses in the neighborhood were dark. He wrote an exposé that prompted the Ministry of Water and Power to yank the electricity from the official's house.

We sit here now as his second wife, about 22 years old, maybe 23 (I ask him, he's not sure) pours Afghan green tea in clear glass mugs for my cousin and me, her dupatta pulled forward so far that it hangs like Little Red Riding Hood's cape, shielding her from the eyes of Big Bad Wolves. When she is finished she sits elegantly between us with her back to the men.

Shaheen's mobile phone rings. I tell the second wife that when she left the room, my cousin had said she had the bearing of a princess. I say it loud enough for her husband to hear. He smiles with mischief on his lips. Off the phone now, he pleads for us not to tell her such things.

"Her power will only increase?" I ask, as his wife leans forward with a smile, mischievous also, and tweaks the top of his right hand.

On my first visit, I noticed that she seemed feisty with her husband, never disrespectful, just alert, like when she admitted freely that she learned Urdu watching Bollywood movies. And like everyone else, I'm deeply interested in the Taliban, and the stories of their oppression of women. Their relationship intrigues me.

She's both feisty and girlish. She knows all about India's Brad Pitt, an actor named Salman Khan. Her husband knows nothing about Salman Khan.

She has power, her husband answers. "She has power of voice," he says. "Her mouth power is stronger than mine. For every one thing I have to say, she has seven things to say."

He smiles. She smiles. He calls her his student, someone with whom he discusses politics. She clearly has a strong opinion about many things -- including the fact that she is a second wife.

His first wife filters into the room, but I'm not sure she is his wife until later. She is older, perhaps his age, and weak from years of being ill, he explains. And she is very frail-looking, with bluish tattoo tribal markings on her "third eye," between her eyebrows, and a spot on her chin below her lips. He writes into my notebook the province from which she comes: Paktya Province. He explains to me that when she grew sick, she could no longer take care of her household duties. So some six years ago, the marriage proposal went out to another young girl.

"They are happy among themselves," he says, his two wives sitting beside each other on the carpet, each with one knee pulled up, almost like two mismatching bookends, leaning forward to comfort a little girl crying at their feet. "In America you may have one wife, but husbands and wives, they have many relations with others," he says, trying to explain. "I have no relation with other women than my wife. In our view, this is better."

Delicately, I ask: Why not just get a maid?

"It is not in Islam to have another lady in your house other than your wife," he says. "Even if you do not have relations, the wife will suspect you."

His second wife says in Pashto, with her husband translating, that he is committed to his wives. It's an arrangement, of course, difficult to understand. But she slips into Urdu to tell me, "Mujkho bahoth acha lugtha hay." I like it very much.

"Amrika acha kam nahee kurtha hay." America does not do good work, is the literal translation. Work is deeds. It is about infidelity, adultery and premarital bed-hopping that she is talking about. I'm a single woman of the West exhausted by going in and out of relationships. I've got to say they have a point. Is "Sex in the City" really our model for civilized living?

"The thing I don't like," he says, "is this free sexuality. This indecency. This one-parent families. Women living with men without marriage. Pro-choice. This I don't like." He pauses, remembering one more vice. "Sharab," alcohol, banned in Islam.

He knows the American dream. A house. A car. A family. A vacation. Does he have the same dream? "It is the same dream. A house. A car. Family. Vacation." He leans forward. "We have something more." To serve one God and to serve others, he says.

He has had long conversations with his wife about watching TV. "I try to convince her," he says, about the strictest mandates of Islam against entertainment. He is proud to say: "She doesn't see TV. She doesn't listen to songs."

"I'm not an imperialist. I'm a husband and a friend. I don't want to bully her." The topic broke off with the sound of shattered glass. His young daughter dropped a glass in the foyer, shards of glass everywhere. A family relation scoops her up quickly before slivers of glass pierce her bare feet.

There is one type of music he allows in the house. Patriotic Afghan songs, "thahrahnah" in Pashto. He gets up to bring a cassette and presses the "play" button on a little red boom box. Deep incantations fill the room. Crows caw outside. He writes the phonetic translation and literal translation in neat English with curls starting his "m's" and "n's."

"Kari khidmat da waran wijar hewad abad kari. Khapal nikona yad kari." Serve your country. Build this destroyed country. Remember your ancestors' deeds.

He leaves the room for a moment. I ask the first wife her thoughts. She speaks quietly and plainly in Pashto without much expression. The younger wife translates into Urdu. I don't understand it all.

When he slips again to the floor, I ask their husband to translate. He resists. "She doesn't know much about politics." Indelicately, I persist. It was a long thought.

The first wife repeats her thought in Pashto. He translates into English: "She said that America will resort to killing innocent people. They will have the same experience as the Soviets. They will not achieve anything. They will not achieve what they want."

He cannot suppress a smile. "Even I am surprised. I did not know she knew so much about politics." Before I can ponder the thought too long this is the moment when the women jump up to escape into the foyer where they huddle after hearing the footsteps of a stranger, a visitor for Shaheen, nearing the screen door. They remain out of sight until the visitor leaves.

During my first visit to Shaheen's house, I asked my escort, an intermediary, "Would it make him more comfortable if I cover up completely?"

My escort was quick with his response from the front seat. "You should not do what makes other people comfortable. You should do what makes you comfortable."

Excellent. I kept my dupatta on as I learned to wear it as a child. When I entered the sitting room the first time, I knew not to sit too close to the men, nor to try and shake their hands. I faced the Taliban representative and sat cross-legged on the floor a pillow away from my escort. They talked to each other in Urdu about the latest developments in tensions. It was a day before the bombings. They discussed the merits of any diplomacy from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had approached them with an offer to mediate -- not the other way around, Shaheen said. He said that he figured that Jackson was acting with the knowledge of the Bush administration, even while President Bush laid out a "no negotiations" policy.

During a quiet moment, I ask the second wife what she thinks of my defying, for my work, the Muslim values she embraces to stay behind purdah. She looks at me seriously.

"Bahoth achah kahm hay. Bahoth naik kahm hay." It is good work. It is pious work.

I thank her. When I tell her husband her response, he smiles, cocks his head, and says, "We don't agree on everything," but continues to spend hours talking with me. Journalism knows no gender, a cousin of mine later says.

His phone rings. It is someone asking about British journalist Yvonne Ridley, who was caught trying to sneak into Afghanistan wearing a burkha, but without a visa. He says he called the British Embassy to tell an official to pick up the journalist at 5 p.m. at Torkham Gate at the Pakistani border. "He said, 'The counselor is not available. We'll call you back.' I said, 'Don't call me back. Pick her up, otherwise we'll have to take her back to Kabul." He has a good laugh. (And isn't shy to spread the account of Kabul police, whom he says were horrified at how much the journalist cursed at them. "She wasn't behaving with us like a lady.")

The second wife eagerly leads me through the narrow circular stairs that lead upstairs. Her bedroom door is next to the top of the stairs. The bedroom of the first wife faces the stairs. Bright pink fabric hangs over the windows. A stack of suitcases is covered with the fancy fabric from her jah-hayz, the trousseau of new outfits and linens a new bride takes to her new life. There is also a narrow shelf stuffed with books. It was her husband's collection. Many in Farsi, Pashto and Urdu, like the poetry of Allama Iqbal, a Pakistani philosopher and national poet. Tucked with them are others: "Effective Business Communications," "English Grammar and Composition," "Fundamentals of English Grammar," "HTML 4.0," "Word Power" by the editors of Reader's Digest, and "Dictionary of Synonyms."

When Shaheen last came back from America he brought shampoo back among his gifts. A little plastic fly sits on the ledge about the books, another gift. Somebody brings in a plastic rat from the first wife's room. Another gift from America for the children.

Pakistan is this family's adopted country. Shaheen curls his body over his 5-month-old son, born here, with a tiny shirt that reads "PAKISTAN." His family lives in Peshawar. But he was born into a Kabul shopkeeper's family. He says that he wasn't much of a practicing Muslim until he reached about 20. He fought early against the Soviets and then started covering the war as a journalist.

"When the Taliban came I joined them because they were the saviors of the nation. They were fighting raping of women, killing." He says he sided with the Taliban when he heard the tale of a man whose 18-year-old daughter had been abducted by rebels fighting for control of Kabul after the Soviets had withdrawn. His friend interceded to help the man, going to the commander of the rebels, who told him there were many women in a basement.

"Go to the basement," he was told. The friend called the man's daughter's name in a basement filled with some 70 women, Shaheen says, who had been repeatedly raped by soldiers. No answer came. The commander instructed him to go to another basement. Again, no answer. Then a meek voice said, "Tell him you are here." The girl answered but told the man to bring back clothes because she and the other women were naked. The friend bundled her into a jeep in which she wept. The friend tried to console her: "It was not your sin that they raped you. It is their sin." Shaheen says when the friend looked over at the girl again, taking his eye off the road, she had died from shock.

"I heard many such incidents," says Shaheen, his lips pressed together grimly. "This is why we want to protect women. The respect I have for women is so great. It's the nature of the Afghan culture to protect the oppressed, the weak."

I can't confirm this story, of course. And it is a similar story that journalists have repeated as the explanation for why Mullah Omar rallied men from Muslim schools, madarsas, to create the Taliban to stop abuses by certain factions of rebel soldiers. Shaheen insists that it was the brutal treatment of Afghan women during the country's civil war that led the Taliban to impose the purdah, or curtain, for women. He says the Taliban -- contrary to many reports from journalists and human rights organizations -- wants girls to study and women to work; they just haven't had the money to establish schools and hospitals for girls and women only. Unspoken, of course, is that these services are provided to men first.

I ask what he thinks about bin Laden, and his alleged involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks. "If he is involved, then many of the Taliban will not accept him," he says.

He is analytical about why the tensions led to war. "The reason the problem was not solved was the lack of confidence" by both sides for the other. Within the Taliban government, "there was suspicion that America would have resorted to more allegations: 'There is no human rights. There is no women's rights. They are anti-democracy.'" Then, there was worry about the response from common Muslims, not necessarily Muslim governments. "If Osama was delivered to America, then the Muslim world would say this Taliban government handed over a good Muslim, a mujahid, to America. They betrayed a mujahid and a Muslim."

But did arrogance lead to this clash? He accepts the point. "This is Afghan culture," he says.

He wonders aloud about the "Yahudhi" conspiracy, the Jewish conspiracy, that underlies the doubts of many Muslims about bin Laden's guilt. In Urdu, he says he prays to find the aslee mujrim, the culprit behind the Sept. 11 transformation of reality. He rattles off as fact a rumor that has taken strong hold over here: That 4,000 Jews didn't report to work at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 (a global Internet hoax debunked here).

The clincher, to him: reports that some of the hijackers were drinking alcohol and spotted at strip clubs. That's no sign of a Muslim motivated by rabid faith, let alone a bin Laden disciple.

"Even if you give me $1 million I won't drink." He pauses. "I doubt they were Muslims."

This is a house much like any other. A child slams the screen door. The second wife winces. "Ch!"

Her husband continues his thoughts.

"We love our independence more than anything else."

More than life?

"More than life."

"If America wants to snatch our culture we will not accept it."

He quotes American political philosophy. "The government of the people ..." He pauses to remember the rest. "... for the people, by the people."

He asks his second wife to get a book. The one with the Statue of Liberty picture, she asks, putting her hand up as if she is holding a torch. She brings the wrong book. He doesn't get irritated. He goes upstairs with her and brings down "The Brief History of America," a gift from the U.S. Embassy written in Farsi, the fourth language in which he is fluent besides Urdu, English and Pashto.

"Would the American people like it if their president will be chosen in London or Moscow or Rome?" He paused. "This, I think, is a global dictatorship."

By Asra Q. Nomani

Asra Q. Nomani, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal currently on leave to write a book, is reporting for Salon from Pakistan. To read more about Nomani click here.

MORE FROM Asra Q. Nomani

Related Topics ------------------------------------------