A would-be martyr

Qaiser Nadeem, 20, longs for the day he is called to leave his video store and join the jihad -- fighting the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan.

Published October 19, 2001 7:23PM (EDT)

"Seventy-five paisa," the soft-spoken, bespectacled young man says from behind the photocopy machine.

At first he claimed it was a rupee a page, but after I gently raised my eyebrows, he immediately lowered the price. I later confirmed that 75 paisa is at the bottom end of what's charged around here for a decent photocopy, using the thinner, Pakistani A4 paper (imported paper starts at one rupee a page).

I'm making photocopies to show my stories to some of my sources and family here. He observes a photo of Sohail Mohammad Shaheen, the Taliban's deputy ambassador in Islamabad, on a story I wrote about a recent visit with Shaheen and his two wives at their house.

To most patrons of this store, he would just be the "photocopy walla," the photocopy guy. But he has another identity. "I trained in Kandahar," he tells me softly, in Urdu. Oh. "I'm ready to go now to become a 'shaheed,'" he says. He doesn't know, or prefers not to say, who ran the camp he attended -- was it al-Qaida? -- though when he went, in 1998, the area was firmly under the control of the Taliban, so it surely had its stamp of approval. He says he's ready and wants to go back to fight the U.S.-led coalition. "Insha'allah," he says. God willing.

But for now, the imam at his mosque told the congregation gathered for jummah, Friday prayers, that the Taliban didn't need afraad -- manpower -- yet. (They did, however, request blankets.) So he waits. (The Pakistani government has warned mullahs to refrain from rallying mujahids.)

Qaiser Nadeem is just 20, with only the slightest bits of mustache and beard sprouting from his young face. He is wearing a simple monotone-colored cotton shalwar kameez when I first meet him at a video store where he works, surrounded by what are likely bootleg copies of "Mulan," "Alice in Wonderland," "Small Soldiers" and a whole row of "The Little Mermaid," along with, of course, the copy machine behind which he stands. He's somewhat difficult to speak with because he averts his eyes from mine. The Quran warns against mixed-gender eye contact with anyone other than a relative, lest it create lustful thoughts. But he does talk to me, this Western Muslim woman journalist, and after a while I let my eyes drift to the copy paper as I speak, hoping to make him comfortable enough to keep talking.

It would be easy to portray Nadeem -- an aspiring mujahid willing to cross the border and battle the U.S.-led forces in the name of Islam -- as the product of the zealotry that sways uneducated youth into a blind hatred for the West. He doesn't hate the West, he says. He doesn't like its culture and doesn't like selling it from the shelves of the store where he works. It's a job, though, he says. He looks down upon what he sees as a decadent lifestyle. Most of all, he hates its foreign policy, particularly its support of Israel.

"If they did the right thing, then nobody would hate America," he said.

The next time we meet, we sit curbside in front of Toy Land 2 at Jinnah Super Market, a toy store with a stack of toy boxes piled outside, including the Just Start Scooter. I have a sense of irony about the place; the last time I was here in 1992, my cousins had arranged a secret meeting with the man I was about to marry on the eve of our wedding. As in other cultures, it's considered unlucky over here for a husband and wife to see each other before their wedding (and in many arranged marriages that's the the first time they're meeting), and I guess it turned out to be unlucky. Though this was a "love marriage," it was supposed to follow the same rules as an arranged marriage. But when we both showed up at Jinnah Super Market, escorted, of course, by our battalion of cousins (all of whom have insisted on anonymity in these dispatches), we broke one of the key rules.

Now I sit next to this young man, both of us looking off in other directions to avoid eye contact. He explained that his transformation began after a cousin came back from Kandahar several years ago a more religious man, preaching against music, television and those who didn't pray the requisite five times a day. Nadeem was living a modern life, watching Bollywood movies, not very religious, mostly a troublemaker, he says. But he was intrigued, and crossed the border around this time of the year in 1998 to train in Kandahar.

What was the training camp like? He broke into a grin.

"Bahoth acha laga." I liked it a lot.

"Bahoth maza atha tha." It was lots of fun.

"Bahoth suhkoon hoe thah hay." There is lots of peace of mind.

In his daily life, he says, he has to squeeze time out of a day in which he works from 10:30 a.m. to midnight in this video store that belies his religious convictions, only to eke out a monthly salary of about 2,000 rupees (about $30.76).

At the camp, "dhimagh saf hoejah thah hay." Your mind gets cleansed.

The camp lasted three months, and was attended by about 2,000 others, like himself, he said. They woke up around 1 a.m. to 2 a.m. for a special namaz, prayer, called "tahajjud," which isn't one of the day's five required prayers, but falls between the night's isha prayer and the predawn fajr prayer, earning special sawab, blessings. (I'm familiar with the prayer because my dadi, my father's mother, often falls asleep in her chair praying this namaz, battling sleep to earn those extra blessings.)

They would go back to sleep and then rise again before dawn at 5 a.m. for fajr namaz. Then they had thalawath, reading of the Quran and durs, lectures about the Quran.

That was followed by light exercise, he said, to get the blood circulating, including jumping jacks. Around 8 a.m., they'd eat breakfast that always included roti (bread) and chai (which he considered "first class").

Military training would begin afterward, learning to shoot a firearm -- pistols and Russian-made Kalishnikovs -- many of which were provided by the CIA to the Afghan mujahedin during its war against the Soviet Union. The trainees, for the most part, took aim at a bucket or a rock, making fun of each other when any of them missed the target. Then they broke for lunch, the afternoon's zoh'r namaz and a two-hour nap until 4 p.m.

They awoke for the day's third prayer, as'r namaz. There would be more durs, until around 6 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. They would pray the sunset magrib prayer, eat dinner and gather again for taleem, study. And, then, the night's last prayer, isha, before going to sleep.

He knows the stereotype about students like himself being the blind followers of Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden. He says, in Urdu, with a couple of English words parachuting into his thoughts, "Onkee guidance hay." I have their guidance.

"May tho kodh say soch kur kurthah hu." I do it with my own thinking.

And becoming a martyr for Islam is something he has thought about a lot. "My most important thing is my life. If I can give that then I will give my life," he said. What would he accomplish? "If I was successful for Islam, then Taliban will survive."

That's all he has time for, so he gets up and returns to work, where he reluctantly pulls "Little Mermaid" down from the shelf for a customer. But all the while, awaiting orders to move across the border.

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.

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