The car slipped along the rocky track, the tyres were almost bald. The sides were shiny and slippery with oil. It was never built for this terrain, but after many years in Kabul as a taxi and having carried everything from goats to bullets through potholes and deep mud, it had form.
Fast and dark clouds overhead chased flocks of migrating ducks, storks, geese and even pelicans down to the south from Siberia. Now that the war had almost ended, their routes had become less dangerous, but that was little consolation for Hameed, who lay almost comatose with tiredness on the back seat. It was made of faux-leather, stained and in each parallel ridge and then hollow along its length, there were crumbs, dirt and cigarette ash.
The music coming from a cassette and AM radio seemed to be on a continuous loop of Tamil dance or Pashtun chants, interspersed with Beyoncé, not that the driver Zaki, had ever seen her even on his illegal TV with satellite reception. And from what was the bracket of a long lost rear view mirror swung a gaudy green shield depicting some sayings of the Prophet along with a small broken scent bottle, dry and empty.
On the cracked windscreen, a sparkly framed picture of Zaki stated that he was an authorised driver with a maximum charge rate of 1,000 Afghani during daylight hours, close to $15. Few had ever paid him that, but today was different. A sheepskin runner absorbed dust and heat along the top of the dashboard with black plastic items of indeterminate origin, receipt books, biros, matches and the obligatory Koran nestling in the dirty matted hide.
Zaki sucked hard on his cigarette, a fake Marlboro with nicotine as rough as guts that stung his throat. He spat out of the window as the sign to Jalalabad came into sight.
We are close he thought but this was the hardest part. From here to the border, bandits often ambushed smugglers like him, stealing the frightened cargo and either sending them back or just ransoming them for a few hundred dollars. He pushed down harder on the accelerator as the wheels started to gain more traction on some better road and he turned the headlights off. He did not want to be a target, again.
Hameed was dreaming now, twitching and his rapid eye movement seemed to be moving his head from side to side. He murmured, and threw out confused sounds that only he could hear of Koranic and other texts that rising deep from inside his thin body sounded like a Cathedral chant.
Zaki knew the border post would be coming up soon and felt down into his thobe for the dollar bills that would see Hameed get back home, over and through the border posts and guards who were always corrupt. The notes too were probably fakes, printed in the Bekaa Valley by Hamas who were trying to destabilise the legitimacy of the US. They needn’t have bothered as the US was doing a pretty good job of this on its own.
Hammed stirred and sat up, he seemed to smell Pakistan, and lent forward, pushing Zaki with his hand. ‘Well done my friend, Allah is pleased for you, bless you,’ he said.
‘It is his will and my promise to you Hameed, my friend,’ Zaki said as he swept into the border post, that had a red and white pole straddling two oil drums. The car stalled and shuddered to a stop.
A lone guard, in a combination of uniform and Shalwar Kameez trousers, approached, looked first at Zaki and then poked his head into the car to check Hameed, who was now putting on an air of dejection to avoid attention.
‘Visa brother,’ he said softly and his eyes told of his anticipation of a year’s salary as a bribe, not that he had been paid anyway for months. Zaki took out the official creased paper and placed it with $500 into the guard’s hand.
With barely a glance the guard waved him on before the senior officer could return from his prayers and investigate the ease of this particular transit. The car burped and fired up on the second try, and pulling away Zaki and Hameed saw the greener mountains of Kashmir.
Hameed smiled. He knew he would see his son today and then a lone stork darted above them, bashing against the stabbing gusts of wind to get home to his family too.