This time the graduation was real. Of the five hundred or so recruits he'd seen at the Academy, only about a hundred were present, two years after Ali had began his saga. He searched the hundred with his highly trained eyes for Dina, but he didn't see her.
Dressed in their whites, with blue and red accessories and many stripes for what they had already accomplished, the graduates stood out in the desert sun like the heroes they already were for having come this far. General Forsythe was bursting with pride as he handed each one their papers and pinned their Freedom Medal on their chests. From a large plasma screen, President Knox congratulated them and told them that she would have gladly handed each one their diplomas had reporters not constantly followed her every move. She wept as she described the sacrifice that they were making for their country. In the end, she wished them well.
Graduates put together a small duffel for their journey into oblivion. The staff had to make sure that there would be nothing that would tip off their missions. There were no implants, no computers, no cyanide pills in hollow teeth, and no microchips or film. They had no shoes with compartments built in. No jewelry with encrypted functionality. All they had was their training, their memory of certain key information useful for making contact, and their resolve to succeed and overcome. Once that was done, they were on their own and on their way. Ali joined others going to LaGuardia in New York. Once they got there, they shook hands and split up, each with different hotels to stay in. Ali got in his cab and directed the driver to the Comfort Inn Gregory on 4th in Brooklyn. His plane tickets told him that he would leave Kennedy for Karachi in two days. Without much else to do, he rested in his room, watched TV, and waited for his flight out.
Rashid Jaheed opened his mail like he always did when he got home from work every day. One imposing letter from Vacations to Go caught his attention. He ripped open the envelope as he walked to the kitchen. Putting the envelope on the table to get a glass of water, an airline ticket fell out. He stared at it for minute, and then opened the announcement. It read: "Congratulations, you have been selected to receive an all expenses paid three day weekend in New York City. You will stay at the Intercontinental Central Park and fly courtesy American Airlines first-class service. You'll have your choice of some of the finest dining N.Y. has to offer and see the Broadway Show of your choice. Vacations to Go is offering you this all expense paid trip as a promotion. It is only for you. You cannot take anyone else along or give the trip to anyone. You will not have to pay any expenses, including cab fare and tips. This is truly an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Rashid saw that the ticket was for the upcoming weekend. If he took the trip, he would have to leave San Francisco International Airport at 4:00 p.m. on Thursday. He didn't have much time to make his decision. New York was where he entered the United States to go to school so many years before. He wanted so much to go back. Tears welled up in his eyes as he thought of his dear Lilly and Ali, gone now two years. He always wanted to take them to Manhattan and share the joy of his memory when he, as young man, had wandered the streets for three days before flying on to Cleveland and Case Western Reserve. Having been born in Delhi, and then forced, with his parents to flee to Islamabad and Peshawar during the separation, New York City was like a box of candy, full of wild and exciting things to do. Oh, how he wished he could share that with his family now. By now he was crying uncontrollably. No one heard him sobbing in the kitchen of his empty house.
The next day Rashid shared his good fortune with his friends at work. They crowded around his cubicle as he displayed the tickets and vouchers.
"Let me see that.” George rushed in and grabbed the documents from Rashid's hands. He examined them carefully through his bifocals, carefully reading every document. "Looks legit to me,” he announced joyfully after his examination. “I’d take advantage of it if I were you. Looks like the opportunity of a lifetime to me.”
The others agreed, patted him on the back, and said they would give him a sendoff lunch on Thursday before he left. The excitement helped them get through another day of boring code work for the government at low pay.
Thursday morning, Rashid packed his bags and headed for work. The lunch was overly long and boisterous. Rashid had to promise to bring souvenirs of New York when he got back. . He left work from lunch so that he would be able to park the car and get through security in time. His government credentials were a big help, so he breezed right through security and began to relax in his first class seat. A drink and a heavy meal put him to sleep. He woke when the wheels of the plane hit the tarmac at LaGuardia.
It was well past midnight. As soon as Rashid had grabbed his luggage at the carrousel, he saw a man in a maroon uniform holding a big sign shouting, "Rashid Jaheed" above the red letters announcing "Vacations to Go". The man grabbed his bags, and Rashid followed him out the door to a silver stretch limousine waiting at the curb. Rashid couldn't help thinking how different his first arrival to New York had been.
After breakfast in bed looking out over the skyline and Central Park, Rashid dressed and toured the town. Sites like the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty were still familiar, but Times Square had really changed. He remembered the fear he had that he would be hustled as he gingerly passed all the X-rated theaters and peep shows that used to inhabit the place. He went to the colossal Twin Towers Memorial. It was impressive, but there hadn't been a World Trade Center when he first came, so it didn't affect him like some of the others he saw crying. He wondered what kind of memorial they would build for the Capitol and Washington D.C.
By 4:00 p.m. he was back at the hotel and needed a nap. About 5:30 the phone rang and the concierge told him that the limousine would pick him up at six to take him to Maxim's, and then on to the Broadway play he had chosen, Sitar Man.
At Ali's Brooklyn Motel
There was a knock on the door. Ali flipped off the TV, rose from the bed and carefully approached the door. He wasn't expecting anyone and wasn't supposed to leave until the next day. He peered out the peephole and saw a man holding a Homeland Security badge. Still cautious, he made sure the chain was secure and carefully opened the door a crack while standing behind the wall rather than the door. He wished he had a gun.
"Ali Jaheed?" the man questioned, still holding his credentials in the crack of the door, "I'm Ralph Warner from Homeland Security. I'm on orders to give you a night on the town before you ship out on your new mission tomorrow.”
Ali saw the plain black wrapped Taurus outside and decided to let Ralph in. As he released the chain on the door, Ralph returned to the Taurus and emerged with a suit on a hanger. It was the top-of-the-line Saxon Reid three-button suit with a white silk Windsor shirt and vermilion tie. There were shiny Italian shoes in his size, too. The only thing Ralph didn't bring was underwear and socks. Fortunately, Ali already had those. Everything fit perfectly and felt luxurious. Ali had never dressed like this before. It didn't take him long. The last time he felt like this was the junior prom. It seemed like light years away now.
Ralph didn't say where he was going. Ali didn't ask. He knew they were going to the Big Apple even before the Taurus approached the Brooklyn Bridge. Dressed like this, it had to be something big. It was. Ralph pulled up in front of Maxim's and left the engine idling. "This is it. You have a dinner date. Tell the maitre d your name. I'll be waiting for you here when you're through.”
Ali nodded and got out of the car. He waved to Ralph and walked toward the door. The doorman hurried to open the door ahead of him. He swept through the door and down the long corridor to the reservations desk.
"Ali Jaheed!" Ali announced firmly in his best military voice to the man at the desk. The man nodded and signaled for the maitre d.
The maitre d was very gracious. He moved quickly with arms outstretched as if he had known Ali all his life. "Ah, good evening, Mr. Jaheed! Maxim's is so glad to have you with us. Please follow me.”
The maitre d led him through the Bistrot, up the staircase to the Grand Salon, and then down a short hall with smaller, more intimate rooms. The maitre d then stood in his path and gestured for him to turn into the last room. As Ali turned the corner, he saw his father fidgeting with his napkin. "Dad!" he exclaimed and ran to him. Rashid rose to meet him and tears flowed freely as they hugged.
It seemed like a lifetime since he had ordered from a menu, but Ali had no trouble selecting the finest from what lay before him. Soon they were laughing and talking like the old days before his mother died. Thoughts of her crept into his mind but he suppressed them. He wanted this to be the happiest evening of their lives. Both slightly tipsy from wine and good humor, Ali tipped the waiter, and they headed out into the warm New York night.
It was a short walk to Broadway where they had front-row seats to "Sitar Man". When the lights came up for intermission, Rashid reminded Ali that in his youth, when he was in college, he and some of his fellow students had been to a private party where Ravi Shankar played. That was well before Shankar influenced the Beatles and became a household name. The music made Rashid think of India and how he missed her and his carefree childhood. That was long ago in another century and another time. He was about to lose his son to the next.
When the curtain came up to a standing ovation and several encores, the Jaheeds in the first row were among the most enthusiastic, jumping up and down and clapping their hands raw. It was hard to come down from that high but they did, wandering in Central Park until 3:00 a.m. when Ali escorted his father back to the hotel. It was 5:00 a.m. before he emerged again, having said his final goodbyes and promising to e-mail at least once a year that he was okay. Twenty years was long time. Ali hoped that his father would be there when his tour was over, that was unlikely. They may have said goodbye for the last time.
Ralph was waiting in the Taurus. He pulled up and Ali jumped in. "You sure have a boring life, Ralph, babysitting guys like me.”
"Well, it all depends upon how you look at it. I get to see what's happening here in the Big Apple every day, and get to 'baby-sit' some of the most important and influential people in the world. And if that isn't enough, I get read a book.”
At 4:45 p.m. Ali was on board Pakistan International Airlines flight 0718 to Paris. In the wee hours of the morning they arrived in Paris and Ali took a cab to a hotel near the Seine. He spent a wonderful four days there, seeing the sights and soaking up French culture in the sidewalk cafes.
On schedule, Ali's next flight took him to Cairo. In spite of all the turmoil in the Muslim world, he found Cairo to be laid back and calm. Once again he spent four days touring and enjoying the ambiance of the ancient city with its charming people. He regretted that he had to lie to people about his reasons for being there. He was fascinated with ancient Egyptian culture. He vowed to himself to return some time in the future.
His next flight brought him to Karachi through Abu Dabbi. He had never been there, but it seemed like home. In order not to attract attention, he immediately boarded a flight for Islamabad. Arriving at the capitol city, he once again, did not stay, but booked a flight for Peshawar instead. This time he was on a small commuter plane. It was filled with businessmen busy with their briefcases. There was a distinct Moslem look to their dress and demeanor. The guy in the seat next to him was embroiled in his laptop computer, working in Urdu the whole trip. Ali looked out the window and surveyed the landscape. It was mostly desert with green oases here and there and the shimmer of reservoirs for irrigation water. It became increasingly mountainous. By the time they dropped into the tiny Peshawar airport, everything had the orange glow of a dusty sunset.
A large contingent was there to greet him. Ali didn't know that he had so many cousins. Leading the group was his uncle, Talha, the patriarch. Rashid's younger brother was tall and handsome, with flecks of white on his sideburns to soften his jet-black hair. With a broad smile of even teeth emerging from his bushy mustache, he reached out with his right hand to shake Ali's. And then everyone crowded around shaking Ali’s hand and patting him. He felt like a celebrity in a strange land. He joined a group jammed into a Toyota Corolla driven by Talha. Ali commanded the passenger seat, while Talha's young son occupied the space between. Various sons and other cousins crowded into the back seat. Everyone was talking at once in English and Urdu.
As they left the airport, Talha raised his right hand and the excited jabber in the back seat subsided so that he could speak. He began in English with a strong accent: "Ali, it is such a pleasure to have you come stay here with us. Over many letters and telephone conversations with your father, I have implored him to have you come here and learn the root of your family's culture. With the Americans in Afghanistan, things are changing very quickly. War with India is always eminent; we must not let our guard down. We must be strong. Immorality is creeping into our culture through movies, television, and the Internet. Only Allah can make us strong. That is why you're here. To learn everything you can about Islam and the Pakistan culture. The fact that you are a United States citizen and have grown up there makes you an exciting addition to our family. Shalom.”
"Uncle Talha, it has been my dream since my earliest memory to return here and visit. Now, after what has happened in America, I've decided that this is where I belong. While I know you want me to stay and become part of your family, I must make my own way and have my own family. So someday, I can bring my father here in his retirement.”
"Wise words from such a young man. I'm very proud of you, Ali.” With that said, Talha began describing where they were going through the city.
The dust of the desert settled on the asphalt everywhere and blew up in little circles in the breeze and with every passing vehicle. Water buffalo, goats, camels, and donkeys pulling appropriately sized wagons piled high with goods shared the crowded roadsides with milling people. Motorcycle rickshaws roared by as they darted in and out of traffic, spewing black smoke. White headed crows picked seeds from roadside animal dung while eagles soared in and out of pillars of cook fire smoke on their endless quest for carrion.
Low one and two-story walled stucco structures loomed on either side of the road as they passed through teeming markets in the center of the city on their way to the suburbs where Talha’s family lived. Men carried rifles everywhere and crisscrossed ammunition belts were marks of serious warriors. These were fierce people—his people--who fought with scimitars and spears long before the British brought them rifles to shoot. While old muskets could still be found for sale in the market, the Afghan war with Russia had brought AK-47s, RPGs, hand held stingers, clay mores and other ordnance of high-tech warfare. The markets were teaming with gun sellers hawking their wares. Ali was a glad when they left that death-dealing area. And then Talha reminded him that, “At Darra Adam Khel, fifty kilometers south of here, you can have any kind of armament you want hand built to your order.”
Ali had heard of this place. He wondered about the safety of hand built arms. “We’ll have to go there, soon.” Talha added. Ali couldn’t wait.
They arrived at a walled villa on the outskirts of town. It was built on the last flat land before the slope of a foothill that that grew to a mountain about two miles away. Orchards and fields spread out on the foothill on either side. Herds of goats were grazing on the higher slopes. It looked picturesque and bountiful in the last rays of evening. It also looked highly defensible--a fortress. The gate opened magically as they approached. Ali looked for the remote, but didn't see one. Instead, an old man appeared opening the gate. It seemed to be his primary job. He lived in a little house built on the left side behind the wall.
There was a large dirt courtyard, with a mosaic of stones placed in a circle for cars to drive on. There were four houses on the circle and what appeared to a garage or stable off to the right. Ali was impressed. His uncle Talha appeared to be a very rich man. Everyone piled out of the car and disappeared. Ali followed his uncle into the largest house in the center. It was all marble and terrazzo. Too large palms in pots flanked the entry. Magically, too large carved wooden doors opened into a large foyer. It was filled with women, children, and old people. All eyes were on Ali.
With a wave of his hand, Talha proclaimed, "Here is your family. While you are a guest in my house, they are at your service. It is a great honor to have you return from the United States.” with that, the crowd rushed forward. All the children wanted to kiss and hug him. The ladies were more reserved, waiting their turn to shake his hand. Finally the elderly shuffled forward, taking his hand and staring him directly in the eye as if to discern what is real intentions were for coming back to Pakistan from such a wonderful place as America.
It was late and Ali was hungry. After scrubbing the grime of the trip off his face and hands, they ushered him off to a huge table where only men ate. He was treated to a curry delight. Two kinds of goat. Fresh vegetables. Pumpkin and squash deserts covered with gold and silver foil. The women served all this in their finest saris. In spite of the Muslim tradition, the beautiful Indian sari was favored for festive occasions. Ali couldn't help but note how beautiful and curvaceous the women of his family were.
After he ate, Ali was shown his room. It was spacious but spare, containing only a single bed, a small dresser, a freestanding mirror, and some wall hangings depicting Muslim holy scenes. He had a private bath with shower. It was all terrazzo and very clean. His bags were placed neatly by the dresser. One of his cousins, Ahmed, showed him how to turn on the in line electric heater, so that he could take a shower. By the time he finished, it was very dark. It was getting cool too, so Ali pulled the blanket over him. Suddenly, the bright light of morning and the singing of birds flowed in from the court guard outside his window.
Without a watch or clock, he did not know what time it was. Still, he took his time brushing his teeth, dressing, and preparing himself to face what may be a stressful day ahead. His room faced the foyer, so when he opened the door, he walked directly into it. In the large dining room, he could hear an old man read the Koran to a number of boys. The door was open. So he could see them huddled around their teacher. All else was quiet. Too quiet.
"Ah, Mr. Ali, … you slept late. I believe you are hungry?” The voice came from his side, out of his field of view. When he turned, he saw a strikingly beautiful young woman striding toward him with her hand out. He had seen her the night before and noted that she stood out among the women. Her sari was a vivid red, decorated with gold thread. Her bare midriff rivaled the hard bodies he’d seen in the Academy gym and boot camp. He was embarrassed to look at her, let alone talk to her.
Her hand reached for his and pulled him closer. "I am Shaheen, your cousin. My father is Munjhab, your father's youngest brother. I am his oldest daughter. I am twenty. I am on vacation from University in Islamabad where I am studying to be a doctor. All the others are at work or school. They left hours ago. Since I'm on vacation, Talha asked me to show you around and answer your questions. Would you like something to eat?"
Ali followed her lead to a small room in the back of the foyer. It was right off the kitchen, and he could smell food cooking in there. He reluctantly let go of her hand and she motioned for him to sit down at the table. Her hand was so small and strong. There was an electricity in her touch that he hadn’t felt since Dina. "What would you like to eat?" she said.
"Do you have any eggs? Coffee would be nice.”
A sly smile came over her face. "Does the queen have a crown?" A bit embarrassed by her own snide remark, she turned a little red and rushed into the kitchen. Ali chuckled. He was starting to enjoy his stay.
An older woman with a stern look on her face came out of the kitchen and set the table. Soon, Shaheen returned with hot coffee. It was half cream and sugar, but Ali didn't mind. He was much more interested in the bearer than the cup. The old woman brought fried eggs, sliced melon and chapattis. Ali was pleased. The chapattis reminded him of his mother. Like tortillas, easy to fold and eat with, but made with wheat, not corn, so that they were much better tasting. He was hungrier than he thought, and wolfed down the eggs without talking while Shaheen patiently observed.
Wiping his face with a linen napkin, Ali discovered his rudeness. "I'm sorry Shaheen,” He blurted. "I've been so busy feeding my face that I forgot you were here. I was so hungry and it was so good. Please forgive me.” Ali continued patting his mouth with his cloth napkin. The plates before him were empty.
"That's okay. I could see you were very hungry. We Pakistani women are accustomed to being silent. Would you like more coffee?"
"Just black this time. No cream or sugar.”
"Ughh," she said, turning up her nose and scowling, and headed off to the kitchen once more.
Shaheen had made her point, but Ali had old habits to break. He told himself that he would learn to love coffee with sugar and cream in it--starting tomorrow.
Shaheen returned with the coffee. As he sipped the scalding hot bitter brew he began to talk. Smiling, Shaheen was most willing to oblige him. "Let's go on outside," she said.
Ali followed her out the door to a courtyard between the buildings. There was a garden with squash, melons, cucumbers, beans, and chilies. There were also many flowers and cactus like plants. Ali recognized the bougainvillea, palms and agaves as familiar plants in California. Hummingbirds and bees were busy harvesting the bounty of this little flowery oasis. Other birds flew back and forth singing the songs he'd heard earlier from his bedroom window. An old man and woman were busy carefully cultivating and watering the plants in the garden. They were the reason it was so beautiful.
"Peshawar is at the crossroads of the old caravan trail from east to west. It is where old meets new, and new mixes are formed.” Shaheen was waxing poetic. Ali didn't mind. He was spellbound. "We have retained much of our old Indian culture here in the compound, but this is not appreciated by the city elders. You have to be a chameleon to survive in the marketplace. We owe everything to grandfather Mujundar Jaheed for having the foresight to sell his lands and bring the family here in 1947. The gold he brought bought him a place in the market and enabled him to buy this land. He was a shrewd negotiator and trader. Unfortunately, the stress was too much for him and he died of a stroke at an early age, forty-seven, I think. Your father left just before he died. We all envied your father, growing rich in America. Now here you are, back to us.” She suddenly waxed wistful. Her eyes had a faraway look, and then smiled.
Ali needed to explain. "My father often talked about the partition and how the family suffered. He was at odds with grandfather Mujundar about staying here or going to America. When grandfather died, he blamed himself. He was ashamed to come back here. I'm not. I'm looking forward to it. America has become violent and corrupt. Pakistanis are ridiculed because we're Muslims and look like the Arabs that have caused so much terror in recent years. When Washington D.C. blew up, I had to leave--come back here to my roots and start over.” The look in Shaheen's eyes showed the she was empathizing with him. They stood silent for while, both of them contemplating what they would say next.
They walked out into the foothills and up the slopes. Boys who were not in school were tending the goats. The orchards were full of nuts, apples, and oranges. This land was bountiful, but only because it was carefully irrigated by channeling a stream from the mountain to various areas where crops were growing. It was an ingenious system, as old as the region, that required only a small amount of human labor to make it operate. American farmers could learn a great lesson from this ancient approach.
From their vantage point, the city of Peshawar lay far below them. Shaheen pointed out the Old Fort, the Polo Ground where the British elite used to play, and the Train Station. Far in the distance loomed the Khyber Pass. "Uncle wants to take you there this weekend.” Shaheen said it matter-of-factly, as if it were no big deal. Ali was pleasantly surprised. Things were moving fast. Almost too fast for his nimble young mind to contemplate.
By the time they returned to the villa, the men and women were returning from work in the city. Talha was prepared an outdoor feast for his newly arrived guest from America and had invited some of the elders to attend. The smell of goat cooking on a huge spit over a charcoal fire drew one and all to the party. Talha brought out his prize stock of liquor for the occasion and asked Ali to join him in a nip of Chivis Regal before the party began. "One advantage to living here is that we can get anything the world has to offer. If this were a Moslem holy day, this liquor would be hidden well out of sight. The Maliks here have little respect for Moslem fundamentalism. In order to show my respect for them, I have to share my stock of liquor. It is a manly thing--understand.” Ali shook his head in agreement, raised his glass, and downed his first shot of scotch for the evening.
A huge table was laden with food as the sun set. Ali sat with his uncles on one side and elders sat on the other. They were fierce, foreboding men, with steely eyes that looked right through you. They wore turbans and distinctive beards. Some of them carried rifles and the familiar crossed ammunition belts over their chests. Some had scimitars in their sashes. All of them seem to care less about this young upstart from America as they talked loudly, discussing politics
Introductions' went badly. It was hard for Ali to grasp the names of the honored guests and their tribal affiliations. The liquor and excitement, combined with the fatigue that accompanied his long trip, conspired to undermine his ability to focus. A round of toasts didn't help. He found himself inhaling quantities of food and talking a pretty good rap in Urdu. After the banquet, all of the children and women were dismissed. Out of nowhere dancing girls appeared. They were all quite beautiful and danced very well. Ali's head was swimming. The lights in the palm trees were spinning around. The girls were dancing too close for comfort.
Ali felt someone shaking his shoulder. He had a bad taste in his mouth and his stomach hurt. "Ali, wake-up! We've got a long way to go today. I want to take you to see the Khyber Pass. It's Saturday. You were sick all day yesterday. Must've been the trip and all that liquor I made you drink. We're all packed, so get cleaned up, and grab some eggs for that empty stomach and we'll be on our way." Talha was gentle but insisting. It was still dark out. Must've been around 5:00 a.m.
Ali dragged himself out of bed and took a shower. It was refreshing and woke him up. He dressed quickly in jeans and his walking boots. He could smell eggs wafting from the small room by the kitchen. The pain in his stomach was hunger. Three of his cousins and Talha were already eating. Ali had to hurry to catch up. His coffee was black and bitter. He downed two scalding cups and was out the door with the others.
Once again, Ali had the spacious pleasure of the passenger front seat of the Toyota. His three cousins crammed in the back. It was still pitch dark when the gatekeeper opened the gate and Talha pointed the ill aimed headlights down the bumpy road to the lights of the city below. He didn't slow down through town. It was very quiet and peaceful, just an occasional camel or handcart plodding to the market long before it opened. The little car speeding through the swirl of dust startled even these road weary sojourners. Before long, they were on the Jamrud Road out of town and heading for entrance to the Pass. A halo of light appeared on the right behind the mountains. The cool dawn was coming.
"We're in tribal territory. The Pakistan government has little say here. People can pass freely between Afghanistan and Pakistan without credentials and with little trouble except for occasional hijacking and robbery on the road. To be safe, we are fully armed.” Talha announced in a nonchalant, jovial way. Ali glanced into the back seat. He saw the glint of metal from the firearms his three cousins were holding. Their eyes glinted with a smile of satisfaction too. He knew he was in good hands.
He had just settled back for the long ride, when Talha, with a bit of uncharacteristic excitement, exclaimed, “Oh oh, we've got trouble ahead!"
The road ahead with its parallel railroad tracks vanished into the pre-dawn haze. About a mile off, Ali could see the hulking forms of three large vehicles without lights. One was directly in the middle-of-the-road, and the other two flanked it in a way to prevent anyone from trying to drive around. They were rapidly closing on the vehicles blocking their path. "Americans.” Talha muttered under his breath. Ali could see that the two smaller vehicles were Humvees with fifty caliber machine gun mounts. The center vehicle was a Bradley. Its big gun pointed directly at them. He didn’t say, but he knew their firepower well. Suddenly, a dozen bright lights came on, blinding them. "Put your guns down boys. Stay calm.” Talha’s voice was clearly on the edge.
Ali tried, but he couldn't stay calm. He knew what they faced. One false move and those guns would tear them to bits. His heart was pounding wildly as he tried to keep his thoughts. A loudspeaker barked, first in English, then Urdu, then Pashtan, and finally in Afghan, a recorded message: "Halt! Stop your vehicle now! Turn off your lights and leave your vehicle with your hands up and empty!" the recording repeated over and over the same loud message. The power of it and the blinding lights was enough to make even the fiercest warrior think twice about raising arms.
Talha, who had already slowed, slammed to a stop and turned off his lights. "OK guys, you know the drill. Put those guns down carefully on the back seat, and two of you come with me, hands up facing the lights. Ali, you and Ahkbar stay on your side of the car and do the same. Stay in the open. Don't go back around behind the car.” Everyone obeyed instantly. Ali thought his heart was going to jump out of his chest.
From beyond the lights a young voice called out: "Anyone speak English! If you do, speak out.”
Talha responded prompty. "Yes, we are Pakistani! We are going camping above the Khyber Pass! I have credentials!"
Three armed men in full battle gear emerged from the blinding lights. The point man spoke: “Camping, uh? Don't you know it's dangerous in those hills? You could get killed up there.”
"We are prepared. I know the Maliks that control the area. We won't have any trouble.”
The point man, a Corporal, was young; he looked about twenty. His wispy blond mustache barely covered his upper lip, and his face was splotchy with pimples. Ali guessed that the others were as young or younger. The young soldier reached out to take Talha's passport and examined it with his flashlight. The other two men kept their rifles aimed in case anyone moved too quickly. Handing Talha’s passport back, the Corporal shined his flashlight on everyone from top to bottom, and then into the car. "You are well-armed. Not the sort of guns one would use for hunting. May I have a look at the boot?"
Talha nodded yes, and, with both hands still stretched out in front of him, walked slowly over to the car and reached in through the open window to retrieve his car keys from the ignition. Still holding the keys with both hands in the air, he then slowly walked to the back of the car and opened the trunk for inspection. The Corporal's flashlight shined on a tent, a large picnic basket, bedrolls, and other camping gear. "Looks like you are going camping? The strangest thing I've heard since coming to this strange country. Looks like you're free to go.”
He shined his light once more on Ali. "Say, aren't those Levi's original hand washed jeans? Where did you get them?"
Talha felt the need to intervene. "He's my nephew, come to visit us from the United States. I wanted to take him to the mountains for a holiday.”
"Likely story. Probably got them on the black market. You still look Pakistani to me. Time for you to leave. We've got work to do.” The Corporal holstered his flashlight, turned his back to them, and walked back to his comrades who shouldered their rifles and walked with him back to their vehicles.
Talha closed the lid to the boot and everyone got back in the car. A wavering bright light approached from behind, and soon there was the wailing sound of a locomotive horn as the Khyber Train roared by, following the river and the road toward the Pass. The clickity-clack of the wheels on the rail joints made it almost impossible to talk. Everyone was smiling. The sun had broken over the mountaintops to the rear and it was suddenly morning. As they drove around the military vehicles, they didn't look so forbidding anymore. Just a bunch of young guys doing a dirty job in a dangerous foreign country. Ali thought to himself, "I could have been one of them.” He didn't share his thoughts with the others. They did not know, and would never know, anything of his military training. He was pleased with his encounter with the Americans. He had convinced his uncle of his naivety and passed as a Pakistani. His cover was beginning to work.
The entrance to the Pass at the Jamrud Fort came quickly. A large stone arch marked the entrance. Talha talked to the Pakistani gatekeeper briefly. The man waved his arm, the gate opened, and they were on their way. Talha was excited. "It's been nearly ten years since I've come here. We used to come here and camp every summer. The mountains were cool and there was a lot of game. I hope that hasn't changed.”
They passed from the cantonment through University Town, Hyattabad and Karkhanai Bazaar, before and after which the fields on either side of the road were covered with littered remains of cleared refugee camps. They began their long climb to the Pass. As the dry riverbed wound, so did they. Gradually a first, then sharper and more abruptly, the road wound up the mountain. Far ahead black smoke from the old engines on the train put a pall on the blue sky. They could see parts of the train as it followed the meandering river gorges, crossing on bridges and momentarily disappearing into tunnels. Curiously, there was an engine on each end. “Pulling and pushing,” Talha explained. When Ali inquired whether they were coal fired, Talha retorted, “Oil. We have little coal in these mountains.” Ahead, they caught up to the train again at the Changai Spur. It was a W-shaped section of track with two cliff-hanging reversing stations. The train wheezed desperately to a shuddering stop before backing away from the brink. The loaded Corolla downshifted and easily climbed this steepest part of the Pass, leaving the struggling train behind.
At every turn out and overlook, fierce looking turbaned men stood guard with rifles. In the past, they guarded caravans and exacted tolls. Now they gave tours and posed for photographs. Near the summit, they stopped. Talha rounded up four of those guys and everyone posed, fully armed, for pictures. Ali even found himself brandishing a rifle awkwardly in a couple of the photos. No one knew that he really knew how to use one.
When they got back to the car and drove off, Talha said, "Those guys aren't what they seem. They may seem like tourist guides, but actually they are scouts for various tribal groups. They report daily on what they see going through the Pass. I talked to one of them. It looks like our old hunting spot is still secure. You're going to like it, Ali.”
They crested the summit and started down the other side. It wasn't long, perhaps three kilometers, when they arrived at Landi Kotal, the end of the railway and eight kilometers from the border. “Landi Kotal is a smugglers' town.” Talha observed. It was about 8am. The Khyber Rifles had just emerged from their garrison for their daily round of traditional maneuvers. They stopped and took more pictures of them. Dressed in white with red berets and bandanas, they cut a fine line. Unfortunately, their rifles were ancient and ceremonial and carried no weight here. The Pakistani Army was modern, but nowhere in sight. The tribesmen were much better armed and policed their own. Talha drove by the bazaars. They were just opening for the day. “You can get anything you want here, cheap. We’ll have to stop on our way back.”
Talha took the caravan route out of town, back toward the summit a dirt road appeared on the left. Talha turned onto it, and soon they were clinging to a narrow track a thousand of feet up on the side of a mountain. Ali was, luckily, on the up slope side. With all his experience in mountaineering, the condition of the road was scary. Every so often, they had to stop and clear large rocks that had fallen on the road. Some of them took two or three guys to move. The road got so narrow in places, they were forced to get out and walk ahead while Talha drove with one hand on the wheel and one hand on the door to jump out if the car slipped off the edge. A rope was tied around his waist, and then held by Akbar, who walked behind the car with it tried around his waist. It looked very dangerous to Ali, who envisioned Talha getting caught in the car and pulling Akbar down the mountain with him.
Ali had begun his mountain adventure.