The Persian Thief, a short story by David Michael Litwack at Spillwords.com
Mohammad Rahmani

The Persian Thief

The Persian Thief

written by: David Michael Litwack

 

It took some moments to feel the pain. The doctor standing by with fiery implements burned it just as the pain began to rise. And he put the wrist in water. I watched my hand fall under the table. I watched my wrist shoot up ribbons of smoke. I thought I might live. Inchallah.

So I speak Farsi better than Pashto. But it is best that I tell the story in English which we all know.

It was only for pieces of flatbread that I stole. Actually, it was the lady with the child who stole it. She was caught by religious police. One tried to smash her head with the stock of his rifle. She ducked. So he missed her and smashed the baker’s window. She grabbed some bread and then dropped it. I picked it up. I was desperate.

So I was arrested for thieving the flatbread. Three flatbreads that I needed for my wife and daughter who were truly starving. They allowed me to keep the bread which was spoiled because of glass shards; and to convey it to my wife and daughter so they would not starve. That day. And they reminded me that they would only take the left hand. Generously.

These Taliban are making a mess of things and wish to punish outlaws with Sharia law. That would mean the cutting off of the hand of an accused thief as a lesson to others who would be thieves. Without trial. And so I became the lesson of the day—for stealing three shard-encrusted flatbreads—of this law.

My wife is nurse, thanks be to Allah, and so she is expert with cleaning and putting wraps on the stump. “You’re very foolish to have done such a thing!” she reprimanded me as she worked.

“You ate that day. And now the baker, sorry for me and for you, will give you all the bread that is left. Every night! Even what others attempt to steal! So that I gave you a hand.”

Yes, I am making joke of this. What else to do?

She: “Now you will find it more difficult to do work.”

“I know. Foolishly. But there is no work for me anyway now that the Americans are gone.” Foolishly. “That is why we are so hungry.

I had been making those baked brass decorative items. For fireplace mantels and Christmas tree ornaments. Of camels and horses, some with riders as well. I made the molds. Then the items from the spent brass bullet shells. Melted. There will be fewer such shells now that the Americans are gone. Much less shooting. Even so, I can still make the molds even with only one hand.

I should be making or stealing more important things. More expensive things. Maybe even antique items that the Taliban will otherwise destroy. I began to form a plan.

“Do not steal, my husband. Or you will have no hands to eat with. Or to do other things.”

I nodded with “baleh, baleh” (yeah, yeah). But in my mind it is but the one up-nod. The “na” meaning I did not totally agree with her. Or that there was another choice.

So as the wrist began to heal, I sought out Abdul Ali Yousafi, my uncle, master and purveyor of all things. A true astad, as they say.

“People are desperate for the basics,” he said. As always, he is wearing robes of azur. Left from his days riding with magrebi Tuaregs. Probably cutting off enemy hands. “They will sell their precious possessions, including many old things: Amulets, khamsa, even haram items such as Buddhas and Christian crosses. Items that have been in their families for many years. They need the afghani (1 afhani equals .011 dollars). But are terrified of double agents—those who would tell on them for a bounty and either enrich themselves or, if faithful Taliban, destroy the items.”

“You mean sell them themselves? Steal them from others?”

“Yes. On pretense of being interested in buying the items. Either way not paying for them,” he added.

“How can I gain their trust?”

“Good question. The stump marking you as a thief does not instill confidence. For your encounters, I suggest ‘Napoleonic,’”

“‘Napoleonic?’”

“Why yes. Your arm and hand inside your vest. As in many pictures. Because Napolean had bad bowels with the hemorrhoids. You must have bad bowels and the hemorrhoids as well. It was merciful that they cut off the left hand. (Though it must make difficulties for you in cleaning after what Americans call a ‘dump.’) Show only the right hand. Stand thusly.” And he demonstrated the Napoleonic.

“Also, I have ways of finding such items. Even the jewels.”

He found me a place in the Bazaar where I could make these things in the booth’s back, protected from curious eyes by fine hanging cloth on all sides. And the front with a counter for discussing trade. All this was belonging to another who was too friendly with the Americans. They bought burkas and other clothing items from him. He was taken away by Taliban. Accused of being an American spy. I wonder what they cut off for that.

And Uncle Abdul gave me one hundred thousand Afghanis to start my business.

***

So now I was with Rashid, my young cousin, who wanted to go back to school. To continue his English and mathematics lessons. To become a fighter pilot and astronaut for the Americans when they come back. I told him I believe they will come back.

He was a nice boy. A true believer. I encouraged his belief to become a fighter pilot. “Here is first lessons,” I tell him. “Working with bullets and shaping them. You will learn to measure correctly. Then . . .”

I used my mouth to help my right hand to shape the molds. Then we worked together. Also, I had to hide the molds for the Pahlavi lions and other royal shapes. Hide them lest the Taliban or nosy bazaari tell the authorities about them.

***

Of course they burst in without asking. Ok, there were no doors. Only a cloth duvet to hang in front of our booth. Three of them with big armament to point at me. I was glad Rashid had not come here as yet. I’m thinking I must warn him to hide in such cases since their warlords are looking for young boys. To dress them up as girls. With ankle bells. To dance. And to do to them other unspeakable things. Until Rashid’s beard grows out.

“You are wanted for spying. For the Americans. It is a capital offense.”

I protested that I had only just arrived there and set up this small factory.

They ignored my protest. “Ha! And we see you are a thief as well.”

“No. This is from war,” I lied.

“It looks much like a thief’s punishment!” So they took me to their headquarters where a captain will interrogate me. I spent a night alone in the cell. Dark, dismal, dank. Not even a breeze anywhere to make the hair I pulled wave. To see if there is a break or hole to the outside. No elegant dinner. No dinner at all.

I was dragged out early that morning. And thrust before he who must have been the captain. “Are you a thief?” he began. At least he started out with question, not its answer.

“Only a loyal citizen injured in the wars.”

“What is your name?”

“Mohammed. Mohammed Zafzadeh.”

“You cannot fool me, thief! It is Abdelsalam Boukerey Sadriwala.” One slap to remind me who is the boss.

“No,” I retorted. “That is a Shia Hazaras—the miscreant whom you have already arrested. I am the new occupant of that bazaar space.” I showed him my identification papers. “It is as I say.”

“These are American papers!”

“Of course. See the ‘P’ on the back? I was prisoner. They took me as prisoner and took away my Afghan papers. ‘P’ is for ‘prisoner.’ That is what they have given me.”

Actually, the “P” was for “Privileged.” Also for “photography” which gave me access to the American equipment. Perhaps after departure, “acquired” by these Taliban.

He stared at the card for a long moment. I was counting on his ignorance of the Roman alphabet and English. “Do you believe in Allah and that Mohammed is his prophet?” he asked to change the subject.

“Of course.”

“Can you recite the Shahada?”

I did.

“Are you not a Hazara?”

“I am Irani. Persian. Farsi is my mother zabani (language).”

“So you are suspect?” He formed it as a question.

Then he said “But since you are Shia, you can go for now! But don’t stray from your bazaar place,” he commanded.

“May I have my identity card back?”

“You may not. We must keep it for our records.”

So now I was as if naked without identity card. It’s good that I have another one. I will put an E for Enemy on that one. As well as P.

***

We worked, me and Rashid, receiving moneys from Uncle Abdul Ali Yousafi, my teacher, protector, and mentor. As I am for Rashid.

We sealed fine jewels and other valuable items in the horses, camels, donkeys, riders, finely decorated candlesticks and many other items to be shipped to Europe. There a middleman in France will break open the mold, lift out the valuable item, and sell it to the highest bidder. Then a large percentage would be sent back to Abdul Ali Yousafi who would thus finance me.

My daughter and wife were eating well. My wife would begin to ask me how I obtained these riches. Then, she would say, “Never mind. I don’t want to know. I’m afraid of the answer.”

I was too. But there was no other choice.

Until one day—as perhaps inevitable—an armed Talib came by. Rashid slipped under the rugs that the bazaari next to us was selling. (Though few were buying them.) As we had planned. The Talib was admiring a mounted brass soldier that I had fashioned (and stuffed). He had been injured, probably wounded, in the arm and so handled the item clumsily. Then he dropped it.

The seal had not fully taken yet and the contents spilled out.

“What is this?” he asked.

“Ah, perhaps my assistant added something to the object,” I quickly said. “Usually we put a bullet shell into these so that it clinks. Especially for the children. This item is mistake. Perhaps it was lost by someone.”

“Mistake?” He was getting worked up. He was un-strapping his rifle.

“Perhaps my assistant made a mistake.” At that moment Rashid came rushing out of hiding and whopped the Talib, then covered him with our neighbor’s large rug. The man fell and the rifle slipped away from him.

Rashid’s father, my uncle’s cousin, had been killed by Taliban. So I knew what he might do to this Talib with our cutting tools. Or the rifle if he knew how to shoot it.

But I had to rush to warn Abdul Ali Yousafi. I would have to leave Rashid alone with the Talib and the rug salesman. Who was by now frantic and fearful that we would be overwhelmed by masses of warrior Taliban. However, I left them and went in search of Abdul Ali Yousafi. When I caught up with him, he was holding court at his favorite coffee house.

“They will trace from you to me,” Uncle Ali stated with certainty. “There is no question. It will be a tracing of our bloodlines. Plus they will discover how you acquired the booth. Then you will have no hands and I, one less.

I tried many “buts” to interrupt but he would have none of it. “You must escape. Leave Rashid to take care of the women. I have a place near Mashad where your mother is from. They will take care of you there. I will join you and we will set up the same shop in that place.

Imagine the conversation I then had with my wife. She did much shouting and threatened to ascend to our roof to shout out my inadequacies. So that all the world would hear. As was the custom with her people. She will no doubt focus on my hand, cut off in the prime of my life, so I could not properly mount her. Or other things.

I quickly packed up changes of clothes and an extra knife. Also, a Koran to protect me against profligates.

“You must stay here, in my house, to protect the women.” I said to Rashid. Who had achieved his manhood by disposing of the Talib. “Do not go out from here for any reason. The women will do all errands. Stay here until I send for you.”

“Where will you go?”

“To Iran. I am still citizen and have one of their passports.”

“When will you send for me?”

“Soon.”

“No, how can I go there? I am not Irani.”

“You are Hazara. That’s close enough.”

I left my wife and daughter with her brother and Rashid. He was not too happy with this. “What if they are discovered by the Taliban?”

“Tell them I slipped away in the night on my way to Pakistan.”

This could have been the end of our story.

But on my way to Iran, I was waylaid by a gang of Taliban warriors. Heavily armed. And in no mood to accept my friendly overtures.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“To my home in Mashad.”

“Are you Iranian then?”

“Na’am.”

“A Persian thief then,” one said as he examined the few trinkets I brought with me.

“A wounded warrior,” I lied. So much for the ‘Napoleanic,’ much as I tried. I think they were contemplating how to cut off the right hand as well.

“Whose side?”

“Massoud. Dostum.”

“Ahmad Shah Massoud? Abdul Rashid Dostum?”

“The very one.” I wish I had more information. For credibility. But that was all.

“Come with us.”

“But my family awaits me in Mashad.”

“You will come with us.” These guys weren’t joking. Two of them raised their rifles and made the unmistakable clack of a chamber loading.

“Ok,” I agreed.

The cell was dark, dank, and dismal. My destiny it seems. Though this time, once my eyes had penetrated the darkness, they made out another figure. Oh, great! A roommate!

“Sala’am.”

“Sala’am,” he answered. “Hale shoma chitowrid?” (How are you?)

And I could tell by the intonation and accent that he was foreign to Farsi. And an anglo. “What are you doing here?” I asked.

“Accused of spying. You?”

“Accused of going to Iran.”

“Terrible,” he said in that sarcastic way of theirs. “I’m Jack. Jack Stevens. Journalist.”

“I am Mohammed Zafzadeh. Now what do we do? Escape?” I asked. Also sarcastically.

“Escape, if you want. I intend to.”

“Baleh (yes), I want.” I assumed this was all big talk and banter.

Until he laid out the plan. Simple enough. He already dug a hole into west wall of this cell. It would take us, he said, to a series of tunnels. A kind of underground labyrinth unknown by these Taliban. Going under the border with Iran.

“How do you know these things?”

“My former roommate showed me. We dug it together. Then they executed him. For smartass remarks. Don’t make smartass remarks. Even in English. They’ll catch the tone.” Then he showed me where he had been digging.

Night after night we dug. We piled the dirt underneath my bed. By day we covered the hole we were making and slept. The guards mostly ignored us except to bring bug-infested food.

Then, on the fourth night, we broke into an underground city. “This city is fifteen hundred years old. Even before Mohammed. It is the same as Nushabad, but not as well known. You can feel the air which is cool as if air-conditioned. And I have been told there are even toilets and drinking wells. By this we can go to Iran. If we patch up this hole we have made so that it is invisible to them, they will believe only that a djinn (spirit) from the devil has kidnapped us.”

This sounded good to me. We packed some food that we had put aside and went into the tunnel city.

“This is four stories from the surface,” he said. It runs right under the border with Iran from the days before there were any such borders.”

In two days, Jack was sure we had crossed the border and that we could go to the surface. We climbed stairs until we saw sunlight. There was a locked gate at the top. We could see the outside. Jack fiddled with the lock and opened it. That’s when I got the feeling that he was more than a journalist.

***

So we trudged on the surface without incident until we ran into a patrol. They looked like Iranian Revolutionary Guards, in nice uniforms, from the little I knew from television. They acted like Taliban.

“Papers.”

“We have none. Taken back there.” I pointed vaguely toward the border.

“Are you Taliban?”

“Na. Are you?” Jack stomped on my foot. To shut me up, I think.

“And who is this foreigner?”

“I am Jack Stevens. I work as a freelance journalist.”

“How do I know you’re not spies?”

“We have no baggage or spy tools.”

“Are you a thief?”

“Na!”

“Then where is your hand?”

I almost answered by searching over my body and asking “Did I lose it?”

But I still felt the pain of Jack’s stomp. So instead I said “I lost it in the war.”

“Are you Shia?” he asked me.

“I am Hussein Sakhani.”

“A good Shia name. And of the Sakhani, as am I. I detected your Hazaragi dialect.” Lucky break, this one. Very lucky.

“And you, westerner? Are you of the Uman (of the Muslim people)?” he asked, a bit sarcastically I might add.

“As a matter of fact I am,” Jack answered. And he proceeded to recite the statement of faith.

We were all astonished. I took advantage of that moment to ask the leader for papers. Temporary, of course. And, of miracles, he agreed.

Paper in hand, we departed as fast as we could. “Mamnoon! Thank you! Kheyli mamnoon!” (Thank you very much!)

Jack insisted on going back to Afghanistan as soon as he could get a new passport. And a new name. He’d like “Bruno” this time. I warned him to protect his appendages. From the Taliban. Even his most precious one. For they threatened me to take that one of mine as well.

We found Uncle Abdul already in Mashad. He resumed the business in Mashad bazaar. Only we had to carefully and completely muffle the sound of the jewelry in the figures. And test the seals. Before the smugglers could take our artwork to France.

I found the firing range for shells when I went to thank the Revolutionary Guardsman at the fort. He of Sakhani. He was very polite this time though he complained about the Taliban thieves everywhere. “And I have to listen to their stupid mantra: Tajiks to Tajikistan, Uzbeks to Uzbekistan, and Hazaras to goristan (the cemetery)!”

I did my best Napoleanic to keep my composure and show Sakhani restraint. And not remind him of my lost hand.

So far they have not taken the other one.

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