An Evasive Brother of Martyrs in Afghanistan

Seyyed Kerbalahi joined me after dinner. His real name was Rasul. He was called Kerbalahi, he explained, because he had been to Kerbala in Iraq to visit the sacred Shia shrine of Imam Hussein twice in the late 1950s, once for three months and once for five. I asked him why he had not completed the Haj by going on to Mecca.

“It would have been too expensive.”

“But Mecca is quite close to Kerbala by the time you have gone from Afghanistan to Iraq.”

“It would have been a seven-day trip so I came home.”

He tuned the radio to a Pakistani channel broadcasting in Urdu. “Can you understand Urdu?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “I have put it on for your benefit.”

He then began praying. Every minute or so, he interrupted his prayer to throw out a comment such as, “Later I will arrange for someone to dry your socks.” Then he would start his prayers again from the beginning. I suggested gently that he finish his prayers before we spoke.

“But a guest is ordained by God,” he said reprovingly.

“Thank you,” I replied. “Well, there was something I wanted to ask you …”

“I am praying. We should talk later.”When he had finished, he picked up a large Koran and began to mumble over it and then glanced up and asked if I had any photographs.

I handed him the pictures of my family. He frowned at them briefly and handed them back.

“I have walked here from Herat,” I said.

“I’m reading the Koran and your Farsi is not good enough for a conversation,” he replied.

We sat in silence till I decided to lie down and sleep.

At dawn he began his lengthy prayers again. By the time he had finished, a crowd of villagers had gathered in the guest room. Seyyed Kerbalahi picked up my Dari-English dictionary and began looking at it a page at a time. Usually people who wanted to be seen reading my dictionary knew which way up to hold it. Seyyed Kerbalahi didn’t.

He then moved to another position in the room, carefully opened a sandalwood box, and unwrapped a different copy of the Koran. The morning continued with rambling prayers, a little browsing of the Koran, and occasional bad-tempered visits to his balcony to tell anyone who wanted to see him that he was too busy with his religious devotions to be disturbed. I imagined this was the pattern of most of Seyyed Kerbalahi’s days.

Finally I took my leave. On my way out I noticed two faded photographs on the guest room wall.

“They are my brothers,” he said, “martyrs … One was killed in Lal and one on the path to Yakawlang.” They were not dressed like most martyrs as Mujahidin but in neat Russian dress uniforms.

SOURCE: The Places in Between, by Rory Stewart (Harcourt, 2004), pp. 218-219

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Filed under Afghanistan, religion, Russia, war

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