Aala first encountered Shahzor Khan at the infant school where she taught. Her cousin, Malik, was picking up his daughter and Khan was with him. She’d taken an instant dislike to the man.
Aala had been standing in the middle of the playground, at the end of a school day, chatting and laughing with parents and their children, when Malik and Khan approached her. Malik greeted Aala and asked how his daughter was doing. Aala replied in her characteristically vivacious way. When she’d finished she glanced at Khan who was staring at her, intently. She’d felt uncomfortable. Aware that he’d been caught staring, Khan broke into a broad smile whilst simultaneously nudging Malik. Malik responded to the prompt and introduced Khan who proceeded to sing the praises of the school, remarking that its happy, welcoming and positive atmosphere must be a reflection of the quality of the teaching staff. Aala politely acknowledged his ingratiating comments and then there was an awkward silence. Fortunately, Malik’s daughter interrupted the encounter and the men said goodbye and left. Aala briefly turned her attention to another child before looking up towards the school gates where she saw Khan, who was now by himself, staring back at her. Again, she’d felt uncomfortable.
Although she hadn’t met him before, Khan was not unknown to Aala. He had been elected as a local councillor just over a year previously and his picture appeared regularly in the local paper. There were all sorts of rumours about him. A national paper had recently run some stories about financial irregularities in the council to which Khan had been linked and which further raised his profile. Aala was intrigued by her cousin’s friendship with Khan. What on earth was he doing hanging about with such a man?
Khan accompanied Malik to the school on several further occasions, each time finding an excuse to speak to Aala. She was always polite but gave no form of encouragement and each time she found a suitable excuse to break away from the conversation and attend to a child.
Eventually, Khan became aware that his efforts to flatter and impress Aala were having little effect and so, on his next visit to the school, he decided to engage her using a different approach. With a fatherly smile he gently enquired:
‘May I ask why you’re not wearing a veil?’
‘I wear the hijab,’ said Aala. She didn’t feel the need to elaborate.
‘If you don’t mind me saying,’ said Khan, his tone suitably avuncular, ‘you should really be wearing a veil. There are many men whose minds aren’t always where they should be.’
Khan felt this humorous acknowledgement of other men’s shortcomings would draw Aala’s attention to his own virtue.
‘Then I would suggest,’ said Aala, ‘that those men should be made to wear veils so that we woman shouldn’t have to put up with their lecherous looks.’
She stared, pointedly, at Khan who felt himself flushing. He attempted to smile, but his mouth simply twitched.
A week later Malik was again accompanied by Khan when he attended the school to collect his daughter. They exchanged pleasantries with Aala. Khan was now lofty and aloof and when he addressed Aala, instead of making eye contact, he scanned the playground as though she was of little significance.
His voice was mildly rebuking:
‘You really should be wearing a veil you know.’
Aala ignored him.
Aala hadn’t mentioned any of these encounters to her parents as she’d considered them of no consequence. However, the latest meeting had unsettled her and she voiced her concerns during an evening meal. She told her parents about Khan’s reference to the veil.
‘He’s not actually done anything directly,’ she concluded, ‘I just find him a bit intimidating.’
Her mother, Bahar, was outraged.
‘How dare Malik bring this man to pester you.’ She turned to her husband. ‘Ahmad, you need to speak to his parents.’
‘His parents? Malik’s not a child anymore he’s almost thirty years old.’
‘Whatever,’ said his wife, dismissively, before launching into a tirade about her nephew.
Malik, an only child, had been brought up to believe that the world was his oyster. Unfortunately, he’d never been able to prise that oyster open. He’d worked his way through several jobs whilst becoming increasingly resentful that his abilities were never given due recognition. He saw his lack of success as a result, not of his own shortcomings but of cultural, racial and religious prejudices. He became bitter and resentful. Eventually, he found solace and camaraderie in a small, local group that contained like minded people. They called themselves ‘The Muslim Watch’ and, emboldened by shared resentments, they became vociferous within the community attracting the allegiance of impressionable and disaffected local youths. The youths saw Malik and his comrades as radical community leaders, prepared to speak out, to stand up for them, give them a voice and an opportunity to flex their muscles.
More recently some of the affiliated youths had taken it upon themselves to patrol the local area in threes and fours, targeting and intimidating people whose appearance, dress or behaviour they deemed ‘un-Islamic’. The police initially treated the complaints as individual, unlinked incidents but as the youths became bolder, a pattern began to emerge which presented a dilemma for the local commander. Policing a diverse, multi cultural population required particular sensitivity.
The Muslim Watch, although very small, began to gain some local notoriety. Malik revelled in the attention it brought him and, being the most articulate of the group, was soon acting as its spokesman.
It was Malik, therefore, that Khan contacted when he needed help in trying to resolve a local resident’s complaint. A shopkeeper had accused The Muslim Watch of harassing his family because he sold what they had described as ‘inappropriate’ men’s magazines.
It was Khan’s first contact with the group. He soon recognised its potential usefulness and began to cultivate a friendship with its leaders, particularly Malik. When this relationship was challenged by his political associates he would berate them for their shortsightedness.
‘We must develop links with such radical groups,’ he would tell them. ‘It is only by maintaining contact that we can provide a stabilising and reasonable influence on them.’
Malik was likewise keen to develop his relationship with Khan and began to contact him regularly. Khan found this irritating as he wanted to keep the group, and Malik, at arms length so he made excuses to avoid meeting him whenever possible. However, he was careful not to cause offence and when he sensed Malik’s frustration was at risk of turning to umbrage, he would agree to a meeting.
So, this was the situation when Khan agreed to meet Malik who had called him on his car phone as he was travelling to a community meeting. Knowing Malik lived nearby, Khan said he would be able to detour and meet him there and then. This accommodation had caught Malik off guard. He told Khan it was inconvenient as he was en route to pick up his daughter from school. Khan was pleased. He thought the distraction of a child would keep things on a superficial level and allow him to get away quickly. He told Malik it was unlikely another arrangement could be made for some time. So Malik, keen to have Khan’s undivided attention, agreed to meet.
As it turned out the meeting was much longer than Khan had intended. His schedule had changed as soon as he’d set eyes on Malik’s beautiful cousin.
A week after Aala had voiced her concerns during the family dinner, Malik called at the house to speak with Aala’s father. He was accompanied by Khan. When the two men left Ahmad went to the kitchen where his wife and daughter were busy preparing food. Bahar noticed the concerned look on her husband’s face.
‘What did they want?’ she asked.
‘Khan has asked to marry Aala.’
‘No, daddy, no. I don’t like him. He’s too old, he’s creepy.’
Ahmad raised his hand.
‘It’s okay. I said I would ask you. He wasn’t happy. He said it should be my decision not yours.’ Ahmad laughed. ‘That Khan is a very unpleasant man. Don’t worry, sweetheart, you won’t have to marry him.’
Bahar was outraged.
‘Who is this man? Who does he think he is?’
Ahmad, who had a greater interest in politics than his wife, gave a brief resumé of Khan’s career.
‘He has a lot of influence and his star is on the rise. He does a lot of favours for people. He is quite a wheeler and dealer.’
‘How dare Malik bring him here,’ said Bahar, indignantly. ‘And what has that boy got to do with him anyhow?’
‘Malik has big ideas,’ said Ahmad. ‘He always has had. He was a spoilt boy and he’s grown into a spoilt man. I’ve heard he’s now promoting himself as the keeper of the communities morals. He’s got a little group of acolytes who go round pestering people and it seems Khan finds him useful.’
Several days later Aala and her mother were in the town shopping when three young men stopped them in the street. They shouted at Aala. They asked her why she wasn’t wearing a veil and accused her of being un-Islamic, disrespectful.
When Ahmad returned home from work he found his wife comforting Aala in the kitchen.
‘What on earth has happened?’
Bahar explained, her anger increasing as she relayed the story.
‘I know these men,’ she said, ‘they are associates of Malik’s. How dare they. They are nothing but thugs. They need to be taught a lesson.’
Ahmad held his hands up in a calming gesture.
‘Just hold on let’s not overreact. I’ll speak to Malik and find out what this is all about.’
Ahmad visited Malik who claimed ignorance but said he would speak to the young men concerned. As Ahmad was leaving Malik asked:
‘Have you thought anymore about Khan’s offer to marry Aala? I think it would be a wise thing to do.’
An imam came to visit Ahmad. Ahmad didn’t know him but had heard of him. By all accounts he was a decent man so Ahmad entertained him. The imam, when suitably settled, began to talk about Khan, telling Ahmad what a blessing he was to the community and how respected he was.
‘I understand that Khan has offered to marry Aala?’
Ahmad confirmed that this had been the case.
The imam raised his hands, along with his eyebrows, in a show of bewilderment.
‘And you didn’t accept?’
‘Aala doesn’t want to, she’s too young.’
‘Aala doesn’t want to, she’s too young,’ the imam repeated, incredulously. ‘Aala doesn’t want to,’ he repeated again, shaking his head. ‘And how old is Aala, may I ask?’
‘Twenty-six,’ repeated the imam, ‘and she’s too young.’ Again, more head shaking.
The imam regaled Ahmad with the benefits Aala would obtain by marrying Khan, a man destined for great things in the political world. Ahmad listened, politely.
When the imam had left, Ahmad told Bahar what had been said. She was outraged.
‘Who do these people think they are? Why do they have to interfere? Did you tell him she will marry when the time is right, when we decide our daughter is ready and the man is suitable?’
‘Yes, yes,’ said Ahmad. He put his arm round his wife to placate her. Aala was their youngest daughter and Bahar was particularly protective of her. Ahmad reassured his wife. ‘It will be alright, they’ll come to terms with it, they’ll move on. There are plenty of other girls out there.’
‘But not as beautiful as Aala,’ said Bahar, indignantly.
The following week Aala’s younger brother, Karim, came home with a cut lip and a black eye. He had been accosted in the street by the same three men who had upset Aala. They had shouted at him about his sister and her disrespect by not wearing the veil and how she thought she was too good for Muslim men, how she was too westernised. When Karim argued back they had assaulted him.
Bahar was apoplectic and insisted they call the police. But Ahmad again managed to placate her and when she’d calmed sufficiently to discuss the matter rationally they decided that Ahmad would visit the imam to see if he could help.
The imam said he would see what he could do but advised against calling the police saying that this would only escalate things and it would reflect badly on the community.
‘There is enough anti-Muslim feeling as it is, why inflame things? And in any case these young men take no notice of the police. Why don’t you see Khan? Perhaps he can help. He knows these young men, they respect him.’
Ahmad visited Khan and asked if he could do anything to stop these assaults on his family. Khan expressed sympathy and said he would see what he could do.
‘But I’m afraid,’ he added, ‘that these young men are very passionate about these things and I have to say I have some sympathy with them. We are losing our way as a community. We are allowing our morals to be corroded, our culture to be subsumed. But I know these youngsters, and I think they respect me and the work I am doing for the community. I will see what I can do.’ He paused for a few seconds then added, ‘Perhaps if you were to reconsider my offer of marriage I could offer a greater protection to Aala and your family?’
Ahmad saw in Khan’s eyes the cold determination of a man used to getting what he wants.
Ahmad told Bahar what had happened.
‘So’, she said, ‘he is behind this, is that it? Those young thugs can terrorise who they wish and because he is a pillar of the community he can get away with it? Is that it?’
Ahmad tried to calm his wife but she brushed away his entreaties. So he left her and went into the garden to tend his plants and mull over the day’s events.
Bahar went about preparing the evening meal, her mind occupied with concern for her family’s welfare. As she filled a saucepan with water she watched her husband pottering about in the garden. She loved him dearly but at times she found him exasperating.
Ahmad returned to the kitchen about half an hour later. Bahar was laying the table. He watched her for several seconds before asking tentatively:
‘Do you think that perhaps we should ask Aala to wear a veil until this blows over?’
Bahar’s face twisted with contempt.
‘What are you saying, are you being serious? We give in to these thugs then what? Aala is a good Muslim girl. She wears the hijab, she is not Wahhabi she will not wear a niqab. She is beautiful, Allah made her so. I will not be cowed by thugs.’
Ahmad raised his hands submissively.
‘Okay, okay, it was just a thought.’ He went back into the garden.
Bahar watched him. Her exasperation had turned to anger.
Three days later the first attack took place. It happened in the centre of the town, in the market place, on a busy Saturday morning. One of the young men who had assaulted Aala’s brother had acid thrown in his face. The injuries were horrific. He was blinded in one eye and the skin on one side of his face had almost melted away. The attack had happened so quickly and the following commotion had been so chaotic that witnesses were unable to provide much useful information. It appeared that a woman wearing a burqa may have been responsible.
The following evening another member of the Muslim Watch was subjected to a similar attack when he answered the door of his home. There were no witnesses, the neighbours were alerted by the man’s screams. It was only later established, when the man was fit enough to communicate, that a woman dressed in a burqa was responsible. There was great local speculation as to the motive. It was rumoured that the men had raped a woman and it was a revenge attack.
The next morning leaflets were found displayed in two local mosques, fixed to lamp posts and strewn around local streets. The leaflet was headed in bold, black capital letters with the word ‘DIE’, an acronym explained, in smaller print, underneath: ‘Daughters of Islam are Equal’. The leaflet listed various points relating to the rights of Muslim women. Its tone was stark and uncompromising and highlighted the bullying activities of The Muslim Watch, its apparent patronage by Khan and the lack of condemnation by the imam which, it claimed, made him complicit. Finally, the leaflet advised that retaliation for such un-Islamic behaviour would continue until attitudes changed. The leaflet was further publicised when the local press treated its contents to a front page splash.
The imam was upset by the leaflet, it made him nervous. He discussed it with Khan who vowed that the perpetrators would be discovered and dealt with by himself if he got to them before the police did. Khan issued a statement condemning the leaflet which he said was a symptom of the general malaise corrupting the minds of some westernised Muslim women.
Two days later a third Muslim Watch member was subjected to an acid attack and another was hospitalised by an irate husband after he’d wrestled with the man’s burqa wearing wife, who he’d mistakenly believed was going to attack him. The woman had simply been reaching into her bag for a purse. There was an outcry when the husband was arrested for assault.
There was now a tension in the community. The victims, it was noted, were all members of the Muslim Watch and when it came to light that there had been previous complaints about its members, police were asked to explain why no action had been taken to address their behaviour. A police commander gave a bland statement advising that incidents were being collated and investigated and emphasised the need for the rich and diverse local community to work together in a calm and cohesive way. The activities of the group, which was now referred to by the media as ‘The Watch’, were put under a national spotlight and subject to fiery articles and debates between academics, feminists, clerics, atheists, politicians and celebrities.
Khan and the imam were courted for their views. The imam, a humble man, felt uncomfortable being under the spotlight. But Khan saw the opportunity for further advancement. Now on a national rather than a local stage he tempered his views but was dogged by quotes trawled up from previous local interviews where he’d felt it advantageous to project a hardened, traditionalist image. He told an interviewer that although it was fine to wear the hijab, more respect was shown by wearing the niqab. This view caused further media consternation.
Two days later, whilst getting into his car in an underground car park, Khan had acid thrown in his face. He had little information for the police. The last thing he’d seen was a woman wearing a burqa. It was the last thing he ever saw.
An elected politician targeted in this way attacked the very heart of democracy. What had been seen as a local problem now took on a more threatening perspective. The media initially acted with outrage, stoking public hostility. Mosques were attacked in different parts of the country. Attacks on Muslims increased. The media changed its strategy. The religious and political extremists whose views had been courted when the attacks first occurred were now dropped in favour of those with a moderate voice, and as the days went by and no further attacks were reported, community tensions slackened and the atmosphere eventually reverted to one of resentful tolerance.
On the day Khan was attacked Ahmad returned home intending to share the news with his wife and daughter. He found them in the kitchen, already discussing the event. They seemed in high spirits. He addressed them with mock concern.
‘If I didn’t know my wife and daughter so well I might be a little suspicious about your happiness and wonder whether you might have had some involvement in these unfortunate incidents.’
Aala and Bahar laughed conspiratorially.
‘Well,’ said Bahar, ‘these bullies have obviously upset the wrong people. Those who live by the sword, die by the sword. I have no sympathy for them, serves them all right.’
She turned to Aala.
‘In the old days young men were kept in their place by the elders, there was respect back then. It seems like women have to stand up for themselves now.’
As Bahar reminisced about the moral fibre of their ancestors Ahmad slipped out into the garden to examine his lawn. He wasn’t interested in his wife’s recollections, he’d heard them so many times before.
Bahar was unconcerned by her husband’s exit, it was Aala she wanted to address.
‘In the old days we had no government or police to protect us. Our families were all farmers. We had nothing, we were yoked to the land and lived from hand to mouth. But so did everybody and so it was important we helped and respected each other. If a man could not look after his family then he had no honour, no respect. We Pashtuns had our own code, the Pashtunwali, that was our traditional law. Honour was everything. That’s why you had blood feuds that could go on for generations.
‘It must have been awful,’ said Aala. ‘Was there no other way of dealing with conflicts?’
‘Oh yes there was the jirga, a council of elders who could try to solve any disputes. But in the end it came down to two things, tura and aql; the sword and reason. The elders would resort to reason, the young men to the sword. But if reason failed then honour was paramount and even the old would resort to the sword.’
‘It all sounds such a hard and dreary life. How on earth did you manage to come here?’
‘It was your grandfather that did it. He was a very respected man. He fought with the Mujahideen against the Russians. He was cunning like a fox. Your father fought with him for a while,’ Bahar added, more as an afterthought.
‘Daddy?’ said Aala, astonished. ‘Daddy was a warrior?’
The two women looked out of the window at the pot bellied man poking his foot into the lawn and they began to shake with laughter.
‘I don’t believe it,’ said Aala , as they recovered themselves.
‘It’s true,’ said Bahar. ‘He was a young man then and very different, very serious. Your grandfather managed to send him to England. We never found out how. He either borrowed or stole to do it and he made your father promise to settle here. He couldn’t see any future in Afghanistan. Your father was not happy, he wanted to stay and fight but he respected your grandfather’s wishes. And a good job too.’
Bahar stroked her daughter’s hair.
‘You could never have been a teacher in the old country.’
Ahmad gently kicked the head off a dandelion. He felt relieved. The problem with Aala appeared to have been solved. He didn’t like conflict, it wasn’t in his nature to be aggressive. As he picked up the severed head of the weed Ahmad noticed a tin of slug repellent that he’d left on the pathway the day before. He tutted at his carelessness, picked the tin up and carried it towards the shed.
Bahar stood by the kitchen window with her daughter and watched her husband as he wandered down to the bottom of the garden. She loved him and although he could be exasperating at times, and although she sometimes wished he had a little more fire in his belly, he was a good husband and father. Besides, her mother had told her long ago that she would never find everything in a man. All in all, she’d done well. Compared to their families back home they enjoyed an enviable lifestyle.
Ahmad entered the shed and put the slug repellent on a table. His little granddaughter was visiting next week, Allah forbid she got hold of it. He reached up and took a key from the top of a shelf. He unlocked a cupboard and put the tin in, leaving it safely nestled between a bottle of acid and his grandmother’s carefully folded burqa.