Translated from Pashto by James Caron.
I remember that day as if it were yesterday. I had just started my eighth year at school. One day, after dinner was just finished and we were gathering up the tablecloth, my father gently said to my mother, “Why don’t you dress the boy in a clean new outfit?”
Of course, when she heard the words "clean new outfit," my mother was both joyful and confused. Looking at my father, she asked, happily, “Are you two going to a wedding or a special occasion or something?”
“No, I’m taking the boy to the photographer, I have to get a photo of him.”
My mother studied my father. Then, hesitantly, “Photo? For what ...?”
“Well, tomorrow I’m going to get him an ID card. Then the day after that, I’m enrolling him in school.”
My mother spun around to gaze at me, eyes sparkling. “Thanks and praise to the Lord, I have a son who will go to school!”
On that day I swelled with so much joy that no suit of clothes was big enough for me! Before this, I’d never actually seen a picture of anyone, except for the image of my king on our nation’s banknotes. So I was very proud at the thought of having my own picture taken, almost as if I could be the son of our nation’s king. I still haven’t forgotten a single detail of that day. So that my picture wouldn’t turn out half-composed or ugly, the photographer kept giving me instructions and recommendations on what I should and shouldn’t do:
“Lift up your eyes!”
“Look straight ahead!”
“Stop moving your eyes around!”
A moment after that last command, the photographer reached his hands up into the apron hanging around the camera’s wooden box and snapped four photos in quick succession.
When I saw my picture for the first time, I had a warm, joyful feeling. My father took two photos out of the four to make the identity card, and he gave the other two to me. I kept them with me like an amulet. In the morning, when I went to the mosque to practice my Qur’an reading, I showed the other boys my photo so proudly. Every one of my classmates gazed at the photo with their fingers to their mouths in wonder ... just like I had! But a bitter cloud came down over the face of the mullah of our mosque.
“Don’t bring these here ever again!”
I was wrecked. I started shaking, my mouth felt dry. The mullah would punish us for a minor mistake reading the Qur’an. This was far more serious. I expected him to shred the picture into pieces and give me a proper whacking. Somehow I dared to ask, “Are photographs a sin?”
The mullah’s angry face exploded instantly with a thunderous roar. “Yes, children! Each photograph demands a soul, and only living things have souls!”
“But my father says that if you want to get an identity card and go to school, you have to have a photo!”
“It may be true that these days, no document can be produced without a photograph. But a sin is a sin.”
Then, voice lowered, “It is because of this sin that I have not made an identity card for my son, and I will not be enrolling him in school like you.” And back to the rest of the boys, “Each man’s grave is purely his own, but don’t you ever bring photographs here.”
He turned to face me. “Go. Get out of here right now, and go store this photograph in your house.” Then he looked me up and down, and he said, “And from now on, come to God’s house only with the part of the Qur’an we are studying!”
So with this order from the mullah of the mosque, I jumped right up out of my seat. I ran home, and told my father the whole story. Well, my father burst out laughing immediately. “God preserve them, these mullahs! They’re just too simple! Apart from religion, they know nothing else of the rest of the world.”
Even though I was a small child, I understood from the way my father was talking that a photograph was no sin at all, and was definitely a necessary, even powerful, item in this world. How could it be otherwise, if the photograph of our king was printed on our banknotes?
In school, many of the pages in the first-, second-, and third-grade textbooks had loads and loads of pictures in them. But they were photos of the environment and nature, or of animals. Some pages had pictures of human beings too, but those pictures had no actual reality to them. They were just hand-drawn, imagined images. But then after the fourth grade, in addition to our lessons of reading and writing and math, we started having other subjects as well. Among them was history. In that book, not only did we find old tales retold, both sweet ones and bitter ones, but the pages of the book itself were densely illustrated with photographs and paintings of kings and national heroes.
Then when I got to sixth grade, we moved from the village to the city. In the city, the more I visited people’s houses, the more I noticed that lots of people didn’t just keep small photographs of themselves privately like I did. They would also hang photographs of themselves or close relatives like their father, or their brother, in large and small frames all over the walls of their homes. As I grew older, and found myself in places that were even further away from where I started, I became more familiar with the photographs of different types of people in different times and situations. Like the photographs of our national elders and leaders that hung above official festivals, or the photographs of great writers, singers, and sportsmen that appeared in the pages of newspapers and magazines. And I came to know how important they were.
As life somersaulted along, I became ever more conscious of the importance of photographs. Not only was my awareness attracted to the images of friends in their houses, or the photographs of kings and heroes and other famous public personalities that hung in other places, but I also used to continuously wonder that people would hang—in their houses and even in their own shops!—photographs of religious and political leaders from other countries.
And these connoisseurs of photographs, ones depicting famous leaders and public figures of other countries, didn’t just hang the pictures in their own homes and shops. They enjoyed reading and disseminating the thoughts of these figures as well, and they would read their books much more than the textbooks at school or in university. At times, fights would break out amongst them over the meaning of these photographs and books in which lots of skulls would be cracked and many collars torn. And then a time came when people would have to go before judges and tribunals over these photograph-fights and skull-bashings. And some people, just because of the stain, the sin, of some of these photographs, some people even went to the darkest corners of prison. And then, yet another time came. These photographs, foreign and local ones, of relatives and of outsiders, became a major source of anxiety; everyone’s hearts turned against this custom of snapping and hanging photographs, and the pleasure of taking photographs went out of fashion seemingly in a matter of days. If you’d go to anyone’s house, why, they’d sound just like our mullah.
“Photographs contain sin in them, and prayers are forbidden in any place where there are photographs!”
This type of thinking even eventually influenced our photographers. They turned away from their profession to a man, all at once, and locked up their shops for years and years to come.
But now, as you can see, all those years have come and gone, and a new day of photographs has dawned! There are thousands of photographs of all sizes hung high and low in every house, village, and city. Not only that, even the windows and windshields of the lorries and cars, large and small alike, are densely covered with photographs that change daily and then change again, and even the number of passengers who choose to ride in those vehicles, greater or smaller, are directly influenced by those photographs. As for me, I’ve now eaten through most of the years that I’ve got, and I don’t see a single black hair on my head or in my beard. But from time to time, even I stick and unstick and re-stick photographs of all different individuals in my car, and by the grace of these photographs, as it were, my business has never been better!
Like other drivers, I’m not following my heart when I choose these pictures. No, my choice is tied to my passengers. Whenever I am carrying passengers to and from the areas north of the city, the photograph that I stick on my windscreen and rear window is of a man who wears a big, round, flat woollen hat at a jaunty, crooked angle, one who inspires loads and loads of fanatical enemies and devotees alike. When I carry passengers to and from places south of the city, the photograph that I leave stuck to my windshield is of a man who has on a black turban, and a beard down to his chest. And when I have work in the city center, I reach into the glovebox and I pull out my photograph-sticker of the man with the shaved face and the necktie. Why do I do this? Here, each alleyway, neighbourhood, and villa has heroes and followers of its own, and we drivers must stick whichever photograph the residents of the area prefer on our vehicles. If we don’t, it’s hard for us to find passengers for our taxis. The destiny of our business is completely tied to these photographs. The photographs cast a shadow over every part of our lives.
These days, the market for photographs is hot, and not just in the capital. In the other cities, even in every village and hamlet, the walls are completely filled with the photographs and paintings of all kinds of heroes and other, normal people, living and dead. Just like me, the businesses and livelihoods of people in these other cities and villages are tied to all these different pictures and heroes.
Anyway, not long ago, I traded in my taxi for a van. And instead of the city, I took off for the provinces. But in the provinces I ran up against a problem in choosing my photograph-stickers: I just couldn’t calculate the relative weights and values of these different heroes. And because of this, an idea suddenly lodged itself in my mind: This time, why don’t I just stick a picture of my own father up there on the window and see what happens!
With that thought, I blew up a giant photograph of my father and I hung it in the rear windscreen.
I’ve been carrying passengers here and there for a couple days now. The first thing anyone does, before fixing their eyes on me or my vehicle, is to cast a look over that picture on the rear window, and then they begin haggling with me over the fare.
But just the other day, all of a sudden, something happened. I was flagged down by this man. He had a stubbly beard and a pakol, but he was also wearing a business suit. I stopped my van as soon as he waved at me. “Brother, can you take me in your bus?”
I shot back, with genuine happiness, “Why not?!”
He climbed right up without even asking about the fare or deciding on a price. And when I tried to work up the courage to bring up the issue, he cut me off and said with a smile, “Don’t worry about the money! Whatever your price is, I’ll give you more, not less.”
After that he started looking carefully at the photograph of my father. When he was done studying it he turned back to me and asked, “Say, whose photo is that?”
Perhaps if he had not asked this with a smile, I would have been afraid. But he did. So without any fear, or even any thought about it, I answered, “He’s my father.”
“Yes, my father.”
“What a radiant, beatific man!”
Again without thinking, I echoed what he said. “Yes, my father is no ordinary man!”
When I said that, he straightened up in his seat as if he’d had an electric shock. “Why, what sort of work does he do?”
“Well, these days he is a white-bearded old man and he stays at home. But in his day he was a great, famous man.”
I knew I was lying, but I kept my body language neutral so as not to let on to the man beside me that I was speaking such empty words. I just kept on describing my father in more and more inflated terms. These days I’m not ashamed of lying at all, you see; lying and exaggeration are just the fashion lately. If it weren’t the Age of Lies, after all, then the Coin of Truth would be worthless! Anyway, the passenger sitting next to me continued staring at me, all ears. He was getting more and more engrossed and seeming to fall for everything I said. “If he was such a great man in his day, then he must still command an exalted position among men even today.”
And so I got even more proud. “My father was a four-star general. And then after he retired, he was basically the unofficial head of all the families in our area.”
Hearing me praise my father like this, he got even more interested. “It is worth being proud of being the son of such a man! I am most pleased that I have had the honour of meeting you.”
Even though I had gotten to this point by lying, I still answered with false modesty, “Thank you; you are too kind.”
“Do you think I might be blessed with the honour of meeting him? I am always in search of heroes just like him.”
His speaking this way, and his request, made me start worrying. But despite myself, without even finding out what he did or who he was, I answered, “Any reason you shouldn’t ...?”
“Ah. I am sure this request of mine must have puzzled you! But really, we have need of elders such as this.”
After a second he elaborated, “Elders deserve much respect. May God never reduce their protective shade over our heads!”
I agreed with him. “Elders are the pillars holding up our society, no doubt about it.”
And with that he introduced himself, “Look. I am the officer responsible for forming the committees of a new party. In one week’s time, we are holding our party’s inaugural meeting. We are travelling everywhere we can, looking for members.”
I answered straight away with a laugh, “But my father’s a grey-bearded old man!”
“We need exactly that sort of greybeard! We are hoping that they will make up the elders’ committee for our party.”
I was staggered. “You want to make him a member of your central committee?”
“He could just serve in an honorary capacity.”
I had reached this point entirely through lies, and yet I had still not had my fill of praising my father. I kept the discussion heated as we travelled, and I made my father into a hero unlike any other. After a long journey I took my leave of the passenger, and also fixed a date on which he could meet him.
When I got back home, instead of telling the truth about all this to my father, I got him out of bed the next morning and took him into the city and I bought him the most fashionable suit, necktie, and shoes we could find. Of course my father was thoroughly confused. He was flabbergasted, in fact, at the unbelievable amounts of money we were spending so unexpectedly. He pulled me aside and asked, “Is everything alright here? You’re not about to take me out of the country or anything, are you?”
I couldn’t help laughing. “I’m taking you somewhere even better than a foreign country.”
He was so confused! “Where?”
“Well, in a few days, there’s this new political party forming.”
“Yes, a party.”
“You know, a long time ago I was in a party and once was enough. Why would you want to hang a heavy, dirty pumpkin of a burden like that onto this old white beard of mine now?!”
I started pleading, wringing my hands. “Come now, Father, it’s just for a day, and then it’ll all be over. You don’t even have to say anything, just sit in the appropriate place next to all the other elders. I praised you so highly; I said you were a big general and the leader of our tribe!”
My father was dumbstruck. He put his hand to his cheek in amazement at how idiotic this was. “What rubbish are you speaking?!”
“It’s not rubbish! The day after tomorrow, a motorcade is coming for you and it’ll take you straight there!”
The full insanity of my words and actions kept him from saying anything. He didn’t know how to answer me. Then his heart suddenly hardened and he said, “Don’t you make yourself a laughingstock, and don’t make me into one either.”
This time I said, powerless to stop myself, “Father, I know. They know it too. But this is the Age of Appearances and the one who wins is the one who is the most skilled in these matters!”
But my father was even more aware of the prevalent mood of the time than I was, and he answered me slowly, “But in an age when everyone is fooling everyone else, the real fool is the one who can change more than his appearance. He must change his essence as well.”
That is when I saw that to my father, at least, this was presenting a major ethical challenge; he took it seriously. So in order to satisfy him, I laughed, and I told him, “Look, Father, it’s all just meaningless. I don’t want to cause even a small dent in your conscience.”
And I’d worn my father down with all my impertinent badgering. He was vacillating. Finally he gave in to my pleading. “If you’re not going to leave me alone, then fine, I will do it. But this had better prove to be a joke, when all is said and done. I will change my external appearance for you, just for one day. But you listen to my words: I will not change my interior essence even for a king’s throne!”
I can’t even tell you what sort of effect that last sentence had on me. The righteousness and the pride of a father like this brought tears flowing to my eyes. I couldn’t help grabbing him and hugging him. I fell at his feet, and I kissed his hands over and over.
A few days later, that invitation actually bore fruit. I got a phone call saying that a delegation of party leaders was on its way to our house. I was flushed with happiness and went outside, waiting to greet our guests with my hand tapping on my chest. I left my father inside, in the big room of our house, resting majestically in his suit.
As the writer, I was the one to decide how to end it. There was no shortage of shows in those days. But the show which I put together with my magical plot and made my pure, simple father perform in was one of a kind. The ones capable of such stories in this age of mendacity were those who had both power and money.
Before I left home and welcomed the expected visitors, I went to see how my father was doing. I was not confident enough that my father would do this act wholeheartedly. He was doing this to please me, no matter how wrong he thought it was. I worried that not only would he refuse to go with them, he would scream at them and send them away. I saw him from a distance; he was pacing the room, talking to himself. I went up closer to him. He was pale, as if something dreadful was worrying him. He continued pacing the room until he saw me. He sat down on his chair and grumbled. He said, “When are these sons of dogs coming?”
I jolted on hearing this but pretended that I had not heard anything. I tried to make him relax by changing the subject.
“Wow, how nice you look in this suit and tie. You look younger than me.”
My comment stung him, his anger rose further.
“You fooled them and now you think you can fool me too?”
I was taken aback. “What’s the matter?” I asked.
“What’s not the matter?” he shouted. “I haven’t slept all night because this tie is like the rope of the gallows. I feel like a donkey under a saddle in this suit.”
I realised I’d put my father under immense pressure. But I couldn’t stop what was going to happen. The group could arrive at any minute.
I was worried, seeing my father’s soul suffering. I tried to calm him down with a fake smile.
“Dad, I love you. This is just a simple show, nothing serious.”
To my surprise, my father smiled.
“I’m not worried about your show. I’m disheartened that the world has come to this. I cannot bear this world and these people. I’d prefer to die than to live in such treacherous times.”
I felt as if I had been struck by lightning. I wanted to send people off by whatever means I could. I heard the noise of cars pulling up in our street and heading towards our house. I left my father, sad, worried, and smartly dressed, in the room and rushed outside. A long motorcade of cars pulled up in front of our house, and what seemed like crowds of people got out. They seemed so grateful to get just a glimpse of my father, not to mention being allowed to carry him straight off to the inaugural congress of their party. But the first man had not even reached me when a loud cry, a full-on sound of wailing, really, came from the house and filled the ears of everyone in the street. All of a sudden my little nephew came running out of the house and told me that my father’s heart had stopped; his soul had left him.
Even under the crushing weight of shock, I ran into the house and started shrieking in sorrow like the rest of my family. Thinking not of the man I’d invented, but the man he had been, and all he had done for me throughout my life. Thinking of that day, as an eight-year-old, when he had told me I would be going to school.
When the shock had subsided and I’d returned to my senses a little, I went back out to share the sorrowful news with the guests who had come. But of course by the time I got there, there were no guests, and there was no motorcade. There was something there, though. It filled the whole street: photographs of my father, some whole and some torn into pieces, piling up in front of all the houses, carried on the wind that whipped through the lane.