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The Book of Trouble
by Ann Marlowe
Harcourt, 2006

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I’d gone out of my way to avoid thinking of Amir sexually from the moment I met him, eight months before, in early June of 2002.

It was at a party, and I was reeling from my reentry to American life after my first trip to Afghanistan. Normally I love parties, but that night I found the effort to make small talk exhausting. I told the host that I was leaving, although it was barely midnight.

“Wait, you should meet Amir; he’s from Afghanistan. Meet Ann, she just got back from Mazar-i-Sharif last week.”

A powerfully built man with thick black hair, a hooked nose, and skin the same olive tone as mine was leaning against the kitchen counter that doubled as the bar. He looked to be in his late thirties, maybe older. His clothes couldn’t have been more ordinary, a blue striped Brooks Brothers shirt and blue blazer over chinos. There was something a little rumpled about him that reminded me of the prep school boys at Harvard who wore the same white shirt and blazer they’d had to wear in boarding school, but with a defiant déshabillé. You were to know they’d gone to an elite school but had become too cool for all that. That effect would have been completed with a battered pair of Top-Siders. But this man had light tan loafers of cheap-looking leather. Immigrant shoes, living-in-Queens shoes.

Amir’s slouch, though, was challenging, even arrogant, in a familiar American way. It was nothing like the body language of the men I’d met in Afghanistan a couple of weeks before. They had confounded my expectations of stereotypical mountain warriors, proverbial “fierce Afghans”; they were quieter and gentler than Americans, their voices softer, their way of holding themselves dignified but never aggressive.

From the start, I responded to Amir differently than I would have to a Western man. I’d taken the warnings of my friends with more experience in Afghanistan to heart: no body language that could be construed as flirtation, and never offer more physical contact than shaking a man’s hand on greeting and leave-taking.

So I said hello to Amir stiffly in Dari: Sh’ma khub asteed?

Amir broke into a smile. Lots of Americans had been going to Afghanistan lately—it was all too fashionable—but few bothered to learn Afghan Persian, or Dari.

Judging my abilities correctly—I’d only been studying for a month—he answered in English, I’m fine, how are you?

There might have been a note of mild parody in his reply. I laughed, and he continued, What were you doing in Mazar?

A friend of mine is friends with General Dostum from the early nineties. After the Taliban fell, he wanted to go back, and he took me and another American woman with him.

Dostum is a controversial figure, the unelected ruler of a good chunk of northern Afghanistan. American newspapers call him a warlord, but his forces were key in defeating the ­Taliban; and he supports women’s education and voting rights.

Amir’s warm brown eyes narrowed. He should be tried as a war criminal, he said.

I remembered my dinners at Dostum’s table and how his obsidian eyes had gradually opened as he grew comfortable with my presence one night. I watched as an Afghan woman argued fiercely with him and was amazed at his patience. I would never have been the guest of a politician I thought was a war criminal, though I knew that Dostum, like the late Ahmed Shah Massoud, bore some responsibility for the destruction of Kabul in the early nineties.

That’s ridiculous. No politician’s hands in Afghanistan are clean, but . . .

And I argued with Amir. Soon I heard myself getting too heated. Afghanistan was not my country, and it was Amir’s. I am known for not backing down from a disagreement, but this time I decided to avoid a full-on confrontation. I told Amir I had to leave.

And then I did something else I rarely did with a man. I asked for Amir’s card. I did it because I wasn’t attracted to him, because my interest was purely in the Afghan connection, or so I would have said. Anything or anyone having to do with Afghanistan was fascinating to me in the full flush of my infatuation with the country.

I read the name of the consulting firm on the card. I know your firm! I worked at your main competition twenty years ago. (What a hell job that had been.) Do you like it?

I’m an engineer. (Maybe that explained the shoes.) They have me doing pretty specialized assignments. It’s fine, I don’t have to travel that much. Are you still in consulting?

I’m a writer. I’ve published a book, and I write book reviews, pieces on politics. I did a New York Post op-ed about my trip. But I make my living in business. I’m a headhunter for tax and pension lawyers—it’s an odd little niche. Listen, I’d like to talk more, but I’m still jet-lagged. It was nice to meet you, Amir.

The next day, I carefully entered Amir’s information in my computer so I could get in touch with him before my next trip to Afghanistan. I didn’t like his politics, but even so I had fun talking with him. Maybe it was that I’ve never met an Afghan who spoke such good English or seemed so westernized. Even the returned Afghan American exiles I’d met in Afghanistan had more rough edges—endearing rough edges to be sure, but qualities in their speech and dress and manner that made me think they’d be out of place in my social life. No matter how aristocratic their families were in Afghanistan, in America they registered as immigranty.

Four months later, in October, I arranged to go back to Afghan­istan for four weekes. This time I was going to teach English at the university and buy supplies for some of the pitiful primary schools I visited the first time around. I also wanted to broaden my exposure beyond Dostum’s circle and region. So I e-mailed Amir and invited him to talk about Afghanistan over coffee; I promised not to become too vehement. His response was eager and friendly—maybe he’d forgotten our spat. Something made me suggest that he come to my house for a coffee, but I picked a day when my housekeeper would be there. From my experience in Afghanistan, I figured that Amir might be uncomfortable being alone with a woman, or assume that I meant to se­duce him. I dressed conservatively and didn’t offer him ­alcohol.

Sitting on my living-room couch and sipping the water he’d asked for, Amir told me about himself. His family were well-connected Pashtun landowners from the mixed Pashtun and Tajik area near Herat. That made Amir the first Pashtun I’d met; the region I’d visited around Mazar was largely Uzbek. In the news coverage of the war against the Taliban I was taken with the beauty of the bearded Pashtun tribesmen, but I also absorbed some of the liberal AAmerican prejudice against this ethnic group, who’d provided the power base for the Taliban. They had a reputation as socially conservative, headstrong, and warlike. They were towelheads who toted guns and oppressed their women. Yet Amir had gone to Princeton, I learned, and seemed the soul of reason.

Anger crept into his voice only when he talked about how he’d been trying to return to Afghanistan ever since the fall of the Taliban.

I keep waiting and waiting for my green card. I’d like to go for a long trip. Maybe I’ll work for the government. They can use American-trained engineers. I haven’t been back since we fled to Pakistan in 1982, when I was fourteen.

So you’re thirty-four? I tried to keep the surprise from my voice. He looked years older, and I liked that. He had some character to his face. At my age I was unable to see anything but generic youth in many thirty-four-year-old faces.

"Yeah, I’m old to be an associate. I went to grad school for a year in Houston, then I started a company with one of my cousins there, but it didn’t go very well. Dot-com. I thought I was going to be a millionaire, but we got caught in the dot-com bust. After that, I took the first good job I was offered in New York and moved to Brooklyn. I was lucky to get hired before 9/11.

I looked at the clock and realized I had to leave for a friend’s reading. Somehow an hour and a half had gone by, and we’d never even talked politics. We’d have to do something about that. But when Amir returned a few days later (this time without the housekeeper present), we never got to politics. In fact, after he left I couldn’t remember much of what we talked about at all—only a sense of pleasure.

Excerpted from The Book of Trouble by Ann Marlowe. Copyright © 2006 by Ann Marlowe. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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