A CALL TO RISE
When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, to prop up the pro-communist government of Babrak Kamal, the American CIA launched the largest covert operation in history. Working through neighboring Pakistan’s Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) the CIA roused all Muslims to oppose Russian occupation. In response, 35,000 radicals from 40 countries took up arms in an Islamic jihad. Over the next 10 years, following President Reagan’s signing of the National Security Directive 166, the U.S. supplied weapons to the Mujahadeen at the rate of up to 65,000 tons per year, together with an unending stream of CIA and Pentagon specialists who helped train Afghan rebels and direct the war effort.
In 1989, after losing 15,000 Russian soldiers, the Soviet Union withdrew and Usama bin Laden became an international hero. In the aftermath, civil war erupted as the Taliban took over. But the U.S. persisted, benefiting in part from opium sales of 200 billion dollars a year generated by the Golden Crescent, plus the motivation for strategic oil reserves and the impetus provided by the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. In the wake of all this, however, it turns out the Islamic people were equally disenchanted with the presence of Americans infidels on their soil as they were with the Russians. Still, America pressed on. One wonders why?
William Blum’s article, “The Truth About the U.S. Bombing of Afghanistan” (The Ecologist 22 March 2002) summed it up best: “Following its bombing of Iraq, the US wound up with military bases in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar. Following its bombing of Yugoslavia, the US wound up with military bases in Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, Hungary, Bosnia and Croatia. Following its bombing of Afghanistan, Washington appears on course to wind up with military bases in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.” Now, with the invasion of Iraq, American military bases are now in Turkey and Iraq. “Thus does the empire grow.”
Ibrahim’s senses were reeling. The smell of cordite mingled with the layers of pine branches covering his bunker. It was a hot, dusty odor, like before a rain. The tunnel, through which he peered through the crude V-site of his father's Kalashnikov AK-47 assault rife, shimmered in the heat. He dragged up a bandolier of 7.62x39mm cartridges in 5-round clips and waited. His finger was on the trigger, his body tense for the next explosion.
Of the twenty Arab patriots who scattered in the shallow trenches above Jaji, Afghanistan, only four remained alive, the rest having been neutralized by 80mm rocket fire from two Russian Mi-24 helicopters. The Mujahedin called them the devil's chariots. One of them had cork-screwed through a spiral of smoke, the result of an American, heat-seeking Stinger missile that blasted through a side-facing engine port. When the other helicopter left, with its Klimov turbo shafts thundering up and away from their hideout, Ibrahim could only stare wide eyed, with no thought of reprieve. The thought of actually dying, however, had yet to cross his mind. At age twelve, it was an unlikely sentiment. Yet, behind him, were the clotted, ragged stumps of what had once been his father's legs. Only the thighs, the torso and one arm remained. The man’s head had vaporized like an exploding light bulb, showering Ibrahim with a mist of red pearls. The other man, the tall one they called “The Emir,” was unconscious.
Soon, Ibrahim knew, the Russian soldiers would come again, advancing under progressive fire from portable mortars, until every hill was blasted apart and every trench was a choking, powder filled grave.
* * *
At a time when the average life span of an Afghan male was only 45 years, Mia Mohammed Aga was getting old. His bushy eyebrows, like his long, square beard were shot with grey. As senior Afghan commander, now with the Taliban, he spoke softly to the one squatting opposite. The lush carpet they shared, of hand spun wools and natural dyes from Turkestan, bound them as if in an arena, defying the packed mud and rock all around them. The building, a hovel in the high mountain desert, was a hundred years old. The walls were 3 feet thick and the roof sagged on age-blackened beams. It was in the same compound as the headquarters building, in a training camp for Persian Arabs. It was called al Masadah, the Lion's Den.The Lion was Usama bin Laden, the man who listened.
Aga’s deep-set eyes twinkled.
“I saw it all,” he said. “You were knocked unconscious from the same blast that killed the boy’s father. Yet, there was not a mark on you. It was as if you were sleeping. As I watched, the boy picked up his father’s Kalashnikov, even while under fire from multiple-barreled rocket launchers. Then, when the last helicopter left, he proceeded to kill three Russian soldiers in succession as they charged your position. Truly, by the Grace of Allah, the boy saved your life.”
“Where is he now?” Usama asked.
“I placed him in the care of Aymal Fahim, the one without days.” There was a moment of silence, each man thinking ahead. “The revered one will make him well.”
“Is the boy wounded?”
Aga's eyes softened.
“Not on the outside. But he was in shock when we found him. He hasn't stopped shaking since the firefight ended. I am worried about him. He is so small, so brave, may Allah preserve him.”
Usama slowly nodded, the weight of war upon him. There were too many martyrs that day.
“He will be paid,” Aga added, encouragingly. The Mujahadeen were paid for each Russian soldier proven killed.
Usama smiled fleetingly, then uncurled his long frame as he stood up, dominating the other man.
“I will go to him now.”
* * *
The revered one, Aymal Fahim, a Pashtun tribesman who spoke both Pakhtu and Farsi, was something of a muezzin, a mystic. Five times a day he called the people to the mosque to perform salat, the prayer of Islam. And the people heeded him, during the call and after, for he was known to be a wise man. He could see things. Allah had gifted him.
Usama picked his way through a field of green flags, each marking the grave of a war victim. From a distance they fluttered like tall grass. In place of tombstones, there were a few piles of rocks. But, even in Afghanistan, there were not enough rocks to cover everyone. The muezzin was there, at the center of it all, hobbling through the shadows with his spiderwood stave. He leaned on it heavily, his ancient frame permanently twisted to one side.
“Peace and the blessings of Allah be upon you,” the old man opened. “I was expecting you. Please be seated.”
Usama pursed his lips, a half-smile tempting him. The fact that the muezzin had expected him was not surprising, nor was the sumptuous offering before him. A undersized tray of tin bore three Baghlawa, pastries made with thin, layered dough, crushed walnuts and rose water. Usama hunched into position and remained quiet while the wise man poured a miniature cup of scalding green tea. Only when the older man was seated and waiting did Usama say bismillah as he reached for the delicate offering.
“You come for the boy?” The muezzin inquired, softly.
Usama needn’t reply. He gazed steadily, noting the field of wrinkles on the tanned skin below the old man’s black turban. Over his shoulders and hanging down his back, Aymal wore an almost threadbare burnoose of old, brown cloth, homespun in another time.
“I claim this child,” Aymal said, simply.
Usama looked up, startled, but still said nothing. The muezzin already knew all that was to be known. Usama waited.
“Allah, may his name be praised, has sent him to us. As you have already seen, he is not an ordinary boy. His is the long path: the more painful path. The martyrs will go to glory without him. And he will serve us well.” The old man sipped tea noisily, three short sips at a time as prescribed. At length, the muezzin continued, something of a fever in his eyes: “He is the Claw of the Lion.”
Usama bolted back as if slapped, his olive complexion drained of color. He blinked furiously, his mouth slightly agape, teeth flashing, at a loss for words.
“It is written,” his host added, quietly.
Usama leaned forward again, even more intent than before. A prophecy was being fulfilled. He knew it.
“His new name is Ibrahim Mahmud al-Abbas. Treat him, my friend, even as a favored son, for he will write your name in history. More tea?”
The muezzin poured without being asked. The emphasis on “favored” was extraordinary, since all sons are equal under Islamic law.
All the while, Usama underwent a transformation from dignified respect to unfeigned awe. Finally, he stammered: “Does he know?”
The muezzin shook his head.
“He knows nothing. His brain is addled, may Allah preserve him. He suffers from shellshock and cannot stop shaking. Even in his sleep he continues to shake, crying out his father’s name, may he know the blessings of paradise. His suffering is the pain of ages, of countless feet marching into the abyss, of tyrants and saints. He suffers for us all, and will continue to do so until Allah, praise his name forever, redeems him.”
The tea was set aside now, Usama's alhamdulilah of final thanks being an inaudible whisper. He had not expected this. In a way it changed everything. In another sense it changed nothing. Insha Allah. It was the Will of God. So be it.
Ibrahim's cot was in near darkness. There was only one unglazed window, behind wooden slats known as rawasheen, the better to keep the heat out. Sleep had finally claimed him. Usama squatted down beside the low bed and studied the sleeping figure before him. The boy was not large for his age. His hands were small and finally tapered. The wonder was that he could even hold a Kalashnikov, so slim was he. Under his scrutiny, Usama easily admitted to the beauty of his new charge. Under his tutelage, Ibrahim would indeed be treated as a favoured son. First he would be sent to a medressas where it was safe. In Jeddah, perhaps, where Usama himself went to school. Certainly not in Kandahar, where Ibrahim was born and now orphaned, and where the fighting still raged. He would go under the care of the one who had claimed him, Aymal Fahim. The aged muezzin was Ibrahim’s family now. It was meant to be, and in a way it made sense: a prayer having been answered. Not one, but many. Usama looked up, seeing nothing, seeing everything, a sense of knowing upon him, of clarion calls, the trumpets of destiny blaring.