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NOVELS

THE WARLORD'S SON

The Warlord's Son
US paperback

Excerpt: Chapter One

The sun does not rise in Peshawar.

It seeps—an egg-white smear that brightens the eastern horizon behind a veil of smoke, exhaust and dust. The smoke rises from burning wood, cow patties and old tires, meager flames of commerce for kebab shops and bakers, metalsmiths and brick kilns. The worst of the exhaust sputters from buzzing blue swarms of motor rickshaws, three-wheeled terrors that careen between horse carts and overloaded buses.

But it was the dust that Najeeb Azam knew best. Like him, it had swirled down from the arid lands of the Khyber and never settled, prowling restlessly in the streets and bazaars as if awaiting a fresh breeze to carry it to some farther, better destination.

In the morning it coated his pillow, a faint powder flecked with soot. In the evening he wiped it from his face and coughed cinders into a handkerchief, never quite able to flush it from either pores or lungs. Wherever he traveled it went along for the ride, a parasite, a little gift from his adopted home. He was respectful of its mysterious cloaking powers, because things had a way of disappearing in Peshawar—people, ideas, entire political movements. They would be loud and noticeable one day, only to vanish without a trace the next, and with each new day someone or something else always seemed to have gone missing.

A Peshawar dawn nonetheless had its charms, and Najeeb liked to rise early to savor them. So, on a warm morning in mid-October he stood in the darkness of his small kitchen a half hour before sunrise, brewing tea while listening to Mansour's horse cart leaving for the bazaar. He knew without looking that the old man stood like a charioteer on a narrow wooden flatbed, reins in hand, pomegranates and tomatoes piled behind him, the baggy folds of his shalwar kameez flowing ghostlike in the pale light. The lonely clip-clop was soothing, yet also a sort of warning, like the ticking of a bomb. It was part of Peshawar's daily countdown to chaos. Soon enough the narrow streets would explode with vehicles, animals and people, beggars and merchants elbow to elbow as both cried out for rupees.

The loudspeaker of a nearby mosque crackled to life. Najeeb strolled to the living room, setting his teacup on a shelf and kneeling, lowering his forehead to the rug in prayer. This, too, was a ritual of tranquillity, yet it never seemed quite peaceful enough here.

In the tribal lands of his boyhood the muezzin's cry had been a solitary call, haunting and lovely. He used to pretend the message was for him alone, and to Najeeb there was still no grander expression of power than the words Allahu akbar, "God is great," when carried on a morning breeze across empty countryside. But in Peshawar there were more muezzins than he could count, and their calls became an unruly conversation—one voice trumping another in a war above the rooftops. Cats yowling over turf. Or perhaps Najeeb was turning into an infidel, a worldly backslider. A Kafir, as his father's Pashtun tribesmen would have said. Life never seemed half so holy now as it once had, and in a country where not only a man's calling but also his marriage was generally set in stone by age eighteen, Najeeb was still a work in progress at twenty-seven.

As a boy he'd roamed a wonderland of extremes, a rural princeling at play among bearded, turbaned men with rifles slung on their backs, all of whom owed their allegiance to his father. After breakfast he might sprint barefoot through the dew of waist-high poppies, dodging marauding boys from the village with slingshots round their necks. As the sun climbed higher he sought the refuge of high defiles to watch smuggler parades of camels and horses, teatime caravans swaying and clanking through the passes. Then, off to bed on the verandah of his father's hujera, the men's guest house, where he gazed up at stars so icy bright that it seemed they might pierce his skull. Pleasantly weary, he stretched out on a rope bed, eavesdropping on his father's guests and supplicants —smoky, piratical gatherings in the hujera's great room, with hubble-bubble hookahs and high-caliber bandoleers, lulling him to sleep with the streamside murmur of their mutter and growl, and the whine and hum of their radio, beaming news from the great beyond. Occasionally a burst of laughter or an angry shout shouldered into his dreams, but by morning there were only him and the muezzin beneath another clear sky.

Yet that world also had its special cloaking magic. It was a place where he learned quickly to conceal his thoughts and dreams, and from his earliest years Najeeb's elders taught him to hold in his emotions, sheathing them like a weapon.

At the age of eighteen he abruptly left that world behind, dispatched across the seas to a university in the United States. It was his father's idea, a vain stab at worldliness to impress a few haughty ministers in the government corridors of Islamabad. Najeeb went reluctantly, and for months he held himself sternly under wraps, bookish and brooding through a North Carolina winter amid airless dreams of home.

Then came the spring, and Najeeb emerged timidly from underground, sampling the bounty of bright new places that began to make home seem small, plain and crude. There were supermarkets as big as his village, libraries the size of canyons, lush trees alive with blossoms and songbirds. Then there were the women, practically naked compared to the ones he'd grown up with. They were a temptation, he knew, yet there was a holiness about them, too—as if heaven and hell had been rolled into one amazing creation of bare arms, exposed legs and lustrous heads of hair, their animated faces open to the world and all its possibilities. They soon became responsible for an altogether new kind of training in Najeeb's life. Tell us your feelings, they demanded. Share your thoughts. Having been exposed to Shakespeare in the same heady spring, Najeeb found himself torn in ways he had never anticipated. To feel or not to feel, that was the question.

And now, years after his homecoming, he was not only restless but trapped—banished from tribal lands by his father, barred from America by consular officials.

His father's action had followed a betrayal that Najeeb no longer cared to revisit. The consular ban was of a more recent vintage. The United States had decided the previous month that it no longer wanted his company, after his two worlds had collided in ways previously unimaginable in the burning skies of lower Manhattan.

So he soldiered on in Peshawar, feeling as if he'd snagged a little of himself in each place he'd departed. And as each morning's peace dissolved he often found himself brooding over what was missing, sometimes believing that he, too, was disappearing into the Peshawar haze, as indistinct as the horizon. In a country where most people defined themselves by family or faith, Najeeb found himself resorting to a more American approach, seeking identity from his various occupations. For the moment, then, he was a translator and guide, a painter of birds, an unemployed computer engineer, and, most recently, a journalist of sorts, reporting for a rambling English daily called the Frontier Report.

The Warlord's Son
UK paperback

The few people in Peshawar who knew Najeeb well could have added further labels—disowned son, enthusiastic fornicator, occasional imbiber of forbidden beverage, habitual consorter with foreigners—tireless seeker of any path, in other words, that might lead beyond Pakistan. And at this precarious moment in the city's history, when choosing sides was the order of the day, Najeeb remained dangerously neutral.

One thing no one ever called him was lazy, and today's schedule was particularly industrious. First on the agenda: a ride on his motor scooter to the humble offices of the Frontier Report, where, as always, there would be plenty to write about. His daily task was to fashion a digest of news briefs from the tribal hinterlands of the North-West Frontier Province. It always made for strange reading—rustic feuds and oddball robberies, villages convulsed over the tiniest of matters. Perhaps someday he would collect them in a volume of curios for his friends in the United States, a Pakistani gothic that would finally help them understand what made this place tick.

The most important business of the day was scheduled for late afternoon, when Najeeb would meet yet another foreign journalist who wanted to hire him for guiding and interpreting. A fixer, the job was called, and today's client was American.

With most of the journalists so far the routine had been pretty standard. They spent their first few days doing interviews in the streets, liking the lilt of the word "bazaar" in their copy and enjoying the way every merchant invited them inside for tea. Najeeb translated while fending off hordes of curious barefoot boys and legless beggars.

If there happened to be a demonstration that day, they covered it, taking care to stay upwind from the tear gas. Then came the obligatory visit to a madrassah, one of the religious schools that supplied the Taliban with so many foot soldiers. Black-haired boys kneeling in straight lines on scrubbed marble floors, heads bobbing as they recited the Koran. Then perhaps a chant or two of "Death to America," before collecting quotes from the resident Holy Scholar.

Najeeb and his clients always shared an awkward laugh in the taxi afterward, the reporter never quite sure where Najeeb stood on these matters, and Najeeb never eager to say, not when every cabbie was a potential informant.

Then, unless there was some new wave of refugees to badger, Najeeb would escort his client east, three hours down the bouncing highway to the calm green sterility of Islamabad, to seek out bureaucrats and diplomats who might grant travel papers for the Afghan border—because Afghanistan was the ultimate goal of every client, even if the border had been closed for weeks and would likely stay that way awhile longer.

If it ever opened, Najeeb would probably cross it as well. Not that he enjoyed gunfire. But at a pay rate of a hundred fifty dollars a day he couldn't afford to say no, because the one thing that might yet get him out of this place was cash.

Yet even as his supply of cash reached three thousand dollars and counting, the American embassy grew ever more remote. A hasty security cordon that had gone into place after September 11 had crept ever farther down the surrounding boulevards. Now, a mere five weeks later, you couldn't get within blocks of the place, and for the moment a visa was out of the question. Not only had most of the embassy staff left the country, but there was now a waiting list, a clerk told him by telephone. It might take weeks, even months. Meanwhile, reports filtered back from the United States of young Pakistani men disappearing into jails by the hundreds, gone without a word of explanation. So Najeeb bided his time and stacked his crisp fifties and hundreds, stockpiling ammunition for a battle that might never come.

Such was the drift of Najeeb's thinking that morning when, still on his knees, he was startled by a whisking sound from over by the door. Had he completed his prayers? He wasn't sure. The loudspeakers of the mosques were silent. A rickshaw whined past outside, scouting for the day's first fare. He checked his watch—still time for another cup of tea—but his eyes were drawn to a spinning white object on the floor tiles. It was an envelope, just coming to rest. Someone had shoved it beneath the door. He listened for departing footsteps, but there was only the clopping of another horse, so he rose stiffly and crossed the room, throwing open the door in expectation of discovering the crouching messenger, caught in the act.

But there was no one. Nothing. And the stairwell was silent. It was as if the envelope had fallen from the sky with the first shaft of sunlight. Shutting the door, he picked it up. Whoever had sealed the cream-colored envelope had done so without a single smudge, meaning he was either clean or careful.

Najeeb tore it open at the top and pulled out a folded sheet of paper of the same creamy complexion. There was no letterhead or official markings, only a handwritten message in black ink, neat and cramped, giving the impression of someone not accustomed to writing. At the top were the numbers "24:30," and the writing below was in Arabic. It was a passage from the Koran. With no one there to watch, Najeeb allowed himself an irreverent smile. No doubt he was about to receive a scolding from a neighbor, some lesson in morals from a well-meaning meddler.

"Enjoin believing men to turn their eyes away from temptation and to restrain their carnal desires," the first line said. "This will make their lives purer."

His smile widened. Someone must have seen Daliya exiting a few nights ago, and it probably wasn't the first time. The memory brightened his mood. Whereas he thought of himself as wispy and insubstantial, she was full and complicated, a soul worth clinging to. He continued reading.

"Enjoin believing women to turn their eyes away from temptation and to preserve their chastity; not to display their adornments."

Oh, but such adornments. If this writer only knew. Another set of numbers followed, 24:39, meaning the writer had skipped ahead. The next passage took his smile away.

"As for the unbelievers, their works are like a mirage in a desert. The thirsty traveler thinks it is water, but when he comes near he finds that it is nothing. He finds God there, who pays him back in full. Swift is God's reckoning."

Najeeb wondered angrily what sort of "reckoning" the writer had in mind. Did God's self-appointed scold also intend to be His avenger? He crumpled the page, then reconsidered, smoothing it out and reaching for a pen. This demanded a reply. He pulled his own copy of the Koran from between English editions of Philip Roth and Paul Auster, thumbing the pages. Where was that verse that had recently caught his eye? There. Just as he remembered. He'd be quoting it out of context, of course. In fact, he was likely misinterpreting it altogether, a thought that returned his smile with a gleam of mischief.

"2:79," he wrote. Then he scribbled in rusty Arabic: "Woe betide those that write the scriptures with their own hands and then declare: 'This is from God,' in order to gain some paltry end."

He stuffed the page into the messenger's own envelope and resealed it with tape, then wrote on the outside in Urdu, "A reply to this morning's visitor to apartment 12." After a second cup of tea he grabbed his satchel and the keys to his scooter, taking care to lock the door before rushing down the stairwell. He posted the envelope by the mailboxes at the entrance, wondering how long it would be before someone took the bait. For a moment he had misgivings—why stir the pot?—and his stomach rumbled, as queasy as if he'd just eaten too much chapal kebab. He'd have to remind Daliya to take more care in her comings and goings. The city grew more dangerous and irrational by the day.

"Meddlesome fanatics," Najeeb muttered on his way into the streets. "They'll be the death of us all."


© Dan Fesperman
Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.