Imaginary Return

1984

It was night. The ninth night. The most silent, the most oppressive. Under the whiteness of snow, in the darkness of time, the edges of the earth were lost.
It was night. The ninth night.
The smuggler had said:

—On the ninth night, we’ll cross the border.

Secretly, silently, we approached the border. All fugitives, leaving the land of our birth. Each because of a person, a thing, a word . . .
It was night. The ninth night.
We reached a pass. The smuggler shouted:

—Stop! Look back!

Everyone stopped. Everyone looked back.

—This is the last glimpse of your land.

The land, under the whiteness of the snow, in the darkness of time, had become invisible.
Nothing but our footsteps.
Everyone wept. Then we ran for the border.

One of us had slowed. He stopped. He was a small man. He had no bags and had always walked more slowly, with greater difficulty, than the others.
The man sat at the foot of a boulder. I went to help him get back up and run for the border with the others. He said coolly:
—To go where?
—Across the border!
—What for?
—Why else did you come all this way?
—For words. I brought all my words with me in my flight, to carry them across the border.

Words? What words? I was thinking when the man responded to my distress.

—All the poetry that terror and oppression made pointless, I hid in the depths of my gaze. Just now, when the smuggler told us to look back—and we looked, and wept—the words left with my tears. They slipped onto the ground. They vanished in the snow. Without them, I’ll be a foreigner wherever I go, more foreign than the foreigners!

I went back to the place where the man had wept. His tears had melted the snow and muddied the soil. I took a fistful of mud and went back to the man, who gave me a bitter smile. He said:

—The words can no longer be separated from the soil.
He leaned  back against the boulder and made it clear he wanted to be left alone. But I remained in front of him, transfixed. The man was still smiling. His smile ate away at me. I was about to start running for the border when he said:

—My name is Atiq.
—Atiq! Are you my namesake or my twin?
—Neither one nor the other. You are merely my name.

I was afraid. I left him and began to run.
Across the border I found a stretch of land covered with snow, white as a sheet of paper.

Not a mark.

Not a word.

Its margins lost in the darkness of time.

2002

It was day. The eighty-first day.
The soil was still frozen. It cracked beneath our steps.

It was day. The eighty-first day since the Army of Shadows—the Talibans—had withdrawn from Kabul.
And every day, I went to the airport to welcome those returning to the country.
Every day, waiting for a person, a gaze, a word . . .

It was day. The eighty-first day, when he got off the plane. With an air of distress he stared at all the sad, unusual faces. I went to him:

—Welcome, brother.

A smile trembled on his lips. His curious gaze grew lost in the salt and pepper tufts of my thick beard, as though to place me. I relieved him of his bag.

—It’s very heavy !
—It’s photo equipment.
—Are you a journalist?
—No. Are you?
—I help travelers with their bags.

A little shuttle came to pick up travelers at the foot of the stairs and take them to the terminal. Everyone got on board. The driver had put on a song by Ahmad Zahir.

Come see, the rose garden is in bloom
Come see, my beloved has come


Mawlana’s poem and Ahmad Zahir’s voice wrenched a sob from the woman beside me.

The city shall rise up when the rumor spreads
That the madman has broken his chains once again


My traveler, sadder than ever, stared at the rusted remains of planes littering the land around the airport.

The shuttle stopped. We were getting off when my traveler stopped short at the door, captivated by something written on the windshield by the driver:

This too shall pass.

I read the phrase aloud. The traveler turned from the words and sought my gaze. I went on:

—Once upon a time there was a king. One day, he commanded an artist of his court to create a work that would make him happy when he was sad and sad when he was happy. The artist made a ring on which these words were inscribed:

This too shall pass.

We got off the shuttle.

Ever more perplexed, the traveler grew engrossed in my face in search of a clue. I went on:

—This motto accompanied us through twenty-three years of war. Our joys and sorrows alike it has abided.

We reached the airport police. The traveler took out his passport and handed it to the officer, who asked:

—Name?
—Atiq.
—Nationality?
— French.
He gave me a bitter smile. I whispered in his ear:

—My name is also Atiq.

A glimmer crossed his dismayed face. He was about to say something, but I beat him to it:

—No, you are neither my namesake nor my twin. You are merely my name, who went away to be lost on the other side of the border, on the margins of time.