My new house in Pakistan was the nicest I had seen in Islamabad, nicer than anywhere I had ever lived during my resolutely middle-class life. Brick with white trim, it was an over-the-top knockoff of a colonial mansion, with a ridiculous five bedrooms, an even more ridiculous five bathrooms, a giant two-story living room with floor-to-ceiling windows, a view of the Margalla Hills, a roof deck, bunny planters, and a landlord who was a colonel. I figured I deserved it. To save the company money, for almost a year I had either slept at friends’ houses in Islamabad or rented a cheap room, while the company continued to pay for the bulk of my apartment in India. But after giving up my Delhi apartment the previous summer, my expenses had dropped to a dangerously low level. I didn’t want my increasingly cheap company to get used to it. I also wanted my own space again, and since Dave had no place to live in Islamabad anymore, as he was spending most of his time in Afghanistan, getting a house together made sense.
At least, that’s what I told myself. Moving in after only a few months of dating seemed crazy, especially considering his anger issues and my lack-of-support problems, but, hey, this was a crazy lifestyle. We were both mature. Somehow we could make it work. And we needed it, needed the anchor. The Italian restaurant where we had always gone for dates had just been blown up, the night after Tammy, Dave, several other friends, and I ate dinner there. Dave bought us a pool table. I bought us a wooden bar and stools. All the foreigners were creating their own havens, to stay out of the Pakistani madness. Our mantra had become like my misanthropic father’s: Outside bad, inside good.
My trusty driver Samad cleaned up the house, picked out new lighting fixtures, and supervised the painting of the walls, which the previous German tenants had desecrated with pink-and-rust triangles. He told me he wanted to be the gardener.
“I love this work, Kim.”
So I made him the gardener. I even let Samad move into the tiny maid’s room, with its own entrance, so he had a place to stay during the day and sleep if I made him work late. I gave him a piece of carpet, a DVD player, a spare TV. He brought in a mattress. I watched how Samad worked, how he was so meticulous, so trustworthy for a kid of twenty-two. I wanted to find a way to help him.
Samad did not own his own car. He took whatever car his company handed him—which meant that en route to Peshawar one morning, after making various clanking sounds, our car broke down. The engine appeared to be held together by duct tape and staples. I spent the next ninety minutes berating Samad for not checking the car, an experience that made me feel slightly dirty, like kicking a puppy. Samad needed a new car, one of his own. He needed it for our safety. So we cobbled together loans, from me and others and Samad’s helpful boss, to get him a sleek black 2008 Toyota Corolla. He started crying when he showed up at my house with it. He washed it about thirty times a day and cringed whenever I climbed inside holding a large cup of coffee.
So my new life was set: new house, new car, new live-in if longdistance boyfriend, and inevitably, new intrigue.
Samad soon drove me to a lunch date with a political officer at the Afghan embassy. I had known him for years, ever since he had run for parliamentary elections in Afghanistan in 2005 under the randomly drawn symbol of One Camel. (Unfortunately, his position on the ballot was right next to a man running as Three Camels, which led to much confusion and One Camel’s general depression.) One Camel had actually run a campaign in Afghanistan, and he had not been connected to any warlord, which meant his candidacy was doomed. So he landed here, at the Afghan embassy in Islamabad, where he had helped me get visas on short notice. Now One Camel wanted to go to lunch. In repayment for all his help, I said I’d take him and his female translator to the buffet at the Serena Hotel, the fanciest hotel in Islamabad. We ordered fresh orange juice, which tasted slightly rancid, and then picked up plates filled with various lukewarm curries. One Camel told me vague generalities about drugs and corruption across the border. He leaned forward and whispered, as did his translator. At the end of our lunch, we stood up to leave. He muttered something; I asked the translator what he said.
“ISI,” she said with a shrug.
“My spies,” One Camel said, smirking and nodding at three men sporting mustaches and wearing crisp cream-colored salwar kameezes at a table near the entrance to the restaurant.
“What do you mean?” I said.
“My spies. They follow me.”
I started laughing. “Seriously?”
“I go, they go.”
Sure enough, as soon as we walked out of the grand lobby of the Serena, the men stood up and walked out. Of course the ISI, Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency, would want to pay attention to an Afghan political officer, just like it paid attention to Indian diplomats and various journalists. The ISI was not like the CIA—not exactly. It expended most of its resources inside Pakistan, and its operatives were really, really obvious and occasionally too close with Islamic militants like the Taliban.
“Bye,” I told One Camel. “Good luck with your spies.”
Ever watchful for me, Samad pulled up in his fancy new car. I told him to stop at the Marriott Hotel so I could pick up my dry cleaning. I ran inside, handed over a fistful of rupees, grabbed my freshly cleaned Islamic gear, and walked outside. A man in a cream-colored salwar kameez stood outside Samad’s door, showing him something, bending over to talk to him. I hustled across the street. Samad said something. The man looked up, saw me, and walked away quickly.
“Who was that?” I asked.
“Problem, Kim. Man come up, say ISI, hand me ISI card. He say, ‘Who is boss?’ ”
“What did you say?”
“You know. I say, ‘I’m a small boy, no read, no understand, I don’t know she. My boss send to Serena to pick she up, I pick up. I don’t know she.’ ”
That was always Samad’s act, whenever the ISI asked about me. At least, that’s what Samad said he told the ISI. How could I know for sure? My gut trusted Samad, but I didn’t really understand the ins and outs, all the levels to this Pakistan fun house. Tammy said Samad seemed trustworthy, but given all the double games being played here, given how many times my gut had been wrong, how many times I had been played, how many times other friends had been played, I had no idea if Samad was telling the truth. Part of the reason I had hired Samad in the first place was that he didn’t work at the Serena or the Marriott—both of which were known for hiring staff members who made extra money by informing to the ISI. He also came recommended by a Pakistani journalist friend—but again, some Pakistani journalists played for the ISI team. The ISI was everywhere, in newspapers, TV, shopping malls, hotels, and most definitely lurking inside our cell phones.
A few months earlier I had tried to report on a suicide attack at an ISI office in Rawalpindi. But whenever we tried to talk to anyone, someone else showed up, telling us to leave, shoving us back, refusing to show any identification. The busybodies pulled people away mid-interview and threatened to arrest them—and us. When we left Rawalpindi, a car of spooks tailed us to Islamabad, until we made a few quick turns.
So on this afternoon, I looked at Samad.
“Let’s see if they follow us.”
We pulled out of the parking lot and drove in the direction of my house. A white car followed. Samad turned right. The car followed. Samad turned left. The car followed. These guys were hardly sophisticated. Being followed by the ISI in Pakistan felt like being chased by the Keystone Cops, like the Mad magazine cartoon Spy vs. Spy. I would like to say the song from Mission Impossible played in my head, but it was more like “Mahna Mahna” from The Muppet Show. It certainly didn’t feel serious. After one too many turns, I decided I had enough.
“Pull over,” I told Samad.
We stopped on the side of the road. The white car had no choice but to drive slowly past, the two men inside looking out the window at us. Clever. Samad waited and then dropped me at home.
The next morning he showed up, looking mopey. When I opened the door, he stood in his button-up shirt tucked into his hiked-up jeans, staring at the ground like he wished it would open up and swallow him.
“Last night, the ISI come to my home. Because of car, they know my home. They show up, ask about boss. They say they arrest me if I don’t tell them.”
“So you did, right?”
“So sorry, my sister, I did.”
“It’s OK, it’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”
It’s not like it mattered that much—I wasn’t doing anything wrong. Samad seemed like he felt bad. He seemed like he really considered me his sister. But how could I know for sure? The next Sunday, I needed him to drive me to a meeting. I called, once, twice, three times. But Samad didn’t pick up the phone. I started to panic. Could he have run away with the car, after I loaned him money? Could he betray me? I worried that I was being played. That night, Samad called.
“So sorry, Kim, I go to cousin brother’s home,” he said. “I forget phone.”
I soon flew to Afghanistan for some stories, putting the Pakistan spy intrigue and Samad aside for a while.
But after a few days, another intrigue knocked at the back of my mind. I wondered where Sean was. He was supposed to be back in London by Easter—it was May, long past Easter. I hadn’t heard from Sean in weeks. Farouq hadn’t heard from Sami. And no one had seen Sean since the week after I spoke to him—since he told me about his wacky plan to meet a top insurgent in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
“Oh, you know how Sean is. Disappears for weeks at a time,” a friend said. “Don’t worry.”
“Yeah. I don’t know, I’m worried.”
I called Tom, the British journalist and my former housemate at the Fun House.
“He’s probably fine,” Tom said. “But I haven’t heard from him. He was supposed to check in ten days ago.”
“Ten days ago?”
“I know. I’m going to Jalalabad tomorrow to try to talk to him and track down Sami’s family. I’m also in touch with his driver in Pakistan. But you know how he is, Kim. He’s probably fine.”
We hung up. The next night, I had a nightmare that Sean was kidnapped. I woke up convinced that he would be killed. I called Tom.
“It doesn’t look good,” said Tom, who had driven to the eastern city of Jalalabad near the Pakistan border with his fixer, Tahir, who besides Sami was the only Afghan fixer we knew with serious Taliban contacts. “The driver said he’d meet us. But then he turned off his old phone numbers. Tahir had to make a lot of phone calls but finally got a new number for the driver. He said he’d come up to Jalalabad from Peshawar to meet us. But then he switched off his phone.”
“That doesn’t sound good,” I said.
“No. Tahir is still trying. I’ll let you know.”
Days passed. I worked on a story about pornography and soap operas invading Kabul—something easy and light that I could focus on, although Farouq and I shared the uncomfortable task of looking at various DVDs we had bought, making sure they were porn and trying to see if Afghans were involved. Still, almost seven years since this notion of democracy was thrust into Afghanistan, many Afghans, especially the young ones, saw it as a veneer for “anything goes,” for sex, drugs, and booze, and music about sex, drugs, and booze. Freedom was just another word for losing yourself in excess. I tried to do stories on this culture clash whenever I could, seeing it as a way to write about how Afghans lived, not just how they died.
“This is really, really embarrassing,” Farouq said, popping a porn DVD out of my computer. “People are really sick.”
“I am aware,” I said, popping one that involved a watermelon into my DVD player.
Tom became more and more cryptic. Then, finally, he called.
“I wanted you to hear this from me,” he said. “But Sean has been kidnapped.”
I felt ill. As far as Tom had been able to figure out, Sean and Sami had been taken hostage in late March, immediately after crossing into Pakistan to meet their contact. Brilliant, as Sean would say.
Dave flew to Kabul on his way to another embed with NATO troops. He was unsympathetic to my fears about Sean, blaming him for being an idiot. As usual, Dave and I fought late at night, him yelling at me for some perceived slight. I curled up, facing the wall. He apologized, saying that he was under stress. But I stared at the paint. It was nothing I wanted to deal with at that moment, but I knew I would eventually have to face the truth. This would never be that fairy tale I thought I wanted, the dream of the overseas life, the family, the full-meal deal. I just couldn’t face it now. I didn’t want to be alone in Pakistan. With everything happening, I didn’t want to be alone at all.
I flew back to Islamabad for a few days before leaving on a trip to the States, where I planned to have minor surgery that would hopefully fix all my sinus and allergy problems. Sean was kidnapped, Dave was a war junkie, and, on nowhere the same level, I was facing a deviated-septum repair and the removal of a blueberry-sized polyp from my right nostril. I was in no mood for any more stress. I walked upstairs to the freezer, where I kept the booze. Procuring alcohol in Islamabad involved a bootlegger, a friend, or cumbersome red tape that meant you basically had to declare yourself a Christian alcoholic. I chose the friend option—one had earlier sold me about a dozen bottles, including syrupy concoctions like banana liqueur and Midori, a sweet, green, disgusting melon-flavored drink made from Japanese honeydews. Only fifteen-year-old girls would drink it. But in an Islamic country, I took whatever was offered, under the theory that at some point, at some time, life might become as desperate as me sitting beneath the pool table, swigging banana liqueur, bombs falling outside.
When I looked in my freezer, I noticed the gooey liquor bottles were missing. Dave would never drink those. The next morning, I asked the housekeeper. He immediately blamed Samad—almost predictable, as the two hated each other. Samad was a Punjabi, and as the driver, should have been relegated to the outside. The housekeeper was an Afghan-born Pashtun.
“Samad’s been sleeping in the main house,” the housekeeper volunteered.
“Yes,” he said. His eyes grew large. “Inside, on the floor, I found him one day.”
I grabbed my office manager, hired three months before.
“Has Samad been sleeping here?”
“Well … I don’t know about every night, but I know one morning when you were gone, I came inside and he was sleeping on the floor of the office,” she said.
“He brings girls here,” the housekeeper said. “He has parties. He plays with the balls upstairs.”
He must have meant the pool table.
“Is that true?” I asked the office manager. “He’s playing with the balls upstairs?”
I envisioned Samad having sex on the pool table. The office manager shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve seen him with a girl out near his room in the back.”
“What? Who? Why didn’t anyone tell me? Girls?”
The housekeeper shrugged. He appeared to be settling into his story. “You don’t want to hear anything bad about Samad. He was also having girls in your house. Maybe in your bed.”
I called Samad. “Where are you?”
“Five minutes, boss.”
He showed up in twenty. I practically dragged him inside. He denied everything—the booze, the girls. He said he had slept once on the floor of my office because he was worried about security.
I didn’t believe Samad, but I kind of shared the blame. He was only twenty-two, a poor kid who lived in a one-bedroom apartment with his mother, sister, and various other relatives. I had handed him the keys to a five-bedroom house that he knew would be empty. I had helped him buy a car. I had given him my bank card and my bank code—although I would later figure out that he had never taken any money. I had handed him temptation. What did I think was going to happen?
“Give me the house keys,” I said.
Samad looked at me, eyes brimming with tears, chin quivering. He handed me the keys.
“We’re hiring guards, so you don’t have to worry about the house. We need to get locks for the alcohol. You’re not allowed to bring women here. You’re not allowed to bring friends here. You’re not allowed to come inside anymore. You’re going to have to earn back my trust.”
Samad sulked as he drove me to an interview. I snapped at him, suspicious that he had been stealing money from me.
“You probably work for the ISI,” I said.
“No, Kim,” he said. “You are my sister. No ISI. I don’t do anything.”
“I don’t believe you.”
That silenced him. He stared straight ahead and drove. For days, we barely talked. Eventually Samad drove me to the airport, and I flew back to the States, where things would be even worse.