By MacKenzie R. Snead
India was not Afghanistan. This was something I learned with every physical sense. The taste of sweat and body odor force-fed itself into my mouth. The smells of spices and raw meat struck my nostrils. Smells I could handle, though. The worst smells a man could make had tickled my nose hairs before. Putridity was nothing. I remembered the rooms that smelled of piss, shit, and blood.
Mumbai was certainly not the desert. The city was hot enough, but the sea was too close. I missed the dry sands of the black sites, the isolating comfort of the Salt Pit. I wanted to return to a world where the sun was the greatest predator and the shelter of an isolated prison was the only way to escape. It had been peaceful there, a world in order. If the screaming ever became too irritating, all a man had to do was step out into the vast silence of the desert to let go of his claustrophobic feelings.
This city was too crowded, its people too friendly. It was their smiles that made me uneasy. Their sweetness made me distrust them all the more. It was not what I had expected from a country on the other side of the world. In Afghanistan, I’d become accustomed to the people retreating into their houses when they saw me. Here the streets were packed with vendors and people on foot, people in cars, on scooters, and none of them minded me.
I walked past all of them now. After two days in India, I was getting better at staying focused in the cacophony of her streets. I’d taken a rickshaw to the place I was now, but I soon realized I was lost. My feet slowed at an old man in a doorway.
“Do you know where Homi Modi Street is?” I asked the man. After a series of head motions that could have meant yes or no, I figured he couldn’t understand me. A melodic voice sounded somewhere above my head.
“It’s that way.”
I looked up to see a young woman in a sari leaning out of a window and pointing down the street. “Where that way?” I asked impatiently.
“Go to end of street and take left, you will see it, Uncle.”
I nodded my head and moved on. Everyone here called one another friend, or aunt or uncle if you were older than them. I was no one’s friend here.
When I finally came to Homi Modi I looked for house numbers, but there weren’t any, and the never-ending buildings could hardly be called houses. It was uncanny how every street in Mumbai could look exactly the same, and yet nothing was alike.
There was a child sitting on a railing. “Do you know where Umar Ajam lives?” I asked him. The boy stared at me like a cat on a step. “Umar Nasim Ajam. Does he live here?”
The boy turned and called something into the wide-open doorway. The only words I understood were “Mama” and Umar’s name. The boy’s mother came out and spoke a few words with her son before turning to me.
“You looking for Umar?” she said.
She called something down the street. A few doors over another woman emerged from a home and spoke some confused sounding words with the first woman. I had a feeling I was being directed to this second woman, so I approached her.
“What do you want with Umar?” she asked as I came closer.
“I’m afraid that’s between me and him,” I said.
The woman, whose face and tone had been questioning but pleasant enough before this remark, suddenly looked stern and suspicious. “It’s between me as well,” she said. “I’m his wife.”
I stopped at the bottom step, looking up at the woman Umar had so desperately wanted to return home to. “You’re Shayma?”
“Yes,” she said.
She was not what I’d imagined from Umar’s descriptions. Her face was too round for my liking and her skin worn. She was dressed in the hijab and other traditional garb of Muslim women, making it impossible for me to visualize her shape. She had a foreign beauty to her, though. That was all these Easterners had going for them: exoticism.
“It’s nice to meet you,” I said to her. “I’ve heard a lot of good things.”
“How do you know my husband?” she said distrustfully.
I didn’t say anything at first. I’d come all this way, found the home of the man I was seeking, and I still hadn’t thought up a good answer to that question. I’d imagined it being asked, it had been all I’d thought of during the plane rides here, but I still had no good reply.
“I’m … a friend from travels,” I said, hearing how bad it sounded as it slipped from my lips.
“Here he is,” called the first woman down the street. I turned to see a familiar but different man making his way toward us.
Umar was carrying packages of food and household supplies under his arms, walking with a hunch that must have developed in the past two years. Yet he walked with an ease and grace that I’d never witnessed in Afghanistan, a pace that belonged to a man living in comfort. I couldn’t see how anyone lived comfortably in this place.
He was halfway up the street when his eyes found me. He stopped, his grip on the packages loosening, his face unreadable. It still spooked me that I could not tell what he was thinking. He’d been the only man in that prison capable of hiding his thoughts from me.
“Hello, Umar,” I said, taking a step forward to help with the packages. Umar stepped back.
“Umar, who is this man?” said Shayma. Two children had joined her on the steps. Their boy and girl.
“I’ve only come to talk,” I said. “To catch up.”
“Shayma, take the children inside,” said Umar, his voice just as unreadable as his face.
“Who is he?” she asked again.
“Do as I say.” His tone was calm and gentle, but the weight of his words was apparent. Shayma quickly ushered her son and daughter back inside.
Umar approached me. “Go around to the back of the house. I’ll put my things inside and meet you there.”
“We’re not going to shake hands?” I said it like I was joking, but inside I wasn’t.
Umar walked past me, unsmiling, and disappeared into the house.
There were no backyards to the buildings, only a narrow alley with balding patches of grass and fences timidly dividing the lots. Umar’s family at least had some outdoor furniture.
I made myself as comfortable as I could in a chair and looked around at the scene. Umar came out the back of the house. “I’ve asked Shayma to make some tea. She’ll be out with it shortly.”
“Don’t know if I should have any,” I said as Umar sat on the chair opposite me. “Was told not to drink any unfiltered water here.”
Umar looked at me sharply. “You will not insult my wife’s hospitality. You’ll drink it.” The authority in his voice sent hot rage pulsing through me. I didn’t like him talking to me that way. I wanted to show him his place, beat him into submission. I looked at the scars on his arms, decided not to hurt him. Not here where he lived.
“Why are you here?” he asked, gazing up at the sky, his eyes not seeming to focus on anything.
“Like I said, I wanted to catch up.”
Umar sighed. “We do not catch up, and you do not travel all the way from Afghanistan just to chat. How did you get away from — ”
“I’m not working there,” I said, cutting him off.
Umar let his gaze fall back to me. “You left?”
“Yeah.” I shifted in my chair, looking down at my feet as I kicked up the loose earth. “As soon as I found out where you live. Then I came here … to find you.”
“How did you find me?” asked Umar.
“Connection of mine in the CIA got me a list of past suspects and their home addresses.”
Umar was silent for a moment. Then, “I should have known they’d keep information like that, even after I was proven innocent.”
“You’re never innocent once you’re suspected,” I said.
He didn’t say anything to that. He simply sat there, staring at me until I began to feel uncomfortable with the silence. It was a feeling I was familiar with.
After a while, I had to say something for the sake of filling the silence. “There was no point after you left.”
For a moment I thought Umar was going to continue staring at me, but then he said, “What do you mean.”
I leaned in, feeling the words begin to bubble out of me. “None of the others would talk to me like you did. I mean, none of the other suspects. You remember how we’d just talk for hours, half the time not even about what we were supposed to?” I paused. “Why the hell did we do that?”
Umar finally looked away, up at the clouds. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t want to talk about it, though. I don’t want to talk about anything having to do with that place.”
I almost laughed. “Then we’re going to have trouble finding anything to talk about.”
“Then don’t talk at all.”
I stiffened, hearing the authoritative tone in his voice. “Since when do you tell me what to do?” I said, but Umar said more.
“Since I became a free man again. Since you came and walked onto my street, onto my property, were welcomed by my family.”
“I’d hardly call it a welcome.”
“Did you think you would be greeted warmly here?” scoffed Umar. “Met with wide smiles and open arms?”
“Look, I didn’t come here for anything. I just came to talk.”
“Then talk!” he said, stretching out his arms. “Tell me what you came here to say.”
I opened my mouth to answer, but stopped. I couldn’t find the words, only breath.
Umar raised his eyebrows. “What is it you came to say?”
I closed my mouth and swallowed.
“What is it you want?” he asked.
I looked at the ground and scratched the back of my head, wiping the sweat from my neck.
“What do you — ”
“I just wanted to see you!” I half shouted. “Like I said, I couldn’t talk to the others the same. It was boring.”
Umar’s face turned to stone. “Oh, is that why you left? Because suddenly torturing people became dull?”
I was about to answer when a shattering echoed through the alley.
“You’re him?” said a horrified voice. We turned to see Shayma standing at the backdoor, a broken teapot scattered at her feet. She ignored it and stepped over it. “That’s who you are? You’re the man who’s done this to us?”
“Shayma,” said Umar, getting to his feet and holding out a hand as his wife advanced.
“No, I will not let you treat him like a guest, Umar,” she said, pushing the hand aside and standing over me. “Do you know what you did to him? To us? Do you realize what kind of a man you are?”
“Hey, I’m not the one who took him to Afghanistan — ”
Shayma leapt, pulling at my hair and anything else she could grab hold of, slapping me across the head and face. “You monster!” she shouted. “You sent back a man I hardly recognized, a man I thought was gone forever, a father my children thought had abandoned them. I’ve heard his stories. You beat him, broke his bones, suffocated him, made him bleed. Now I make you bleed.” And she would have, if I didn’t push her off and Umar didn’t grab her and lock his arms around her waist.
“That is enough, darling,” he half whispered. “He’s only come to talk.”
Shayma wriggled herself free. It was a wild, desperate motion. She faced her husband. “Is that what you’re going to do, Umar? Talk to this animal?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Is that what the two of you did in Afghanistan, just talk away like some gossiping housewives in that place, while he,” she pointed a finger at me, “tormented you within an inch of your life? Did you just give up, Umar?”
“No, he didn’t,” I said, not expecting the words. “He never gave up.” Shayma looked at me, her face unreadable, just like Umar’s.
She stepped toward me, Umar reaching for her arm. “If you came here to talk, it better be to apologize.” I could see tears welling in her red eyes like puddles in the desert. “For God’s sake, apologize.”
There was silence. I was still sitting in the chair, trying to speak. Movement in the house caused me to look and see the two children at the backdoor, their faces frightened.
My gaze fell to Shayma’s feet. “I don’t feel good about what I did.”
“Say it to him,” she said, stepping back.
I looked up into Umar’s face, that face I’d come to know so well back in 2012. That face I’d cut and beaten. What did I want to say to him? Not sorry. It hadn’t been my job to peg Umar as a terrorist. That hadn’t mattered to me. My job had been simply to interrogate him after he’d been selected. I wasn’t going to apologize for doing my job.
Umar looked down at me as I looked up at him. Neither of us said anything, and I felt that unspoken communication we’d shared since the beginning. I wondered if I’d come all this way only to feel that.
“You’ve already forgiven him, haven’t you?” said Shayma. “I see it in your eyes.” She began to cry then in sudden gasps. It looked like Umar was about to as well as he pulled her into an embrace and shushed her softly. I looked around the alley. An audience of onlookers had congregated at the doors and windows of the neighboring homes.
Shayma pulled away from her husband, seeming to notice her children. “I honestly don’t know whether to be mad at or proud of you, Umar.” She sniffed and wiped her tears, made her way to the boy and girl, taking them into the house, turning to give us one last look as they disappeared into the darkness of the doorway.
Minutes went by as Umar stood looking up at the sky, not speaking a word. I watched, not sure if he was waiting for the neighbors to disperse, or if he simply didn’t know what to say.
“I always noticed that about you,” I said, bringing his attention back to earth. “How you’d only look up.”
“What do you mean?”
I stood and joined this man I’d hurt so much. I looked up at the sky. It was dimming but colorful, with lined clouds running across like scars on skin. “Most of the guys we had in there, they’d only look down after a while. We’d have to pull their heads back just to look them in the face.” My eyes fell back to Umar. “Not you, though. We had your arms strung up and your legs knocked out, but still you managed to keep your head up. Didn’t think it was physically possible.”
Umar looked at me, his lips twitching strangely. “I just kept my head back.”
“But up,” I said. “You always looked up at the ceiling, and that’s how I knew we hadn’t broken you. The guys thought I was crazy for saying that. Suppose I got a little obsessed … but I always knew we’d never break you. I think I knew that the moment they brought you in.” I started to laugh a little.
“Is this all funny to you?” said Umar.
“No,” I said. “It’s just that every guy in that place eventually broke. I don’t mean they told us valid information or saw the error of their ways, but I talked to guys who were real threats, terrorists, and every one of them eventually pissed his pants and cried himself dry. They all shit like animals, they all hung their heads, except for you, and you were just some mistake. Some Muslim who wasn’t even from the Middle East, just there to visit your cousin or who the hell cares? Just a guy with almost the same name as a real suspect.” I shook my head. “Talk about wrong place at the wrong time.”
The two of us were not looking at the sky anymore. I thought about Afghanistan, the orchestra of screams and weeping that Umar’s voice had never joined in on. I missed it less now. My mind replayed everything I did to him: every beating, every waterboarding, every rectal feeding. The nights I would keep him awake without a second of sleep — the other nights I’d only let him sleep in a metal box the size of a freezer. This man, who had never been trained to stand torture, who was a tailor by profession, had endured all that and now stood on the property he owned himself.
“I have to tell you that I knew you had nothing from the start, Umar,” I said. “I don’t know why I kept doing it all to you. Whether it was to just try and break you, or if I was … ” I almost said looking for something, but I couldn’t get the words out of my throat.
The truth was I admired him. He had something I didn’t, something I maybe could never have, but I wanted it more than anything … Because every time I’d tormented him, interrogated him — every time he’d endured — the question of whether I could do the same had gone through my head … And I didn’t think I could have, but I wanted to know how.
We didn’t say anything more until the stars rose in the sky and the moon lit the alleyway.
“I’ve missed talking to you,” I said, shaking myself out of my thoughts. “But I think I should go.”
“You came all this way just to talk and leave?” he said.
“I’d stay if you let me, but I think your wife would murder me in my sleep.”
Umar looked at the house. “I think you might be right.”
I breathed deeply. “Well, I guess this is — ”
“Just tell me one thing.”
This time I didn’t feel hostile toward that tone of voice. “I’ve told you a lot.” I could see a light in the man’s eyes that was not on account of the stars. I’d always noticed it being there, even in the cell in Afghanistan.
“What is your name?”
For a moment, this was the hardest thing in the world to remember.
“Miles Loeb,” I said.
Umar nodded his head. “Thank you.”
I started to walk back the way I’d come around the house.
“Miles,” said his voice. I turned back to face him, and in that instant I saw a man half naked in the moonlight, ropes tied around his wrists, the stars burning in the blood of his cuts and galaxies spiraling in his bruises. He wasn’t looking at me. He was looking at the night sky. It would be the last time I saw him like that.
“I’m glad you left,” was all he said.