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Crossing borders

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Hamid Ismailov Hamid Ismailov | 16:08 UK time, Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Those of my readers who follow me on my BBC Twitter or Facebook accounts might know that I have been busy launching my book A Poet and Bin-Laden, about an Uzbek poet who ended his life among the Taliban.

As some people have remarked, the novel brings together many voices, strands and genres. In a way it's a cross-border narrative experiment, involving poetry, journalism and prose. So I have decided to give you a glimpse of it here with a small chapter about crossing borders - though not figurative, but real ones.

Do you know what it's like crossing the border between two states? Not borders like those between European countries, when you drive along in a car and suddenly find yourself in a different country, but the Tajik-Afghan border, which is guarded by Russian border guards. Where they shoot without warning, and not into the air, but to bring you down.

Buildings close to the Afghanistan - Tajikistan border

Close to the Afghanistan - Tajikistan border

I have been told of so many ways to cross, from bribing the border guards, especially those of Tajik nationality - the method that the "commanders" mostly used when they didn't cross by air in a state helicopter - to an armed skirmish, when a group of marksmen draws the border guards' fire and the spies take advantage of the shooting to crawl or swim across while the darkness is split by the bright tracery work of flying bullets.

But Yosir and his experienced partner Jafar made their way to Afghanistan entirely at their own risk. First they were taken as far as Tavildara, then they travelled on donkeys through gorges as far as the border zone, and early in the night they dressed warmly and set off into the mountains, which Jafar knew like the back of his own hand, a hand that had only four fingers, since the index finger had been shot off in one of the fire fights there. And although he always regarded the novices whom he had to get across to the other side as a burden, the process of crossing the border and exercising his professional skill gave him a measure of enjoyment and satisfaction that actually meant more to him than the hundred or two hundred dollars that he was paid for this operation. He usually trained his wards briefly, and after that relied on unquestioning obedience and blind imitation of what he did himself.

And indeed, what else could they do? They might be strong and healthy, but they were soft, and they pressed their clumsy bodies down hard into every tussock of grass, constantly expecting to be riddled with bullets, or to be swept away by the clear, icy water of a stream.

Now here he was, supposedly on his way to Afghanistan, but actually in search of his own death. And so, in the cold, thickening darkness of the night, while they waited for the most difficult time for the border guards, which is not around midnight, but in the small hours just before dawn, the motionless outline of his body jutted far out from the recess in the cliff, annoying Jafar and yet at the same time reassuring him. He had seen all kinds of "mujahedin": some quite shamelessly messed their pants, or broke out in such a sweat in the cold mountain night that the snow around them started to melt, threatening a landslip, while others tried to drag him back, promising twice as much money as he had been paid for the crossing. But this one just sat there as if he was frozen to the rock and didn't say a word ...

In the mountains time flows across the sky: the candle-end of the moon is suddenly exposed and slips through the wet cotton wool of a dirty cloud, and then the clouds themselves start to stir, and engulf the moon so that it barely visible: the sky is the only thing here that is occasionally restless and fidgety, if you don't count ordinary people, that is. People only rarely appear here at night, but those who do can notice how, at such rare moments, time leaps down to the earth - into the water that is suddenly lit up, into the ice that reflects the moon in a harsh glint, into the eyes gaping around in fright ...

There is every sort of animal in a man: a snake, creeping noiselessly towards a rustling river; a cat, gently stealing along after it; a muskrat, swimming with only its head exposed, but above all inside a man there is the man himself - fearful of every murmur of the earth and, above all, of another man who has sharpened a knife for him, or aimed a sniper's rifle at him. And yet there is a state in which you call this danger down on yourself: you stop and you wait. And at that moment you realise that the feeling of every danger is connected with a movement: the movement of a snake, a cat, a muskrat ...

And that was the way Yosir stood upright there on the bank of the Pyanja, like a ground squirrel readying himself to give a sudden whistle, but instead of getting a knife in the back or a bullet from behind, he was felled bodily by Jafar. Jafar hissed something as he did it, but no louder than the water streaming off his clothes, and he dragged the senseless Yosir across the rough, sharp earth ...



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