Hallow Meestar


Charce was just a pipe boy. He lived with an elder brother who had a stall in the money bazaar with an old iron safe full of strange currencies and a telephone that rang up the latest black market exchange rates, but his brother had made a bacha of him. He had him running errands, serving tea, filling the bowl of his father’s old water pipe and lighting it for him. At least the water pipe was his, his inheritance that he could do with as he pleased. Whenever he found time he would take up the pipe and his hookah tobacco, find the most crowded street in Kabul, and sit hunkering at the edge of the sidewalk, waiting. Every now and then one of the men passing by would hunker down beside him. For two afghani, Charce would provide the man with a lit pipeful of hookah, then wait for someone else to stop for a smoke. It was no trade for a young man of potential, but it was the only trade he knew.


At fifteen, he was already wise to the ways of the city. He had begun to hang around the hotels where the foreigners stayed—the young ones who wore their hair long like women. He soon learned that these foreigners weren’t interested in his pipe unless he crumbled some hashish in with the hookah. Then they would pay five or ten afs for a smoke. He liked the strange, joking manner of these young visitors. They were the ones who first called him Charce, the Afghan name for hash. His real name was Ghazi, but they never seemed to stay around long enough to find out.


One morning he woke up on the charpoy bed in front of his brother’s stall with a sure feeling that something good was going to happen. He felt the same certainty early every morning, but this day he knew he would not be disappointed. The air was thick with wood smoke from the sawdust stoves in which breakfast fires were burning. Charce shivered under the thin blanket he had wrapped around him and huddled up to the corrugated metal door of the stall, waiting for his brother to come unlock it. Then he could light a fire in the tiny stove to warm himself while he swept out the stall to get it ready for the business of the day. The money bazaar would come alive as more stalls opened and the usual crowd of enterprising young men began to congregate at the entrance to the compound. They had to stand where they could get first crack at the inexperienced customers, for their rates were generally exorbitant. Men like his brother, whose stalls were well inside the compound, had Sikh merchants, foreign importers and diplomats for customers; their customers brushed past the young hawkers and headed straight for the established stalls inside.


But this special morning business was slow, so his brother sent him out to meet the Peshawar bus. It was certain that someone on board would want to change money. Running down the stone sidewalk past the karakul merchants, Charce knew that somehow his destiny depended on meeting that bus. Throngs of vendors and beggars had already surrounded it, and their cries of “TOO-REESE, TOO-REESE!” rose up with the dust from their thumping bare feet. One toothless old woman, stretching out her hand at the bus windows, lifted up the veil of her chadri to reveal a monstrous goiter under her toothless chin. Charce worked his way into the crowd with his elbows. He’d already decided on which passenger his destiny would depend. The brightly embroidered shirt had first attracted his attention, but then he noticed how this foreigner’s hair was so light it appeared transparent where it hung over his shoulders. There was something extraordinary about the pale blue of his eyes, and his lips were purple against the pallor of his face. This “meestar” looked like none he had seen before. There could be no mistake: he had to be the one.


“HALLOW MEESTAR, MEESTAR WAN CHANCH MONEY?” he shouted, wriggling his way to the door of the bus where the thin white figure was about to descend. He grabbed for the meestar’s knapsack, to carry it for him, but the meestar tightened his grip on the straps and jerked it free. “Meestar wan chanch money?”


The meestar shook his head, slung the knapsack onto his back and was about to walk away when he suddenly seemed to reconsider. Bending down to shout over the crowd into the boy’s ear, he carefully pronounced the words “Noor Hotel?”


Charce nodded his head laughing, “Noor Hotel? Yes, Noor Hotel!” He grabbed the meestar’s wrist and bean tugging him away from the bus, but the meestar refused to budge. “Noor Hotel,” Charce repeated seriously, letting go of the wrist. “Come.”


As the meestar followed him through the rubble-strewn streets, Charce tried to decide how this encounter would fit into his new destiny. Perhaps this meestar was a rich man who would make him his servant and take him along on his world travels. Or he might hire him as a guide and reward him richly for a glimpse at the forbidden Street of Fornication. And then again, he might want him for a lover. Foreigners pay a high price for that, he had heard. He had even heard of a boy his age selling a kilo of hashish to a meestar for twenty-five dollars American. Dollars were worth much more on the market than afghanis, his brother had told him, and meestars always had plenty of them in their pockets.


The meestar glanced nervously around him, licking his lips and tossing his mane of white hair from side to side. The farther they walked from the bus station, the more agitated he grew, until finally he balked to a halt. “Noor Hotel?”


Bally, Noor Hotel, yes,” Charce insisted, pointing to the end of the street. There was a sign in both Farsi and English over the gate to the hotel, but Charce couldn’t read so he didn’t know. He just kept tugging the meestar’s sleeve in the right direction until the meestar relented. Noticing the sign, the meestar broke free and strode decidedly toward it, leaving the boy behind. Determined not to be outstripped, Charce struggled to keep up, bouncing off displaced pedestrians in the tall foreigner’s wake. Several times he nearly ended up in the open gutter, but tucking his shaved head lowered his center of gravity and he kept his footing.


He almost slipped through the hotel gate behind the meestar, but the security guard caught his arm. He would have jerked it out of its socket if Charce hadn’t been so adept at ducking and weaving. This maneuver had saved him from many beatings at the hands of his brother, but the guard managed to land a swift kick that landed the boy in the dust outside the gate. Charce scrambled to his feet and quickly disappeared into the crowd to avoid injury and possible arrest: he knew that these hotel security guards could be dangerous. He’d wait across the street for the meestar to reappear.


He’d be hungry after his trip, and Charce knew that the Khyber Restaurant would be just the place to take him. There were a million tea houses and street vendors that sold better rice and kabob for half the price of the Khyber’s cafeteria fare, but for some reason the meestars only trusted the food that came from the restaurant’s steel and glass cases. Lamb skewers plucked straight from a hand-fanned charcoal fire would be tastier and safer to eat than anything from the Khyber’s supposedly sterile kitchen. But try telling that to a seasoned World Traveller who’d made it this far on the road from London to Kathmandu without a single day lost to dysentery along the way. Besides, the Khyber was a famous meeting place for amateur smugglers hoping to score patties of hashish they convinced themselves could be successfully concealed from the customs agents and dope sniffing dogs waiting for them when they arrived back home. The temptation and profit margins were too great to resist.


Sure enough, after an hour the meestar was back at the gate to the Noor Hotel. Charce crossed the street and stood warily just beside the gate.


“Hallow? Meestar?” He whispered, keeping an eye out for the security guard. “Khyber Restaurant? Very nice, you come?”


The meestar was hesitant, but eventually the pipe boy’s persistence paid off. Seeing a familiar face in the crowd was somehow reassuring to him, and he followed Charce away from the hotel gate.


“How far?”


“No far.” Charce made another grab for the meestar’s wrist, but the meestar snatched his arm away. Clearly he was not about to be led through the streets by this urchin, so Charce kept walking, glancing behind him with every step to make sure that his destiny hadn’t abandoned him. “You come?”


The sidewalk was crowded and traffic was light, so Charce stepped out into the street. The meestar was reluctant, but there was clearly no other way to progress, so he followed. Taxis darted around potholes, saddle-bagged donkeys and horse-drawn carriages weaved in and out, and overloaded buses blared warnings. They found an opening and crossed the avenue to an equally crowded walkway on the other side. The restaurant was just in front of them, but barely visible through the crowd. Charce beckoned the meestar to follow him through a tangle of bicycles, then stood at attention beside the door.


“Khyber Restaurant, very nice. You like?”


The meestar ducked into the restaurant without a word. Charce hung back just out of view of the guard seated on a stool just inside the door. Even if the meestar had invited him, the boy knew better than to enter, but the meestar did not invite him.


“I wait.” Charce took up a position a few yards away and hunkered down on the sidewalk to wait. With his destiny hanging in the balance, he was not about to let this meestar slip away. He could try luring him into the green door bazaar with promises of great deals on a karakul cap or an embroidered sheepskin coat, but he couldn’t imagine that the meestar would even consider trying on anything so woolly. Gold and lapis lazuli jewelry for his mother or his sister? He didn’t seem the type. Besides, it was Thursday, the day the buses from the Russian embassy unloaded throngs of hard-bargaining Russian women and their children for an afternoon of shopping, and there was an unwritten rule that on Thursday the green door bazaar belonged to them. No, he would need to talk the meestar into taking a taxi somewhere cool, like Bagh-i-Balah, the little white tea house on a promontory overlooking the city. Yes, that would prove his value to this stranger, an unparalleled view of this exotic city that would remain in his memory into his old age. But how to convey the wonder in store with his few words of English?


The meestar was on the move. He had been talking excitedly with another world traveler in the restaurant. He wrote something down in his notebook and suddenly he was off. Charce sprang to his feet and had to shove a few loiterers out of his way to catch up.


“Meestar! Meestar,” he shouted breathlessly. “Green door bazaar? Very nice, you like?” His mind raced through all the possibilities he could think of for enticing the meestar to take a tour of the city with him. He knew a few taxi drivers who could do it, but none that could be trusted. They could go by bus, but busses were crowded and generally unreliable. If they went on foot he’d have more time to talk to the meestar, to learn about him, to show how their destinies could intersect. If only he could think of the words to keep the meestar with him.


He was losing him. The meestar stopped and was enveloped by the crowd in seconds. He scanned the walls around them for street signs or landmarks to no avail. He was about to double back to the restaurant when the boy found him again.


“Meestar! Meestar!” Charce greeted him with relief. “You come?”


The meestar nodded in reluctant capitulation and followed the boy into the shopping district. Women in long dark chadres that covered their heads down to their ankles herded children bearing bright plastic shopping baskets before them. Old men in gray beards with karakul caps sporting stylish suit jackets and striped pajama pants eyed them from the open doors of their shops, wondering which items from their stock they might entice them with. And in every shop a portrait of king Zahir Shah glared down from high on the wall keeping watch over their customers and their goods, making sure that everyone complied with the spirit and the letter of the law of the land. These portraits made Charce nervous, and he avoided the king’s gaze whenever possible, just as he avoided the police in the streets. Most Afghans agreed that no good could come of an encounter with the king or his authorities. They kept to themselves, their own clans and families.


Charce and the meestar passed by several shops until they came to the first with a green door. It actually had two doors, French doors with window panes, and the wooden frames were painted green. The Sikh merchant inside sat on a stool behind his display case, and he gestured them in as soon as he noticed them outside.


“Lapis, lapis lazuli, sheepskin coats, embroidery, finest quality.” He climbed off his stool and ushered the meestar inside. “Please, look. Take some tea with me.” He gestured toward a tray with tea glasses on gold-rimmed saucers and a silver sugar bowl with silver tongs. The merchant positioned himself between Charce and the meestar, gradually edging the boy out into the street.


“No, meestar, no good. Come, meestar. Come with me.”


The meestar broke free of the merchant and joined the boy in the street.


“No sheepskin coat, no lapis lazuli. Hashish! I want hashish.” The meestar showed Charce the address he had scribbled down in his notebook at the restaurant. “Take me to this place. I want to buy hashish.”


Charce stared bewildered at the numbers and letters the meestar thrust in front of him. He had to do something or he was sure to lose his opportunity, his meeting with destiny. Only one word the meestar said made any sense to him. He nodded his head.


“Hashish. Yes, hashish. You come…” He gestured for the meestar to follow him, his mind racing to come up with a good place for the meestar to score and yet keep Charce in the transaction. His uncle couldn’t be trusted, he’d be sure to tell his brother, and any taxi driver he knew was likely to drive off with the money and leave both of them in the dust. But there was always the tea house near the charcoal market. Sometimes truck drivers from Mazar-I-Sharif would stop there with a few patties to sell. He was sure he could work out a deal with himself as the middle man.


Charce led the way to the tea house, glancing over his shoulder from time to time to make sure the meestar was still with him. Once they got there, he would need some time to find a suitable seller and strike a bargain with him. Only then could he introduce the meestar or otherwise he might lose out on the deal. They made their way through narrow alleys and up a broad street choked with donkeys laden with firewood bundles and baskets of charcoal to a jumble of wooden chairs, tables and benches covered by a makeshift roof of tarps and corrugated metal. Smoke wafted out through the open-air walls from a cluster of charcoal braziers in the center of the structure mixed with the smell of roasting lamb kabobs and tea brewing inside. As they ducked to enter the structure, a friendly greeting rang out from one of the tables.


“Well, look who’s here!” A long-haired bearded figure got up from the table and embraced the meestar like a long lost friend. “What brings you to this out-of-the-way place? Looking for something to smoke?”


Charce left the meestar to catch up with his fellow world traveler and went looking for a likely seller. The truck drivers gathered around the charcoal burners in the center of the tea house, and he sized them up to decide which of them could be trusted with his new-found destiny.


The meestar gladly accepted the hash pipe from his friend. It was a chillum, a straight clay pipe with a large bowl full of hash and tobacco on one end and a stained wet rag wrapped around the stem on the other end. It took two hands to smoke a chillum: the fingers of one hand held the bowl upright in a gesture of supplication, and the other hand clasped across it to form an airtight tunnel around the rag-wrapped stem. The smoker pressed his lips around a hole formed between the thumb and forefinger of the second hand and sucked the acrid smoke deep into the bottom of his lungs. Even a veteran chillum smoker choked and coughed for minutes after each toke until he could regain control enough to wheeze, “Man, that’s some good shit!” The meestar was no exception.


“Here, have some tea,” the fellow traveler offered. The meestar sipped greedily from the clear tea glass oblivious to the too-hot tea searing his tongue and the glass burning his fingers.


“Where did you get that shit? I’m here to buy some.” The meestar sat back in his chair as Charce returned to the table with a tall man in tribal dress wearing the Nooristan hat that years later would come to be associated with the Afghan insurgents funded by the CIA to fight the Russian troops propping up an unpopular communist regime. The tall man rummaged in the pouch under his robe and produced a handful of black hashish patties each the size of a California sand dollar. The meestar took one, sniffed it, and asked “How much? Chandeh?”


The tall man held up ten fingers.


“Ten afghani?” The tall man shook his head no. “Ten dollars?” The tall man nodded. “For all?” The tall man shook his head again. “Ten dollars for one?” The meestar held up a single patty and the tall man nodded. “How much for all?” The meestar reached for the remaining patties in the tall man’s hand and the tall man backed away. He made a threatening gesture toward the dagger in his belt, and the meestar relented. Eventually they agreed on a price of $50 for the seven patties in the tall man’s possession.


“That’s actually a pretty good price. I wish he had more,” the fellow traveler mused.


Charce collected a finder’s fee of ten afs from the tall man, and he and the meestar left the tea house to return to the Noor Hotel. Charce was not convinced that his destiny had played out with only a ten af reward, but he still had faith that something big would come of this. As they passed through the green door bazaar again, a bus from the Russian Embassy disgorged a chattering group of Russian women and their children on a shopping spree. The group clumped together on the sidewalk, blocking the path for any passers by. They conversed in frantic Russian and moved together as one, paying no heed to any Afghans they encountered. A dark-haired woman with a clipboard took the lead and guided the group from shop to shop, waiting only momentarily for a member of the group to make her purchase, then moving everyone briskly on. Charce and the meestar crossed the street to avoid them, then rounded the corner toward the Khyber Restaurant.


In the busiest part of the street, a pickup was backing up, then going forward, trying to position itself for some unknown purpose. All of a sudden the driver and his passenger flung open the doors, leapt out, and started running down the street. A policeman noticed the abandoned vehicle with its motor running and stepped forward to investigate. Charce walked up to look in the pickup bed, but all he could see was a tarp tied down over a lumpy load. More curious pedestrians gathered around the pickup, including a father carrying his toddler daughter on his shoulders. Suddenly a blast of raging fire ripped open the pickup cab and bed, flinging pieces of the father and daughter into the air, blowing the policeman’s cap and most of his face onto a nearby wall, and hurling Charce’s limp body over the hood of a car. In the wake of the roaring blast an eerie silence fell over the street, and then the screams and shouts began as blood and body parts rained down on the crowd.


The meestar picked himself up from where he had been thrown, dusted himself off checking for injuries, and looked around for any patties of hash that had blown away from his pockets. One glance at Charce’s battered body convinced him that there was no hope of recovery. He stared into the boy’s face, picked up his contraband, and scurried away under the cover of the confusion to find his own way back to the Noor Hotel.