by Sasha Kassam
Warning: This article contains content which may be disturbing to survivors of gun violence and/or sexual assault.
I broke my brain in Afghanistan. Though, I’ve come to think of the injury as something less like a fissure, and more like a hyperextension, much like that of my elbow. Similarly, once hyperextended, always prone to hyperextension; it’s a spigot turned, or a path forged. Unlike the misalignment of my elbow, though, which was sustained gradually through the repeated expulsion of force in the application of a flawed technique in the practice of martial arts, the misalignment of my brain came about with a singular, plangent blow in the moments leading up to my certain death.
I had been working for a Member of Parliament, Mr. H., when I met J., a young Afghan male, who also worked for Mr. H.. One evening, J. invited me to join him for dinner with an associate of Mr. H.’s. We went to a well-known Chinese restaurant, where we met up with Commander H., as well as three American men, and we all dined together (while the Commander’s entourage dined at a neighboring table). We ate and we drank, and then we made our way out into the street to head home.
Commander H. offered us a lift. I told J. that I would prefer to wait for our driver, but then just as J. was about to call him, he mentioned that the driver was probably already asleep and that he felt bad about having to wake him up. I shared his discomfiture, and so we climbed into one of the two S.U.V.s.
Sated and oblivious in my postprandial haze, I sat back, hypnotized by the passing night-time cityscape until the moment when, with a concomitant subtle intake of breath, I realized that the cityscape had morphed into a country-scape and that we were headed out of the city. I sobered up in an instant, my posture becoming rigid with legerity as my rollicksome haze gave way to a crisp, sparkly adience, or hyper-perceptive state of heightened alert. And we continued to drive along that deserted road into the pitch darkness in silence for another thirty minutes or so.
It was in the darkness and the silence that I decided that I would bend this reality into something of my own making through sheer force of will. I thought about how, as the hapless hosts of Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban had triggered their own demise through their steadfast cultural commitment to good hospitality, engendering an unwavering sense of obligation to their guest; I had already seen this legendary Afghan hospitality play itself out time and time again since I had been in Afghanistan. Then what wafted through my mind was a Nietzsche quote that reads something like, “Be as though you were in order to become.” I decided that I was going to be their guest for a few hours and that then I was going to go home. That was the deal. That was how it was going to go down. It struck me as imperative that I show no fear, inhabiting a host-guest dynamic and eschewing a villain-victim dynamic, thinking that if I did so, then I could elicit the desired response of having them (unwittingly) assume the role of hosts.
We had arrived at our destination. We clamored out of the two vehicles, and I noticed that the members of Commander H.’s entourage were now carrying AK-47s. In the moonlight, I could make out a barren moonscape of grayscale rocks and hills. We were led along a footpath into the darkness, with armed men approximately ten feet in front of us and behind us. At one point, J. leaned in toward me, and in an exasperated, hushed tone, said, “Why are you so calm? Don’t you know that this is your kidnapping?” “Yeah, I know. Just shut up and play along,” I responded.
They had led us into a kind of clubhouse, walled with windows, and perched alongside a lake reflecting as a vast glistening pool of blackness in the moonlight. While a few men tasked themselves with lighting gas lamps, hissing, sputtering, gurgling contraptions affixed to the nozzle of propane gas tanks, Commander H. sent off a few other men on an errand. We settled in off to one side of the room where there was an eclectic collection of armchairs and chairs nestled around a number of small, adjoining tables. I took a corner spot, with my back to the lake, and the Commander sat down across from me. He was burly and charismatic, appearing ample in his armchair; he was clothed in traditional Afghan garb, with a lightweight, scarf-like wrap twisted loosely around his head. J. sat to my left, and a few men joined us at the tables, while others were perched around the room willy-nilly, and were, in the dim lamplight, visible only as peering eyes attached to inchoate, crouching figures.
The men who had been sent off on an errand returned with a bounty of treats and savory snacks packaged in brightly-colored wrappers, and they laid out their loot across the adjoining tables. A non-descript clear-glass bottle was placed on one of the tables, as well, and then glasses appeared, and vodka was served. Two men had stationed themselves on either side of the room, and were lurching in the shadows, emptying the shells of cigarettes to roll reefer after reefer, methodically and endlessly, and then passing them toward the tables for consumption. The atmosphere was unexpectedly convivial as we settled in amidst the shimmering, dancing blues and reds of polypropylene wrappers reflecting festively in the warm, dim, flickering lamplight.
“I am Taliban. Commander,” Commander H. said, gesturing toward his chest. “But now I like Democracy.” Chuckling, he motioned toward my headscarf, and said, “You can take off your headscarf. This is Democracy.” I pulled back the headscarf from atop the crown of my head, allowing it to fall loosely behind my neck. He then went further, saying, “You can take off your coat. This is Democracy.” With a smile, I declined, saying, “No, thank you, this is good.”
We chatted and we roistered. I wanted to keep a clear head, but I also wanted to be deferential to my host, so I toked and I imbibed. “Where did you get this vodka?” I asked. “Chechnya,” he replied. We talked about Afghanistan, running the gamut of politics, history, geography, and culture. At one point, he leaned in close and looked into my eyes with a piercing gaze, and queried, “Aren’t you afraid?”
With the conviction of my safe return home rattling deep in my bones, I looked him straight in the eye, and said, “No, it’s really interesting to get to meet you and learn about the Taliban and Afghanistan.” He took a moment to absorb my response, and then remarked, “You are a brave girl.” He averted his gaze, and a subtle smile swept across his lips, and it was as though I could see him thinking to himself, “Is she stupid or is she crazy?”
“You have a good personality!” he exclaimed. The Commander then proceeded to explain that he would like very much to take me shopping the next day and that he could take me to the Safi Landmark Center, where I could pick out anything that I wanted.
The merry-making had been going on for over three hours when there was a natural lull in the conversation, at which point I decided to take a stab at a departure. “Ugh, I’m getting pretty tired. I’m ready to call it a night,” I announced. In a casual, yet unyielding tone, the Commander then said, “No, you will stay here.” “Oh, I really should be going; I have to be up early for work tomorrow,” I countered, with all of the nonchalance that I could muster up. The Commander then turned to J. and addressed him in their native language, prompting J. to spring up out of his chair and walk over to him; the Commander remained seated as J. stood to one side of his armchair, pleading with the Commander.
Commander H. seemed impervious to his pleas; the Commander’s eyes remained fixed on mine the whole time, and revealed desire, appetite and intention. I turned to J. and asked, “J., what’s going on?” He ignored me, and continued to plead with the Commander. A few moments later, I persisted, “J., J., what’s going on?” He was becoming increasingly unhinged and howled back at me, “Shut up! Just shut up!” This rape is impending, I thought. This is how it ends. Here. Like this. I’m going to be brutalized by these men and then killed and discarded. Maybe in the lake. Maybe in a pile of rocks.
And then it struck me that there was one last choice remaining to me, one final act of choice, as it were, a binary choice. What remained to me was the choice of being either gang-raped and killed, or straight-up killed. I choose straight-up killed, I thought, and I decided that I would get the Commander to shoot me dead. I was going to p*** this guy off. I was going to be as loud and obnoxious as possible and I wasn’t going to stop. He was going to have to shoot me to get me to shut the f*** up. I sure as h*** wasn’t going to be a sweet f***. Not happening. It’s not going to happen.
“Give your life to the fight,” said Bruce Lee; these words flooded my thoughts and suffused my consciousness. And then Volition left the building. I found myself rising to my feet; my mouth opened, and what was unleashed was blind rage. Unfettered, feral, visceral rage. I was growling and rumbling like a bear, thrusting an emphatic forefinger in the direction of Commander H.; I can remember saying, “You’re not going to do this to me. You’re taking me home,” but then beyond that, I have no cognitive memory of the endless concatenation of words that streamed and spilled free-form from my mouth. In those moments, it was as though, with a dizzying, percussive jolt, a portion of my sense of consciousness slipped out of the confines of its physical parameters, and I was simultaneously watching myself as though from outside of myself as I anticipated the sensation of bullets piercing my flesh; somehow, I anticipated being engulfed by a sensation that would be warm and soothing, like stepping into a steamy, hot bath.
As I stood fast, blindly raging, awaiting the spark of anger, impatience, or desire to assert dominion that would signal the end for me, I was scanning the Commander’s countenance voraciously, gripped in a trance of fixity of attention, as I dangled there, transfixed by the ebb and flow of every fleeting micro-expression, every shift and flicker of his eyes, and ripple, dimpling and pucker of the flesh on his face. He was no longer making eye contact with me, but was looking off into the distance to my right. And strangely enough, what I was reading was disappointment. “But we were having such a lovely evening. This isn’t fun now. She’s upset. I don’t like this,” he seemed to be thinking.
With the passage of time has come the realization that the sensation of consciousness-once-removed fomented by surrender to death has been etched into my cellular memory, forging a pathway, so to speak, for the recurring misalignment, or ready slipping and shifting of my brain. There I am, always surrendering to death …when death isn’t even on the menu. In some sense, I am always standing at the edge of the precipice, at the aperture of the abyss, poised to backflip into a warm, peaceful oblivion in response to any unforeseen stressor, or remote sense of danger or vulnerability, or shock to the system.Three or four minutes into my rage-stream, Commander H. then cocked his head, shifting his glance to his right to make eye contact with a young man crouching in the shadows; the Commander then raised his right hand in the air with an open palm facing me, and with an abrupt sweeping motion, gestured toward the door behind him with the back of his hand, directing the young man to take us home. Without a moment’s pause, I started walking toward the door, and I didn’t look back. We made our way back to Kabul in silence, accompanied by an armed guard. I arrived home and barricaded the door, and then prepared to move out at daybreak.
Otherwise, when I am not falling to my death with equanimity and abandon, my default response to such stressors is to be overcome with the full weight and impact of the emotions that I was numb to as I stood there awaiting the hail of machine gun fire; these emotions ripple through me and inhabit me, and will reach a fever pitch, bubbling up as though in search of an aqueduct. In this sense, I am often reliving and reenacting these moments, but with the difference in the reenactment being that there is the sinking sense that I have already used up my nine lives and that I won’t survive this one, that is, this subsequent fight-or-flight moment. Fear and panic wash over me. I am seizing up and gasping for an intake of air. Everything around me is spinning and dizzying and hazy. It is as though I am mired in a thick fog or suspended in a viscous soup. My legs are buckling beneath me, and I am crumpling like a marionette; I am shaking and shuddering, and rendered rudderless. In these moments, I shuffle my feet, looking to find and feel the earth beneath me, grounding myself, literally, by planting my feet firmly into the ground… I’m here. I’m safe now.
Bruce Lee, The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Ohara Publications: Santa Clarita, 1975.
Sasha Kassam (@SashaK1970) is an Education Professional (English Language and Democracy & Human Rights) with a background in philosophy; she has worked and/or studied in Canada, the U.S., Afghanistan, Burma/Myanmar, Indonesia, Japan, France, and Zaïre/DRC. She is currently in Canada and writing a book, “Prelude to a Thesis on Democracy-Building: Afghanistan Case Study.”