Boxing Through Trauma During the Afghan Civil War
“The doctor said I had seen too many bad things”
My father, my older sister Leena, and I, after waiting in the hallway for several hours, heard a shrill cry. The midwife opened the door. Her face was drenched in perspiration and her hands were stained with blood.
“How is my wife?” Father asked.
“She is fine.”
“A boy or a girl?”
“A healthy boy.”
He crouched, opened his arms, and enfolded Leena and me. “We’ll call your brother Ansar,” he said. The color returned to his face.
Leena and I broke free and jumped up and down, shouting, “Ansar! Ansar! Ansar!”
“Shhh! You will scare your brother,” Father said.
We tried to be a little quieter, but not too hard. Father smiled and folded his arms, watching us. That was the last thing before the sound, Father folding his arms. Then the boom. Glass broke all around us and the frame of the house shook. He ran, pushing open the door to mother’s room, and Leena and I rushed in after him. Through the thick dust, we could hardly see her.The smell of cordite was very strong, pieces of glass lay scattered across everything. on the mattress on the floor, the midwife was sheltering mother and the baby.They looked pale and horror-stricken.
Father shouted to her.Was she all right?
She gripped her blanket and nodded as she clasped Ansar tightly to her.
Father went forward and took him from her arms. The baby was wrapped in a white cloth. His eyes were closed and his face pinched as if he was crying. None of us could hear him, though, over the ringing in our ears.
A week later, half-asleep in my bed, I felt that someone was choking me and I couldn’t breathe. My muscles stiffened like a piece of dry wood .Then my entire body shook and I had no control over it. Saliva dribbled from my mouth and ran down my neck. I saw flashing lights and then darkness. Suddenly it all stopped and was normal again, except that a numbness overcame my muscles, my skin burned, and I began sweating profusely.The episode had probably lasted for only a minute, but it felt much longer. I opened my eyes for a few seconds and saw my parents and Leena looking down at me, panic in their faces. I could hear their echoing voices, “Qais, Qais, Qais . . .” but I could not answer them.
“Qais! Son! Can you hear me?” Father’s voice was louder than mother’s and Leena’s.
Mother wiped my neck with a piece of cloth. I could feel her lips on my forehead and cheeks. “Rub his feet,” she said.
I opened my eyes again; this time I could hear everyone more clearly. I very much wanted to say, “Yes, I can hear you all,” but I couldn’t form the words. Tired and confused, I let my eyes fall closed again. I wanted to be left alone to sleep.
“I think he’s had a seizure,” Father said.
“What kind of seizure?” mother asked.
“I don’t know.”
“What’s a seizure, Father?” Leena asked.
“He seems to be breathing normally now,” mother said.
I was as confused as they were. Their voices faded as I drifted off.
The chk chk chk sounds of sparrows woke me. Their nest was outside the window above my bed. Some chicks had emerged from their shells four days before—their chirps were twice as loud now that we no longer had glass in our windows. I could also hear Father in the courtyard, pummeling the punching bag that hung from the acacia tree. I wondered why he had not woken me up, as he usually did, in time to exercise with him. I pulled off the blanket to get up. mother was sitting next to my bed with her right hand tucked under her cheek. She snored softly. I wondered why she was there and not in her room getting ready to go to her job at the Pashtanee Bank. She had a fancy office there. Sometimes we visited her for lunch. Then I remembered that she had stopped going to the bank since Ansar was born and that that rocket had landed in front of our house.
“Mother, why didn’t Father wake me?”
She opened her eyes quickly. There was an imprint of her hand on her face. “Do you remember what happened last night?” she asked.
I thought for a moment as I rubbed my eyes.
Father came into the room with his red boxing gloves on. He was sweating. “How is my champion boxer son?”
“Yesterday, what did you do after lunch until dinner?” Mother asked me. “Tell me everything in detail.”
“I did my homework with Leena while you were taking a nap,” I said. “Then I went to the other side of the courtyard. Wakeel and I climbed the mulberry tree and ate a lot of berries. Our faces and arms were completely covered with stains. When we showered under the tap in the garden, the water was very cold. Then we helped Grandfather pick apples. Wakeel and I took them to the new faction at the corner, the Hizb-e-Wahdat. They said Grandfather was a great man. Then we all had dinner here in my room and watched TV until I fell asleep in mother’s lap.”
“He remembers everything,” Father said to mother.“The seizure didn’t affect his brain.”
I did not know what my parents were talking about. Father had taught us to not interfere when he spoke with mother. They both looked at me.
“What time is it?” I asked Mother.
“It is time to brush your teeth and dress for school,” she said.“Get up. Breakfast will be ready in ten minutes.”
“Is Leena in the bathroom?” I asked.
“She’s already dressed,” mother said. “She is arranging your books and putting them in your school bag. What do you want for breakfast?”
“Can I just have jam and naan, but no milk?”
“Yes, you can.”
I was puzzled by everyone’s behavior. Leena was arranging my books? I could have jam and bread with no milk? Father did not ask me to polish my school shoes? What was going on? But I did not dwell on it as I ran cheerfully to the bathroom. Ten minutes later, as I was biting into a piece of warm naan, everything came back to me. “I remember what happened to me last night.”
My parents and Leena stopped eating. We were having breakfast around a white cloth on the floor. Father was dressed in his black suit, ready to go teach. He reached over and shut off the radio on the windowsill, something he had not done since the Mujahideen had taken over Afghanistan six months earlier. The BBC World Service was as important to him as eating hardboiled eggs with fruit and milk after a good workout.
“What do you remember?” Father said.
Mother repeated the question as if she had not heard him.
“I remember choking, seeing flashing lights, and you all calling, ‘Qais! Qais! Qais!’ What happened to me?”
“Probably nothing serious,” Father said casually and patted me on the shoulder.“We’ll go to the doctor after you come home from school today.”
As we left the doctor’s office, mother wiped her tears with a tissue. Her mascara ran under her eyes. She bent and kissed me on the cheek and left her lipstick mark there as usual.
“Will I get sick like Madina?” I asked. Madina had been my age. She was our neighbor and had often played with me and my twenty cousins on the mountain of sand in our courtyard. She had taught us how to make sandcastles that had quarters for the servants and horses. One day a few months ago, she did not come to play with us. Some of my cousins and I went to her house. Her mother took us to her bedroom. Madina was in her bed under white sheets, looking pale with brown bags under her eyes. She talked to us for a few minutes, then said she was tired and wanted to sleep. Several days later, we were told that Madina had joined the stars. afterward, my cousins and I gathered on the lawn every night, looked at the sky, and shouted, “Hello, Madina. Do you see us? We can see you.”
I had liked Madina a lot. If I was going to die, I thought, I will join her and look at Leena and my cousins in our courtyard shouting up at us. But I did not want to miss flying kites with Wakeel and playing marbles with Khaled and the other kids in our neighborhood on the weekends.
“No, you won’t die,” Father said. He laughed, but I knew it was his fake and nervous laugh. “It isn’t a cancer. Your sickness is called epilepsy.”
“Don’t tell him all that,” mother said. We were walking to our car down the road.
“He needs to know it,” Father retorted.
“Will that attack in my sleep happen to me again?”
“Yes, it will,” Father said. “Probably many times until you are about eighteen.”
Mother glared at Father.
“What do you want me to say to him, then?” he quietly snapped at her.
I counted with my fingers. “For nine years?” I asked.
“Yes,” Father said as he ran his hand over my long, wavy hair. “But you’re strong.”
“I don’t like the way it feels,” I said.
He dropped to his knees in front of me and looked directly into my eyes. “The doctor thinks that the day the rocket fell next to the house,” he said, “something happened to you. We don’t know what. Everybody reacts to these things in different ways.” He opened his arms. My head and small shoulders disappeared into his large chest as I circled my arms around his neck.
As soon as we got home, Father asked me to come and sit next to him on a low mattress in our living room. He took a book from the cabinet, flipped through the pages, and stopped in the middle.
“This is Theogenes,” he said, “the greatest boxer of all time.”
I looked at the black-and-white picture, wondering why Father wanted me to see it. It showed a dark statue of a muscular athlete with a thick beard and curly hair.
“Explain to me what Theogenes looks like,” Father said.
“He’s sitting on a rock,” I said.
“His forearms are balanced on his thighs. His head is turned, and he’s looking over his shoulder.”
“Theogenes was from Greece.”
“Like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle!” I said excitedly.“Grandfather always reads to me about them from his books.” Grandfather lived on the other side of the courtyard. I spent a lot of time with him. “He says they’re the wisest men, and when I grow up I should be like them.”
“Can you beat Theogenes?”
“No. Theogenes’s practice was not like modern-day boxing,” Father said. His voice deepened like the voice of a storyteller in a teahouse. “The two contestants were chained to stones as they faced each other. When the signal was given, they would begin hammering each other with fists encased in leather. They fought until one of them died.”
“How many times did Theogenes win?”
“More than 1,300 times,” Father said with the air of a victor. “He is the reason I became a boxer, but I also want you to be as strong as him.”
I was moved. I wanted to put on my gloves and start that very minute.
“The doctor said that since your sickness isn’t something you were born with, the best way for you to overcome it is to become stronger. Boxing will make you very strong, and I’ll train you well.”
“Can we start now?”
“Yes, we can,” Father said as he undid his tie.
I ran to the yard and started punching the bag. I had often punched the heavy bag before, but Father never trained me as he had the boys in our neighborhood. Whenever I asked him to teach me a few moves, he told me I was too young and should enjoy swinging from the trees. A few minutes later, Father joined me in his boxing shorts and white T-shirt, carrying his gloves.
“A skilled boxer knows where to hit his opponent to knock him down,” he said, sounding as if he were teaching his physics students at Habibia High School.“There are certain parts of the body that are vulnerable. For instance, the temples and the chin. If you hit the right place, your opponent is done. Let me show you.” He hit me gently on the right side of my chin. It made me feel a little dizzy.
“Where else?” I asked. I was already thinking about how to use these tricks at school.
“Here,” Father touched my solar plexus. “Your ribs, your nose, and your eyes.” He made his hands into fists and punched the air quickly a few times. I walked a few steps backward. “Come on, son, put on these gloves and let me show you some moves.”
His red gloves were too heavy and big for my tiny hands and weak arms, but I put them on anyway. He laced them up, then bent his knees, sitting slightly.
“This position is called semi-crouch,” Father said. “This is full crouch. This is upright stance. This is a right jab, and this is a left jab. This is an uppercut. This is a hook. This is a cross. Now try it on me. Give me a jab.”
He crouched down to my level. I came at him fast. He ducked. “You’re cheating, Father!”
“No, I’m not. I defended myself. Now let me show you the defensive moves. This is called pulling away. This is footwork. This is a cover-up.”
Soon I was tired and sweaty. It wasn’t as much fun as I’d expected. I just wanted to punch the bag any way I wanted, but Father insisted I follow the rules. mother came out and took off the gloves and dropped them on the ground. She gave Father one of her looks and dragged me to the kitchen without saying a word. She put a plate of French fries in front of me. They were salty and crispy, the way I liked them.
The formal diagnosis was hysterical epilepsy. The fits I had were unrelated to brain damage. I was showing the signs of a grave psychological trauma. The doctor said I had seen too many bad things. The joy of mother giving birth to my new brother had been destroyed by the rocket that had turned my friends playing on the street into bits and pieces and scattered them all over our neighborhood. But when that rocket had landed, we did not know that it was the first of what would be hundreds and that it marked the start of a civil war. We were all living in a large compound that Grandfather had built nearly forty years before I was born. It covered a couple of acres and was surrounded by high walls. Our family and my uncles’ families each had small, adjoining one-story houses that looked out on the many trees and flower bushes that Grandfather had planted in the courtyard.
In the months that followed, as more rockets fell in our neighborhood, we had to move to the basement under Grandfather’s bedroom, which was near the main gate at one end of the courtyard. There were about fifty of us.We couldn’t water the trees and flowers anymore, and they looked as sad and abandoned as our rooms that became covered with a thick layer of dust.
As the war grew more severe, I began to have more fits. They happened in front of everyone, whether I was asleep or awake. Everybody started treating me as if I were dying.
My cousins and I spent our days and nights in the basement like trapped birds. With the fighting raging around us, none of us could go to school anymore. Father and mother became teachers for Leena and me, but I had a hard time grasping the lessons they taught. I could not do my homework. When I looked at my textbooks, I sweated uncontrollably. I hated the sight of them. I just wanted to spend time with Grandfather, who told me nice stories from his books and sometimes read me poems by Rumi and Hafiz. They were soothing and made me forget the ear-piercing blasts of the explosions outside. But my cousins teased me after each fit. They gave me a nickname: Qais the Epileptic.
I rarely left my corner of the basement. I did not talk to anyone except my parents, Leena, and Grandfather. To avoid injuries when the seizures came, I always wore my boxer’s headgear when I went out alone to use the bathroom. Relieving ourselves was a big challenge. We could no longer flush the toilets in our houses, as there was no electricity to pump water from the well to the cistern on the roof. My father and uncles had dug pit-toilets in sheltered areas of the courtyard, four of them in all, during one of the occasional cease- fires when all the factions agreed to halt their rockets for a few days. Then we all had to wait for that particular hour—whether it was in the middle of the night or before dawn—when the rockets stopped long enough for everybody to hurry out of the basement and line up at one of the pits. My boy cousins and I were sent to squat under the trees in the far corner of the courtyard.
Sometimes, when I had to use the toilet badly but could not leave the basement because of the rockets, I tried to distract myself by spending time with my baby brother, Ansar. Mother did not let me hold him often. She thought I might have a seizure and drop him. But I loved sitting next to Ansar when he was on his back, kicking and punching in the air, smiling and laughing when I made sounds and faces.
Mother often sat by my bed to watch over me, especially when I slept face down. She worried that I might have a seizure and my bedding would smother me. When she had to cook or wash our clothes, she told Leena to look after me, though she was only two years older.
When I was not having fits, I was engulfed in unrelenting worry. A feeling of listlessness weighed me down. The months rolled by slowly. The rockets kept falling. I tried to think positively, and my aunts and uncles tried to make me feel better by telling me that epileptic people could see the unknown in each flash of brain lightning, that it was a sacred disease. My cousins believed them and started to treat me with a cautious respect. But I knew that the fits were not some kind of supreme reality. They were demons that visited me for a few seconds and left me tired and weak for hours afterward.
During the ceasefires, my cousins and I could play again in the courtyard. We were so busy running around or climbing our sand pile that my cousins forgot to tease me. During one ceasefire, Wakeel and I went to fly our kites in the street in front of our house, just as we had before the war. Some of the Hizb-e-Wahdat faction, young Hazara men who controlled our neighborhood at that time, came and joined us. One of them was named Jawad, and we had talked to him a few times when mother had sent us with food for him and the others. My family always tried to make friends with whoever was in control. Like our neighbors, we were not part of any faction or any of the fighting.
Jawad was a master kite flyer. He was tall and skinny like Wakeel, but he had East Asian eyes and long black hair. He had gone to the same school as Wakeel, two classes ahead of Wakeel even though he was only a year older. That day Jawad taught us a few tricks that even Wakeel did not know. His Kalashnikov hanging from his shoulder, Jawad flew the kite so high it looked like it would get lost in the clouds. Every time he pulled it down, it seemed like a plane about to crash. Then he would send the kite up again, and for a few seconds it would block the blinding sun. We cheered every time he did something amazing. His arms rose and fell and pushed and pulled like a dancer’s.
Suddenly we heard a familiar whistling sound and rockets exploded into the ground around us, one after another after another. On our neighbors’ houses, on both ends of the street, in the park, and on the grocery where I had just bought the kite. The BBC World Service had announced that the ceasefire would last for three days, but now it was over, two days early. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-e Islami faction, scoffed at ceasefires. Another rocket struck and for a moment everything went black. I was blown into a corner where our courtyard door met the wall. It felt as if I had been electrocuted. The sensation shot through my spine and into all four limbs. Bits and pieces of rockets and fragments of buildings rained all around me. Later I would learn I had survived only because I was protected by the underside of our second-floor balcony.
A thick plaster of dust plugged my nose and ears. There was grit between my teeth. My eyes felt as if they were on fire, stung by the lime in the now-pulverized cement. Tears streamed from them as I blinked furiously and looked for Wakeel. He was lying only a few feet from me, looking bewildered. He looked all around him with confusion and fear in his eyes. miraculously, none of the hot, sharp shrapnel had hit him either.
We looked up and saw that the kite, which Jawad had abandoned the moment the first rocket had hit, was ascending higher and higher, helped by the strong wind, until it completely disappeared into the clouds. The reel unwound fast on the street.
Wakeel rolled over on his stomach and shouted at me to do the same. I could not hear him because of the ringing in my ears, but I imitated him. Members of Hekmatyar’s faction were running into our street firing at us with their Kalashnikovs and other guns. Green tracer rounds hit the wall above us, and bits of concrete splattered on us. We covered our heads with our hands. Seconds later, someone was shouting at us, though we could barely hear them. I looked up. Several of Hekmatyar’s men in shalwar kamiz, their faces covered with bandannas, were pointing their guns at us. They saw that we were only kids, but were suspicious of Wakeel because he was tall and skinny. When they noticed he did not have a weapon, they told us not to move and ran forward, sometimes stepping on the bodies now lying all over the street. Blood and body parts were everywhere.
I looked among the dead for Jawad; he was not there. Then I saw him in the dry narrow ditch along the road, about ten steps from us. The men in bandannas had not seen him. Jawad cast a nervous glance in our direction, then aimed his Kalashnikov at the men in bandannas. They saw him and ran toward a burned-out Russian tank at the corner, where my cousins and I had often stood flying kites or played hide-and-seek during the three years after the Russians left and before this war started. Jawad pulled the trigger, but his gun was jammed with dirt and would not fire. Several of Jawad’s friends ran from the other end of the street to his aid, lifting him from the ditch. He ran with them toward the men, who were now sheltering behind the tank. Someone standing on the roof of our neighbor’s house— Jawad’s friends—shot at them. The men in bandannas shot back.
We heard the swoosh of an RPG and the tank exploded. A mushroom cloud rose up. When the wind had cleared the air, there was no sign of either the men in bandannas or Jawad’s friends. Jawad was down on one knee in the middle of the street, missing the lower half of one arm. He shouted, “Mother! Mother! Mother!” as blood sprayed out of the red flesh of his exposed tissue. A few more of his friends arrived, running across the red ground, firing at another set of their enemies emerging from the park where we used to play soccer after school on the nicely mown grass. Thuk thuk thuk, thuk thuk thuk! Wakeel and I saw several of Hekmatyar’s faction fall on the goal markers that we had made before the war.
The firing stopped for a few seconds. Wakeel looked at me, then at our courtyard door. I nodded, then jumped up and ran faster and harder than I had ever run in my life, Wakeel right behind me. I yanked open the basement door and flew down the stairs. Everyone was already there. mother circled her arms around me and brought me back to a world of security and peace. I burst out crying. She hugged me tighter, and I cried even harder.
Wakeel’s mother shook him. “Didn’t I tell you to not go out?” she yelled. “What should I do with you? What if you were killed? I lost your father years ago, now you! Have mercy on me and your two younger sisters! For God’s sake, have mercy!” She embraced him.
“Stop crying, Qais,” Father told me and recited the Dari proverb “It is God’s will.”
“No, it isn’t God’s will,” Grandfather said calmly. “God hates people who do evil things in His name. God didn’t tell them to kill each other or innocent people.”
“It is just a saying, Padar,” Father said. “Come here, Qais,” Grandfather said.
I ran to him and buried my head in his chest.
“You’re safe. Enough, enough,” he said as he stroked my back gently. all my cousins and their parents watched. “at times like this, shedding tears is a waste of water.”
“Come here, Wakeel,” Grandfather said. He circled his other arm around him. “Stop, Qais,” he said sternly. “People cry when they believe that someone might come to help them. In the time of madness like this, there is no one to help us. We’re living in the time of Shaitan. We’ll see a lot worse than this. Be strong.”
Grandfather was right. as one year of war followed another, we saw horrors that were a thousand times worse. The seven factions continued fighting and killing each other over who would control Kabul. Some of them plundered houses and government buildings. They abducted women and raped them in public, and sometimes killed them when they were finished and left their bodies on the side of the roads. They tortured innocent men in the name of this faction or that. Dead bodies, severed limbs, blood, and mass graves were everywhere.
Whether there was war or ceasefire, I spent hours and hours exercising in the basement under our living room on the other side of the courtyard. No one else went there because it was damp and dark with no windows. A few bags of charcoal were in one corner; the rest was empty. our black cat sat on a plank of wood near the door, his eyes gleaming in the dark. He was my only company except for the occasional times when Father came and taught me a few new moves and tricks. I punched the bag for hours until I no longer remembered where I was or what I was doing. I began to build muscles. None of my cousins dared to tease me or argue with me now. They gave me another nickname: Crazy Bull. But they only said it behind my back. I liked this nickname. I could scare my younger cousins with my hard knuckles when I punched bricks into two or three pieces. I still had fits, but never when I boxed.
My family moved to another part of Kabul, and then for nearly a year we traveled all over northern Afghanistan trying to find a way to flee the country. Wherever I was, I set up a punching bag and boxed as much as I could during the day to keep the fits away. At night, I fought to hold on to my memories of the good times before the civil war—playing with my classmates after school in the park, racing bicycles with boys in our neighborhood. But these pleasant thoughts were inevitably disrupted by the images in my mind of the terrible things I had seen, as well as the pangs of nearly permanent hunger. We no longer had enough food to feed us all properly. on the days we ate breakfast, we tried to skip lunch. If we had lunch, we skipped dinner. When we returned to Kabul, there was peace for a few months.
Then the fighting between the factions started all over again. The stench of disease hung all around us: malaria, diphtheria, dysentery. Somehow we managed to stay healthy. But war continued. Days were lost. Weeks and months blended into one another. We had to cope with what was around us; we had no other choice. Grandfather often reminded us to keep our hopes intact. “Diseases don’t always kill you,” he said, “but if you lose hope, you die.”
Though there seemed to be nothing for us to tie our hopes to, we waited. Soon the war would be over, we told ourselves, and we would have our peace, and with peace we would regain everything we had lost. “Everything has an end,” Grandfather said. “after every dark night, there is a bright day.”
In 1996, after four and a half years of brutal civil war, the Taliban drove out the seven factions who had relentlessly destroyed our country and had killed more than two million of our people. Finally, we had peace. But soon we learned that it was a peace that came with a steep price: we had to live by the Taliban rules, which made us feel as if we were living in prison. Leena’s dreams were crushed when she and my girl cousins were not allowed to go back to their schools. But that did not stop them: they continued studying at home.
Although no one liked the Taliban’s rules, at least we no longer saw dead bodies in the streets. We did not have to live in the basement anymore, and we had better food. For all that, we were grateful. I wanted to spend every minute outside, making up for the lost time. The Kart-e-Parwan roundabout Gym became my second home. I was building a reputation among my friends as the hardest and the fastest puncher in the neighborhood. But I worried that I would have a seizure in front of them and would look weak and helpless. Outside of our courtyard, no one knew about my epilepsy.
When I turned eighteen, the boys in our neighborhood told me about Shakaib. His reputation was surpassing mine. Shakaib was about my age, but larger and tougher. Like me, he had become a boxer when the war started. He often took out his aggression on people weaker than himself, but his anger was greater than mine. He had lost his entire family when a rocket landed on their house. He had no choice but to live with his uncle, a man who did not treat him well. If he did not come home for several nights, no one noticed. He spent a lot of time practicing at the Beharistan Gym, where I went to see him one day. He had all the moves: he could punch with power, and his speed was superb. Before I left the gym, I said hello to him.
“I want to challenge you to a match next week,” I said.
He might have heard about me—boxers always talked about other boxers—but he had never seen me before and did not recognize me. He looked me up and down and slapped me on the shoulder. “See you in the ring, brother,” he said.
In the first years of the Taliban, the ministry of Vice and Virtue was very strict.They kept making new rules, and one decreed that boxing matches were haram: forbidden. They said the head is the most holy part of the body, and we were not supposed to damage it by hitting each other. Even so, some gyms secretly held tournaments. That gave us extra pleasure.The forbidden is sweet, we told one another.
My fight with Shakaib was a secret match. The gym owner put doorkeepers outside the gym to watch out for the Taliban. If they came—which they often did—we would walk out of the ring and start pummeling the bags.
As soon as I stepped into the ring, Shakaib smiled at me. His unexpected warmth was so contagious that I smiled back at him and never saw the shots coming that hit my head like hammers. He put me down in seconds. The bell rang because the three judges who were sitting on chairs outside the ring thought I was too hurt to fight any more. The referee helped me stand up. I was on the far side of the ring. How had I ended up there?
“Can you continue?” the referee asked.
I nodded and punched the air a few times. I blinked and tried to get my vision back as three Shakaibs moved in on me.
The bell rang again, and we began to fight once more. I noticed he was expending a lot of energy trying to put me down quickly. one of the things Father had taught me was to tire my opponent before throwing my best punches, and I tried to do that to Shakaib.
My friends and the boys from our neighborhood were watching. I knew that I had to give them a good show. I had no intention of going down again. While I was afraid of Shakaib, I was also exhilarated. I remembered a line from Socrates that Grandfather often read to me: The best pleasure comes from pain. That day in the ring, I finally understood its meaning.
Soon I began to score with my left jab. Each time Shakaib came at me with force and speed, I managed to sidestep him or duck. I started anticipating his moves and could withstand some of his bull charges and divert others. I probably hit him with fifty left jabs in the next three rounds.They had no apparent effect on him, but each one scored with the judges.
Shakaib kept smiling as my face became covered with blood. When he trapped me on the ropes and pounded me, the smile became a snarl of rage. I had no way to move out of range. Whenever the referee separated us, I thanked him in my heart because each time Shakaib made contact I wanted to give up. Shakaib was the better puncher. He got louder cheers from the crowd. He was putting on a better show. I was becoming demoralized. His punches and smiles hurt me, but I knew I was scoring with my fast jabs.
As we went into the fifth and final round, the momentum shifted. Shakaib was getting tired and slowing down. I began to take over. Finally I had a chance to throw my cross exactly the way Father had taught me, contacting just his chin while rotating my torso and hips counter-clockwise for additional power. Shakaib staggered but did not fall.
My friends standing around the ringside were screaming for me to put him away. But I could barely stand. My vision was blurry and red. Sweat and blood burned my eyes, but I did not want the fight to be over. I wanted to take out on Shakaib everything that had gone wrong in our country during all these years. I was in pain, yet I felt strangely at peace with myself. The images of death that had long been my constant companions, the legs and hands I had seen so many times on the streets in front of our house, the nightmares that haunted me: I could feel them leaving. I would soon be a free man, I told myself. Just keep punching, and punch harder and faster. The bell rang and the referee raised my arm in victory and my friends burst into cheers. The picture of Theogenes came back to me. I felt I was him. Shakaib was no longer smiling. His face looked crooked. mine was worse: I had two cuts on my forehead, my right cheek was swollen, I could not open my left eye, and my lip was bleeding. I was breathing hard as I moved to the corner of the ring. my friends gathered around me holding towels and buckets. They splashed water on my face and wiped the blood off my neck and chest. Shakaib walked out of the ring unsupported, surrounded by his friends just as he had walked in forty minutes before. I had a terrible headache as I climbed out through the ropes. I could barely see my steps while the rest of my friends cheered. Each one of them wanted to hug me. I stumbled, struggling to breathe, and the room was swirling. I felt as though I were dying, and like a dog I wanted to be left to die alone. I dropped to the concrete floor with a pain in my right shoulder. my friends gathered around me, I lost consciousness.
I awoke several hours later and found myself in a room with white walls. I had double vision for a few seconds and a terrible headache. Slowly, I realized that I was in a hospital. I noticed my reflection in a polished piece of medical equipment next to my bed. my face was covered with bandages and gauze. after a while, a doctor came in and examined me, then told me I could go home.
Two of my friends had been sitting quietly near my bed. They helped me put on my clothes and put me in a taxi, because they did not want the Taliban to notice my bruised face and ask questions that would put us all in prison. All the way home they talked about my punches and gave me a full report on Shakaib.They tried to tell me that he was in worse shape than me, but I had seen him walking out of the ring. Deep down I knew he was the true winner. Everyone knew it, though I had the higher scores and the medal around my neck.
I went to many of Shakaib’s matches after that, but I never dared to get in the ring with him again. I cheered louder for him than anyone else, but deep down I knew he was still grieving. I could tell from the way his smile turned into a frown each time he punched his opponents.
Shakaib and I became good friends. much too soon, though, I lost him. In the fifth year of the Taliban, a Talib stopped Shakaib in front of his house and told him to stop boxing. Shakaib was in a bad mood. He punched the Talib and broke three of his front teeth and two of his ribs. As the Talib rolled on the ground, shrieking his pain into his walkie-talkie, Shakaib escaped. A week later, the Taliban found Shakaib and imprisoned him. With heavy steel cables, they whipped every part of him over and over. He died in prison a few days after.
The fits stopped visiting me after my match with Shakaib. Two months later, I went to my doctor. He asked me about the cuts on my face. They were fully healed, but the scars were still visible.
I told him about fighting Shakaib and bragged about winning. I mentioned that I had not had a seizure since. The doctor had been writing a new prescription for my medicine. He looked at me for a few moments, then tore it up.
“I don’t think you need these pills anymore,” he said.
I continued to box until the Americans drove the Taliban out of our country after 9/11. after many years of despair, hope nested in our hearts once again. Leena and my girl cousins could finally go back to school. Leena was admitted to Kabul University. Mother got her job back at the bank. I stopped boxing. Four years later, the Taliban returned, this time with suicide bombers. Peace was gone and had taken our hopes with it. I began boxing again.
One day, a few years after the Americans arrived, Father came out of his bedroom and put on his gloves after many years of watching my brother and me sparring in our new courtyard. The compound Grandfather had built was long gone, a victim of the war.
We stopped when Father stepped into the ring. He challenged Ansar: “Come on, big guy, fight me.” At seventeen, Ansar was now taller and stronger than me.
Ansar smiled and asked me with his eyes what to do. I shrugged. Ansar looked up to me as his trainer. I had shown him the tricks that Father had taught me.
“Come on,” Father said. “are you scared, big muscles?”
Ansar rushed at Father with his fast jabs. Father ducked and bobbed gracefully, though he was now in his sixties. Ansar looked at me with surprise written on his face. Father’s eyes were bright and full of energy, reminding me of the days before the war. my brother had never seen those days or those eyes before. Father came at Ansar fast, and Ansar had no chance to defend himself. Instantly he was on the ground, unhurt but amazed at how swiftly he had been toppled. He stood and ran out of the ring, laughing.
Father looked at me. “Come on, Qais,” he said. “Show me what you’ve got.”
I climbed into the ring. Ansar watched us intently, not sure what to expect. When I was younger, Father had often let me win. This was the first time we had boxed as adults, and I knew he would hold nothing back. I used every trick on him that he had taught me, as well as several I had learned on my own. Though he was thirty years older, Father could still match me move for move.
“Punch me harder, Qais.”
I did. Nothing worked. He blocked me every time.
After about ten minutes, mother came out of the kitchen with Leena and chided Father for thinking he could still fight like a kid. For a split second, while he was distracted by her, I landed one squarely on his chin, startling him. He shouted and put his arms in the air in front of him. The fight was over. He came and embraced me. and for a few seconds, I found peace in his arms.
This essay originally appears in Agni 85 .