A Bag of Barley

By Qais Akbar Omar

One night Faiz was having dinner when his wife Gulalay sud-denly held her belly and screamed, as if someone had kicked her in the stomach. Faiz gave her a glass of water to drink, but it did not help. He ran to the yard, found a brick, warmed it over the gas stove, wrapped it in a piece of cloth, and set it on Gulalay’s belly. 10 minutes later, Gulalay was still crying in pain. Finally, Faiz took the Holy Koran sitting on the windowsill and put it on his wife’s chest so the healing powers of the book would cure the pain. Even the Holy Koran could not relieve Gulalay’s suffering. Faiz had no choice but to leave their two-year-old son with their neighbor and rush Gulalay to Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital downtown.

The long corridor in the hospital was lit with flickering neon lights, and the patients behind the closed doors on both sides were moaning faintly. The whole place smelled like rotten fish and feces combined with the strong stench of chlorine and medicine. There were more flies in the hospital than in any restaurant in Kabul, and they had turned the white walls and the ceilings gray with their droppings. The medical equipment seemed old and worn out. The squeaky metal beds with caved-in mattresses were covered with dirty sheets and they looked uninviting.

Faiz took Gulalay to a stuffy room full of flies and laid her in a bed. Three young physicians gathered around her. The first doctor injected Gulalay with yellow liquid, which made her lose consciousness right away. The second one hooked her to an I.V. bag. The third doctor, whose head looked twice as big as everyone else’s in the room because of his fluffy hair, tried to find the source of her pain. First, he said Gulalay’s intestines were twisted, then he said her gallbladder was punctured, then he said her colon was blocked. After an hour of probing every inch of Gulalay’s body, he was convinced that the pain emanated from her womb.

Faiz’s skin prickled from shame when he watched the doctor with fluffy hair take off Gulalay’s pants, bend down between her legs, insert a medical tool into her private parts, look at the computer screen next to the bed, and talk to the other physicians using words he could not understand. What would his cousins in the village say if they found out strangers were touching and looking into his wife’s secluded parts? He pushed the doctors away and covered Gulalay with a white sheet full of yellow stains. “Have some shame and respect!” he jeered at them. “Don’t you have wives? What will you do if I look between your wives’ legs?”

“You are not a doctor, are you?” the physician with fluffy hair retorted with wide eyes, holding a tool that looked like scissors.

“No, I’m not.”

“Then don’t you want us to cure your wife?”

“I do, but I need to know what is wrong with her.”

“Her uterus is dangerously inflamed. She may have cancer in her womb, but I’m not entirely certain. If you want a quick result, take her to Pakistan or India. They have the right tools to diagnose her.”

“Where can a jobless stonemason get the kind of money to go to Pakistan or India?”

The doctor with fluffy hair shook his head and left the room. His colleagues followed him.

An old janitor was mopping the floor. “If I were you,” he said as he leaned on the handle of his broom, “I’d take her to Mullah Malang.”

The name sounded familiar, but Faiz could not remember when he had heard it. He went on looking blankly at the custodian, whose craggy face and neck carved with many layers of wrinkles reminded him of his father in the village.

“Whenever these medics can’t cure a patient,” the old man went on, “I tell their families about Mullah Malang.”

Suddenly, Faiz remembered when he had first heard about Mullah Malang. A year earlier, his next-door neighbor’s daughter had been coughing day and night. Her mother took her to many doctors, but the medicine did not have any effect. Someone told her to take her daughter to Mullah Malang. She did, and the next day the little girl stopped coughing.

“Mullah Malang will fix your wife in no time,” the janitor added. “He is a miracle healer.”

The custodian’s confidence was so absolute and reassuring in the face of the doctors’ uncertainty and coldness that Faiz was intrigued and filled with hope. He wanted to detach the I.V. bag from Gulalay’s wrist and carry her to Mullah Malang, but he did not dare wake her. She would scream in agony. The physicians would return and inject her with more sleep inducer, then feast their eyes on her private parts. “Can you give me Mullah Malang’s address?” he asked.

* * *

It took Faiz four hours to walk to the northernmost neighborhood of Kabul, Khir Khana, because there were no buses at that time of the night to take him there. As he wandered through the empty streets, looking for Mullah Malang’s place, the sun slowly rose from behind the mountains. Finally, he saw a sign above a rusty metal gate:

Mullah Malang, The Healer of 50 Incurable Diseases, Including HIV, Cancer, Diabetes & Epilepsy.

Put Your Trust in Me and I Will Plead Your Case to Allah.

Seeing the word cancer made Timur feel hopeful. He knocked on the rusty door. No one answered. He pushed the gate open, revealing a dark, narrow staircase leading down to a basement. He could hardly see his steps as he descended and reached a wooden door. “Anybody here?” he yelled as he banged hard.

The door opened a crack and an eye peered at him.

“I’m looking for Mullah Malang.”

The man opened the door and let Faiz into a windowless room with a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. He was short and stocky with a missing eye, which made him look scary and mystical at the same time. The floor in his room was covered with a red carpet, and posters of Kabba and calligraphies of verses from the holy Koran hung on the walls. A desk in the corner was loaded with stacks of books and papers.

“What do you want the servant of Allah to do for you?” the one-eyed man asked.

Faiz was stupefied. “Servant of Allah?” he asked.

“I’m Allah’s slave, Mullah Malang.” His working eyelid went down in a wink, by all appearances involuntarily.

“A janitor at Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital told me you can cure my wife’s illness.”

“I can’t cure anyone. Allah can. If you put your trust in me, I can plead your case to Him.” Mullah Malang walked to his desk and sat in the only chair. “Your place is on the floor,” he commanded Faiz.

Faiz sat in front of the desk and leaned against the cold concrete wall.

“Tell me about your wife’s sickness,” Mullah Malang demanded, stroking his beard.

“She is suffering from a mysterious abdominal pain, and the doctors can’t figure out what is wrong with her.”

“Our doctors are soulless assassins,” Mullah Malang said with a wave of his hand. “All they want are fees only to prescribe some quackery.”

“That is why I came to you.”

“I’ll see what I can do for your spouse.” Mullah Malang closed his working eye and hummed for a few minutes like a monk in a temple. “Now be frank with me. Do you love your wife?”

“Of course I do.”

“I don’t care for pretense. Tell me the truth. Do you really love her?”

“What kind of question is that? I don’t only love her, I love her devotedly, and I want to do anything in my ability to help her regain her health.”

Mullah Malang closed his working eye again and clucked a few times as if he was trying to imitate an invisible duck. His long white beard shook with each quacking sound.

“Why are you making that noise?”

“Don’t interrupt me when I’m chatting with the angels.”

Hearing the word angels made Faiz apprehensive. He looked around the room before he buttoned the collar of his kameez and straightened his white cap. His legs were stretched out. He moved into a cross-legged position and put his hands on his knees, as if he was about to start meditating.

Mullah Malang stopped quacking. “The angels conveyed my message to Allah, and our savior told them that your partner has a serious ailment,” he said with a wide eye, nodding thoughtfully. “Hold on, hold on.” He closed his eye again, hummed for a moment, and added with a shut eye: “Now the angels are telling me that your wife is lying at the edge of her grave but still breathing, and you’ll be dumping dirt on her corpse next week if we don’t make her some pills out of barley right away.”

A cold sweat broke throughout Faiz’s body. He cursed himself in his heart for moving from the village to Kabul two years earlier. Now how would he raise his son without his wife? He was shaking all over. “Pills out of barley!” he yelled. “How do you make pills out of barley?”

Mullah Malang opened his eye, took a deep breath, and looked at the disco ball as if angels were sitting on it. “Prophet Mohammad once said that Allah never inflicts a disease unless He makes a cure for it first,” he said calmly. Then he turned to Faiz and continued: “As for the barley, you should ask where it grows. Of course, on the ground like wheat, but not all farmland is holy. The barley I prescribe to my clients is no ordinary grain. It’s especially made for ill people like your wife to restore their health.”

“How? Is it like magic? Do you have magical barley?”

“I’m a mullah, Allah’s representative on earth, not a sorcerer,” Mullah Malang retorted. “You should never use the word magic in my presence.”

“I was a farmer until three years ago, and I’ve grown wheat and barley all my life. How does your barley work?”

“First you must ask about the price to see if you can afford it.”

“My wife is lying at the edge of her grave, and you are concerned about your prices. Tell me! What are you waiting for? Hurry up!”

“There are three prices: $30, $40, and $50.”

Faiz was shocked by the steep cost. “What can a $50 bag of barley do that a $30 bag can’t?” he asked.

“There are variations of holiness. Some farmers use fertilizer, and I’m sure you were one of them. But that lowers the level of sacredness in the grain. Some farmers use pesticides, which also destroys the piety of the grains. There are some farmers out in the depths of the countryside who don’t have access to anything except shovels and water. Their barley is the holiest. However, when their grains make it to the Kabul markets, the traders mix them with the secular, profane, and democratic grains and sell them as one product. I have to buy a large bag of barley and give it to my assistant to go through the grains one by one, sniffing them each to find the divinest ones, and make you a bag. As for my assistant, he was born with a dog’s sense of smell. Only he can tell me which kind of barley is holy and which kind isn’t. The $50 bag of barley doesn’t contain a single blasphemous or even a semi-unholy seed. I’ll say my blessings over the bag using some special verses from the Holy Koran and offer it to our savior, Allah, who’ll put His healing power into the grains. Your spouse should eat the barley raw and boiled, wear some around her neck like an amulet, and tie the rest of it around the part of her body that hurts. She’ll regain her health in no time.”

“I’m dealing with a witchman,” Faiz told himself. He stood to leave.

“I see doubt in your face,” Mullah Malang went on. “Do you know doubt creates suspicions, suspicions create skepticism, skepticism creates disbelief, and disbelief converts a man into an infidel?” Then he took a copy of the holy Koran sitting among his papers on his desk, flipped through the faded yellow pages, and recited some verses in Arabic.

Faiz was surprised to note that the one-eyed man had a soothing voice.

Mullah Malang paused and looked up at Timur. “Do you understand Arabic?” he asked.

Faiz could not read and write Dari, let alone Arabic. He had never been able to attend school. All his life he had worked with his father on a tiny piece of land to feed their large family. “No,” he answered, “but I believe in the healing power of the Holy Koran. Sometimes when I get a headache, I put the holy book on my forehead and 10 minutes later the pain is gone. It didn’t work for my wife though.”

“Do you want me to translate the passage I just read?”

Faiz shrugged.

Surely Allah causes the grain and the stone to germinate. He brings forth the living from the dead and He is the bringer forth of the dead from the living; that is Allah! How are you then turned away?” Mullah Malang scrutinized Faiz. “How can you deny Allah’s words, turn your back, and leave?” he said scornfully. “Only infidels would act on Allah’s words with such disregard. Thankfully, you’re a Muslim, and you must show respect to Allah and His promises. I’ll prescribe your wife the same grain that Allah has mentioned in these glorious lines.”

Faiz knew the one-eyed man would not invent false verses. If the Taliban found out they would stone him to death. He sat back in his place. “Can you translate those words for me again?” he asked Mullah Malang to make sure he heard everything correctly the first time.

Mullah Malang did.

Faiz was comforted that there truly was a verse in the Holy Koran about the grain and its curative powers. “Can you lower your price a little if I choose to go with your $50 bag of barley?” he asked in a cold tone so Mullah Malang would not detect his excitement and refuse to give him a discount.

“Unfortunately, no.”

“Why not?”

“I can’t give you a discount on behalf of my assistant who helps me detect the celestial grains, and I can’t give you a discount on the blessing because I give away half of my share to the beggars. Besides, I’m a human like yourself, and Allah wants me to eat and feed my family, doesn’t He?”

Faiz did not know how to haggle over the price. He was not buying fruits and vegetables, but rather a cure for his ailing wife. “I’m a country boy, and I’m good with my hands,” he said. “I’m an excellent stonemason, I know how to lay bricks, and I can fix crooked doors and windows. Would you be willing to accept my labor instead of cash?”

“I live in a rental,” Mullah Malang said before he started reciting some more verses in his soothing voice.

$50 was a lot of money. What would Gulalay say if Faiz told her that he paid so much for a bag of barley? He stood. “I need to think about it a little more,” he said as he walked to the door.

Mullah Malang stopped reciting. “You don’t seem to love your wife as devotedly as you claimed earlier,” he said. “May Allah bring solace into your heart and guide you on the thorny path.” Then he went on declaiming the verses.

Faiz climbed the stairs. Once he was out on the street, he felt relieved. What were his choices now? Obtaining the passports and visas alone for Pakistan or India would cost him over 400 dollars, not to mention the bribes he would have to pay various officials. All he had to his name was $208. How could he pay for plane tickets, hotels, doctors’ fees, medicine, and food? “At the same time,” he murmured, “I can’t allow those impotent doctors to inject more sleep inducers into Gulalay’s I.V. bags and poke their scary medical tools into her private parts to torture her more.” He sat on the curb, trying to think about his other options, but the lack of sleep made his head feel as small as the head of a pin. How nice it would have been if he could just stretch out to have a little nap.

“Maybe the barley will work,” Faiz told himself when he could not come up with a better solution for his predicament, but he was not sure whether he was trying to convince himself out of desperation or whether there was truth to the magic of barley because it was mentioned in the Holy Koran. “I’m a Muslim and I shouldn’t doubt God’s words,” he reproved himself right away. “I better put all my faith into the grain and give it a try before God gets angry with me for doubting Him.” He turned around and descended back down the dark stairs. “I must ask Mullah Malang to show me a sign before I give him the money.”

“I’m glad you’re back,” the one-eyed man said as soon as Faiz entered the room. “I just had a revelation from the most merciful, telling me that you are indeed a poor man, and I should give you the portion I’m supposed to share with the beggars.”

“Really?” Faiz asked excitedly. “How much?”

“Five dollars.”

Faiz retrieved his wallet. “I swear on the grave of my mother,” he said, “all I have is $108 to my name. I need to pay the hospital bills, my rent, and save some cash for food so I don’t end up on the street begging with my sick wife and two-year-old son before I find more work. Can you please give me a larger discount?”

Mullah Malang gazed at Faiz for a long time. “You are a hard bargainer,” he said. “Fine, $40, but not a penny less. Take my offer or leave.”

Faiz counted four $10 bills and held them in his right hand. “Look, Mullah Malang,” he said, “I want to give you all this, but it’ll make my decision a lot easier if you show me a sign.”

“A sign? What kind of sign?”

“I don’t know. Anything that convinces me you aren’t swindling me.”

Mullah Malang reached for a few envelopes on his table, opened one, and started reading it: “Dear my guardian angel Mullah Malang, You are the father of the sick and helpless, and the benefactor of the human race. Before I came to you I’d gone to dozens of doctors. All they did for me was to drive my pain into the depths of my bones after robbing me of most of my money. When you gave me your $50 bag of barley, I was suspicious of it of course, wondering how those small grains could cure my long-standing prostate cancer. I wrote my will and sent it to my sons in Kandahar and Nemroz provinces so they wouldn’t fight over their inheritance when I died. Now I have no pain, absolutely none! You are a miraculous healer, and I kneel before you to express my bottomless gratitude. Respectfully, Haji Shir-baz.”

“He is a 70 year-old man, only two years younger than me,” Mullah Malang said. “Now let me read you another letter.” He opened a second envelope and recited: “Dear doctor Mullah Malang, You should call your $50 bag of barley The Wondrous Allah Pills. My daughter is as healthy as a butterfly, and I’ve been so happy over the past two weeks that hair started to grow back on my bald skull. I’m recommending your barley to my family and friends because modern medicine has looted us but given us nothing in return except agony. I kiss your hands and feet in earnest. Sincerely, Ahmad Jawad.’”

“I can send those letters to myself through my friends,” Faiz challenged. “I need you to show me a sign.”

“The angels told me earlier in your presence that your wife lays dying in the hospital,” Mullah Malang hissed with one enraged eye, “and you want me to perform magic for you? I’m not a magician or a showman, I’m a healer, and you are insulting my integrity!”

“You shouldn’t feel offended by my request. After all, you claim you can talk to God and angels. If I were you, I’d ask God to restore my blind eye first.”

“Let me tell you a story, son,” Mullah Malang said in a softer tone, stroking his long beard. “Some years ago when I was young and foolish like you, a stunningly charming woman came to me asking for an amulet so her husband would stop thrashing her. Instead, I appealed to the most sublime to kill her husband so I could marry her. Allah took my eye from me. As you may know, even the holiest of men is capable of sinning at least once in his life, but he must pay for it too. I’m paying for my sin by seeing the world with one eye.”

“Well, $40 is a lot of money, and I’m happy to give you these bills, only if you can prove you aren’t thieving me.”

“All right,” Mullah Malang said. “I’ve never done this before because people may think I’m a sorcerer, but you’ve left me with no choice.” He leaned back in chair and started rubbing his hands together. “As you can see I’m not smoking. Now the walls will smoke for me.” He closed his eye and went on rubbing his hands as if he was cold and trying to produce some heat. Suddenly, he stopped, put one hand under his desk, and pointed to the disco ball with the other hand. The light went out and it turned pitch black. A moment later the light returned, and the room was filled with smoke that smelled like burning plastic.

Faiz recalled the games he had played with his cousins in the village when he was little. “I’m not a gullible little boy who gets fooled by your tricks,” he said. He went around the room to study the walls for cracks.

“Look everywhere you want,” Mullah Malang said with self-assurance. “Did you find anything?” he asked after a while.

Faiz returned and sat in his place. “No,” he answered, feeling defeated.

“Do you believe me now?”

Faiz was not fully convinced by Mullah Malang’s sign, but he blamed it on his lack of sleep, and he thought he was incapable of fair judgement. “Here is $40,” he said as he put the cash on the desk.

Mullah Malang reached for the bills, hastily counted them, then took off his turban, planted the cash in his hat, and put on his turban again. “Nothing is worthier than saving a person you love,” he said with a smile, which made his mouth crooked.

“Can I have a receipt?”

The smile disappeared from Mullah Malang’s face. “Allah doesn’t give receipts,” he replied.

“But humans do, and you are no God.”

“I work for the Almighty, and He hasn’t given me a book of receipts with his signature at the bottom to pass on to my clients.”

Faiz squinted at Mullah Malang with displeasure.

“When you were born, did Allah give your mother a receipt saying, ‘I granted you a son, and here is a receipt to prove that he was from me, and look, I signed at the bottom, and you can show my signature to people so no one will accuse you of lying?’” Mullah Malang paused, scowling at Faiz. “When you deal with the Benevolent, don’t think of Him as a businessman. He is the creator of humans and angels, life and death, heaven and earth. Only another supreme power like Him can get a receipt from Him, but there is no god but Allah, and Mohammad is his messenger.”

“When money is exchanged in a deal, it is business, and there should be a receipt. How can I prove I paid you if something goes wrong?”

“What do you think will go wrong?”

“I don’t know. Let’s say the barley doesn’t work, will you return my money?”

“You are wasting my precious time,” Mullah Malang grumbled as he took off his turban and handed the warm bills to Faiz. “Here is your cash. Leave! Get out! Leave! Out! Out!”

Faiz put the money back on the desk. “When can I come to collect the barley?” he asked.

Mullah Malang glared at Faiz for half a minute before he answered, “Tomorrow morning.”

“So quickly?”

“Isn’t your wife dying?”

“I don’t want you to rush. I want the barley to work.”

Mullah Malang started tidying the papers on his desk. “Just go and look after your better half,” he said with annoyance. “Let me do my job.”

“Should I bring a wheelbarrow tomorrow, or can I haul the barley on my back?”

“It is only a pound.”

“So little?”

Mullah Malang stopped shuffling his papers. “Your wife isn’t a horse or a donkey, is she?” he asked. “What is more valuable, a mountain of rocks or a fistful of diamonds? It isn’t about the quantity but quality.” He stood, which was a clear sign for Faiz to leave. “Goodbye.”

* * *

The street outside was packed with Taliban cars whooshing up and down with loudspeakers attached to their roofs playing chants describing their fellow Taliban going to wars: how those who died on the battleground were martyrs and were now in heaven with Allah, and those who returned alive would one day go to paradise.

Faiz hurried to the main road to get into a bus and go home to check on his son. He was wondering if the neighbor’s wife had fed his toddler anything. That was not his arrangement with the woman, but he would explain everything to her and she would understand.

While waiting at the bus station, Faiz recalled his conversation with Mullah Malang and was assaulted by doubts. “Did God make the smoke happen or did Mullah Malang trick me?” he asked himself. “I didn’t check the beams in the ceiling. He must have a can filled with smoke somewhere hidden outside and its pipes are hidden between the beams. When he reached under his desk, the power went out. There must be two switches under his desk. With one he controls the light and with the other the smoke.” Faiz looked at the other men standing next to him for confirmation, as though they knew what was going on in his head. “I’ve been fooled!” he mumbled as he ran to Mullah Malang’s place, pushed the metal door open, and rushed down the stairs. The second door was locked. He banged on it with both fists and waited for a few seconds before he hammered again. No one opened. He dashed back to the street and asked the passersby if they knew where Mullah Malang had gone. No one knew.

A little boy playing soccer with his friends pointed to a white mosque with a large blue dome on the other side of the street. “He is leading the noon prayers there,” he said before he kicked the ball.

Faiz leaned against the electricity pole on the sidewalk, waiting for Mullah Malang to emerge so he could demand his money back. “If the conman refuses me, I’ll call the Taliban on him to investigate his room and find the source of the smoke.” He knew the Taliban would stone Mullah Malang to death for scamming simpleminded people like him. He did not care about Mullah Malang enduring a painful death. He was desperate and needed his money back. But then he wondered if Mullah Malang could actually charm God with his beautiful voice. “He is a mullah leading the prayers for hundreds of men in that large mosque,” he thought. “If he were a fake, someone else would’ve already discovered him and reported him to the Taliban. I better not get the Taliban involved. What if he curses me and I catch some kind of incurable disease? Who will look after my family?” Nonetheless, he remained standing there, trying to decide what to do.

“If he refuses to give my money back,” Faiz concluded after some reflection, “he is a scam artist, and it is my obligation to report him to the Taliban to turn him into a lesson for other conmen not to cheat people like me.” He felt satisfied with his decision.

Faiz sat on the curb and looked at his wristwatch; it was one in the afternoon. Sleeplessness, stress, and hunger had made his five senses very sensitive. He could distinguish many scents in the stench of the street. He could smell the donkey droppings in front of his feet combined with the sweet aroma of naan and kabob coming from one of the houses around him. The delicious fragrance of food tickled his palate and nostrils. He moved his jaws as though he were chewing a piece of warm naan wrapped around a chunk of juicy lamb. “I’m daydreaming while my wife is lying in the hospital and my son is with the neighbor,” he reproached himself before he got up, crossed the street, and went to the mosque to get his money back and return to his family.

The place was packed with hundreds of worshipers. Mullah Malang was sitting on a chair at the front of the mosque, talking into a microphone about paradise and painting an elaborate picture of it with his fanciful words, as if he had visited the place the day before.

“Here on earth,” Mullah Malang’s soothing voice echoed in the lofty room, “we think of wealth as big houses, lots of jewelry, cars, and millions in our bank accounts. Have we not seen the richest people leading a miserable life, trying to guard their treasures day and night? In paradise, you’ll have more than you can imagine without any worries because there is no competition between men. If you think of any food, fruit, or drink, it’ll appear in front of you in a shiny golden tray. There are no pit toilets in paradise. You don’t need one. Everything you consume will turn into sweat, and your perspiration will smell better than the best perfume on earth. There are rivers of milk, honey, and wine flowing everywhere, and you can drink from them day and night and live in complete intoxication.”

“I thought the Holy Koran forbids drinking alcohol,” one of the worshipers protested.

“That is why you can drink as much as you want in paradise,” Mullah Malang responded. “Allah wants to compensate us for not drinking now. Furthermore, every man in paradise will have 72 virgins at his beck and call. You can sleep with them every night, and the next day they’ll turn into virgins again. The nutritious food will keep you virile and you’ll never get tired of sleeping with your virgins. Anything in paradise is possible. If you want, you can live in perpetual orgasm ecstasy.”

There was something spiritual and otherworldly about Mullah Malang’s heartening voice, which brought smiles to the faces of the worshipers. Faiz felt his anger slowly ebbing away. He wondered if he should follow the example of these men, put his faith in Mullah Malang, go to the hospital, return the next morning, and retrieve the bag of barley. “It may work,” he thought. “If he can charm all these men with his calming voice, he can probably charm God too.”

“Muslims’ final destination is paradise,” Mullah Malang went on. “There, we’ll be healthy and never get sick again. We’ll be young and never grow old again. And we’ll live in joy and never feel sadness or pain again.” Then he stood. “I’ll end the sermon here today.”

Most of the worshipers got up and left. A few of the young Taliban were so moved by Mullah Malang’s sermon they gathered around him, plying him with admiring questions. Faiz was among them. He wanted to congratulate Mullah Malang for such a poignant speech before leaving.

“What is the fastest way to paradise?” one of the Taliban asked.

“Killing infidels, of course,” Mullah Malang answered.

“How could killing another human being get anyone to paradise?” Faiz wondered. “If God created us all, why would He want one group of people to kill another group?” Now he was fully convinced that Mullah Malang was nothing but a sham, a first-class schemer. He pushed his way through the crowd until he reached the conman. “I changed my mind,” he said. “I want my money back.”

The smile disappeared from Mullah Malang’s face. “Don’t you believe in Allah’s words?” he asked.

“I do,” Faiz said. “But I want my $40 back.” He started to feel agitated. His lips and eyes twitched uncontrollably.

“If you believe in the Holy Koran, you won’t doubt me,” Mullah Malang remined him. Then he turned to the young Taliban standing around him. “Aren’t we Allah’s herd and isn’t He our shepherd?” he demanded.

“Yes!” they answered in one enthusiastic voice.

Mullah Malang turned back to Faiz. “How can a sheep doubt his shepherd?” he asked in a voice full of reproach. “I read you the verse from the Holy Koran about the grains. How can you distrust our glorious benefactor’s words? Are you an infidel?”

A pit opened up in Faiz’s stomach as he remembered an incident two weeks earlier when a highly educated girl his age—22 years old—went to a mosque in their neighborhood and challenged a mullah about the verses of the Koran he was reading and interpreting incorrectly in his sermon. The mullah called her an infidel. Faiz was crossing the road with his hands full of grocery bags when he saw hundreds of young, ignorant, angry, and sexually frustrated Taliban running after the frightened girl. They kicked her, hit her with their thick sticks, then stomped on her until she was dead. Then they dragged her to the main road and set her corpse on fire while people watched and did nothing out of fear.

“No, I’m not an infidel,” Faiz replied with a tremor in his voice, “but I want my money back.”

Mullah Malang pointed his finger at Faiz. “Infidel! Infidel!” he yelled.

Faiz was in motion before he even knew it. He stormed out of the mosque and tried to run the run of his life. The young Taliban charged after him like a flooding river, all eager to reach their final destination.