In this installment of our series of translated reports by Majed Neisi, we follow the filmmaker as he attempts to get access to a heroin lab in the mountains just outside of Darayem, Afghanistan. To do so, he must first make nice with two rivaling smugglers.

I sit several days, waiting in my hotel for the phone call that would allow me to film a heroin lab. When the call comes, I am told a driver will come to take me to Darayem. A few days earlier I’d had a talk with smuggler Haji Sharif, who then went to Darayem to confer with sometime-rival smuggler Molla Kabir. The arrangement was that the latter, Molla Kabir, would take me to the heroin lab. Now I head to Darayem where the heroin labs are and where the mountains are securely in Taliban hands. Again and again I ask myself, “Majed, what do you think you’re doing?” But here I am… going.

The mountain road is all dirt. The entire way the driver, Molla Karim, plays a cassette with the voice of some cleric going on about religious matters. I ask him about the situation in Darayem and how safe it is.

“Wherever there’s Taliban, there’s safety,” he says. “Since they moved into our area, there’s been abundance.”

“How so?” I ask.

“Since the Taliban moved in, we can plant the poppy. The people are not starving anymore, because they have opium. And if the government tries to bully us, we have weapons.”

His words have me sweating. Suddenly, in the middle of the road, he stops, jumps out, and runs down the hill dragging a barrel. I watch helplessly as he disappears behind rocks. Now I’m sure the Taliban will come and take me. The whole thing was a setup to take me hostage. Nothing to do about it. I sit still, wiping cold sweat off my face with my Afghan handkerchief. I push the seat back, close my eyes and wait for the inevitable. Before long I feel someone sit next to me in the car. I open my eyes; it’s my driver. Though it’s midsummer, his barrel is full of snow.

“I went to get some snow so we could drink cool water. It’s hot here.”

“But where did you get the snow?”

“The locals have made some kind of refrigerators in these mountains. They are able to keep the snow fresh for the summer.”

In Darayem we visit Molla Kabir’s house. I stay the night and tell him I’d like to film the heroin lab. Police have arrived in the area, I discover, and are getting ready to do battle with the Taliban. On the way there, the driver had lectured me that the police had no way of really fighting the Taliban. “A Talib wants to die so he will become a martyr. But the police, they just try to keep from getting killed. For this reason alone the Taliban are stronger. The police have come here many times and lost,” he boasted.

“Even if a hundred armed men stand in our path they won’t be able to take you away. I was a fighter for 35 years, and I got wounded thirty times and still survived.” He shows me all the places he’s been hit. His body is literally full of holes.

Now Molla Kabir tells me that in order to film, he’d have to take me to the Taliban-controlled mountains himself. He calls the Taliban commander: no response. Molla Kabir explains that because of the police the Taliban have temporarily taken cover. Sooner or later, their commander is bound to call. Again we sit out the night at his house. Finally the phone rings; someone tells the Molla the police are after him. He, too, should break for the mountains. How many police? Molla Kabir asks. When he is told there are 30, he says, “They can’t catch me with just 30 armed men. I’m home and have no intention of going anywhere.” He must have plenty of armed men himself if he isn’t afraid of 30 policemen.

I, on the other hand, am sweating again. All through the night I keep imagining we’ll be attacked here in Molla Kabir’s quarters.

By morning, the Molla still hasn’t managed to find the Taliban commander. He tells me I should return to Feyzabad, and wait for his call. But then Haji Sharif calls and asks to speak to me. Molla Kabir says he hasn’t seen me yet. How odd. I guess that the Molla has decided for some reason to simply keep Haji Sharif out of this business of letting me film the heroin factory.

At the bazaar in Darayem, I catch a taxi for Feyzabad. But Haji Sharif himself shows up, fuming; he makes a racket in the middle of the bazaar. The Haji discovered I am already in Darayem and that Molla Kabir lied to him. I sit still in the car, trying to make myself small. I wait for the cab to fill with travelers and start on its way. A fellow wearing typical Mujahidin clothes (including the Pakol hat of Ahmad Shah Masud fame) sits next to me. Looking me over, he says, “Young man, I know who you are and why you’re here. Don’t be afraid. I’m in this car to protect you.”

I am terrified. All I can get out is, “Why? What has happened? Who are you?”

“I will tell you. Just don’t talk right now.”

The car finally starts. But at the head of the bazaar several people block our way. Someone I can’t quite see in the confusion rushes to the driver’s window and asks where he is heading. “Feyzabad,” the driver answers, slowly starting the car again. The old Mujahid turns to me and says, “Do you realize who that man was? That was Haji Sharif. I happen to know he has sent out at least two armed men up ahead to block the car and take you hostage. He even offered me a thousand dollars to steal you myself, but I didn’t accept. I’ve been sent by Molla Kabir to get you safely to Feyzabad, and I will do just that.”

I ask him to explain.

“Your first contact was Haji Sharif. But Molla Kabir brought you all the way out here and didn’t even tell the Haji about it. Now Haji Sharif wants to exact vengeance on Molla Kabir.”

“Maybe Haji Sharif originally had something to gain from all this and that’s why he is so angry.”

“Don’t worry about all that now,” says The Mujahid. “Even if a hundred armed men stand in our path they won’t be able to take you away. I was a fighter for 35 years, and I got wounded thirty times and still survived.” He shows me all the places he’s been hit. His body is literally full of holes. “I don’t carry a gun anymore. I’ve got plenty of armed men myself. And as long as I’m sitting in this car with you, no one will dare get in our way. Feel this!” He places my hand on his neck. A hard metal fragment is lodged there, moving to the touch.

We drive on, speeding through valleys and mountain passes, stopping for no one else. After one of the last turns, the Mujahid says, “Now you can rest easy. The armed men were supposed to have caught you before this point. We’re passed it now. Haji Sharif knows me very well. Both he and his men know me. They saw me in this car sitting beside you and didn’t dare do anything.”

Before long, we arrive in Feyzabad. I’m in a daze; for a while I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing. In the afternoon, Haji Sharif also arrives. When I see him my anger bursts open: “Now you send armed men after me?”

Casually, Haji Sharif replies, “It was nothing. I just wanted to teach Molla Kabir a lesson.”

But I still have to get my film. Haji Sharif and I talk some more and agree to go back to the mountains together. I laugh. Just this morning this man sent thugs to take me hostage. If he had succeeded, the equation would be completely different.

Perhaps this would seem too fantastic anywhere else in the world. But this is Afghanistan and the place has its own peculiar arrangements. A guy who sends armed men to snatch you can only be someone brave. Someone you can count on. As long, of course, as you enter into a deal with him not as an enemy but as a friend.

Salar Abdoh

Salar Abdoh's last novel, Out of Mesopotamia, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice and named a Best Book of 2020 by Publishers Weekly. His latest book is A Nearby Country Called Love (Viking Penguin, 2023). He lives and works between Tehran and New York.

Majed Neisi

Majed Neisi was born in a desert hospital in southern Iran during a bombardment in the Iran-Iraq War. Since then he has dedicated himself to examining the pathology of war in a succession of Middle Eastern battlegrounds in Iraq, Lebanon and Afghanistan. The archetypal outsider, this Arabic-speaking Iranian inhabits the no-man's-land in the post September 11 confrontation between the West and Islam. His 12 films examine ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances and have been screened in festivals in France, the U.S., Sweden, Holland and South Africa.

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