Even under the full moon, the red revolving floodlights along the border between Iran and Afghanistan are easily visible. My guide is asleep in the next room. I wake him up, so we can get a head start toward the border village of Gazik. We are going to meet Mohammad Osman. “I’ll be up and running at 5:00 a.m.,” he’d said. “Be there before me.”
Mohammad Osman Yusefzai has been arrested three times by Iranian border police for trafficking undocumented immigrants, and every time they’ve had to let him go for lack of evidence. His area of operation is the South Khorasan province of Iran, which borders Farah in Afghanistan. “I have no idea where this guy is from,” an Iranian Border Police colonel told me later. “He’s got both Iranian and Afghan papers. The illegals we catch never testify against him. Even when we lock them up, they still won’t testify. We know for a fact this man is moving people, but without witnesses stepping forward our hands are tied.”
I grew up near the border, on the Iranian side. In these in-between regions we have an entire vocabulary for the geography of our lives. Some places we simply call the border, some we call border-plus, some are called this-side-of-the border and some that-side-of-the-border. It is a vocabulary that can be exhausting, and dangerous. Gazik is border-plus. It is on the very cusp.
Our aim is to meet Mohammad Osman early, before he dashes across to retrieve his human cargo. There’s no sign of him in the designated parking lot, just a lone gray Peugeot. He shows up right before dawn, looking fearless and sure of himself. He is tall and has the tan of the desert. I’ve been told he’s about 35, but he looks ten years older. Loose pants taper at his ankles and he wears a noticeably long white shirt—typical attire for Iranians and Afghans of the border areas. It’s his leather jacket, though, that stands out in the intense, dusty summers around here.
As an excuse to meet him, I told Mohammad Osman I wanted to sneak into Afghanistan to avoid being fingerprinted by the Taliban. He doesn’t believe me. “Everybody wants to leave that cursed land to come here, and you want to go there?” I stare at him, unsure of what to say. “What is it you really want?”
“I know a bit about your clan, you know. The Yusefzai over in Farah.”
He’s unimpressed, and looks at me in silence.
“Look, I just want to learn about the business of border traffic.”
The “business” of the border is a thousand different things. Fuel, rice, sugar, beans, opium, humans. I’d always wanted to know the people who worked the line. For the first time in our brief conversation Mohammad Osman returns my gaze, and then he starts rattling off specific information about my family. Information is his job, and he has me down cold. He says, “Listen, I’m not about to create a headache for myself by revealing the secrets of my trade to you.” I promise not to get in his way.
He replies, “I still don’t understand what it is you do.”
Life in Iran might not be easy for a lot of people, but compared to life in Afghanistan it’s a cakewalk. For one thing, there are no suicide bombings every other day. In fact, there are two reasons why an Afghan risks the border crossing at all: to get work in Iran that Iranians won’t do, or to find transit into Turkey to get to Europe. Either way, the border has to be crossed.
A pair of young men appear in the dim light of the parking lot. Assistants. Immediately they get to work, and start taking off the car’s license plates. Mohammad Osman curses under his breath the whole time. When he curses, his Afghan accent completely takes over. I ask my guide, what’s with the fake Iranian accent he puts on the rest of the time?
“What’s the difference what accent he fakes?” my guide shoots back. “Do any of us living around here really know which side of the border we belong to?”
He has a point. On the other hand, border people have an almost obsessive relationship with identity—their own and everybody else’s. We tend to immediately want to know where someone is from. We ask them questions about their geography; we want to pin them down in space and time. Mohammad Osman takes a spiral notebook out of the pocket of his leather jacket and waves it at me. “Don’t ask questions,” he says. “Just go with it. The names you see in here, they are the names of my travelers.”
Yaqoob Salehrafi, Kunduz, January 28; Misaq Mohammadi, Anar-Dara, April 8th; Masumeh Yadegari, Faryab, January 5 …
I have no idea what the dates signify. Are these the dates they crossed the border? Or the day they signed up to cross? I try to show off the little bit I do know about the border business, and tell him how easily I can pick out the cars and buses that have been outfitted to cross over illegally. His laughter is like the neighing of a horse. “I take care of my people, understand? I don’t make them suffer sending them here and there. God takes care of Mohammad Osman and his work.” His two young assistants take all the seats out of the car. The stench that rises from the carpeting envelops us, difficult to take.
“What is that smell?”
“Don’t ask,” he says automatically. “Just take it in. That’s fear you’re smelling. A person can’t hold much inside when they’re that scared.”
The Border Patrol reports that approximately 3,000 Afghans try to cross into Iran from Afghanistan and Pakistan every day. Half of them are caught right away and turned back. The other half make a beeline for the big cities, hoping to blend in and disappear. As I’m wondering how Mohammad Osman and his cargo will fare today, he says, “If for any reason the police stop you and ask questions, you tell them I used to work in your father’s house. Got it?”
The assistants walk off with the car seats while Mohammad Osman loads several gas cans in the trunk.
I muster a casual tone and say, “We’ll follow you in our own car.”
He doesn’t bother to reply. “Take this woman away from here now,” he says to my guide.
“But I want to learn how you get across the border!”
“Wait for us tomorrow at the Shamsabad Junction. We’ll be back with our load between 4:00 and 6:00 a.m. That’s as much as I’m going to show you.”
They set out.
For Mohammad Osman, who has spent his entire adult life hauling humans back and forth, there’s never a question of why things are done, only the question of how. On the other side of the border there are no jobs, and a war, and there are men and women trying, somehow, to get to this side. But crossing the line comes with a cost. They need passports and visas and letters of invitation—things an Afghan who is not an expert at anything, and whose existence is of no consequence to anyone, will never get. The why is self-evident. Mohammad Osman says his job is to “make people’s lives better.” What I don’t understand is the mechanism.
The next morning we hit the road at 3:00 a.m. There are a half-dozen ghost villages in the vicinity of the border. The one we drive to, the village of Shamsabad, was a lively place until a couple of decades ago, even boasting a marketplace. Then special Border IDs were issued to area residents, the authorities clamped down on who belonged to which side, and the market was closed. Choices had to be made; folk had to decide if they were Afghans or Iranians. Abandoned mud huts and rusting shipping containers are fading testimony to that time, a reminder of the realities of border life that loom over people here.
At the Shamsabad Junction we turn the engine off and wait. Afghan music wafts low over the radio, and unease sits in the car like another passenger. What if Mohammad Osman has gotten caught this time? It’s still dark, but I get out. The wind and dust are overwhelming. At last we hear a car approaching. It’s him, driving with no headlights.
He signals us to follow. Inside the dead village we stop in front of one of the old shipping containers. Mohammad Osman jumps out of his car and unlatches the trunk; six people straggle out.
I stand, there watching in disbelief. In the backseat are an impossible number of people, all tied down together with rope. On the top is a visibly pregnant woman, staring up at the car’s ceiling. Beneath her is man who is more than likely her husband. No one speaks until the rope is pulled off. Each traveler gets out, then turns back to give Mohammad Osman a hand. There are people in the front seat, too. All in all, I count a total of eighteen.
The pregnant woman can barely move, moaning quietly to herself. I can already tell that she and her husband are Pashto speakers, from a region close to Pakistan. The rest of the passengers speak Persian. In all of them there’s fear, anxiety, fatigue, and frustration. Afghans have an expression for this particular combination: it’s called zende-margi, living-death.
Mohammad Osman is holding the hand of an older man and speaking to him in a thick Afghan accent, far more respectfully than I’d heard him speak before. I have no idea who this man is, and I’m not supposed to ask any questions or talk to anyone. Of the eighteen, seven are obviously Hazara Shia, with very distinct Central Asian features. They will probably be easy pickings for the Iranian authorities. The rest might have a fighting chance if they don’t open their mouths to let their accents give them away. How this is possible, I am not sure.
Mohammad Osman steers everyone toward the shipping container. None of the eighteen carries a single piece of luggage, or even a small bag. My guide takes out a few packets of biscuits and soda from the back of our own car and lays them out for the travelers.
Mohammad Osman turns to me, “A bad dust storm is on the way. Your eyes will suffer.” My discombobulation must be showing. He takes out a pouch of kohl from his pocket and offers it to me. “Blacken your eyes. Kohl is magic for the eyes. Gives you the power of sight in the desert.”
A gentle side of him. Far too gentle for my idea of how a smuggler is supposed to act.
To the eighteen travelers, I am invisible. They don’t see me. They’ve come out of hell and they’re grateful just to be alive. I imagine them on the road, the hours they’ve spent tied down like that, and the way they look now, unsteady, murmuring to themselves. What do they hope to gain in Iran?
The wind picks up and Mohammad Osman’s voice is barely audible. “Ayoub and Yaqoob will be here soon. Before midday they’ll get these people to Zabul. Our job is to get them that far; after that they’re on their own.”
“And if they’re caught? What border crossing do the police use to ship them back to Afghanistan?”
“The 78 Mile Road from Birjand.”
The 78 Mile Road from Birjand. It sounds like a song.
I still haven’t seen any money change hands. Now that he’s no longer insisting I keep my mouth shut, I say, “You must be a rich man.”
“No. This is not money that lasts. Depending on who I’m transporting, I take anywhere between 100 and 500 dollars before the trip.”
He says “dollars” like an American would—or like an Afghan would, after having had Americans invade his country and stay for going on two decades. Once again I’m unsure about this man. I want to believe him when he talks about making people’s lives better, easier. I want him to confess to me that he doesn’t take money from those who are too poor, or whose lives are in too much danger. But he talks quite readily about money—about the dollars on the other side of the border, and what he has to do to get them to Iran. He’s a real smuggler, after all. This border might be a terrible thing for most people, but for Mohammad Osman it’s been profitable.
I ask him, “Who do you think builds borders?”
He shrugs. “The barbed wire was probably built in Birjand.”
The question is too philosophical for him, or else he doesn’t want to answer. For Mohammad Osman, the person who makes the barbed wire also makes the border. Both he and the wire-maker earn a living from the border. The Afghans gather inside the shipping container and Mohammad Osman closes the hefty metal door behind them. The next step is for his assistants to arrive and collect the travelers for the next stage of their journey.
I watch Mohammad Osman get in his car, most of his work done. He turns to me and calls, “You never told me what you do for a living.”
“And you never told me where you’re really from,” I say. “But if anyone ever asks you, tell them you’re from the Khorasan province.”
He might or might not get it. Khorasan is a huge swath of the earth that has eternal significance for us Afghans. It’s that territory of the real and of the imagined that connects Afghans to Iranians and to Central Asia – the cradle of Persian civilization. Now we have the barbed wire, which cleaves Khorasan in two. It doesn’t take much introspection on my part to realize what I’ve told Mohammad Osman is my own issue, not his. He waves a hand indifferently and drives away.
Eight months later, in April 2018, I receive word that Mohammad Osman has been caught and is being kept at the Ferdows prison. It’s a substantial drive to get to the town of Ferdows, and I’m uncertain if it’s worth it to go. They might not let me see him; I’m not close kin, nor do I carry a journalist identification card. I go anyway.
The officer in charge says, “Of course we know this guy. He insists he’s Afghan and carries an Afghan passport. But that could be a fake. Or maybe his Iranian passport is fake. Or maybe they’re both fake. Who knows! I can’t tell you what exactly will happen to him. If, as always, he turns out to be Afghan, we’ll just throw him back to the other side. But if he should ever turn out to be Iranian, well, then his offense is pretty serious.”
We drink tea and chat, about the misfortunes of the Afghan people, the ongoing negotiations with the ruthless Taliban—who, even while negotiating, keep murdering fellow Afghans—the statistics on the dead and maimed, the numbers. We speak like newscasters, about everything and anything except the one thing that really matters: why the border is there at all.
The officer is from Shiraz, a laidback city in the south, far from any of Iran’s numerous borders. On his desk sit an Afghan-made bracelet and a package of Indian green tea.
He volunteers, “Gifts from these Afghans who are our ‘guests’ for a while. When we finally send them back home, they always leave something behind and invite me to visit them if I’m ever in Afghanistan.” In that moment, this officer and Mohammad Osman and I seem to me to be one and the same person.
Three hours later they haul Mohammad Osman in. He’s visibly happy to see me, and starts chattering in the thick Pashto that no Iranian speaks. He’s trying to establish his Afghan bona fides for the authorities, but even while speaking Pashto he reminds me of the fiction we agreed upon eight months before, that he used to work for my father.
“Where have you been?” I ask.
Again he bursts into Pashto. “I was supposed to bring my uncle’s daughter from Kunduz and decided to take on a few other people who wanted to get to Iran. What harm’s in that? But the woman, my cousin, what can I tell you! I heard she’s already married an Iranian while I’m rotting here in jail.”
I have no idea if he’s making this up. He’s playing a whole other role today. A soldier, who’s been standing at attention next to the door, brings him a glass of water, and Mohammad Osman offers a flurry of thank-yous in Pashto. It looks like they’re inclined, as always, to accept him as an Afghan. The officer says, “We’ll send him back to Afghanistan soon.”
This time Mohammad Osman murmurs in the more familiar accent of the border, “So much the better. Who wants Iran anyhow!”
The soldier, standing at attention again, sighs, as if agreeing with him. There’s something utterly absurd, even sentimental, about our situation in this room, and this mix of sympathy and unforgiving law. After more than a year trying to figure out the human smuggling trade in this region, I finally understand that what I’ve really been trying to put my finger on is identity. Who is Mohammad Osman? A smuggler, neither Afghan nor Iranian. A person of the border. Mohammad Osman, like many border people, can shapeshift; he can be Robin Hood or Noah. He can make people’s lives better, as he claims, or he can funnel them into this prison.
The officer excuses himself and leaves the room for a minute. With the soldier still with us, I ask Mohammad Osman if he needs anything. He continues to play the innocent—the lovestruck, clueless, Pashto-speaking Afghan. A clever narrative, but he still has to put in his six months behind bars and pay a fine before they throw him out.
I recall that last image of us in the desert, him asking me what I do for a living.
“We’re both merchants, you know.”
He eyes me, and I want to believe he is as smart a smuggler as I wish he were.
“I’m a writer. I sell words to people. And you sell them the border.”
I take out of my wallet the little pouch of kohl he had given, and leave it for him on the table. The dreamy private pays no mind.