and so there i was in abbottabad in february 2002. i was working for a sili valley tech firm and had originally been on a trip to china to talk to one of our suppliers to calm them down after the US consumer tech market was going into the toilet after 9/11. somehow we decided we needed to fly to hyderabad to meet with some of the guys writing our software.
meetings there took about ten minutes and concluded with us ending our relationship with that firm. but we still had three days until our return flight (yeah, we completely misread that situation.) my boss decides to try to catch an earlier flight home, but i'm happy to hang out in pakistan for a bit. i had worked here for a while back in the 80s and still had some friends up north.
so i start making some phone calls and catch up with an old friend up in islamabad and we make plans to meet up. i'm able to catch a puddle-jumper up without too many problems. i'm waiting in the airport in islamabad to meet my friend and start up a conversation with some australians who were trying to make sense of the taxi stand.
they're apparently here to do some sort of gig at bagram air base and are supposed to meet a rep from whatever the australian equivalent of the USO is, but they've been waiting for a few hours and so far no luck.
my friend shows up at about this time and apparently thinks the band is with me and starts asking a bunch of questions about when i became a musician. by the time he figures out what's happening he's offered to help the guys out. he has a cousin who supposedly knows everyone up at bagram so he's pretty sure we can get this sorted out.
so we pile into a black SUV and drive down to abbotabad (my friend's teaching at the local military academy there, which, if you know the pakistani military, you know that's kind of a big deal.) we get to his house (which is really more of a COMPOUND) and it's quite nice: fountain in the open area in the middle, a couple gardens and three separate buildings (not counting the building built into the wall of the compound.)
and we're inside and learn he as a few kids. and the kids are all eager to practice their english on us and honestly... it's sort of amazing watching nine-year-olds speaking english, urdu and what i'm guessing is majhi.
and then i see her. i'll call her leyla (not her real name.) we had met in the 80s in Skardu when i was trying to escape the horrors of war. for a brief period of time we courted. after spending a couple weekends together some form of guilt took hold and she demanded i follow the courting traditions of her people. that lasted for about ten minutes at a time since she couldn't really remember her people's courting rituals and couldn't keep up the pretense for more than that.
her father was iranian and her mother was sikh. it made for a great combination in the 70s, but by the time war came around in the 80s both their families had disowned them for marrying "aliens." so here she was, beautiful as ever, married to my best friend from pakistan with two beautiful kids and a small army of domestic help.
it's generally poor form in pakistan to try to manouver your best friends wife into a private conversation, but we were all modern adults and as long as we weren't gone too long, no one would care.
leyla and i left skardu together. there wasn't too much for her there but a bad job for a crooked NGO. i was able to introduce here to the MCF guys i knew in peshawar. that's where she came in contact with my friend and after i returned home in the 80s they apparently married and fell in love.
what i didn't know in the 80s was my friend was a spook. his cover job was as a bureaucrat for the army's logistics staff. what i suspect he was really doing was loading hash onto the backs of C-130s bound for the US. the reason i suspect that is after talking with leyla, he walked up and offered me a bowl of some truly excellent hash.
now... if you're in a foreign country and someone offers you drugs, the most sensible thing to do is to refuse, jump up and feign indignation. or maybe you can muster real indignation. if so, good for you. play it for all you can cause drug laws in some foreign countries are positively medieval. but this was a good friend, who was effectively the man and we were in his private compound.
"you ever think of what your life with her would be like?" he asked. which is surprisingly forward for your typical pakistani gentleman.
"sometimes," i lied.
i thought of her, but never though of what might have been. there was no way i was going to stay in the war zone she called home and it was pretty unlikely she would move to texas. i just couldn't think of a future for us.
"but our past was good enough," i said, "she seems happy, so things worked out."
"she missed you for a while," he said, "she still does from time to time. but i think she is happy. and i am happy i can make her happy."
"careful," i warned, "you'll turn into a soft american." (this was a joke from back in the 80s. he would chastise me for the sentimentality of american film while crying at the end of every sad drama we screened at the consulate.)
"tell me of your wife," he said, moving the conversation to the present.
"she's beautiful, and smart," i replied, "and willful."
this brought out a laugh in my friend, "of course she is," he said, "you wouldn't abide a woman who wasn't as passive aggressive as yourself."
and we kept on talking that night, drifting in and out of a pleasant high, ignoring the troubles of the world for one evening.
the musicians found a casio keyboard and a cello in the house. their own instruments were on a flight to kabul. after dinner they played several songs. the one i remember was the one about a boat house. the woman playing the cello made it sing beautifully while the rhythm section made due banging on various pans and doors and chairs.
and in the morning the musicians caught their flight to bagram and i returned home smuggling half a kilo of hashish in my luggage. my friend was killed a year later in the tribal areas up north; another casualty of an idiotic war.
leyla moved back to tehran for a while, but her children are grown and she's gone back to work for MSF in syria, or at least that's what i hear.
but i still think of her and how impossible our lives would be together. i remember wading in the icy water of the shigar river with her and watching her play with her children in abbottabad while i was stoned and listening to songs about boat houses.
i think these memories should make me sad, but they don't. they're moments in time filled with uncomplicated joy that can never be erased.