April 8, 2016

"My wife will tell me I smell of death tonight"

The Ferryman by Azam Ahmed in Granta

My wife will tell me I smell of death tonight. She will leave two plastic tubs of water beside our door, one for my clothes and the other to bathe myself. She does not allow me to enter our home on nights like this, until I have shed the odor of the dead.

My friends snicker when they see the steaming tubs of water, which she heats to break the chill. They laugh because my wife tells me when I must clean myself. My neighbors respect me, though it is true that a woman directing a man is unusual. But these men do not know what I owe her.

Erasing the smell depends on the manner of death, and over the past five years I have become an expert. The odor of burn victims, for instance, is easier to erase when the burns are fresh. A simple bath will do. The scent of the decomposed requires many scrubbings before it goes. One must shampoo their beard and brush under their nails. You cannot overdo the rinsing.
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In five years, I have buried 748 men and I can tell you this: we are all hardened by this misery. Some have lost sons. Others land. But there is nothing so rigid as a man robbed of his humanity.
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We once spent three days carting the corpses of fifteen dead Taliban, swollen with rot and fluid, into the pink deserts of Registan. We have traveled the whole of the south in his yellow taxi, carrying the bodies of the war dead for all sides: soldiers, police, Taliban and now, I think, the Americans. What Raheem Gul does not understand is that you cannot draw a line. I do not do this work for the government, or the Taliban, or even the men who I collect from the battlefield and return to their loved ones. All these years I have done this for God.
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‘Every soul will taste death,’ the mullah says, reading from the Holy Quran. The men in the mosque, Raheem Gul and his followers, know more than the taste of death, I think. They have feasted on it and it has soured their ability to appreciate anything else.

It has soured mine, too, but in a different way. I can no longer eat cooked meat. The smell makes me ill. My wife cooks our rice and vegetables without lamb or chicken, a meal most Afghans would find poor. I think of her now, hanging wet clothes in the courtyard, boiling the pilau for dinner, heating the water for my bath over an open fire with bricks on either side to hold the pot.
Posted by Jill Fallon at April 8, 2016 4:52 PM | Permalink