An Encounter With Mullah Turabi
It was a beautiful sunny day in May 1999, and Nasir and I were walking in the center of Kabul city. I was 19 and, despite my ceaseless displeasure, had a bushy beard, which I could not shave or even cut short. Against the apparent desire of a teenager, I had trimmed my hair to only 1-inch and also, as a token of adherence to Taliban rules, had a traditional hat over my head. Nasir and I had come to the city center to spend a day wondering around the places we had visited numerous times before. Like other teenagers in then Afghanistan, we had no education to worry about, no job to report to, no girlfriends to spend time with, and basically had no possibility of any other entertainment but to walk aimlessly around the streets. Too often we were just rumbling about a major market place in the north of Kabul, Laycee Maryam, near our home in Khairkhana. In retrospect, I believe anyone who was a teenager in the 1990s Afghanistan, had the most unproductive, boring and in many aspects the darkest decade of his/her life.
That day, my friend, Nasir, and I had come to the city center to check out the central bazaar and to have lunch at a very local restaurant which served Shorway-e-Kala-va-Pacha — a soup of sheep’s head and legs in which bread was soaked to be eaten with freshly-cut onion. Indeed, we couldn’t afford this US$0.15 lunch every often and had it as a treat once in three or four months depending when we could save enough to pay for it.
Before the lunch, we were walking near an old cinema building outside the southern gate of what’s known as the Presidential Palace in Kabul. Of course, neither there was a president in the palace nor a show in the cinema. The cinema was shut down — the building, although located in a prime business area, was useless and sort of dilapidated. As we remorsefully walked across the cinema, we saw a commotion in the making nearby. We were Kabulis and our first reaction to such social signs was to run away — run like a crazy. We were used to the Taliban’s religious police who were conducting regular inquisition raids everywhere in the city. These police were notoriously misbehaving and oftentimes violent. They would examine men’s beards for signs of trimming and woe betide those who had. They were always carrying scissors by which they would cut big chunks of the hair of young men thereby forcing them to shave their heads later on. If one had trimmed his beard or found carrying a music cassette in his pockets, he would be taken to a waiting van and transported for a short term, often one night to a week, detention. On top of these, sometimes some Taliban officials would randomly stop men and ply them with dodging religious questions such as “recite x verse of the Quran…how many God-mandated (Farz) are there in ablution?” Good for you if you knew the answer, but if one did not, he was either punished on the spot or sent for short “educational” detention.
That spring day, Nasir and I could not dash away. Armed Taliban had already encircled the area and any escape attempt would risk serious consequences even shooting at us. So, we were rolled in a long line right across the roundabout facing the Ministry of Justice — like a herd of sheep. We were in great peril and we knew it. I whispered to Nasir “it’s Mullah Turabi!” to which he reacted sheepishly by a weak nod.
Turabi was the most feared Taliban inquisitor. He was the minister of justice but took religious inquisitions as a critical element in his ministerial performance.
The one-eyed burly Turabi had lost a leg in the armed adventures, the Jihad, and was particularly unrelenting towards the young men who worked for NGOs and took care of themselves in terms of trimming their beard and hair and wearing fancy hats and clothes.
I quickly repositioned my hat and uncurled my beard with fingers to show it was long and untrimmed.
Nasir and I were not talking to each other, either out of fear or an effort not to draw attention. Most of the men in the line were pressing their memories for answers to the most likely religious questions. In few minutes, I could see the corner of a charpoy bed where the inquisition was taking place. Like some other affairs, the Taliban were also brutally efficient in quickly running people through their inquisition lines. So, in less than 10 minutes, I was called to step forward.
On the charpoy was sitting none but the real man — Mullah Turabi. A chubby man with one leg dangling down and the other, a prosthetic, nakedly lying next to his side. He looked up and I down and our eyes met for the very first time — gosh! One of his eyes looked weird. It was grayer than the other and wasn’t blinking. Later, I was told that Turabi had also lost an eye in the Jihad.
“What’s your name?” demanded Turabi in roaring voice.
“Akmal” I blurted immediately.
“What? Akmal? What kind of a name is this?” he uttered half angrily half sarcastically.
I had no answer to these questions. God save me. I knew my name was derived from a Quranic verse and meant “Perfect” in Arabic, but I had no idea what why Mr. Turabi didn’t like it.
“Why there is no Allah or Mohammad or Abdul with your name, boy?” and before I could say anything a young armed man standing behind of Turabi said “it sounds like a communist name!”
“What? A communist? You must be out of our little brain, man. How could I be a communist? I was only 9-year-old when the Soviets left. I think you have no idea of math,” of course, I said this in my mind. In fact, I was standing silently.
“Your name should be Mohammad Akmal,” Turabi instructed.
“Yes, sahib, it’s Mohammad Akmal,” I said obediently.
“You can go,” he ordered and waved me off.
Rejuvenated, I walked away in speed. I couldn’t believe my luck. I had dodged none but Turabi’s inquisition test. I wanted a “pass license” or an official certificate that I had gone through Turabi’s test so that I could brag about it and show in future encounters with Taliban religious police.
Nasir joined me later. He was queried about noon prayers and passed the test.
We proudly walked to the restaurant and devoured our separate share of sheep’s head & legs soup. We talked excessively about our encounter with Mullah Turabi. None of us knew that in 2020, I’ll meet Mullah Turabi again but under completely different circumstances. I’ll write about that in future.