Dust Storm
                   Essay by J. Malcolm Garcia

      I realized we were lost minutes before the dust storm.
      The maze of alleys we followed, the open sewers and crumbling buildings
we passed confused us but my translator Jamshad and I kept walking.  
Chickens ran in zigzagging arcs that led nowhere and only increased their
frenzy, drivers honked until the noise served no purpose other than to make
more noise, and the packed sidewalks jostled us onto the street and in
between stalled cars.
      We were just blocks from my hotel, I knew, yet amid the sickening
odors of the sewers and all the commotion, I had lost my sense of direction.  
We had started our day in Pashtunabad, a neighborhood in the southern
Pakistan city of Quetta.  But where we had wandered from there I had no
idea.
      I was a reporter on assignment and had arrived in Quetta late the
previous evening from London.  When Jamshad and I left my hotel in the
morning I did not anticipate that we would have trouble retracing our steps
back.  I thought only of keeping my jet lag at bay and of the work ahead.  
I paid little attention to where we were walking.  All too quickly we were
sucked into the crowded disorder of Quetta’s chaotic rhythms.
      By the time I appreciated that we were lost it was too late to do
anything but forge ahead and complete my story and meet my deadline.  My
assignment was fairly simple: man-in-the-street interviews for a short feature
story.  I preferred that kind of reporting to that which required me to
interview uncooperative government officials whose sole purpose it seemed
was to smile and deny information and access, and convey just how little my
questions mattered.
      I felt sure someone would guide Jamshad and me back toward the hotel
once I had finished my interviews.  Jamshad, a university student who had
recently moved to Quetta from Peshawar, and whom a colleague had
recommended to me, agreed.  He was just getting acquainted with the city
himself and had a worse sense of direction than I did.
      My feet ached from walking the pitted roads and the sun bore down with
a relentless weight.  The wind picked up as the minutes passed. I turned my
head to clear my eyes of grit.  Blinking, I saw the blurred images of men on
crutches collected around me begging.  Goats grazed in piles of garbage and
shook their heads against the funnel clouds of flies that swarmed them.  
Barefoot children in frayed clothes leapt over sleeping dogs to touch me with
just the tips of their fingers as if I were some exotic animal on display.
      Jamshad and I stopped to speak with some shopkeepers standing outside
their stores.  They sold raisins and nuts and dried fruit from large burlap
sacks.  Freezers held soft drinks and the shelves above the freezers were
stocked with boxes of crackers.  We joined them for tea and I asked my
questions.  I explained I was writing a story about the lives of Pakistanis far
removed from the power hub of Islamabad the capital.  Did they think there
was any intersection between their daily lives and the political tensions of
American and Pakistani relations that consumed international headlines?
      The shopkeepers bent their heads against the rising wind and considered
my questions.  I took notes as best as I could but the racket of whirling air
and debris made their answers nearly indistinguishable from the raucous
confusion around us.  When I finished my interviews, Jamshad asked for
directions to my hotel.  The shopkeepers pointed first one way and then
another, entangling their arms in what could have passed for a vaudeville
skit.  They argued about the best route to follow before they gave up and
laughed and shrugged.
      I shouted my thanks for their time and Jamshad and I returned to the
street.  The force of the wind made it nearly impossible to walk, and a
wailing sound began to rise all around us like a train approaching.
      Jamshad pointed over my shoulder.  Turning, I saw a towering brown
dust cloud spinning toward us.  It rose above the vendor stalls and shops and
swallowed them whole in its rush forward expanding and growing, until its
granulated force consumed and lifted me off my feet and then seconds later
dropped me to the ground.
      I lay on my chest, pressed an arm around my face, and tried to stand
and look for a place to duck into.  Someone took my hand and helped me up.  
I did not see them but only felt their fingers wrap around mine.  I called
Jamshad’s name.  He came up behind me and I grasped his hand.  We were
led forward and despite myself I laughed at the thought of us as elephants
single filing it through the jungle.  No one spoke.  The wind bit into my skin
and filled my ears with dirt, and I tightened my grip on the unseen hand and
on Jamshad’s hand and hunched forward, head down, more like a plow horse
than an elephant.
      I did not see the building we entered.  Instead I tripped over a step and
someone caught me.  At the same time, the wind stopped clutching my body.  
Its harsh whistle called behind me shrill and insistent.  I breathed in the damp
air of the dimly lit space we had entered.  Jamshad stood beside me.  Brown
dust covered us both and I coughed and wiped my mouth and coughed again.  
Men with scarves wrapped around their noses and mouths rose from the floor
and stepped out from the shadows of the mud-brick walls and gathered
around me.  Strands of straw stuck out of the walls where some of the bricks
had worn thin.
      A table with a stethoscope stood inches from me.  Faded posters of
smiling women and children hung on the walls.  Colorful illustrations of hand
washing and syringes promoted good hygiene and inoculations against polio,
tuberculosis, and measles.
      One of the men motioned for me to sit in a metal chair.  It was the only
chair in the room and wobbled beneath my weight on the packed dirt floor.  
The man pulled off his scarf.  He had bright blue eyes and a heavy white
beard.  Deep lines in his weathered face showed his exhaustion.  He
introduced himself as Haji More Din.  Jamshad translated.
      “Where are you from?”
      “United States.  I’m a journalist.”
      “Do you talk to people in the Pakistani government?”
      “Sometimes.”
      Haji More Din gave me a wet hand towel and I wiped my face and
hands and gave it back to him.  He passed it to Jamshad.  He told us we
were in Batti Village on the outskirts of Pashtunabad.  Nearly six hundred
people lived in the village, he said.  Most of them were refugees from
southern Afghanistan.  Some had fled to Pakistan as long ago as 1979,
when the Soviet Union first invaded their country.
      “I saw you outside the village gate when the dust came,” he said.
      “We had walked too far.  Were you the one who led us here?”
      “Yes.”
      “Thank you.”
      “What is your tribe?”
      “United States.”
      “No, that is your country.  What is your tribe?”
      “Garcia.”
      “Is it big your tribe?”
      “There’re a lot of Americans with that name but my family is small.”
      “In America everyone has a car?”
      “Mostly.”
      “What tribe is your car?”
      “Honda.”
      “From Japan.  A rich country like America.”
      Haji More Din looked out the door.  I followed his glance.  A blue
sign revealed itself through a curtain of suspended dust.

         FAMILY PLANNING ASSOCIATION OF PAKISTAN
                                 SPONSORED BY IPPF
         THE DAVID AND LUCILE PACKARD FOUNDATION
                                  EMBASSY OF JAPAN

      “This place is an NGO?” I said, using the abbreviation for aid
organizations.
      “Yes, was.”
      “Clinic?”
      “Yes, was.  Tomorrow is the last day.  They have finished their
project.  Tomorrow they will take out the furniture.”
      Haji More Din pointed to the table and my chair.
      “That is all that is left.  And the staff,” he said, pointing to the men
around him.
      “How long has the clinic been here?”
      “Two years.  I am the owner of this building.  The NGO named me
chief of this property.  I am responsible for the building.  But there is
nothing to be responsible for now.”
      “Where is the NGO going?”
      “Africa.  Because of drought there.”
      A man brought out a tin tray with glass cups.  He set it on the table
and poured green tea from a pot.  He gave a cup to each of us in the room.  
Dried mud fell from wood beams shaken by the wind.  As I sipped the tea,
I felt the steam from my cup dampen my face.  The streaks of dust around
my eyes and nose turned to streaks of  mud.
      “There are two good government hospitals but they are far from
here,” Haji More Din said.  “The advantage of our clinic was that it was
here.”
      “What will you do?”
      “Something else.”
      He handed me a letter he had written.  In it, he requested help from
the Pakistani government but not for another clinic.  The villagers, he wrote,
wanted to return to Kabul where they believed US-operated NGOs would
help them.  However, they had no money for travel.  The letter asked the
government to help.
      Haji More Din asked me to deliver the letter to the Ministry of the
Interior in Islamabad.  He thought as a journalist I’d have contacts there.  
I didn’t.  Certainly not with anyone significant.  I knew only low-level
government bureaucrats who ferried my interview requests from one office
to another.  They were very polite but gave me little other than their time.  
More often than not, my “interview” resulted in nothing but a vague
meaningless statement from the government office that dealt with the subject
matter of my question.  The statement would be read to me in a formal
manner that while courteous allowed for no further inquiry.
      I could not bring myself to tell Haji More Din of my powerlessness.  
That in fact I had no more authority than he now did as the property owner
of a closed clinic.  Yet, his notion that I had clout, his naïve belief in my
influence, moved me.  I considered his cause hopeless, but what if I was
wrong?  
      What if by the slimmest of margins I found someone who took an
interest in Batti Village?  Unlikely, but what if?  What if in this one instance
I made a request that proved to be more than just another chore for a
bored government bureaucrat?  I felt exhilarated by the possibility and
agreed to deliver the letter.
      We finished our tea.  The dust storm had quieted, but the wind still
blew and I felt its force by the way the clinic shuddered.  Haji More Din
gave scarves to Jamshad and me.  He wrapped mine around my head and
face, covering everything but my eyes.
      “TB is very common here,” he said, holding my hand.  “Pneumonia too.  
Without this clinic we will get sick and die.  If we must die, let us die in
Afghanistan.”
      He released my hand and followed me to the door.  Jamshad and I
said good-bye and walked toward the village gate.  The wind gathered
around us as if we had committed some sort of trespass by leaving the clinic.  
I shut my eyes and pushed against the wind and grabbed Jamshad’s hand.  
I realized we had forgotten to ask Haji More Din for directions to the hotel.  
I turned around, cupped my hands around my mouth and called his name
through my scarf but the undertow of crisscrossing air currents drowned my
voice.
      I lifted my scarf, raised my head, and called his name again.  The wind
rose, thrusting my hands away from my mouth, and the letter snapped and
twisted and leapt from my fingers.  I watched it spin past the NGO sign and
the clinic roof, an unmoored scrap of paper frantically spiraling upward until
it was indistinguishable from all the other airborne scrap and dirt.  Haji More
Din stood in the doorway like someone behind a beaded curtain.  He stared
past me into the sky and then the wind rose once more and I lost sight of him
completely.           





                           ____________________________


J. Malcolm Garcia’s stories have been published in Virginia Quarterly
Review
, The Oxford American, and McSweeney’s.


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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Contemporary Literature
 

ISSN 1931-3888

Volume 7, Number 2
(Fall 2012)

Copyright © 2012
by Leah Browning, Editor.

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