As Max and I walk home, a child beggar follows us, whispering in plaintive, monotone Dari.
I never know what to do when I encounter beggars. I am embarrassed for them, embarrassed for myself, embarrassed by what separates us. I’m angry that their lives are so desperate, and angry that they remind me of my unearned privilege. A woman in a burqa approached me earlier. I cringed and handed her some bills. Her tashakor made me cringe again.
The little boy continues trailing Max and me. Max tells him to go away, but can’t say it without smiling.
The child turns to me.
“Go away, kid,” I say.
The boy matches my pace, walking sideways.
He doesn’t go away. He’s determined.
I reach out and muss the little boy’s dirty hair. He grins.
“Get going, kid. I mean it.”
I’m laughing now. This is what kids do to me.
Max slaps his forehead. Shit. The kid is going to follow us all the way home.
I reach out and pinch the boy’s freckled nose between my middle and forefinger. He stops for a moment. His face is indignant, shocked. I know what he’s thinking: this crazy khariji pinched me!
As compensation, I fork over 100 afs.
“You knew I would do that, didn’t you?”
The boy flashes his white baby teeth and runs off into the dust and twilight, leaving Max and me alone.
Later, at home, I open a book I received at a civil society coalition event a few weeks before, a book dedicated to remembrance of Afghanistan’s civilian war victims of the past thirty years. The text is in Dari, so I just look at the pictures. One is a photo of the beggar boy from my walk –or rather a boy who looked exactly like him.
The freckled child in the photograph stares back with soft murder victim eyes.
Afghanistan is a country of lost children, of small ghosts chasing a few afs through clouds of dust.
I sometimes wonder if, for all the good we try to do or to convince ourselves that we’re doing, there is still some kind of cosmic, negative karma that comes with seeing the things that we see. To this day I am haunted in the night by memories of little heads patted, little noses pinched (gently), little eyes looked into, grimy little hands shaken more than a decade ago. And almost every day, or so it seems, the collection of such memories grows…