Most Unforgettable Character Silver Winner: Afghans and Texans

by Taylor Jennings

Reza Shahnan’s entrance one morning during breakfast at the Park Guest Quarters in Kabul the summer of 2003 caused a bit of a stir. He was one of those unusually tall Afghan men and was wearing a finely tailored suit in sharp contrast to the olive drabs, jeans and photographer’s vests worn by the Western guests.

The Park was unusually crowded that day with short-term foreign contractors flooding in.  We were all sharing tables, passing coffee and juice back and forth, munching on Corn Flakes and burnt toast in the vain hope of warding off stomach ailments.

With his smooth, shaved head and bushy black mustache Reza looked exactly like what he turned out to be – a security agent, capable of killing and prepared to be killed.  But I didn’t know that at the time as I watched the local staff scrape and fawn over him.  They called him Reza Han which I thought was one word until a colleague explained that Han is a title of respect.

On that morning, overcome with curiosity, I reached out and politely asked if I could borrow the salt and pepper on his table and he turned to me with that radiant smile and old world manners few men have and even fewer women can resist.

He stopped by my table the following afternoon as I was having a glass of wine in the Park’s rose bordered garden and typing notes into my laptop on the day’s activities, training local Afghan journalists in the basics of independent reporting and asking questions.  Reza gave a slight bow, introduced himself in fluent French and asked where I was from.

“I didn’t know they spoke French in Texas.” He said in equally fluent English at my answer.

Reza would show up in the rose garden each evening around cocktail hour just as most of us were returning from exhausting forays in and around Kabul on sometimes misguided assignments to help bring Afghanistan into the 21st century.  The garden of the Park was our refuge from the heat and dust of the world outside, an oasis among the ruins of Kabul six months after the defeat of the Taliban.

It was during those languid afternoons when the stifling dry heat of the day retreated a bit, chased by a cool breeze blowing down from the mountains, that we heard the details of Reza’s life while indulging in the haram pleasure of wine and beer purchased at a shop that catered to foreigners. Usually we were four: Reza, myself, John, an American hydroelectric engineer, and Richard, a former British SAS officer, born in Zimbabwe. Richard and Reza were training Afghans to be bodyguards and security agents for the Karzai government.

Reza laughingly said that at times he regretted he was not an orphan because it would make it easier to answer questions about his origins. He told us he had been born into an aristocratic family who gave him up, at the age of three, to be a live-in playmate for the King’s young sons.

“Hence Reza Han,” John mused.

“Well, nowadays Han is used more as a term of affection than a title. But many Afghans still remember my father, Faisal Shahnan, though few remember that he gave me away when I was only a child. I lived my entire childhood inside the royal household, always surrounded by bodyguards, never allowed to play with other boys. I didn’t see my family again until I was 16 and Zahir Shaw was overthrown by his cousin Daud. The Shahnan family went into exile first to London and then to Paris.”

Reza recounted the tale in a rush as if it had lost the power to hurt him.  He then reached into his coat and fished out an old postcard he’d found the day before at a shop on Chicken Street, a sepia colored photo taken sometime in the late 1890’s of a royal Afghan hunting party replete in magnificent turbans and elaborately carved rifles. The names of the notable nobles were all listed on the back, including King Amanullah.

Reza pointed to a handsome man on the front row, resting on one knee, holding a long barreled rifle. That’s my great-grandfather,” He looked exactly like Reza, mustache and all.

On another occasion Reza told us he had been married twice, first to a fellow Afghan in exile and then to a Frenchwoman.  Unusual for Afghans, he had no children.

“I insisted on it because I don’t believe in fatherless children and my life was too full of danger.”

He showed us a scar on his throat where once, in Paris he’d been badly cut with a knife.  Staggering home and bleeding profusely, he told his first wife to patch him up saying he couldn’t go to a hospital since the incident involved the Soviet KGB.

“But she fainted and I had to do it myself.  Not long afterwards she left me, saying she couldn’t deal with such a life.  Who could blame her”

We had to agree.

The French wife couldn’t accept his refusal to have children and finally left him as well.

The rest of us refrained from following up with our own war stories as was our wont and simply sat in silence listening to the twitter of parakeets and drinking Belgian beer and Australian Shiraz while the sky faded from dusky orange to dirty mauve.

I like to think I listened to Reza’s tale with a mixture of fascination and skepticism.  If it hadn’t been for Richard, who evidently knew him well, I would have been certain it had been invented for my benefit, as the only woman present.  But Richard said that while many of Reza’s stories might be exaggerated, they were essentially true.

I wondered if Reza felt a need to explain being the only Afghan guest in the makeshift hotel that catered to foreigners.  Most Afghans returning from the Diaspora stayed with extended family members. Perhaps it was simply his version of one-up-man-ship, his way to be one of the boys.

The first sign that all was not right with Reza came after dinner at one of the nicer eating-places in Kabul, a guesthouse run by Australians.  The owner, who had lived in Afghanistan for more than a decade, had an impressive collection of antique rifles stashed away in an underground gallery.

Reza wanted to see this arsenal and was amused to see my Texan roots emerge when I also expressed enthusiastic interest. We all trooped down to the cellar where Reza and I hefted and cocked several beauties inlaid with ivory and brass, including an 18th century Flintlock with a carved wooden stock, all unloaded of course.

But back outside in the street as we waited for our driver, a by now very inebriated Reza also wanted to examine the restaurant guard’s state of the art Kalashnikov which was very loaded.  I joined Richard and John in a hasty retreat to the car just before the gun shattered the silence of the Kabul curfew.

The warning bells sounded even louder a few nights later when Reza invited me to join him for dinner with an Afghan-American woman who had just arrived from California to work on a project to create health clinics for women.  She and Reza were among thousands of Afghans from the Diaspora who were returning to share their knowledge and skills with their countrymen. I liked Roshana immediately. In her colorful Pakistani sari, she was a beautiful example of the many strong women who are the hope of emerging nations.

“Roshana was my first love when we were only 16 years old,” he said as he introduced us, reaching for her hand but she shook him off.  Now married with two grown daughters, Roshana made it clear she didn’t share his nostalgia and announced she would only have dinner with him if he stopped drinking.

“I am sick and tired of the unvaried Afghan diet I’ve been eating night and day at my uncle’s.  I want to go to a German restaurant some diplomats told me about.”

Over a meal of perfectly prepared Schnitzel and Saurbraten, during which Reza blithely ignored his promise not to drink, I wondered if there was more to it than the defiant act of a secular man to the restrictions of a religion he’d never fully adopted.

Reza began a macho tit-for-tat with the German owner that neither Roshana nor I could follow which turned ugly when Reza started calling him ‘fascist’ and ‘nazi’.

As their voices rose to an alarming decibel, Roshana reached to pay the bill. With the other diners looking on in alarm, I found myself rising to stand between the two large men, shouting at them to calm down and behave like adults.  I knew Reza wasn’t wearing his Lugar that night, another condition imposed by Roshana.

He ranted and raved all the way back to the Park that he was going to return and kill that German.  I believed him and didn’t sleep at all wondering what I should do to prevent a possible murder.  But Roshana turned out to be right; Reza like many Afghan men, had a temper that flamed and burnt itself out before he had a chance to act. In the end he slept it off.

When Reza saw me in the garden having my morning coffee the next day, he stopped at my table.  “Please forgive me.  I know I had too much to drink last night.  It happens sometimes.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “but it seems to be happening a lot recently.”

He didn’t take it amiss as I had expected, but only laughed and reached down to give me a peck on the cheek.

“Reza, someone needs to tell you that you are an alcoholic so I guess it has to be me because I know what I’m talking about.  I almost married one, a Texan who also liked to mix guns and booze. He killed himself in a drunken rage and to this day I don’t know if it was an accident or suicide.”

Finally Reza was listening and dropped his pose of a man never at a loss for words.

I was training journalists in Jalalabad on the Pakistani border, my last assignment before my contract ended, when the inevitable happened.  Reza was with some trainee guards on a firing range in the hills above Kabul when his gun jammed and exploded, taking two fingers off his right hand and narrowly missing a colleague.

When I found him sitting with Richard in the Park’s garden back in Kabul, I couldn’t help wondering if he had been drinking when the accident occurred as he was such an expert with guns.  Saluting me with a bandaged three-fingered hand, he stood to greet me as he always did and seemed to read my mind.

“You were right. Afghans and Texans do have a lot in common and both should know what a deadly mixture guns and drink can be.  Believe me, I’ve learned my lesson.”

But I couldn’t get beyond my own past. I had heard it all before.  In any case I would be leaving Kabul in the next few weeks so I rose and brushed past him.

On my last day as I was paying my bill at the reception desk, I turned to see him lounging in the harsh white light of the garden in his signature wraparound sunglasses, pouring from a half empty bottle with a shaky left hand.

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