January 4, 2002

# 007

THE IMAGE OF THE SOLDIER'S LETTER was on my notebook's screen, defying me to read characters written by the trembling hand of a dying man. I opened a notepad in another window, so I could take notes while reading it. Actually, it seemed to be part of a letter, perhaps one of the last pages. I hadn't noticed other pages on the body when I was in the cave. They were probably covered by dust or had fallen somewhere else. The only page, in Arabic language, went more or less like this:

"...and I don't know exactly what happened to her. The confusion was great, since the fight begun in January, 1842. The last time I saw her, she was with the other women, away from me as an impossible love should be. Such a British lady would never marry someone like me, a blood so mixed that not even I am sure if I am half British, half Egyptian, half Turkish, half Jew, half Indian, and half something else. There are too many half to make myself anything whole. But I know she loved me. I could feel it.

"Now that doesn't matter anymore. I am dying and will probably meet her soon. It is better to die here in this cold cave, than out there in the hands of some tribesmen. A young man I met -- I think he was a writer -- once told me part of a poem he was writing: 'When you're wounded and left, on Afghanistan's plains, and the women come out, to cut up your remains, just roll on your rifle, and blow out your brains, and go to your God, like a soldier.' At least in this cave I don't have to do that. I can die peacefully and buried.

"Wounded as I am, it seems easier to write in the language I learnt from my mother. I am not sure why I am writing this. She is also gone anyway. And now we were defeated beyond compassion. Pottinger, Elphinstone, they are all dead as well. The last one I saw alive was Dr. Brydon, the army surgeon. He met me laying on the ground with the bridle of my horse still in my hand. There was nothing he could do for myself, so I urged him to take my horse and go. 'Take my horse and God send you may get to Jalalabad in safety', I told him. I knew his name, but he left without even asking mine.

"Then a young man riding a camel came from nowhere and found me. When he saw me, he jumped from his camel and made the animal to kneel down, so he could manage to carry me to the saddle. The camel already had a heavy load, he left in this cave where he brought me to. He told me he was the servant of an archeologist, Sir Blackmore, but he was not sure if he was among the hundreds of civilians who died in the past weeks. His master gave him the mission to save some old objects and specially an old manuscript in a metal box, which I've adopted as my last pillow.

"He said the manuscript was written many years ago by a man from Damascus, whose name was Bishr Ibn Al Sirri. That kind servant brought me to this cave, and left to go search for his master. Not without first making a fire and confiding, in brief, the contents of the manuscript. According to him, it is all about..."

At this point the letter ended. At least the only page I had taken a picture of. Before coming to Afghanistan I had read something about the Afghan wars, specially about the terrible defeat in the nineteenth century when, from a multitude of thousands of soldiers and civilian, only one man had managed to arrive in Jalalabad alone and alive. A doctor called Dr. Brydon. To me this showed the soldier's report to be genuine. Now my journalist sense of duty was pushing me on to find out who was Bishr Ibn Al Sirri.