This week, the RBC Charles Taylor Prize will be awarded to one Canadian non-fiction book from the past year. We spoke to the nominated authors about their craft and the process of writing their shortlisted book. Here, an excerpt from Graeme Smith’s The Dogs Are Eating Them Now.
A sense of anticipation hung over Kandahar city in late summer, something heavy in the terrible heat. The violence had continued rising through the hottest months of the year, and now all eyes looked nervously west, toward the Panjwai river valley, where hundreds of armed Taliban camped among the lush orchards and grape fields. The gunmen weren’t far from downtown, maybe ten kilometres beyond the bridge that marked the city limits, and fears were spreading about a military confrontation in the city streets. Most residents had memories of urban warfare in past decades, and nobody wanted to see that kind of fighting again. My translator kept his car filled with gasoline and his suitcases packed, ready to escape. Others had already fled. The smog of diesel and smoke from cooking fires had thinned; cresting a hill on my way into the city, I enjoyed an unusually clear view of the Eid Gah mosque on the opposite side of town, its dome like a blue egg among the mud buildings. Beyond that, I could see the jagged rock that rises almost vertically to the west and north of the city, small mountains that had made Kandahar a natural fortress for centuries. Now those mountains seemed to offer little defence against insurgents who slipped easily across the landscape. Along the highway, rows of vendors’ stalls had lost their bustle. We passed the wreckage of a taxi, with scattered shoes and human gristle in the dust, the remnants of an explosion. Drivers did not pause to gawk, slowing only to avoid holes carved by the blasts. Insurgents attacked so many times with so-called improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that the airport road was nicknamed “IED alley.” My driver somehow believed we could avoid the bombs if we drove quickly, making the trip from the airport a terrifying dash through traffic, past herds of goats and the occasional camel. Inside the city, many storefronts were shuttered with locked metal blinds; these were usually businesses marked by the taint of Western influence – medical clinics, computer stores, sellers of audio cassettes and compact discs – whose owners worried the Taliban might not tolerate them. In the years since President Hamid Karzai and his Popalzai tribe had assumed control of Kandahar, merchants had started advertising their connection to the ruling clan by adding the tribal name to their shop signs, and it sometimes seemed as if every bakery and auto mechanic was owned by somebody ostensibly named Popal. But during the sweltering final weeks of summer, the hand-painted “Popal” signs had disappeared. It was better to hide your loyalties in a city on the brink of invasion.
As business slowed, the remaining shopkeepers found themselves with plenty of time to drink tea and complain. Some admitted they were taking out extra insurance against Taliban attack by sending gifts to the well-known insurgent commanders in the fields outside the city. Merchants assembled little packets of cash, or vouchers for cellphone credit, wrapped up in scarves and presented with compliments. I understood this as pragmatism. Who wouldn’t want to protect themselves against armed zealots? Almost every building in the city wore the scars of previous wars, and men with missing legs hobbled on wooden crutches or wheeled themselves along the rutted alleyways in hand-cranked contraptions. It made sense that city residents would have psychological scars as well. I did not want to believe that an average person in Kandahar would willingly sponsor the death of foreign soldiers, or that gifts for the Taliban represented votes in favour of the brutal movement. If ordinary citizens were helping the insurgents, I guessed, the climate of fear must be making people crazy.
So I went to see a psychologist. Abdul Rahim Halimyar, forty-eight, ran the only mental health clinic in the city, although it looked more like a drug dealer’s lair than a medical establishment. That impression proved correct, in some ways, because Dr. Halimyar’s practice consisted mostly of prescribing mind-dulling medication. It was amazing that his dazed patients could even reach his office, up a steep flight of stone steps to the second floor of an old building in the central market. The waiting area was crowded and dirty. Behind a stained lace curtain, in his tiny consulting room, the doctor whisked around with a theatrical air, wearing a white coat and a stethoscope around his neck. His scraggly hair, gap-toothed smile and bloodshot eyes made him look like an avatar for all the madness of the city. I asked him whether anxiety levels were rising in Kandahar, and he strongly agreed. I’d assumed he would criticize the Taliban for causing the distress, but instead he blamed outsiders for meddling in his country. His patients had lost hope for the international mission, he said. “They hear on the radio that the whole world is trying to help Afghanistan, but they see no improvement. I’m a doctor, I’m educated, and they always ask me. I tell them, no, please don’t hope. It will get worse.” I wanted to chronicle the ways his patients suffered, the psychological effects of slain relatives, smashed homes, harrowing escapes. He preferred to rant about the foreigners’ mistakes. “Ninety per cent of women here are happy with the burka,” he said. “But the foreigners are saying they’re not happy with this clothing.” That evening, back in my tent at the military base, I omitted those quotes from my article about his clinic. They didn’t fit my story about a city under siege by unwelcome militants.
But, in some ways, a siege mentality had taken hold. I was driving through the northeastern side of the city when I heard an explosion from the direction of a nearby NATO military base. This was followed by a crackle of bullets, and everybody on the street appeared to reach the same conclusion at once: the Taliban had finally started their urban war. People ran for their lives, running so hard they left their sandals behind. I jumped out of my car and walked against the flow, getting closer to the thick column of smoke billowing into the blue sky. I could see foreign soldiers taking shelter behind a mud wall as a flurry of concussions threw up more dust. “The Taliban are attacking the city,” a teenager shouted. My driver, a brave ex-soldier, tugged at my sleeve. He didn’t speak English but I understood his growl, “Razi che zhu!” (“Let’s go!”) We joined the mob hurrying away.
But we had all misunderstood: it was just another suicide bomber, one of dozens in the city that summer. The bomb detonated near a military vehicle and set it on fire. The rapid pops and banging sounds had been caused by the ignition of overheated ammunition inside the burning vehicle, a phenomenon known as a “cook-off.” A soldier was killed in the attack, and the troops who rushed to the scene accidentally shot dead a young boy. The Taliban were not invading after all, but tension in the city had reached a fever pitch.
Excerpted from The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan. Copyright © 2013 Graeme Smith. Published by Knopf Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.