train encounter 1

Mahmud* Kazi

While waiting for the B train on Cortelyou Road’s small and simple platform, a man descends the stairs to my left. I look at him. He raises his right hand to his forehead to salute me, stopping his hand just before it touched his grey flat cap. Maybe he’s Muslim, I wonder. I say “salaam,” but I doubt he hears me over the screeching noise of the approaching train. He stands next to me as we both pretend to inspect the metallic caterpillar.

“Does this go to DeKalb?” he asks me in an accent I can’t quiet trace.

“Oh, yes,” I respond, quickly turning back my head to face the train.

“Sister, where are you from?”

After my initial reactions have been confirmed, that he is Muslim, I don’t mind answering: “Pakistan.”

“Oh, we’re neighbors!” He exclaims, as I stand there confused, “I’m pashtun from Afghanistan.”

We both enter the train and sit down together. He begins to speak his life’s story as his strong tobacco breath and taped glasses give him an another-worldly facade.

Born and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan, Mahmud Kazi has a six-generation family history of judges, hence the name kazi. “I’m not a judge,” he emphasizes several times. As a young adult in pre-USSR invasion of Afghanistan, Mahmud was a soldier for four years. He was only supposed to be a soldier for two years, but his commanding officer  made him stay for an extra two years–a job he did not mind doing. Afterwards, he went to California to study at an American university. During the same time, however, the USSR invaded Afghanistan.

“Don’t come [to Afghanistan],” his mother warned. He heeded her words and decided to remain in the US. As Mahmud explains the CIA’s role in the creation of the Taliban, his voice is remorseful.

“Fourteen members of my family were killed by the Taliban,” he recalls, “fourteen.”

Moments of silence fall between us only to be interrupted by a new slice of Mahmud’s life.

“My daughter went to college in Peshawar,” he says happily, “and my son.” Peshawar, a large city in west Pakistan is located close to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. His wife, daughter and son live in Canada. Eventually, he will leave New York to see them. His daughter, 32 years old, is engaged–but “not married,” he repeats several times.

Mahmud tries to speak in broken Urdu, but surrenders very quickly.

“My wife knows Urdu very well. I know Farsi, Arabic, Pashto, and English,” he says, counting each language off on his fingers. He continues to recite a verse to me in the Qur’an and then give me the English interpretation.

“What are you studying?” he asks. “Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies,” I respond.

“Oh, masha’allah! Good for you, sister.”

After another moment of silence, he tells me that he is meeting a friend. He needs to get to a place in Brooklyn and plans on transferring at Dekalb to the R train. His rough hands fumble around in his torn bag and finally take out an aging business card. The back has a handwritten address.

“I don’t know the address,” I say, not familiar with the Bay Ridge area, “but to transfer, you have to go up the stairs and go to the other side for the R.”

“Thank you, sister,” he responds, putting the card in the inside pocket of his worn leather jacket.

“I am very happy to see you, sister,” he says finally, “someone familiar.”

As the train stops in Dekalb Avenue, Kazi picks up his bag and exits. Before he reaches the door, he turns and says: “I hope you happiness and goodness in life. salaamu alaykum.”

“walaykum salaam.”

*I used a pseudo-firstname to retain privacy.

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