ISLAMABAD, Pakistan

In the morning, just after dawn, the baker sits cross-legged on the flour-dusted floor. His storefront bakery overlooks a narrow, pitted street where taxi drivers sleep, their sandaled feet sticking out open car windows, before they rouse themselves and drive into downtown Islamabad seeking fares.

Near the baker, a boy beats mounds of pasty dough into flat circles before he slaps the dough against the flame-seared walls of a clay-brick oven. He wipes his hands on stained aprons hanging on the wall. The aroma of baking bread rises around us, lingering even as it competes with odors already circulating on the awakening street: dew-damp garbage piles warming under the rising sun, diesel exhaust from trucks jouncing down the pitted road, the squawking of panicked chickens being carried upside down by small barefoot boys to an outdoor market.

I lean against the wall of the bakery and watch the increasing commotion of the street. It’s January 2010, and I’ve been in Islamabad for nearly four weeks on a freelance reporting assignment covering the rise in violence from jihadi groups opposed to the government’s alliance with the U.S. and its war on terror.

But every morning before I begin making my rounds to the various ministries for news updates and press conferences, before I once again negotiate the countless bureaucratic hurdles required to see minister so-and-so, I walk one block from my guest house to this bakery for bread and a cup of tea. An hour or so later, I return to my guest house, check my email for messages from my Washington-based editor and then wait for my driver.

I was pleased to see the bakery open this morning. For the past few days it has been closed. I return to the States tomorrow morning. While I don’t pretend to know the baker well, he has been a steady morning companion. I don’t want to leave without saying goodbye.

However, something is different today. The baker did not greet me with his usual hearty assalamu alaikum. He did not offer me tea, a custom here for “guests” visiting someone’s home or business.

Instead, after we shook hands, he settled into a quiet posture that seemed to shrink him in size and remove him from the bakery all together. Oh, well, I thought, we all have bad days, and I assumed this was one of his. I was content to stand with him in silence and allow the morning to evolve around us.

“The bread will be ready soon,” the baker tells me. He speaks barely above a whisper and sounds distracted.

He strokes his heavy white beard, stained brown from tobacco. He speaks to the boy in Dari, the language of northern Afghanistan. He tells the boy to take bread to an Afghan restaurant not far from here once it’s ready.

Most of the people living and working on the baker’s street moved here from Afghanistan years ago. Some of them left when the Russians invaded in 1979 and occupied Afghanistan for about 10 years. Others came to Pakistan more recently after war broke out following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S.

The majority of these refugees already had family in Islamabad, so their dislocation was not as disruptive as it might have been had they sought sanctuary in a country they knew little about. They moved in with their families, set up their shops, sought out other Afghans, adapted and stayed.

But now with terrorist bombs exploding in their cities, Pakistanis have begun pointing an accusing finger at their Afghan neighbors for bringing “their” war into Pakistan. The accusations have moved from finger pointing to ongoing harassment.

This morning, for instance, I overhear the baker’s Afghan customers complain of police shakedowns.

“If a bomb happens and we’re out, then we are stopped by the police and asked, ‘Who are you? Afghani? Yes?’ They ask for money. If we don’t have it, we are arrested,” one man complains.

“We don’t have anything,” another man says. “The terrorists attack and the police arrest us. One day I was coming from Peshawar. On the way out at a checkpoint, I was pulled off and arrested. I had to give them five hundred rupees so they would let me go.”

“One time, the police took two thousand rupees from me,” another man says. “We can’t move. We can’t do anything.”

The baker nods, a sympathetic look creasing his face. He moved to Islamabad during “the Russian time” from his home in Wardak about a 40-minute drive from Kabul and has been here ever since. But it is obvious from his vacant stare that he is not really listening to their complaints.

The men see he is preoccupied and drift off. One man looks back at the baker and shakes his head. It is too bad about his wife, I overhear him say. The other men agree. The baker has two grown sons in Lahore, another man says, but that is a four-hour drive so now he is alone. The men frown, clearly saddened for the baker. Listening a while longer, I gather that the baker’s wife died of a heart attack a few days ago, which explains why the bakery was closed and why he is so subdued.

“I am sorry about your wife,” I tell the baker after the men have left. “I didn’t know.”

He looks at me without expression, his thoughts having settled somewhere deep inside him.

“She is with God,” he says finally.

He watches the boy dip a wood paddle into the oven and flip the bread like a pancake, slapping it against the blackened walls.

“Do you have family here?” I ask him.

“My mother lives with me. And this boy helps me when he is not in school.”

“And you have two sons in Lahore.”

“Ah, who told you?”

“Your customers are worried about you,” I say.

He lowers his head as if he needs to ponder the idea that they would be concerned for him. Then he looks up like someone startled and shouts to the boy. The boy darts through a back curtain, revealing a hall that I presume leads into the house. Within minutes, he returns with a cup, a pot of tea and a plate of cookies on a warped plastic tray. He sets them down by the baker. The baker pours tea into the cup and hands it to me. He motions to the cookies and sets the plate on the floor near me.

“Please,” he says. “You are a guest. I am sorry to have waited so long.”

“You’re fine, thank you. Don’t worry.”

I take a cookie and dunk it in my tea. I notice an elderly woman peer at me from behind a curtain. Maybe the baker’s mother? She nods at me and I raise a hand in hello. She leans forward on a cane and I think of my own 93-old mother who has curvature of the spine and uses a cane. A cruel deformity for a woman who had always prided herself on her erect posture. She would often poke my brothers and me in our backs when we were young.

“Straighten up,” she would say. “You’ll be all hunched over when you’re older.”

My father had died the year before. My mother moved in with my brother but he had a wife and teenage daughter to think about. The arrangement did not work. My mother was so concerned about being in their way that her reticence to participate in anything his family did increasingly frustrated my brother. She kept to her room and despite her best efforts not to be an inconvenience, she assumed whether present or not a brooding-like presence. She added to my brother’s frustration by complaining when he came home late from work, delaying dinner. He said she scolded him like a 12-year-old.

I was 50 at the time of my father’s death and had just lost my job as a newspaper reporter. I was barely covering my rent freelancing. I wasn’t married and didn’t have children. I could live pretty much anywhere I chose.

After some discussion, my brother and I agreed that I would move back home after I returned to the States from my Pakistan assignment so that my mother could move back into her house and I could slash my living expenses. I would arrange some home health care services for her that would eventually allow her to live independently without me. I would stay just long enough to get everything in place and rebuild my savings.

My brother offered to help, but when I suggested some things we should do on our mother’s behalf, such as inviting neighbors to the house to visit with her or seeing what activities she could attend at her church, my brother said, “Whatever you want to do.” I suspected him of stepping back and making his escape once our mother was back home. He had already done his time with her and now it was my turn.

I contacted agencies that offer in-home assistance for elderly people and inquired about their rates and services. I told them that my mother would need someone in the morning and again in the evening until she went to bed. She would need help cooking and with cleaning the house, and a driver to take her to the supermarket and doctor appointments. Ideally, I said, she would form relationships with her caregivers that would provide real companionship. I added that my role was transitional. I expected to live with her for a few months only while I set things up.

Anything is possible, I was told. It just depends how much you’re willing to spend.

Then I left for Pakistan.

“Assalamu alaikum,” a man says, stopping by the bakery.

“Assalamu alaikum,” the baker says.

I push the tray toward the man. He helps himself to a cookie. The boy brings another cup and the baker pours the man tea.

“This is a nation of absconders, Hanif,” the man says to the baker. He pauses, sipping loudly from his tea. “You can’t stop the police. When my family and I came here in 2003 it was not too bad. Now it is much worse. Everywhere there are the police. I am not worried about the Taliban. I am just worried about policeman.”

He finishes his cookie, washing it down with another slurp of tea. Then he shakes the baker’s hand and wanders over to the earlier group of men who appear to have nothing better to do this morning than move from one shady spot to another, talking amongst themselves and collecting more of their friends like an expanding hive of loiterers.

It strikes me, watching the men talk, that I have never heard the baker complain about the police. So I ask him if the police have ever bothered him because he is Afghan.

The baker doesn’t answer immediately. He considers the question and then me as he twirls a a cookie with an index finger until it breaks in half and falls to the tray. Then he says without a hint of irritation that up until the day his wife died he had been paying off a policeman.

About a year and a half ago, a police officer stopped by his bakery, he explained. The baker was sitting alone reading a newspaper. The oven was heating and he had sent the boy to buy flour. He told the officer he would not have any bread until later. The officer said he did not want bread. Instead, he told the baker that beginning that evening the baker would give him 1,000 rupees, about $11, every night. If the baker refused, the police officer could not guarantee protection of his bakery from vandals. The officer said it was the least the baker could do since the war in Afghanistan was causing problems for all of Pakistan and the police in particular. He said two of his fellow officers had been killed when suicide bombers destroyed a checkpoint they had been working. You endanger my life, the police officer said. I am newly married and want to have a family. If I am gone, what will my wife do?

The baker knew he had no choice. If he refused, God only knew what the police might do to his bakery. So the baker agreed and paid the policeman what he asked.

The following night and every night since then up until the death of his wife, the baker would meet the police officer at 8:30 p.m. near the corner of Street 57 and G-8, a block from his bakery. Eventually, their meetings became as much a routine for the baker as awakening at sunrise when the mullahs called the faithful to prayer. The baker was never late for their nightly rendezvous. In fact, he looked forward to seeing the police officer in the same way he anticipated talking to his regular morning customers. They asked one another about their families, shared the latest gossip about so-and-so politician or Bollywood movie star, wondered how much longer winter would last and argued about their favorite cricket teams. The baker considered himself a customer of the police officer. And as his customers paid him daily for his bread, the baker paid the police officer nightly for his protection.

The baker even met the police officer the same evening his wife died just days ago. He did so out of a sense of obligation and to take advantage of a moment that would allow him to abandon for a few minutes the claustrophobic sadness that was consuming his home.

When the police officer saw the baker’s grief-filled face, he asked him what was wrong. The baker explained his wife had died. The police officer said he was very sorry and offered his condolences. He was surprised the baker had kept their appointment. Of course there would have been consequences had he not, the police officer said. He would not have known the circumstances keeping the baker away. He would have thought only that the baker no longer wanted his bakery protected.

The baker said he understood.

The officer said again how very sorry he was for the baker’s loss.

The baker thanked him.

He leaned against the car and said nothing for awhile. The officer smoked a cigarette and drummed his fingers against the dashboard.

I don’t want to keep you, the officer said finally.

The baker gave him his money. He watched the officer stuff it in his breast pocket. Then he gave him a 500 rupee bill, about $6, and asked him to stay a little longer. The baker did not want to go back inside his house and he did not want to stand alone on the corner. He appreciated leaning against the car, the rumble of its engine vibrating the metal against his body, the smell of the officer’s cigarette, the quiet night around him in the glow of a street light undisturbed.

The police officer took the money and gave the baker a few more minutes of his time. They did not talk. Finally, the police officer said he had to leave. The baker gave him another 500 rupee bill. Eventually, he gave the police officer 3,000 additional rupees that night until the officer insisted he had to go home and refused to take any more of the baker’s money.

The baker watched him drive away, and then he walked back to his home and the sadness that awaited him there and that would press in on him like a weight when his mother and sons and his wife’s family looked at him.

The next night, the baker waited for the police officer but he did not show up then or since.

“We knew each other well,” the baker tells me. “I was his customer and we were friends. He did not oppress me for being Afghan and causing problems for his country. But I always had to give him his money.”

I look at my watch. I need to leave. I have work to do and a full day of travel tomorrow. Once I’m in Chicago I will begin interviewing people from various senior service agencies. At some point I will have to ask them about cost. How much an hour, do I pay for their gas mileage if they take my mother to a doctor’s appointment, am I expected to buy them lunch and dinner? Things like that.

The day is not so far off when I will move in with my mother. For a moment I have the sensation of being stuck in an elevator. I look about the bakery my heart racing. The baker pays no attention lost in his own thoughts.

I finish my tea and push away the plate of cookies. The boy slings a sheet filled with fat pancake-shaped loaves of bread over a shoulder. He pauses on his way out to give me one. The warmth from the bread seeps into my fingers and I crack it open and close my eyes against the released heat. The baker hands me some newspaper to wrap it in.

Leaving the bakery, the boy walks toward the bazaar, kicking at stones. The bread-filled sheet bounces against his back as if nothing else matters. Watching him, I think that the policeman is blackmailing someone else. I bet he works this new guy for a few weeks long enough to make some money, short enough so he doesn’t get to know him. He doesn’t need complications. He wants money, nothing more. He will move on to someone else.

But it shouldn’t be complicated once I have the people in place for my mother. Still, I worry I’m getting pulled into something that won’t let me go; that I’ll be involved in a process that never ends. That something will always need my attention. I won’t be able to just throw up my hands one day and leave.

“Goodbye,” I tell the baker. “I return to the States tomorrow morning. I’ll miss our mornings together. ”

“When will you be back in Pakistan?”

“I don’t know.”

He starts pouring tea into my cup. I put out my hand to stop him and tea splashes my fingers. I shake it off before it burns.

“No, no. Thank you,” I say. “I have to go.”

The baker stares past me toward where the boy had gone but he is no longer in sight. The taxi drivers and the glut of loitering men have also left. The baker takes a rag and wipes the spilled tea. Even the heat of the oven does not reach him in the small corner of the bakery where he has remained all morning sitting on the floor.

I start walking back to my guesthouse, tucking the bread under my arm. It has cooled quickly and lost its enticing aroma. I almost stop and look back to tell the baker again that I am sorry about his wife, but I decide against it. He will only offer me more tea and I can‘t stay. I need to check my email and at some point today, confirm my return flight to the states. I will travel more than twenty-four hours before I land in Washington. About 27 hours, I think.

I don’t know, however, how long it will take to arrange matters for my mother. I won’t know until I’ve made the necessary calls and have hired the necessary people. Then I’ll wait and see how it all comes together.

Sounds good, my brother will say.

It will be nice to save a little money, but I just don’t know.

Not long, I should think. Not really.

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J. Malcolm Garcia
J. Malcolm Garcia is author of What Wars Leave Behind and the forthcoming book Without a Country: The Untold Story of America’s Deported Veterans.