The New Civil Service

An excerpt from Rory Stewart's "The Places in Between"

I watched two men enter the lobby of the Hotel Mowafaq.

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Most Afghans seemed to glide up the center of the lobby staircase with their shawls trailing behind them like Venetian cloaks.

But these men wore Western jackets, walked quietly, and stayed close to the banister. I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the hotel manager.

"Follow them." He had never spoken to me before.

"I'm sorry, no," I said. "I am busy."

"Now. They are from the government."

I followed him to a room on a floor I didn't know existed and he told me to take off my shoes and enter alone in my socks. The two men were seated on a heavy blackwood sofa, beside an aluminum spittoon. They were still wearing their shoes. I smiled. They did not. The lace curtains were drawn and there was no electricity in the city; the room was dark.

"Chi kar mikonid?" (What are you doing?) asked the man in the black suit and collarless Iranian shirt. I expected him to stand and, in the normal way, shake hands and wish me peace. He remained seated.

"Salaam aleikum" (Peace be with you), I said, and sat down.

"Waleikum a-salaam. Chi kar mikonid?" he repeated quietly, leaning back and running his fat manicured hand along the purple velveteen arm of the sofa. His bouffant hair and goatee were neatly trimmed. I was conscious of not having shaved in eight weeks.


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