بخش 8

کتاب: هزار خورشید تابان / فصل 8

هزار خورشید تابان

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بخش 8

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The dark was total, impenetrable and constant, without layer or texture. Rasheed had filled the cracks between the boards with something, put a large and immovable object at the foot of the door so no light came from under it. Something had been stuffed in the keyhole.

Laila found it impossible to tell the passage of time with her eyes, so she did it with her good ear.Azan and crowing roosters signaled morning. The sounds of plates clanking in the kitchen downstairs, the radio playing, meant evening.

The first day, they groped and fumbled for each other in the dark. Laila couldn’t see Aziza when she cried, when she went crawling.

“Aishee,”Aziza mewled.”Aishee.”

“Soon.” Laila kissed her daughter, aiming for the forehead, finding the crown of her head instead. “We’ll have milk soon. You just be patient. Be a good, patient little girl for Mammy, and I’ll get you someaishee. “

Laila sang her a few songs.

Azanrang out a second time and still Rasheed had not given them any food, and, worse, no water. That day, a thick, suffocating heat fell on them. The room turned into a pressure cooker. Laila dragged a dry tongue over her lips, thinking of the well outside, the water cold and fresh. Aziza kept crying, and Laila noticed with alarm that when she wiped her cheeks her hands came back dry. She stripped the clothes off Aziza, tried to find something to fan her with, settled for blowing on her until she became light-headed. Soon, Aziza stopped crawling around. She slipped in and out of sleep.

Several times that day, Laila banged her fists against the walls, used up her energy screaming for help, hoping that a neighbor would hear. But no one came, and her shrieking only frightened Aziza, who began to cry again, a weak, croaking sound. Laila slid to the ground. She thought guiltily of Mariam, beaten and bloodied, locked in this heat in the toolshed.

Laila fell asleep at some point, her body baking in the heat. She had a dream that she and Aziza had run into Tariq. He was across a crowded street from them, beneath the awning of a tailor’s shop. He was sitting on his haunches and sampling from a crate of figs.That’s your father, Laila said.That man there, you see him? He’s your real baba. She called his name, but the street noise drowned her voice, and Tariq didn’t hear.

She woke up to the whistling of rockets streaking overhead. Somewhere, the sky she couldn’t see erupted with blasts and the long, frantic hammering of machine-gun fire. Laila closed her eyes. She woke again to Rasheed’s heavy footsteps in the hallway. She dragged herself to the door, slapped her palms against it.

“Just one glass, Rasheed. Not for me. Do it for her. You don’t want her blood on your hands.” He walked past-She began to plead with him. She begged for forgiveness, made promises. She cursed him. His door closed. The radio came on.

The muezzin calledazan a third time. Again the heat. Aziza became even more listless. She stopped crying, stopped moving altogether.

Laila put her ear over Aziza’s mouth, dreading each time that she would not hear the shallow whooshing of breath. Even this simple act of lifting herself made her head swim. She fell asleep, had dreams she could not remember. When she woke up, she checked on Aziza, felt the parched cracks of her lips, the faint pulse at her neck, lay down again. They would die here, of that Laila was sure now, but what she really dreaded was that she would outlast Aziza, who was young and brittle. How much more could Aziza take? Aziza would die in this heat, and Laila would have to lie beside her stiffening little body and wait for her own death. Again she fell asleep. Woke up. Fell asleep. The line between dream and wakefulness blurred.

It wasn’t roosters orazan that woke her up again but the sound of something heavy being dragged. She heard a rattling- Suddenly, the room was flooded with light. Her eyes screamed in protest. Laila raised her head, winced, and shielded her eyes. Through the cracks between her fingers, she saw a big, blurry silhouette standing in a rectangle of light. The silhouette moved. Now there was a shape crouching beside her, looming over her, and a voice by her ear.

“You try this again and I will find you. I swear on the Prophet’s name that I will find you. And, when I do, there isn’t a court in this godforsaken country that will hold me accountable for what I will do. To Mariam first, then to her, and you last. I’ll make you watch. You understand me?I’ll make you watch.”

And, with that, he left the room. But not before delivering a kick to the flank that would have Laila pissing blood for days.


Madam SEPTEMBER 1996

Iwo and a half years later, Mariam awoke on the morning of September 27 to the sounds of shouting and whistling, firecrackers and music. She ran to the living room, found Laila already at the window, Aziza mounted on her shoulders. Laila turned and smiled.

“The Taliban are here,” she said.

Mariam had first heard of the Taliban two years before, in October 1994, when Rasheed had brought home news that they had overthrown the warlords in Kandahar and taken the city. They were a guerrilla force, he said, made up of young Pashtun men whose families had fled to Pakistan during the war against the Soviets. Most of them had been raised-some even born-in refugee camps along the Pakistani border, and in Pakistani madrasas, where they were schooled inShari’a by mullahs. Their leader was a mysterious, illiterate, one-eyed recluse named Mullah Omar, who, Rasheed said with some amusement, called himselfAmeer-ul-Mumineeny Leader of the Faithful.

“It’s true that these boys have norisha, no roots,” Rasheed said, addressing neither Mariam nor Laila. Ever since the failed escape, two and a half years ago, Mariam knew that she and Laila had become one and the same being to him, equally wretched, equally deserving of his distrust, his disdain and disregard. When he spoke, Mariam had the sense that he was having a conversation with himself, or with some invisible presence in the room, who, unlike her and Laila, was worthy of his opinions.

“They may have no past,” he said, smoking and looking up at the ceiling. “They may know nothing of the world or this country’s history. Yes. And, compared to them, Mariam here might as well be a university professor. Ha! All true. But look around you. What do you see? Corrupt, greedy Mujahideen commanders, armed to the teeth, rich off heroin, declaring jihad on one another and killing everyone in between-that’s what. At least the Taliban are pure and incorruptible. At least they’re decent Muslim boys.Wallah, when they come, they will clean up this place. They’ll bring peace and order. People won’t get shot anymore going out for milk. No more rockets! Think of it.”

For two years now, the Taliban had been making their way toward Kabul, taking cities from the Mujahideen, ending factional war wherever they’d settled. They had captured the Hazara commander Abdul Ali Mazari and executed him. For months, they’d settled in the southern outskirts of Kabul, firing on the city, exchanging rockets with Ahmad Shah Massoud. Earlier in that September of 1996, they had captured the cities of Jalalabad and Sarobi.

The Taliban had one thing the Mujahideen did not, Rasheed said. They were united.

“Let them come,” he said. “I, for one, will shower them with rose petals.”

They “went our that day, the four of them, Rasheed leading them from one bus to the next, to greet their new world, their new leaders. In every battered neighborhood, Mariam found people materializing from the rubble and moving into the streets. She saw an old woman wasting handfuls of rice, tossing it at passersby, a drooping, toothless smile on her face. Two men were hugging by the remains of a gutted building, in the sky above them the whistle, hiss, and pop of a few firecrackers set off by boys perched on rooftops. The national anthem played on cassette decks, competing with the honking of cars.

“Look, Mayam!” Aziza pointed to a group of boys running down Jadeh Maywand. They were pounding their fists into the air and dragging rusty cans tied to strings. They were yelling that Massoud and Rabbani had withdrawn from Kabul.

Everywhere, there were shouts:Ailah-u-akbar!

Mariam saw a bedsheet hanging from a window on Jadeh Maywand. On it, someone had painted three words in big, black letters: zendabaad taliban! Long live the Taliban!

As they walked the streets, Mariam spotted more signs-painted on windows, nailed to doors, billowing from car antennas-that proclaimed the same.

Mariam sawher first of the Taliban later that day, at Pashtunistan Square, with Rasheed, Laila, and Aziza. A melee of people had gathered there. Mariam saw people craning their necks, people crowded around the blue fountain in the center of the square, people perched on its dry bed. They were trying to get a view of the end of the square, near the old Khyber Restaurant.

Rasheed used his size to push and shove past the onlookers, and led them to where someone was speaking through a loudspeaker.

When Aziza saw, she let out a shriek and buried her face in Mariam’s burqa.

The loudspeaker voice belonged to a slender, bearded young man who wore a black turban. He was standing on some sort of makeshift scaffolding. In his free hand, he held a rocket launcher. Beside him, two bloodied men hung from ropes tied to traffic-light posts. Their clothes had been shredded. Their bloated faces had turned purple-blue.

“I know him,” Mariam said, “the one on the left.”

A young woman in front of Mariam turned around and said it was Najibullah. The other man was his brother. Mariam remembered Najibullah’s plump, mustachioed face, beaming from billboards and storefront windows during the Soviet years.

She would later hear that the Taliban had dragged Najibullah from his sanctuary at the UN headquarters near Darulaman Palace. That they had tortured him for hours, then tied his legs to a truck and dragged his lifeless body through the streets.

“He killed many, many Muslims!” the young Talib was shouting through the loudspeaker. He spoke Farsi with a Pashto accent, then would switch to Pashto. He punctuated his words by pointing to the corpses with his weapon. “His crimes are known to everybody. He was a communist and akqfir This is what we do with infidels who commit crimes against Islam!”

Rasheed was smirking.

In Mariam’s arms, Aziza began to cry.

The following day, Kabul was overrun by trucks. In Khair khana, in Shar-e-Nau, in Karteh-Parwan, in Wazir Akbar Khan and Taimani, red Toyota trucks weaved through the streets. Armed bearded men in black turbans sat in their beds. From each truck, a loudspeaker blared announcements, first in Farsi, then Pashto. The same message played from loudspeakers perched atop mosques, and on the radio, which was now known as the Voice ofShort ‘a. The message was also written in flyers, tossed into the streets. Mariam found one in the yard.

Ourwatanis now known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. These are the laws that we will enforce and you will obey: Ail citizens must pray five times a day. If it is prayer time and you are caught doing something other, you will be beaten.

Ail men will grow their beards. The correct length is at least one clenched fist beneath the chin. If you do not abide by this, you will be beaten.

Ml boys will wear turbans. Boys in grade one through six will wear black turbans, higher grades will wear white. Ail boys will wear Islamic clothes. Shirt collars will be buttoned.

Singing is forbidden.

Dancing is forbidden.

Playing cards, playing chess, gambling, and kiteflying are forbidden.

Writing books, watching films, and painting pictures are forbidden.

If you keep parakeets, you will be beaten. Your birds will be killed.

If you steal, your hand will be cut off at the wrist. If you steal again, your foot will be cut off.

If you are not Muslim, do not worship where you can be seen by Muslims. If you do, you will be beaten and imprisoned. If you are caught trying to convert a Muslim to your faith, you will be executed.

Attention women:

You will stay inside your homes at all times. It is not proper for women to wander aimlessly about the streets. If you go outside, you must be accompanied by amahram,a male relative. If you are caught alone on the street, you will be beaten and sent home.

You will not, under any circumstance, show your face. You will cover with burqa when outside. If you do not, you will be severely beaten.

Cosmetics are forbidden.

Jewelry is forbidden.

You will not wear charming clothes.

You will not speak unless spoken to.

You will not make eye contact with men.

You will not laugh in public. If you do, you will be beaten.

You will not paint your nails. If you do, you will lose a finger.

Girls are forbidden from attending school All schools for girls will be closed immediately.

Women are forbidden from working.

If you are found guilty of adultery, you will be stoned to death

Listen. Listen well. Obey.Allah-u-akbar.

Rasheed turned off the radio. They were sitting on the living-room floor, eating dinner less than a week after they’d seen Najibullah’s corpse hanging by a rope.

“They can’t make half the population stay home and do nothing,” Laila said.

“Why not?” Rasheed said. For once, Mariam agreed with him. He’d done the same to her and Laila, in effect, had he not? Surely Laila saw that.

“This isn’t some village. This isKabul. Women here used to practice law and medicine; they held office in the government-“

Rasheed grinned. “Spoken like the arrogant daughter of a poetry-reading university man that you are. How urbane, how Tajik, of you. You think this is some new, radical idea the Taliban are bringing? Have you ever lived outside of your precious little shell in Kabul, mygull Ever cared to visit thereal Afghanistan, the south, the east, along the tribal border with Pakistan? No? I have. And I can tell you that there are many places in this country that have always lived this way, or close enough anyhow. Not that you would know.”

“I refuse to believe it,” Laila said “They’re not serious.”

“What the Taliban did to Najibullah looked serious to me,” Rasheed said. “Wouldn’t you agree?”

“He was a communist! He was the head of the Secret Police.”

Rasheed laughed.

Mariam heard the answer in his laugh: that in the eyes of the Taliban, being a communist and the leader of the dreaded KHAD made Najibullah onlyslightly more contemptible than a woman.



JLaila was glad, when the Taliban went to work, that Babi wasn’t around to witness it. It would have crippled him.

Men wielding pickaxes swarmed the dilapidated Kabul Museum and smashed pre-Islamic statues to rubble-that is, those that hadn’t already been looted by the Mujahideen. The university was shut down and its students sent home. Paintings were ripped from walls, shredded with blades. Television screens were kicked in. Books, except the Koran, were burned in heaps, the stores that sold them closed down. The poems of Khalili, Pajwak, Ansari, Haji Dehqan, Ashraqi, Beytaab, Hafez, Jami, Nizami, Rumi, Khayyam, Beydel, and more went up in smoke.

Laila heard of men being dragged from the streets, accused of skippingnamaz, and shoved into mosques. She learned that Marco Polo Restaurant, near Chicken Street, had been turned into an interrogation center. Sometimes screaming was heard from behind its black-painted windows. Everywhere, the Beard Patrol roamed the streets in Toyota trucks on the lookout for clean-shaven faces to bloody.

They shut down the cinemas too. Cinema Park. Ariana. Aryub. Projection rooms were ransacked and reels of films set to fire. Laila remembered all the times she and Tariq had sat in those theaters and watched Hindi films, all those melodramatic tales of lovers separated by some tragic turn of fate, one adrift in some faraway land, the other forced into marriage, the weeping, the singing in fields of marigolds, the longing for reunions. She remembered how Tariq would laugh at her for crying at those films.

“I wonder what they’ve done to my father’s cinema,” Mariam said to her one day. “If it’s still there, that is. Or if he still owns it.”

Kharabat, Kabul’s ancient music ghetto, was silenced. Musicians were beaten and imprisoned, theirrubab%›iamboura%› and harmoniums trampled upon. The Taliban went to the grave of Tariq’s favorite singer, Ahmad Zahir, and fired bullets into it.

“He’s been dead for almost twenty years,” Laila said to Mariam. “Isn’t dying once enough?”

Rasheed wasnt bothered much by the Taliban. All he had to do was grow a beard, which he did, and visit the mosque, which he also did. Rasheed regarded the Taliban with a forgiving, affectionate kind of bemusement, as one might regard an erratic cousin prone to unpredictable acts of hilarity and scandal.

Every Wednesday night, Rasheed listened to the Voice ofShari’a when the Taliban would announce the names of those scheduled for punishment. Then, on Fridays, he went to Ghazi Stadium, bought a Pepsi, and watched the spectacle. In bed, he made Laila listen as he described with a queer sort of exhilaration the hands he’d seen severed, the lashings, the hangings, the beheadings.

“I saw a man today slit the throat of his brother’s murderer,” he said one night, blowing halos of smoke.

“They’re savages,” Laila said.

“You think?” he said “Compared to what? The Soviets killed a million people. Do you know how many people the Mujahideen killed in Kabul alone these last four years? Fifty thousandFifty thousand! Is it so insensible, by comparison, to chop the hands off a few thieves? Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. It’s in the Koran. Besides, tell me this: If someone killed Aziza, wouldn’t you want the chance to avenge her?”

Laila shot him a disgusted look.

“I’m making a point,” he said.

“You’re just like them.”

“It’s an interesting eye color she has, Aziza. Don’t you think? It’s neither yours nor mine.”

Rasheed rolled over to face her, gently scratched her thigh with the crooked nail of his index finger.

“Let me explain,” he said. “If the fancy should strike me-and I’m not saying it will, but it could, it could-I would be within my rights to give Aziza away. How would you like that? Or I could go to the Taliban one day, just walk in and say that I have my suspicions about you. That’s all it would take. Whose word do you think they would believe? What do you think they’d do to you?”

Laila pulled her thigh from him.

“Not that I would,” he said. “I wouldn’t.Nay. Probably not. You know me.”

“You’re despicable,” Laila said.

“That’s a big word,” Rasheed said. “I’ve always disliked that about you. Even when you were little, when you were running around with that cripple, you thought you were so clever, with your books and poems. What good are all your smarts to you now? What’s keeping you off the streets, your smarts or me? I’m despicable? Half the women in this city would kill to have a husband like me. They wouldkill for it.”

He rolled back and blew smoke toward the ceiling.

“You like big words? I’ll give you one: perspective. That’s what I’m doing here, Laila. Making sure you don’t lose perspective.”

What turned Laila’s stomach the rest of the night was that every word Rasheed had uttered, every last one, was true.

But, in the morning, and for several mornings after that, the queasiness in her gut persisted, then worsened, became something dismayingly familiar.

One cold, overcast afternoon soon after, Laila lay on her back on the bedroom floor. Mariam was napping with Aziza in her room.

In Laila’s hands was a metal spoke she had snapped with a pair of pliers from an abandoned bicycle wheel She’d found it in the same alley where she had kissed Tariq years back. For a long time, Laila lay on the floor, sucking air through her teeth, legs parted She’d adored Aziza from the moment when she’d first suspected her existence. There had been none of this self-doubt, this uncertainty. What a terrible thing it was, Laila thought now, for a mother to fear that she could not summon love for her own child. What an unnatural thing. And yet she had to wonder, as she lay on the floor, her sweaty hands poised to guide the spoke, if indeed she could ever love Rasheed’s child as she had Tariq’s.

In the end, Laila couldn’t do it.

It wasn’t the fear of bleeding to death that made her drop the spoke, or even the idea that the act was damnable- which she suspected it was. Laila dropped the spoke because she could not accept what the Mujahideen readily had: that sometimes in war innocent life had to be taken. Her war was against Rasheed. The baby was blameless. And there had been enough killing already. Laila had seen enough killing of innocents caught in the cross fire of enemies.


Madam September 1997

Ihis hospital no longer treats women,” the guard barked. He was standing at the top of the stairs, looking down icily on the crowd gathered in front of Malalai Hospital.

A loud groan rose from the crowd.

“But this is a women’s hospital!” a woman shouted behind Mariam. Cries of approval followed this.

Mariam shifted Aziza from one arm to the other. With her free arm, she supported Laila, who was moaning, and had her own arm flung around Rasheed’s neck.

“Not anymore,” the Talib said.

“My wife is having a baby!” a heavyset man yelled. “Would you have her give birth here on the street, brother?”

Mariam had heard the announcement, in January of that year, that men and women would be seen in different hospitals, that all female staff would be discharged from Kabul’s hospitals and sent to work in one central facility. No one had believed it, and the Taliban hadn’t enforced the policy. Until now.

“What about Ali Abaci Hospital?” another man cried.

The guard shook his head.


“Men only,” he said.

“What are we supposed to do?”

“Go to Rabia Balkhi,” the guard said.

A young woman pushed forward, said she had already been there. They had no clean water, she said, no oxygen, no medications, no electricity. “There is nothing there.”

“That’s where you go,” the guard said.

There were more groans and cries, an insult or two. Someone threw a rock.

The Talib lifted his Kalashnikov and fired rounds into the air. Another Talib behind him brandished a whip.

The crowd dispersed quickly.

The waiting room at Rabia Balkhi was teeming with women in burqas and their children. The air stank of sweat and unwashed bodies, of feet, urine, cigarette smoke, and antiseptic. Beneath the idle ceiling fan, children chased each other, hopping over the stretched-out legs of dozing fathers.

Mariam helped Laila sit against a wall from which patches of plaster shaped like foreign countries had slid off Laila rocked back and forth, hands pressing against her belly.

“I’ll get you seen, Laila jo. I promise.”

“Be quick,” said Rasheed.

Before the registration window was a horde of women, shoving and pushing against each other. Some were still holding their babies. Some broke from the mass and charged the double doors that led to the treatment rooms. An armed Talib guard blocked their way, sent them back.

Mariam waded in. She dug in her heels and burrowed against the elbows, hips, and shoulder blades of strangers. Someone elbowed her in the ribs, and she elbowed back. A hand made a desperate grab at her face. She swatted it away. To propel herself forward, Mariam clawed at necks, at arms and elbows, at hair, and, when a woman nearby hissed, Mariam hissed back.

Mariam saw now the sacrifices a mother made. Decency was but one. She thought ruefully of Nana, of the sacrifices that she too had made. Nana, who could have given her away, or tossed her in a ditch somewhere and run. But she hadn’t. Instead, Nana had endured the shame of bearing aharami, had shaped her life around the thankless task of raising Mariam and, in her own way, of loving her. And, in the end, Mariam had chosen Jalil over her. As she fought her way with impudent resolve to the front of the melee, Mariam wished she had been a better daughter to Nana. She wished she’d understood then what she understood now about motherhood-She found herself face-to-face with a nurse, who was covered head to toe in a dirty gray burqa. The nurse was talking to a young woman, whose burqa headpiece had soaked through with a patch of matted blood “My daughter’s water broke and the baby won’t come,” Mariam called.

“I’mtalking to her!” the bloodied young woman cried “Wait your turn!”

The whole mass of them swayed side to side, like the tall grass around thekolba when the breeze swept across the clearing. A woman behind Mariam was yelling that her girl had broken her elbow falling from a tree. Another woman cried that she was passing bloody stools.

“Does she have a fever?” the nurse asked. It took Mariam a moment to realize she was being spoken to.

“No,” Mariam said.



“Whereis she?”

Over the covered heads, Mariam pointed to where Laila was sitting with Rasheed.

“We’ll get to her,” the nurse said

“How long?” Mariam cried Someone had grabbed her by the shoulders and was pulling her back.

“I don’t know,”the nurse said. She said they had only two doctorsand both were operating at the moment.

“She’s in pain,” Mariam said.

“Me too!” the woman with the bloodied scalp cried. “Wait your turn!”

Mariam was being dragged back. Her view of the nurse was blocked now by shoulders and the backs of heads. She smelled a baby’s milky burp.

“Take her for awalk,” the nurse yelled. “And wait.”

It was dark outside when a nurse finally called them in. The delivery room had eight beds, on which women moaned and twisted tended to by fully covered nurses. Two of the women were in the act of delivering. There were no curtains between the beds. Laila was given a bed at the far end, beneath a window that someone had painted black. There was a sink nearby, cracked and dry, and a string over the sink from which hung stained surgical gloves. In the middle of the room Mariam saw an aluminum table. The top shelf had a soot-colored blanket on it; the bottom shelf was empty.

One of the women saw Mariam looking.

“They put the live ones on the top,” she said tiredly.

The doctor, in a dark blue burqa, was a small, harried woman with birdlike movements. Everything she said came out sounding impatient, urgent.

“First baby.” She said it like that, not as a question but as a statement.

“Second,” Mariam said.

Laila let out a cry and rolled on her side. Her fingers closed against Mariam’s.

“Any problems with the first delivery?”


“You’re the mother?”

“Yes,” Mariam said.

The doctor lifted the lower half of her burqa and produced a metallic, cone-shaped instrument- She raised Laila’s burqa and placed the wide end of the instrument on her belly, the narrow end to her own ear. She listened for almost a minute, switched spots, listened again, switched spots again.

“I have to feel the baby now,hamshira “

She put on one of the gloves hung by a clothespin over the sink. She pushed on Laila’s belly with one hand and slid the other inside. Laila whimpered. When the doctor was done, she gave the glove to a nurse, who rinsed it and pinned it back on the string.

“Your daughter needs a caesarian. Do you know what that is? We have to open her womb and take the baby out, because it is in the breech position.”

“I don’t understand,” Mariam said.

The doctor said the baby was positioned so it wouldn’t come out on its own. “And too much time has passed as is. We need to go to the operating room now.”

Laila gave a grimacing nod, and her head drooped to one side.

“Thereis something I have to tell you,” the doctor said. She moved closer to Mariam, leaned in, and spoke in a lower, more confidential tone. There was a hint of embarrassment in her voice now.

“What is she saying?” Laila groaned. “Is something wrong with the baby?”

“But how will she stand it?” Mariam said.

The doctor must have heard accusation in this question, judging by the defensive shift in her tone.

“You think I want it this way?” she said. “What do you want me to do? They won’t give me what I need. I have no X-ray either, no suction, no oxygen, not even simple antibiotics. When NGOs offer money, the Taliban turn them away. Or they funnel the money to the places that cater to men.”

“But, Doctor sahib, isn’t there something you can give her?” Mariam asked.

“What’s going on?” Laila moaned.

“You can buy the medicine yourself, but-“

“Write the name,” Mariam said. “You write it down and I’ll get it.”

Beneath the burqa, the doctor shook her head curtly. “There is no time,” she said. “For one thing, none of the nearby pharmacies have it. So you’d have to fight through traffic from one place to the next, maybe all the way across town, with little likelihood that you’d ever find it. It’s almost eight-thirty now, so you’ll probably get arrested for breaking curfew. Even if you find the medicine, chances are you can’t afford it. Or you’ll find yourself in a bidding war with someone just as desperate. There is no time. This baby needs to come out now.”

“Tell me what’s going on!” Laila said She had propped herself up on her elbows.

The doctor took a breath, then told Laila that the hospital had no anesthetic.

“But if we delay, you will lose your baby.”

“Then cut me open,” Laila said. She dropped back on the bed and drew up her knees. “Cut me open and give me my baby.”

Inside the old, dingy operating room, Laila lay on a gurney bed as the doctor scrubbed her hands in a basin. Laila was shivering. She drew in air through her teeth every time the nurse wiped her belly with a cloth soaked in a yellow-brown liquid. Another nurse stood at the door. She kept cracking it open to take a peek outside.

The doctor was out of her burqa now, and Mariam saw that she had a crest of silvery hair, heavy-lidded eyes, and little pouches of fatigue at the corners of her mouth.

“They want us to operate in burqa,” the doctor explained, motioning with her head to the nurse at the door. “She keeps watch. She sees them coming; I cover.”

She said this in a pragmatic, almost indifferent, tone, and Mariam understood that this was a woman far past outrage. Here was a woman, she thought, who had understood that she was lucky to even be working, that there was always something, something else, that they could take away.

There were two vertical, metallic rods on either side of Laila’s shoulders. With clothespins, the nurse who’d cleansed Laila’s belly pinned a sheet to them. It formed a curtain between Laila and the doctor.

Mariam positioned herself behind the crown of Laila’s head and lowered her face so their cheeks touched. She could feel Laila’s teeth rattling. Their hands locked together.

Through the curtain, Mariam saw the doctor’s shadow move to Laila’s left, the nurse to the right. Laila’s lips had stretched all the way back. Spit bubbles formed and popped on the surface of her clenched teeth. She made quick, little hissing sounds.

The doctor said, “Take heart, little sister.”

She bent over Laila.

Laila’s eyes snapped open. Then her mouth opened. She held like this, held, held, shivering, the cords in her neck stretched, sweat dripping from her face, her fingers crushing Mariam’s.

Mariam would always admire Laila for how much time passed before she screamed.


Laila Fall 1999

It was Mariam’s idea to dig the hole. One morning, she pointed to a patch of soil behind the toolshed. “We can do it here,” she said. “This is a good spot”

They took turns striking the ground with a spade, then shoveling the loose dirt aside. They hadn’t planned on a big hole, or a deep one, so the work of digging shouldn’t have been as demanding as it turned out. It was the drought, started in 1998, in its second year now, that was wreaking havoc everywhere. It had hardly snowed that past winter and didn’t rain at all that spring. All over the country, farmers were leaving behind their parched lands, selling off their goods, roaming from village to village looking for water. They moved to Pakistan or Iran. They settled in Kabul. But water tables were low in the city too, and the shallow wells had dried up. The lines at the deep wells were so long, Laila and Mariam would spend hours waiting their turn. The Kabul River, without its yearly spring floods, had turned bone-dry. It was a public toilet now, nothing in it but human waste and rubble.

So they kept swinging the spade and striking, but the sun-blistered ground had hardened like a rock, the dirt unyielding, compressed, almost petrified.

Mariam was forty now. Her hair, rolled up above her face, had a few stripes of gray in it. Pouches sagged beneath her eyes, brown and crescent-shaped. She’d lost two front teeth. One fell out, the other Rasheed knocked out when she’d accidentally dropped Zalmai. Her skin had coarsened, tanned from all the time they were spending in the yardsitting beneath the brazen sun. They would sit and watch Zalmai chase Aziza.

When it was done, when the hole was dug, they stood over it and looked down.

“It should do,” Mariam said.

Zalmai was twonow. He was a plump little boy with curly hair. He had small brownisheyes, and a rosy tint tohis cheeks, like Rasheed, no matter the weather. He hadhis father’shairline too, thick and half-moon-shaped,set low on his brow.

When Laila was alone with him, Zalmai was sweet, good-humored, and playful. He liked to climb Laila’sshoulders, play hide-and-seek in the yard with her and Aziza. Sometimes, inhis calmer moments, he liked tosit on Laila’s lap and have her sing tohim. His favorite song was “Mullah Mohammad Jan.” He swung his meaty little feet as she sang into his curly hair and joined in when she got to the chorus, singing what words he could make with his raspy voice: Come and lei’s go to Mazar, Mullah Mohammadjan, To see the fields of tulips, o beloved companion.

Laila loved the moist kisses Zalmai planted on her cheeks, loved his dimpled elbows and stout little toes. She loved tickling him, building tunnels with cushions and pillows for him to crawl through, watching him fall asleep in her arms with one of his hands always clutching her ear. Her stomach turned when she thought of that afternoon, lying on the floor with the spoke of a bicycle wheel between her legs. How close she’d come. It was unthinkable to her now that she could have even entertained the idea. Her son was a blessing, and Laila was relieved to discover that her fears had proved baseless, that she loved Zalmai with the marrow of her bones, just as she did Aziza.

But Zalmai worshipped his father, and, because he did, he was transformed when his father was around to dote on him. Zalmai was quick then with a defiant cackle or an impudent grin. In his father’s presence, he was easily offended. He held grudges. He persisted in mischief in spite of Laila’s scolding, which he never did when Rasheed was away.

Rasheed approved of all of it. “A sign of intelligence,” he said. He said the same of Zalmai’s recklessness-when he swallowed, then pooped, marbles; when he lit matches; when he chewed on Rasheed’s cigarettes.

When Zalmai was born, Rasheed had moved him into the bed he shared with Laila. He had bought him a new crib and had lions and crouching leopards painted on the side panels. He’d paid for new clothes, new rattles, new bottles, new diapers, even though they could not afford them and Aziza’s old ones were still serviceable. One day, he came home with a battery-run mobile, which he hung over Zalmai’s crib. Little yellow-and-black bumblebees dangled from a sunflower, and they crinkled and squeaked when squeezed. A tune played when it was turned on.

“I thought you said business was slow,” Laila said.

“I have friends I can borrowfrom,” he saiddismissively.

“Howwill you pay them back?”

“Thingswill turn around. They always do. Look,he likes it. See?”

Mostdays, Laila was deprived ofher son. Rasheed took him to the shop, let him crawl around under his crowded workbench, play with old rubber soles and spare scraps of leather. Rasheed drove in his iron nails and turned the sandpaper wheel, and kept a watchful eye on him. If Zalmai toppled a rack of shoes, Rasheed scolded him gently, in a calm, half-smiling way. If he did it again, Rasheed put downhis hammer, sat him up on his desk, and talked to him softly.

Hispatience with Zalmaiwas a well that ran deep and never dried.

They came home together in the evening, Zalmai’s head bouncing on Rasheed’s shoulder, both of them smelling of glue and leather. They grinned the way people who share a secret do,slyly, like they’d satin thatdim shoe shop all day not making shoes at all butdevising secret plots. Zalmai liked to sit besidehis father at dinner, where they played private games, as Mariam, Laila, and Azizaset plates onthesojrah. They took turns poking each otheron the chest, giggling, pelting each other with bread crumbs, whispering things the others couldn’t hear. If Laila spoke tothem, Rasheed looked up with displeasure at the unwelcome intrusion. If she asked to hold Zalmai-or, worse,if Zalmai reached for her-Rasheed glowered at her.

Laila walked away feeling stung.

Then one night, a few weeks after Zalmai turned two, Rasheed came home with a television and a VCR. The day had been warm, almost balmy, but the evening was cooler and already thickening into a starless, chilly night-He set it down on the living-room table. He said he’d bought it on the black market. “Another loan?” Laila asked. “It’saMagnavox.”

Aziza came into the room. When she saw the TV, she ran to it. “Careful, Aziza jo,” saidMariam. “Don’t touch.”

Aziza’s hair had become as light as Laila’s. Laila could see her own dimples on her cheeks. Aziza had turned into a calm, pensive little girl, with a demeanor that to Laila seemed beyond her six years. Laila marveled at her daughter’s manner of speech, her cadence and rhythm, her thoughtful pauses and intonations, so adult, so at odds with the immature body that housed the voice. It was Aziza who with lightheaded authority had taken it upon herself to wake Zalmai every day, to dress him, feed him his breakfast, comb his hair. She was the one who put him down to nap, who played even-tempered peacemaker to her volatile sibling. Around him, Aziza had taken to giving an exasperated, queerly adult headshake.

Aziza pushed the TV’s power button. Rasheed scowled, snatched her wrist and set it on the table, not gently at all.

“This is Zalmai’s TV,” he said.

Aziza went over to Mariam and climbed in her lap. The two of them were inseparable now. Of late, with Laila’s blessing, Mariam had started teaching Aziza verses from the Koran. Aziza could already recite by heart the surah ofikhlas, the surah of’fatiha,and already knew how to perform the fourruqats of morning prayer.

It’s oil I have to give her,Mariam had said to Laila,this knowledge, these prayers. They’re the only true possession I’ve ever had.

Zalmai came into the room now. As Rasheed watched with anticipation, the way people wait the simple tricks of street magicians, Zalmai pulled on the TV’s wire, pushed the buttons, pressed his palms to the blank screen. When he lifted them, the condensed little palms faded from the glass. Rasheed smiled with pride, watched as Zalmai kept pressing his palms and lifting them, over and over.

The Taliban had banned television. Videotapes had been gouged publicly, the tapes ripped out and strung on fence posts. Satellite dishes had been hung from lampposts. But Rasheed said just because things were banned didn’t mean you couldn’t find them.

“I’ll start looking for some cartoon videos tomorrow,” he said. “It won’t be hard. You can buy anything in underground bazaars.”

“Then maybe you’ll buy us a new well,” Laila said, and this won her a scornful gaze from him.

It was later, after another dinner of plain white rice had been consumed and tea forgone again on account of the drought, after Rasheed had smoked a cigarette, that he told Laila about his decision.

“No,” Laila said.

He said he wasn’t asking.

“I don’t care if you are or not.”

“You would if you knew the full story.”

He said he had borrowed from more friends than he let on, that the money from the shop alone was no longer enough to sustain the five of them. “I didn’t tell you earlier to spare you the worrying.”

“Besides,” he said, “you’d be surprised how much they can bring in.”

Laila said no again. They were in the living room. Mariam and the children were in the kitchen. Laila could hear the clatter of dishes, Zalmai’s high-pitched laugh, Aziza saying something to Mariam in her steady, reasonable voice.

“There will be others like her, younger even,” Rasheed said. “Everyone in Kabul is doing the same.”

Laila told him she didn’t care what other people did with their children.

“I’ll keep a close eye on her,” Rasheed said, less patiently now. “It’s a safe corner. There’s a mosque across the street.”

“I won’t let you turn my daughter into a street beggar!” Laila snapped.

The slap made a loud smacking sound, the palm of his thick-fingered hand connecting squarely with the meat of Laila’s cheek. It made her head whip around. It silenced the noises from the kitchen. For a moment, the house was perfectly quiet. Then a flurry of hurried footsteps in the hallway before Mariam and the children were in the living room, their eyes shifting from her to Rasheed and back.

Then Laila punched him.

It was the first time she’d struck anybody, discounting the playful punches she and Tariq used to trade. But those had been open-fisted, more pats than punches, self-consciously friendly, comfortable expressions of anxieties that were both perplexing and thrilling. They would aim for the muscle that Tariq, in a professorial voice, called thedeltoid Laila watched the arch of her closed fist, slicing through the air, felt the crinkle of Rasheed’s stubbly, coarse skin under her knuckles. It made a sound like dropping a rice bag to the floor. She hit him hard. The impact actually made him stagger two steps backward.

From the other side of the room, a gasp, a yelp, and a scream. Laila didn’t know who had made which noise. At the moment, she was too astounded to notice or care, waiting for her mind to catch up with what her hand had done. When it did, she believed she might have smiled. She might havegrinned when, to her astonishment, Rasheed calmly walked out of the room.

Suddenly, it seemed to Laila that the collective hardships of their lives-hers, Aziza’s, Mariam’s-simply dropped away, vaporized like Zalmai’s palms from the TV screen. It seemed worthwhile, if absurdly so, to have endured all they’d endured for this one crowning moment, for this act of defiance that would end the suffering of all indignities.

Laila did not notice that Rasheed was back in the room. Until his hand was around her throat. Until she was lifted off her feet and slammed against the wall.

Up close, his sneering face seemed impossibly large. Laila noticed how much puffier it was getting with age, how many more broken vessels charted tiny paths on his nose. Rasheed didn’t say anything. And, really, what could be said, what needed saying, when you’d shoved the barrel of your gun into your wife’s mouth?

It was the raids, the reason they were in the yard digging. Sometimes monthly raids, sometimes weekly. Of late, almost daily. Mostly, the Taliban confiscated stuff, gave a kick to someone’s rear, whacked the back of a head or two. But sometimes there were public beatings, lashings of soles and palms.

“Gently,” Mariam said now, her knees over the edge. They lowered the TV into the hole by each clutching one end of the plastic sheet in which it was wrapped “That should do it,” Mariam said.

They patted the dirt when they were done, filling the hole up again. They tossed some of it around so it wouldn’t look conspicuous.

“There,” Mariam said, wiping her hands on her dress.

When it was safer, they’d agreed, when the Taliban cut down on their raids, in a month or two or six, or maybe longer, they would dig the TV up.

In Laila’S dream, she and Mariam are out behind the toolshed digging again. But, this time, it’s Aziza they’re lowering into the ground. Aziza’s breath fogs the sheet of plastic in which they have wrapped her. Laila sees her panicked eyes, the whiteness of her palms as they slap and push against the sheet. Aziza pleads. Laila can’t hear her screams.Only for a while, she calls down,it’s only for a while. It’s the raids, don’t you know, my love? When the raids are over, Mammy and Khala Mariam will dig you out. I promise, my love. Then we can play. We can play all you want. She fills the shovel. Laila woke up, out of breath, with a taste of soil in her mouth, when the first granular lumps of dirt hit the plastic.



In the summer of 2000, the drought reached its third and worst year.

In Helmand, Zabol, Kandahar, villages turned into herds of nomadic communities, always moving, searching for water and green pastures for their livestock. When they found neither, when their goats and sheep and cows died off, they came to Kabul They took to the Kareh-Ariana hillside, living in makeshift slums, packed in huts, fifteen or twenty at a time.

That was also the summer ofTitanic, the summer that Mariam and Aziza were a tangle of limbs, rolling and giggling, Aziza insistingshe get to be Jack.

“Quiet, Aziza jo.”

“Jack! Say my name, Khala Mariam. Say it. Jack!” “Your father will be angry if you wake him.”

“Jack! And you’re Rose.”

It would end with Mariam on her back, surrendering, agreeing again to be Rose. “Fine, you be Jack,” she relented “You die young, and I get to live to a ripe old age.”

“Yes, but I die a hero,” said Aziza, “while you, Rose, you spend your entire, miserable life longing for me.” Then, straddling Mariam’s chest, she’d announce, “Now we must kiss!” Mariam whipped her head side to side, and Aziza, delighted with her own scandalous behavior, cackled through puckered lips.

Sometimes Zalmai would saunter in and watch this game. What didhe get to be, he asked “You can be the iceberg,” said Aziza.

That summer,Titanic fever gripped Kabul. People smuggled pirated copies of the film from Pakistan- sometimes in their underwear. After curfew, everyone locked their doors, turned out the lights, turned down the volume, and reaped tears for Jack and Rose and the passengers of the doomed ship. If there was electrical power, Mariam, Laila, and the children watched it too. A dozen times or more, they unearthed the TV from behind the toolshed, late at night, with the lights out and quilts pinned over the windows.

At the Kabul River, vendors moved into the parched riverbed. Soon, from the river’s sunbaked hollows, it was possible to buyTitanic carpets, andTitanic cloth, from bolts arranged in wheelbarrows. There wasTitanic deodorant,Titanic toothpaste,Titanic perfume,Titanicpakora, evenTitanic burqas. A particularly persistent beggar began calling himself “Titanic Beggar.”

“Titanic City” was born.

It’s the song,they said.

No, the sea. The luxury. The ship.

It’s the sex,they whispered

Leo,said Aziza sheepishly.It’s all about Leo.

“Everybody wants Jack,” Laila said to Mariam. “That’s what it is. Everybody wants Jack to rescue them from disaster. But there is no Jack. Jack is not coming back. Jack is dead.”

Then, late that summer, a fabric merchant fell asleep and forgot to put out his cigarette. He survived the fire, but his store did not. The fire took the adjacent fabric store as well, a secondhand clothing store, a small furniture shop, a bakery.

They told Rasheed later that if the winds had blown east instead of west, his shop, which was at the corner of the block, might have been spared.

They sold everything.

First to go were Mariam’s things, then Laila’s. Aziza’s baby clothes, the few toys Laila had fought Rasheed to buy her. Aziza watched the proceedings with a docile look. Rasheed’s watch too was sold, his old transistor radio, his pair of neckties, his shoes, and his wedding ring. The couch, the table, the rug, and the chairs went too. Zalmai threw a wicked tantrum when Rasheed sold the TV.

After the fire, Rasheed was home almost every day. He slapped Aziza. He kicked Mariam. He threw things. He found fault with Laila, the way she smelled, the way she dressed, the way she combed her hair, her yellowing teeth.

“What’s happened to you?” he said. “I marriedapart, and now I’m saddled with a hag. You’re turning into Mariam.”

He got fired from the kebab house near Haji Yaghoub Square because he and a customer got into a scuffle. The customer complained that Rasheed had rudely tossed the bread on his table. Harsh words had passed. Rasheed had called the customer a monkey-faced Uzbek. A gun had been brandished. A skewer pointed in return. In Rasheed’s version, he held the skewer. Mariam had her doubts.

Fired from the restaurant in Taimani because customers complained about the long waits, Rasheed said the cook was slow and lazy.

“You were probably out back napping,” said Laila.

“Don’t provoke him, Laila jo,” Mariam said.

“I’m warning you, woman,” he said.

“Either that or smoking.”

“I swear to God.”

“You can’t help being what you are.”

And then he was on Laila, pummeling her chest, her head, her belly with fists, tearing at her hair, throwing her to the wall. Aziza was shrieking, pulling at his shirt; Zalmai was screaming too, trying to get him off his mother. Rasheed shoved the children aside, pushed Laila to the ground, and began kicking her. Mariam threw herself on Laila. He went on kicking, kicking Mariam now, spittle flying from his mouth, his eyes glittering with murderous intent, kicking until he couldn’t anymore.

“I swear you’re going to make me kill you, Laila,” he said, panting. Then he stormed out of the house.

When the money ran out, hunger began to cast a pall over their lives. It was stunning to Mariam how quickly alleviating hunger became the crux of their existence.

Rice, boiled plain and white, with no meat or sauce, was a rare treat now. They skipped meals with increasing and alarming regularity. Sometimes Rasheed brought home sardines in a can and brittle, dried bread that tasted like sawdust. Sometimes a stolen bag of apples, at the risk of getting his hand sawed off. In grocery stores, he carefully pocketed canned ravioli, which they split five ways, Zalmai getting the lion’s share. They ate raw turnips sprinkled with salt. Limp leaves of lettuce and blackened bananas for dinner.

Death from starvation suddenly became a distinct possibility. Some chose not to wait for it. Mariam heard of a neighborhood widow who had ground some dried bread, laced it with rat poison, and fed it to all seven of her children. She had saved the biggest portion for herself.

Aziza’s ribs began to push through the skin, and the fat from her cheeks vanished. Her calves thinned, and her complexion turned the color of weak tea. When Mariam picked her up, she could feel her hip bone poking through the taut skin. Zalmai lay around the house, eyes dulled and half closed, or in his father’s lap limp as a rag. He cried himself to sleep, when he could muster the energy, but his sleep was fitful and sporadic. White dots leaped before Mariam’s eyes whenever she got up. Her head spun, and her ears rang all the time. She remembered something Mullah Faizullah used to say about hunger when Ramadan started:Even the snakebiiien man finds sleep, but not the hungry.

“My children are going to die,” Laila said. “Right before my eyes.”

“They are not,” Mariam said. “I won’t let them. It’s going to be all right, Laila jo. I know what to do.”

One blistering-hot day, Mariam put on her burqa, and she and Rasheed walked to the Intercontinental Hotel. Bus fare was an un-affordable luxury now, and Mariam was exhausted by the time they reached the top of the steep hill. Climbing the slope, she was struck by bouts of dizziness, and twice she had to stop, wait for it to pass.

At the hotel entrance, Rasheed greeted and hugged one of the doormen, who was dressed in a burgundy suit and visor cap. There was some friendly-looking talk between them. Rasheed spoke with his hand on the doorman’s elbow. He motioned toward Mariam at one point, and they both looked her way briefly. Mariam thought there was something vaguely familiar about the doorman.

When the doorman went inside, Mariam and Rasheed waited. From this vantage point, Mariam had a view of the Polytechnic Institute, and, beyond that, the old Khair khana district and the road to Mazar. To the south, she could see the bread factory, Silo, long abandoned, its pale yellow fa9ade pocked with yawning holes from all the shelling it had endured. Farther south, she could make out the hollow ruins of Darulaman Palace, where, many years back, Rasheed had taken her for a picnic. The memory of that day was a relic from a past that no longer seemed like her own.

Mariam concentrated on these things, these landmarks. She feared she might lose her nerve if she let her mind wander.

Every few minutes, jeeps and taxis drove up to the hotel entrance. Doormen rushed to greet the passengers, who were all men, armed, bearded, wearing turbans, all of them stepping out with the same self-assured, casual air of menace. Mariam heard bits of their chatter as they vanished through the hotel’s doors. She heard Pashto and Farsi, but Urdu and Arabic too.

“Meet ourreal masters,” Rasheed said in a low-pitched voice. “Pakistani and Arab Islamists. The Taliban are puppets.These are the big players and Afghanistan is their playground.”

Rasheed said he’d heard rumors that the Taliban were allowing these people to set up secret camps all over the country, where young men were being trained to become suicide bombers and jihadi fighters.

“What’s taking him so long?” Mariam said.

Rasheed spat, and kicked dirt on the spit.

An hour later, they were inside, Mariam and Rasheed, following the doorman. Their heels clicked on the tiled floor as they were led across the pleasantly cool lobby. Mariam saw two men sitting on leather chairs, rifles and a coffee table between them, sipping black tea and eating from a plate of syrup-coatedjelabi, rings sprinkled with powdered sugar. She thought of Aziza, who lovedjelabi, and tore her gaze away.

The doorman led them outside to a balcony. From his pocket, he produced a small black cordless phone and a scrap of paper with a number scribbled on it. He told Rasheed it was his supervisor’s satellite phone.

“I got you five minutes,” he said. “No more.”

“Tashakor,”Rasheed said. “I won’t forget this.”

The doorman nodded and walked away. Rasheed dialed. He gave Mariam the phone.

As Mariam listened to the scratchy ringing, her mind wandered. It wandered to the last time she’d seen Jalil, thirteen years earlier, back in the spring of 1987. He’d stood on the street outside her house, leaning on a cane, beside the blue Benz with the Herat license plates and the white stripe bisecting the roof, the hood, and trunk. He’d stood there for hours, waiting for her, now and then calling her name, just as she had once calledhis name outsidehis house. Mariam had parted the curtain once, just a bit, and caught a glimpse of him. Only a glimpse, but long enough to see that his hair had turned fluffy white, and that he’d started to stoop. He wore glasses, a red tie, as always, and the usual white handkerchief triangle in his breast pocket. Most striking, he was thinner, much thinner, than she remembered, the coat of his dark brown suit drooping over his shoulders, the trousers pooling at his ankles.

Jalil had seen her too, if only for a moment. Their eyes had met briefly through a part in the curtains, as they had met many years earlier through a part in another pair of curtains. But then Mariam had quickly closed the curtains. She had sat on the bed, waited for him to leave.

She thought now of the letter Jalil had finally left at her door. She had kept it for days, beneath her pillow, picking it up now and then, turning it over in her hands. In the end, she had shredded it unopened.

And now here she was, after all these years, calling him.

Mariam regretted her foolish, youthful pride now. She wished now that she had let him in. What would have been the harm to let him in, sit with him, let him say what he’d come to say? He was her father. He’d not been a good father, it was true, but how ordinary his faults seemed now, how forgivable, when compared to Rasheed’s malice, or to the brutality and violence that she had seen men inflict on one another.

She wished she hadn’t destroyed his letter.

A man’s deep voice spoke in her ear and informed her that she’d reached the mayor’s office in Herat.

Mariam cleared her throat.”Salaam, brother, I am looking for someone who lives in Herat. Or he did, many years ago. His name is Jalil Khan. He lived in Shar-e-Nau and owned the cinema. Do you have any information as to his whereabouts?”

The irritation was audible in the man’s voice. “This is whyyou call the mayor’s office?”

Mariam said she didn’t know who else to call. “Forgive me, brother. I know you have important things to tend to, but it is life and death, a question of life and death I am calling about.”

“I don’t know him. The cinema’s been closed for many years.”

“Maybe there’s someone there who might know him, someone-“

“There is no one.”

Mariam closed her eyes. “Please, brother. There are children involved. Small children.”

A long sigh.

“Maybe someone there-“

“There’s a groundskeeper here. I think he’s lived here all of his life.”

“Yes, ask him, please.”

“Call back tomorrow.”

Mariam said she couldn’t. “I have this phone for five minutes only. I don’t-“

There was a click at the other end, and Mariam thought he had hung up. But she could hear footsteps, and voices, a distant car horn, and some mechanical humming punctuated by clicks, maybe an electric fan. She switched the phone to her other ear, closed her eyes.

She pictured Jalil smiling, reaching into his pocket.

Ah. Of course. Well Here then. Without Juriher ado…

A leaf-shaped pendant, tiny coins etched with moons and stars hanging from it.

Try it on, Mariam jo.

What do you think?

Ithink you look like a queen.

A few minutes passed. Then footsteps, a creaking sound, and a click. “He does know him.”

“He does?”

“It’s what he says.”

“Where is he?” Mariam said. “Does this man know where Jalil Khan is?”

There was a pause. “He says he died years ago, back in 1987.”

Mariam’s stomach fell. She’d considered the possibility, of course. Jalil would have been in his mid-to late seventies by now, but…1987.

He was dying then. He had driven all the way from Herat to say good-bye.

She moved to the edge of the balcony. From up here, she could see the hotel’s once-famous swimming pool, empty and grubby now, scarred by bullet holes and decaying tiles. And there was the battered tennis court, the ragged net lying limply in the middle of it like dead skin shed by a snake.

“I have to go now,” the voice at the other end said

“I’m sorry to have bothered you,” Mariam said, weeping soundlessly into the phone. She saw Jalil waving to her, skipping from stone to stone as he crossed the stream, his pockets swollen with gifts. All the times she had held her breath for him, for God to grant her more time with him. “Thank you,” Mariam began to say, but the man at the other end had already hung up.

Rasheed was looking at her. Mariam shook her head.

“Useless,” he said, snatching the phone from her. “Like daughter, like father.”

On their way out of the lobby, Rasheed walked briskly to the coffee table, which was now abandoned, and pocketed the last ringof jelabi. He took it home and gave it to Zalmai.

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