فصل 05کتاب: و کوه طنين انداخت / فصل 5
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متن انگلیسی فصل
Five Spring 2003
The nurse, whose name is Amra Ademovic, had warned Idris and Timur. She had pulled them aside and said, “If you show reaction, even little, she going to be upset, and I kick you out.”
They are standing at the end of a long, poorly lit hallway in the men’s wing of Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital. Amra said the only relative the girl had left—or the only one who visited—was her uncle, and if she’d been placed in the women’s wing he would not be permitted to visit her. So the staff had placed her in the men’s wing, not in a room—it would be indecent for the girl to room with men who were not relatives—but here, at the end of the hallway, a no-man’s- and no-woman’s-land.
“And here I thought the Taliban had left town,” Timur says.
“It’s crazy, no?” Amra says, then lets out a bewildered chuckle. In the week that Idris has been back in Kabul, he has found this tone of lighthearted exasperation common among the foreign-aid workers, who’ve had to navigate the inconveniences and idiosyncrasies of Afghan culture. He is vaguely offended by this entitlement to cheerful mocking, this license to condescend, though the locals don’t seem to take notice, or take it as an insult if they do, and so he thinks he probably shouldn’t either.
“But they let you here. You come and go,” Timur says.
Amra arches an eyebrow. “I don’t count. I am not Afghan. So I am not real woman. You don’t know this?”
Timur, unchastised, grins. “Amra. Is that Polish?”
“Bosnian. No reaction. This is hospital, not zoo. You make promise.”
Timur says, “I make promise.”
Idris glances at the nurse, worried that this tease, a little reckless and unnecessary, might have offended her, but it appears Timur has gotten away with it. Idris both resents and envies his cousin for this ability. He has always found Timur coarse, lacking in imagination and nuance. He knows that Timur cheats on both his wife and his taxes. Back in the States, Timur owns a real-estate mortgage company, and Idris is all but certain that he is waist-deep in some kind of mortgage fraud. But Timur is wildly sociable, his faults forever absolved by good humor, a determined friendliness, and a beguiling air of innocence that endears him to people he meets. The good looks don’t hurt, either—the muscular body, the green eyes, the dimpled grin. Timur, Idris thinks, is a grown man enjoying the privileges of a child.
“Good,” Amra says. “All right.” She pulls the bedsheet that has been nailed to the ceiling as a makeshift curtain and lets them in.
The girl—Roshi, as Amra had called her, short for “Roshana”—looks to be nine, maybe ten. She is sitting up on a steel-frame bed, back to the wall, knees bent up against her chest. Idris immediately drops his gaze. He swallows down a gasp before it can escape him. Predictably, such restraint proves beyond Timur. He tsks his tongue, and says, “Oh! Oh! Oh!” over and over in a loud, pained whisper. Idris glances over to Timur and is not surprised to find swollen tears shivering theatrically in his eyes.
The girl twitches and makes a grunting sound.
“Okay, finished, we go now,” Amra says sharply.
Outside, on the crumbling front steps, the nurse pulls a pack of Marlboro Reds from the breast pocket of her pale blue scrubs. Timur, whose tears have vanished as swiftly as they’d materialized, takes a cigarette and lights both hers and his. Idris feels queasy, light-headed. His mouth has gone dry. He worries he’s going to vomit and disgrace himself, confirm Amra’s view of him, of them—the wealthy, wide-eyed exiles—come home to gawk at the carnage now that the boogeymen have left.
Idris expected Amra to reprimand them, at least Timur, but her manner is more flirtatious than scolding. This is the effect Timur has on women.
“So,” she says, coquettishly, “what do you say for yourself, Timur?”
In the States, Timur goes by “Tim.” He changed his name after 9/11 and claims that he has nearly doubled his business since. Losing those two letters, he has said to Idris, has already done more for his career than a college degree would have—if he’d gone to college, which he hadn’t; Idris is the Bashiri family academic. But now since their arrival in Kabul, Idris has heard him introduce himself only as Timur. It is a harmless enough duplicity, even a necessary one. But it rankles.
“Sorry about what happened in there,” Timur says.
“Maybe I punish you.”
Amra turns her gaze to Idris. “So. He’s cowboy. And you, you are quiet, sensitive one. You are—what do they call it?—introvert.”
“He’s a doctor,” Timur says.
“Ah? It must be shocking for you, then. This hospital.”
“What happened to her?” Idris says. “To Roshi. Who did that to her?”
Amra’s face closes. When she speaks, it is with the pitch of maternal determination. “I fight for her. I fight government, hospital bureaucracy, bastard neurosurgeon. Every step, I fight for her. And I don’t stop. She has nobody.”
Idris says, “I thought there was an uncle.”
“He’s bastard too.” She flicks her cigarette ash. “So. Why you come here, boys?”
Timur launches into it. The outline of what he says is more or less true. That they are cousins, that their families fled after the Soviets rolled in, that they spent a year in Pakistan before settling in California in the early eighties. That this is the first time back for them both in twenty years. But then he adds that they have come back to “reconnect,” to “educate” themselves, “bear witness” to the aftermath of all these years of war and destruction. They want to go back to the States, he says, to raise awareness, and funds, to “give back.”
“We want to give back,” he says, uttering the tired phrase so earnestly it embarrasses Idris.
Of course Timur does not share the real reason they have come back to Kabul: to reclaim the property that had belonged to their fathers, the house where both he and Idris had lived for the first fourteen years of their lives. The property’s worth is skyrocketing now that thousands of foreign-aid workers have descended on Kabul and need a place to live. They were there earlier in the day, at the house, which is currently home to a ragtag group of weary-looking Northern Alliance soldiers. As they were leaving, they had met a middle-aged man who lived three houses down and across the street, a Greek plastic surgeon named Markos Varvaris. He had invited them to lunch and offered to give them a tour of Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital, where the NGO he worked for had an office. He also invited them to a party that night. They had learned about the girl only upon their arrival at the hospital—overhearing two orderlies talking about her on the front steps—after which Timur had elbowed Idris and said, We should check it out, bro.
Amra seems bored with Timur’s story. She flings her cigarette away and tightens the rubber band that holds her curly blond hair in a bun. “So. I see you boys at party tonight?”
It was Timur’s father, Idris’s uncle, who had sent them to Kabul. The Bashiri family home had changed hands a number of times over the last two decades of war. Reestablishing ownership would take time and money. Thousands of cases of property disputes already clogged the country’s courts. Timur’s father had told them that they would have to “maneuver” through the infamously sluggish, ponderous Afghan bureaucracy—a euphemism for “find the right palms to grease.”
“That would be my department,” Timur had said as if it needed saying.
Idris’s own father had died nine years before after a long bout with cancer. He had died at his home, with his wife, two daughters, and Idris at his bedside. The day he died, a mob descended on the house—uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, and acquaintances—sitting on the couches, the dining chairs, and, when those were taken, on the floor, the stairs. Women gathered in the dining room and kitchen. They brewed thermos after thermos of tea. Idris, as the only son, had to sign all the papers—papers for the medical examiner, who arrived to pronounce his father dead; papers for the polite young men from the funeral home, who came with a stretcher to take his father’s body.
Timur never left his side. He helped Idris answer phone calls. He greeted the waves of people who came to pay respects. He ordered rice and lamb from Abe’s Kabob House, a local Afghan restaurant run by Timur’s friend Abdullah, whom Timur teasingly called Uncle Abe. Timur parked cars for elderly guests when it started to rain. He called a buddy of his at one of the local Afghan TV stations. Unlike Idris, Timur was well connected in the Afghan community; he once told Idris that he had over three hundred contact names and numbers on his cell phone. He made arrangements for an announcement to run on Afghan TV that same night.
Early that afternoon, Timur drove Idris to the funeral home in Hayward. It was pouring by then, and traffic was slow on the northbound lanes of the 680.
“Your dad, he was all class, bro. He was old-school,” Timur croaked as he took the Mission off-ramp. He kept wiping tears with the palm of his free hand.
Idris nodded somberly. His whole life he’d not been able to cry in the presence of other people, at events where it was called for such as funerals. He saw this as a minor handicap, like color blindness. Still, he felt vaguely—and, he knew, irrationally—resentful toward Timur for upstaging him back at the house with all the running around and dramatic sobbing. As if it was his father who had died.
They were escorted to a sparely lit, quiet room with heavy darktoned furniture. A man in a black jacket and hair parted in the middle greeted them. He smelled like expensive coffee. In a professional tone, he offered Idris his condolences, and had him sign the Interment Order and Authorization form. He asked how many copies of the death certificate the family would desire. When all the forms were signed, he tactfully placed before Idris a pamphlet titled “General Price List.”
The funeral home director cleared his throat. “Of course these prices don’t apply if your father had membership with the Afghan mosque over on Mission. We have a partnership with them. They’ll pay for the lot, the services. You’d be covered.”
“I have no idea if he did or not,” Idris said, scanning the pamphlet. His father had been a religious man, he knew, but privately so. He’d rarely gone to Friday prayer.
“Shall I give you a minute? You could call the mosque.”
“No, man. No need,” Timur said. “He wasn’t a member.”
“Yeah. I remember a conversation.”
“I see,” the funeral director said.
Outside, they shared a cigarette by the SUV. It had stopped raining.
“Highway robbery,” Idris said.
Timur spat into a puddle of dark rainwater. “Solid business, though—death—you have to admit. Always a need for it. Shit, it beats selling cars.”
At the time, Timur co-owned a used-car lot. It had been failing, quite badly, until Timur had gone in on it with a friend of his. In less than two years, he had turned it around into a profitable enterprise. A self-made man, Idris’s father had liked to say of his nephew. Idris, meanwhile, was earning slave wages finishing up his second year of internal medicine residency at UC Davis. His wife of one year, Nahil, was putting in thirty hours a week as a secretary at a law firm while she studied for her LSATs.
“This is a loan,” Idris said. “You understand that, Timur. I’m paying you back.”
“No worries, bro. Whatever you say.”
That wasn’t the first or the last time that Timur had come through for Idris. When Idris got married, Timur had given him a new Ford Explorer for a wedding present. Timur had cosigned the loan when Idris and Nahil bought a small condo up in Davis. In the family, he was by far every kid’s favorite uncle. If Idris ever had to make one phone call, he’d almost surely call Timur.
Idris found out, for instance, that everyone in the family knew about the loan cosigning. Timur had told them. And at the wedding, Timur had the singer stop the music, make an announcement, and the key to the Explorer had been offered to Idris and Nahil with great ceremony—on a tray, no less—before an attentive audience. Cameras had flashed. This was what Idris had misgivings about, the fanfare, the flaunting, the unabashed showmanship, the bravado. He didn’t like thinking this of his cousin, who was the closest thing Idris had to a brother, but it seemed to him that Timur was a man who wrote his own press kit, and his generosity, Idris suspected, was a calculated piece of an intricately constructed character.
Idris and Nahil had a minor spat about him one night as they were putting fresh sheets on their bed.
Everyone wants to be liked, she said. Don’t you?
Okay, but I won’t pay for the privilege.
She told him he was being unfair, and ungrateful as well, after everything Timur had done for them.
You’re missing the point, Nahil. All I’m saying is that it’s crass to plaster your good deeds up on a billboard. Something to be said for doing it quietly, with dignity. There’s more to kindness than signing checks in public.
Well, Nahil said, snapping the bedsheet, it does go a long way, honey.
“Man, I remember this place,” Timur says, looking up at the house. “What was the owner’s name again?”
“Something Wahdati, I think,” Idris says. “I forget the first name.” He thinks of the countless times they had played here as kids on this street outside of these front gates and only now, decades later, are they passing through them for the first time.
“The Lord and His ways,” Timur mutters.
It’s an ordinary two-story house that in Idris’s neighborhood in San Jose would draw the ire of the HOA folks. But by Kabul standards, it’s a lavish property, with high walls, metal gates, and a wide driveway. As he and Timur are led inside by an armed guard, Idris sees that, like many things he has seen in Kabul, the house has a whiff of past splendor beneath the ruin that has been visited upon it—of which there is ample evidence: bullet holes and zigzagging cracks in the sooty walls, exposed bricks beneath wide missing patches of plaster, dead bushes in the driveway, leafless trees in the garden, yellowed lawn. More than half of the veranda that overlooks the backyard is missing. But also like many things in Kabul, there is evidence of slow, hesitant rebirth. Someone has begun to repaint the house, planted rosebushes in the garden, a missing chunk of the garden’s east-facing wall has been replaced, albeit a little clumsily. A ladder is propped against the side of the house facing the street, leading Idris to think that roof repair is under way. Repair on the missing half of the veranda has apparently begun.
They meet Markos in the foyer. He has thinning gray hair and pale blue eyes. He wears gray Afghan garments and a black-and-white-checkered kaffiyeh elegantly wrapped around his neck. He shows them into a noisy room thick with smoke.
“I have tea, wine, and beer. Or maybe you prefer something heavier?”
“You point and I pour,” Timur said.
“Oh, I like you. There, by the stereo. Ice is safe, by the way. Made from bottled water.”
Timur is in his element at gatherings like this, and Idris cannot help but admire him for the ease of his manners, the effortless wisecracking, the self-possessed charm. He follows Timur to the bar, where Timur pours them drinks from a ruby bottle.
The twenty or so guests sit on cushions around the room. The floor is covered with a burgundy red Afghan rug. The décor is understated, tasteful, what Idris has come to think of as “expat chic.” A Nina Simone CD plays softly. Everyone is drinking, nearly everyone smoking, talking about the new war in Iraq, what it will mean for Afghanistan. The television in the corner is tuned to CNN International, the volume muted. Nighttime Baghdad, in the throes of Shock and Awe, keeps lighting up in flashes of green.
Vodka on ice in hand, they are joined by Markos and a pair of serious-looking young Germans who work for the World Food Program. Like many of the aid workers he has met in Kabul, Idris finds them slightly intimidating, world savvy, impossible to impress.
He says to Markos, “This is a nice house.”
“Tell the owner, then.” Markos goes across the room and returns with a thin, elderly man. The man has a thick wall of salt-and-pepper hair combed back from the brow. He has a closely cropped beard, and the sunken cheeks of the nearly toothless. He is wearing a shabby, oversize olive-colored suit that may have been in style back in the 1940s. Markos smiles at the old man with open affection.
“Nabi jan?” Timur exclaims, and suddenly Idris remembers too.
The old man grins back shyly. “Forgive me, have we met before?”
“I’m Timur Bashiri,” Timur says in Farsi. “My family used to live down the street from you!”
“Oh great God,” the old man breathes. “Timur jan? And you must be Idris jan?”
Idris nods, smiling back.
Nabi embraces them both. He kisses their cheeks, still grinning, and eyes them with disbelief. Idris remembers Nabi pushing his employer, Mr. Wahdati, in a wheelchair up and down the street. Sometimes he would park the chair on the sidewalk, and the two men would watch him and Timur play soccer with the neighborhood kids.
“Nabi jan has lived in this house since 1947,” Markos says, his arm around Nabi’s shoulder.
“So you own this place now?” Timur says.
Nabi smiles at the look of surprise on Timur’s face. “I served Mr. Wahdati here from 1947 until 2000, when he passed away. He was kind enough to will the house to me, yes.”
“He gave it to you,” Timur says incredulously.
Nabi nods. “Yes.”
“You must have been one hell of a cook!”
“And you, if I may say, were a bit of a troublemaker, as I recall.”
Timur cackles. “Never did care for the straight and narrow, Nabi jan. I leave that to my cousin here.”
Markos, swirling his glass of wine, says to Idris, “Nila Wahdati, the wife of the previous owner, she was a poet. Of some small renown, as it turns out. Have you heard of her?”
Idris shakes his head. “All I know is that she’d already left the country by the time I was born.”
“She lived in Paris with her daughter,” one of the Germans, Thomas, says. “She died in 1974. Suicide, I think. She had problems with alcohol, or, at least, that is what I read. Someone gave me a German translation of one of her early volumes a year or two ago and I thought it was quite good, actually. Surprisingly sexual, as I recall.”
Idris nods, again feeling a little inadequate, this time because a foreigner has schooled him on an Afghan artist. A couple of feet away, he can hear Timur engaged in an animated discussion with Nabi over rent prices. In Farsi, of course.
“Do you have any idea what you could charge for a place like this, Nabi jan?” he is saying to the old man.
“Yes,” Nabi says, nodding, laughing. “I am aware of rental prices in the city.”
“You could fleece these guys!”
“And you’re letting them stay for free.”
“They’ve come to help our country, Timur jan. They left their homes and came here. It doesn’t seem right that I should, as you say, ‘fleece them.’ ”
Timur issues a groan, downs the rest of his drink. “Well, either you hate money, old friend, or you are a far better man than I am.”
Amra walks into the room, wearing a sapphire Afghan tunic over faded jeans. “Nabi jan!” she exclaims. Nabi seems a little startled when she kisses his cheek and coils an arm around his. “I love this man,” she says to the group. “And I love to embarrass him.” Then she says it in Farsi to Nabi. He tilts his head back and forth and laughs, blushing a little.
“How about you embarrass me too,” Timur says.
Amra taps him on the chest. “This one is big trouble.” She and Markos kiss Afghan-style, three times on the cheek, same with the Germans.
Markos slings an arm around her waist. “Amra Ademovic. The hardest-working woman in Kabul. You do not want to cross this girl. Also, she will drink you under the table.”
“Let’s put that to the test,” Timur says, reaching for a glass on the bar behind him.
The old man, Nabi, excuses himself.
For the next hour or so, Idris mingles, or tries to. As liquor levels in the bottles drop, conversations rise in pitch. Idris hears German, French, what must be Greek. He has another vodka, follows it up with a lukewarm beer. In one group, he musters the courage to slip in a Mullah Omar joke that he had learned in Farsi back in California. But the joke doesn’t translate well into English, and his delivery is harried. It falls flat. He moves on, and listens in on a conversation about an Irish pub that is set to open in Kabul. There is general agreement that it will not last.
He walks around the room, warm beer can in hand. He has never been at ease in gatherings like this. He tries to busy himself inspecting the décor. There are posters of the Bamiyan Buddhas, of a Buzkashi game, one of a harbor in a Greek island named Tinos. He has never heard of Tinos. He spots a framed photograph in the foyer, black-and-white, a little blurry, as though it had been shot with a homemade camera. It’s of a young girl with long black hair, her back to the lens. She is at a beach, sitting on a rock, facing the ocean. The lower left-hand corner of the photo looks like it had burned.
Dinner is leg of lamb with rosemary and imbedded little cloves of garlic. There is goat cheese salad and pasta topped with pesto sauce. Idris helps himself to some of the salad, and ends up toying with it in a corner of the room. He spots Timur sitting with two young, attractive Dutch women. Holding court, Idris thinks. Laughter erupts, and one of the women touches Timur’s knee.
Idris carries his wine outside to the veranda and sits on a wooden bench. It’s dark now, and the veranda is lit only by a pair of lightbulbs dangling from the ceiling. From here, he can see the general shape of some sort of living quarters at the far end of the garden, and, off to the right side of the garden, the silhouette of a car—big, long, old—likely American, by the curves of it. Forties model, maybe early fifties—Idris can’t quite see—and, besides, he has never been a car guy. He is sure Timur would know. He would rattle off the model, year, engine size, all the options. It looks like the car is sitting on four flats. A neighborhood dog breaks into a staccato of barks. Inside, someone has put on a Leonard Cohen CD.
“Quiet and Sensitive.”
Amra sits beside him, ice tinkling in her glass. Her feet are bare.
“Your cousin Cowboy, he is life of party.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“He is very good-looking. He is married?”
“With three kids.”
“Too bad. I behave, then.”
“I’m sure he’d be disappointed to hear that.”
“I have rules,” she says. “You don’t like him very much.”
Idris tells her, quite truthfully, that Timur is the closest thing he has to a brother.
“But he make you embarrassed.”
It’s true. Timur has embarrassed him. He has behaved like the quintessential ugly Afghan-American, Idris thinks. Tearing through the war-torn city like he belongs here, backslapping locals with great bonhomie and calling them brother, sister, uncle, making a show of handing money to beggars from what he calls the Bakhsheesh bundle, joking with old women he calls mother and talking them into telling their story into his camcorder as he strikes a woebegone expression, pretending he is one of them, like he’s been here all along, like he wasn’t lifting at Gold’s in San Jose, working on his pecs and abs, when these people were getting shelled, murdered, raped. It is hypocritical, and distasteful. And it astonishes Idris that no one seems to see through this act.
“It isn’t true what he told you,” Idris says. “We came here to reclaim the house that belonged to our fathers. That’s all. Nothing else.”
Amra snorts a chuckle. “Of course I know. You think I was fooled? I have done business with warlords and Taliban in this country. I have seen everything. Nothing can give me shock. Nothing, nobody, can fool me.”
“I imagine that’s true.”
“You are honest,” she says. “At least you are honest.”
“I just think these people, everything they’ve been through, we should respect them. By ‘we,’ I mean people like Timur and me. The lucky ones, the ones who weren’t here when the place was getting bombed to hell. We’re not like these people. We shouldn’t pretend we are. The stories these people have to tell, we’re not entitled to them … I’m rambling.”
“I’m not making sense.”
“No, I understand,” she says. “You say their stories, it is gift they give you.”
“A gift. Yes.”
They sip some more wine. They talk for some time, for Idris the first genuine conversation he has had since arriving in Kabul, free of the subtle mocking, the vague reproach he has sensed from the locals, the government officials, those in the aid agencies. He asks about her work, and she tells him that she has served in Kosovo with the UN, in Rwanda after the genocide, Colombia, Burundi too. She has worked with child prostitutes in Cambodia. She has been in Kabul for a year now, her third stint, this time with a small NGO, working at the hospital and running a mobile clinic on Mondays. Married twice, divorced twice, no kids. Idris finds it hard to guess at Amra’s age, though likely she’s younger than she looks. There is a fading shimmer of beauty, a roughshod sexuality, behind the yellowing teeth, the fatigue pouches under the eyes. In four, maybe five years, Idris thinks, that too will be gone.
Then she says, “You want to know what happen to Roshi?”
“You don’t have to tell,” he says.
“You think I am drunk?”
“Little bit,” she says. “But you are honest guy.” She taps him on the shoulder gently, and a little playfully. “You ask to know for right reasons. For other Afghans like you, Afghans coming from West, it is like—how do you say?—stretching the neck.”
“But maybe you are good guy.”
“If you tell me,” he says, “I will take it as a gift.”
So she tells him.
Roshi lived with her parents, two sisters, and her baby brother in a village a third of the way between Kabul and Bagram. One Friday last month, her uncle, her father’s older brother, came to visit. For almost a year, Roshi’s father and the uncle had had a feud over the property where Roshi lived with her family, property which the uncle felt belonged rightfully to him, being the older brother, but which his father had passed to the younger, and more favored, brother. The day he came, though, all was well.
“He say he want to end their fight.”
In preparation, Roshi’s mother had slaughtered two chickens, made a big pot of rice with raisins, bought fresh pomegranates from the market. When the uncle arrived, he and Roshi’s father kissed and embraced. Roshi’s father hugged his brother so hard, his feet lifted off the carpet. Roshi’s mother wept with relief. The family sat down to eat. Everyone had seconds, and thirds. They helped themselves to the pomegranates. After that, there was green tea and small toffee candies. The uncle then excused himself to use the outhouse.
When he came back, he had an ax in his hand.
“The kind for chopping tree,” Amra says.
The first one to go was Roshi’s father. “Roshi told me her father never even know what happened. He didn’t see anything.”
A single strike to the neck, from behind. It nearly decapitated him. Roshi’s mother was next. Roshi saw her mother try to fight, but several swings to the face and chest and she was silenced. By now the children were screaming and running. The uncle chased after them. Roshi saw one of her sisters make a run for the hallway, but the uncle grabbed her by the hair and wrestled her to the ground. The other sister did make it out to the hallway. The uncle gave chase, and Roshi could hear him kicking down the door to the bedroom, the screams, then the quiet.
“So Roshi, she decide to escape with the little brother. They run out of the house, they run for front door but it is locked. The uncle, he did it, of course.”
They ran for the yard, out of panic and desperation, perhaps forgetting that there was no gate in the yard, no way out, the walls too tall to climb. When the uncle burst out of the house and came for them, Roshi saw her little brother, who was five, throw himself into the tandoor, where, only an hour before, his mother had baked bread. Roshi could hear him screaming in the flames, when she tripped and fell. She turned onto her back in time to see blue sky and the ax whooshing down. And then nothing.
Amra stops. Inside, Leonard Cohen sings a live version of “Who By Fire.”
Even if he could talk, which he cannot at the moment, Idris wouldn’t know the proper thing to say. He might have said something, some offering of impotent outrage, if this had been the work of the Taliban, or al-Qaeda, or some megalomaniacal Mujahideen commander. But this cannot be blamed on Hekmatyar, or Mullah Omar, or Bin Laden, or Bush and his War on Terror. The ordinary, utterly mundane reason behind the massacre makes it somehow more terrible, and far more depressing. The word senseless springs to mind, and Idris thwarts it. It’s what people always say. A senseless act of violence. A senseless murder. As if you could commit sensible murder.
He thinks of the girl, Roshi, back at the hospital, curled up against the wall, her toes knotted, the infantile look on her face. The crack in the crown of her shaved head, the fist-sized mass of glistening brain tissue leaking from it, sitting on her head like the knot of a sikh’s turban.
“She told you this story herself?” he finally asks.
Amra nods heavily. “She remember very clearly. Every detail. She can tell to you every detail. I wish she can forget because of the bad dreams.”
“The brother, what happened to him?”
“Too many burns.”
“And the uncle?”
“They say be careful,” she says. “In my job, they say be careful, be professional. It’s not good idea to get attached. But Roshi and me…”
The music suddenly dies. Another power outage. For a few moments all is dark, save for the moonlight. Idris hears people groaning inside the house. Halogen torches promptly come to life.
“I fight for her,” Amra says. She never looks up. “I don’t stop.”
The next day, Timur rides with the Germans to the town of Istalif, known for its clay pottery. “You should come.”
“I’m going to stay in and read,” Idris says.
“You can read in San Jose, bro.”
“I need the rest. I might have had too much to drink last night.”
After the Germans pick up Timur, Idris lies in bed for a while, staring at a faded sixties-era advertising poster hanging on the wall, a quartet of smiling blond tourists hiking along Band-e-Amir Lake, a relic from his own childhood here in Kabul before the wars, before the unraveling. Early afternoon, he goes for a walk. At a small restaurant, he eats kabob for lunch. It’s hard to enjoy the meal with all the grimy young faces peering through the glass, watching him eat. It’s overwhelming. Idris admits to himself that Timur is better at this than he is. Timur makes a game of it. Like a drill sergeant, he whistles and makes the beggar kids queue up, whips out a few bills from the Bakhsheesh bundle. As he hands out the bills, one by one, he clicks his heels and salutes. The kids love it. They salute back. They call him Kaka. Sometimes they climb up his legs.
After lunch, Idris catches a taxi and asks to be taken to the hospital.
“But stop at a bazaar first,” he says.
Carrying the box, he walks down the hallway, past graffiti-spangled walls, rooms with plastic sheeting for doors, a shuffling barefoot old man with an eye patch, patients lying in stifling-hot rooms with missing lightbulbs. A sour-body smell everywhere. At the end of the hallway, he pauses at the curtain before pulling it back. He feels a lurch in his heart when he sees the girl sitting on the edge of the bed. Amra is kneeling before her, brushing her small teeth.
There is a man sitting on the other side of the bed, gaunt, sunburned, with a rat’s-nest beard and stubbly dark hair. When Idris enters, the man quickly gets up, flattens a hand against his chest, and bows. Idris is struck again by how easily the locals can tell he is a westernized Afghan, how the whiff of money and power affords him unwarranted privilege in this city. The man tells Idris he is Roshi’s uncle, from the mother’s side.
“You’re back,” Amra says, dipping the brush into a bowl of water.
“I hope that’s okay.”
“Why not,” she says.
Idris clears his throat. “Salaam, Roshi.”
The girl looks to Amra for permission. Her voice is a tentative, high-pitched whisper. “Salaam.”
“I brought you a present.” Idris lowers the box and opens it. Roshi’s eyes come to life when Idris takes out the small TV and VCR. He shows her the four films he has bought. Most of the tapes at the store were Indian movies, or else action flicks, martial-arts films with Jet Li, Jean-Claude Van Damme, all of Steven Seagal’s pictures. But he was able to find E.T., Babe, Toy Story, and The Iron Giant. He has watched them all with his own boys back home.
In Farsi, Amra asks Roshi which one she wants to watch. Roshi picks The Iron Giant.
“You’ll love that one,” Idris says. He finds it difficult to look at her directly. His gaze keeps sliding toward the mess on her head, the shiny clump of brain tissue, the crisscrossing network of veins and capillaries.
There is no electric outlet at the end of this hallway, and it takes Amra some time to find an extension cord, but when Idris plugs in the cord, and the picture comes on, Roshi’s mouth spreads into a smile. In her smile, Idris sees how little of the world he has known, even at thirty-five years of age, its savageness, its cruelty, the boundless brutality.
When Amra excuses herself to go see other patients, Idris takes a seat beside Roshi’s bed and watches the movie with her. The uncle is a silent, inscrutable presence in the room. Halfway through the film, the power goes out. Roshi begins to cry, and the uncle leans over from his chair and roughly clutches her hand. He whispers a few quick, terse words in Pashto, which Idris does not speak. Roshi winces and tries to pull away. Idris looks at her small hand, lost in the uncle’s strong, white-knuckled grasp.
Idris puts on his coat. “I’ll come back tomorrow, Roshi, and we can watch another tape if you like. You want that?”
Roshi shrinks into a ball beneath the covers. Idris looks at the uncle, pictures what Timur would do to this man—Timur, who, unlike him, has no capacity to resist the easy emotion. Give me ten minutes alone with him, he’d say.
The uncle follows him outside. On the steps, he stuns Idris by saying, “I am the real victim here, Sahib.” He must have seen the look on Idris’s face because he corrects himself and says, “Of course she is the victim. But, I mean, I am a victim too. You see that, of course, you are Afghan. But these foreigners, they don’t understand.”
“I have to go,” Idris says.
“I am a mazdoor, a simple laborer. I earn a dollar, maybe two, on a good day, Sahib. And I already have five children of my own. One of them blind. Now this.” He sighs. “I think to myself sometimes—God forgive me—I say to myself, maybe Allah should have let Roshi … well, you understand. It might have been better. Because I ask you, Sahib, what boy would marry her now? She will never find a husband. And then who will take care of her? I will have to. I will have to do it forever.”
Idris knows he has been cornered. He reaches for his wallet.
“Whatever you can spare, Sahib. Not for me, of course. For Roshi.”
Idris hands him a pair of bills. The uncle blinks, looks up from the money. He begins to say, “Two—” then clamps his mouth shut as though worried that he will alert Idris to a mistake.
“Buy her some decent shoes,” Idris says, walking down the steps.
“Allah bless you, Sahib,” the uncle calls out behind him. “You are a good man. You are a kind and good man.”
Idris visits the next day, and the day after that. Soon, it becomes a routine, and he is at Roshi’s side every day. He comes to know the orderlies by name, the male nurses who work the ground floor, the janitor, the underfed, tired-looking guards at the hospital gates. He keeps the visits as secret as possible. On his calls overseas, he has not told Nahil about Roshi. He does not tell Timur where he is going either, why he isn’t joining him on the trip to Paghman or for a meeting with an official at the Ministry of Interior. But Timur finds out anyway.
“Good for you,” he says. “It’s a decent thing you’re doing.” He pauses before adding, “Tread carefully, though.”
“You mean stop visiting.”
“We leave in a week, bro. You don’t want to get her too attached to you.”
Idris nods. He wonders if Timur may not be slightly jealous of his relationship with Roshi, perhaps even resentful that he, Idris, may have robbed him of a spectacular opportunity to play hero. Timur, emerging in slow motion from the blazing building, holding a baby. The crowd exploding in a cheer. Idris is determined not to let Timur parade Roshi in that way.
Still, Timur is right. They are going home in a week, and Roshi has started calling him Kaka Idris. If he arrives late, he finds her agitated. She ties her arms around his waist, a tide of relief washing over her face. His visits are what she looks forward to most, she has told him. Sometimes she clutches his hand with both of hers as they watch a tape. When he is away from her, he thinks often of the faint yellow hairs on her arms, her narrow hazel eyes, her pretty feet, her rounded cheeks, the way she cups her chin in her hands as he reads her one of the children’s books he has picked up from a bookstore near the French lycée. A few times, he has allowed himself to fleetingly imagine what it would be like to bring her to the U.S., how she would fit in with his boys, Zabi and Lemar, back home. This last year, he and Nahil had talked about the possibility of a third child.
“What now?” Amra says the day before he is scheduled to leave.
Earlier that day, Roshi had given Idris a picture, pencil-drawn on a sheet of hospital chart paper, of two stick figures watching a television. He’d pointed to the one with long hair. This is you?
And that one is you, Kaka Idris.
You had long hair, then? Before?
My sister brushed it every night. She knew how to do it so it didn’t hurt.
She must have been a good sister.
When it grows back, you can brush it.
I think I’d like that.
Don’t go, Kaka. Don’t leave.
“She is a sweet girl,” he says to Amra. And she is. Well-mannered, and humble too. With some guilt, he thinks of Zabi and Lemar back in San Jose, who have long professed their dislike of their Afghan names, who are fast turning into little tyrants, into the imperious American children he and Nahil had vowed they would never raise.
“She is survivor,” Amra says.
Amra leans against the wall. A pair of orderlies rush past them, pushing a gurney. On it lies a young boy with blood-soaked bandaging around his head and some kind of open wound on his thigh.
“Other Afghans from America, or from Europe,” Amra says, “they come and take picture of her. They take video. They make promises. Then they go home and show their families. Like she is zoo animal. I allow it because I think maybe they will help. But they forget. I never hear from them. So I ask again, what now?”
“The operation she needs?” he says. “I want to make it happen.”
She looks at him hesitantly.
“We have a neurosurgery clinic in my group. I’ll speak to my chief. We’ll make arrangements to fly her over to California and have the surgery.”
“Yes, but the money.”
“We’ll get the funding. Worst comes to worst, I’ll pay for it.”
“Out of wallet.”
He laughs. “The expression is ‘out of pocket,’ but, yes.”
“We have to get uncle’s permission.”
“If he ever shows up again.” The uncle hasn’t been seen or heard from since the day Idris gave him the two hundred dollars.
Amra smiles at him. He has never done anything like this. There is something exhilarating, intoxicating, euphoric even, in throwing himself headlong into this commitment. He feels energized. It nearly takes his breath away. To his own amazement, tears prickle his eyes.
“Hvala,” she says. “Thank you.” She stands on tiptoes and kisses his cheek.
“Banged one of the Dutch girls,” Timur says. “From the party?”
Idris lifts his head off the window. He had been marveling at the soft brown peaks of the tightly packed Hindu Kush far beneath. He turns to look at Timur in the aisle seat.
“The brunette. Popped half a Vitamin V and rode her straight to the morning call for prayer.”
“Jesus. Will you ever grow up?” Idris says, irked that Timur has burdened him again with knowledge of his misconduct, his infidelity, his grotesque frat-boy antics.
Timur smirks. “Remember, cousin, what happens in Kabul …”
“Please don’t finish that sentence.”
Somewhere in the back of the plane, there is a little party going on. Someone is singing in Pashto, someone tapping on a Styrofoam plate like a tamboura.
“I can’t believe we ran into ol’ Nabi,” Timur mutters. “Jesus.”
Idris fishes the sleeping pill he had been saving from his breast pocket and dry-swallows it.
“So I’m coming back next month,” Timur says, crossing his arms, shutting his eyes. “Probably take a couple more trips after that, but we should be good.”
“You trust this guy Farooq?”
“Fuck no. It’s why I’m coming back.”
Farooq is the lawyer Timur has hired. His specialty is helping Afghans who have lived in exile reclaim their lost properties in Kabul. Timur goes on about the paperwork Farooq will file, the judge he is hoping will preside over the proceedings, a second cousin of Farooq’s wife. Idris rests his temple once more against the window, waits for the pill to take effect.
“Idris?” Timur says quietly.
“Sad shit we saw back there, huh?”
You’re full of startling insight, bro. “Yup,” Idris says.
“A thousand tragedies per square mile, man.”
Soon, Idris’s head begins to hum, and his vision blurs. As he drifts to sleep, he thinks of his farewell with Roshi, him holding her fingers, saying they would see each other again, her sobbing softly, almost silently, into his belly.
On the ride home from SFO, Idris recalls with fondness the manic chaos of Kabul’s traffic. It’s strange now to guide the Lexus down the orderly, pothole-free southbound lanes of the 101, the always helpful freeway signs, everyone so polite, signaling, yielding. He smiles at the memory of all the daredevil adolescent cabbies with whom he and Timur entrusted their lives in Kabul.
In the passenger seat, Nahil is all questions. Was Kabul safe? How was the food? Did he get sick? Did he take pictures and videos of everything? He does his best. He describes for her the shell-blasted schools, the squatters living in roofless buildings, the beggars, the mud, the fickle electricity, but it’s like describing music. He cannot bring it to life. Kabul’s vivid, arresting details—the bodybuilding gym amid the rubble, for instance, a painting of Schwarzenegger on the window. Such details escape him now, and his descriptions sound to him generic, insipid, like those of an ordinary AP story.
In the backseat, the boys humor him and listen for a short while, or at least pretend to. Idris can sense their boredom. Then Zabi, who is eight, asks Nahil to start the movie. Lemar, who is two years older, tries to listen a little longer, but soon Idris hears the drone of a racing car from his Nintendo DS.
“What’s the matter with you boys?” Nahil scolds them. “Your father’s come back from Kabul. Aren’t you curious? Don’t you have questions for him?”
“It’s all right,” Idris says. “Let them.” But he is annoyed with their lack of interest, their blithe ignorance of the arbitrary genetic lottery that has granted them their privileged lives. He feels a sudden rift between himself and his family, even Nahil, most of whose questions about his trip revolve around restaurants and the lack of indoor plumbing. He looks at them accusingly now as the locals must have looked at him when he’d first arrived in Kabul.
“I’m famished,” he says.
“What do you feel like?” Nahil says. “Sushi, Italian? There’s a new deli over by Oakridge.”
“Let’s get Afghan food,” he says.
They go to Abe’s Kabob House over on the east side of San Jose near the old Berryessa Flea Market. The owner, Abdullah, is a gray-haired man in his early sixties, with a handlebar mustache and strong-looking hands. He is one of Idris’s patients, as is his wife. Abdullah waves from behind the register when Idris and his family enter the restaurant. Abe’s Kabob House is a small family business. There are only eight tables—sheathed by often sticky vinyl covers—laminated menus, posters of Afghanistan on the walls, an old soda machine, a “merchandiser,” in the corner. Abdullah greets the guests, runs the register, cleans. His wife, Sultana, is in the back; she is the one responsible for the magic. Idris can see her now in the kitchen, stooped over something, her hair stuffed up under a net cap, her eyes narrowed against the steam. She and Abdullah had married in Pakistan in the late 1970s, they have told Idris, after the communist takeover back home. They were granted asylum in the U.S. in 1982, the year their daughter, Pari, was born.
She is the one taking their orders now. Pari is friendly and courteous, has her mother’s fair skin, and the same shine of emotional sturdiness in her eyes. She also has a strangely disproportionate body, slim and dainty up top but weighed below the waist by wide hips, thick thighs, and big ankles. She is wearing now one of her customary loose skirts.
Idris and Nahil order lamb with brown rice and bolani. The boys settle for chapli kabobs, the closest thing to hamburger meat they can find on the menu. As they wait for their food, Zabi tells Idris that his soccer team has made the finals. He plays right wing. The match is on Sunday. Lemar says he has a guitar recital on Saturday.
“What are you playing?” Idris asks sluggishly, feeling jet lag kicking in.
“ ‘Paint It Black.’ ”
“Not sure you’ve practiced enough,” Nahil says with cautious reprimand.
Lemar drops the paper napkin he has been rolling. “Mom! Really? Do you see what I go through every day? I have so much to do!”
Midway through the meal, Abdullah comes over to them to say hello, wiping his hands on the apron tied around his waist. He asks if they like the food, whether he can get them anything.
Idris tells him that he and Timur have just returned from Kabul.
“What is Timur jan up to?” Abdullah asks.
“To no good as always.”
Abdullah grins. Idris knows how fond he is of Timur.
“And how is the kabob business?”
Abdullah sighs. “Dr. Bashiri, if I ever want to put a curse on someone I say, ‘May God give you a restaurant.’ ”
They share a brief laugh with Abdullah.
Later, as they are leaving the restaurant and climbing into the SUV, Lemar says, “Dad, does he give free food to everyone?”
“Of course not,” Idris says.
“Then why wouldn’t he take your money?”
“Because we’re Afghans, and because I’m his doctor,” Idris says, which is only partially true. The bigger reason, he suspects, is that he is Timur’s cousin, and it was Timur who had years earlier lent Abdullah the money to open the restaurant.
At the house, Idris is surprised at first to find the carpets ripped from the family room and foyer, nails and wooden boards on the stairs exposed. Then he remembers that they were remodeling, replacing carpets with hardwood—wide planks of cherry in a color the flooring contractor had called copper kettle. The cabinet doors in the kitchen have been sanded down, and there is a gaping hole where the old microwave used to sit. Nahil tells him she is working a half day on Monday so she can meet in the morning with the flooring people and Jason.
“Jason?” Then he remembers, Jason Speer, the home-theater guy.
“He’s coming in to take measurements. He’s already got us the subwoofer and the projector at a discount. He’s sending three guys to start work on Wednesday.”
Idris nods. The home theater had been his idea, something he had always wanted. But now it embarrasses him. He feels disconnected from all of it, Jason Speer, the new cabinets and copper-kettle floors, his kids’ $160 high-tops, the chenille bedspreads in his room, the energy with which he and Nahil have pursued these things. The fruits of his ambitions strike him as frivolous now. They remind him only of the brutal disparity between his life and what he’d found in Kabul.
“What’s the matter, honey?”
“Jet lag,” Idris says. “I need a nap.”
On Saturday he makes it through the guitar recital, on Sunday through most of Zabi’s soccer match. During the second half he has to steal away to the parking lot, sleep for a half hour. To his relief, Zabi doesn’t notice. Sunday night, a few of the neighbors come over for dinner. They pass around pictures of Idris’s trip and sit politely through the hour of video of Kabul that, against Idris’s wishes, Nahil insists on playing for them. Over dinner, they ask Idris about his trip, his views on the situation in Afghanistan. He sips his mojito and gives short answers.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like there,” Cynthia says. Cynthia is a Pilates instructor at the gym where Nahil works out.
“Kabul is …” Idris searches for the right words. “A thousand tragedies per square mile.”
“Must have been quite the culture shock, going there.”
“Yes it was.” Idris doesn’t say that the real culture shock has been in coming back.
Eventually, talk turns to a recent rash of mail theft that has hit the neighborhood.
Lying in bed that night, Idris says, “Do you think we have to have all this?”
“ ‘All this’?” Nahil says. He can see her in the mirror, brushing her teeth by the sink.
“All this. This stuff.”
“No we don’t need it, if that’s what you mean,” she says. She spits in the sink, gargles.
“You don’t think it’s too much, all of it?”
“We worked hard, Idris. Remember the MCATs, the LSATs, medical school, law school, the years of residency? No one gave us anything. We have nothing to apologize for.”
“For the price of that home theater we could have built a school in Afghanistan.”
She comes into the bedroom and sits on the bed to remove her contacts. She has the most beautiful profile. He loves the way her forehead hardly dips where her nose begins, her strong cheekbones, her slim neck.
“Then do both,” she says, turning to him, blinking back eyedrops. “I don’t see why you can’t.”
A few years ago, Idris had discovered that Nahil was supporting a Colombian kid named Miguel. She’d said nothing to him about it, and since she was in charge of the mail and their finances Idris had not known about it for years until he’d seen her one day reading a letter from Miguel. The letter had been translated from Spanish by a nun. There was a picture too, of a tall, wiry boy standing outside a straw hut, cradling a soccer ball, nothing behind him but gaunt-looking cows and green hills. Nahil had started supporting Miguel when she was in law school. For eleven years now Nahil’s checks had quietly crossed paths with Miguel’s pictures and his thankful, nun-translated letters.
She takes off her rings. “So what is this? You caught a case of survivor’s guilt over there?”
“I just see things a little differently now.”
“Good. Put that to use, then. But quit the navel-gazing.”
Jet lag robs him of sleep that night. He reads for a while, watches part of a West Wing rerun downstairs, ends up at the computer in the guest bedroom Nahil has turned into an office. He finds an e-mail from Amra. She hopes that his return home was safe and that his family is well. It has been raining “angrily” in Kabul, she writes, and the streets are packed with mud up to the ankles. The rain has caused flooding, and some two hundred families had to be evacuated by helicopter in Shomali, north of Kabul. Security has been tightening because of Kabul’s support of Bush’s war in Iraq and expected reprisals from al-Qaeda. Her last line reads You have talked with your boss yet?
Below Amra’s e-mail is pasted a short paragraph from Roshi, which Amra has transcribed. It reads:
Salaam, Kaka Idris,
Inshallah, you have arrived safely in America. I am sure that your family is very happy to see you. Every day I think about you. Every day I am watching the films you bought for me. I like them all. It makes me sad that you are not here to watch with me. I am feeling good and Amra jan is taking good care of me. Please say Salaam to your family for me. Inshallah, we will see each other soon in California.
With my respects,
He answers Amra, thanks her, writes that he is sorry to hear about the flooding. He hopes the rains will abate. He tells her that he will discuss Roshi with his chief this week. Below that he writes:
Salaam, Roshi jan:
Thank you for your kind message. It made me very happy to hear from you. I too think about you a lot. I have told my family all about you and they are very eager to meet you, especially my sons, Zabi jan and Lemar jan, who ask a lot of questions about you. We all look forward to your arrival. I send you my love,
He logs off and goes to bed.
On Monday, a pile of phone messages greets him when he enters his office. Prescription-refill requests spill from a basket, awaiting his approval. He has over one hundred and sixty e-mails to sift through, and his voice mail is full. He peruses his schedule on the computer and is dismayed to see overbooks—squeezes, as the doctors call them—inserted into his time slots all week. Worse, he will see the dreaded Mrs. Rasmussen that afternoon, a particularly unpleasant, confrontational woman with years of vague symptoms that respond to no treatment. The thought of facing her hostile neediness makes him break into a sweat. And last, one of the voice mails is from his chief, Joan Schaeffer, who tells him that a patient he had diagnosed with pneumonia just before his trip to Kabul turned out to have congestive heart failure instead. The case will be used next week for Peer Review, a monthly video conference watched by all the facilities during which mistakes by physicians, who remain anonymous, are used to illustrate learning points. The anonymity doesn’t go very far, Idris knows. At least half the people in the room will know the culprit.
He feels the onset of a headache.
He falls woefully behind schedule that morning. An asthma patient walks in without an appointment and needs respiratory treatments and close monitoring of his peak flows and oxygen saturation. A middle-aged executive, whom Idris last saw three years before, comes in with an evolving anterior myocardial infarction. Idris cannot start lunch until halfway through the noon hour. In the conference room where the doctors eat, he takes harried bites of a dry turkey sandwich as he tries to catch up with notes. He answers the same questions from his colleagues. Was Kabul safe? What do Afghans there think of the U.S. presence? He gives economical, clipped replies, his mind on Mrs. Rasmussen, on voice mails that need answering, refills he has yet to approve, the three squeezes in his schedule that afternoon, the upcoming Peer Review, the contractors sawing and drilling and banging nails back at the house. Talking about Afghanistan—and he is astonished at how quickly and imperceptibly this has happened—suddenly feels like discussing a recently watched, emotionally drenching film whose effects are beginning to wane.
The week proves one of the hardest of his professional career. Though he had meant to, he doesn’t find the time to talk to Joan Schaeffer about Roshi. A foul mood takes hold of him all week. He is short with the boys at home, annoyed with the workers streaming in and out of his house and all the noise. His sleep pattern has yet to return to normal. He receives two more e-mails from Amra, more updates on the conditions in Kabul. Rabia Balkhi, the women’s hospital, has reopened. Karzai’s cabinet will allow cable television networks to broadcast programs, challenging the Islamic hard-liners who had opposed it. In a postscript at the end of the second e-mail, she says that Roshi has become withdrawn since he left, and asks again whether he has spoken to his chief. He steps away from the keyboard. He returns to it later, ashamed of how Amra’s note had irritated him, how tempted he had been, for just a moment, to answer her, in capital letters, I WILL. IN DUE TIME.
“I hope that went okay for you.”
Joan Schaeffer sits behind her desk, hands laced in her lap. She is a woman of cheerful energy, with a full face and coarse white hair. She peers at him over the narrow reading glasses perched on the bridge of her nose. “You understand the point was not to impugn you.”
“Yes, of course,” Idris says. “I understand.”
“And don’t feel bad. It could happen to any of us. CHF and pneumonia on X-ray, sometimes it’s hard to tell.”
“Thanks, Joan.” He gets up to go, pauses at the door. “Oh. Something I’ve been meaning to discuss with you.”
“Sure. Sure. Sit.”
He sits down again. He tells her about Roshi, describes the injury, the lack of resources at Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital. He confides in her the commitment he has made to Amra and Roshi. Saying it aloud, he feels weighed down by his promise in a way he had not in Kabul, standing in the hallway with Amra, when she’d kissed his cheek. He is troubled to find that it feels like buyer’s remorse.
“My God, Idris,” Joan says, shaking her head, “I commend you. But how dreadful. The poor child. I can’t imagine.”
“I know,” he says. He asks if the group would be willing to cover her procedure. “Or procedures. My sense is, she’ll need more than one.”
Joan sighs. “I wish. But, frankly, I doubt the board of directors would approve it, Idris. I doubt it very much. You know we’ve been in the red for the last five years. And there would be legal issues as well, complicated ones.”
She waits for him, maybe prepared for him, to challenge this, but he doesn’t.
“I understand,” he says.
“You should be able to find a humanitarian group that does this sort of thing, no? It would take some work, but …”
“I’ll look into it. Thanks, Joan.” He gets up again, surprised that he is feeling lighter, almost relieved by her response.
The home theater takes another month to be built, but it is a marvel. The picture, shot from the projector mounted on the ceiling, is sharp, the movements on the 102-inch screen strikingly fluid. The 7.1 channel surround sound, the graphic equalizers, and the bass traps they have put in the four corners, have done wonders for the acoustics. They watch Pirates of the Caribbean, the boys, delighted by the technology, sitting on either side of him, eating from the communal bucket of popcorn on his lap. They fall asleep before the final, drawn-out battle scene.
“I’ll put them to bed,” Idris says to Nahil.
He lifts one, then the other. The boys are growing, their lean bodies lengthening with alarming speed. As he tucks each into bed, an awareness sets in of the heartbreak that is in store for him with his boys. In a year, two at the outside, he will be replaced. The boys will become enamored with other things, other people, embarrassed by him and Nahil. Idris thinks longingly of when they were small and helpless, so wholly dependent on him. He remembers how terrified Zabi was of manholes when he was little, walking wide, clumsy circles around them. Once, watching an old film, Lemar had asked Idris if he had been alive back when the world was in black and white. The memory brings a smile. He kisses his sons’ cheeks.
He sits back in the dark, watching Lemar sleep. He had judged his boys hastily, he sees now, and unfairly. And he had judged himself harshly too. He is not a criminal. Everything he owns he has earned. In the nineties, while half the guys he knew were out clubbing and chasing women, he had been buried in study, dragging himself through hospital corridors at two in the morning, forgoing leisure, comfort, sleep. He had given his twenties to medicine. He has paid his dues. Why should he feel badly? This is his family. This is his life.
In the last month, Roshi has become something abstract to him, like a character in a play. Their connection has frayed. The unexpected intimacy he had stumbled upon in that hospital, so urgent and acute, has eroded into something dull. The experience has lost its power. He recognizes the fierce determination that had seized him for what it really was, an illusion, a mirage. He had fallen under the influence of something like a drug. The distance between him and the girl feels vast now. It feels infinite, insurmountable, and his promise to her misguided, a reckless mistake, a terrible misreading of the measures of his own powers and will and character. Something best forgotten. He isn’t capable of it. It is that simple. In the last two weeks, he has received three more e-mails from Amra. He read the first and didn’t answer. He deleted the next two without reading.
The line in the bookstore is about twelve or thirteen people long. It stretches from the makeshift stage to the magazine stand. A tall, broad-faced woman passes out little yellow Post-its to those in line to write their names on and any personal message they want inscribed in the book. A saleswoman at the head of the line helps people flip to the title page.
Idris is near the head of the line, holding a copy in his hand. The woman in front of him, in her fifties and with short-clipped blond hair, turns and says to him, “Have you read it?”
“No,” he says.
“We’re going to read it for our book club next month. It’s my turn to pick.”
She frowns and pushes a palm against her chest. “I hope people read it. It’s such a moving story. So inspiring. I bet they make it a movie.”
It’s true, what he told her. He has not read the book and doubts he ever will. He does not think he has the stomach to revisit himself on its pages. But others will read it. And when they do, he will be exposed. People will know. Nahil, his sons, his colleagues. He feels sick at the thought of it.
He opens the book again, flips past the acknowledgments, past the bio of the coauthor, who has done the actual writing. He looks again at the photo on the book flap. There is no sign of the injury. If she bears a scar, which she must, the long, wavy black hair conceals it. Roshi is wearing a blouse with little gold beads, an Allah necklace, lapis ear studs. She is leaning against a tree, looking straight at the camera, smiling. He thinks of the stick figures she had drawn him. Don’t go. Don’t leave, Kaka. He does not detect in this young woman even a scrap of the tremulous little creature he had found behind a curtain six years before.
Idris glances at the dedication page.
To the two angels in my life: my mother Amra, and my Kaka Timur. You are my saviors. I owe you everything.
The line moves. The woman with the short blond hair gets her book signed. She moves aside, and Idris, heart stammering, steps forward. Roshi looks up. She is wearing an Afghan shawl over a pumpkin-colored long-sleeved blouse and little oval-shaped silver earrings. Her eyes are darker than he remembers, and her body is filling out with female curves. She looks at him without blinking, and though she gives no overt indication that she has recognized him, and though her smile is polite, there is something amused and distant about her expression, playful, sly, unintimidated. It steam-rolls him, and suddenly all the words that he had composed—even written down, rehearsed in his head on the way here—dry up. He cannot bring himself to say a thing. He can only stand there, looking vaguely foolish.
The salesclerk clears her throat. “Sir, if you’ll give me your book I’ll flip to the title page and Roshi will autograph it for you.”
The book. Idris looks down, finds it clutched tightly in his hands. He has not come here to get it signed, of course. That would be galling—grotesquely galling—after everything. Still, he sees himself handing it over, the salesclerk expertly flipping to the correct page, Roshi’s hand scrawling something beneath the title. He has seconds left now to say something, not that it would mitigate the indefensible but because he thinks he owes it to her. But when the clerk hands him back his book, he cannot summon the words. He wishes now for even a scrap of Timur’s courage. He looks again at Roshi. She is already gazing past him at the next person in line.
“I am—” he begins.
“We have to keep the line moving now, sir,” the clerk says.
He drops his head and leaves the queue.
He has parked in the lot behind the store. The walk to the car feels like the longest of his life. He opens the car door, pauses before entering. With hands that have not stopped shaking, he flips the book open again. The scrawling is not a signature. In English, she has written him two sentences.
He closes the book, his eyes too. He supposes he should be relieved. But part of him wishes for something else. Perhaps if she had grimaced at him, said something infantile, full of loathing and hate. An eruption of rancor. Perhaps that might have been better. Instead, a clean, diplomatic dismissal. And this note. Don’t worry. You’re not in it. An act of kindness. Perhaps, more accurately, an act of charity. He should be relieved. But it hurts. He feels the blow of it, like an ax to the head.
There is a bench nearby, beneath an elm tree. He walks over and leaves the book on it. He returns to the car and sits behind the wheel. And it is a while before he trusts himself to turn the key and drive away.
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