فصل 07کتاب: و کوه طنين انداخت / فصل 7
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متن انگلیسی فصل
Seven Summer 2009
“Your father is a great man.”
Adel looked up. It was the teacher Malalai who had leaned in and whispered this in his ear. A plump, middle-aged woman wearing a violet beaded shawl around her shoulders, she smiled at him now with her eyes shut.
“And you are a lucky boy.”
“I know,” he whispered back.
Good, she mouthed.
They were standing on the front steps of the town’s new school for girls, a rectangular light green building with a flat roof and wide windows, as Adel’s father, his Baba jan, delivered a brief prayer followed by an animated speech. Gathered before them in the blazing midday heat was a large crowd of squinting children, parents, and elders, roughly a hundred or so locals from the small town of Shadbagh-e-Nau, “New Shadbagh.”
“Afghanistan is mother to us all,” Adel’s father said, one thick index finger raised skyward. The sun caught the band of his agatering. “But she is an ailing mother, and she has suffered for a long time. Now, it is true a mother needs her sons in order to recover. Yes, but she needs her daughters too—as much, if not more!”
This drew loud applause and several calls and hoots of approval. Adel scanned the faces in the crowd. They were rapt as they looked up at his father. Baba jan, with his black bushy eyebrows and full beard, standing tall and strong and wide above them, his shoulders nearly broad enough to fill the entryway to the school behind him.
His father continued. And Adel’s eyes connected with Kabir, one of Baba jan’s two bodyguards standing impassively on the other side of Baba jan, Kalashnikov in hand. Adel could see the crowd reflected in Kabir’s dark-lensed aviator glasses. Kabir was short, thin, almost frail, and wore suits with flashy colors—lavender, turquoise, orange—but Baba jan said he was a hawk and that underestimating him was a mistake you made at your own peril.
“So I say this to you, young daughters of Afghanistan,” Baba jan concluded, his long, thick arms outstretched in an open gesture of welcome. “You have a solemn duty now. To learn, to apply yourselves, to excel at your studies, to make proud not only your own fathers and mothers but the mother who is common to us all. Her future is in your hands, not mine. I ask that you not think of this school as a gift from me to you. It is merely a building that houses the true gift inside, and that is you. You are the gift, young sisters, not only to me and to the community of Shadbagh-e-Nau but, most importantly, to Afghanistan herself! God bless you.”
More applause broke out. Several people shouted, “God bless you, Commander Sahib!” Baba jan raised a fist, grinning broadly. Adel’s eyes nearly watered with pride.
The teacher Malalai handed Baba jan a pair of scissors. A red ribbon had been tied across the entryway to the classroom. The crowd inched closer to get a better view, and Kabir motioned a few people back, shoved a couple of them in the chest. Hands rose from the crowd, holding cell phones to video the ribbon cutting. Baba jan took the scissors, paused, turned to Adel and said, “Here, son, you do the honors.” He handed the scissors to Adel.
Adel blinked. “Me?”
“Go ahead,” Baba jan said, dropping him a wink.
Adel cut the ribbon. Long applause broke out. Adel heard the clicking of a few cameras, voices crying out “Allah-u-akbar!”
Baba jan then stood at the doorway as the students made a queue and entered the classroom one by one. They were young girls, aged between eight and fifteen, all of them wearing white scarves and the pin-striped uniforms of black and gray that Baba jan had given them. Adel watched as each student shyly introduced herself to Baba jan on her way in. Baba jan smiled warmly, patted their heads, and offered an encouraging word or two. “I wish you success, Bibi Mariam. Study hard, Bibi Homaira. Make us proud, Bibi Ilham.”
Later, by the black Land Cruiser, Adel stood by his father, sweating now in the heat, and watched him shake hands with the locals. Baba jan fingered a prayer bead in his free hand and listened patiently, leaning in a bit, his brow furrowed, nodding, attentive to each person as he or she came to say thanks, offer prayers, pay respects, many of them taking the opportunity to ask for a favor. A mother whose sick child needed to see a surgeon in Kabul, a man in need of a loan to start a shoe-repair shop, a mechanic asking for a new set of tools.
Commander Sahib, if you could find it in your heart …
I have nowhere else to turn, Commander Sahib …
Adel had never heard anyone outside immediate family address Baba jan by anything other than “Commander Sahib,” even though the Russians were long gone now and Baba jan hadn’t fired a gun in a decade or more. Back at the house, there were framed pictures of Baba jan’s jihadi days all around the living room. Adel had committed to memory each of the pictures: his father leaning against the fender of a dusty old jeep, squatting on the turret of a charred tank, posing proudly with his men, ammunition belt strapped across his chest, beside a helicopter they had shot down. Here was one where he was wearing a vest and a bandolier, brow pressed to the desert floor in prayer. He was much skinnier in those days, Adel’s father, and always in these pictures there was nothing behind him but mountains and sand.
Baba jan had been shot twice by the Russians during battle. He had shown Adel his wounds, one just under the left rib cage—he said that one had cost him his spleen—and one about a thumb’s length away from his belly button. He said he was lucky, everything considered. He had friends who had lost arms, legs, eyes; friends whose faces had burned. They had done it for their country, Baba jan said, and they had done it for God. This was what jihad was all about, he said. Sacrifice. You sacrificed your limbs, your sight—your life, even—and you did it gladly. Jihad also earned you certain rights and privileges, he said, because God sees to it that those who sacrifice the most justly reap the rewards as well.
Both in this life and the next, Baba jan said, pointing his thick finger first down, then up.
Looking at the pictures, Adel wished he had been around to fight jihad alongside his father in those more adventurous days. He liked to picture himself and Baba jan shooting at Russian helicopters together, blowing up tanks, dodging gunfire, living in mountains and sleeping in caves. Father and son, war heroes.
There was also a large framed photo of Baba jan smiling alongside President Karzai at Arg, the Presidential Palace in Kabul. This one was more recent, taken in the course of a small ceremony during which Baba jan had been handed an award for his humanitarian work in Shadbagh-e-Nau. It was an award that Baba jan had more than earned. The new school for girls was merely his latest project. Adel knew that women in town used to die regularly giving birth. But they didn’t anymore because his father had opened a large clinic, run by two doctors and three midwives whose salaries he paid for out of his own pocket. All the townspeople received free care at the clinic; no child in Shadbagh-e-Nau went unimmunized. Baba jan had dispatched teams to locate water points all over town and dig wells. It was Baba jan who had helped finally bring full-time electricity to Shadbagh-e-Nau. At least a dozen businesses had opened thanks to his loans that, Adel had learned from Kabir, were rarely, if ever, paid back.
Adel had meant what he had said to the teacher earlier. He knew he was lucky to be the son of such a man.
Just as the rounds of handshaking were coming to an end, Adel spotted a slight man approaching his father. He wore round, thin-framed spectacles and a short gray beard and had little teeth like the heads of burnt matches. Trailing him was a boy roughly Adel’s own age. The boy’s big toes poked through matching holes in his sneakers. His hair sat on his head as a matted, unmoving mess. His jeans were stiff with dirt, and they were too short besides. By contrast, his T-shirt hung almost to his knees.
Kabir planted himself between the old man and Baba jan. “I told you already this wasn’t a good time,” he said.
“I just want to have a brief word with the commander,” the old man said.
Baba jan took Adel by the arm and gently guided him into the backseat of the Land Cruiser. “Let’s go, son. Your mother is waiting for you.” He climbed in beside Adel and shut the door.
Inside, as his tinted window rolled up, Adel watched Kabir say something to the old man that Adel couldn’t hear. Then Kabir made his way around the front of the SUV and let himself into the driver’s seat, laying his Kalashnikov on the passenger seat before turning the ignition.
“What was that about?” Adel asked.
“Nothing important,” Kabir said.
They turned onto the road. Some of the boys who had stood in the crowd gave chase for a short while before the Land Cruiser pulled away. Kabir drove through the main crowded strip that bisected the town of Shadbagh-e-Nau, honking frequently as he needled the car through traffic. Everyone yielded. Some people waved. Adel watched the crowded sidewalks on either side of him, his gaze settling on and then off familiar sights—the carcasses hanging from hooks in butcher shops; the blacksmiths working their wooden wheels, hand-pumping their bellows; the fruit merchants fanning flies off their grapes and cherries; the sidewalk barber on the wicker chair stropping his razor. They passed tea shops, kabob houses, an auto-repair shop, a mosque, before Kabir veered the car through the town’s big public square, at the center of which stood a blue fountain and a nine-foot-tall black stone mujahid, looking east, turban gracefully wrapped atop his head, an RPG launcher on his shoulder. Baba jan had personally commissioned a sculptor from Kabul to build the statue.
North of the strip were a few blocks of residential area, mostly composed of narrow, unpaved streets and small, flat-roofed little houses painted white or yellow or blue. Satellite dishes sat on the roofs of a few; Afghan flags draped a number of windows. Baba jan had told Adel that most of the homes and businesses in Shadbagh-e-Nau had been built in the last fifteen years or so. He’d had a hand in the construction of many of them. Most people who lived here considered him the founder of Shadbagh-e-Nau, and Adel knew that the town elders had offered to name the town after Baba jan but he had declined the honor.
From there, the main road ran north for two miles before it connected with Shadbagh-e-Kohna, Old Shadbagh. Adel had never seen the village as it had once looked decades ago. By the time Baba jan had moved him and his mother from Kabul to Shadbagh, the village had all but vanished. All the homes were gone. The only surviving relic of the past was a decaying windmill. At Shadbagh-e-Kohna, Kabir veered left from the main road onto a wide, quarter-mile-long unpaved track that connected the main road to the thick twelve-foot-high walls of the compound where Adel lived with his parents—the only standing structure now in Shadbagh-e-Kohna, discounting the windmill. Adel could see the white walls now as the SUV jostled and bounced on the track. Coils of barbed wire ran along the top of the walls.
A uniformed guard, who always stood watch at the main gates to the compound, saluted and opened the gates. Kabir drove the SUV through the walls and up a graveled path toward the house.
The house stood three stories high and was painted bright pink and turquoise green. It had soaring columns and pointed eaves and mirrored skyscraper glass that sparkled in the sun. It had parapets, a veranda with sparkly mosaics, and wide balconies with curved wrought-iron railings. Inside, they had nine bedrooms and seven bathrooms, and sometimes when Adel and Baba jan played hide-and-seek, Adel wandered around for an hour or more before he found his father. All the counters in the bathrooms and kitchen had been made of granite and lime marble. Lately, to Adel’s delight, Baba jan had been talking about building a swimming pool in the basement.
Kabir pulled into the circular driveway outside the tall front gates of the house. He killed the engine.
“Why don’t you give us a minute?” Baba jan said.
Kabir nodded and exited the car. Adel watched him walk up the marble steps to the gates and ring. It was Azmaray, the other bodyguard—a short, stocky, gruff fellow—who opened the gate. The two men said a few words, then lingered on the steps, lighting a cigarette each.
“Do you really have to go?” Adel said. His father was leaving for the south in the morning to oversee his fields of cotton in Helmand and to meet with workers at the cotton factory he had built there. He would be gone for two weeks, a span of time that, to Adel, seemed interminable.
Baba jan turned his gaze to him. He dwarfed Adel, taking up more than half the backseat. “Wish I didn’t, son.”
Adel nodded. “I was proud today. I was proud of you.”
Baba jan lowered the weight of his big hand on Adel’s knee. “Thank you, Adel. I appreciate that. But I take you to these things so you learn, so you understand that it’s important for the fortunate, for people like us, to live up to their responsibilities.”
“I just wish you didn’t have to leave all the time.”
“Me too, son. Me too. But I’m not leaving until tomorrow. I’ll be home later in the evening.”
Adel nodded, casting his gaze down at his hands.
“Look,” his father said in a soft voice, “the people in this town, they need me, Adel. They need my help to have a home and find work and make a livelihood. Kabul has its own problems. It can’t help them. So if I don’t, no one else will. Then these people would suffer.”
“I know that,” Adel muttered.
Baba jan squeezed his knee gently. “You miss Kabul, I know, and your friends. It’s been a hard adjustment here, for both you and your mother. And I know that I’m always off traveling and going to meetings and that a lot of people have demands on my time. But … Look at me, son.”
Adel raised his eyes to meet Baba jan’s. They shone at him kindly from beneath the canopy of his bushy brows.
“No one on this earth matters to me more than you, Adel. You are my son. I would gladly give up all of this for you. I would give up my life for you, son.”
Adel nodded, his eyes watering a little. Sometimes, when Baba jan spoke like this, Adel felt his heart swell and swell until he found it hard to draw a breath.
“Do you understand me?”
“Yes, Baba jan.”
“Do you believe me?”
“Good. Then give your father a kiss.”
Adel threw his arms around Baba jan’s neck and his father held him tightly and patiently. Adel remembered when he was little, when he would tap his father on the shoulder in the middle of the night still shaking from a nightmare, and his father would push back his blanket and let him climb into bed, folding him in and kissing the crown of his head until Adel stopped shivering and slipped back into sleep.
“Maybe I’ll bring you a little something from Helmand,” Baba jan said.
“You don’t have to,” Adel said, his voice muffled. He already had more toys than he knew what to do with. And there wasn’t a toy on earth that could make up for his father’s absence.
Late that day, Adel perched midstairway and spied on the scene unfolding below him. The doorbell had rung and Kabir had answered. Now Kabir was leaning against the doorframe with his arms crossed, blocking the entrance, as he spoke to the person on the other side. It was the old man from earlier at the school, Adel saw, the bespectacled man with the burnt-match teeth. The boy with the holes in his shoes was there too, standing beside him.
The old man said, “Where has he gone to?”
Kabir said, “Business. In the south.”
“I heard he was leaving tomorrow.”
“How long will he be gone?”
“Two, maybe three months. Who’s to say.”
“That’s not what I heard.”
“Now you’re testing my patience, old man,” Kabir said, uncrossing his arms.
“I’ll wait for him.”
“Not here, you won’t.”
“Over by the road, I meant.”
Kabir shifted impatiently on his feet. “Suit yourself,” he said. “But the commander is a busy man. No telling when he’ll be back.”
The old man nodded and backed away, the boy following him.
Kabir shut the door.
Adel pulled the curtain in the family room and out the window watched the old man and the boy walking up the unpaved road that connected the compound to the main road.
“You lied to him,” Adel said.
“It’s part of what I’m paid to do: protect your father from buzzards.”
“What does he want anyway, a job?”
“Something like that.”
Kabir moved to the couch and removed his shoes. He looked up at Adel and gave him a wink. Adel liked Kabir, far more than Azmaray, who was unpleasant and rarely said a word to him. Kabir played cards with Adel and invited him to watch DVDs together. Kabir loved movies. He owned a collection that he had bought on the black market and watched ten to twelve movies a week—Iranian, French, American, of course Bollywood—he didn’t care. And sometimes if Adel’s mother was in another room and Adel promised not to tell his father, Kabir emptied the magazine on his Kalashnikov and let Adel hold it, like a mujahid. Now the Kalashnikov sat propped against the wall by the front door.
Kabir lay down on the couch and propped his feet up on the arm. He started flipping through a newspaper.
“They looked harmless enough,” Adel said, releasing the curtain and turning to Kabir. He could see the bodyguard’s forehead over the top of the newspaper.
“Maybe I should have asked them in for tea, then,” Kabir murmured. “Offer them some cake too.”
“Don’t make fun.”
“They all look harmless.”
“Is Baba jan going to help them?”
“Probably,” Kabir sighed. “Your father is a river to his people.” He lowered the paper and grinned. “What’s that from? Come on, Adel. We saw it last month.”
Adel shrugged. He started heading upstairs.
“Lawrence,” Kabir called from the couch. “Lawrence of Arabia. Anthony Quinn.” And then, just as Adel had reached the top of the stairs: “They’re buzzards, Adel. Don’t fall for their act. They’d pick your father clean if they could.”
One morning, a couple of days after his father had left for Helmand, Adel went up to his parents’ bedroom. The music from the other side of the door was loud and thumping. He let himself in and found his mother, in shorts and a T-shirt in front of the giant flat-screen TV, mimicking the moves of a trio of sweaty blond women, a series of leaps and squats and lunges and planks. She spotted him in the big mirror of her dresser.
“Want to join me?” she panted over the loud music.
“I’ll just sit here,” he said. He slid down to the carpeted floor and watched his mother, whose name was Aria, leapfrog her way across the room and back.
Adel’s mother had delicate hands and feet, a small upturned nose, and a pretty face like an actress from one of Kabir’s Bollywood films. She was lean, agile, and young—she had been only fourteen when she’d married Baba jan. Adel had another, older mother too, and three older half brothers, but Baba jan had put them up in the east, in Jalalabad, and Adel saw them only once a month or so when Baba jan took him there to visit. Unlike his mother and stepmother, who disliked each other, Adel and his half brothers got along fine. When he visited them in Jalalabad, they took him with them to parks, to bazaars, the cinema, and Buzkashi tournaments. They played Resident Evil with him and shot the zombies in Call of Duty with him, and they always picked him on their team during neighborhood soccer matches. Adel wished so badly that they lived here, near him.
Adel watched his mother lie on her back and raise her straightened legs off the floor and lower them down again, a blue plastic ball tucked between her bare ankles.
The truth was, the boredom here in Shadbagh was crushing Adel. He hadn’t made a single friend in the two years they had lived here. He could not bike into town, certainly not on his own, not with the rash of kidnappings everywhere in the region—though he did sneak out now and then briefly, always staying within the perimeter of the compound. He had no classmates because Baba jan wouldn’t let him attend the local school—for “security reasons,” he said—so a tutor came to the house every morning for lessons. Mostly, Adel passed the time reading or kicking the soccer ball around on his own or watching movies with Kabir, often the same ones over and over. He wandered listlessly around the wide, high-ceilinged hallways of their massive home, through all the big empty rooms, or else he sat looking out the window of his bedroom upstairs. He lived in a mansion, but in a shrunken world. Some days he was so bored, he wanted to chew wood.
He knew that his mother too was terribly lonely here. She tried to fill her days with routines, exercise in the morning, shower, then breakfast, then reading, gardening, then Indian soaps on TV in the afternoon. When Baba jan was away, which was often, she always wore gray sweats and sneakers around the house, her face unmade, her hair pinned in a bun at the back of her neck. She rarely even opened the jewelry box where she kept all the rings and necklaces and earrings that Baba jan brought her from Dubai. She spent hours sometimes talking to her family down in Kabul. Only when her sister and parents visited for a few days, once every two or three months, did Adel see his mother come alive. She wore a long print dress and high-heeled shoes; she put on her makeup. Her eyes shone, and her laughter could be heard around the house. And it was then that Adel would catch a glimpse of the person that perhaps she had been before.
When Baba jan was away, Adel and his mother tried to be each other’s reprieve. They pushed pieces of jigsaw puzzles around and played golf and tennis on Adel’s Wii. But Adel’s favorite pastime with his mother was building toothpick houses. His mother would draw a 3-D blueprint of the house on a sheet of paper, complete with front porch, gabled roof, and with staircases inside and walls separating the different rooms. They would build the foundation first, then the interior walls and stairs, killing hours carefully applying glue to toothpicks, setting sections to dry. Adel’s mother said that when she was younger, before she had married Adel’s father, she had dreamed of becoming an architect.
It was while they were building a skyscraper once that she had told Adel the story of how she and Baba jan had married.
He was actually supposed to marry my older sister, she said.
Yes. This was in Kabul. He saw her on the street one day and that was it. He had to marry her. He showed up at our house the next day, him and five of his men. They more or less invited themselves in. They were all wearing boots. She shook her head and laughed like it was a funny thing Baba jan had done, but she didn’t laugh the way she ordinarily did when she found something funny. You should have seen the expression on your grandparents.
They had sat in the living room, Baba jan, his men, and her parents. She was in the kitchen making tea while they talked. There was a problem, she said, because her sister Nargis was already engaged, promised to a cousin who lived in Amsterdam and was studying engineering. How were they supposed to break off the engagement? her parents were asking.
And then I come in, carrying a platter of tea and sweets. I fill their cups and put the food on the table, and your father sees me, and, as I turn to go, your father, he says, “Maybe you’re right, sir. It’s not fair to break off an engagement. But if you tell me this one is taken too, then I’m afraid I may have no choice but to think you don’t care for me.” Then he laughs. And that was how we got married.
She lifted a tube of glue.
Did you like him?
She shrugged a little. Truth be told, I was more frightened than anything else.
But you like him now, right? You love him.
Of course I do, Adel’s mother said. What a question.
You don’t regret marrying him.
She put down the glue and waited a few seconds before answering. Look at our lives, Adel, she said slowly. Look around you. What’s to regret? She smiled and pulled gently on the lobe of his ear. Besides, then I wouldn’t have had you.
Adel’s mother turned off the TV now and sat on the floor, panting, drying sweat off her neck with a towel.
“Why don’t you do something on your own this morning,” she said, stretching her back. “I’m going to shower and eat. And I was thinking of calling your grandparents. Haven’t spoken to them for a couple of days.”
Adel sighed and rose to his feet.
In his room, on a lower floor and in a different wing of the house, he fetched his soccer ball and put on the Zidane jersey Baba jan had given him for his last birthday, his twelfth. When he made his way downstairs, he found Kabir napping, a newspaper spread on his chest like a quilt. He grabbed a can of apple juice from the fridge and let himself out.
Adel walked on the gravel path toward the main entrance to the compound. The stall where the armed guard stood watch was empty. Adel knew the timing of the guard’s rounds. He carefully opened the gate and stepped out, closed the gate behind him. Almost immediately, he had the impression that he could breathe better on this side of the wall. Some days, the compound felt far too much like a prison.
He walked in the wide shadow of the wall toward the back of the compound, away from the main road. Back there, behind the compound, were Baba jan’s orchards, of which he was very proud. Several acres of long parallel rows of pear trees and apple trees, apricots, cherries, figs, and loquats too. When Adel took long walks with his father in these orchards, Baba jan would lift him high up on his shoulders and Adel would pluck them a ripe pair of apples. Between the compound and the orchards was a clearing, mostly empty save for a shed where the gardeners stored their tools. The only other thing there was the flat stump of what had once been, by the looks of it, a giant old tree. Baba jan had once counted its rings with Adel and concluded that the tree had likely seen Genghis Khan’s army march past. He said, with a rueful shake of his head, that whoever had cut it down had been nothing but a fool.
It was a hot day, the sun glaring in a sky as unblemished blue as the skies in the crayon pictures Adel used to draw when he was little. He put down the can of apple juice on the tree stump and practiced juggling his ball. His personal best was sixty-eight touches without the ball hitting the ground. He had set that record in the spring, and now it was midsummer and he was still trying to best it. Adel had reached twenty-eight when he became aware that someone was watching him. It was the boy, the one with the old man who had tried to approach Baba jan at the school’s opening ceremony. He was squatting now in the shade of the brick shed.
“What are you doing here?” Adel said, trying to bark the words like Kabir did when he spoke to strangers.
“Getting some shade,” the boy said. “Don’t report me.”
“You’re not supposed to be here.”
“Neither are you.”
The boy chuckled. “Never mind.” He stretched his arms wide and rose to his feet. Adel tried to see if his pockets were full. Maybe he had come to steal fruit. The boy walked over to Adel and flipped up the ball with one foot, gave it a pair of quick juggles, and kicked it with his heel to Adel. Adel caught the ball and cradled it under his arm.
“Where your goon had us wait, over by the road, me and my father? There’s no shade. And not a damn cloud in the sky.”
Adel felt a need to rise to Kabir’s defense. “He is not a goon.”
“Well, he made sure we got an eyeful of his Kalashnikov, I can tell you that.” He looked at Adel, a lazy, amused grin on his lips. He dropped a wad of spit at his feet. “So I see you’re a fan of the head-butter.”
It took Adel a moment to realize who he was referring to. “You can’t judge him by one mistake,” he said. “He was the best. He was a wizard in the midfield.”
“I’ve seen better.”
“Yeah? Like who?”
“Maradona?” Adel said, outraged. He’d had this debate before with one of his half brothers in Jalalabad. “Maradona was a cheater! ‘Hand of God,’ remember?”
“Everyone cheats and everyone lies.”
The boy yawned and started to go. He was about the same height as Adel, maybe a hair taller, and probably just around his age too, Adel thought. But somehow he walked like he was older, without hurry and with a kind of air, as if he had seen everything there was to see and nothing surprised him.
“My name is Adel.”
“Gholam.” They shook hands. Gholam’s grip was strong, his palm dry and callused.
“How old are you anyway?”
Gholam gave a shrug. “Thirteen, I guess. Could be fourteen by now.”
“You don’t know your own birthday?”
Gholam grinned. “I bet you know yours. I bet you count down.”
“I do not,” Adel said defensively. “I mean, I don’t count down.”
“I should go. My father’s waiting alone.”
“I thought that was your grandfather.”
“You thought wrong.”
“Do you want to play a shoot-out?” Adel asked.
“You mean like a penalty shoot-out?”
“Five each … best of.”
Gholam spat again, squinted toward the road and back at Adel. Adel noticed that his chin was a bit small for his face and that he had overlapping extra canines in the front, one of them chipped badly and rotting. His left eyebrow was split in half by a short, narrow scar. Also, he smelled. But Adel hadn’t had a conversation—let alone played a game—with a boy his age in nearly two years, discounting the monthly visits to Jalalabad. Adel prepared himself for disappointment, but Gholam shrugged and said, “Shit, why not? But I get first dibs on shooting.”
For goalposts, they used two rocks placed eight steps apart. Gholam took his five shots. Scored one, off target twice, and Adel easily saved two. Gholam’s goaltending was even worse than his shooting. Adel managed to score four, tricking him into leaning in the wrong direction each time, and the one shot he missed wasn’t even on goal.
“Fucker,” Gholam said, bent in half, palms on his kneecaps.
“Rematch?” Adel tried not to gloat, but it was hard. He was soaring inside.
Gholam agreed, and the result was even more lopsided. He again managed one goal, and this time Adel converted all five of his attempts.
“That’s it, I’m winded,” Gholam said, throwing up his hands. He trudged over to the tree stump and sat down with a tired groan. Adel cradled the ball and sat next to him.
“These probably aren’t helping,” Gholam said, fishing a pack of cigarettes from the front pocket of his jeans. He had one left. He lit it with a single strike of a match, inhaled contentedly, and offered it to Adel. Adel was tempted to take it, if only to impress Gholam, but he passed, worried Kabir or his mother would smell it on him.
“Wise,” Gholam said, leaning his head back.
They talked idly about soccer for a while, and, to Adel’s pleasant surprise, Gholam’s knowledge turned out to be solid. They exchanged favorite match and favorite goal stories. They each offered a top-five-players list; mostly it was the same except Gholam’s included Ronaldo the Brazilian and Adel’s had Ronaldo the Portuguese. Inevitably, they got around to the 2006 Finals and the painful memory, for Adel, of the head-butting incident. Gholam said he watched the whole match standing with a crowd outside the window of a TV shop not far from the camp.
“The one where I grew up. In Pakistan.”
He told Adel that this was his first time in Afghanistan. He had lived his whole life in Pakistan in the Jalozai refugee camp where he’d been born. He said Jalozai had been like a city, a huge maze of tents and mud huts and homes built from plastic and aluminum siding in a labyrinth of narrow passageways littered with dirt and shit. It was a city in the belly of a yet greater city. He and his brothers—he was the eldest by three years—were raised in the camp. He had lived in a small mud house there with his brothers, his mother, his father, whose name was Iqbal, and his paternal grandmother, Parwana. In its alleyways, he and his brothers had learned to walk and talk. They had gone to school there. He had played with sticks and rusty old bicycle wheels on its dirt streets, running around with other refugee kids, until the sun dipped and his grandmother called him home.
“I liked it there,” he said. “I had friends. I knew everybody. We were doing all right too. I have an uncle in America, my father’s half brother, Uncle Abdullah. I’ve never met him. But he was sending us money every few months. It helped. It helped a lot.”
“Why did you leave?”
“Had to. The Pakistanis shut down the camp. They said Afghans belong in Afghanistan. And then my uncle’s money stopped coming. So my father said we might as well go home and restart, now that the Taliban had run to the Pakistani side of the border anyway. He said we were guests in Pakistan who’d outstayed their welcome. I was really depressed. This place”—he waved his hand—“this is a foreign country to me. And the kids in the camp, the ones who’d actually been to Afghanistan? None of them had a good thing to say about it.”
Adel wanted to say that he knew how Gholam felt. He wanted to tell him how much he missed Kabul, and his friends, and his half brothers over in Jalalabad. But he had a feeling Gholam might laugh. Instead he said, “Well, it is pretty boring around here.”
Gholam laughed anyway. “I don’t think that’s quite what they meant,” he said.
Adel understood vaguely that he’d been chastised.
Gholam took a drag and blew out a run of rings. Together, they watched the rings gently float away and disintegrate.
“My father said to me and my brothers, he said, ‘Wait … wait until you breathe the air in Shadbagh, boys, and taste the water.’ He was born here, my father, raised here too. He said, ‘You’ve never had water this cool and this sweet, boys.’ He was always talking to us about Shadbagh, which I guess was nothing but a small village back when he lived here. He said there was a kind of grape that you could grow only in Shadbagh and nowhere else in the world. You’d think he was describing Paradise.”
Adel asked him where he was staying now. Gholam tossed the cigarette butt, looked up at the sky, squinting at the brightness. “You know the open field over by the windmill?”
Adel waited for more, but there was no more.
“You live in a field?”
“For the time being,” Gholam mumbled. “We got a tent.”
“Don’t you have family here?”
“No. They’re either dead or gone. Well, my father does have an uncle in Kabul. Or he did. Who knows if he’s still alive. He was my grandmother’s brother, worked for a rich family there. But I guess Nabi and my grandmother haven’t spoken in decades—fifty years or more, I think. They’re strangers practically. I guess if he really had to, my father would go to him. But he wants to make a go of it on his own here. This is his home.”
They spent a few quiet moments sitting on the tree stump, watching the leaves in the orchards shiver in surges of warm wind. Adel thought of Gholam and his family sleeping nights in a tent, scorpions and snakes crawling in the field all around them.
Adel didn’t quite know why he ended up telling Gholam about the reason he and his parents moved here from Kabul. Or, rather, he couldn’t choose among the reasons. He wasn’t sure if he did it to dispel Gholam’s impression that he led a carefree existence simply because he lived in a big house. Or as a kind of school-yard one-upmanship. Maybe a plea for sympathy. Did he do it to narrow the gap between them? He didn’t know. Maybe all of these things. Nor did Adel know why it seemed important that Gholam like him, only that he dimly understood the reason to be more complicated than the mere fact of his frequent loneliness and his desire for a friend.
“We moved to Shadbagh because someone tried to kill us in Kabul,” he said. “A motorcycle pulled up to the house one day and its rider sprayed our house with bullets. He wasn’t caught. But, thank God, none of us was hurt.”
He didn’t know what reaction he had expected, but it did surprise him that Gholam had none. Still squinting up at the sun, Gholam said, “Yeah, I know.”
“Your father picks his nose and people hear about it.”
Adel watched him crush the empty cigarette box into a ball and stuff it into the front pocket of his jeans.
“He does have his enemies, your father,” Gholam sighed.
Adel knew this. Baba jan had explained to him that some of the people who had fought alongside him against the Soviets in the 1980s had become both powerful and corrupt. They had lost their way, he said. And because he wouldn’t join in their criminal schemes, they always tried to undermine him, to pollute his name by spreading false, hurtful rumors about him. This was why Baba jan always tried to shield Adel—he didn’t allow newspapers in the house, for instance, didn’t want Adel watching the news on TV or surfing the Internet.
Gholam leaned in and said, “I also hear he’s quite the farmer.”
Adel shrugged. “You can see for yourself. Just a few acres of orchards. Well, and the cotton fields in Helmand too, I guess, for the factory.”
Gholam searched Adel’s eyes as a grin slowly spread across his face, exposing his rotting canine. “Cotton. You’re a piece of work. I don’t know what to say.”
Adel didn’t really understand this. He got up and bounced the ball. “You can say, ‘Rematch!’”
“Only, this time, I bet you don’t score one goal.”
Now Adel was the one grinning. “Name your bet.”
“That’s easy. The Zidane.”
“And if I win, no, when I win?”
“I were you,” Gholam said, “I wouldn’t worry about that improbability.”
It was a brilliant hustle. Gholam dove left and right, saved all of Adel’s shots. Taking off the jersey, Adel felt stupid for getting cheated out of what was rightfully his, what was probably his most prized possession. He handed it over. With some alarm, he felt the sting of tears and fought them back.
At least Gholam had the tact not to put it on in his presence. As he was leaving, he grinned over his shoulder. “Your father, he’s not really gone for three months, is he?”
“I’ll play you for it tomorrow,” Adel said. “The jersey.”
“I may have to think about that.”
Gholam headed back toward the main road. Halfway there, he paused, fished the rolled-up cigarette box from his pocket, and hurled it over the wall of Adel’s house.
Every day for about a week, after his morning lessons, Adel took his ball and left the compound. He was able to time his escapades with the armed guard’s schedule of rounds for the first couple of tries. But on the third try, the guard caught him and wouldn’t let him leave. Adel went back to the house and returned with an iPod and a watch. From then on, the guard surreptitiously let Adel in and out provided he venture no farther than the edge of the orchards. As for Kabir and his mother, they barely noticed his one- or two-hour absences. It was one of the advantages of living in a house as big as this.
Adel played alone behind the compound, over by the old tree stump in the clearing, each day hoping to see Gholam sauntering up. He kept an eye on the unpaved path stretching to the main road as he juggled, as he sat on the stump watching a fighter jet streak across the sky, as he listlessly flicked pebbles at nothing. After a while, he picked up his ball and plodded back to the compound.
Then one day Gholam showed up, carrying a paper bag.
“Where have you been?”
“Working,” Gholam said.
He told Adel that he and his father had been hired for a few days to make bricks. Gholam’s job was to mix mortar. He said he lugged pails of water back and forth, dragged bags of masonry cement and builder’s sand heavier than himself. He explained to Adel how he mixed mortar in the wheelbarrow, folding the mixture in the water with a hoe, folding it again and again, adding water, then sand, until the batch gained a smooth consistency that didn’t crumble. He would then push the wheelbarrow to the bricklayers and trot back to start a new batch. He opened his palms and showed Adel his blisters.
“Wow,” Adel said—stupidly, he knew, but he couldn’t think of another reply. The closest he had ever come to manual labor was one afternoon three years ago when he’d helped the gardener plant a few apple saplings in the backyard of their house in Kabul.
“Got you a surprise,” Gholam said. He reached into the bag and tossed Adel the Zidane jersey.
“I don’t understand,” Adel said, surprised and cautiously thrilled.
“I see some kid in town the other day wearing it,” Gholam said, asking for the ball with his fingers. Adel kicked it to him and Gholam juggled as he told the story. “Can you believe it? I go up to him and say, ‘Hey that’s my buddy’s shirt on you.’ He gives me a look. To make a long story short, we settle it in an alley. By the end, he’s begging me to take the shirt!” He caught the ball midair, spat, and grinned at Adel. “All right, so maybe I’d sold it to him a couple of days earlier.”
“That’s not right. If you sold it, it was his.”
“What, you don’t want it now? After everything I went through to get it back for you? It wasn’t all one-sided, you know. He landed a few decent punches.”
“Still …” Adel muttered.
“Besides, I tricked you in the first place and I felt bad about it. Now you get your shirt back. And as for me …” He pointed to his feet, and Adel saw a new pair of blue-and-white sneakers.
“Is he all right, the other guy?” Adel asked.
“He’ll live. Now, are we going to debate or are we going to play?”
“Is your father with you?”
“Not today. He’s at the courthouse in Kabul. Come on, let’s go.”
They played for a while, kicking the ball back and forth, chasing it around. They went for a walk later, Adel breaking his promise to the guard and leading them into the orchards. They ate loquats off the trees and drank cold Fanta from cans Adel covertly fetched from the kitchen.
Soon, they began to meet this way almost daily. They played ball, chased each other through the orchards’ parallel rows of trees. They chatted about sports and movies, and when they had nothing to say they looked out on the town of Shadbagh-e-Nau, the soft hillsides in the distance and the hazy chain of mountains farther yet, and that was all right too.
Every day now Adel woke up eager for the sight of Gholam sneaking up the dirt path, the sound of his loud, confident voice. He was often distracted during his morning lessons, his concentration lapsing as he thought of the games they would play later, the stories they would tell each other. He worried he would lose Gholam. He worried Gholam’s father, Iqbal, wouldn’t find steady work in town, or a place to live, and Gholam would move to another town, another part of the country, and Adel had tried to prepare for this possibility, steel himself against the farewell that would then follow.
One day, as they sat on the tree stump, Gholam said, “Have you ever been with a girl, Adel?”
“Yeah, I mean.”
Adel felt a rush of heat around his ears. He briefly contemplated lying, but he knew Gholam would see right through him. He mumbled, “You have?”
Gholam lit a cigarette and offered one to Adel. This time Adel took it, after glancing over his shoulder to make sure the guard wasn’t peeking around the corner or that Kabir hadn’t decided to step out. He took a drag and launched immediately into a protracted coughing fit that had Gholam smirking and pounding him on the back.
“So, have you or not?” Adel wheezed, eyes tearing.
“Friend of mine back at the camp,” Gholam said in a conspiratorial tone, “he was older, he took me to a whorehouse in Peshawar.”
He told the story. The small, filthy room. The orange curtains, the cracked walls, the single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, the rat he had seen dart across the floor. The sound of rickshaws outside, sputtering up and down the street, cars rumbling. The young girl on the mattress, finishing a plate of biryani, chewing and looking at him without any expression. How he could tell, even in the dim light, that she had a pretty face and that she was hardly any older than he. How she had scooped up the last grains of rice with a folded piece of naan, pushed away the plate, lain down, and wiped her fingers on her trousers as she’d pulled them down.
Adel listened, fascinated, enraptured. He had never had a friend like this. Gholam knew more about the world than even Adel’s half brothers who were several years older than him. And Adel’s friends back in Kabul? They were all the sons of technocrats and officials and ministers. They all lived variations of Adel’s own life. The glimpses Gholam had allowed Adel into his life suggested an existence rife with trouble, unpredictability, hardship, but also adventure, a life worlds removed from Adel’s own, though it unfolded practically within spitting distance of him. Listening to Gholam’s stories, Adel’s own life sometimes struck him as hopelessly dull.
“So did you do it, then?” Adel said. “Did you, you know, stick it in her?”
“No. We had a cup of chai and discussed Rumi. What do you think?”
Adel blushed. “What was it like?”
But Gholam had already moved on. This was often the pattern of their conversations, Gholam choosing what they would talk about, launching into a story with gusto, roping Adel in, only to lose interest and leave both the story and Adel dangling.
Now, instead of finishing up the story he had started, Gholam said, “My grandmother says her husband, my grandfather Saboor, told her a story about this tree once. Well, that was long before he cut it down, of course. My grandfather told it to her when they were both kids. The story was that if you had a wish, you had to kneel before the tree and whisper it. And if the tree agreed to grant it, it would shed exactly ten leaves on your head.”
“I never heard that,” Adel says.
“Well, you wouldn’t have, would you?”
It was then that Adel caught on to what Gholam had really said. “Wait. Your grandfather cut down our tree?”
Gholam turned his eyes to him. “Your tree? It’s not your tree.”
Adel blinked. “What does that mean?”
Gholam bore his gaze even deeper into Adel’s face. For the first time, Adel could detect no trace of his friend’s customary liveliness or of his trademark smirk or lighthearted mischief. His face was transformed, his expression sober, startlingly adult.
“This was my family’s tree. This was my family’s land. It’s been ours for generations. Your father built his mansion on our land. While we were in Pakistan during the war.” He pointed to the orchards. “These? They used to be people’s homes. But your father had them bulldozed to the ground. Just like he brought down the house where my father was born, where he was raised.”
“He claimed our land as his own and he built that”—here, he actually sneered as he threw a thumb toward the compound—“that thing in its stead.”
Feeling a little nauseated, his heart thumping heavily, Adel said, “I thought we were friends. Why are you telling these terrible lies?”
“Remember when I tricked you and took your jersey?” Gholam said, a flush rising to his cheeks. “You almost cried. Don’t deny it, I saw you. That was over a shirt. A shirt. Imagine how my family felt, coming all the way from Pakistan, only to get off the bus and find this thing on our land. And then your goon in the purple suit ordering us off our own land.”
“My father is not a thief!” Adel shot back. “Ask anyone in Shadbagh-e-Nau, ask them what he’s done for this town.” He thought of how Baba jan received people at the town mosque, reclined on the floor, teacup before him, prayer beads in hand. A solemn line of people, stretching from his cushion to the front entrance, men with muddy hands, toothless old women, young widows with children, every one of them in need, each waiting for his or her turn to ask for a favor, a job, a small loan to repair a roof or an irrigation ditch or buy milk formula. His father nodding, listening with infinite patience, as though each person in line mattered to him like family.
“Yeah? Then how come my father has the ownership documents?” Gholam said. “The ones he gave to the judge at the courthouse.”
“I’m sure if your father talks to Baba—”
“Your Baba won’t talk to him. He won’t acknowledge what he’s done. He drives past like we’re stray dogs.”
“You’re not dogs,” Adel said. It was a struggle to keep his voice even. “You’re buzzards. Just like Kabir said. I should have known.”
Gholam stood up, took a step or two, and paused. “Just so you know,” he said, “I hold nothing against you. You’re just an ignorant little boy. But next time Baba goes to Helmand, ask him to take you to that factory of his. See what he’s got growing out there. I’ll give you a hint. It’s not cotton.”
Later that night, before dinner, Adel lay in a bath full of warm soapy water. He could hear the TV downstairs, Kabir watching an old pirate movie. The anger, which had lingered all afternoon, had washed through Adel, and now he thought that he’d been too rough with Gholam. Baba jan had told him once that no matter how much you did, sometimes the poor spoke ill of the rich. They mainly did it out of disappointment with their own lives. It couldn’t be helped. It was natural, even. And we mustn’t blame them, Adel, he said.
Adel was not too naïve to know that the world was a fundamentally unfair place; he only had to gaze out the window of his bedroom. But he imagined that for people like Gholam, the acknowledgment of this truth brought no satisfaction. Maybe people like Gholam needed someone to stand culpable, a flesh-and-bones target, someone they could conveniently point to as the agent of their hardship, someone to condemn, blame, be angry with. And perhaps Baba jan was right when he said the proper response was to understand, to withhold judgment. To answer with kindness, even. Watching little soapy bubbles come up to the surface and pop, Adel thought of his father building schools and clinics when he knew there were people in town who spread wicked gossip about him.
As he was drying himself off, his mother poked her head through the bathroom door. “You’re coming down for dinner?”
“I’m not hungry,” he said.
“Oh.” She came inside and grabbed a towel off the rack. “Here. Sit. Let me dry your hair.”
“I can do it myself,” Adel said.
She stood behind him, her eyes studying him in the mirror. “Are you all right, Adel?”
He shrugged. She rested a hand on his shoulder and looked at him as if expecting him to rub his cheek against it. He didn’t.
“Mother, have you ever seen Baba jan’s factory?”
He noticed the pause in his mother’s movements. “Of course,” she said. “So have you.”
“I don’t mean pictures. Have you actually seen it? Been to it?”
“How could I?” his mother said, tilting her head in the mirror. “Helmand is unsafe. Your father would never put me or you in harm’s way.”
Downstairs, cannons blasted and pirates hollered their war cries.
Three days later, Gholam showed up again. He walked briskly up to Adel and stopped.
“I’m glad you came,” Adel said, “I have something for you.” From the top of the tree stump he fetched the coat he had been bringing with him daily since their spat. It was chocolate brown leather, with a soft sheepskin lining and a hood that could be zippered on and off. He extended it to Gholam. “I’ve only worn it a few times. It’s a little big for me. It should fit you.”
Gholam didn’t make a move. “We took a bus to Kabul and went to the courthouse yesterday,” he said flatly. “Guess what the judge told us? He said he had bad news. He said there was an accident. A small fire. My father’s ownership documents burned in it. Gone. Destroyed.”
Adel slowly dropped the hand holding the jacket.
“And as he’s telling us that there’s nothing he can do now without the papers, do you know what he has on his wrist? A brand-new gold watch he wasn’t wearing the last time my father saw him.”
Gholam flicked his gaze to the coat. It was a cutting, punishing look, meant to inflict shame. It worked. Adel shrunk. In his hand, he felt the coat shifting, transforming from peace offering to bribe.
Gholam spun around and hurried back toward the road in brisk, busy steps.
The evening of the same day that he returned, Baba jan threw a party at the house. Adel was sitting now beside his father at the head of the big cloth that had been spread on the floor for the meal. Baba jan sometimes preferred to sit on the ground and to eat with his fingers, especially if he was seeing friends from his jihadi years. Reminds me of the cave days, he joked. The women were eating at the table in the dining room with spoons and forks, Adel’s mother seated at the head. Adel could hear their chatter echoing off the marble walls. One of them, a thick-hipped woman with long hair dyed red, was engaged to be married to one of Baba jan’s friends. Earlier in the evening, she had shown Adel’s mother pictures on her digital camera of the bridal shop they had visited in Dubai.
Over tea after the meal, Baba jan told a story about the time his unit had ambushed a Soviet column to stop it from entering a valley up north. Everyone listened closely.
“When they entered the kill zone,” Baba jan said, one hand absently stroking Adel’s hair, “we opened fire. We hit the lead vehicle, then a few jeeps. I thought they would back out or try to plow through. But the sons of whores stopped, dismounted, and engaged us in gunfire. Can you believe it?”
A murmur spread around the room. Heads shook. Adel knew that at least half the men in the room were former Mujahideen.
“We outnumbered them, maybe three to one, but they had heavy weaponry and it wasn’t long before they were attacking us! Attacking our positions in the orchards. Soon, everybody was scattered. We ran for it. Me and this guy, Mohammad something or other, we ran together. We’re running side by side in a field of grapevines, not the kind on posts and wires but the kind that people let grow out on the ground. Bullets are flying everywhere and we’re running for our lives, and suddenly we both trip and go down. In a second flat, I’m back up on my feet running, but there’s no sign of this Mohammad something or other. I turn and yell, ‘Get the hell up, you donkey’s ass!’ ”
Baba jan paused for dramatic effect. He pushed a fist to his lips to fight laughter. “And then he pops up and starts running. And—would you believe it?—the crazy son of a whore is carrying two armfuls of grapes! One mound in each arm!”
Laughter erupted. Adel laughed too. His father rubbed his back and pulled him close. Someone started to tell another story, and Baba jan reached for the cigarette sitting next to his plate. But he never got the chance to light it because suddenly glass shattered somewhere in the house.
From the dining room, women screamed. Something metallic, maybe a fork or a butter knife, clanged loudly on the marble. The men bolted to their feet. Azmaray and Kabir came running into the room, handguns already drawn.
“It came from the entrance,” Kabir said. And, just as he said this, glass broke again.
“Wait here, Commander Sahib, we’ll have a look,” Azmaray said.
“Like hell I will,” Baba jan growled, already pushing forward. “I’m not cowering under my own roof.”
He headed toward the foyer, trailed by Adel, Azmaray, Kabir, and all the male guests. On their way, Adel saw Kabir pick up a metal rod they used in the winter to stoke the fire in the stove. Adel saw his mother too as she ran to join them, her face pale and drawn. When they reached the foyer, a rock came flying through the window and shards of glass crashed to the floor. The woman with red hair, the bride-to-be, screamed. Outside, someone was yelling.
“How the hell did they get past the guard?” someone said behind Adel.
“Commander Sahib, no!” Kabir barked. But Adel’s father had already opened the front door.
The light was dimming, but it was summer, and the sky was still awash in pale yellow. In the distance, Adel saw little clusters of light, people in Shadbagh-e-Nau settling in for dinner with their families. The hills running along the horizon had darkened and soon night would fill in all the hollows. But it wasn’t dark enough, not yet, to shroud the old man Adel saw standing at the foot of the front steps, a rock in each hand.
“Take him upstairs,” Baba jan said over his shoulder to Adel’s mother. “Now!”
Adel’s mother led him up the staircase by the shoulders, down the hallway, and into the master bedroom she shared with Baba jan. She closed the door, locked it, pulled the curtains shut, and turned on the TV. She guided Adel to the bed and together they sat. On the screen, two Arabs, dressed in long kurta shirts and knit caps, were working on a monster truck.
“What is he going to do to that old man?” Adel said. He couldn’t stop from shivering. “Mother, what is he going to do to him?”
He looked up at his mother, and saw a cloud pass over her face and he suddenly knew, he knew right away, that whatever came out of her mouth next could not be trusted.
“He’s going to talk to him,” she said with a tremor. “He’s going to reason with whoever is out there. It’s what your father does. He reasons with people.”
Adel shook his head. He was weeping now, sobbing. “What is he going to do, Mother? What is he going to do to that old man?”
His mother kept saying the same thing, that everything was going to be all right, that it would all turn out just fine, that no one was going to get hurt. But the more she said it, the more he sobbed, until it exhausted him and at some point he fell asleep on his mother’s lap.
Former Commander Escapes Assassination Attempt.
Adel read the story in his father’s study, on his father’s computer. The story described the attack as “vicious” and the assailant as a former refugee with “suspected ties to the Taliban.” Midway through the article, Adel’s father was quoted as saying that he had feared for the safety of his family. Especially my innocent little boy, he’d said. The article gave no name to the assailant nor any indication of what had happened to him.
Adel shut off the computer. He wasn’t supposed to be using it and he had trespassed, coming into his father’s study. A month ago, he wouldn’t have dared do either. He trudged back to his room, lay on his bed, and bounced an old tennis ball against the wall. Thump! Thump! Thump! It wasn’t long before his mother poked her head in through the door and asked, then told him, to stop, but he didn’t. She lingered at the door for a while before slinking away.
Thump! Thump! Thump!
On the surface, nothing had changed. A transcript of Adel’s daily activities would have revealed him falling back into a normal rhythm. He still got up at the same hour, washed, had breakfast with his parents, lessons with his tutor. Afterward, he ate lunch and then spent the afternoon lying around, watching movies with Kabir or else playing video games.
But nothing was the same. Gholam may have cracked a door open to him, but it was Baba jan who had pushed him through it. Dormant gears in Adel’s mind had begun to turn. Adel felt as though, overnight, he had acquired an altogether new auxiliary sense, one that empowered him to perceive things he never had before, things that had stared him in the face for years. He saw, for instance, how his mother had secrets inside of her. When he looked at her, they practically rippled over her face. He saw her struggles to keep from him all the things she knew, all the things she kept locked up, closed off, carefully guarded, like the two of them in this big house. He saw for the first time his father’s house for the monstrosity, the affront, the monument to injustice, that it privately was to everyone else. He saw in people’s rush to please his father the intimidation, the fear, that was the real underpinning of their respect and deference. He thought Gholam would be proud of him for this insight. For the first time, Adel felt truly aware of the broader movements that had always governed his life.
And of the wildly conflicting truths that resided within a person. Not just in his father, or his mother, or Kabir.
But within himself too.
This last discovery was, in some ways, the most surprising to Adel. The revelations of what he now knew his father had done—first in the name of jihad, then for what he had called the just rewards of sacrifice—had left Adel reeling. At least for a while. For days after that evening the rocks had come crashing through the window, Adel’s stomach ached whenever his father walked into the room. He found his father barking into his mobile phone, or even heard him humming in the bath, and he felt his spine crumpling, his throat going painfully dry. His father kissed him good night, and Adel’s instinct was to recoil. He had nightmares. He dreamt he was standing at the edge of the orchards, watching a thrashing about among the trees, the glint of a metal rod rising and falling, the sound of metal striking meat and bone. He woke from these dreams with a howl locked in his chest. Bouts of weeping side-swiped him at random moments.
Something else was happening as well. The new awareness had not faded from his mind, but slowly it had found company. Another, opposing current of consciousness coursed through him now, one that did not displace the first but claimed space beside it. Adel felt an awakening to this other, more troubling part of himself. The part of him that over time would gradually, almost imperceptibly, accept this new identity that at present prickled like a wet wool sweater. Adel saw that, in the end, he would probably accept things as his mother had. Adel had been angry with her at first; he was more forgiving now. Perhaps she had accepted out of fear of her husband. Or as a bargain for the life of luxury she led. Mostly, Adel suspected, she had accepted for the same reason he would: because she had to. What choice was there? Adel could not run from his life any more than Gholam could from his. People learned to live with the most unimaginable things. As would he. This was his life. This was his mother. This was his father. And this was him, even if he hadn’t always known it.
Adel knew he would not love his father again as he had before, when he would sleep happily curled in the bay of his thick arms. That was inconceivable now. But he would learn to love him again even if now it was a different, more complicated, messier business. Adel could almost feel himself leapfrogging over childhood. Soon, he would land as an adult. And when he did, there would be no going back because adulthood was akin to what his father had once said about being a war hero: once you became one, you died one.
Lying in bed at night, Adel thought that one day—maybe the next day or the one after that, or maybe one day the following week—he would leave the house and walk over to the field by the windmill where Gholam had told him his family was squatting. He thought he would find the field empty. He would stand on the side of the road, picture Gholam and his mother and his brothers and his grandmother, the family a straggling line lugging roped-up belongings, padding along the dusty shoulders of country roads, looking for some place to land. Gholam was the head of the family now. He would have to work. He would now spend his youth clearing canals, digging ditches, making bricks, and harvesting fields. Gholam would gradually turn into one of those stooping leather-faced men Adel always saw behind plows.
Adel thought he would stand there a while in the field, watching the hills and the mountains looming over New Shadbagh. And then he thought he would reach into his pocket for what he had found one day walking through the orchards, the left half of a pair of spectacles, snapped at the bridge, the lens a spiderweb of cracks, the temple crusted with dried blood. He would toss the broken spectacles into a ditch. Adel suspected that as he turned back around and walked home, what he would feel mostly would be relief.
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