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ON APRIL 27, Mariam's question was answered with crackling sounds and intense, sudden roars. She ran barefoot down to the living room and found Rasheed already by the window, in his undershirt, his hair disheveled, palms pressed to the glass. Mariam made her way to the window next to him. Overhead, she could see military planes zooming past, heading north and east. Their deafening shrieks hurt her ears. In the distance, loud booms resonated and sudden plumes of smoke rose to the sky.
"What's going on, Rasheed?" she said. "What is all this?"
"God knows," he muttered. He tried the radio and got only static.
"What do we do?"
Impatiently, Rasheed said, "We wait."
LATER IN THE DAY, Rasheed was still trying the radio as Mariam made rice with spinach sauce in the kitchen. Mariam remembered a time when she had enjoyed, even looked forward to, cooking for Rasheed. Now cooking was an exercise in heightened anxiety. The qurmas were always too salty or too bland for his taste. The rice was judged either too greasy or too dry, the bread declared too doughy or too crispy. Rasheed's faultfinding left her stricken in the kitchen with self-doubt.
When she brought him his plate, the national anthem was playing on the radio.
"I made sabzi, " she said.
"Put it down and be quiet."
After the music faded, a man's voice came on the radio. He announced himself as Air Force Colonel Abdul Qader. He reported that earlier in the day the rebel Fourth Armored Division had seized the airport and key intersections in the city. Kabul Radio, the ministries of Communication and the Interior, and the Foreign Ministry building had also been captured. Kabul was in the hands of the people now, he said proudly. Rebel MiGs had attacked the Presidential Palace. Tanks had broken into the premises, and a fierce battle was under way there. Daoud's loyalist forces were all but defeated, Abdul Qader said in a reassuring tone.
Days later, when the communists began the summary executions of those connected with Daoud Khan's regime, when rumors began floating about Kabul of eyes gouged and genitals electrocuted in the Pol-e-Charkhi Prison, Mariam would hear of the slaughter that had taken place at the Presidential Palace. Daoud Khan had been killed, but not before the communist rebels had killed some twenty members of his family, including women and grandchildren. There would be rumors that he had taken his own life, that he'd been gunned down in the heat of battle; rumors that he'd been saved for last, made to watch the massacre of his family, then shot.
Rasheed turned up the volume and leaned in closer.
"A revolutionary council of the armed forces has been established, and our watan will now be known as the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan," Abdul Qader said. "The era of aristocracy, nepotism, and inequality is over, fellow hamwatans. We have ended decades of tyranny. Power is now in the hands of the masses and freedom-loving people. A glorious new era in the history of our country is afoot. A new Afghanistan is born. We assure you that you have nothing to fear, fellow Afghans. The new regime will maintain the utmost respect for principles, both Islamic and democratic. This is a time of rejoicing and celebration."
Rasheed turned off the radio.
"So is this good or bad?" Mariam asked.
"Bad for the rich, by the sound of it," Rasheed said. "Maybe not so bad for us."
Mariam's thoughts drifted to Jalil. She wondered if the communists would go after him, then. Would they jail him? Jail his sons? Take his businesses and properties from him?
"Is this warm?" Rasheed said, eyeing the rice.
"I just served it from the pot."
He grunted, and told her to hand him a plate.
DOWN THE STREET, as the night lit up in sudden flashes of red and yellow, an exhausted Fariba had propped herself up on her elbows. Her hair was matted with sweat, and droplets of moisture teetered on the edge of her upper lip. At her bedside, the elderly midwife, Wajma, watched as Fariba's husband and sons passed around the infant. They were marveling at the baby's light hair, at her pink cheeks and puckered, rosebud lips, at the slits of jade green eyes moving behind her puffy lids. They smiled at each other when they heard her voice for the first time, a cry that started like the mewl of a cat and exploded into a healthy, full-throated yowl. Noor said her eyes were like gemstones. Ahmad, who was the most religious member of the family, sang the azan in his baby sister's ear and blew in her face three times.
"Laila it is, then?" Hakim asked, bouncing his daughter.
RASHEED MADE a ball of rice with his fingers. He put it in his mouth, chewed once, then twice, before grimacing and spitting it out on the sofrah.
"What's the matter?" Mariam asked, hating the apologetic tone of her voice. She could feel her pulse quickening, her skin shrinking.
"What's the matter?" he mewled, mimicking her. "What's the matter is that you've done it again."
"But I boiled it five minutes more than usual."
"That's a bold lie."
He shook the rice angrily from his fingers and pushed the plate away, spilling sauce and rice on the sofrah. Mariam watched as he stormed out of the living room, then out of the house, slamming the door on his way out.
Mariam kneeled to the ground and tried to pick up the grains of rice and put them back on the plate, but her hands were shaking badly, and she had to wait for them to stop. Dread pressed down on her chest. She tried taking a few deep breaths. She caught her pale reflection in the darkened living-room window and looked away.
Then she heard the front door opening, and Rasheed was back in the living room.
"Get up," he said. "Come here. Get up."
He snatched her hand, opened it, and dropped a handful of pebbles into it.
"Put these in your mouth."
"Put. These. In your mouth."
"Stop it, Rasheed, I'm-"
His powerful hands clasped her jaw. He shoved two fingers into her mouth and pried it open, then forced the cold, hard pebbles into it. Mariam struggled against him, mumbling, but he kept pushing the pebbles in, his upper lip curled in a sneer.
"Now chew," he said.
Through the mouthful of grit and pebbles, Mariam mumbled a plea. Tears were leaking out of the corners of her eyes.
"CHEW!" he bellowed. A gust of his smoky breath slammed against her face.
Mariam chewed. Something in the back of her mouth cracked.
"Good," Rasheed said. His cheeks were quivering. "Now you know what your rice tastes like. Now you know what you've given me in this marriage. Bad food, and nothing else."
Then he was gone, leaving Mariam to spit out pebbles, blood, and the fragments of two broken molars.
Kabul, Spring 1987
Nine-year-old Laila rose from bed, as she did most mornings, hungry for the sight of her friend Tariq. This morning, however, she knew there would be no Tariq sighting.
"How long will you be gone?" she'd asked when Tariq had told her that his parents were taking him south, to the city of Ghazni, to visit his paternal uncle.
"It's not so long. You're making a face, Laila."
"I am not."
"You're not going to cry, are you?"
"I am not going to cry! Not over you. Not in a thousand years."
She'd kicked at his shin, not his artificial but his real one, and he'd playfully whacked the back of her head.
Thirteen days. Almost two weeks. And, just five days in, Laila had learned a fundamental truth about time: Like the accordion on which Tariq's father sometimes played old Pashto songs, time stretched and contracted depending on Tariq's absence or presence.
Downstairs, her parents were fighting. Again. Laila knew the routine: Mammy, ferocious, indomitable, pacing and ranting; Babi, sitting, looking sheepish and dazed, nodding obediently, waiting for the storm to pass. Laila closed her door and changed. But she could still hear them. She could still hear her. Finally, a door slammed. Pounding footsteps. Mammy's bed creaked loudly. Babi, it seemed, would survive to see another day.
"Laila!" he called now. "I'm going to be late for work!"
Laila put on her shoes and quickly brushed her shoulder-length, blond curls in the mirror. Mammy always told Laila that she had inherited her hair color Ц as well as her thick-lashed, turquoise green eyes, her dimpled cheeks, her high cheekbones, and the pout of her lower lip, which Mammy shared Ц from her great-grandmother, Mammy's grandmother. She was a pari, a stunner, Mammy said. Her beauty was the talk of the valley. It skipped two generations of women in our family, but it sure didn't bypass you, Laila. The valley Mammy referred to was the Panjshir, the Farsi-speaking Tajik region one hundred kilometers northeast of Kabul. Both Mammy and Babi, who were first cousins, had been born and raised in Panjshir; they had moved to Kabul back in 1960 as hopeful, bright-eyed newlyweds when Babi had been admitted to Kabul University.
Laila scrambled downstairs, hoping Mammy wouldn't come out of her room for another round. She found Babi kneeling by the screen door.
"Did you see this, Laila?"
The rip in the screen had been there for weeks. Laila hunkered down beside him. "No. Must be new."
"That's what I told Fariba." He looked shaken, reduced, as he always did after Mammy was through with him. "She says it's been letting in bees."
Laila's heart went out to him. Babi was a small man, with narrow shoulders and slim, delicate hands, almost like a woman's. At night, when Laila walked into Babi's room, she always found the downward profile of his face burrowing into a book, his glasses perched on the tip of his nose. Sometimes he didn't even notice that she was there. When he did, he marked his page, smiled a close-lipped, companionable smile. Babi knew most of Rumi's and Hafez's ghazals by heart. He could speak at length about the struggle between Britain and czarist Russia over Afghanistan. He knew the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite, and could tell you that the distance between the earth and the sun was the same as going from Kabul to Ghazni one and a half million times. But if Laila needed the lid of a candy jar forced open, she had to go to Mammy, which felt like a betrayal. Ordinary tools befuddled Babi. On his watch, squeaky door hinges never got oiled. Ceilings went on leaking after he plugged them. Mold thrived defiantly in kitchen cabinets. Mammy said that before he left with Noor to join the jihad against the Soviets, back in 1980, it was Ahmad who had dutifully and competently minded these things.
"But if you have a book that needs urgent reading," she said, "then Hakim is your man."
Still, Laila could not shake the feeling that at one time, before Ahmad and Noor had gone to war against the Soviets Ц before Babi had let them go to war Ц Mammy too had thought Babi's bookishness endearing, that, once upon a time, she too had found his forgetfulness and ineptitude charming.
"So what is today?" he said now, smiling coyly. "Day five? Or is it six?"
"What do I care? I don't keep count," Laila lied, shrugging, loving him for remembering Ц Mammy had no idea that Tariq had left.
"Well, his flashlight will be going off before you know it," Babi said, referring to Laila and Tariq's nightly signaling game. They had played it for so long it had become a bedtime ritual, like brushing teeth.
Babi ran his finger through the rip. "I'll patch this as soon as I get a chance. We'd better go." He raised his voice and called over his shoulder, "We're going now, Fariba! I'm taking Laila to school. Don't forget to pick her up!"
Outside, as she was climbing on the carrier pack of Babi's bicycle, Laila spotted a car parked up the street, across from the house where the shoemaker, Rasheed, lived with his reclusive wife. It was a Benz, an unusual car in this neighborhood, blue with a thick white stripe bisecting the hood, the roof, and the trunk. Laila could make out two men sitting inside, one behind the wheel, the other in the back.
"Who are they?" she said.
"It's not our business," Babi said. "Climb on, you'll be late for class."
Laila remembered another fight, and, that time, Mammy had stood over Babi and said in a mincing way, That's your business, isn't it, cousin? To make nothing your business. Even your own sons going to war. How I pleaded with you. But you buried your nose in those cursed books and let our sons go like they were a pair of haramis.
Babi pedaled up the street, Laila on the back, her arms wrapped around his belly. As they passed the blue Benz, Laila caught a fleeting glimpse of the man in the backseat: thin, white-haired, dressed in a dark brown suit, with a white handkerchief triangle in the breast pocket. The only other thing she had time to notice was that the car had Herat license plates.
They rode the rest of the way in silence, except at the turns, where Babi braked cautiously and said, "Hold on, Laila. Slowing down. Slowing down. There."
IN CLASS THAT DAY, Laila found it hard to pay attention, between Tariq's absence and her parents' fight. So when the teacher called on her to name the capitals of Romania and Cuba, Laila was caught off guard.
The teacher's name was Shanzai, but, behind her back, the students called her Khala Rangmaal, Auntie Painter, referring to the motion she favored when she slapped students Ц palm, then back of the hand, back and forth, like a painter working a brush. Khala Rangmaal was a sharp-faced young woman with heavy eyebrows. On the first day of school, she had proudly told the class that she was the daughter of a poor peasant from Khost. She stood straight, and wore her jet-black hair pulled tightly back and tied in a bun so that, when Khala Rangmaal turned around, Laila could see the dark bristles on her neck. Khala Rangmaal did not wear makeup or jewelry. She did not cover and forbade the female students from doing it. She said women and men were equal in every way and there was no reason women should cover if men didn't.
She said that the Soviet Union was the best nation in the world, along with Afghanistan. It was kind to its workers, and its people were all equal. Everyone in the Soviet Union was happy and friendly, unlike America, where crime made people afraid to leave their homes. And everyone in Afghanistan would be happy too, she said, once the antiprogressives, the backward bandits, were defeated.
"That's why our Soviet comrades came here in 1979. To lend their neighbor a hand. To help us defeat these brutes who want our country to be a backward, primitive nation. And you must lend your own hand, children. You must report anyone who might know about these rebels. It's your duty. You must listen, then report. Even if it's your parents, your uncles or aunts. Because none of them loves you as much as your country does. Your country comes first, remember! I will be proud of you, and so will your country."
On the wall behind Khala Rangmaal's desk was a map of the Soviet Union, a map of Afghanistan, and a framed photo of the latest communist president, Najibullah, who, Babi said, had once been the head of the dreaded KHAD, the Afghan secret police. There were other photos too, mainly of young Soviet soldiers shaking hands with peasants, planting apple saplings, building homes, always smiling genially.
"Well," Khala Rangmaal said now, "have I disturbed your daydreaming, Inqilabi Girl?"
This was her nickname for Laila, Revolutionary Girl, because she'd been born the night of the April coup of 1978 Ц except Khala Rangmaal became angry if anyone in her class used the word coup. What had happened, she insisted, was an inqilab, a revolution, an uprising of the working people against inequality. Jihad was another forbidden word. According to her, there wasn't even a war out there in the provinces, just skirmishes against troublemakers stirred by people she called foreign provocateurs. And certainly no one, no one, dared repeat in her presence the rising rumors that, after eight years of fighting, the Soviets were losing this war. Particularly now that the American president, Reagan, had started shipping the Mujahideen Stinger Missiles to down the Soviet helicopters, now that Muslims from all over the world were joining the cause: Egyptians, Pakistanis, even wealthy Saudis, who left their millions behind and came to Afghanistan to fight the jihad.
" Bucharest. Havana," Laila managed.
"And are those countries our friends or not?"
"They are, moalim sahib. They are friendly countries."
Khala Rangmaal gave a curt nod.
WHEN SCHOOL LET OUT, Mammy again didn't show up like she was supposed to. Laila ended up walking home with two of her classmates, Giti and Hasina.
Giti was a tightly wound, bony little girl who wore her hair in twin ponytails held by elastic bands. She was always scowling, and walking with her books pressed to her chest, like a shield. Hasina was twelve, three years older than Laila and Giti, but had failed third grade once and fourth grade twice. What she lacked in smarts Hasina made up for in mischief and a mouth that, Giti said, ran like a sewing machine. It was Hasina who had come up with the Khala Rangmaal nickname.
Today, Hasina was dispensing advice on how to fend off unattractive suitors. "Foolproof method, guaranteed to work. I give you my word."
"This is stupid. I'm too young to have a suitor!" Giti said.
"You're not too young."
"Well, no one's come to ask for my hand."
"That's because you have a beard, my dear."
Giti's hand shot up to her chin, and she looked with alarm to Laila, who smiled pityingly Ц Giti was the most humorless person Laila had ever met Ц and shook her head with reassurance.
"Anyway, you want to know what to do or not, ladies?"
"Go ahead," Laila said.
"Beans. No less than four cans. On the evening the toothless lizard comes to ask for your hand. But the timing, ladies, the timing is everything. You have to suppress the fireworks 'til it's time to serve him his tea."
"I'll remember that," Laila said.
"So will he."
Laila could have said then that she didn't need this advice because Babi had no intention of giving her away anytime soon. Though Babi worked at Silo, Kabul 's gigantic bread factory, where he labored amid the heat and the humming machinery stoking the massive ovens and mill grains all day, he was a university-educated man. He'd been a high school teacher before the communists fired him Ц this was shortly after the coup of 1978, about a year and a half before the Soviets had invaded. Babi had made it clear to Laila from a young age that the most important thing in his life, after her safety, was her schooling.
I know you're still young, but I want you to understand and learn this now, he said. Marriage can wait, education cannot. You're a very, very bright girl. Truly, you are. You can be anything you want, Laila. I know this about you. And I also know that when this war is over, Afghanistan is going to need you as much as its men, maybe even more. Because a society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated, Laila. No chance.
But Laila didn't tell Hasina that Babi had said these things, or how glad she was to have a father like him, or how proud she was of his regard for her, or how determined she was to pursue her education just as he had his. For the last two years, Laila had received the awal numra certificate, given yearly to the top-ranked student in each grade.
She said nothing of these things to Hasina, though, whose own father was an ill-tempered taxi driver who in two or three years would almost certainly give her away. Hasina had told Laila, in one of her infrequent serious moments, that it had already been decided that she would marry a first cousin who was twenty years older than her and owned an auto shop in Lahore. I've seen him twice, Hasina had said. Both times he ate with his mouth open.
"Beans, girls," Hasina said. "You remember that. Unless, of course" Ц here she flashed an impish grin and nudged Laila with an elbow Ц "it's your young handsome, one-legged prince who comes knocking. ThenЕ"
Laila slapped the elbow away. She would have taken offense if anyone else had said that about Tariq. But she knew that Hasina wasn't malicious. She mocked Ц it was what she did Ц and her mocking spared no one, least of all herself.
"You shouldn't talk that way about people!" Giti said.
"What people is that?"
"People who've been injured because of war," Giti said earnestly, oblivious to Hasina's toying.
"I think Mullah Giti here has a crush on Tariq. I knew it! Ha! But he's already spoken for, don't you know? Isn't he, Laila?"
"I do not have a crush. On anyone!"
They broke off from Laila, and, still arguing this way, turned in to their street.
Laila walked alone the last three blocks. When she was on her street, she noticed that the blue Benz was still parked there, outside Rasheed and Mariam's house. The elderly man in the brown suit was standing by the hood now, leaning on a cane, looking up at the house.
That was when a voice behind Laila said, "Hey. Yellow Hair. Look here."
Laila turned around and was greeted by the barrel of a gun.
The gun was red, the trigger guard bright green. Behind the gun loomed Khadim's grinning face. Khadim was eleven, like Tariq. He was thick, tall, and had a severe underbite. His father was a butcher in Deh-Mazang, and, from time to time, Khadim was known to fling bits of calf intestine at passersby. Sometimes, if Tariq wasn't nearby, Khadim shadowed Laila in the schoolyard at recess, leering, making little whining noises. One time, he'd tapped her on the shoulder and said, You're so very pretty, Yellow Hair. I want to marry you.
Now he waved the gun. "Don't worry," he said. "This won't show. Not on your hair."
"Don't you do it! I'm warning you."
"What are you going to do?" he said. "Sic your cripple on me? 'Oh, Tariq jan. Oh, won't you come home and save me from the badmash!'"
Laila began to backpedal, but Khadim was already pumping the trigger. One after another, thin jets of warm water struck Laila's hair, then her palm when she raised it to shield her face.
Now the other boys came out of their hiding, laughing, cackling.
An insult Laila had heard on the street rose to her lips. She didn't really understand it Ц couldn't quite picture the logistics of it Ц but the words packed a fierce potency, and she unleashed them now.
"Your mother eats cock!"
"At least she's not a loony like yours," Khadim shot back, unruffled. "At least my father's not a sissy! And, by the way, why don't you smell your hands?"
The other boys took up the chant. "Smell your hands! Smell your hands!"
Laila did, but she knew even before she did, what he'd meant about it not showing in her hair. She let out a high-pitched yelp. At this, the boys hooted even harder.
Laila turned around and, howling, ran home.
SHE DREW WATER from the well, and, in the bathroom, filled a basin, tore off her clothes. She soaped her hair, frantically digging fingers into her scalp, whimpering with disgust. She rinsed with a bowl and soaped her hair again. Several times, she thought she might throw up. She kept mewling and shivering, as she rubbed and rubbed the soapy washcloth against her face and neck until they reddened.
This would have never happened if Tariq had been with her, she thought as she put on a clean shirt and fresh trousers. Khadim wouldn't have dared. Of course, it wouldn't have happened if Mammy had shown up like she was supposed to either. Sometimes Laila wondered why Mammy had even bothered having her. People, she believed now, shouldn't be allowed to have new children if they'd already given away all their love to their old ones. It wasn't fair. A fit of anger claimed her. Laila went to her room, collapsed on her bed.
When the worst of it had passed, she went across the hallway to Mammy's door and knocked. When she was younger, Laila used to sit for hours outside this door. She would tap on it and whisper Mammy's name over and over, like a magic chant meant to break a spell: Mammy, Mammy, Mammy, MammyЕ But Mammy never opened the door. She didn't open it now. Laila turned the knob and walked in.
SOMETIMES MAMMY had good days. She sprang out of bed bright-eyed and playful. The droopy lower lip stretched upward in a smile. She bathed. She put on fresh clothes and wore mascara. She let Laila brush her hair, which Laila loved doing, and pin earrings through her earlobes. They went shopping together to Mandaii Bazaar. Laila got her to play snakes and ladders, and they ate shavings from blocks of dark chocolate, one of the few things they shared a common taste for. Laila's favorite part of Mammy's good days was when Babi came home, when she and Mammy looked up from the board and grinned at him with brown teeth. A gust of contentment puffed through the room then, and Laila caught a momentary glimpse of the tenderness, the romance, that had once bound her parents back when this house had been crowded and noisy and cheerful.
Mammy sometimes baked on her good days and invited neighborhood women over for tea and pastries. Laila got to lick the bowls clean, as Mammy set the table with cups and napkins and the good plates. Later, Laila would take her place at the living-room table and try to break into the conversation, as the women talked boisterously and drank tea and complimented Mammy on her baking. Though there was never much for her to say, Laila liked to sit and listen in because at these gatherings she was treated to a rare pleasure: She got to hear Mammy speaking affectionately about Babi.
"What a first-rate teacher he was," Mammy said. "His students loved him. And not only because he wouldn't beat them with rulers, like other teachers did. They respected him, you see, because he respected them. He was marvelous."
Mammy loved to tell the story of how she'd proposed to him.
"I was sixteen, he was nineteen. Our families lived next door to each other in Panjshir. Oh, I had the crush on him, hamshiras! I used to climb the wall between our houses, and we'd play in his father's orchard. Hakim was always scared that we'd get caught and that my father would give him a slapping. 'Your father's going to give me a slapping,' he'd always say. He was so cautious, so serious, even then. And then one day I said to him, I said, 'Cousin, what will it be? Are you going to ask for my hand or are you going to make me come khastegari to you?' I said it just like that. You should have seen the face on him!"
Mammy would slap her palms together as the women, and Laila, laughed.
Listening to Mammy tell these stories, Laila knew that there had been a time when Mammy always spoke this way about Babi. A time when her parents did not sleep in separate rooms. Laila wished she hadn't missed out on those times.
Inevitably, Mammy's proposal story led to matchmaking schemes. When Afghanistan was free from the Soviets and the boys returned home, they would need brides, and so, one by one, the women paraded the neighborhood girls who might or might not be suitable for Ahmad and Noor. Laila always felt excluded when the talk turned to her brothers, as though the women were discussing a beloved film that only she hadn't seen. She'd been two years old when Ahmad and Noor had left Kabul for Panjshir up north, to join Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud's forces and fight the jihad. Laila hardly remembered anything at all about them. A shiny allah pendant around Ahmad's neck. A patch of black hairs on one of Noor's ears. And that was it.