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Mammy lay in bed most days. She wore black. She picked at her hair and gnawed on the mole below her lip. When Mammy was awake, Laila found her staggering through the house. She always ended up in Laila's room, as though she would run into the boys sooner or later if she just kept walking into the room where they had once slept and farted and fought with pillows. But all she ran into was their absence. And Laila. Which, Laila believed, had become one and the same to Mammy.
The only task Mammy never neglected was her five daily namaz prayers. She ended each namaz with her head hung low, hands held before her face, palms up, muttering a prayer for God to bring victory to the Mujahideen. Laila had to shoulder more and more of the chores. If she didn't tend to the house, she was apt to find clothes, shoes, open rice bags, cans of beans, and dirty dishes strewn about everywhere. Laila washed Mammy's dresses and changed her sheets. She coaxed her out of bed for baths and meals. She was the one who ironed Babi's shirts and folded his pants. Increasingly, she was the cook.
Sometimes, after she was done with her chores, Laila crawled into bed next to Mammy. She wrapped her arms around her, laced her fingers with her mother's, buried her face in her hair. Mammy would stir, murmur something. Inevitably, she would start in on a story about the boys.
One day, as they were lying this way, Mammy said, "Ahmad was going to be a leader. He had the charisma for it. People three times his age listened to him with respect, Laila. It was something to see. And Noor. Oh, my Noor. He was always making sketches of buildings and bridges. He was going to be an architect, you know. He was going to transform Kabul with his designs. And now they're both shaheed, my boys, both martyrs."
Laila lay there and listened, wishing Mammy would notice that she, Laila, hadn't become shaheed, that she was alive, here, in bed with her, that she had hopes and a future. But Laila knew that her future was no match for her brothers' past. They had overshadowed her in life. They would obliterate her in death. Mammy was now the curator of their lives' museum and she, Laila, a mere visitor. A receptacle for their myths. The parchment on which Mammy meant to ink their legends.
"The messenger who came with the news, he said that when they brought the boys back to camp, Ahmad Shah Massoud personally oversaw the burial. He said a prayer for them at the gravesite. That's the kind of brave young men your brothers were, Laila, that Commander Massoud himself, the Lion of Panjshir, God bless him, would oversee their burial."
Mammy rolled onto her back. Laila shifted, rested her head on Mammy's chest.
"Some days," Mammy said in a hoarse voice, "I listen to that clock ticking in the hallway. Then I think of all the ticks, all the minutes, all the hours and days and weeks and months and years waiting for me. All of it without them. And I can't breathe then, like someone's stepping on my heart, Laila. I get so weak. So weak I just want to collapse somewhere."
"I wish there was something I could do," Laila said, meaning it. But it came out sounding broad, perfunctory, like the token consolation of a kind stranger.
"You're a good daughter," Mammy said, after a deep sigh. "And I haven't been much of a mother to you."
"Don't say that."
"Oh, it's true. I know it and I'm sorry for it, my love."
Laila sat up, looking down at Mammy. There were gray strands in Mammy's hair now. And it startled Laila how much weight Mammy, who'd always been plump, had lost. Her cheeks had a sallow, drawn look. The blouse she was wearing drooped over her shoulders, and there was a gaping space between her neck and the collar. More than once Laila had seen the wedding band slide off Mammy's finger.
"I've been meaning to ask you something."
"What is it?"
"You wouldn't…" Laila began.
She'd talked about it to Hasina. At Hasina's suggestion, the two of them had emptied the bottle of aspirin in the gutter, hidden the kitchen knives and the sharp kebab skewers beneath the rug under the couch. Hasina had found a rope in the yard. When Babi couldn't find his razors, Laila had to tell him of her fears. He dropped on the edge of the couch, hands between his knees. Laila waited for some kind of reassurance from him. But all she got was a bewildered, hollow-eyed look.
"You wouldn't… Mammy I worry that-"
"I thought about it the night we got the news," Mammy said. "I won't lie to you, I've thought about it since too. But, no. Don't worry, Laila. I want to see my sons' dream come true. I want to see the day the Soviets go home disgraced, the day the Mujahideen come to Kabul in victory. I want to be there when it happens, when Afghanistan is free, so the boys see it too. They'll see it through my eyes."
Mammy was soon asleep, leaving Laila with dueling emotions: reassured that Mammy meant to live on, stung that she was not the reason. She would never leave her mark on Mammy's heart the way her brothers had, because Mammy's heart was like a pallid beach where Laila's footprints would forever wash away beneath the waves of sorrow that swelled and crashed, swelled and crashed.
The driver pulled his taxi over to let pass another long convoy of Soviet jeeps and armored vehicles. Tariq leaned across the front seat, over the driver, and yelled, "Pajalusta! Pajalusta!"
A jeep honked and Tariq whistled back, beaming and waving cheerfully. "Lovely guns!" he yelled "Fabulous jeeps! Fabulous army! Too bad you're losing to a bunch of peasants firing slingshots!"
The convoy passed. The driver merged back onto the road
"How much farther?" Laila asked
"An hour at the most," the driver said. "Barring any more convoys or checkpoints."
They were taking a day trip, Laila, Babi, and Tariq. Hasina had wanted to come too, had begged her father, but he wouldn't allow it. The trip was Babi's idea. Though he could hardly afford it on his salary, he'd hired a driver for the day. He wouldn't disclose anything to Laila about their destination except to say that, with it, he was contributing to her education.
They had been on the road since five in the morning. Through Laila's window, the landscape shifted from snowcapped peaks to deserts to canyons and sun-scorched outcroppings of rocks. Along the way, they passed mud houses with thatched roofs and fields dotted with bundles of wheat. Pitched out in the dusty fields, here and there, Laila recognized the black tents of Koochi nomads. And, frequently, the carcasses of burned-out Soviet tanks and wrecked helicopters. This, she thought, was Ahmad and Noor's Afghanistan. This, here in the provinces, was where the war was being fought, after all. Not in Kabul. Kabul was largely at peace. Back in Kabul, if not for the occasional bursts of gunfire, if not for the Soviet soldiers smoking on the sidewalks and the Soviet jeeps always bumping through the streets, war might as well have been a rumor.
It was late morning, after they'd passed two more checkpoints, when they entered a valley. Babi had Laila lean across the seat and pointed to a series of ancient-looking walls of sun-dried red in the distance.
"That's called Shahr-e-Zohak. The Red City. It used to be a fortress. It was built some nine hundred years ago to defend the valley from invaders. Genghis Khan's grandson attacked it in the thirteenth century, but he was killed. It was Genghis Khan himself who then destroyed it."
"And that, my young friends, is the story of our country, one invader after another," the driver said, flicking cigarette ash out the window. "Macedonians. Sassanians. Arabs. Mongols. Now the Soviets. But we're like those walls up there. Battered, and nothing pretty to look at, but still standing. Isn't that the truth, badar?"
"Indeed it is," said Babi.
HALF AN HOUR LATER, the driver pulled over.
"Come on, you two," Babi said. "Come outside and have a look."
They got out of the taxi. Babi pointed "There they are. Look."
Tariq gasped. Laila did too. And she knew then that she could live to be a hundred and she would never again see a thing as magnificent.
The two Buddhas were enormous, soaring much higher than she had imagined from all the photos she'd seen of them. Chiseled into a sun-bleached rock cliff, they peered down at them, as they had nearly two thousand years before, Laila imagined, at caravans crossing the valley on the Silk Road. On either side of them, along the overhanging niche, the cliff was pocked with myriad caves.
"I feel so small," Tariq said.
"You want to climb up?" Babi said.
"Up the statues?" Laila asked. "We can do that?"
Babi smiled and held out his hand. "Come on."
THE CLIMB WAS HARD for Tariq, who had to hold on to both Laila and Babi as they inched up a winding, narrow, dimly lit staircase. They saw shadowy caves along the way, and tunnels honeycombing the cliff every which way.
"Careful where you step," Babi said His voice made a loud echo. "The ground is treacherous."
In some parts, the staircase was open to the Buddha's cavity.
As they climbed, Babi told them that Bamiyan had once been a thriving Buddhist center until it had fallen under Islamic Arab rule in the ninth century. The sandstone cliffs were home to Buddhist monks who carved caves in them to use as living quarters and as sanctuary for weary traveling pilgrims. The monks, Babi said, painted beautiful frescoes along the walls and roofs of their caves.
"At one point," he said, "there were five thousand monks living as hermits in these caves."
Tariq was badly out of breath when they reached the top. Babi was panting too. But his eyes shone with excitement.
"We're standing atop its head," he said, wiping his brow with a handkerchief. "There's a niche over here where we can look out."
They inched over to the craggy overhang and, standing side by side, with Babi in the middle, gazed down on the valley.
"Look at this!" said Laila.
The Bamiyan Valley below was carpeted by lush farming fields. Babi said they were green winter wheat and alfalfa, potatoes too. The fields were bordered by poplars and crisscrossed by streams and irrigation ditches, on the banks of which tiny female figures squatted and washed clothes. Babi pointed to rice paddies and barley fields draping the slopes. It was autumn, and Laila could make out people in bright tunics on the roofs of mud brick dwellings laying out the harvest to dry. The main road going through the town was poplar-lined too. There were small shops and teahouses and street-side barbers on either side of it. Beyond the village, beyond the river and the streams, Laila saw foothills, bare and dusty brown, and, beyond those, as beyond everything else in Afghanistan, the snowcapped Hindu Kush.
The sky above all of this was an immaculate, spotless blue.
"It's so quiet," Laila breathed. She could see tiny sheep and horses but couldn't hear their bleating and whinnying.
"It's what I always remember about being up here," Babi said. "The silence. The peace of it. I wanted you to experience it. But I also wanted you to see your country's heritage, children, to learn of its rich past. You see, some things I can teach you. Some you learn from books. But there are things that, well, you just have to see and feel."
"Look," said Tariq.
They watched a hawk, gliding in circles above the village.
"Did you ever bring Mammy up here?" Laila asked
"Oh, many times. Before the boys were born. After too. Your mother, she used to be adventurous then, and… so alive. She was just about the liveliest, happiest person I'd ever met." He smiled at the memory. "She had this laugh. I swear it's why I married her, Laila, for that laugh. It bulldozed you. You stood no chance against it."
A wave of affection overcame Laila. From then on, she would always remember Babi this way: reminiscing about Mammy, with his elbows on the rock, hands cupping his chin, his hair ruffled by the wind, eyes crinkled against the sun.
"I'm going to look at some of those caves," Tariq said.
"Be careful," said Babi.
"I will, Kaka jan," Tariq's voice echoed back.
Laila watched a trio of men far below, talking near a cow tethered to a fence. Around them, the trees had started to turn, ochre and orange, scarlet red.
"I miss the boys too, you know," Babi said. His eyes had welled up a tad. His chin was trembling. "I may not… With your mother, both her joy and sadness are extreme. She can't hide either. She never could. Me, I suppose I'm different. I tend to… But it broke me too, the boys dying. I miss them too. Not a day passes that I… It's very hard, Laila. So very hard." He squeezed the inner corners of his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. When he tried to talk, his voice broke. He pulled his lips over his teeth and waited. He took a long, deep breath, looked at her. "But I'm glad I have you. Every day, I thank God for you. Every single day. Sometimes, when your mother's having one of her really dark days, I feel like you're all I have, Laila."
Laila drew closer to him and rested her cheek up against his chest. He seemed slightly startled – unlike Mammy, he rarely expressed his affection physically. He planted a brisk kiss on the top of her head and hugged her back awkwardly. They stood this way for a while, looking down on the Bamiyan Valley.
"As much as I love this land, some days I think about leaving it," Babi said.
"Anyplace where it's easy to forget. Pakistan first, I suppose. For a year, maybe two. Wait for our paperwork to get processed."
"And then, well, it is a big world. Maybe America. Somewhere near the sea. Like California."
Babi said the Americans were a generous people. They would help them with money and food for a while, until they could get on their feet.
"I would find work, and, in a few years, when we had enough saved up, we'd open a little Afghan restaurant. Nothing fancy, mind you, just a modest little place, a few tables, some rugs. Maybe hang some pictures of Kabul. We'd give the Americans a taste of Afghan food. And with your mother's cooking, they'd line up and down the street.
"And you, you would continue going to school, of course. You know how I feel about that. That would be our absolute top priority, to get you a good education, high school then college. But in your free time, if you wanted to, you could help out, take orders, fill water pitchers, that sort of thing."
Babi said they would hold birthday parties at the restaurant, engagement ceremonies, New Year's get-togethers. It would turn into a gathering place for other Afghans who, like them, had fled the war. And, late at night, after everyone had left and the place was cleaned up, they would sit for tea amid the empty tables, the three of them, tired but thankful for their good fortune.
When Babi was done speaking, he grew quiet. They both did. They knew that Mammy wasn't going anywhere. Leaving Afghanistan had been unthinkable to her while Ahmad and Noor were still alive. Now that they were shaheed, packing up and running was an even worse affront, a betrayal, a disavowal of the sacrifice her sons had made.
How can you think of it? Laila could hear her saying. Does their dying mean nothing to you, cousin? The only solace I find is in knowing that I walk the same ground that soaked up their blood. No. Never.
And Babi would never leave without her, Laila knew, even though Mammy was no more a wife to him now than she was a mother to Laila. For Mammy, he would brush aside this daydream of his the way he flicked specks of flour from his coat when he got home from work. And so they would stay. They would stay until the war ended. And they would stay for whatever came after war.
Laila remembered Mammy telling Babi once that she had married a man who had no convictions. Mammy didn't understand. She didn't understand that if she looked into a mirror, she would find the one unfailing conviction of his life looking right back at her.
* * *
LATER, after they'd eaten a lunch of boiled eggs and potatoes with bread, Tariq napped beneath a tree on the banks of a gurgling stream. He slept with his coat neatly folded into a pillow, his hands crossed on his chest. The driver went to the village to buy almonds. Babi sat at the foot of a thick-trunked acacia tree reading a paperback. Laila knew the book; he'd read it to her once. It told the story of an old fisherman named Santiago who catches an enormous fish. But by the time he sails his boat to safety, there is nothing left of his prize fish; the sharks have torn it to pieces.
Laila sat on the edge of the stream, dipping her feet into the cool water. Overhead, mosquitoes hummed and cottonwood seeds danced. A dragonfly whirred nearby. Laila watched its wings catch glints of sunlight as it buzzed from one blade of grass to another. They flashed purple, then green, orange. Across the stream, a group of local Hazara boys were picking patties of dried cow dung from the ground and stowing them into burlap sacks tethered to their backs. Somewhere, a donkey brayed. A generator sputtered to life.
Laila thought again about Babi's little dream. Somewhere near the sea.
There was something she hadn't told Babi up there atop the Buddha: that, in one important way, she was glad they couldn't go. She would miss Giti and her pinch-faced earnestness, yes, and Hasina too, with her wicked laugh and reckless clowning around. But, mostly, Laila remembered all too well the inescapable drudgery of those four weeks without Tariq when he had gone to Ghazni. She remembered all too well how time had dragged without him, how she had shuffled about feeling waylaid, out of balance. How could she ever cope with his permanent absence?
Maybe it was senseless to want to be near a person so badly here in a country where bullets had shredded her own brothers to pieces. But all Laila had to do was picture Tariq going at Khadim with his leg and then nothing in the world seemed more sensible to her.
* * *
SIX MONTHS LATER, in April 1988, Babi came home with big news.
"They signed a treaty!" he said. "In Geneva. It's official! They're leaving. Within nine months, there won't be any more Soviets in Afghanistan!"
Mammy was sitting up in bed. She shrugged.
"But the communist regime is staying," she said. "Najibullah is the Soviets' puppet president. He's not going anywhere. No, the war will go on. This is not the end"
"You two celebrate if you want to. But I won't rest until the Mujahideen hold a victory parade right here in Kabul "
And, with that, she lay down again and pulled up the blanket.
One cold, overcast day in January 1989, three months before Laila turned eleven, she, her parents, and Hasina went to watch one of the last Soviet convoys exit the city. Spectators had gathered on both sides of the thoroughfare outside the Military Club near Wazir Akbar Khan. They stood in muddy snow and watched the line of tanks, armored trucks, and jeeps as light snow flew across the glare of the passing headlights. There were heckles and jeers. Afghan soldiers kept people off the street. Every now and then, they had to fire a warning shot.
Mammy hoisted a photo of Ahmad and Noor high over her head. It was the one of them sitting back-to-back under the pear tree. There were others like her, women with pictures of their shaheed husbands, sons, brothers held high.
Someone tapped Laila and Hasina on the shoulder. It was Tariq.
"Where did you get that thing?" Hasina exclaimed.
"I thought I'd come dressed for the occasion." Tariq said. He was wearing an enormous Russian fur hat, complete with earflaps, which he had pulled down.
"How do I look?"
"Ridiculous," Laila laughed.
"That's the idea."
"Your parents came here with you dressed like this?"
"They're home, actually," he said.
The previous fall, Tariq's uncle in Ghazni had died of a heart attack, and, a few weeks later, Tariq's father had suffered a heart attack of his own, leaving him frail and tired, prone to anxiety and bouts of depression that overtook him for weeks at a time. Laila was glad to see Tariq like this, like his old self again. For weeks after his father's illness, Laila had watched him moping around, heavy-faced and sullen.
The three of them stole away while Mammy and Babi stood watching the Soviets. From a street vendor, Tariq bought them each a plate of boiled beans topped with thick cilantro chutney. They ate beneath the awning of a closed rug shop, then Hasina went to find her family.
On the bus ride home, Tariq and Laila sat behind her parents. Mammy was by the window, staring out, clutching the picture against her chest. Beside her, Babi was impassively listening to a man who was arguing that the Soviets might be leaving but that they would send weapons to Najibullah in Kabul.
"He's their puppet. They'll keep the war going through him, you can bet on that."
Someone in the next aisle voiced his agreement.
Mammy was muttering to herself, long-winded prayers that rolled on and on until she had no breath left and had to eke out the last few words in a tiny, high-pitched squeak.
THEY WENT TO Cinema Park later that day, Laila and Tariq, and had to settle for a Soviet film that was dubbed, to unintentionally comic effect, in Farsi. There was a merchant ship, and a first mate in love with the captain's daughter. Her name was Alyona. Then came a fierce storm, lightning, rain, the heaving sea tossing the ship. One of the frantic sailors yelled something. An absurdly calm Afghan voice translated: "My dear sir, would you kindly pass the rope?"
At this, Tariq burst out cackling. And, soon, they both were in the grips of a hopeless attack of laughter. Just when one became fatigued, the other would snort, and off they would go on another round. A man sitting two rows up turned around and shushed them.
There was a wedding scene near the end. The captain had relented and let Alyona marry the first mate. The newlyweds were smiling at each other. Everyone was drinking vodka.
"I'm never getting married," Tariq whispered.
"Me neither," said Laila, but not before a moment of nervous hesitation. She worried that her voice had betrayed her disappointment at what he had said. Her heart galloping, she added, more forcefully this time, "Never."
"Weddings are stupid."
"All the fuss."
"All the money spent."
"For clothes you'll never wear again."
"If I ever do get married," Tariq said, "they'll have to make room for three on the wedding stage. Me, the bride, and the guy holding the gun to my head."
The man in the front row gave them another admonishing look.
On the screen, Alyona and her new husband locked lips.
Watching the kiss, Laila felt strangely conspicuous all at once. She became intensely aware of her heart thumping, of the blood thudding in her ears, of the shape of Tariq beside her, tightening up, becoming still. The kiss dragged on. It seemed of utmost urgency to Laila, suddenly, that she not stir or make a noise. She sensed that Tariq was observing her – one eye on the kiss, the other on her – as she was observing him. Was he listening to the air whooshing in and out of her nose, she wondered, waiting for a subtle faltering, a revealing irregularity, that would betray her thoughts?
And what would it be like to kiss him, to feel the fuzzy hair above his lip tickling her own lips?
Then Tariq shifted uncomfortably in his seat. In a strained voice, he said, "Did you know that if you fling snot in Siberia, it's a green icicle before it hits the ground?"
They both laughed, but briefly, nervously, this time. And when the film ended and they stepped outside, Laila was relieved to see that the sky had dimmed, that she wouldn't have to meet Tariq's eyes in the bright daylight.
Three years passed.
In that time, Tariq's father had a series of strokes. They left him with a clumsy left hand and a slight slur to his speech. When he was agitated, which happened frequently, the slurring got worse.
Tariq outgrew his leg again and was issued a new leg by the Red Cross, though he had to wait six months for it.
As Hasina had feared, her family took her to Lahore, where she was made to marry the cousin who owned the auto shop. The morning that they took her, Laila and Giti went to Hasina's house to say good-bye. Hasina told them that the cousin, her husband-to-be, had already started the process to move them to Germany, where his brothers lived. Within the year, she thought, they would be in Frankfurt. They cried then in a three-way embrace. Giti was inconsolable. The last time Laila ever saw Hasina, she was being helped by her father into the crowded backseat of a taxi.
The Soviet Union crumbled with astonishing swiftness. Every few weeks, it seemed to Laila, Babi was coming home with news of the latest republic to declare independence. Lithuania. Estonia. Ukraine. The Soviet flag was lowered over the Kremlin. The Republic of Russia was born.
In Kabul, Najibullah changed tactics and tried to portray himself as a devout Muslim. "Too little and far too late," said Babi. "You can't be the chief of KHAD one day and the next day pray in a mosque with people whose relatives you tortured and killed." Feeling the noose tightening around Kabul, Najibullah tried to reach a settlement with the Mujahideen but the Mujahideen balked.
From her bed, Mammy said, "Good for them." She kept her vigils for the Mujahideen and waited for her parade. Waited for her sons' enemies to fall.
AND, EVENTUALLY, they did. In April 1992, the year Laila turned fourteen.
Najibullah surrendered at last and was given sanctuary in the UN compound near Darulaman Palace, south of the city.
The jihad was over. The various communist regimes that had held power since the night Laila was born were all defeated. Mammy's heroes, Ahmad's and Noor's brothers-in-war, had won. And now, after more than a decade of sacrificing everything, of leaving behind their families to live in mountains and fight for Afghanistan 's sovereignty, the Mujahideen were coming to Kabul, in flesh, blood, and battle-weary bone.
Mammy knew all of their names.
There was Dostum, the flamboyant Uzbek commander, leader of the Junbish-i-Milli faction, who had a reputation for shifting allegiances. The intense, surly Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-e-Islami faction, a Pashtun who had studied engineering and once killed a Maoist student. Rabbani, Tajik leader of the Jamiat-e-Islami faction, who had taught Islam at Kabul University in the days of the monarchy. Sayyaf, a Pashtun from Paghman with Arab connections, a stout Muslim and leader of the Ittehad-i-Islami faction. Abdul Ali Mazari, leader of the Hizb-e-Wahdat faction, known as Baba Mazari among his fellow Hazaras, with strong Shi'a ties to Iran.
And, of course, there was Mammy's hero, Rabbani's ally, the brooding, charismatic Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir. Mammy had nailed up a poster of him in her room. Massoud's handsome, thoughtful face, eyebrow cocked and trademark pakol tilted, would become ubiquitous in Kabul. His soulful black eyes would gaze back from billboards, walls, storefront windows, from little flags mounted on the antennas of taxicabs.
For Mammy, this was the day she had longed for. This brought to fruition all those years of waiting.