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At last, she could end her vigils, and her sons could rest in peace.
THE DAY AFTER Najibullah surrendered, Mammy rose from bed a new woman. For the first time in the five years since Ahmad and Noor had become shaheed, she didn't wear black. She put on a cobalt blue linen dress with white polka dots. She washed the windows, swept the floor, aired the house, took a long bath. Her voice was shrill with merriment.
"A party is in order," she declared. She sent Laila to invite neighbors. "Tell them we're having a big lunch tomorrow!"
In the kitchen, Mammy stood looking around, hands on her hips, and said, with friendly reproach, "What have you done to my kitchen, Laila? Wooy. Everything is in a different place."
She began moving pots and pans around, theatrically, as though she were laying claim to them anew, restaking her territory, now that she was back. Laila stayed out of her way. It was best. Mammy could be as indomitable in her fits of euphoria as in her attacks of rage. With unsettling energy, Mammy set about cooking: aush soup with kidney beans and dried dill, kofta, steaming hot mantu drenched with fresh yogurt and topped with mint.
"You're plucking your eyebrows," Mammy said, as she was opening a large burlap sack of rice by the kitchen counter.
"Only a little."
Mammy poured rice from the sack into a large black pot of water. She rolled up her sleeves and began stirring.
"How is Tariq?"
"His father's been ill," Laila said "How old is he now anyway?"
"I don't know. Sixties, I guess."
"I meant Tariq."
"He's a nice boy. Don't you think?"
"Not really a boy anymore, though, is he? Sixteen. Almost a man. Don't you think?"
"What are you getting at, Mammy?"
"Nothing," Mammy said, smiling innocently. "Nothing. It's just that youЕ Ah, nothing. I'd better not say anyway."
"I see you want to," Laila said, irritated by this circuitous, playful accusation.
"Well." Mammy folded her hands on the rim of the pot. Laila spotted an unnatural, almost rehearsed, quality to the way she said "Well" and to this folding of hands. She feared a speech was coming.
"It was one thing when you were little kids running around. No harm in that. It was charming. But now. Now. I notice you're wearing a bra, Laila."
Laila was caught off guard.
"And you could have told me, by the way, about the bra. I didn't know. I'm disappointed you didn't tell me." Sensing her advantage, Mammy pressed on.
"Anyway, this isn't about me or the bra. It's about you and Tariq. He's a boy, you see, and, as such, what does he care about reputation? But you? The reputation of a girl, especially one as pretty as you, is a delicate thing, Laila. Like a mynah bird in your hands. Slacken your grip and away it flies."
"And what about all your wall climbing, the sneaking around with Babi in the orchards?" Laila said, pleased with her quick recovery.
"We were cousins. And we married. Has this boy asked for your hand?"
"He's a friend. A rafiq. It's not like that between us," Laila said, sounding defensive, and not very convincing. "He's like a brother to me," she added, misguidedly. And she knew, even before a cloud passed over Mammy's face and her features darkened, that she'd made a mistake.
"That he is not," Mammy said flatly. "You will not liken that one-legged carpenter's boy to your brothers. There is no one like your brothers."
"I didn't say heЕ That's not how I meant it."
Mammy sighed through the nose and clenched her teeth.
"Anyway," she resumed, but without the coy lightheadedness of a few moments ago, "what I'm trying to say is that if you're not careful, people will talk."
Laila opened her mouth to say something. It wasn't that Mammy didn't have a point. Laila knew that the days of innocent, unhindered frolicking in the streets with Tariq had passed. For some time now, Laila had begun to sense a new strangeness when the two of them were out in public. An awareness of being looked at, scrutinized, whispered about, that Laila had never felt before. And wouldn't have felt even now but for one fundamental fact: She had fallen for Tariq. Hopelessly and desperately. When he was near, she couldn't help but be consumed with the most scandalous thoughts, of his lean, bare body entangled with hers. Lying in bed at night, she pictured him kissing her belly, wondered at the softness of his lips, at the feel of his hands on her neck, her chest, her back, and lower still. When she thought of him this way, she was overtaken with guilt, but also with a peculiar, warm sensation that spread upward from her belly until it felt as if her face were glowing pink.
No. Mammy had a point. More than she knew, in fact. Laila suspected that some, if not most, of the neighbors were already gossiping about her and Tariq. Laila had noticed the sly grins, was aware of the whispers in the neighborhood that the two of them were a couple. The other day, for instance, she and Tariq were walking up the street together when they'd passed Rasheed, the shoemaker, with his burqa-clad wife, Mariam, in tow. As he'd passed by them, Rasheed had playfully said, "If it isn't Laili and Majnoon," referring to the star-crossed lovers of Nezami's popular twelfth-century romantic poem Ц a Farsi version of Romeo and Juliet, Babi said, though he added that Nezami had written his tale of ill-fated lovers four centuries before Shakespeare.
Mammy had a point.
What rankled Laila was that Mammy hadn't earned the right to make it. It would have been one thing if Babi had raised this issue. But Mammy? All those years of aloofness, of cooping herself up and not caring where Laila went and whom she saw and what she thoughtЕ It was unfair. Laila felt like she was no better than these pots and pans, something that could go neglected, then laid claim to, at will, whenever the mood struck.
But this was a big day, an important day, for all of them. It would be petty to spoil it over this. In the spirit of things, Laila let it pass.
"I get your point," she said.
"Good!" Mammy said. "That's resolved, then. Now, where is Hakim? Where, oh where, is that sweet little husband of mine?"
IT WAS A dazzling, cloudless day, perfect for a party. The men sat on rickety folding chairs in the yard. They drank tea and smoked and talked in loud bantering voices about the Mujahideen's plan. From Babi, Laila had learned the outline of it: Afghanistan was now called the Islamic State of Afghanistan. An Islamic Jihad Council, formed in Peshawar by several of the Mujahideen factions, would oversee things for two months, led by Sibghatullah Mojadidi. This would be followed then by a leadership council led by Rabbani, who would take over for four months. During those six months, a loya jirga would be held, a grand council of leaders and elders, who would form an interim government to hold power for two years, leading up to democratic elections.
One of the men was fanning skewers of lamb sizzling over a makeshift grill Babi and Tariq's father were playing a game of chess in the shade of the old pear tree. Their faces were scrunched up in concentration. Tariq was sitting at the board too, in turns watching the match, then listening in on the political chat at the adjacent table.
The women gathered in the living room, the hallway, and the kitchen. They chatted as they hoisted their babies and expertly dodged, with minute shifts of their hips, the children tearing after each other around the house. An Ustad Sarahang ghazal blared from a cassette player.
Laila was in the kitchen, making carafes of dogh with Giti. Giti was no longer as shy, or as serious, as before. For several months now, the perpetual severe scowl had cleared from her brow. She laughed openly these days, more frequently, and Ц it struck Laila Ц a bit flirtatiously. She had done away with the drab ponytails, let her hair grow, and streaked it with red highlights. Laila learned eventually that the impetus for this transformation was an eighteen-year-old boy whose attention Giti had caught. His name was Sabir, and he was a goalkeeper on Giti's older brother's soccer team.
"Oh, he has the most handsome smile, and this thick, thick black hair!" Giti had told Laila. No one knew about their attraction, of course. Giti had secretly met him twice for tea, fifteen minutes each time, at a small teahouse on the other side of town, in Taimani.
"He's going to ask for my hand, Laila! Maybe as early as this summer. Can you believe it? I swear I can't stop thinking about him."
"What about school?" Laila had asked. Giti had tilted her head and given her a We both know better look.
By the time we're twenty, Hasina used to say, Giti and I, we'll have pushed out four, five kids each. But you, Laila, you'll make us two dummies proud. You're going to be somebody. I know one day I'll pick up a newspaper and find your picture on the front page.
Giti was beside Laila now, chopping cucumbers, with a dreamy, far-off look on her face.
Mammy was nearby, in her brilliant summer dress, peeling boiled eggs with Wajma, the midwife, and Tariq's mother.
"I'm going to present Commander Massoud with a picture of Ahmad and Noor," Mammy was saying to Wajma as Wajma nodded and tried to look interested and sincere.
"He personally oversaw the burial. He said a prayer at their grave. It'll be a token of thanks for his decency." Mammy cracked another boiled egg. "I hear he's a reflective, honorable man. I think he would appreciate it."
All around them, women bolted in and out of the kitchen, carried out bowls of qurma, platters of mastawa, loaves of bread, and arranged it all on the sofrah spread on the living-room floor.
Every once in a while, Tariq sauntered in. He picked at this, nibbled on that.
"No men allowed," said Giti.
"Out, out, out," cried Wajma.
Tariq smiled at the women's good-humored shooing. He seemed to take pleasure in not being welcome here, in infecting this female atmosphere with his half-grinning, masculine irreverence.
Laila did her best not to look at him, not to give these women any more gossip fodder than they already had So she kept her eyes down and said nothing to him, but she remembered a dream she'd had a few nights before, of his face and hers, together in a mirror, beneath a soft, green veil. And grains of rice, dropping from his hair, bouncing off the glass with a tink.
Tariq reached to sample a morsel of veal cooked with potatoes.
"Ho bacha!" Giti slapped the back of his hand. Tariq stole it anyway and laughed.
He stood almost a foot taller than Laila now. He shaved. His face was leaner, more angular. His shoulders had broadened. Tariq liked to wear pleated trousers, black shiny loafers, and short-sleeve shirts that showed off his newly muscular arms Ц compliments of an old, rusty set of barbells that he lifted daily in his yard. His face had lately adopted an expression of playful contentiousness. He had taken to a self-conscious cocking of his head when he spoke, slightly to the side, and to arching one eyebrow when he laughed. He let his hair grow and had fallen into the habit of tossing the floppy locks often and unnecessarily. The corrupt half grin was a new thing too.
The last time Tariq was shooed out of the kitchen, his mother caught Laila stealing a glance at him. Laila's heart jumped, and her eyes fluttered guiltily. She quickly occupied herself with tossing the chopped cucumber into the pitcher of salted, watered-down yogurt. But she could sense Tariq's mother watching, her knowing, approving half smile.
The men filled their plates and glasses and took their meals to the yard. Once they had taken their share, the women and children settled on the floor around the sofrah and ate.
It was after the sofrah was cleared and the plates were stacked in the kitchen, when the frenzy of tea making and remembering who took green and who black started, that Tariq motioned with his head and slipped out the door.
Laila waited five minutes, then followed.
She found him three houses down the street, leaning against the wall at the entrance of a narrow-mouthed alley between two adjacent houses. He was humming an old Pashto song, by Ustad Awal Mir:
Da ze ma ziba watan,
da ze ma dada watan.
This is our beautiful land,
this is our beloved land.
And he was smoking, another new habit, which he'd picked up from the guys Laila spotted him hanging around with these days. Laila couldn't stand them, these new friends of Tariq's. They all dressed the same way, pleated trousers, and tight shirts that accentuated their arms and chest. They all wore too much cologne, and they all smoked. They strutted around the neighborhood in groups, joking, laughing loudly, sometimes even calling after girls, with identical stupid, self-satisfied grins on their faces. One of Tariq's friends, on the basis of the most passing of resemblances to Sylvester Stallone, insisted he be called Rambo.
"Your mother would kill you if she knew about your smoking," Laila said, looking one way, then the other, before slipping into the alley.
"But she doesn't," he said. He moved aside to make room.
"That could change."
"Who is going to tell? You?"
Laila tapped her foot. "Tell your secret to the wind, but don't blame it for telling the trees."
Tariq smiled, the one eyebrow arched. "Who said that?"
"You're a show-off."
"Give me a cigarette."
He shook his head no and crossed his arms. This was a new entry in his repertoire of poses: back to the wall, arms crossed, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, his good leg casually bent.
"Bad for you," he said.
"And it's not bad for you?"
"I do it for the girls."
He smirked. "They think it's sexy."
"I assure you."
"You look khila, like a half-wit."
"That hurts," he said.
"What girls anyway?"
"I'm indifferently curious."
"You can't be both." He took another drag and squinted through the smoke. "I'll bet they're talking about us now."
In Laila's head, Mammy's voice rang out. Like a mynah bird in your hands. Slacken your grip and away it flies. Guilt bore its teeth into her. Then Laila shut off Mammy's voice. Instead, she savored the way Tariq had said us. How thrilling, how conspiratorial, it sounded coming from him. And how reassuring to hear him say it like that Ц casually, naturally. Us. It acknowledged their connection, crystallized it.
"And what are they saying?"
"That we're canoeing down the River of Sin," he said. "Eating a slice of Impiety Cake."
"Riding the Rickshaw of Wickedness?" Laila chimed in.
"Making Sacrilege Qurma."
They both laughed. Then Tariq remarked that her hair was getting longer. "It's nice," he said Laila hoped she wasn't blushing. "You changed the subject."
"The empty-headed girls who think you're sexy."
"That I only have eyes for you."
Laila swooned inside. She tried to read his face but was met by a look that was indecipherable: the cheerful, cretinous grin at odds with the narrow, half-desperate look in his eyes. A clever look, calculated to fall precisely at the midpoint between mockery and sincerity.
Tariq crushed his cigarette with the heel of his good foot. "So what do you think about all this?"
"Who's the half-wit now? I meant the Mujahideen, Laila. Their coming to Kabul."
She started to tell him something Babi had said, about the troublesome marriage of guns and ego, when she heard a commotion coming from the house. Loud voices. Screaming.
Laila took off running. Tariq hobbled behind her.
There was a melee in the yard. In the middle of it were two snarling men, rolling on the ground, a knife between them. Laila recognized one of them as a man from the table who had been discussing politics earlier. The other was the man who had been fanning the kebab skewers. Several men were trying to pull them apart. Babi wasn't among them. He stood by the wall, at a safe distance from the fight, with Tariq's father, who was crying.
From the excited voices around her, Laila caught snippets that she put together: The fellow at the politics table, a Pashtun, had called Ahmad Shah Massoud a traitor for "making a deal" with the Soviets in the 1980s. The kebab man, a Tajik, had taken offense and demanded a retraction. The Pashtun had refused. The Tajik had said that if not for Massoud, the other man's sister would still be "giving it" to Soviet soldiers. They had come to blows. One of them had then brandished a knife; there was disagreement as to who.
With horror, Laila saw that Tariq had thrown himself into the scuffle. She also saw that some of the peacemakers were now throwing punches of their own. She thought she spotted a second knife.
Later that evening, Laila thought of how the melee had toppled over, with men falling on top of one another, amid yelps and cries and shouts and flying punches, and, in the middle of it, a grimacing Tariq, his hair disheveled, his leg come undone, trying to crawl out.
IT WAS DIZZYING how quickly everything unraveled.
The leadership council was formed prematurely. It elected Rabbani president. The other factions cried nepotism. Massoud called for peace and patience.
Hekmatyar, who had been excluded, was incensed. The Hazaras, with their long history of being oppressed and neglected, seethed.
Insults were hurled. Fingers pointed. Accusations flew. Meetings were angrily called off and doors slammed. The city held its breath. In the mountains, loaded magazines snapped into Kalashnikovs.
The Mujahideen, armed to the teeth but now lacking a common enemy, had found the enemy in each other.
Kabul 's day of reckoning had come at last.
And when the rockets began to rain down on Kabul, people ran for cover. Mammy did too, literally. She changed into black again, went to her room, shut the curtains, and pulled the blanket over her head.
It's the whistling," Laila said to Tariq, "the damn whistling, I hate more than anything."
Tariq nodded knowingly.
It wasn't so much the whistling itself, Laila thought later, but the seconds between the start of it and impact. The brief and interminable time of feeling suspended. The not knowing. The waiting. Like a defendant about to hear the verdict.
Often it happened at dinner, when she and Babi were at the table. When it started, their heads snapped up. They listened to the whistling, forks in midair, unchewed food in their mouths. Laila saw the reflection of their half-lit faces in the pitch-black window, their shadows unmoving on the wall. The whistling. Then the blast, blissfully elsewhere, followed by an expulsion of breath and the knowledge that they had been spared for now while somewhere else, amid cries and choking clouds of smoke, there was a scrambling, a barehanded frenzy of digging, of pulling from the debris, what remained of a sister, a brother, a grandchild.
But the flip side of being spared was the agony of wondering who hadn't. After every rocket blast, Laila raced to the street, stammering a prayer, certain that, this time, surely this time, it was Tariq they would find buried beneath the rubble and smoke.
At night, Laila lay in bed and watched the sudden white flashes reflected in her window. She listened to the rattling of automatic gunfire and counted the rockets whining overhead as the house shook and flakes of plaster rained down on her from the ceiling. Some nights, when the light of rocket fire was so bright a person could read a book by it, sleep never came. And, if it did, Laila's dreams were suffused with fire and detached limbs and the moaning of the wounded.
Morning brought no relief. The muezzin's call for namaz rang out, and the Mujahideen set down their guns, faced west, and prayed. Then the rugs were folded, the guns loaded, and the mountains fired on Kabul, and Kabul fired back at the mountains, as Laila and the rest of the city watched as helpless as old Santiago watching the sharks take bites out of his prize fish.
EVERYWHERE LAILA WENT, she saw Massoud's men. She saw them roam the streets and every few hundred yards stop cars for questioning. They sat and smoked atop tanks, dressed in their fatigues and ubiquitous pakols. They peeked at passersby from behind stacked sandbags at intersections.
Not that Laila went out much anymore. And, when she did, she was always accompanied by Tariq, who seemed to relish this chivalric duty.
"I bought a gun," he said one day. They were sitting outside, on the ground beneath the pear tree in Laila's yard. He showed her. He said it was a semiautomatic, a Beretta. To Laila, it merely looked black and deadly.
"I don't like it," she said. "Guns scare me."
Tariq turned the magazine over in his hand
"They found three bodies in a house in Karteh-Seh last week," he said. "Did you hear? Sisters. All three raped. Their throats slashed. Someone had bitten the rings off their fingers. You could tell, they had teeth marks-"
"I don't want to hear this."
"I don't mean to upset you," Tariq said "But I justЕ I feel better carrying this."
He was her lifeline to the streets now. He heard the word of mouth and passed it on to her. Tariq was the one who told her, for instance, that militiamen stationed in the mountains sharpened their marksmanship Ц and settled wagers over said marksmanship Ц by shooting civilians down below, men, women, children, chosen at random. He told her that they fired rockets at cars but, for some reason, left taxis alone Ц which explained to Laila the recent rash of people spraying their cars yellow.
Tariq explained to her the treacherous, shifting boundaries within Kabul. Laila learned from him, for instance, that this road, up to the second acacia tree on the left, belonged to one warlord; that the next four blocks, ending with the bakery shop next to the demolished pharmacy, was another warlord's sector; and that if she crossed that street and walked half a mile west, she would find herself in the territory of yet another warlord and, therefore, fair game for sniper fire. And this was what Mammy's heroes were called now. Warlords. Laila heard them called tofangdar too. Riflemen. Others still called them Mujahideen, but, when they did, they made a face Ц a sneering, distasteful face Ц the word reeking of deep aversion and deep scorn. Like an insult.
Tariq snapped the magazine back into his handgun.
"Do you have it in you?" Laila said.
"To use this thing. To kill with it."
Tariq tucked the gun into the waist of his denims. Then he said a thing both lovely and terrible. "For you," he said. "I'd kill with it for you, Laila."
He slid closer to her and their hands brushed, once, then again. When Tariq's fingers tentatively began to slip into hers, Laila let them. And when suddenly he leaned over and pressed his lips to hers, she let him again.
At that moment, all of Mammy's talk of reputations and mynah birds sounded immaterial to Laila. Absurd, even. In the midst of all this killing and looting, all this ugliness, it was a harmless thing to sit here beneath a tree and kiss Tariq. A small thing. An easily forgivable indulgence. So she let him kiss her, and when he pulled back she leaned in and kissed him, heart pounding in her throat, her face tingling, a fire burning in the pit of her belly.
IN JUNE OF THAT YEAR, 1992, there was heavy fighting in West Kabul between the Pashtun forces of the warlord Sayyaf and the Hazaras of the Wahdat faction. The shelling knocked down power lines, pulverized entire blocks of shops and homes. Laila heard that Pashtun militiamen were attacking Hazara households, breaking in and shooting entire families, execution style, and that Hazaras were retaliating by abducting Pashtun civilians, raping Pashtun girls, shelling Pashtun neighborhoods, and killing indiscriminately. Every day, bodies were found tied to trees, sometimes burned beyond recognition. Often, they'd been shot in the head, had had their eyes gouged out, their tongues cut out.
Babi tried again to convince Mammy to leave Kabul.
"They'll work it out," Mammy said. "This fighting is temporary. They'll sit down and figure something out."
"Fariba, all these people know is war," said Babi. "They learned to walk with a milk bottle in one hand and a gun in the other."
"Who are you to say?" Mammy shot back. "Did you fight jihad? Did you abandon everything you had and risk your life? If not for the Mujahideen, we'd still be the Soviets' servants, remember. And now you'd have us betray them!"
"We aren't the ones doing the betraying, Fariba."
"You go, then. Take your daughter and run away. Send me a postcard. But peace is coming, and I, for one, am going to wait for it."
The streets became so unsafe that Babi did an unthinkable thing: He had Laila drop out of school.
He took over the teaching duties himself. Laila went into his study every day after sundown, and, as Hekmatyar launched his rockets at Massoud from the southern outskirts of the city, Babi and she discussed the ghazals of Hafez and the works of the beloved Afghan poet Ustad Khalilullah Khalili. Babi taught her to derive the quadratic equation, showed her how to factor polynomials and plot parametric curves. When he was teaching, Babi was transformed. In his element, amid his books, he looked taller to Laila. His voice seemed to rise from a calmer, deeper place, and he didn't blink nearly as much. Laila pictured him as he must have been once, erasing his blackboard with graceful swipes, looking over a student's shoulder, fatherly and attentive.
But it wasn't easy to pay attention. Laila kept getting distracted.
"What is the area of a pyramid?" Babi would ask, and all Laila could think of was the fullness of Tariq's lips, the heat of his breath on her mouth, her own reflection in his hazel eyes. She'd kissed him twice more since the time beneath the tree, longer, more passionately, and, she thought, less clumsily. Both times, she'd met him secretly in the dim alley where he'd smoked a cigarette the day of Mammy's lunch party. The second time, she'd let him touch her breast.
"Pyramid. Area. Where are you?"
"Sorry, Babi. I was, uhЕ Let's see. Pyramid. Pyramid. One-third the area of the base times the height."
Babi nodded uncertainly, his gaze lingering on her, and Laila thought of Tariq's hands, squeezing her breast, sliding down the small of her back, as the two of them kissed and kissed.
ONE DAY THAT same month of June, Giti was walking home from school with two classmates. Only three blocks from Giti's house, a stray rocket struck the girls. Later that terrible day, Laila learned that Nila, Giti's mother, had run up and down the street where Giti was killed, collecting pieces of her daughter's flesh in an apron, screeching hysterically. Giti's decomposing right foot, still in its nylon sock and purple sneaker, would be found on a rooftop two weeks later.
At Giti's fatiha, the day after the killings, Laila sat stunned in a roomful of weeping women. This was the first time that someone whom Laila had known, been close to, loved, had died. She couldn't get around the unfathomable reality that Giti wasn't alive anymore. Giti, with whom Laila had exchanged secret notes in class, whose fingernails she had polished, whose chin hair she had plucked with tweezers. Giti, who was going to marry Sabir the goalkeeper. Giti was dead. Dead. Blown to pieces. At last, Laila began to weep for her friend. And all the tears that she hadn't been able to shed at her brothers' funeral came pouring down.