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When Laila approached the young man, he looked up, shielded the sun from his eyes with a hand.
"Forgive me, brother, but are you going to Peshawar?"
"Yes," he said, squinting.
"I wonder if you can help us. Can you do us a favor?"
He passed the boy to his wife. He and Laila stepped away.
"What is it, hamshira?
She was encouraged to see that he had soft eyes, a kind face.
She told him the story that she and Mariam had agreed on. She was a biwa, she said, a widow. She and her mother and daughter had no one left in Kabul. They were going to Peshawar to stay with her uncle.
"You want to come with my family," the young man said.
"I know it's zahmat for you. But you look like a decent brother, and I-"
"Don't worry, hamshira. I understand. It's no trouble. Let me go and buy your tickets."
"Thank you, brother. This is sawab, a good deed. God will remember."
She fished the envelope from her pocket beneath the burqa and passed it to him. In it was eleven hundred afghanis, or about half of the money she'd stashed over the past year plus the sale of the ring. He slipped the envelope in his trouser pocket.
She watched him enter the station. He returned half an hour later.
"It's best I hold on to your tickets," he said. The bus leaves in one hour, at eleven. We'll all board together. My name is Wakil. If they ask Ц and they shouldn't Ц I'll tell them you're my cousin."
Laila gave him their names, and he said he would remember.
"Stay close," he said.
They sat on the bench adjacent to Wakil and his family's. It was a sunny, warm morning, the sky streaked only by a few wispy clouds hovering in the distance over the hills. Mariam began feeding Aziza a few of the crackers she'd remembered to bring in their rush to pack. She offered one to Laila.
"I'll throw up," Laila laughed. "I'm too excited."
"Thank you, Mariam."
"For this. For coming with us," Laila said. "I don't think I could do this alone."
"You won't have to."
"We're going to be all right, aren't we, Mariam, where we're going?"
Mariam's hand slid across the bench and closed over hers. "The Koran says Allah is the East and the West, therefore wherever you turn there is Allah's purpose."
"Bov!" Aziza cried, pointing to a bus. "Mayam, bov!"
"I see it, Aziza jo," Mariam said. "That's right, bov. Soon we're all going to ride on a bov. Oh, the things you're going to see."
Laila smiled. She watched a carpenter in his shop across the street sawing wood, sending chips flying. She watched the cars bolting past, their windows coated with soot and grime. She watched the buses growling idly at the curb, with peacocks, lions, rising suns, and glittery swords painted on their sides.
In the warmth of the morning sun, Laila felt giddy and bold. She had another of those little sparks of euphoria, and when a stray dog with yellow eyes limped by, Laila leaned forward and pet its back.
A few minutes before eleven, a man with a bullhorn called for all passengers to Peshawar to begin boarding. The bus doors opened with a violent hydraulic hiss. A parade of travelers rushed toward it, scampering past each other to squeeze through.
Wakil motioned toward Laila as he picked up his son.
"We're going," Laila said.
Wakil led the way. As they approached the bus, Laila saw faces appear in the windows, noses and palms pressed to the glass. All around them, farewells were yelled.
A young militia soldier was checking tickets at the bus door.
"Bov!" Aziza cried.
Wakil handed tickets to the soldier, who tore them in half and handed them back. Wakil let his wife board first. Laila saw a look pass between Wakil and the militiaman. Wakil, perched on the first step of the bus, leaned down and said something in his ear. The militiaman nodded.
Laila's heart plummeted.
"You two, with the child, step aside," the soldier said.
Laila pretended not to hear. She went to climb the steps, but he grabbed her by the shoulder and roughly pulled her out of the line. "You too," he called to Mariam. "Hurry up! You're holding up the line."
"What's the problem, brother?" Laila said through numb lips. "We have tickets. Didn't my cousin hand them to you?"
He made a Shh motion with his finger and spoke in a low voice to another guard. The second guard, a rotund fellow with a scar down his right cheek, nodded.
"Follow me," this one said to Laila.
"We have to board this bus," Laila cried, aware that her voice was shaking. "We have tickets. Why are you doing this?"
"You're not going to get on this bus. You might as well accept that. You will follow me. Unless you want your little girl to see you dragged."
As they were led to a truck, Laila looked over her shoulder and spotted Wakil's boy at the rear of the bus. The boy saw her too and waved happily.
AT THE POLICE STATION at Torabaz Khan Intersection, they were made to sit apart, on opposite ends of a long, crowded corridor, between them a desk, behind which a man smoked one cigarette after another and clacked occasionally on a typewriter. Three hours passed this way. Aziza tottered from Laila to Mariam, then back. She played with a paper clip that the man at the desk gave her. She finished the crackers. Eventually, she fell asleep in Mariam's lap.
At around three o'clock, Laila was taken to an interview room. Mariam was made to wait with Aziza in the corridor.
The man sitting on the other side of the desk in the interview room was in his thirties and wore civilian clothes Ц black suit, tie, black loafers. He had a neatly trimmed beard, short hair, and eyebrows that met. He stared at Laila, bouncing a pencil by the eraser end on the desk.
"We know," he began, clearing his throat and politely covering his mouth with a fist, "that you have already told one lie today, hamshira. The young man at the station was not your cousin. He told us as much himself. The question is whether you will tell more lies today. Personally, I advise you against it."
"We were going to stay with my uncle," Laila said "That's the truth."
The policeman nodded. "The hamshira in the corridor, she's your mother?"
"She has a Herati accent. You don't."
"She was raised in Herat, I was born here in Kabul."
"Of course. And you are widowed? You said you were. My condolences. And this uncle, this kaka, where does he live?"
"Yes, you said that." He licked the point of his pencil and poised it over a blank sheet of paper. "But where in Peshawar? Which neighborhood, please? Street name, sector number."
Laila tried to push back the bubble of panic that was coming up her chest. She gave him the name of the only street she knew in Peshawar Ц she'd heard it mentioned once, at the party Mammy had thrown when the Mujahideen had first come to Kabul Ц "Jamrud Road."
"Oh, yes. Same street as the Pearl Continental Hotel. He might have mentioned it."
Laila seized this opportunity and said he had. "That very same street, yes."
"Except the hotel is on Khyber Road."
Laila could hear Aziza crying in the corridor. "My daughter's frightened. May I get her, brother?"
"I prefer 'Officer.' And you'll be with her shortly. Do you have a telephone number for this uncle?"
"I do. I did. IЕ" Even with the burqa between them, Laila was not buffered from his penetrating eyes. "I'm so upset, I seem to have forgotten it."
He sighed through his nose. He asked for the uncle's name, his wife's name. How many children did he have? What were their names? Where did he work? How old was he? His questions left Laila flustered.
He put down his pencil, laced his fingers together, and leaned forward the way parents do when they want to convey something to a toddler. "You do realize, hamshira, that it is a crime for a woman to run away. We see a lot of it. Women traveling alone, claiming their husbands have died. Sometimes they're telling the truth, most times not. You can be imprisoned for running away, I assume you understand that, nay?"
"Let us go, OfficerЕ" She read the name on his lapel tag. "Officer Rahman. Honor the meaning of your name and show compassion. What does it matter to you to let a mere two women go? What's the harm in releasing us? We are not criminals."
"I beg you, please."
"It's a matter of qanoon, hamshira, a matter of law," Rahman said, injecting his voice with a grave, self-important tone. "It is my responsibility, you see, to maintain order."
In spite of her distraught state, Laila almost laughed. She was stunned that he'd used that word in the face of all that the Mujahideen factions had done Ц the murders, the lootings, the rapes, the tortures, the executions, the bombings, the tens of thousands of rockets they had fired at each other, heedless of all the innocent people who would die in the cross fire. Order. But she bit her tongue.
"If you send us back," she said instead, slowly, "there is no saying what he will do to us."
She could see the effort it took him to keep his eyes from shifting. "What a man does in his home is his business."
"What about the law, then, Officer Rahman?" Tears of rage stung her eyes. "Will you be there to maintain order?"
"As a matter of policy, we do not interfere with private family matters, hamshira."
"Of course you don't. When it benefits the man. And isn't this a 'private family matter,' as you say? Isn't it?"
He pushed back from his desk and stood up, straightened his jacket. "I believe this interview is finished. I must say, hamshira, that you have made a very poor case for yourself. Very poor indeed. Now, if you would wait outside I will have a few words with yourЕwhoever she is."
Laila began to protest, then to yell, and he had to summon the help of two more men to have her dragged out of his office.
Mariam's interview lasted only a few minutes. When she came out, she looked shaken.
"He asked so many questions," she said. "I'm sorry, Laila jo. I am not smart like you. He asked so many questions, I didn't know the answers. I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault, Mariam," Laila said weakly. "It's mine. It's all my fault. Everything is my fault."
IT WAS PAST six o'clock when the police car pulled up in front of the house. Laila and Mariam were made to wait in the backseat, guarded by a Mujahid soldier in the passenger seat. The driver was the one who got out of the car, who knocked on the door, who spoke to Rasheed. It was he who motioned for them to come.
"Welcome home," the man in the front seat said, lighting a cigarette.
"YOU," he said to Mariam. "You wait here."
Mariam quietly took a seat on the couch.
"You two, upstairs."
Rasheed grabbed Laila by the elbow and pushed her up the steps. He was still wearing the shoes he wore to work, hadn't yet changed to his flip-flops, taken off his watch, hadn't even shed his coat yet. Laila pictured him as he must have been an hour, or maybe minutes, earlier, rushing from one room to another, slamming doors, furious and incredulous, cursing under his breath.
At the top of the stairs, Laila turned to him.
"She didn't want to do it," she said. "I made her do it. She didn't want to go-"
Laila didn't see the punch coming. One moment she was talking and the next she was on all fours, wide-eyed and red-faced, trying to draw a breath. It was as if a car had hit her at full speed, in the tender place between the lower tip of the breastbone and the belly button. She realized she had dropped Aziza, that Aziza was screaming. She tried to breathe again and could only make a husky, choking sound. Dribble hung from her mouth.
Then she was being dragged by the hair. She saw Aziza lifted, saw her sandals slip off, her tiny feet kicking. Hair was ripped from Laila's scalp, and her eyes watered with pain. She saw his foot kick open the door to Mariam's room, saw Aziza flung onto the bed. He let go of Laila's hair, and she felt the toe of his shoe connect with her left buttock. She howled with pain as he slammed the door shut. A key rattled in the lock.
Aziza was still screaming. Laila lay curled up on the floor, gasping. She pushed herself up on her hands, crawled to where Aziza lay on the bed. She reached for her daughter.
Downstairs, the beating began. To Laila, the sounds she heard were those of a methodical, familiar proceeding. There was no cursing, no screaming, no pleading, no surprised yelps, only the systematic business of beating and being beaten, the thump, thump of something solid repeatedly striking flesh, something, someone, hitting a wall with a thud, cloth ripping. Now and then, Laila heard running footsteps, a wordless chase, furniture turning over, glass shattering, then the thumping once more.
Laila took Aziza in her arms. A warmth spread down the front of her dress when Aziza's bladder let go.
Downstairs, the running and chasing finally stopped. There was a sound now like a wooden club repeatedly slapping a side of beef.
Laila rocked Aziza until the sounds stopped, and, when she heard the screen door creak open and slam shut, she lowered Aziza to the ground and peeked out the window. She saw Rasheed leading Mariam across the yard by the nape of her neck. Mariam was barefoot and doubled over. There was blood on his hands, blood on Mariam's face, her hair, down her neck and back. Her shirt had been ripped down the front.
"I'm so sorry, Mariam," Laila cried into the glass.
She watched him shove Mariam into the toolshed. He went in, came out with a hammer and several long planks of wood. He shut the double doors to the shed, took a key from his pocket, worked the padlock. He tested the doors, then went around the back of the shed and fetched a ladder.
A few minutes later, his face was in Laila's window, nails tucked in the corner of his mouth. His hair was disheveled. There was a swath of blood on his brow. At the sight of him, Aziza shrieked and buried her face in Laila's armpit.
Rasheed began nailing boards across the window.
THE DARK WAS TOTAL, impenetrable and constant, without layer or texture. Rasheed had filled the cracks between the boards with something, put a large and immovable object at the foot of the door so no light came from under it. Something had been stuffed in the keyhole.
Laila found it impossible to tell the passage of time with her eyes, so she did it with her good ear. Azan and crowing roosters signaled morning. The sounds of plates clanking in the kitchen downstairs, the radio playing, meant evening.
The first day, they groped and fumbled for each other in the dark. Laila couldn't see Aziza when she cried, when she went crawling.
"Aishee," Aziza mewled. "Aishee."
"Soon." Laila kissed her daughter, aiming for the forehead, finding the crown of her head instead. "We'll have milk soon. You just be patient. Be a good, patient little girl for Mammy, and I'll get you some aishee. "
Laila sang her a few songs.
Azan rang out a second time and still Rasheed had not given them any food, and, worse, no water. That day, a thick, suffocating heat fell on them. The room turned into a pressure cooker. Laila dragged a dry tongue over her lips, thinking of the well outside, the water cold and fresh. Aziza kept crying, and Laila noticed with alarm that when she wiped her cheeks her hands came back dry. She stripped the clothes off Aziza, tried to find something to fan her with, settled for blowing on her until she became light-headed. Soon, Aziza stopped crawling around. She slipped in and out of sleep.
Several times that day, Laila banged her fists against the walls, used up her energy screaming for help, hoping that a neighbor would hear. But no one came, and her shrieking only frightened Aziza, who began to cry again, a weak, croaking sound. Laila slid to the ground. She thought guiltily of Mariam, beaten and bloodied, locked in this heat in the toolshed.
Laila fell asleep at some point, her body baking in the heat. She had a dream that she and Aziza had run into Tariq. He was across a crowded street from them, beneath the awning of a tailor's shop. He was sitting on his haunches and sampling from a crate of figs. That's your father, Laila said. That man there, you see him? He's your real baba. She called his name, but the street noise drowned her voice, and Tariq didn't hear.
She woke up to the whistling of rockets streaking overhead. Somewhere, the sky she couldn't see erupted with blasts and the long, frantic hammering of machine-gun fire. Laila closed her eyes. She woke again to Rasheed's heavy footsteps in the hallway. She dragged herself to the door, slapped her palms against it.
"Just one glass, Rasheed. Not for me. Do it for her. You don't want her blood on your hands."
He walked past.
She began to plead with him. She begged for forgiveness, made promises. She cursed him.
His door closed. The radio came on.
The muezzin called azan a third time. Again the heat. Aziza became even more listless. She stopped crying, stopped moving altogether.
Laila put her ear over Aziza's mouth, dreading each time that she would not hear the shallow whooshing of breath. Even this simple act of lifting herself made her head swim. She fell asleep, had dreams she could not remember. When she woke up, she checked on Aziza, felt the parched cracks of her lips, the faint pulse at her neck, lay down again. They would die here, of that Laila was sure now, but what she really dreaded was that she would outlast Aziza, who was young and brittle. How much more could Aziza take? Aziza would die in this heat, and Laila would have to lie beside her stiffening little body and wait for her own death. Again she fell asleep. Woke up. Fell asleep. The line between dream and wakefulness blurred.
It wasn't roosters or azan that woke her up again but the sound of something heavy being dragged. She heard a rattling. Suddenly, the room was flooded with light. Her eyes screamed in protest. Laila raised her head, winced, and shielded her eyes. Through the cracks between her fingers, she saw a big, blurry silhouette standing in a rectangle of light. The silhouette moved. Now there was a shape crouching beside her, looming over her, and a voice by her ear.
"You try this again and I will find you. I swear on the Prophet's name that I will find you. And, when I do, there isn't a court in this godforsaken country that will hold me accountable for what I will do. To Mariam first, then to her, and you last. I'll make you watch. You understand me? I'll make you watch."
And, with that, he left the room. But not before delivering a kick to the flank that would have Laila pissing blood for days.
Two and a half years later, Mariam awoke on the morning of September 27 to the sounds of shouting and whistling, firecrackers and music. She ran to the living room, found Laila already at the window, Aziza mounted on her shoulders. Laila turned and smiled.
"The Taliban are here," she said.
MARIAM HAD FIRST heard of the Taliban two years before, in October 1994, when Rasheed had brought home news that they had overthrown the warlords in Kandahar and taken the city. They were a guerrilla force, he said, made up of young Pashtun men whose families had fled to Pakistan during the war against the Soviets. Most of them had been raised Ц some even born Ц in refugee camps along the Pakistani border, and in Pakistani madrasas, where they were schooled in Shari'a by mullahs. Their leader was a mysterious, illiterate, one-eyed recluse named Mullah Omar, who, Rasheed said with some amusement, called himself Ameer-ul-Mumineen, Leader of the Faithful.
"It's true that these boys have no risha, no roots," Rasheed said, addressing neither Mariam nor Laila. Ever since the failed escape, two and a half years ago, Mariam knew that she and Laila had become one and the same being to him, equally wretched, equally deserving of his distrust, his disdain and disregard. When he spoke, Mariam had the sense that he was having a conversation with himself, or with some invisible presence in the room, who, unlike her and Laila, was worthy of his opinions.
"They may have no past," he said, smoking and looking up at the ceiling. "They may know nothing of the world or this country's history. Yes. And, compared to them, Mariam here might as well be a university professor. Ha! All true. But look around you. What do you see? Corrupt, greedy Mujahideen commanders, armed to the teeth, rich off heroin, declaring jihad on one another and killing everyone in between Ц that's what. At least the Taliban are pure and incorruptible. At least they're decent Muslim boys. Wallah, when they come, they will clean up this place. They'll bring peace and order. People won't get shot anymore going out for milk. No more rockets! Think of it."
For two years now, the Taliban had been making their way toward Kabul, taking cities from the Mujahideen, ending factional war wherever they'd settled. They had captured the Hazara commander Abdul Ali Mazari and executed him. For months, they'd settled in the southern outskirts of Kabul, firing on the city, exchanging rockets with Ahmad Shah Massoud. Earlier in that September of 1996, they had captured the cities of Jalalabad and Sarobi.
The Taliban had one thing the Mujahideen did not, Rasheed said. They were united.
"Let them come," he said. "I, for one, will shower them with rose petals."
THEY WENT OUT that day, the four of them, Rasheed leading them from one bus to the next, to greet their new world, their new leaders. In every battered neighborhood, Mariam found people materializing from the rubble and moving into the streets. She saw an old woman wasting handfuls of rice, tossing it at passersby, a drooping, toothless smile on her face. Two men were hugging by the remains of a gutted building, in the sky above them the whistle, hiss, and pop of a few firecrackers set off by boys perched on rooftops. The national anthem played on cassette decks, competing with the honking of cars.
"Look, Mayam!" Aziza pointed to a group of boys running down Jadeh Maywand. They were pounding their fists into the air and dragging rusty cans tied to strings. They were yelling that Massoud and Rabbani had withdrawn from Kabul.
Everywhere, there were shouts: Allah-u-akbar!
Mariam saw a bedsheet hanging from a window on Jadeh Maywand. On it, someone had painted three words in big, black letters: ZENDA BAAD TALIBAN! Long live the Taliban!
As they walked the streets, Mariam spotted more signs Ц painted on windows, nailed to doors, billowing from car antennas Ц that proclaimed the same.
MARIAM SAW HER first of the Taliban later that day, at Pashtunistan Square, with Rasheed, Laila, and Aziza. A melee of people had gathered there. Mariam saw people craning their necks, people crowded around the blue fountain in the center of the square, people perched on its dry bed. They were trying to get a view of the end of the square, near the old Khyber Restaurant.
Rasheed used his size to push and shove past the onlookers, and led them to where someone was speaking through a loudspeaker.
When Aziza saw, she let out a shriek and buried her face in Mariam's burqa.
The loudspeaker voice belonged to a slender, bearded young man who wore a black turban. He was standing on some sort of makeshift scaffolding. In his free hand, he held a rocket launcher. Beside him, two bloodied men hung from ropes tied to traffic-light posts. Their clothes had been shredded. Their bloated faces had turned purple-blue.
"I know him," Mariam said, "the one on the left."
A young woman in front of Mariam turned around and said it was Najibullah. The other man was his brother. Mariam remembered Najibullah's plump, mustachioed face, beaming from billboards and storefront windows during the Soviet years.
She would later hear that the Taliban had dragged Najibullah from his sanctuary at the UN headquarters near Darulaman Palace. That they had tortured him for hours, then tied his legs to a truck and dragged his lifeless body through the streets.
"He killed many, many Muslims!" the young Talib was shouting through the loudspeaker. He spoke Farsi with a Pashto accent, then would switch to Pashto. He punctuated his words by pointing to the corpses with his weapon. "His crimes are known to everybody. He was a communist and a kafir. This is what we do with infidels who commit crimes against Islam!"
Rasheed was smirking.
In Mariam's arms, Aziza began to cry.
THE FOLLOWING DAY, Kabul was overrun by trucks. In Khair khana, in Shar-e-Nau, in Karteh-Parwan, in Wazir Akbar Khan and Taimani, red Toyota trucks weaved through the streets. Armed bearded men in black turbans sat in their beds. From each truck, a loudspeaker blared announcements, first in Farsi, then Pashto. The same message played from loudspeakers perched atop mosques, and on the radio, which was now known as the Voice of Shari'a . The message was also written in flyers, tossed into the streets. Mariam found one in the yard.
Our watan is now known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. These are the laws that we will enforce and you will obey:
All citizens must pray five times a day. If it is prayer time and you are caught doing something other, you will be beaten.
All men will grow their beards. The correct length is at least one clenched fist beneath the chin. If you do not abide by this, you will be beaten.
All boys will wear turbans. Boys in grade one through six will wear black turbans, higher grades will wear white. All boys will wear Islamic clothes. Shirt collars will be buttoned.
Singing is forbidden.
Dancing is forbidden.
Playing cards, playing chess, gambling, and kiteflying are forbidden.
Writing books, watching films, and painting pictures are forbidden.
If you keep parakeets, you will be beaten. Your birds will be killed.
If you steal, your hand will be cut off at the wrist. If you steal again, your foot will be cut off.
If you are not Muslim, do not worship where you can be seen by Muslims. If you do, you will be beaten and imprisoned. If you are caught trying to convert a Muslim to your faith, you will be executed.
You will stay inside your homes at all times. It is not proper for women to wander aimlessly about the streets. If you go outside, you must be accompanied by a mahram, a male relative. If you are caught alone on the street, you will be beaten and sent home.
You will not, under any circumstance, show your face. You will cover with burqa when outside. If you do not, you will be severely beaten.
Cosmetics are forbidden.
Jewelry is forbidden.
You will not wear charming clothes.
You will not speak unless spoken to.
You will not make eye contact with men.
You will not laugh in public. If you do, you will be beaten.
You will not paint your nails. If you do, you will lose a finger.
Girls are forbidden from attending school. All schools for girls will be closed immediately.
Women are forbidden from working.
If you are found guilty of adultery, you will be stoned to death.
Listen. Listen well. Obey. Allah-u-akbar.
Rasheed turned off the radio. They were sitting on the living-room floor, eating dinner less than a week after they'd seen Najibullah's corpse hanging by a rope.
"They can't make half the population stay home and do nothing," Laila said.