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Laila said no again. They were in the living room. Mariam and the children were in the kitchen. Laila could hear the clatter of dishes, Zalmai's high-pitched laugh, Aziza saying something to Mariam in her steady, reasonable voice.
"There will be others like her, younger even," Rasheed said. "Everyone in Kabul is doing the same."
Laila told him she didn't care what other people did with their children.
"I'll keep a close eye on her," Rasheed said, less patiently now. "It's a safe corner. There's a mosque across the street."
"I won't let you turn my daughter into a street beggar!" Laila snapped.
The slap made a loud smacking sound, the palm of his thick-fingered hand connecting squarely with the meat of Laila's cheek. It made her head whip around. It silenced the noises from the kitchen. For a moment, the house was perfectly quiet. Then a flurry of hurried footsteps in the hallway before Mariam and the children were in the living room, their eyes shifting from her to Rasheed and back.
Then Laila punched him.
It was the first time she'd struck anybody, discounting the playful punches she and Tariq used to trade. But those had been open-fisted, more pats than punches, self-consciously friendly, comfortable expressions of anxieties that were both perplexing and thrilling. They would aim for the muscle that Tariq, in a professorial voice, called the deltoid.
Laila watched the arch of her closed fist, slicing through the air, felt the crinkle of Rasheed's stubbly, coarse skin under her knuckles. It made a sound like dropping a rice bag to the floor. She hit him hard. The impact actually made him stagger two steps backward.
From the other side of the room, a gasp, a yelp, and a scream. Laila didn't know who had made which noise. At the moment, she was too astounded to notice or care, waiting for her mind to catch up with what her hand had done. When it did, she believed she might have smiled. She might have grinned when, to her astonishment, Rasheed calmly walked out of the room.
Suddenly, it seemed to Laila that the collective hardships of their lives – hers, Aziza's, Mariam's – simply dropped away, vaporized like Zalmai's palms from the TV screen. It seemed worthwhile, if absurdly so, to have endured all they'd endured for this one crowning moment, for this act of defiance that would end the suffering of all indignities.
Laila did not notice that Rasheed was back in the room. Until his hand was around her throat. Until she was lifted off her feet and slammed against the wall.
Up close, his sneering face seemed impossibly large. Laila noticed how much puffier it was getting with age, how many more broken vessels charted tiny paths on his nose. Rasheed didn't say anything. And, really, what could be said, what needed saying, when you'd shoved the barrel of your gun into your wife's mouth?
IT WAS THE RAIDS, the reason they were in the yard digging. Sometimes monthly raids, sometimes weekly. Of late, almost daily. Mostly, the Taliban confiscated stuff, gave a kick to someone's rear, whacked the back of a head or two. But sometimes there were public beatings, lashings of soles and palms.
"Gently," Mariam said now, her knees over the edge. They lowered the TV into the hole by each clutching one end of the plastic sheet in which it was wrapped
"That should do it," Mariam said.
They patted the dirt when they were done, filling the hole up again. They tossed some of it around so it wouldn't look conspicuous.
"There," Mariam said, wiping her hands on her dress.
When it was safer, they'd agreed, when the Taliban cut down on their raids, in a month or two or six, or maybe longer, they would dig the TV up.
IN LAILA'S DREAM, she and Mariam are out behind the toolshed digging again. But, this time, it's Aziza they're lowering into the ground. Aziza's breath fogs the sheet of plastic in which they have wrapped her. Laila sees her panicked eyes, the whiteness of her palms as they slap and push against the sheet. Aziza pleads. Laila can't hear her screams. Only for a while, she calls down, it's only for a while. It's the raids, don't you know, my love? When the raids are over, Mammy and Khala Mariam will dig you out. I promise, my love. Then we can play. We can play all you want. She fills the shovel. Laila woke up, out of breath, with a taste of soil in her mouth, when the first granular lumps of dirt hit the plastic.
In the summer of 2000, the drought reached its third and worst year.
In Helmand, Zabol, Kandahar, villages turned into herds of nomadic communities, always moving, searching for water and green pastures for their livestock. When they found neither, when their goats and sheep and cows died off, they came to Kabul. They took to the Kareh-Ariana hillside, living in makeshift slums, packed in huts, fifteen or twenty at a time.
That was also the summer of Titanic, the summer that Mariam and Aziza were a tangle of limbs, rolling and giggling, Aziza insisting she get to be Jack.
"Quiet, Aziza jo."
"Jack! Say my name, Khala Mariam. Say it. Jack!"
"Your father will be angry if you wake him."
"Jack! And you're Rose."
It would end with Mariam on her back, surrendering, agreeing again to be Rose. "Fine, you be Jack," she relented "You die young, and I get to live to a ripe old age."
"Yes, but I die a hero," said Aziza, "while you, Rose, you spend your entire, miserable life longing for me." Then, straddling Mariam's chest, she'd announce, "Now we must kiss!" Mariam whipped her head side to side, and Aziza, delighted with her own scandalous behavior, cackled through puckered lips.
Sometimes Zalmai would saunter in and watch this game. What did he get to be, he asked.
"You can be the iceberg," said Aziza.
That summer, Titanic fever gripped Kabul. People smuggled pirated copies of the film from Pakistan – sometimes in their underwear. After curfew, everyone locked their doors, turned out the lights, turned down the volume, and reaped tears for Jack and Rose and the passengers of the doomed ship. If there was electrical power, Mariam, Laila, and the children watched it too. A dozen times or more, they unearthed the TV from behind the toolshed, late at night, with the lights out and quilts pinned over the windows.
At the Kabul River, vendors moved into the parched riverbed. Soon, from the river's sunbaked hollows, it was possible to buy Titanic carpets, and Titanic cloth, from bolts arranged in wheelbarrows. There was Titanic deodorant, Titanic toothpaste, Titanic perfume, Titanic pakora, even Titanic burqas. A particularly persistent beggar began calling himself "Titanic Beggar."
" Titanic City " was born.
It's the song, they said.
No, the sea. The luxury. The ship.
It's the sex, they whispered
Leo, said Aziza sheepishly. It's all about Leo.
"Everybody wants Jack," Laila said to Mariam. "That's what it is. Everybody wants Jack to rescue them from disaster. But there is no Jack. Jack is not coming back. Jack is dead."
THEN, late that summer, a fabric merchant fell asleep and forgot to put out his cigarette. He survived the fire, but his store did not. The fire took the adjacent fabric store as well, a secondhand clothing store, a small furniture shop, a bakery.
They told Rasheed later that if the winds had blown east instead of west, his shop, which was at the corner of the block, might have been spared.
THEY SOLD EVERYTHING.
First to go were Mariam's things, then Laila's. Aziza's baby clothes, the few toys Laila had fought Rasheed to buy her. Aziza watched the proceedings with a docile look. Rasheed's watch too was sold, his old transistor radio, his pair of neckties, his shoes, and his wedding ring. The couch, the table, the rug, and the chairs went too. Zalmai threw a wicked tantrum when Rasheed sold the TV.
After the fire, Rasheed was home almost every day. He slapped Aziza. He kicked Mariam. He threw things. He found fault with Laila, the way she smelled, the way she dressed, the way she combed her hair, her yellowing teeth.
"What's happened to you?" he said. "I married a pari, and now I'm saddled with a hag. You're turning into Mariam."
He got fired from the kebab house near Haji Yaghoub Square because he and a customer got into a scuffle. The customer complained that Rasheed had rudely tossed the bread on his table. Harsh words had passed. Rasheed had called the customer a monkey-faced Uzbek. A gun had been brandished. A skewer pointed in return. In Rasheed's version, he held the skewer. Mariam had her doubts.
Fired from the restaurant in Taimani because customers complained about the long waits, Rasheed said the cook was slow and lazy.
"You were probably out back napping," said Laila.
"Don't provoke him, Laila jo," Mariam said.
"I'm warning you, woman," he said.
"Either that or smoking."
"I swear to God."
"You can't help being what you are."
And then he was on Laila, pummeling her chest, her head, her belly with fists, tearing at her hair, throwing her to the wall. Aziza was shrieking, pulling at his shirt; Zalmai was screaming too, trying to get him off his mother. Rasheed shoved the children aside, pushed Laila to the ground, and began kicking her. Mariam threw herself on Laila. He went on kicking, kicking Mariam now, spittle flying from his mouth, his eyes glittering with murderous intent, kicking until he couldn't anymore.
"I swear you're going to make me kill you, Laila," he said, panting. Then he stormed out of the house.
WHEN THE MONEY ran out, hunger began to cast a pall over their lives. It was stunning to Mariam how quickly alleviating hunger became the crux of their existence.
Rice, boiled plain and white, with no meat or sauce, was a rare treat now. They skipped meals with increasing and alarming regularity. Sometimes Rasheed brought home sardines in a can and brittle, dried bread that tasted like sawdust. Sometimes a stolen bag of apples, at the risk of getting his hand sawed off. In grocery stores, he carefully pocketed canned ravioli, which they split five ways, Zalmai getting the lion's share. They ate raw turnips sprinkled with salt. Limp leaves of lettuce and blackened bananas for dinner.
Death from starvation suddenly became a distinct possibility. Some chose not to wait for it. Mariam heard of a neighborhood widow who had ground some dried bread, laced it with rat poison, and fed it to all seven of her children. She had saved the biggest portion for herself.
Aziza's ribs began to push through the skin, and the fat from her cheeks vanished. Her calves thinned, and her complexion turned the color of weak tea. When Mariam picked her up, she could feel her hip bone poking through the taut skin. Zalmai lay around the house, eyes dulled and half closed, or in his father's lap limp as a rag. He cried himself to sleep, when he could muster the energy, but his sleep was fitful and sporadic. White dots leaped before Mariam's eyes whenever she got up. Her head spun, and her ears rang all the time. She remembered something Mullah Faizullah used to say about hunger when Ramadan started: Even the snakebitten man finds sleep, but not the hungry.
"My children are going to die," Laila said. "Right before my eyes."
"They are not," Mariam said. "I won't let them. It's going to be all right, Laila jo. I know what to do."
ONE BLISTERING-HOT DAY, Mariam put on her burqa, and she and Rasheed walked to the Intercontinental Hotel. Bus fare was an un-affordable luxury now, and Mariam was exhausted by the time they reached the top of the steep hill. Climbing the slope, she was struck by bouts of dizziness, and twice she had to stop, wait for it to pass.
At the hotel entrance, Rasheed greeted and hugged one of the doormen, who was dressed in a burgundy suit and visor cap. There was some friendly-looking talk between them. Rasheed spoke with his hand on the doorman's elbow. He motioned toward Mariam at one point, and they both looked her way briefly. Mariam thought there was something vaguely familiar about the doorman.
When the doorman went inside, Mariam and Rasheed waited. From this vantage point, Mariam had a view of the Polytechnic Institute, and, beyond that, the old Khair khana district and the road to Mazar. To the south, she could see the bread factory, Silo, long abandoned, its pale yellow façade pocked with yawning holes from all the shelling it had endured. Farther south, she could make out the hollow ruins of Darulaman Palace, where, many years back, Rasheed had taken her for a picnic. The memory of that day was a relic from a past that no longer seemed like her own.
Mariam concentrated on these things, these landmarks. She feared she might lose her nerve if she let her mind wander.
Every few minutes, jeeps and taxis drove up to the hotel entrance. Doormen rushed to greet the passengers, who were all men, armed, bearded, wearing turbans, all of them stepping out with the same self-assured, casual air of menace. Mariam heard bits of their chatter as they vanished through the hotel's doors. She heard Pashto and Farsi, but Urdu and Arabic too.
"Meet our real masters," Rasheed said in a low-pitched voice. "Pakistani and Arab Islamists. The Taliban are puppets. These are the big players and Afghanistan is their playground."
Rasheed said he'd heard rumors that the Taliban were allowing these people to set up secret camps all over the country, where young men were being trained to become suicide bombers and jihadi fighters.
"What's taking him so long?" Mariam said.
Rasheed spat, and kicked dirt on the spit.
An hour later, they were inside, Mariam and Rasheed, following the doorman. Their heels clicked on the tiled floor as they were led across the pleasantly cool lobby. Mariam saw two men sitting on leather chairs, rifles and a coffee table between them, sipping black tea and eating from a plate of syrup-coated jelabi, rings sprinkled with powdered sugar. She thought of Aziza, who loved jelabi, and tore her gaze away.
The doorman led them outside to a balcony. From his pocket, he produced a small black cordless phone and a scrap of paper with a number scribbled on it. He told Rasheed it was his supervisor's satellite phone.
"I got you five minutes," he said. "No more."
"Tashakor," Rasheed said. "I won't forget this."
The doorman nodded and walked away. Rasheed dialed. He gave Mariam the phone.
As Mariam listened to the scratchy ringing, her mind wandered. It wandered to the last time she'd seen Jalil, thirteen years earlier, back in the spring of 1987. He'd stood on the street outside her house, leaning on a cane, beside the blue Benz with the Herat license plates and the white stripe bisecting the roof, the hood, and trunk. He'd stood there for hours, waiting for her, now and then calling her name, just as she had once called his name outside his house. Mariam had parted the curtain once, just a bit, and caught a glimpse of him. Only a glimpse, but long enough to see that his hair had turned fluffy white, and that he'd started to stoop. He wore glasses, a red tie, as always, and the usual white handkerchief triangle in his breast pocket. Most striking, he was thinner, much thinner, than she remembered, the coat of his dark brown suit drooping over his shoulders, the trousers pooling at his ankles.
Jalil had seen her too, if only for a moment. Their eyes had met briefly through a part in the curtains, as they had met many years earlier through a part in another pair of curtains. But then Mariam had quickly closed the curtains. She had sat on the bed, waited for him to leave.
She thought now of the letter Jalil had finally left at her door. She had kept it for days, beneath her pillow, picking it up now and then, turning it over in her hands. In the end, she had shredded it unopened.
And now here she was, after all these years, calling him.
Mariam regretted her foolish, youthful pride now. She wished now that she had let him in. What would have been the harm to let him in, sit with him, let him say what he'd come to say? He was her father. He'd not been a good father, it was true, but how ordinary his faults seemed now, how forgivable, when compared to Rasheed's malice, or to the brutality and violence that she had seen men inflict on one another.
She wished she hadn't destroyed his letter.
A man's deep voice spoke in her ear and informed her that she'd reached the mayor's office in Herat.
Mariam cleared her throat. "Salaam, brother, I am looking for someone who lives in Herat. Or he did, many years ago. His name is Jalil Khan. He lived in Shar-e-Nau and owned the cinema. Do you have any information as to his whereabouts?"
The irritation was audible in the man's voice. "This is why you call the mayor's office?"
Mariam said she didn't know who else to call. "Forgive me, brother. I know you have important things to tend to, but it is life and death, a question of life and death I am calling about."
"I don't know him. The cinema's been closed for many years."
"Maybe there's someone there who might know him, someone-"
"There is no one."
Mariam closed her eyes. "Please, brother. There are children involved. Small children."
A long sigh.
"Maybe someone there-"
"There's a groundskeeper here. I think he's lived here all of his life."
"Yes, ask him, please."
"Call back tomorrow."
Mariam said she couldn't. "I have this phone for five minutes only. I don't-"
There was a click at the other end, and Mariam thought he had hung up. But she could hear footsteps, and voices, a distant car horn, and some mechanical humming punctuated by clicks, maybe an electric fan. She switched the phone to her other ear, closed her eyes.
She pictured Jalil smiling, reaching into his pocket.
Ah. Of course. Well. Here then. Without further ado…
A leaf-shaped pendant, tiny coins etched with moons and stars hanging from it.
Try it on, Mariam jo.
What do you think?
I think you look like a queen.
A few minutes passed. Then footsteps, a creaking sound, and a click. "He does know him."
"It's what he says."
"Where is he?" Mariam said. "Does this man know where Jalil Khan is?"
There was a pause. "He says he died years ago, back in 1987."
Mariam's stomach fell. She'd considered the possibility, of course. Jalil would have been in his mid-to late seventies by now, but…
He was dying then. He had driven all the way from Herat to say good-bye.
She moved to the edge of the balcony. From up here, she could see the hotel's once-famous swimming pool, empty and grubby now, scarred by bullet holes and decaying tiles. And there was the battered tennis court, the ragged net lying limply in the middle of it like dead skin shed by a snake.
"I have to go now," the voice at the other end said
"I'm sorry to have bothered you," Mariam said, weeping soundlessly into the phone. She saw Jalil waving to her, skipping from stone to stone as he crossed the stream, his pockets swollen with gifts. All the times she had held her breath for him, for God to grant her more time with him. "Thank you," Mariam began to say, but the man at the other end had already hung up.
Rasheed was looking at her. Mariam shook her head.
"Useless," he said, snatching the phone from her. "Like daughter, like father."
On their way out of the lobby, Rasheed walked briskly to the coffee table, which was now abandoned, and pocketed the last ring of jelabi. He took it home and gave it to Zalmai.
In a paper bag, Aziza packed these things: her flowered shirt and her lone pair of socks, her mismatched wool gloves, an old, pumpkin-colored blanket dotted with stars and comets, a splintered plastic cup, a banana, her set of dice.
It was a cool morning in April 2001, shortly before Laila's twenty-third birthday. The sky was a translucent gray, and gusts of a clammy, cold wind kept rattling the screen door.
This was a few days after Laila heard that Ahmad Shah Massoud had gone to France and spoken to the European Parliament. Massoud was now in his native North, and leading the Northern Alliance, the sole opposition group still fighting the Taliban. In Europe, Massoud had warned the West about terrorist camps in Afghanistan, and pleaded with the U.S. to help him fight the Taliban.
"If President Bush doesn't help us," he had said, "these terrorists will damage the U.S. and Europe very soon."
A month before that, Laila had learned that the Taliban had planted TNT in the crevices of the giant Buddhas in Bamiyan and blown them apart, calling them objects of idolatry and sin. There was an outcry around the world, from the U.S. to China. Governments, historians, and archaeologists from all over the globe had written letters, pleaded with the Taliban not to demolish the two greatest historical artifacts in Afghanistan. But the Taliban had gone ahead and detonated their explosives inside the two-thousand-year-old Buddhas. They had chanted Allah-u-akbar with each blast, cheered each time the statues lost an arm or a leg in a crumbling cloud of dust. Laila remembered standing atop the bigger of the two Buddhas with Babi and Tariq, back in 1987, a breeze blowing in their sunlit faces, watching a hawk gliding in circles over the sprawling valley below. But when she heard the news of the statues' demise, Laila was numb to it. It hardly seemed to matter. How could she care about statues when her own life was crumbling dust?
Until Rasheed told her it was time to go, Laila sat on the floor in a corner of the living room, not speaking and stone-faced, her hair hanging around her face in straggly curls. No matter how much she breathed in and out, it seemed to Laila that she couldn't fill her lungs with enough air.
ON THE WAY to Karteh-Seh, Zalmai bounced in Rasheed's arms, and Aziza held Mariam's hand as she walked quickly beside her. The wind blew the dirty scarf tied under Aziza's chin and rippled the hem of her dress. Aziza was more grim now, as though she'd begun to sense, with each step, that she was being duped. Laila had not found the strength to tell Aziza the truth. She had told her that she was going to a school, a special school where the children ate and slept and didn't come home after class. Now Aziza kept pelting Laila with the same questions she had been asking for days. Did the students sleep in different rooms or all in one great big room? Would she make friends? Was she, Laila, sure that the teachers would be nice?
And, more than once, How long do I have to stay?
They stopped two blocks from the squat, barracks-style building.
"Zalmai and I will wait here," Rasheed said. "Oh, before I forget…"
He fished a stick of gum from his pocket, a parting gift, and held it out to Aziza with a stiff, magnanimous air. Aziza took it and muttered a thank-you. Laila marveled at Aziza's grace, Aziza's vast capacity for forgiveness, and her eyes filled. Her heart squeezed, and she was faint with sorrow at the thought that this afternoon Aziza would not nap beside her, that she would not feel the flimsy weight of Aziza's arm on her chest, the curve of Aziza's head pressing into her ribs, Aziza's breath warming her neck, Aziza's heels poking her belly.
When Aziza was led away, Zalmai began wailing, crying, Ziza! Ziza! He squirmed and kicked in his father's arms, called for his sister, until his attention was diverted by an organ-grinder's monkey across the street.
They walked the last two blocks alone, Mariam, Laila, and Aziza. As they approached the building, Laila could see its splintered façade, the sagging roof, the planks of wood nailed across frames with missing windows, the top of a swing set over a decaying wall.
They stopped by the door, and Laila repeated to Aziza what she had told her earlier.
"And if they ask about your father, what do you say?"
"The Mujahideen killed him," Aziza said, her mouth set with wariness.
"That's good. Aziza, do you understand?"
"Because this is a special school," Aziza said. Now that they were here, and the building was a reality, she looked shaken. Her lower lip was quivering and her eyes threatened to well up, and Laila saw how hard she was struggling to be brave. "If we tell the truth," Aziza said in a thin, breathless voice, "they won't take me. It's a special school. I want to go home."
"I'll visit all the time," Laila managed to say. "I promise."
"Me too," said Mariam. "We'll come to see you, Aziza jo, and we'll play together, just like always. It's only for a while, until your father finds work."
"They have food here," Laila said shakily. She was glad for the burqa, glad that Aziza couldn't see how she was falling apart inside it. "Here, you won't go hungry. They have rice and bread and water, and maybe even fruit."
"But you won't be here. And Khala Mariam won't be with me."
"I'll come and see you," Laila said. "All the time. Look at me, Aziza. I'll come and see you. I'm your mother. If it kills me, I'll come and see you."
THE ORPHANAGE DIRECTOR was a stooping, narrow-chested man with a pleasantly lined face. He was balding, had a shaggy beard, eyes like peas. His name was Zaman. He wore a skullcap. The left lens of his eyeglasses was chipped.
As he led them to his office, he asked Laila and Mariam their names, asked for Aziza's name too, her age. They passed through poorly lit hallways where barefoot children stepped aside and watched. They had disheveled hair or shaved scalps. They wore sweaters with frayed sleeves, ragged jeans whose knees had worn down to strings, coats patched with duct tape. Laila smelled soap and talcum, ammonia and urine, and rising apprehension in Aziza, who had begun whimpering.
Laila had a glimpse of the yard: weedy lot, rickety swing set, old tires, a deflated basketball. The rooms they passed were bare, the windows covered with sheets of plastic. A boy darted from one of the rooms and grabbed Laila's elbow, and tried to climb up into her arms. An attendant, who was cleaning up what looked like a puddle of urine, put down his mop and pried the boy off.
Zaman seemed gently proprietary with the orphans. He patted the heads of some, as he passed by, said a cordial word or two to them, tousled their hair, without condescension. The children welcomed his touch. They all looked at him, Laila thought, in hope of approval.
He showed them into his office, a room with only three folding chairs, and a disorderly desk with piles of paper scattered atop it.
"You're from Herat," Zaman said to Mariam. "I can tell from your accent."
He leaned back in his chair and laced his hands over his belly, and said he had a brother-in-law who used to live there. Even in these ordinary gestures, Laila noted a laborious quality to his movements. And though he was smiling faintly, Laila sensed something troubled and wounded beneath, disappointment and defeat glossed over with a veneer of good humor.
"He was a glassmaker," Zaman said. "He made these beautiful, jade green swans. You held them up to sunlight and they glittered inside, like the glass was filled with tiny jewels. Have you been back?"
Mariam said she hadn't.
"I'm from Kandahar myself. Have you ever been to Kandahar, hamshira? No? It's lovely. What gardens! And the grapes! Oh, the grapes. They bewitch the palate."
A few children had gathered by the door and were peeking in. Zaman gently shooed them away, in Pashto.
"Of course I love Herat too. City of artists and writers, Sufis and mystics. You know the old joke, that you can't stretch a leg in Herat without poking a poet in the rear."