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In the middle of the night, when Laila woke up thirsty, she found their hands still clamped together, in the white-knuckle, anxious way of children clutching balloon strings.
* * *
LAILA LIKES MURREE'S cool, foggy mornings and its dazzling twilights, the dark brilliance of the sky at night; the green of the pines and the soft brown of the squirrels darting up and down the sturdy tree trunks; the sudden downpours that send shoppers in the Mall scrambling for awning cover. She likes the souvenir shops, and the various hotels that house tourists, even as the locals bemoan the constant construction, the expansion of infrastructure that they say is eating away at Murree's natural beauty. Laila finds it odd that people should lament the building of buildings. In Kabul, they would celebrate it.
She likes that they have a bathroom, not an outhouse but an actual bathroom, with a toilet that flushes, a shower, and a sink too, with twin faucets from which she can draw, with a flick of her wrist, water, either hot or cold. She likes waking up to the sound of Alyona bleating in the morning, and the harmlessly cantankerous cook, Adiba, who works marvels in the kitchen.
Sometimes, as Laila watches Tariq sleep, as her children mutter and stir in their own sleep, a great big lump of gratitude catches in her throat, makes her eyes water.
In the mornings, Laila follows Tariq from room to room. Keys jingle from a ring clipped to his waist and a spray bottle of window cleaner dangles from the belt loops of his jeans. Laila brings a pail filled with rags, disinfectant, a toilet brush, and spray wax for the dressers. Aziza tags along, a mop in one hand, the bean-stuffed doll Mariam had made for her in the other. Zalmai trails them reluctantly, sulkily, always a few steps behind.
Laila vacuums, makes the bed, and dusts. Tariq washes the bathroom sink and tub, scrubs the toilet and mops the linoleum floor. He stocks the shelves with clean towels, miniature shampoo bottles, and bars of almond-scented soap. Aziza has laid claim to the task of spraying and wiping the windows. The doll is never far from where she works.
Laila told Aziza about Tariq a few days after the nikka.
It is strange, Laila thinks, almost unsettling, the thing between Aziza and Tariq. Already, Aziza is finishing his sentences and he hers. She hands him things before he asks for them. Private smiles shoot between them across the dinner table as if they are not strangers at all but companions reunited after a lengthy separation.
Aziza looked down thoughtfully at her hands when Laila told her.
"I like him," she said, after a long pause.
"He loves you."
"He said that?"
"He doesn't have to, Aziza."
"Tell me the rest, Mammy. Tell me so I know."
And Laila did.
"Your father is a good man. He is the best man I've ever known."
"What if he leaves?" Aziza said
"He will never leave. Look at me, Aziza. Your father will never hurt you, and he will never leave."
The relief on Aziza's face broke Laila's heart.
TARIQ HAS BOUGHT Zalmai a rocking horse, built him a wagon. From a prison inmate, he learned to make paper animals, and so he has folded, cut, and tucked countless sheets of paper into lions and kangaroos for Zalmai, into horses and brightly plumed birds. But these overtures are dismissed by Zalmai unceremoniously, sometimes venomously.
"You're a donkey!" he cries. "I don't want your toys!"
"Zalmai!" Laila gasps.
"It's all right," Tariq says. "Laila, it's all right. Let him."
"You're not my Baba jan! My real Baba jan is away on a trip, and when he gets back he's going to beat you up! And you won't be able to run away, because he has two legs and you only have one!"
At night, Laila holds Zalmai against her chest and recites Babaloo prayers with him. When he asks, she tells him the lie again, tells him his Baba jan has gone away and she doesn't know when he would come back. She abhors this task, abhors herself for lying like this to a child.
Laila knows that this shameful lie will have to be told again and again. It will have to because Zalmai will ask, hopping down from a swing, waking from an afternoon nap, and, later, when he's old enough to tie his own shoes, to walk to school by himself, the lie will have to be delivered again.
At some point, Laila knows, the questions will dry up. Slowly, Zalmai will cease wondering why his father has abandoned him. He will not spot his father any longer at traffic lights, in stooping old men shuffling down the street or sipping tea in open-fronted samovar houses. And one day it will hit him, walking along some meandering river, or gazing out at an untracked snowfield, that his father's disappearance is no longer an open, raw wound. That it has become something else altogether, something more soft-edged and indolent. Like a lore. Something to be revered, mystified by.
Laila is happy here in Murree. But it is not an easy happiness. It is not a happiness without cost.
ON HIS DAYS OFF, Tariq takes Laila and the children to the Mall, along which are shops that sell trinkets and next to which is an Anglican church built in the mid-nineteenth century. Tariq buys them spicy chapli kebabs from street vendors. They stroll amid the crowds of locals, the Europeans and their cellular phones and digital cameras, the Punjabis who come here to escape the heat of the plains.
Occasionally, they board a bus to Kashmir Point. From there, Tariq shows them the valley of the Jhelum River, the pine-carpeted slopes, and the lush, densely wooded hills, where he says monkeys can still be spotted hopping from branch to branch. They go to the maple-clad Nathia Gali too, some thirty kilometers from Murree, where Tariq holds Laila's hand as they walk the tree-shaded road to the Governor's House. They stop by the old British cemetery, or take a taxi up a mountain peak for a view of the verdant, fog-shrouded valley below.
Sometimes on these outings, when they pass by a store window, Laila catches their reflections in it. Man, wife, daughter, son. To strangers, she knows, they must appear like the most ordinary of families, free of secrets, lies, and regrets.
AZIZA HAS NIGHTMARES from which she wakes up shrieking. Laila has to lie beside her on the cot, dry her cheeks with her sleeve, soothe her back to sleep.
Laila has her own dreams. In them, she's always back at the house in Kabul, walking the hall, climbing the stairs.
She is alone, but behind the doors she hears the rhythmic hiss of an iron, bedsheets snapped, then folded. Sometimes she hears a woman's low-pitched humming of an old Herati song. But when she walks in, the room is empty. There is no one there.
The dreams leave Laila shaken. She wakes from them coated in sweat, her eyes prickling with tears. It is devastating. Every time, it is devastating.
One Sunday that September, Laila is putting Zalmai, who has a cold, down for a nap when Tariq bursts into their bungalow.
"Did you hear?" he says, panting a little. "They killed him. Ahmad Shah Massoud. He's dead."
From the doorway, Tariq tells her what he knows.
"They say he gave an interview to a pair of journalists who claimed they were Belgians originally from Morocco. As they're talking, a bomb hidden in the video camera goes off. Kills Massoud and one of the journalists. They shoot the other one as he tries to run. They're saying now the journalists were probably Al-Qaeda men."
Laila remembers the poster of Ahmad Shah Massoud that Mammy had nailed to the wall of her bedroom. Massoud leaning forward, one eyebrow cocked, his face furrowed in concentration, as though he was respectfully listening to someone. Laila remembers how grateful Mammy was that Massoud had said a graveside prayer at her sons' burial, how she told everyone about it. Even after war broke out between his faction and the others, Mammy had refused to blame him. He's a good man, she used to say.
He wants peace. He wants to rebuild Afghanistan. But they won't let him. They just won't let him. For Mammy, even in the end, even after everything went so terribly wrong and Kabul lay in ruins, Massoud was still the Lion of Panjshir.
Laila is not as forgiving. Massoud's violent end brings her no joy, but she remembers too well the neighborhoods razed under his watch, the bodies dragged from the rubble, the hands and feet of children discovered on rooftops or the high branch of some tree days after their funeral. She remembers too clearly the look on Mammy's own face moments before the rocket slammed in and, much as she has tried to forget, Babi's headless torso landing nearby, the bridge tower printed on his T-shirt poking through thick fog and blood.
"There is going to be a funeral," Tariq is saying. "I'm sure of it. Probably in Rawalpindi. It'll be huge."
Zalmai, who was almost asleep, is sitting up now, rubbing his eyes with balled fists.
Two days later, they are cleaning a room when they hear a commotion. Tariq drops the mop and hurries out. Laila tails him.
The noise is coming from the hotel lobby. There is a lounge area to the right of the reception desk, with several chairs and two couches upholstered in beige suede. In the corner, facing the couches, is a television, and Sayeed, the concierge, and several guests are gathered in front of.
Laila and Tariq work their way in.
The TV is tuned to BBC. On the screen is a building, a tower, black smoke billowing from its top floors. Tariq says something to Sayeed and Sayeed is in midreply when a plane appears from the corner of the screen. It crashes into the adjacent tower, exploding into a fireball that dwarfs any ball of fire that Laila has ever seen. A collective yelp rises from everyone in the lobby.
In less than two hours, both towers have collapsed.
Soon all the TV stations are talking about Afghanistan and the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.
* * *
"DID YOU HEAR what the Taliban said?" Tariq asks. "About bin Laden?"
Aziza is sitting across from him on the bed, considering the board. Tariq has taught her to play chess. She is frowning and tapping her lower lip now, mimicking the body language her father assumes when he's deciding on a move.
Zalmai's cold is a little better. He is asleep, and Laila is rubbing Vicks on his chest.
"I heard," she says.
The Taliban have announced that they won't relinquish bin Laden because he is a mehman, a guest, who has found sanctuary in Afghanistan and it is against the Pashtunwali code of ethics to turn over a guest. Tariq chuckles bitterly, and Laila hears in his chuckle that he is revolted by this distortion of an honorable Pashtun custom, this misrepresentation of his people's ways.
A few days after the attacks, Laila and Tariq are in the hotel lobby again. On the TV screen, George W. Bush is speaking. There is a big American flag behind him. At one point, his voice wavers, and Laila thinks he is going to weep.
Sayeed, who speaks English, explains to them that Bush has just declared war.
"On whom?" says Tariq.
"On your country, to begin with."
"IT MAY NOT be such a bad thing," Tariq says.
They have finished making love. He's lying beside her, his head on her chest, his arm draped over her belly. The first few times they tried, there was difficulty. Tariq was all apologies, Laila all reassurances. There are still difficulties, not physical now but logistical. The shack they share with the children is small. The children sleep on cots below them and so there is little privacy. Most times, Laila and Tariq make love in silence, with controlled, muted passion, fully clothed beneath the blanket as a precaution against interruptions by the children. They are forever wary of the rustling sheets, the creaking bedsprings. But for Laila, being with Tariq is worth weathering these apprehensions. When they make love, Laila feels anchored, she feels sheltered. Her anxieties, that their life together is a temporary blessing, that soon it will come loose again in strips and tatters, are allayed. Her fears of separation vanish.
"What do you mean?" she says now.
"What's going on back home. It may not be so bad in the end."
Back home, bombs are falling once again, this time American bombs – Laila has been watching images of the war every day on the television as she changes sheets and vacuums. The Americans have armed the warlords once more, and enlisted the help of the Northern Alliance to drive out the Taliban and find bin Laden.
But it rankles Laila, what Tariq is saying. She pushes his head roughly off her chest.
"Not so bad? People dying? Women, children, old people? Homes destroyed again? Not so bad?"
"Shh. You'll wake the children."
"How can you say that, Tariq?" she snaps. "After the so-called blunder in Karam? A hundred innocent people! You saw the bodies for yourself!"
"No," Tariq says. He props himself up on his elbow, looks down at Laila. "You misunderstand. What I meant was-"
"You wouldn't know," Laila says. She is aware that her voice is rising, that they are having their first fight as husband and wife. "You left when the Mujahideen began fighting, remember? I'm the one who stayed behind. Me. I know war. I lost my parents to war. My parents, Tariq. And now to hear you say that war is not so bad?"
"I'm sorry, Laila. I'm sorry." He cups her face in his hands. "You're right. I'm sorry. Forgive me. What I meant was that maybe there will be hope at the other end of this war, that maybe for the first time in a long time-"
"I don't want to talk about this anymore," Laila says, surprised at how she has lashed out at him. It's unfair, she knows, what she said to him – hadn't war taken his parents too? – and whatever flared in her is softening already. Tariq continues to speak gently, and, when he pulls her to him, she lets him. When he kisses her hand, then her brow, she lets him. She knows that he is probably right. She knows how his comment was intended. Maybe this is necessary. Maybe there will be hope when Bush's bombs stop falling. But she cannot bring herself to say it, not when what happened to Babi and Mammy is happening to someone now in Afghanistan, not when some unsuspecting girl or boy back home has just been orphaned by a rocket as she was. Laila cannot bring herself to say it. It's hard to rejoice. It seems hypocritical, perverse.
That night, Zalmai wakes up coughing. Before Laila can move, Tariq swings his legs over the side of the bed. He straps on his prosthesis and walks over to Zalmai, lifts him up into his arms. From the bed, Laila watches Tariq's shape moving back and forth in the darkness. She sees the outline of Zalmai's head on his shoulder, the knot of his hands at Tariq's neck, his small feet bouncing by Tariq's hip.
When Tariq comes back to bed, neither of them says anything. Laila reaches over and touches his face. Tariq's cheeks are wet.
For Laila, life in Murree is one of comfort and tranquillity. The work is not cumbersome, and, on their days off, she and Tariq take the children to ride the chairlift to Patriata hill, or go to Pindi Point, where, on a clear day, you can see as far as Islamabad and downtown Rawalpindi. There, they spread a blanket on the grass and eat meatball sandwiches with cucumbers and drink cold ginger ale.
It is a good life, Laila tells herself, a life to be thankful for. It is, in fact, precisely the sort of life she used to dream for herself in her darkest days with Rasheed. Every day, Laila reminds herself of this.
Then one warm night in July 2002, she and Tariq are lying in bed talking in hushed voices about all the changes back home. There have been so many. The coalition forces have driven the Taliban out of every major city, pushed them across the border to Pakistan and to the mountains in the south and east of Afghanistan. ISAF, an international peacekeeping force, has been sent to Kabul. The country has an interim president now, Hamid Karzai.
Laila decides that now is the time to tell Tariq.
A year ago, she would have gladly given an arm to get out of Kabul. But in the last few months, she has found herself missing the city of her childhood. She misses the bustle of Shor Bazaar, the Gardens of Babur, the call of the water carriers lugging their goatskin bags. She misses the garment hagglers at Chicken Street and the melon hawkers in Karteh-Parwan.
But it isn't mere homesickness or nostalgia that has Laila thinking of Kabul so much these days. She has become plagued by restlessness. She hears of schools built in Kabul, roads repaved, women returning to work, and her life here, pleasant as it is, grateful as she is for it, seems… insufficient to her. Inconsequential. Worse yet, wasteful. Of late, she has started hearing Babi's voice in her head. You can be anything you want, Laila, he says. I know this about you. And I also know that when this war is over, Afghanistan is going to need you.
Laila hears Mammy's voice too. She remembers Mammy's response to Babi when he would suggest that they leave Afghanistan. I want to see my sons' dream come true. 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. There is a part of Laila now that wants to return to Kabul, for Mammy and Babi, for them to see it through her eyes.
And then, most compellingly for Laila, there is Mariam. Did Mariam die for this? Laila asks herself. Did she sacrifice herself so she, Laila, could be a maid in a foreign land? Maybe it wouldn't matter to Mariam what Laila did as long as she and the children were safe and happy. But it matters to Laila. Suddenly, it matters very much.
"I want to go back," she says.
Tariq sits up in bed and looks down at her.
Laila is struck again by how beautiful he is, the perfect curve of his forehead, the slender muscles of his arms, his brooding, intelligent eyes. A year has passed, and still there are times, at moments like this, when Laila cannot believe that they have found each other again, that he is really here, with her, that he is her husband.
"Back? To Kabul?" he asks.
"Only if you want it too."
"Are you unhappy here? You seem happy. The children too."
Laila sits up. Tariq shifts on the bed, makes room for her.
"I am happy," Laila says. "Of course I am. But… where do we go from here, Tariq? How long do we stay? This isn't home. Kabul is, and back there so much is happening, a lot of it good. I want to be a part of it all. I want to do something. I want to contribute. Do you understand?"
Tariq nods slowly. "This is what you want, then? You're sure?"
"I want it, yes, I'm sure. But it's more than that. I feel like I have to go back. Staying here, it doesn't feel right anymore."
Tariq looks at his hands, then back up at her.
"But only – only – if you want to go too."
Tariq smiles. The furrows from his brow clear, and for a brief moment he is the old Tariq again, the Tariq who did not get headaches, who had once said that in Siberia snot turned to ice before it hit the ground. It may be her imagination, but Laila believes there are more frequent sightings of this old Tariq these clays.
"Me?" he says. "I'll follow you to the end of the world, Laila."
She pulls him close and kisses his lips. She believes she has never loved him more than at this moment. "Thank you," she says, her forehead resting against his.
"Let's go home."
"But first, I want to go to Herat," she says.
THE CHILDREN NEED reassuring, each in their own way. Laila has to sit down with an agitated Aziza, who still has nightmares, who'd been startled to tears the week before when someone had shot rounds into the sky at a wedding nearby. Laila has to explain to Aziza that when they return to Kabul the Taliban won't be there, that there will not be any fighting, and that she will not be sent back to the orphanage. "We'll all live together. Your father, me, Zalmai. And you, Aziza. You'll never, ever, have to be apart from me again. I promise." She smiles at her daughter. "Until the day you want to, that is. When you fall in love with some young man and want to marry him."
On the day they leave Murree, Zalmai is inconsolable. He has wrapped his arms around Alyona's neck and will not let go.
"I can't pry him off of her, Mammy," says Aziza.
"Zalmai. We can't take a goat on the bus," Laila explains again.
It isn't until Tariq kneels down beside him, until he promises Zalmai that he will buy him a goat just like Alyona in Kabul, that Zalmai reluctantly lets go.
There are tearful farewells with Sayeed as well. For good luck, he holds a Koran by the doorway for Tariq, Laila, and the children to kiss three times, then holds it high so they can pass under it. He helps Tariq load the two suitcases into the trunk of his car. It is Sayeed who drives them to the station, who stands on the curb waving good-bye as the bus sputters and pulls away.
As she leans back and watches Sayeed receding in the rear window of the bus, Laila hears the voice of doubt whispering in her head. Are they being foolish, she wonders, leaving behind the safety of Murree? Going back to the land where her parents and brothers perished, where the smoke of bombs is only now settling?
And then, from the darkened spirals of her memory, rise two lines of poetry, Babi's farewell ode to Kabul:
One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,
Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.
Laila settles back in her seat, blinking the wetness from her eyes. Kabul is waiting. Needing. This journey home is the right thing to do.
But first there is one last farewell to be said.
THE WARS IN Afghanistan have ravaged the roads connecting Kabul, Herat, and Kandahar. The easiest way to Herat now is through Mashad, in Iran. Laila and her family are there only overnight. They spend the night at a hotel, and, the next morning, they board another bus.
Mashad is a crowded, bustling city. Laila watches as parks, mosques, and chelo kebab restaurants pass by. When the bus passes the shrine to Imam Reza, the eighth Shi'a imam, Laila cranes her neck to get a better view of its glistening tiles, the minarets, the magnificent golden dome, all of it immaculately and lovingly preserved. She thinks of the Buddhas in her own country. They are grains of dust now, blowing about the Bamiyan Valley in the wind.
The bus ride to the Iranian-Afghan border takes almost ten hours. The terrain grows more desolate, more barren, as they near Afghanistan. Shortly before they cross the border into Herat, they pass an Afghan refugee camp. To Laila, it is a blur of yellow dust and black tents and scanty structures made of corrugated-steel sheets. She reaches across the seat and takes Tariq's hand.
IN HERAT, most of the streets are paved, lined with fragrant pines. There are municipal parks and libraries in reconstruction, manicured courtyards, freshly painted buildings. The traffic lights work, and, most surprisingly to Laila, electricity is steady. Laila has heard that Herat's feudal-style warlord, Ismail Khan, has helped rebuild the city with the considerable customs revenue that he collects at the Afghan-Iranian border, money that Kabul says belongs not to him but to the central government. There is both a reverential and fearful tone when the taxi driver who takes them to Muwaffaq Hotel mentions Ismail Khan's name.
The two-night stay at the Muwaffaq will cost them nearly a fifth of their savings, but the trip from Mashad has been long and wearying, and the children are exhausted. The elderly clerk at the desk tells Tariq, as he fetches the room key, that the Muwaffaq is popular with journalists and NGO workers.
"Bin Laden slept here once," he boasts.
The room has two beds, and a bathroom with running cold water. There is a painting of the poet Khaja Abdullah Ansary on the wall between the beds. From the window, Laila has a view of the busy street below, and of a park across the street with pastel-colored-brick paths cutting through thick clusters of flowers. The children, who have grown accustomed to television, are disappointed that there isn't one in the room. Soon enough, though, they are asleep. Soon enough, Tariq and Laila too have collapsed. Laila sleeps soundly in Tariq's arms, except for once in the middle of the night when she wakes from a dream she cannot remember.
THE NEXT MORNING, after a breakfast of tea with fresh bread, quince marmalade, and boiled eggs, Tariq finds her a taxi.
"Are you sure you don't want me to come along?" Tariq says. Aziza is holding his hand Zalmai isn't, but he is standing close to Tariq, leaning one shoulder on Tariq's hip.
"I'll be fine," Laila says. "I promise. Take the children to a market. Buy them something."
Zalmai begins to cry when the taxi pulls away, and, when Laila looks back, she sees that he is reaching for Tariq. That he is beginning to accept Tariq both eases and breaks Laila's heart.
"YOU'RE NOT FROM HERAT," the driver says.
He has dark, shoulder-length hair – a common thumbing of the nose at the departed Taliban, Laila has discovered – and some kind of scar interrupting his mustache on the left side. There is a photo taped to the windshield, on his side. It's of a young girl with pink cheeks and hair parted down the middle into twin braids.
Laila tells him that she has been in Pakistan for the last year, that she is returning to Kabul. "Deh-Mazang."
Through the windshield, she sees coppersmiths welding brass handles to jugs, saddlemakers laying out cuts of rawhide to dry in the sun.
"Have you lived here long, brother?" she asks.
"Oh, my whole life. I was born here. I've seen everything. You remember the uprising?"
Laila says she does, but he goes on.
"This was back in March 1979, about nine months before the Soviets invaded. Some angry Heratis killed a few Soviet advisers, so the Soviets sent in tanks and helicopters and pounded this place. For three days, hamshira, they fired on the city. They collapsed buildings, destroyed one of the minarets, killed thousands of people. Thousands. I lost two sisters in those three days. One of them was twelve years old." He taps the photo on his windshield. "That's her."
"I'm sorry," Laila says, marveling at how every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief. And yet, she sees, people find a way to survive, to go on. Laila thinks of her own life and all that has happened to her, and she is astonished that she too has survived, that she is alive and sitting in this taxi listening to this man's story.
GUL DAMAN is a village of a few walled houses rising among flat kolbas built with mud and straw. Outside the kolbas, Laila sees sunburned women cooking, their faces sweating in steam rising from big blackened pots set on makeshift firewood grills. Mules eat from troughs. Children giving chase to chickens begin chasing the taxi. Laila sees men pushing wheelbarrows filled with stones. They stop and watch the car pass by. The driver takes a turn, and they pass a cemetery with a weather-worn mausoleum in the center of it. The driver tells her that a village Sufi is buried there.
There is a windmill too. In the shadow of its idle, rust-colored vanes, three little boys are squatting, playing with mud. The driver pulls over and leans out of the window. The oldest-looking of the three boys is the one to answer. He points to a house farther up the road. The driver thanks him, puts the car back in gear.
He parks outside the walled, one-story house. Laila sees the tops of fig trees above the walls, some of the branches spilling over the side.
"I won't be long," she says to the driver.
THE MIDDLE-AGED man who opens the door is short, thin, russet-haired. His beard is streaked with parallel stripes of gray. He is wearing a chapan over his pirhan-tumban.