Chapter no 23

A Thousand Splendid Suns

APRIL 1992

Three years passed. In that time, Tariq’s father had a series of strokes. They left him with a clumsy left hand and a slight slur to his speech. When he was agitated, which happened frequently, the slurring got worse.

Tariq outgrew his leg again and was issued a new leg by the Red Cross, though he had to wait six months for it.

As Hasina had feared, her family took her to Lahore, where she was made to marry the cousin who owned the auto shop. The morning that they took her, Laila and Giti went to Hasina’s house to say good-bye. Hasina told them that the cousin, her husband-to-be, had already started the process to move them to Germany, where his brothers lived. Within the year, she thought, they would be in Frankfurt. They cried then in a three-way embrace. Giti was inconsolable. The last time Laila ever saw Hasina, she was being helped by her father into the crowded backseat of a taxi.

The Soviet Union crumbled with astonishing swiftness.

Every few weeks, it seemed to Laila, Babi was coming home with news of the latest republic to declare independence. Lithuania. Estonia. Ukraine. The Soviet flag was lowered over the Kremlin. The Republic of Russia was born.

In Kabul, Najibullah changed tactics and tried to portray himself as a devout Muslim. “Too little and far too late,” said Babi. “You can’t be the chief of KHAD one day and the next day pray in a mosque with people whose relatives you tortured and killed.” Feeling the noose tightening around Kabul, Najibullah tried to reach a settlement with the Mujahideen but the Mujahideen balked.

From her bed, Mammy said, “Good for them.” She kept her vigils for the Mujahideen and waited for her parade.

Waited for her sons’ enemies to fall.

AND, EVENTUALLY, they did. In April 1992, the year Laila turned fourteen.

Najibullah surrendered at last and was given sanctuary in the UN compound near Darulaman Palace, south of the city.

The jihad was over. The various communist regimes that had held power since the night Laila was born were all defeated. Mammy’s heroes, Ahmad’s and Noor’s brothers-in-war, had won. And now, after more than a decade of sacrificing everything, of leaving behind their families to live in mountains and fight for Afghanistan’s sovereignty, the Mujahideen were coming to Kabul, in flesh, blood, and battle-weary bone.

Mammy knew all of their names.

There was Dostum, the flamboyant Uzbek commander, leader of the Junbish-i-Milli faction, who had a reputation for shifting allegiances. The intense, surly Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-e-Islami faction, a Pashtun who had studied engineering and once killed a Maoist student. Rabbani, Tajik leader of the Jamiat-e-Islami faction, who had taught

Islam at Kabul University in the days of the monarchy. Sayyaf, a Pashtun from Paghman with Arab connections, a stout Muslim and leader of the Ittehad-i-Islami faction. Abdul Ali Mazari, leader of the Hizb-e-Wahdat faction, known as Baba Mazari among his fellow Hazaras, with strong Shi’a ties to Iran.

And, of course, there was Mammy’s hero, Rabbani’s ally, the brooding, charismatic Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir. Mammy had nailed up a poster of him in her room. Massoud’s handsome, thoughtful face, eyebrow cocked and trademark pakol tilted, would become ubiquitous in Kabul. His soulful black eyes would gaze back from billboards, walls, storefront windows, from little flags mounted on the antennas of taxicabs.

For Mammy, this was the day she had longed for. This brought to fruition all those years of waiting.

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.”

“Oh. Sixteen.”

“He’s a nice boy. Don’t you think?” Laila shrugged.

“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 you . . . 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 he . . . That’s not how I meant it.” Mammy sighed through the nose and clenched her teeth.

“Anyway,” she resumed, but without the coy lightheartedness 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—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 thought . . . 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—it struck Laila—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 u 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—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?” “Khalil Gibran.”

“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.

“Why not?”

“Bad for you,” he said. “And it’s not bad for you?” “I do it for the girls.” “What girls?”

He smirked. “They think it’s sexy.” “It’s not.”


“I assure you.” “Not sexy?”

“You look khila, like a half-wit.”

“That hurts,” he said. “What girls anyway?” “You’re jealous.”

“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—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.” “From what?”

“The empty-headed girls who think you’re sexy.” “You know.”

“Know what?”

“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?”

“The party?”

“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.

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