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Chapter no 41

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Mariam

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 Titani 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 unaffordable 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.”

“He does?”

“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 . . .

1987.

He was dying then. He had driven all the way from Herat to say goodbye.

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.

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