Chapter no 49

A Thousand Splendid Suns

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, eve 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. An

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.

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