"Soon." Laila kissed her daughter, aiming for the forehead, finding the crown of her
head instead. "We'll have milk soon. You just be patient. Be a good, patient little girl for
Mammy, and I'll get you someaishee. "
Laila sang her a few songs.
Azanrang out a second time and still Rasheed had not given them any food, and, wor-
se, no water. That day, a thick, suffocating heat fell on them. The room turned into a
pressure cooker. Laila dragged a dry tongue over her lips, thinking of the well outside,
the water cold and fresh. Aziza kept crying, and Laila noticed with alarm that when she
wiped her cheeks her hands came back dry. She stripped the clothes off Aziza, tried to
find something to fan her with, settled for blowing on her until she became light-he-
aded. Soon, Aziza stopped crawling around. She slipped in and out of sleep.
Several times that day, Laila banged her fists against the walls, used up her energy
screaming for help, hoping that a neighbor would hear. But no one came, and her shri-
eking only frightened Aziza, who began to cry again, a weak, croaking sound. Laila slid
to the ground. She thought guiltily of Mariam, beaten and bloodied, locked in this heat
in the toolshed.
Laila fell asleep at some point, her body baking in the heat. She had a dream that she
and Aziza had run into Tariq. He was across a crowded street from them, beneath the
awning of a tailor's shop. He was sitting on his haunches and sampling from a crate of
figs.That's your father, Laila said.That man there, you see him? He's your real baba.
She called his name, but the street noise drowned her voice, and Tariq didn't hear.
She woke up to the whistling of rockets streaking overhead. Somewhere, the sky she
couldn't see erupted with blasts and the long, frantic hammering of machine-gun fire.
Laila closed her eyes. She woke again to Rasheed's heavy footsteps in the hallway. She
dragged herself to the door, slapped her palms against it.
"Just one glass, Rasheed. Not for me. Do it for her. You don't want her blood on your
hands." He walked past-She began to plead with him. She begged for forgiveness, made
promises. She cursed him. His door closed. The radio came on.
The muezzin calledazan a third time. Again the heat. Aziza became even more listless.
She stopped crying, stopped moving altogether.
Laila put her ear over Aziza's mouth, dreading each time that she would not hear the
shallow whooshing of breath. Even this simple act of lifting herself made her head
swim. She fell asleep, had dreams she could not remember. When she woke up, she
checked on Aziza, felt the parched cracks of her lips, the faint pulse at her neck, lay
down again. They would die here, of that Laila was sure now, but what she really dre-
aded was that she would outlast Aziza, who was young and brittle. How much more co-
uld Aziza take? Aziza would die in this heat, and Laila would have to lie beside her stif-
fening little body and wait for her own death. Again she fell asleep. Woke up. Fell asle-
ep. The line between dream and wakefulness blurred.
It wasn't roosters orazan that woke her up again but the sound of something heavy be-
ing dragged. She heard a rattling- Suddenly, the room was flooded with light. Her eyes
screamed in protest. Laila raised her head, winced, and shielded her eyes. Through the
cracks between her fingers, she saw a big, blurry silhouette standing in a rectangle of
light. The silhouette moved. Now there was a shape crouching beside her, looming over
her, and a voice by her ear.
"You try this again and I will find you. I swear on the Prophet's name that I will find
you. And, when I do, there isn't a court in this godforsaken country that will hold me ac-
countable for what I will do. To Mariam first, then to her, and you last. I'll make you
watch. You understand me?I'll make you watch."
And, with that, he left the room. But not before delivering a kick to the flank that wo-
uld have Laila pissing blood for days.
Madam SEPTEMBER 1996
Iwo and a half years later, Mariam awoke on the morning of September 27 to the so-
unds of shouting and
whistling, firecrackers and music. She ran to the living room, found Laila already at
the window, Aziza mounted on her shoulders. Laila turned and smiled.
"The Taliban are here," she said.
* * *
Mariam had first heard of the Taliban two years before, in October 1994, when Rashe-
ed had brought home news that they had overthrown the warlords in Kandahar and ta-
ken the city. They were a guerrilla force, he said, made up of young Pashtun men whose
families had fled to Pakistan during the war against the Soviets. Most of them had been
raised-some even born-in refugee camps along the Pakistani border, and in Pakistani
madrasas, where they were schooled inShari'a by mullahs. Their leader was a mysterio-
us, illiterate, one-eyed recluse named Mullah Omar, who, Rasheed said with some amu-
sement, called himselfAmeer-ul-Mumineeny Leader of the Faithful.
"It's true that these boys have norisha, no roots," Rasheed said, addressing neither Ma-
riam nor Laila. Ever since the failed escape, two and a half years ago, Mariam knew that
she and Laila had become one and the same being to him, equally wretched, equally de-
serving of his distrust, his disdain and disregard. When he spoke, Mariam had the sense
that he was having a conversation with himself, or with some invisible presence in the
room, who, unlike her and Laila, was worthy of his opinions.
"They may have no past," he said, smoking and looking up at the ceiling. "They may
know nothing of the world or this country's history. Yes. And, compared to them, Mari-
am here might as well be a university professor. Ha! All
true. But look around you. What do you see? Corrupt, greedy Mujahideen comman-
ders, armed to the teeth, rich off heroin, declaring jihad on one another and killing ever-
yone in between-that's what. At least the Taliban are pure and incorruptible. At least
they're decent Muslim boys.Wallah, when they come, they will clean up this place.
They'll bring peace and order. People won't get shot anymore going out for milk. No
more rockets! Think of it."
For two years now, the Taliban had been making their way toward Kabul, taking cities
from the Mujahideen, ending factional war wherever they'd settled. They had captured
the Hazara commander Abdul Ali Mazari and executed him. For months, they'd settled
in the southern outskirts of Kabul, firing on the city, exchanging rockets with Ahmad
Shah Massoud. Earlier in that September of 1996, they had captured the cities of Jalala-
bad and Sarobi.
The Taliban had one thing the Mujahideen did not, Rasheed said. They were united.
"Let them come," he said. "I, for one, will shower them with rose petals."
* * *
They "went our that day, the four of them, Rasheed leading them from one bus to the
next, to greet their new world, their new leaders. In every battered neighborhood, Mari-
am found people materializing from the rubble and moving into the streets. She saw an
old woman wasting handfuls of rice, tossing it at passersby, a drooping, toothless smile
on her face. Two men were hugging by the remains of a gutted building, in the sky abo-
ve them the whistle, hiss, and pop of a few firecrackers set off by boys perched on roof-
tops. The national anthem played on cassette decks, competing with the honking of cars.
"Look, Mayam!" Aziza pointed to a group of boys running down Jadeh Maywand.
They were pounding their fists into the air and dragging rusty cans tied to strings. They
were yelling that Massoud and Rabbani had withdrawn from Kabul.
Everywhere, there were shouts:Ailah-u-akbar!
Mariam saw a bedsheet hanging from a window on Jadeh Maywand. On it, someone
had painted three words in big, black letters: zendabaad taliban! Long live the Taliban!
As they walked the streets, Mariam spotted more signs-painted on windows, nailed to
doors, billowing from car antennas-that proclaimed the same.
* * *
Mariam sawher first of the Taliban later that day, at Pashtunistan Square, with Rashe-
ed, Laila, and Aziza. A melee of people had gathered there. Mariam saw people craning
their necks, people crowded around the blue fountain in the center of the square, people
perched on its dry bed. They were trying to get a view of the end of the square, near the
old Khyber Restaurant.
Rasheed used his size to push and shove past the onlookers, and led them to where so-
meone was speaking through a loudspeaker.
When Aziza saw, she let out a shriek and buried her face in Mariam's burqa.
The loudspeaker voice belonged to a slender, bearded young man who wore a black
turban. He was standing on some sort of makeshift scaffolding. In his free hand, he held
a rocket launcher. Beside him, two bloodied men hung from ropes tied to traffic-light
posts. Their clothes had been shredded. Their bloated faces had turned purple-blue.
"I know him," Mariam said, "the one on the left."
A young woman in front of Mariam turned around and said it was Najibullah. The ot-
her man was his brother. Mariam remembered Najibullah's plump, mustachioed face,
beaming from billboards and storefront windows during the Soviet years.
She would later hear that the Taliban had dragged Najibullah from his sanctuary at the
UN headquarters near Darulaman Palace. That they had tortured him for hours, then tied
his legs to a truck and dragged his lifeless body through the streets.
"He killed many, many Muslims!" the young Talib was shouting through the loudspe-
aker. He spoke Farsi with a Pashto accent, then would switch to Pashto. He punctuated
his words by pointing to the corpses with his weapon. "His crimes are known to every-
body. He was a communist and akqfir This is what we do with infidels who commit cri-
mes against Islam!"
Rasheed was smirking.
In Mariam's arms, Aziza began to cry.
* * *
The following day, Kabul was overrun by trucks. In Khair khana, in Shar-e-Nau, in
Karteh-Parwan, in Wazir Akbar Khan and Taimani, red Toyota trucks weaved through
the streets. Armed bearded men in black turbans sat in their beds. From each truck, a lo-
udspeaker blared announcements, first in Farsi, then Pashto. The same message played
from loudspeakers perched atop mosques, and on the radio, which was now known as
the Voice ofShort 'a. The message was also written in flyers, tossed into the streets. Ma-
riam found one in the yard.
Ourwatanis now known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. These are the laws that
we will enforce and you will obey:
Ail citizens must pray five times a day. If it is prayer time and you are caught doing so-
mething other, you will be beaten.
Ail men will grow their beards. The correct length is at least one clenched fist beneath
the chin. If you do not abide by this, you will be beaten.
Ml boys will wear turbans. Boys in grade one through six will wear black turbans, hig-
her grades will wear white. Ail boys will wear Islamic clothes. Shirt collars will be but-
Singing is forbidden.
Dancing is forbidden.
Playing cards, playing chess, gambling, and kiteflying are forbidden.
Writing books, watching films, and painting pictures are forbidden.
If you keep parakeets, you will be beaten. Your birds will be killed.
If you steal, your hand will be cut off at the wrist. If you steal again, your foot will be
If you are not Muslim, do not worship where you can be seen by Muslims. If you do,
you will be beaten and imprisoned. If you are caught trying to convert a Muslim to your
faith, you will be executed.
You will stay inside your homes at all times. It is not proper for women to wander aim-
lessly about the streets. If you go outside, you must be accompanied by amahram,a male
relative. If you are caught alone on the street, you will be beaten and sent home.
You will not, under any circumstance, show your face. You will cover with burqa when
outside. If you do not, you will be severely beaten.
Cosmetics are forbidden.
Jewelry is forbidden.
You will not wear charming clothes.
You will not speak unless spoken to.
You will not make eye contact with men.
You will not laugh in public. If you do, you will be beaten.
You will not paint your nails. If you do, you will lose a finger.
Girls are forbidden from attending school All schools for girls will be closed immedi-
Women are forbidden from working.
If you are found guilty of adultery, you will be stoned to death
Listen. Listen well. Obey.Allah-u-akbar.
Rasheed turned off the radio. They were sitting on the living-room floor, eating dinner
less than a week after they'd seen Najibullah's corpse hanging by a rope.
"They can't make half the population stay home and do nothing," Laila said.
"Why not?" Rasheed said. For once, Mariam agreed with him. He'd done the same to
her and Laila, in effect, had he not? Surely Laila saw that.
"This isn't some village. This isKabul. Women here used to practice law and medicine;
they held office in the
Rasheed grinned. "Spoken like the arrogant daughter of a poetry-reading university
man that you are. How urbane, how Tajik, of you. You think this is some new, radical
idea the Taliban are bringing? Have you ever lived outside of your precious little shell
in Kabul, mygull Ever cared to visit thereal Afghanistan, the south, the east, along the
tribal border with Pakistan? No? I have. And I can tell you that there are many places in
this country that have always lived this way, or close enough anyhow. Not that you wo-
"I refuse to believe it," Laila said "They're not serious."
"What the Taliban did to Najibullah looked serious to me," Rasheed said. "Wouldn't
"He was a communist! He was the head of the Secret Police."
Mariam heard the answer in his laugh: that in the eyes of the Taliban, being a commu-
nist and the leader of the dreaded KHAD made Najibullah onlyslightly more contemp-
tible than a woman.
JLaila was glad, when the Taliban went to work, that Babi wasn't around to witness it.
It would have crippled him.
Men wielding pickaxes swarmed the dilapidated Kabul Museum and smashed pre-Isla-
mic statues to rubble-that is, those that hadn't already been looted by the Mujahideen.
The university was shut down and its students sent home. Paintings were ripped from
walls, shredded with blades. Television screens were kicked in. Books, except the Ko-
ran, were burned in heaps, the stores that sold them closed down. The poems of Khalili,
Pajwak, Ansari, Haji Dehqan, Ashraqi, Beytaab, Hafez, Jami, Nizami, Rumi, Khayyam,
Beydel, and more went up in smoke.
Laila heard of men being dragged from the streets, accused of skippingnamaz, and
shoved into mosques. She learned that Marco Polo Restaurant, near Chicken Street, had
been turned into an interrogation center. Sometimes screaming was heard from behind
its black-painted windows. Everywhere, the Beard Patrol roamed the streets in Toyota
trucks on the lookout for clean-shaven faces to bloody.
They shut down the cinemas too. Cinema Park. Ariana. Aryub. Projection rooms were
ransacked and reels of films set to fire. Laila remembered all the times she and Tariq
had sat in those theaters and watched Hindi films, all those melodramatic tales of lovers
separated by some tragic turn of fate, one adrift in some faraway land, the other forced
into marriage, the weeping, the singing in fields of marigolds, the longing for reunions.
She remembered how Tariq would laugh at her for crying at those films.
"I wonder what they've done to my father's cinema," Mariam said to her one day. "If
it's still there, that is. Or if he still owns it."
Kharabat, Kabul's ancient music ghetto, was silenced. Musicians were beaten and imp-
risoned, theirrubab%›iamboura%› and harmoniums trampled upon. The Taliban went
to the grave of Tariq's favorite singer, Ahmad Zahir, and fired bullets into it.
"He's been dead for almost twenty years," Laila said to Mariam. "Isn't dying once eno-
* * *
Rasheed wasnt bothered much by the Taliban. All he had to do was grow a beard,
which he did, and visit the mosque, which he also did. Rasheed regarded the Taliban
with a forgiving, affectionate kind of bemusement, as one might regard an erratic cousin
prone to unpredictable acts of hilarity and scandal.
Every Wednesday night, Rasheed listened to the Voice ofShari'a when the Taliban
would announce the names of those scheduled for punishment. Then, on Fridays, he
went to Ghazi Stadium, bought a Pepsi, and watched the spectacle. In bed, he made La-
ila listen as he described with a queer sort of exhilaration the hands he'd seen severed,
the lashings, the hangings, the beheadings.
"I saw a man today slit the throat of his brother's murderer," he said one night, blowing
halos of smoke.
"They're savages," Laila said.
"You think?" he said "Compared to what? The Soviets killed a million people. Do you
know how many people the Mujahideen killed in Kabul alone these last four years?
Fifty thousandFifty thousand! Is it so insensible, by comparison, to chop the hands off a
few thieves? Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. It's in the Koran. Besides, tell me this: If
someone killed Aziza, wouldn't you want the chance to avenge her?"
Laila shot him a disgusted look.
"I'm making a point," he said.
"You're just like them."
"It's an interesting eye color she has, Aziza. Don't you think? It's neither yours nor mi-
Rasheed rolled over to face her, gently scratched her thigh with the crooked nail of his
"Let me explain," he said. "If the fancy should strike me-and I'm not saying it will, but
it could, it could-I would be within my rights to give Aziza away. How would you like
that? Or I could go to the Taliban one day, just walk in and say that I have my suspici-
ons about you. That's all it would take. Whose word do you think they would believe?
What do you think they'd do to you?"
Laila pulled her thigh from him.
"Not that I would," he said. "I wouldn't.Nay. Probably not. You know me."
"You're despicable," Laila said.
"That's a big word," Rasheed said. "I've always disliked that about you. Even when
you were little, when you were running around with that cripple, you thought you were
so clever, with your books and poems. What good are all your smarts to you now?
What's keeping you off the streets, your smarts or me? I'm despicable? Half the women
in this city would kill to have a husband like me. They wouldkill for it."
He rolled back and blew smoke toward the ceiling.
"You like big words? I'll give you one: perspective. That's what I'm doing here, Laila.
Making sure you don't lose perspective."
What turned Laila's stomach the rest of the night was that every word Rasheed had ut-
tered, every last one, was true.
But, in the morning, and for several mornings after that, the queasiness in her gut per-
sisted, then worsened, became something dismayingly familiar.
* * *
One cold, overcast afternoon soon after, Laila lay on her back on the bedroom floor.
Mariam was napping with Aziza in her room.
In Laila's hands was a metal spoke she had snapped with a pair of pliers from an aban-
doned bicycle wheel She'd found it in the same alley where she had kissed Tariq years
back. For a long time, Laila lay on the floor, sucking air through her teeth, legs parted
She'd adored Aziza from the moment when she'd first suspected her existence. There
had been none of this self-doubt, this uncertainty. What a terrible thing it was, Laila tho-
ught now, for a mother to fear that she could not summon love for her own child. What
an unnatural thing. And yet she had to wonder, as she lay on the floor, her sweaty hands
poised to guide the spoke, if indeed she could ever love Rasheed's child as she had Ta-
In the end, Laila couldn't do it.
It wasn't the fear of bleeding to death that made her drop the spoke, or even the idea
that the act was damnable- which she suspected it was. Laila dropped the spoke because
she could not accept what the Mujahideen readily had: that sometimes in war innocent
life had to be taken. Her war was against Rasheed. The baby was blameless. And there
had been enough killing already. Laila had seen enough killing of innocents caught in
the cross fire of enemies.
Madam September 1997
Ihis hospital no longer treats women," the guard barked. He was standing at the top of
the stairs, looking down icily on the crowd gathered in front of Malalai Hospital.
A loud groan rose from the crowd.
"But this is a women's hospital!" a woman shouted behind Mariam. Cries of approval
Mariam shifted Aziza from one arm to the other. With her free arm, she supported La-
ila, who was moaning, and had her own arm flung around Rasheed's neck.
"Not anymore," the Talib said.
"My wife is having a baby!" a heavyset man yelled. "Would you have her give birth
here on the street, brother?"
Mariam had heard the announcement, in January of that year, that men and women
would be seen in different hospitals, that all female staff would be discharged from Ka-
bul's hospitals and sent to work in one central facility. No one had believed it, and the
Taliban hadn't enforced the policy. Until now.
"What about Ali Abaci Hospital?" another man cried.
The guard shook his head.
"Men only," he said.
"What are we supposed to do?"
"Go to Rabia Balkhi," the guard said.
A young woman pushed forward, said she had already been there. They had no clean
water, she said, no oxygen, no medications, no electricity. "There is nothing there."
"That's where you go," the guard said.
There were more groans and cries, an insult or two. Someone threw a rock.
The Talib lifted his Kalashnikov and fired rounds into the air. Another Talib behind
him brandished a whip.
The crowd dispersed quickly.
* * *
The waiting room at Rabia Balkhi was teeming with women in burqas and their child-
ren. The air stank of sweat and unwashed bodies, of feet, urine, cigarette smoke, and an-
tiseptic. Beneath the idle ceiling fan, children chased each other, hopping over the
stretched-out legs of dozing fathers.
Mariam helped Laila sit against a wall from which patches of plaster shaped like fore-
ign countries had slid off Laila rocked back and forth, hands pressing against her belly.
"I'll get you seen, Laila jo. I promise."
"Be quick," said Rasheed.
Before the registration window was a horde of women, shoving and pushing against
each other. Some were still holding their babies. Some broke from the mass and charged
the double doors that led to the treatment rooms. An armed Talib guard blocked their
way, sent them back.
Mariam waded in. She dug in her heels and burrowed against the elbows, hips, and
shoulder blades of strangers. Someone elbowed her in the ribs, and she elbowed back. A
hand made a desperate grab at her face. She swatted it away. To propel herself forward,
Mariam clawed at necks, at arms and elbows, at hair, and, when a woman nearby hissed,
Mariam hissed back.
Mariam saw now the sacrifices a mother made. Decency was but one. She thought ru-
efully of Nana, of the sacrifices that she too had made. Nana, who could have given her
away, or tossed her in a ditch somewhere and run. But she hadn't. Instead, Nana had en-
dured the shame of bearing aharami, had shaped her life around the thankless task of ra-
ising Mariam and, in her own way, of loving her. And, in the end, Mariam had chosen
Jalil over her. As she fought her way with impudent resolve to the front of the melee,
Mariam wished she had been a better daughter to Nana. She wished she'd understood
then what she understood now about motherhood-She found herself face-to-face with a
nurse, who was covered head to toe in a dirty gray burqa. The nurse was talking to a yo-
ung woman, whose burqa headpiece had soaked through with a patch of matted blood
"My daughter's water broke and the baby won't come," Mariam called.
"I'm talking to her!" the bloodied young woman cried "Wait your turn!"
The whole mass of them swayed side to side, like the tall grass around thekolba when
the breeze swept across the clearing. A woman behind Mariam was yelling that her girl
had broken her elbow falling from a tree. Another woman cried that she was passing
"Does she have a fever?" the nurse asked. It took Mariam a moment to realize she was
being spoken to.
"No," Mariam said.
Over the covered heads, Mariam pointed to where Laila was sitting with Rasheed.
"We'll get to her," the nurse said
"How long?" Mariam cried Someone had grabbed her by the shoulders and was pul-
ling her back.
"I don't know,"the nurse said. She said they had only two doctorsand both were ope-
rating at the moment.
"She's in pain," Mariam said.
"Me too!" the woman with the bloodied scalp cried. "Wait your turn!"
Mariam was being dragged back. Her view of the nurse was blocked now by shoulders
and the backs of heads. She smelled a baby's milky burp.
"Take her for awalk," the nurse yelled. "And wait."
* * *
It was dark outside when a nurse finally called them in. The delivery room had eight
beds, on which women moaned and twisted tended to by fully covered nurses. Two of
the women were in the act of delivering. There were no curtains between the beds. Laila
was given a bed at the far end, beneath a window that someone had painted black. There
was a sink nearby, cracked and dry, and a string over the sink from which hung stained
surgical gloves. In the middle of the room Mariam saw an aluminum table. The top
shelf had a soot-colored blanket on it; the bottom shelf was empty.
One of the women saw Mariam looking.
"They put the live ones on the top," she said tiredly.
The doctor, in a dark blue burqa, was a small, harried woman with birdlike move-
ments. Everything she said came out sounding impatient, urgent.
"First baby." She said it like that, not as a question but as a statement.
"Second," Mariam said.
Laila let out a cry and rolled on her side. Her fingers closed against Mariam's.
"Any problems with the first delivery?"
"You're the mother?"
"Yes," Mariam said.
The doctor lifted the lower half of her burqa and produced a metallic, cone-shaped
instrument- She raised Laila's burqa and placed the wide end of the instrument on her
belly, the narrow end to her own ear. She listened for
almost a minute, switched spots, listened again, switched spots again.
"I have to feel the baby now,hamshira "
She put on one of the gloves hung by a clothespin over the sink. She pushed on Laila's
belly with one hand and slid the other inside. Laila whimpered. When the doctor was
done, she gave the glove to a nurse, who rinsed it and
pinned it back on the string.
"Your daughter needs a caesarian. Do you know what that is? We have to open her
womb and take the baby out, because it is in the breech position."
"I don't understand," Mariam said.
The doctor said the baby was positioned so it wouldn't come out on its own. "And too
much time has passed as is. We need to go to the operating room now."
Laila gave a grimacing nod, and her head drooped to one side.
"Thereis something I have to tell you," the doctor said. She moved closer to Mariam,
leaned in, and spoke in a lower, more confidential tone. There was a hint of embarras-
sment in her voice now.
"What is she saying?" Laila groaned. "Is something wrong with the baby?"
"But how will she stand it?" Mariam said.
The doctor must have heard accusation in this question, judging by the defensive shift
in her tone.
"You think I want it this way?" she said. "What do you want me to do? They won't gi-
ve me what I need. I have no X-ray either, no suction, no oxygen, not even simple anti-
biotics. When NGOs offer money, the Taliban turn them away. Or they funnel the mo-
ney to the places that cater to men."
"But, Doctor sahib, isn't there something you can give her?" Mariam asked.
"What's going on?" Laila moaned.
"You can buy the medicine yourself, but-"
"Write the name," Mariam said. "You write it down and I'll get it."
Beneath the burqa, the doctor shook her head curtly. "There is no time," she said. "For
one thing, none of the nearby pharmacies have it. So you'd have to fight through traffic
from one place to the next, maybe all the way across town, with little likelihood that
you'd ever find it. It's almost eight-thirty now, so you'll probably get arrested for bre-
aking curfew. Even if you find the medicine, chances are you can't afford it. Or you'll
find yourself in a bidding war with someone just as desperate. There is no time. This
baby needs to come out now."
"Tell me what's going on!" Laila said She had propped herself up on her elbows.
The doctor took a breath, then told Laila that the hospital had no anesthetic.
"But if we delay, you will lose your baby."
"Then cut me open," Laila said. She dropped back on the bed and drew up her knees.
"Cut me open and give me my baby."
* * *
Inside the old, dingy operating room, Laila lay on a gurney bed as the doctor scrubbed
her hands in a basin. Laila was shivering. She drew in air through her teeth every time
the nurse wiped her belly with a cloth soaked in a yellow-brown liquid. Another nurse
stood at the door. She kept cracking it open to take a peek outside.
The doctor was out of her burqa now, and Mariam saw that she had a crest of silvery
hair, heavy-lidded eyes, and little pouches of fatigue at the corners of her mouth.
"They want us to operate in burqa," the doctor explained, motioning with her head to
the nurse at the door. "She keeps watch. She sees them coming; I cover."
She said this in a pragmatic, almost indifferent, tone, and Mariam understood that this
was a woman far past outrage. Here was a woman, she thought, who had understood
that she was lucky to even be working, that there was always something, something el-
se, that they could take away.
There were two vertical, metallic rods on either side of Laila's shoulders. With clothes-
pins, the nurse who'd cleansed Laila's belly pinned a sheet to them. It formed a curtain
between Laila and the doctor.
Mariam positioned herself behind the crown of Laila's head and lowered her face so
their cheeks touched. She could feel Laila's teeth rattling. Their hands locked together.
Through the curtain, Mariam saw the doctor's shadow move to Laila's left, the nurse to
the right. Laila's lips had stretched all the way back. Spit bubbles formed and popped on
the surface of her clenched teeth. She made quick, little hissing sounds.
Documents you may be interested
Documents you may be interested