Laila loved the moist kisses Zalmai planted on her cheeks, loved his dimpled elbows
and stout little toes. She loved tickling him, building tunnels with cushions and pillows
for him to crawl through, watching him fall asleep in her arms with one of his hands al-
ways clutching her ear. Her stomach turned when she thought of that afternoon, lying
on the floor with the spoke of a bicycle wheel between her legs. How close she'd come.
It was unthinkable to her now that she could have even entertained the idea. Her son
was a blessing, and Laila was relieved to discover that her fears had proved baseless,
that she loved Zalmai with the marrow of her bones, just as she did Aziza.
But Zalmai worshipped his father, and, because he did, he was transformed when his
father was around to dote on him. Zalmai was quick then with a defiant cackle or an im-
pudent grin. In his father's presence, he was easily offended. He held grudges. He per-
sisted in mischief in spite of Laila's scolding, which he never did when Rasheed was
Rasheed approved of all of it. "A sign of intelligence," he said. He said the same of
Zalmai's recklessness-when he swallowed, then pooped, marbles; when he lit matches;
when he chewed on Rasheed's cigarettes.
When Zalmai was born, Rasheed had moved him into the bed he shared with Laila. He
had bought him a new crib and had lions and crouching leopards painted on the side pa-
nels. He'd paid for new clothes, new rattles, new bottles, new diapers, even though they
could not afford them and Aziza's old ones were still serviceable. One day, he came ho-
me with a battery-run mobile, which he hung over Zalmai's crib. Little yellow-and-
black bumblebees dangled from a sunflower, and they crinkled and squeaked when squ-
eezed. A tune played when it was turned on.
"I thought you said business was slow," Laila said.
"I have friends I can borrowfrom," he saiddismissively.
"Howwill you pay them back?"
"Thingswill turn around. They always do. Look,he likes it. See?"
Mostdays, Laila was deprived ofher son. Rasheed took him to the shop, let him crawl
around under his crowded workbench, play with old rubber soles and spare scraps of le-
ather. Rasheed drove in his iron nails and turned the sandpaper wheel, and kept a watch-
ful eye on him. If Zalmai toppled a rack of shoes, Rasheed scolded him gently, in a
calm, half-smiling way. If he did it again, Rasheed put downhis hammer, sat him up on
his desk, and talked to him softly.
Hispatience with Zalmaiwas a well that ran deep and never dried.
They came home together in the evening, Zalmai's head bouncing on Rasheed's shoul-
der, both of them smelling of glue and leather. They grinned the way people who share
a secret do,slyly, like they'd satin thatdim shoe shop all day not making shoes at all
butdevising secret plots. Zalmai liked to sit besidehis father at dinner, where they pla-
yed private games, as Mariam, Laila, and Azizaset plates onthesojrah. They took turns
poking each otheron the chest, giggling, pelting each other with bread crumbs, whispe-
ring things the others couldn't hear. If Laila spoke tothem, Rasheed looked up with
displeasure at the unwelcome intrusion. If she asked to hold Zalmai-or, worse,if Zalmai
reached for her-Rasheed glowered at her.
Laila walked away feeling stung.
* * *
Then one night, a few weeks after Zalmai turned two, Rasheed came home with a tele-
vision and a VCR. The day had been warm, almost balmy, but the evening was cooler
and already thickening into a starless, chilly night-He set it down on the living-room
table. He said he'd bought it on the black market. "Another loan?" Laila asked. "It'sa-
Aziza came into the room. When she saw the TV, she ran to it. "Careful, Aziza jo," sa-
idMariam. "Don't touch."
Aziza's hair had become as light as Laila's. Laila could see her own dimples on her
cheeks. Aziza had turned into a calm, pensive little girl, with a demeanor that to Laila
seemed beyond her six years. Laila marveled at her daughter's manner of speech, her ca-
dence and rhythm, her thoughtful pauses and intonations, so adult, so at odds with the
immature body that housed the voice. It was Aziza who with lightheaded authority had
taken it upon herself to wake Zalmai every day, to dress him, feed him his breakfast,
comb his hair. She was the one who put him down to nap, who played even-tempered
peacemaker to her volatile sibling. Around him, Aziza had taken to giving an exaspera-
ted, queerly adult headshake.
Aziza pushed the TV's power button. Rasheed scowled, snatched her wrist and set it on
the table, not gently at all.
"This is Zalmai's TV," he said.
Aziza went over to Mariam and climbed in her lap. The two of them were inseparable
now. Of late, with Laila's blessing, Mariam had started teaching Aziza verses from the
Koran. Aziza could already recite by heart the surah ofikhlas, the surah of'fatiha,and al-
ready knew how to perform the fourruqats of morning prayer.
It's oil I have to give her,Mariam had said to Laila,this knowledge, these prayers.
They're the only true possession I've ever had.
Zalmai came into the room now. As Rasheed watched with anticipation, the way peop-
le wait the simple tricks of street magicians, Zalmai pulled on the TV's wire, pushed the
buttons, pressed his palms to the blank screen. When he lifted them, the condensed little
palms faded from the glass. Rasheed smiled with pride, watched as Zalmai kept pres-
sing his palms and lifting them, over and over.
The Taliban had banned television. Videotapes had been gouged publicly, the tapes
ripped out and strung on fence posts. Satellite dishes had been hung from lampposts.
But Rasheed said just because things were banned didn't mean you couldn't find them.
"I'll start looking for some cartoon videos tomorrow," he said. "It won't be hard. You
can buy anything in underground bazaars."
"Then maybe you'll buy us a new well," Laila said, and this won her a scornful gaze
It was later, after another dinner of plain white rice had been consumed and tea forgo-
ne again on account of the drought, after Rasheed had smoked a cigarette, that he told
Laila about his decision.
"No," Laila said.
He said he wasn't asking.
"I don't care if you are or not."
"You would if you knew the full story."
He said he had borrowed from more friends than he let on, that the money from the
shop alone was no longer enough to sustain the five of them. "I didn't tell you earlier to
spare you the worrying."
"Besides," he said, "you'd be surprised how much they can bring in."
Laila said no again. They were in the living room. Mariam and the children were in the
kitchen. Laila could hear the clatter of dishes, Zalmai's high-pitched laugh, Aziza saying
something to Mariam in her steady, reasonable voice.
"There will be others like her, younger even," Rasheed said. "Everyone in Kabul is do-
ing the same."
Laila told him she didn't care what other people did with their children.
"I'll keep a close eye on her," Rasheed said, less patiently now. "It's a safe corner. The-
re's a mosque across the street."
"I won't let you turn my daughter into a street beggar!" Laila snapped.
The slap made a loud smacking sound, the palm of his thick-fingered hand connecting
squarely with the meat of Laila's cheek. It made her head whip around. It silenced the
noises from the kitchen. For a moment, the house was perfectly quiet. Then a flurry of
hurried footsteps in the hallway before Mariam and the children were in the living ro-
om, their eyes shifting from her to Rasheed and back.
Then Laila punched him.
It was the first time she'd struck anybody, discounting the playful punches she and Ta-
riq used to trade. But those had been open-fisted, more pats than punches, self-conscio-
usly friendly, comfortable expressions of anxieties that were both perplexing and thril-
ling. They would aim for the muscle that Tariq, in a professorial voice, called thedeltoid
Laila watched the arch of her closed fist, slicing through the air, felt the crinkle of Ras-
heed's stubbly, coarse skin under her knuckles. It made a sound like dropping a rice bag
to the floor. She hit him hard. The impact actually made him stagger two steps back-
From the other side of the room, a gasp, a yelp, and a scream. Laila didn't know who
had made which noise. At the moment, she was too astounded to notice or care, waiting
for her mind to catch up with what her hand had done. When it did, she believed she
might have smiled. She might havegrinned when, to her astonishment, Rasheed calmly
walked out of the room.
Suddenly, it seemed to Laila that the collective hardships of their lives-hers, Aziza's,
Mariam's-simply dropped away, vaporized like Zalmai's palms from the TV screen. It
seemed worthwhile, if absurdly so, to have endured all they'd endured for this one crow-
ning moment, for this act of defiance that would end the suffering of all indignities.
Laila did not notice that Rasheed was back in the room. Until his hand was around her
throat. Until she was lifted off her feet and slammed against the wall.
Up close, his sneering face seemed impossibly large. Laila noticed how much puffier it
was getting with age, how many more broken vessels charted tiny paths on his nose.
Rasheed didn't say anything. And, really, what could be said, what needed saying, when
you'd shoved the barrel of your gun into your wife's mouth?
* * *
It was the raids, the reason they were in the yard digging. Sometimes monthly raids,
sometimes weekly. Of late, almost daily. Mostly, the Taliban confiscated stuff, gave a
kick to someone's rear, whacked the back of a head or two. But sometimes there were
public beatings, lashings of soles and palms.
"Gently," Mariam said now, her knees over the edge. They lowered the TV into the ho-
le by each clutching one end of the plastic sheet in which it was wrapped
"That should do it," Mariam said.
They patted the dirt when they were done, filling the hole up again. They tossed some
of it around so it wouldn't look conspicuous.
"There," Mariam said, wiping her hands on her dress.
When it was safer, they'd agreed, when the Taliban cut down on their raids, in a month
or two or six, or maybe longer, they would dig the TV up.
* * *
In Laila'S dream, she and Mariam are out behind the toolshed digging again. But, this
time, it's Aziza they're lowering into the ground. Aziza's breath fogs the sheet of plastic
in which they have wrapped her. Laila sees her panicked eyes, the whiteness of her
palms as they slap and push against the sheet. Aziza pleads. Laila can't hear her scre-
ams.Only for a while, she calls down,it's only for a while. It's the raids, don't you know,
my love? When the raids are over, Mammy and Khala Mariam will dig you out. I pro-
mise, my love. Then we can play. We can play all you want. She fills the shovel. Laila
woke up, out of breath, with a taste of soil in her mouth, when the first granular lumps
of dirt hit the plastic.
In the summer of 2000, the drought reached its third and worst year.
In Helmand, Zabol, Kandahar, villages turned into herds of nomadic communities, al-
ways moving, searching for water and green pastures for their livestock. When they fo-
und neither, when their goats and sheep and cows died off, they came to Kabul They to-
ok to the Kareh-Ariana hillside, living in makeshift slums, packed in huts, fifteen or
twenty at a time.
That was also the summer ofTitanic, the summer that Mariam and Aziza were a tangle
of limbs, rolling and giggling, Aziza insistingshe get to be Jack.
"Quiet, Aziza jo."
"Jack! Say my name, Khala Mariam. Say it. Jack!" "Your father will be angry if you
"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 scanda-
lous behavior, cackled through puckered lips.
Sometimes Zalmai would saunter in and watch this game. What didhe get to be, he as-
"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 do-
ors, 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 be-
hind 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 buyTitanic carpets, andTitanic cloth, from bolts ar-
ranged in wheelbarrows. There wasTitanic deodorant,Titanic toothpaste,Titanic perfu-
me,Titanicpakora, evenTitanic 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
* * *
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. Ras-
heed'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 Ma-
riam. 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 marriedapart, 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 custo-
mer got into a scuffle. The customer complained that Rasheed had rudely tossed the bre-
ad on his table. Harsh words had passed. Rasheed had called the customer a monkey-fa-
ced Uzbek. A gun had been brandished. A skewer pointed in return. In Rasheed's versi-
on, he held the skewer. Mariam had her doubts.
Fired from the restaurant in Taimani because customers complained about the long wa-
its, 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 skip-
ped 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
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 porti-
on 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 hun-
ger when Ramadan started:Even the snakebiiien 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 un-affordable luxury now, and Mariam was ex-
hausted 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 dres-
sed 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 Mari-
am at one point, and they both looked her way briefly. Mariam thought there was so-
mething 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 fa9ade 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 ourreal masters," Rasheed said in a low-pitched voice. "Pakistani and Arab Isla-
mists. The Taliban are puppets.These are the big players and Afghanistan is their playg-
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 suici-
de 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. Mari-
am saw two men sitting on leather chairs, rifles and a coffee table between them, sip-
ping black tea and eating from a plate of syrup-coatedjelabi, rings sprinkled with pow-
dered sugar. She thought of Aziza, who lovedjelabi, 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 Rashe-
ed 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 calledhis na-
me outsidehis house. Mariam had parted the curtain once, just a bit, and caught a glimp-
se 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 cur-
tains. 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 co-
me 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 whyyou 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 cal-
"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 child-
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 punctu-
ated by clicks, maybe an electric fan. She switched the phone to her other ear, closed
She pictured Jalil smiling, reaching into his pocket.
Ah. Of course. Well Here then. Without Juriher ado…
A leaf-shaped pendant, tiny coins etched with moons and stars hanging from it.
Try it on, Mariam jo.
What do you think?
Ithink you look like a queen.
A few minutes passed. Then footsteps, a creaking sound, and a click. "He does know
"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 be-
en in his mid-to late seventies by now, but…
He was dying then. He had driven all the way from Herat to say good-bye.
She moved to the edge of the balcony. From up here, she could see the hotel's once-fa-
mous swimming pool, empty and grubby now, scarred by bullet holes and decaying ti-
les. 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
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