In class that day, Laila found it hard to pay attention, between Tariq's absence and her
parents' fight. So when the teacher called on her to name the capitals of Romania and
Cuba, Laila was caught off guard.
The teacher's name was Shanzai, but, behind her back, the students called her Khala
Rangmaal, Auntie Painter, referring to the motion she favored when she slapped stu-
dents-palm, then back of the hand, back and forth, like a painter working a brush. Khala
Rangmaal was a sharp-faced young woman with heavy eyebrows. On the first day of
school, she had proudly told the class that she was the daughter of a poor peasant from
Khost. She stood straight, and wore her jet-black hair pulled tightly back and tied in a
bun so that, when Khala Rangmaal turned around, Laila could see the dark bristles on
her neck. Khala Rangmaal did not wear makeup or jewelry. She did not cover and for-
bade the female students from doing it. She said women and men were equal in every
way and there was no reason women should cover if men didn't.
She said that the Soviet Union was the best nation in the world, along with Afghanis-
tan. It was kind to its workers, and its people were all equal. Everyone in the Soviet
Union was happy and friendly, unlike America, where crime made people afraid to le-
ave their homes. And everyone in Afghanistan would be happy too, she said, once the
antiprogressives, the backward bandits, were defeated.
"That's why our Soviet comrades came here in 1979. To lend their neighbor a hand. To
help us defeat these brutes who want our country to be a backward, primitive nation.
And you must lend your own hand, children. You must report anyone who might know
about these rebels. It's your duty. You must listen, then report. Even if it's your parents,
your uncles or aunts. Because none of them loves you as much as your country does.
Your country comes first, remember! I will be proud of you, and so will your country."
On the wall behind Khala Rangmaal's desk was a map of the Soviet Union, a map of
Afghanistan, and a framed photo of the latest communist president, Najibullah, who,
Babi said, had once been the head of the dreaded KHAD, the Afghan secret police. The-
re were other photos too, mainly of young Soviet soldiers shaking hands with peasants,
planting apple saplings, building homes, always smiling genially.
"Well," Khala Rangmaal said now, "have I disturbed your daydreaming,Inqilabi Girl?"
This was her nickname for Laila, Revolutionary Girl, because she'd been born the
night of the April coup of 1978-except Khala Rangmaal became angry if anyone in her
class used the wordcoup. What had happened, she insisted, was aninqilab, a revolution,
an uprising of the working people against inequality.Jihad was another forbidden word.
According to her, there wasn't even a war out there in the provinces, just skirmishes
against troublemakers stirred by people she called foreign provocateurs. And certainly
no one,no one, dared repeat in her presence the rising rumors that, after eight years of
fighting, the Soviets were losing this war. Particularly now that the American president,
Reagan, had started shipping the Mujahideen Stinger Missiles to down the Soviet heli-
copters, now that Muslims from all over the world were joining the cause: Egyptians,
Pakistanis, even wealthy Saudis, who left their millions behind and came to Afghanistan
to fight the jihad.
"Bucharest. Havana," Laila managed.
"And are those countries our friends or not?"
"They are,moolim sahib. They are friendly countries."
Khala Rangmaal gave a curt nod.
* * *
When school let out. Mammy again didn't show up like she was supposed to. Laila en-
ded up walking home with two of her classmates, Giti and Hasina.
Giti was a tightly wound, bony little girl who wore her hair in twin ponytails held by
elastic bands. She was always scowling, and walking with her books pressed to her
chest, like a shield. Hasina was twelve, three years older than Laila and Giti, but had fa-
iled third grade once and fourth grade twice. What she lacked in smarts Hasina made up
for in mischief and a mouth that, Giti said, ran like a sewing machine. It was Hasina
who had come up with the Khala Rangmaal nickname-Today, Hasina was dispensing
advice on how to fend off unattractive suitors. "Foolproof method, guaranteed to work. I
give you my word."
"This is stupid. I'm too young to have a suitor!" Giti said.
"You're not too young."
"Well, no one's come to ask formy hand."
"That's because you have a beard, my dear."
Giti's hand shot up to her chin, and she looked with alarm to Laila, who smiled pit-
yingly-Giti was the most humorless person Laila had ever met-and shook her head with
"Anyway, you want to know what to do or not, ladies?"
"Go ahead," Laila said.
"Beans. No less than four cans. On the evening the toothless lizard comes to ask for
your hand. But the timing, ladies, the timing is everything- You have to suppress the fi-
reworks 'til it's time to serve him his tea."
"I'll remember that," Laila said.
"So will he."
Laila could have said then that she didn't need this advice because Babi had no intenti-
on of giving her away anytime soon. Though Babi worked at Silo, Kabul's gigantic bre-
ad factory, where he labored amid the heat and the humming machinery stoking the
massive ovens and mill grains all day, he was a university-educated man. He'd been a
high school teacher before the communists fired him-this was shortly after the coup of
1978, about a year and a half before the Soviets had invaded. Babi had made it clear to
Laila from ayoung age that the most important thing in his life, after her safety, was her
I know you're still young, bull waniyou to understand and learn this now,he said.Mar-
riage can wait, education cannot You're a very, very bright girl. Truly, you are. You can
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be anything you want, Laila I know this about you. And I also know that when this war
is over, Afghanistan is going to need you as much as its men, maybe even more. Beca-
use a society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated, Laila No chance.
But Laila didn't tell Hasina that Babi had said these things, or how glad she was to ha-
ve a father like him, or how proud she was of his regard for her, or how determined she
was to pursue her education just as he had his. For the last two years, Laila had received
theawal numra certificate, given yearly to the top-ranked student in each grade.
She said nothing of these things to Hasina, though, whose own father was an ill-tempe-
red taxi driver who in two or three years would almost certainly give her away. Hasina
had told Laila, in one of her infrequent serious moments, that it had already been deci-
ded that she would marry a first cousin who was twenty years older than her and owned
an auto shop in Lahore.I've seen him twice, Hasina had said.Both times he ate with his
"Beans, girls," Hasina said. "You remember that. Unless, of course"-here she flashed
an impish grin and nudged Laila with an elbow-"it's your young handsome, one-legged
prince who comes knocking- Then…"
Laila slapped the elbow away. She would have taken offense if anyone else had said
that about Tariq. But she knew that Hasina wasn't malicious. She mocked-it was what
she did-and her mocking spared no one, least of all herself.
"You shouldn't talk that way about people!" Giti said.
"What people is that?"
"People who've been injured because of war," Giti said earnestly, oblivious to Hasina's
"I think Mullah Giti here has a crush on Tariq. I knew it! Ha! But he's already spoken
for, don't you know? Isn't he, Laila?"
"I do not have a crush. On anyone!"
They broke off from Laila, and, still arguing this way, turned in to their street.
Laila walked alone the last three blocks. When she was on her street, she noticed that
the blue Benz was still parked there, outside Rasheed and Mariam's house. The elderly
man in the brown suit was standing by the hood now, leaning on a cane, looking up at
That was when a voice behind Laila said, "Hey. Yellow Hair. Look here."
Laila turned around and was greeted by the barrel of a gun.
The gun was red, the trigger guard bright green. Behind the gun loomed Khadim's
grinning face. Khadim was eleven, like Tariq. He was thick, tall, and had a severe un-
derbite. His father was a butcher in Deh-Mazang, and, from time to time, Khadim was
known to fling bits of calf intestine at passersby. Sometimes, if Tariq wasn't nearby,
Khadim shadowed Laila in the schoolyard at recess, leering, making little whining no-
ises. One time, he'd tapped her on the shoulder and said,You 're so very pretty, Yellow
Hair. I want to marry you.
Now he waved the gun. "Don't worry," he said. "This won't show. Noton your hair."
"Don't you do it! I'm warning you."
"What are you going to do?" he said. "Sic your cripple on me? 'Oh, Tariq jan. Oh,
won't you come home and save me from thebadmashl'"
Laila began to backpedal, but Khadim was already pumping the trigger. One after
another, thin jets of warm water struck Laila's hair, then her palm when she raised it to
shield her face.
Now the other boys came out of their hiding, laughing, cackling.
An insult Laila had heard on the street rose to her lips. She didn't really understand it-
couldn't quite picture the logistics of it-but the words packed a fierce potency, and she
unleashed them now.
"Your mother eats cock!"
"At least she's not a loony like yours," Khadim shot back, unruffled "At least my fat-
her's not a sissy! And, by the way, why don't you smell your hands?"
The other boys took up the chant. "Smell your hands! Smell your hands!"
Laila did, but she knew even before she did, what he'd meant about it not showing in
her hair. She let out a high-pitched yelp. At this, the boys hooted even harder.
Laila turned around and, howling, ran home.
* * *
She drew water from the well, and, in the bathroom, filled a basin, tore off her clothes.
She soaped her hair, frantically digging fingers into her scalp, whimpering with disgust.
She rinsed with a bowl and soaped her hair again. Several times, she thought she might
throw up. She kept mewling and shivering, as she rubbed and rubbed the soapy washc-
loth against her face and neck until they reddened.
This would have never happened if Tariq had been with her, she thought as she put on
a clean shirt and fresh trousers. Khadim wouldn't have dared. Of course, it wouldn't ha-
ve happened if Mammy had shown up like she was supposed to either. Sometimes Laila
wondered why Mammy had even bothered having her. People, she believed now, sho-
uldn't be allowed to have new children if they'd already given away all their love to their
old ones. It wasn't fair. A fit of anger claimed her. Laila went to her room, collapsed on
When the worst of it had passed, she went across the hallway to Mammy's door and
knocked. When she was younger, Laila used to sit for hours outside this door. She wo-
uld tap on it and whisper Mammy's name over and over, like a magic chant meant to
break a spell:Mammy, Mammy, Mammy, Mammy… But Mammy never opened the door.
She didn't open it now. Laila turned the knob and walked in.
* * *
Sometimes Mammy had good days. She sprang out of bed bright-eyed and playful.
The droopy lower lip stretched upward in a smile. She bathed. She put on fresh clothes
and wore mascara. She let Laila brush her hair, which Laila loved doing, and pin ear-
rings through her earlobes. They went shopping together to Mandaii Bazaar. Laila got
her to play snakes and ladders, and they ate shavings from blocks of dark chocolate, one
of the few things they shared a common taste for. Laila's favorite part of Mammy's good
days was when Babi came home, when she and Mammy looked up from the board and
grinned at him with brown teeth. A gust of contentment puffed through the room then,
and Laila caught a momentary glimpse of the tenderness, the romance, that had once bo-
und her parents back when this house had been crowded and noisy and cheerful.
Mammy sometimes baked on her good days and invited neighborhood women over for
tea and pastries. Laila got to lick the bowls clean, as Mammy set the table with cups and
napkins and the good plates. Later, Laila would take her place at the living-room table
and try to break into the conversation, as the women talked boisterously and drank tea
and complimented Mammy on her baking. Though there was never much for her to say,
Laila liked to sit and listen in because at these gatherings she was treated to a rare ple-
asure: She got to hear Mammy speaking affectionately about Babi.
"What a first-rate teacher he was," Mammy said. "His students loved him. And not
only because he wouldn't beat them with rulers, like other teachers did. They respected
him, you see, because he respectedthem. He was marvelous."
Mammy loved to tell the story of how she'd proposed to him.
"I was sixteen, he was nineteen. Our families lived next door to each other in Panjshir.
Oh, I had the crush on him,hamshirasl I used to climb the wall between our houses, and
we'd play in his father's orchard. Hakim was always scared that we'd get caught and that
my father would give him a slapping. 'Your father's going to give me a slapping,' he'd
always say. He was so cautious, so serious, even then. And then one day I said to him, I
said, 'Cousin, what will it be? Are you going to ask for my hand or are you going to ma-
ke me comekhasiegari to you?' I said it just like that. You should have seen the face on
Mammy would slap her palms together as the women, and Laila, laughed.
Listening to Mammy tell these stories, Laila knew that there had been a time when
Mammy always spoke this way about Babi. A time when her parents did not sleep in se-
parate rooms. Laila wished she hadn't missed out on those times.
Inevitably, Mammy's proposal story led to matchmaking schemes. When Afghanistan
was free from the Soviets and the boys returned home, they would need brides, and so,
one by one, the women paraded the neighborhood girls who might or might not be su-
itable for Ahmad and Noon Laila always felt excluded when the talk turned to her brot-
hers, as though the women were discussing a beloved film that only she hadn't seen.
She'd been two years old when Ahmad and Noor had left Kabul for Panjshir up north, to
join Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud's forces and fight the jihad Laila hardly remem-
bered anything at all about them. A shiny allah pendant around Ahmad's neck. A patch
of black hairs on one of Noor's ears. And that was it.
"What about Azita?"
"The rugmaker's daughter?" Mammy said, slapping her cheek with mock outrage.
"She has a thicker mustache than Hakim!"
"There's Anahita. We hear she's top in her class at Zarghoona."
"Have you seen the teeth on that girl? Tombstones. She's hiding a graveyard behind
"How about the Wahidi sisters?"
"Those two dwarfs? No, no, no. Oh, no. Not for my sons. Not for my sultans. They de-
As the chatter went on, Laila let her mind drift, and, as always, it found Tariq.
* * *
Mammy had pulled the yellowish curtains. In the darkness, the room had a layered
smell about it: sleep, unwashed linen, sweat, dirty socks, perfume, the previous night's
leftoverqurma. Laila waited for her eyes to adjust before she crossed the room. Even so,
her feet became entangled with items of clothing that littered the floor.
Laila pulled the curtains open. At the foot of the bed was an old metallic folding chair.
Laila sat on it and watched the unmoving blanketed mound that was her mother.
The walls of Mammy's room were covered with pictures of Ahmad and Noor. Everyw-
here Laila looked, two strangers smiled back. Here was Noor mounting a tricycle. Here
was Ahmad doing his prayers, posing beside a sundial Babi and he had built when he
was twelve. And there they were, her brothers, sitting back to back beneath the old pear
tree in the yard.
Beneath Mammy's bed, Laila could see the corner of Ahmad's shoe box protruding.
From time to time, Mammy showed her the old, crumpled newspaper clippings in it,
and pamphlets that Ahmad had managed to collect from insurgent groups and resistance
organizations headquartered in Pakistan. One photo, Laila remembered, showed a man
in a long white coat handing a lollipop to a legless little boy. The caption below the
photo read:Children are the intended victims of Soviet land mine campaign. The article
went on to say that the Soviets also liked to hide explosives inside brightly colored toys.
If a child picked it up, the toy exploded, tore off fingers or an entire hand. The father co-
uld not join the jihad then; he'd have to stay home and care for his child. In another ar-
ticle in Ahmad's box, a young Mujahid was saying that the Soviets had dropped gas on
his village that burned people's skin and blinded them. He said he had seen his mother
and sister running for the stream, coughing up blood.
The mound stirred slightly. It emitted a groan.
"Get up, Mammy. It's three o'clock."
Another groan. A hand emerged, like a submarine periscope breaking surface, and
dropped. The mound moved more discernibly this time. Then the rustle of blankets as
layers of them shifted over each other. Slowly, in stages, Mammy materialized: first the
slovenly hair, then the white, grimacing face, eyes pinched shut against the light, a hand
groping for the headboard, the sheets sliding down as she pulled herself up, grunting.
Mammy made an effort to look up, flinched against the light, and her head drooped over
"How was school?" she muttered.
So it would begin. The obligatory questions, the perfunctory answers. Both pretending.
Unenthusiastic partners, the two of them, in this tired old dance.
"School was fine," Laila said.
"Did you learn anything?"
"Did you eat?"
Mammy raised her head again, toward the window. She winced and her eyelids flutte-
red The right side of her face was red, and the hair on that side had flattened.
"I have a headache."
"Should I fetch you some aspirin?"
Mammy massaged her temples. "Maybe later. Is your father home?"
"It's only three."
"Oh. Right. You said that already." Mammy yawned. "I was dreaming just now," she
said, her voice only a bit louder than the rustle of her nightgown against the sheets. "Just
now, before you came in. But I can't remember it now. Does that happen to you?"
"It happens to everybody, Mammy."
"I should tell you that while you were dreaming, a boy shot piss out of a water gun on
"Shot what? What was that? I'm sony."
"That's…that's terrible. God I'm sorry. Poor you. I'll have a talk with him first thing in
the morning. Or maybe with his mother. Yes, that would be better, I think."
"I haven't told you who it was."
"Oh. Well, who was it?"
"You were supposed to pick me up."
"I was," Mammy croaked. Laila could not tell whether this was a question. Mammy
began picking at her hair. This was one of life's great mysteries to Laila, that Mammy's
picking had not made her bald as an egg. "What about…What's his name, your friend,
Tariq? Yes, what about him?"
"He's been gone for a week."
"Oh." Mammy sighed through her nose. "Did you wash?"
"So you're clean, then." Mammy turned her tired gaze to the window. "You're clean,
and everything is fine."
Laila stood up. "I have homework now."
"Of course you do. Shut the curtains before you go, my love," Mammy said, her voice
fading. She was already sinking beneath the sheets.
As Laila reached for the curtains, she saw a car pass by on the street tailed by a cloud
of dust. It was the blue Benz with the Herat license plate finally leaving. She followed it
with her eyes until it vanished around a turn, its back window twinkling in the sun.
"I won't forget tomorrow," Mammy was saying behind her. "I promise."
"You said that yesterday."
"You don't know, Laila."
"Know what?" Laila wheeled around to face her mother. "What don't I know?"
Mammy's hand floated up to her chest, tapped there. "Inhere. What's inhere. " Then it
fell flaccid. "You just don't know."
A week passed, but there was still no sign of Tariq. Then another week came and went.
To fill the time, Laila fixed the screen door that Babi still hadn't got around to. She to-
ok down Babi's books, dusted and alphabetized them. She went to Chicken Street with
Hasina,Giti, and Giti's mother, Nila, who was a seamstress and sometime sewing part-
ner of Mammy's. In that week, Laila came to believe that of all the hardships a person
had to face none was more punishing than the simple act of waiting.
Another week passed.
Laila found herself caught in a net of terrible thoughts.
He would never come back. His parents had moved away for good; the trip to Ghazni
had been a ruse. An adult scheme to spare the two of them an upsetting farewell.
A land minehad gotten to him again. The way it did in 1981, when he was five, the last
time his parents took him south to Ghazni. That was shortly after Laila's third birthday.
He'd been lucky that time, losing only a leg; lucky that he'd survived at all.
Her head rang and rang with these thoughts.
Then one night Laila saw a tiny flashing light from down the street. A sound, somet-
hing between a squeak and a gasp, escaped herlips. She quickly fished her own flash-
light from under the bed, but it wouldn't work. Laila banged it against her palm, cursed
the dead batteries. But it didn't matter. He was back. Laila sat on the edge of her bed,
giddy with relief, and watched that beautiful, yellow eye winking on and off.
* * *
On her way to Tariq's house the next day, Laila saw Khadim and a group of his friends
across the street. Khadim was squatting, drawing something in the dirt with a stick.
When he saw her, he dropped the stick and wiggled his fingers. He said something and
there was a round of chuckles. Laila dropped her head and hurried past.
"What did youdo1?" she exclaimed when Tariq opened the door. Only then did she re-
member that his uncle was a barber.
Tariq ran his hand over his newly shaved scalp and smiled, showing white, slightly
"You look like you're enlisting in the army."
"You want to feel?" He lowered his head.
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