"An hour at the most," the driver said. "Barring any more convoys or checkpoints."
They were taking a day trip, Laila, Babi, and Tariq. Hasina had wanted to come too,
had begged her father, but he wouldn't allow it. The trip was Babi's idea. Though he co-
uld hardly afford it on his salary, he'd hired a driver for the day. He wouldn't disclose
anything to Laila about their destination except to say that, with it, he was contributing
to her education.
They had been on the road since five in the morning. Through Laila's window, the
landscape shifted from snowcapped peaks to deserts to canyons and sun-scorched outc-
roppings of rocks. Along the way, they passed mud houses with thatched roofs and fi-
elds dotted with bundles of wheat. Pitched out in the dusty fields, here and there, Laila
recognized the black tents of Koochi nomads. And, frequently, the carcasses of burned-
out Soviet tanks and wrecked helicopters. This, she thought, was Ahmad and Noor's
Afghanistan. This, here in the provinces, was where the war was being fought, after all.
Not in Kabul. Kabul was largely at peace. Back in Kabul, if not for the occasional bursts
of gunfire, if not for the Soviet soldiers smoking on the sidewalks and the Soviet jeeps
always bumping through the streets, war might as well have been a rumor.
It was late morning, after they'd passed two more checkpoints, when they entered a
valley. Babi had Laila lean across the seat and pointed to a series of ancient-looking
walls of sun-dried red in the distance.
"That's called Shahr-e-Zohak. The Red City. It used to be a fortress. It was built some
nine hundred years ago to defend the valley from invaders. Genghis Khan's grandson at-
tacked it in the thirteenth century, but he was killed. It was Genghis Khan himself who
then destroyed it."
"And that, my young friends, is the story of our country, one invader after another,"
the driver said, flicking cigarette ash out the window. "Macedonians. Sassanians. Arabs.
Mongols. Now the Soviets. But we're like those walls up there. Battered, and nothing
pretty to look at, but still standing. Isn't that the truth,badar?'
"Indeed it is," said Babi.
* * *
Half an hour later,the driver pulled over.
"Come on, you two," Babi said. "Come outside and have a look."
They got out of the taxi. Babi pointed "There they are. Look."
Tariq gasped. Laila did too. And she knew then that she could live to be a hundred and
she would never again see a thing as magnificent.
The two Buddhas were enormous, soaring much higher than she had imagined from all
the photos she'd seen of them. Chiseled into a sun-bleached rock cliff, they peered down
at them, as they had nearly two thousand years before, Laila imagined, at caravans cros-
sing the valley on the Silk Road. On either side of them, along the overhanging niche,
the cliff was pocked with myriad caves.
"I feel so small," Tariq said.
"You want to climb up?" Babi said.
"Up the statues?" Laila asked. "We can do that?"
Babi smiled and held out his hand. "Come on."
* * *
Theclimb washard for Tariq, who had to hold on to both Laila and Babi as they inc-
hed up a winding, narrow, dimly lit staircase. They saw shadowy caves along the way,
and tunnels honeycombing the cliff every which way.
"Careful where you step," Babi said His voice made a loud echo. "The ground is treac-
In some parts, the staircase was open to the Buddha's cavity.
"Don't look down, children. Keep looking straight ahead."
As they climbed, Babi told them that Bamiyan had once been a thriving Buddhist cen-
ter until it had fallen under Islamic Arab rule in the ninth century. The sandstone cliffs
were home to Buddhist monks who carved caves in them to use as living quarters and as
sanctuary for weary traveling pilgrims. The monks, Babi said, painted beautiful frescoes
along the walls and roofs of their caves.
"At one point," he said, "there were five thousand monks living as hermits in these ca-
Tariq was badly out of breath when they reached the top. Babi was panting too. But his
eyes shone with excitement.
"We're standing atop its head," he said, wiping his brow with a handkerchief "There's a
niche over here where we can look out."
They inched over to the craggy overhang and, standing side by side, with Babi in the
middle, gazed down on the valley.
"Look at this!" said Laila.
The Bamiyan Valley below was carpeted by lush farming fields. Babi said they were
green winter wheat and alfalfa, potatoes too. The fields were bordered by poplars and
crisscrossed by streams and irrigation ditches, on the banks of which tiny female figures
squatted and washed clothes. Babi pointed to rice paddies and barley fields draping the
slopes. It was autumn, and Laila could make out people in bright tunics on the roofs of
mud brick dwellings laying out the harvest to dry. The main road going through the
town was poplar-lined too. There were small shops and teahouses and street-side bar-
bers on either side of it. Beyond the village, beyond the river and the streams, Laila saw
foothills, bare and dusty brown, and, beyond those, as beyond everything else in Afgha-
nistan, the snowcapped Hindu Kush.
The sky above all of this was an immaculate, spotless blue.
"It's so quiet," Laila breathed. She could see tiny sheep and horses but couldn't hear
their bleating and whinnying.
"It's what I always remember about being up here," Babi said. "The silence. The peace
of it. I wanted you to experience it. But I also wanted you to see your country's heritage,
children, to learn of its rich past. You see, some things I can teach you. Some you learn
from books. But there are things that, well, you just have tosee andfeel."
"Look," said Tariq.
They watched a hawk, gliding in circles above the village.
"Did you ever bring Mammy up here?" Laila asked
"Oh, many times. Before the boys were born. After too. Your mother, she used to be
adventurous then, and…soalive. She was just about the liveliest, happiest person I'd
ever met." He smiled at the memory. "She had this laugh. I swear it's why I married her,
Laila, for that laugh. It bulldozed you. You stood no chance against it."
A wave of affection overcame Laila. From then on, she would always remember Babi
this way: reminiscing about Mammy, with his elbows on the rock, hands cupping his
chin, his hair ruffled by the wind, eyes crinkled against the sun.
"I'm going to look at some of those caves," Tariq said.
"Be careful," said Babi.
"I will,Kakajan," Tariq's voice echoed back.
Laila watched a trio of men far below, talking near a cow tethered to a fence. Around
them, the trees had started to turn, ochre and orange, scarlet red.
"I miss the boys too, you know," Babi said. His eyes had welled up a tad. His chin was
trembling. "I may not… With your mother, both her joy and sadness are extreme. She
can't hide either. She never could. Me, I suppose I'm different. I tend to…But it broke
me too, the boys dying. I miss them too. Not a day passes that I…It's very hard, Laila.
So very hard." He squeezed the inner corners of his eyes with his thumb and forefinger.
When he tried to talk, his voice broke. He pulled his lips over his teeth and waited. He
took a long, deep breath, looked at her. "But I'm glad I have you. Every day, I thank
God for you. Every single day. Sometimes, when your mother's having one of her really
dark days, I feel like you're all I have, Laila."
Laila drew closer to him and rested her cheek up against his chest. He seemed slightly
startled-unlike Mammy, he rarely expressed his affection physically. He planted a brisk
kiss on the top of her head and hugged her back awkwardly. They stood this way for a
while, looking down on the Bamiyan Valley.
"As much as I love this land, some days I think about leaving it," Babi said.
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"Anyplace where it's easy to forget. Pakistan first, I suppose. For a year, maybe two.
Wait for our paperwork to get processed."
"And then, well, itis a big world. Maybe America. Somewhere near the sea. Like Cali-
Babi said the Americans were a generous people. They would help them with money
and food for a while, until they could get on their feet.
"I would find work, and, in a few years, when we had enough saved up, we'd open a
little Afghan restaurant-Nothing fancy, mind you, just a modest little place, a few tables,
some rugs. Maybe hang some pictures of Kabul. We'd give the Americans a taste of
Afghan food. And with your mother's cooking, they'd line up and down the street.
"And you, you would continue going to school, of course. You know how I feel about
that. That would be our absolute top priority, to get you a good education, high school
then college. But in your free time,if you wanted to, you could help out, take orders, fill
water pitchers, that sort of thing."
Babi said they would hold birthday parties at the restaurant, engagement ceremonies,
New Year's get-togethers. It would turn into a gathering place for other Afghans who,
like them, had fled the war. And, late at night, after everyone had left and the place was
cleaned up, they would sit for tea amid the empty tables, the three of them, tired but
thankful for their good fortune.
When Babi was done speaking, he grew quiet. They both did. They knew that Mammy
wasn't going anywhere. Leaving Afghanistan had been unthinkable to her while Ahmad
and Noor were still alive. Now that they wereshaheed, packing up and running was an
even worse affront, a betrayal, a disavowal of the sacrifice her sons had made.
How can you think of it?Laila could hear her saying.Does their dying mean nothing to
you, cousin? The only solace I find is in knowing that I walk the same ground that so-
aked up their blood. No. Never.
And Babi would never leave without her, Laila knew, even though Mammy was no
more a wife to him now than she was a mother to Laila. For Mammy, he would brush
aside this daydream of his the way he flicked specks of flour from his coat when he got
home from work. And so they would stay. They would stay until the war ended And
they would stay for whatever came after war.
Laila remembered Mammy telling Babi once that she had married a man who had no
convictions. Mammy didn't understand. She didn't understand that if she looked into a
mirror, she would find the one unfailing conviction of his life looking right back at her.
* * *
Later, after they'd eaten a lunch of boiled eggs and potatoes with bread, Tariq napped
beneath a tree on the banks of a gurgling stream. He slept with his coat neatly folded in-
to a pillow, his hands crossed on his chest. The driver went to the village to buy al-
monds. Babi sat at the foot of a thick-trunked acacia tree reading a paperback. Laila
knew the book; he'd read it to her once. It told the story of an old fisherman named San-
tiago who catches an enormous fish. But by the time he sails his boat to safety, there is
nothing left of his prize fish; the sharks have torn it to pieces.
Laila sat on the edge of the stream, dipping her feet into the cool water. Overhead,
mosquitoes hummed and cottonwood seeds danced. A dragonfly whirred nearby. Laila
watched its wings catch glints of sunlight as it buzzed from one blade of grass to anot-
her. They flashed purple, then green, orange. Across the stream, a group of local Hazara
boys were picking patties of dried cow dung from the ground and stowing them into
burlap sacks tethered to their backs. Somewhere, a donkey brayed. A generator sputte-
red to life.
Laila thought again about Babi's little dream.Somewhere near the sea
There was something she hadn't told Babi up there atop the Buddha: that, in one im-
portant way, she was glad they couldn't go. She would miss Giti and her pinch-faced
earnestness, yes, and Hasina too, with her wicked laugh and reckless clowning around
But, mostly, Laila remembered all too well the inescapable drudgery of those four we-
eks without Tariq when he had gone to Ghazni. She remembered all too well how time
had dragged without him, how she had shuffled about feeling waylaid, out of balance.
How could she ever cope with his permanent absence?
Maybe it was senseless to want to be near a person so badly here in a country where
bullets had shredded her own brothers to pieces. But all Laila had to do was picture Ta-
riq going at Khadim with his leg and then nothing in the world seemed more sensible to
* * *
Six months later, in April 1988, Babi came home with big news.
"They signed a treaty!" he said. "In Geneva. It's official! They're leaving. Within nine
months, there won't be any more Soviets in Afghanistan!"
Mammy was sitting up in bed. She shrugged.
"But the communist regime is staying," she said. "Najibullah is the Soviets' puppet pre-
sident. He's not going anywhere. No, the war will go on. This is not the end"
"Najibullah won't last," said Babi.
"They're leaving, Mammy! They're actually leaving!"
"You two celebrate if you want to. But I won't rest until the Mujahideen hold a victory
parade right here in Kabul"
And, with that, she lay down again and pulled up the blanket.
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One cold, overcast day in January 1989, three months before Laila turned eleven, she,
her parents, and Hasina went to watch one of the last Soviet convoys exit the city. Spec-
tators had gathered on both sides of the thoroughfare outside the Military Club near Wa-
zir Akbar Khan. They stood in muddy snow and watched the line of tanks, armored
trucks, and jeeps as light snow flew across the glare of the passing headlights. There
were heckles and jeers. Afghan soldiers kept people off the street. Every now and then,
they had to fire a warning shot.
Mammy hoisted a photo of Ahmad and Noor high over her head. It was the one of
them sitting back-to-back under the pear tree. There were others like her, women with
pictures of theirshaheed husbands, sons, brothers held high.
Someone tapped Laila and Hasina on the shoulder. It was Tariq.
"Where did you get that thing?" Hasina exclaimed.
"I thought I'd come dressed for the occasion." Tariq said. He was wearing an enormous
Russian fur hat, complete with earflaps, which he had pulled down.
"How do I look?"
"Ridiculous," Laila laughed.
"That's the idea."
"Your parents came here with you dressed like this?"
"They're home, actually," he said.
The previous fall, Tariq's uncle in Ghazni had died of a heart attack, and, a few weeks
later, Tariq's father had suffered a heart attack of his own, leaving him frail and tired,
prone to anxiety and bouts of depression that overtook him for weeks at a time. Laila
was glad to see Tariq like this, like his old self again. For weeks after his father's illness,
Laila had watched him moping around, heavy-faced and sullen.
The three of them stole away while Mammy and Babi stood watching the Soviets.
From a street vendor, Tariq bought them each a plate of boiled beans topped with thick
cilantro chutney. They ate beneath the awning of a closed rug shop, then Hasina went to
find her family.
On the bus ride home, Tariq and Laila sat behind her parents. Mammy was by the win-
dow, staring out, clutching the picture against her chest. Beside her, Babi was impassi-
vely listening to a man who was arguing that the Soviets might be leaving but that they
would send weapons to Najibullah in Kabul.
"He's their puppet. They'll keep the war going through him, you can bet on that."
Someone in the next aisle voiced his agreement.
Mammy was muttering to herself, long-winded prayers that rolled on and on until she
had no breath left and had to eke out the last few words in a tiny, high-pitched squeak.
* * *
They "went to Cinema Park later that day, Laila and Tariq, and had to settle for a Sovi-
et film that was dubbed, to unintentionally comic effect, in Farsi. There was a merchant
ship, and a first mate in love with the captain's daughter. Her name was Alyona. Then
came a fierce storm, lightning, rain, the heaving sea tossing the ship. One of the frantic
sailors yelled something. An absurdly calm Afghan voice translated: "My dear sir, wo-
uld you kindly pass the rope?"
At this, Tariq burst out cackling. And, soon, they both were in the grips of a hopeless
attack of laughter. Just when one became fatigued, the other would snort, and off they
would go on another round. A man sitting two rows up turned around and shushed
There was a wedding scene near the end. The captain had relented and let Alyona
marry the first mate. The newlyweds were smiling at each other. Everyone was drinking
"I'm never getting married," Tariq whispered.
"Me neither," said Laila, but not before a moment of nervous hesitation. She worried
that her voice had betrayed her disappointment at what he had said. Her heart galloping,
she added, more forcefully this time, "Never."
"Weddings are stupid." "All the fuss."
"All the money spent." "For what?"
"For clothes you'll never wear again."
"If I everdo get married," Tariq said, "they'll have to make room for three on the wed-
ding stage. Me, the bride, and the guy holding the gun to my head."
The man in the front row gave them another admonishing look.
On the screen, Alyona and her new husband locked lips.
Watching the kiss, Laila felt strangely conspicuous all at once. She became intensely
aware of her heart thumping, of the blood thudding in her ears, of the shape of Tariq be-
side her, tightening up, becoming still. The kiss dragged on. It seemed of utmost ur-
gency to Laila, suddenly, that she not stir or make a noise. She sensed that Tariq was
observing her-one eye on the kiss, the other on her-as she was observinghim. Was he
listening to the air whooshing in and out of her nose, she wondered, waiting for a subtle
faltering, a revealing irregularity, that would betray her thoughts?
And what would it be like to kiss him, to feel the fuzzy hair above his lip tickling her
Then Tariq shifted uncomfortably in his seat. In a strained voice, he said, "Did you
know that if you fling snot in Siberia, it's a green icicle before it hits the ground?"
They both laughed, but briefly, nervously, this time. And when the film ended and
they stepped outside, Laila was relieved to see that the sky had dimmed, that she wo-
uldn't have to meet Tariq's eyes in the bright daylight.
Three years passed.
In that time, Tariq's father had a series of strokes. They left him with a clumsy left
hand and a slight slur to his speech. When he was agitated, which happened frequently,
the slurring got worse.
Tariq outgrew his leg again and was issued a new leg by the Red Cross, though he had
to wait six months for it.
As Hasina had feared, her family took her to Lahore, where she was made to marry the
cousin who owned the auto shop. The morning that they took her, Laila and Giti went to
Hasina's house to say good-bye. Hasina told them that the cousin, her husband-to-be,
had already started the process to move them to Germany, where his brothers lived.
Within the year, she thought, they would be in Frankfurt. They cried then in a three-way
embrace. Giti was inconsolable. The last time Laila ever saw Hasina, she was being hel-
ped by her father into the crowded backseat of a taxi.
The Soviet Union crumbled with astonishing swiftness. Every few weeks, it seemed to
Laila, Babi was coming home with news of the latest republic to declare independence.
Lithuania. Estonia. Ukraine. The Soviet flag was lowered over the Kremlin. The Repub-
lic of Russia was born.
In Kabul, Najibullah changed tactics and tried to portray himself as a devout Muslim.
"Too little and far too late," said Babi. "You can't be the chief of KHAD one day and
the next day pray in a mosque with people whose relatives you tortured and killed" Fe-
eling the noose tightening around Kabul, Najibullah tried to reach a settlement with the
Mujahideen but the Mujahideen balked.
From her bed, Mammy said, "Good for them." She kept her vigils for the Mujahideen
and waited for her parade. Waited for her sons' enemies to fall.
* * *
And, eventually, they did. In April 1992, the year Laila turned fourteen.
Najibullah surrendered at last and was given sanctuary in the UN compound near Da-
rulaman Palace, south of the city.
The jihad was over. The various communist regimes that had held power since the
night Laila was born were all defeated. Mammy's heroes, Ahmad's and Noor's brothers-
in-war, had won. And now, after more than a decade of sacrificing everything, of le-
aving behind their families to live in mountains and fight for Afghanistan's sovereignty,
the Mujahideen were coming to Kabul, in flesh, blood, and battle-weary bone.
Mammy knew all of their names.
There was Dostum, the flamboyant Uzbek commander, leader of the Junbish-i-Milli
faction, who had a reputation for shifting allegiances. The intense, surly Gulbuddin
Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-e-Islami faction, a Pashtun who had studied engineering
and once killed a Maoist student. Rabbani, Tajik leader of the Jamiat-e-Islami faction,
who had taught Islam at Kabul University in the days of the monarchy. Sayyaf, a Pash-
tun from Paghman with Arab connections, a stout Muslim and leader of the Ittehad-i-
Islami faction. Abdul Ali Mazari, leader of the Hizb-e-Wahdat faction, known as Baba
Mazari among his fellow Hazaras, with strong Shi'a ties to Iran.
And, of course, there was Mammy's hero, Rabbani's ally, the brooding, charismatic
Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir. Mammy had nailed up a
poster of him in her room. Massoud's handsome, thoughtful face, eyebrow cocked and
trademarkpakoltilted, would become ubiquitous in Kabul. His soulful black eyes would
gaze back from billboards, walls, storefront windows, from little flags mounted on the
antennas of taxicabs.
For Mammy, this was the day she had longed for. This brought to fruition all those ye-
ars of waiting.
At last, she could end her vigils, and her sons could rest in peace.
* * *
The day after Najibullah surrendered, Mammy rose from bed a new woman. For the
first time in the five years since Ahmad and Noor had becomeshaheed,she didn't wear
black. She put on a cobalt blue linen dress with white polka dots. She washed the win-
dows, swept the floor, aired the house, took a long bath. Her voice was shrill with mer-
"A party is in order," she declared-She sent Laila to invite neighbors. "Tell them we're
having a big lunch tomorrow!"
In the kitchen, Mammy stood looking around, hands on her hips, and said, with fri-
endly reproach, "What have you done to my kitchen, Laila?Wboy. Everything is in a dif-
She began moving pots and pans around, theatrically, as though she were laying claim
to them anew, restaking her territory, now that she was back. Laila stayed out of her
way. It was best. Mammy could be as indomitable in her fits of euphoria as in her at-
tacks of rage. With unsettling energy, Mammy set about cooking:aush soup with kidney
beans and dried dill,kofia, steaming hotmaniu drenched with fresh yogurt and topped
"You're plucking your eyebrows," Mammy said, as she was opening a large burlap
sack of rice by the kitchen counter.
"Only a little."
Mammy poured rice from the sack into a large black pot of water. She rolled up her
sleeves and began stirring.
"How is Tariq?"
"His father's been ill," Laila said "How old is he now anyway?"
"I don't know. Sixties, I guess."
"I meant Tariq."
"He's a nice boy. Don't you think?"
"Not really a boy anymore, though, is he? Sixteen. Almost a man. Don't you think?"
"What are you getting at, Mammy?"
"Nothing," Mammy said, smiling innocently. "Nothing. It's just that you…Ah, nothing.
I'd better not say anyway."
"I see you want to," Laila said, irritated by this circuitous, playful accusation.
"Well." Mammy folded her hands on the rim of the pot. Laila spotted an unnatural, al-
most rehearsed, quality to the way she said "Well" and to this folding of hands. She fe-
ared a speech was coming.
"It was one thing when you were little kids running around. No harm in that. It was
charming- But now. Now. I notice you're wearing a bra, Laila."
Laila was caught off guard.
"And you could have told me, by the way, about the bra. I didn't know. I'm disappoin-
ted you didn't tell me." Sensing her advantage, Mammy pressed on.
"Anyway, this isn't about me or the bra. It's about you and Tariq. He's a boy, you see,
and, as such, what does he care about reputation? But you? The reputation of a girl, es-
pecially one as pretty as you, is a delicate thing, Laila. Like a mynah bird in your hands.
Slacken your grip and away it flies."
"And what about all your wall climbing, the sneaking around with Babi in the orc-
hards?" Laila said, pleased with her quick recovery.
"We were cousins. And we married. Has this boy asked for your hand?"
"He's a friend. Arqfiq. It's not like that between us," Laila said, sounding defensive,
and not very convincing. "He's like a brother to me," she added, misguidedly. And she
knew, even before a cloud passed over Mammy's face and her features darkened, that
she'd made a mistake.
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