"Thathe is not," Mammy said flatly. "You will not liken that one-legged carpenter's
boy to your brothers. There isno one like your brothers."
"I didn't say he…That's not how I meant it."
Mammy sighed through the nose and clenched her teeth.
"Anyway," she resumed, but without the coy lightheadedness of a few moments ago,
"what I'm trying to say is that if you're not careful, people will talk."
Laila opened her mouth to say something. It wasn't that Mammy didn't have a point.
Laila knew that the days of innocent, unhindered frolicking in the streets with Tariq had
passed. For some time now, Laila had begun to sense a new strangeness when the two
of them were out in public. An awareness of being looked at, scrutinized, whispered
about, that Laila had never felt before. Andwouldn't have felt even now but for one fun-
damental fact: She had fallen for Tariq. Hopelessly and desperately. When he was near,
she couldn't help but be consumed with the most scandalous thoughts, of his lean, bare
body entangled with hers. Lying in bed at night, she pictured him kissing her belly,
wondered at the softness of his lips, at the feel of his hands on her neck, her chest, her
back, and lower still. When she thought of him this way, she was overtaken with guilt,
but also with a peculiar, warm sensation that spread upward from her belly until it felt
as if her face were glowing pink.
No. Mammy had a point. More than she knew, in fact. Laila suspected that some, if not
most, of the neighbors were already gossiping about her and Tariq. Laila had noticed
the sly grins, was aware of the whispers in the neighborhood that the two of them were
a couple. The other day, for instance, she and Tariq were walking up the street together
when they'd passed Rasheed, the shoemaker, with his burqa-clad wife, Mariam, in tow.
As he'd passed by them, Rasheed had playfully said, "If it isn't Laili and Majnoon," re-
ferring to the star-crossed lovers of Nezami's popular twelfth-century romantic poem-a
Farsi version ofRomeo and Juliet,Babi said, though he added thatNezami had written
his tale of ill-fated lovers four centuries before Shakespeare.
Mammy had a point.
What rankled Laila was that Mammy hadn't earned the right to make it. It would have
been one thing if Babi had raised this issue. But Mammy? All those years of aloofness,
of cooping herself up and not caring where Laila went and whom she saw and what she
thought…It was unfair. Laila felt like she was no better than these pots and pans, somet-
hing that could go neglected, then laid claim to, at will, whenever the mood struck.
But this was a big day, an important day, for all of them. It would be petty to spoil it
over this. In the spirit of things, Laila let it pass.
"I get your point," she said.
"Good!" Mammy said. "That's resolved, then. Now, where is Hakim? Where, oh whe-
re, is that sweet little husband of mine?"
* * *
It was a dazzling, cloudless day, perfect for a party. The men sat on rickety folding
chairs in the yard. They drank tea and smoked and talked in loud bantering voices about
the Mujahideen's plan. From Babi, Laila had learned the outline of it: Afghanistan was
now called the Islamic State of Afghanistan. An Islamic Jihad Council, formed in Pes-
hawar by several of the Mujahideen factions, would oversee things for two months, led
by Sibghatullah Mojadidi. This would be followed then by a leadership council led by
Rabbani, who would take over for four months. During those six months, aloyajirga
would be held, a grand council of leaders and elders, who would form an interim go-
vernment to hold power for two years, leading up to democratic elections.
One of the men was fanning skewers of lamb sizzling over a makeshift grill Babi and
Tariq's father were playing a game of chess in the shade of the old pear tree. Their faces
were scrunched up in concentration. Tariq was sitting at the board too, in turns watching
the match, then listening in on the political chat at the adjacent table.
The women gathered in the living room, the hallway, and the kitchen. They chatted as
they hoisted their babies and expertly dodged, with minute shifts of their hips, the child-
ren tearing after each other around the house. An Ustad Sarahangghazal blared from a
Laila was in the kitchen, making carafes ofdogh with Giti. Giti was no longer as shy,
or as serious, as before. For several months now, the perpetual severe scowl had cleared
from her brow. She laughed openly these days, more frequently, and-it struck Laila-a bit
flirtatiously. She had done away with the drab ponytails, let her hair grow, and streaked
it with red highlights. Laila learned eventually that the impetus for this transformation
was an eighteen-year-old boy whose attention Giti had caught. His name was Sabir, and
he was a goalkeeper on Giti's older brother's soccer team.
"Oh, he has the most handsome smile, and this thick, thick black hair!" Giti had told
Laila. No one knew about their attraction, of course. Giti had secretly met him twice for
tea, fifteen minutes each time, at a small teahouse on the other side of town, in Taimani.
"He's going to ask for my hand, Laila! Maybe as early as this summer. Can you believe
it? I swear I can't stop thinking about him."
"What about school?" Laila had asked. Giti had tilted her head and given her aWe both
know better look.
By the time we're twenty,Hasina used to say,Giti and I, we'll have pushed out four, five
kids each Bui you, Laila, you '1Imake m two dummies proud. You 're going to be some-
body. I know one day I'll pick up a newspaper and find your picture on the frontpage.
Giti was beside Laila now, chopping cucumbers, with a dreamy, far-off look on her fa-
Mammy was nearby, in her brilliant summer dress, peeling boiled eggs with Wajma,
the midwife, and Tariq's mother.
"I'm going to present Commander Massoud with a picture of Ahmad and Noor,"
Mammy was saying to Wajma as Wajma nodded and tried to look interested and since-
"He personally oversaw the burial. He said a prayer at their grave. It'll be a token of
thanks for his decency." Mammy cracked another boiled egg. "I hear he's a reflective,
honorable man. I think he would appreciate it."
All around them, women bolted in and out of the kitchen, carried out bowls ofqurma,
platters ofmasiawa, loaves of bread, and arranged it all onthesofrah spread on the li-
Every once in a while, Tariq sauntered in. He picked at this, nibbled on that.
"No men allowed," said Giti.
"Out, out, out," cried Wajma.
Tariq smiled at the women's good-humored shooing. He seemed to take pleasure in not
being welcome here, in infecting this female atmosphere with his half-grinning, mascu-
Laila did her best not to look at him, not to give these women any more gossip fodder
than they already had So she kept her eyes down and said nothing to him, but she re-
membered a dream she'd had a few nights before, of his face and hers, together in a mir-
ror, beneath a soft, green veil. And grains of rice, dropping from his hair, bouncing off
the glass with alink.
Tariq reached to sample a morsel of veal cooked with potatoes.
"Ho bacha!"Giti slapped the back of his hand. Tariq stole it anyway and laughed.
He stood almost a foot taller than Laila now. He shaved. His face was leaner, more an-
gular. His shoulders had broadened. Tariq liked to wear pleated trousers, black shiny lo-
afers, and short-sleeve shirts that showed off his newly muscular arms-compliments of
an old, rusty set of barbells that he lifted daily in his yard. His face had lately adopted
an expression of playful contentiousness. He had taken to a self-conscious cocking of
his head when he spoke, slightly to the side, and to arching one eyebrow when he laug-
hed. He let his hair grow and had fallen into the habit of tossing the floppy locks often
and unnecessarily. The corrupt half grin was a new thing too.
The last time Tariq was shooed out of the kitchen, his mother caught Laila stealing a
glance at him. Laila's heart jumped, and her eyes fluttered guiltily. She quickly occupied
herself with tossing the chopped cucumber into the pitcher of salted, watered-down yo-
gurt. But she could sense Tariq's mother watching, her knowing, approving half smile.
The men filled their plates and glasses and took their meals to the yard. Once they had
taken their share, the women and children settled on the floor around thesofrah and ate.
It was afterfat sofrah was cleared and the plates were stacked in the kitchen, when the
frenzy of tea making and remembering who took green and who black started, that Ta-
riq motioned with his head and slipped out the door.
Laila waited five minutes, then followed.
She found him three houses down the street, leaning against the wall at the entrance of
a narrow-mouthed alley between two adjacent houses. He was humming an old Pashto
song, by Ustad Awal Mir:
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Da ze ma ziba waian, da ze ma dada waian. This is our beautiful land, this is our belo-
And he was smoking, another new habit, which he'd picked up from the guys Laila
spotted him hanging around with these days. Laila couldn't stand them, these new fri-
ends of Tariq's. They all dressed the same way, pleated trousers, and tight shirts that ac-
centuated their arms and chest. They all wore too much cologne, and they all smoked.
They strutted around the neighborhood in groups, joking, laughing loudly, sometimes
even calling after girls, with identical stupid, self-satisfied grins on their faces. One of
Tariq's friends, on the basis of the most passing of resemblances to Sylvester Stallone,
insisted he be called Rambo.
"Your mother would kill you if she knew about your smoking," Laila said, looking one
way, then the other, before slipping into the alley.
"But she doesn't," he said. He moved aside to make room.
"That could change."
"Who is going to tell? You?"
Laila tapped her foot. "Tell your secret to the wind, but don't blame it for telling the
Tariq smiled, the one eyebrow arched. "Who said that?"
"You're a show-off."
"Give me a cigarette."
He shook his head no and crossed his arms. This was a new entry in his repertoire of
poses: back to the wall, arms crossed, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth,
his good leg casually bent.
"Bad for you," he said.
"And it's not bad for you?"
"I do it for the girls."
He smirked. "They think it's sexy."
"I assure you."
"You lookkhila, like a half-wit."
"That hurts," he said
"What girls anyway?"
"I'm indifferently curious."
"You can't be both." He took another drag and squinted through the smoke. "I'll bet
they're talking about us now."
In Laila's head, Mammy's voice rang out.Like a mynah bird in your hands. Slacken yo-
ur grip and away it flies. Guilt bore its teeth into her. Then Laila shut off Mammy's vo-
ice. Instead, she savored the way Tariq had saidus. How thrilling, how conspiratorial, it
sounded coming from him. And how reassuring to hear him say it like that-casually, na-
turally.Us. It acknowledged their connection, crystallized it.
"And what are they saying?"
"That we're canoeing down the River of Sin," he said. "Eating a slice of Impiety Ca-
"Riding the Rickshaw of Wickedness?" Laila chimed in.
They both laughed. Then Tariq remarked that her hair was getting longer. "It's nice,"
he said Laila hoped she wasn't blushing- "You changed the subject."
"The empty-headed girls who think you're sexy."
"That I only have eyes for you."
Laila swooned inside. She tried to read his face but was met by a look that was inde-
cipherable: the cheerful, cretinous grin at odds with the narrow, half-desperate look in
his eyes. A clever look, calculated to fall precisely at the midpoint between mockery
Tariq crushed his cigarette with the heel of his good foot. "So what do you think about
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"Who's the half-wit now?I meant the Mujahideen, Laila. Their coming to Kabul."
She started to tell him something Babi had said, about the troublesome marriage of
guns and ego, when she heard a commotion coming from the house. Loud voices. Scre-
Laila took off running. Tariq hobbled behind her.
There was a melee in the yard. In the middle of it were two snarling men, rolling on
the ground, a knife between them. Laila recognized one of them as a man from the table
who had been discussing politics earlier. The other was the man who had been fanning
the kebab skewers. Several men were trying to pull them apart. Babi wasn't among
them. He stood by the wall, at a safe distance from the fight, with Tariq's father, who
From the excited voices around her, Laila caught snippets that she put together: The
fellow at the politics table, a Pashtun, had called Ahmad Shah Massoud a traitor for
"making a deal" with the Soviets in the 1980s. The kebab man, a Tajik, had taken offen-
se and demanded a retraction. The Pashtun had refused. The Tajik had said that if not
for Massoud, the other man's sister would still be "giving it" to Soviet soldiers. They
had come to blows. One of them had then brandished a knife; there was disagreement as
With horror, Laila saw that Tariq had thrown himself into the scuffle. She also saw
that some of the peacemakers were now throwing punches of their own. She thought she
spotted a second knife.
Later that evening, Laila thought of how the melee had toppled over, with men falling
on top of one another, amid yelps and cries and shouts and flying punches, and, in the
middle of it, a grimacing Tariq, his hair disheveled, his leg come undone, trying to
* * *
It was dizzyinghow quickly everything unraveled.
The leadership council was formed prematurely. It elected Rabbani president. The ot-
her factions criednepotism. Massoud called for peace and patience.
Hekmatyar, who had been excluded, was incensed. The Hazaras, with their long his-
tory of being oppressed and neglected, seethed.
Insults were hurled. Fingers pointed. Accusations flew. Meetings were angrily called
off and doors slammed. The city held its breath. In the mountains, loaded magazines
snapped into Kalashnikovs.
The Mujahideen, armed to the teeth but now lacking a common enemy, had found the
enemy in each other.
Kabul's day of reckoning had come at last.
And when the rockets began to rain down on Kabul, people ran for cover. Mammy did
too, literally. She changed into black again, went to her room, shut the curtains, and pul-
led the blanket over her head.
It's the whistling," Laila said to Tariq, "the damn whistling, I hate more than anything"
Tariq nodded knowingly.
It wasn't so much the whistling itself, Laila thought later, but the seconds between the
start of it and impact. The brief and interminable time of feeling suspended. The not
knowing. The waiting. Like a defendant about to hear the verdict.
Often it happened at dinner, when she and Babi were at the table. When it started, their
heads snapped up. They listened to the whistling, forks in midair, unchewed food in the-
ir mouths. Laila saw the reflection of their half-lit faces in the pitch-black window, their
shadows unmoving on the wall. The whistling. Then the blast, blissfully elsewhere, fol-
lowed by an expulsion of breath and the knowledge that they had been spared for now
while somewhere else, amid cries and choking clouds of smoke, there was a scrambling,
a barehanded frenzy of digging, of pulling from the debris, what remained of a sister, a
brother, a grandchild.
But the flip side of being spared was the agony of wondering who hadn't. After every
rocket blast, Laila raced to the street, stammering a prayer, certain that, this time, surely
this time, it was Tariq they would find buried beneath the rubble and smoke.
At night, Laila lay in bed and watched the sudden white flashes reflected in her win-
dow. She listened to the rattling of automatic gunfire and counted the rockets whining
overhead as the house shook and flakes of plaster rained down on her from the ceiling.
Some nights, when the light of rocket fire was so bright a person could read a book by
it, sleep never came. And, if it did, Laila's dreams were suffused with fire and detached
limbs and the moaning of the wounded.
Morning brought no relief. The muezzin's call fornamaz rang out, and the Mujahideen
set down their guns, faced west, and prayed. Then the rugs were folded, the guns lo-
aded, and the mountains fired on Kabul, and Kabul fired back at the mountains, as Laila
and the rest of the city watched as helpless as old Santiago watching the sharks take bi-
tes out of his prize fish.
* * *
Everywhere Laila "went, she saw Massoud's men. She saw them roam the streets and
every few hundred yards stop cars for questioning. They sat and smoked atop tanks,
dressed in their fatigues and ubiquitouspakols.They peeked at passersby from behind
stacked sandbags at intersections.
Not that Laila went out much anymore. And, when she did, she was always accompa-
nied by Tariq, who seemed to relish this chivalric duty.
"I bought a gun," he said one day. They were sitting outside, on the ground beneath the
pear tree in Laila's yard. He showed her. He said it was a semiautomatic, a Beretta. To
Laila, it merely looked black and deadly.
"I don't like it," she said. "Guns scare me."
Tariq turned the magazine over in his hand
"They found three bodies in a house in Karteh-Seh last week," he said. "Did you hear?
Sisters. All three raped Their throats slashed. Someone had bitten the rings off their fin-
gers. You could tell, they had teeth marks-"
"I don't want to hear this."
"I don't mean to upset you," Tariq said "But I just…Ifeel better carrying this."
He was her lifeline to the streets now. He heard the word of mouth and passed it on to
her. Tariq was the one who told her, for instance, that militiamen stationed in the moun-
tains sharpened their marksmanship-and settled wagers over said marksmanship-by sho-
oting civilians down below, men, women, children, chosen at random. He told her that
they fired rockets at cars but, for some reason, left taxis alone-which explained to Laila
the recent rash of people spraying their cars yellow.
Tariq explained to her the treacherous, shifting boundaries within Kabul. Laila learned
from him, for instance, that this road, up to the second acacia tree on the left, belonged
to one warlord; that the next four blocks, ending with the bakery shop next to the demo-
lished pharmacy, was another warlord's sector; and that if she crossed that street and
walked half a mile west, she would find herself in the territory of yet another warlord
and, therefore, fair game for sniper fire. And this was what Mammy's heroes were called
now. Warlords. Laila heard them callediofangdar too. Riflemen. Others still called them
Mujahideen, but, when they did, they made a face-a sneering, distasteful face-the word
reeking of deep aversion and deep scorn. Like an insult.
Tariq snapped the magazine back into his handgun. "Doyou have it in you?" Laila sa-
"To use this thing. To kill with it."
Tariq tucked the gun into the waist of his denims. Then he said a thing both lovely and
terrible. "For you," he said. "I'd kill with it for you, Laila."
He slid closer to her and their hands brushed, once, then again. When Tariq's fingers
tentatively began to slip into hers, Laila let them. And when suddenly he leaned over
and pressed his lips to hers, she let him again.
At that moment, all of Mammy's talk of reputations and mynah birds sounded immate-
rial to Laila. Absurd, even. In the midst of all this killing and looting, all this ugliness, it
was a harmless thing to sit here beneath a tree and kiss Tariq. A small thing. An easily
forgivable indulgence. So she let him kiss her, and when he pulled back she leaned in
and kissedhim, heart pounding in her throat, her face tingling, a fire burning in the pit of
* * *
In June of that yeah, 1992, there was heavy fighting in West Kabul between the Pash-
tun forces of the warlord Sayyaf and the Hazaras of the Wahdat faction. The shelling
knocked down power lines, pulverized entire blocks of shops and homes. Laila heard
that Pashtun militiamen were attacking Hazara households, breaking in and shooting en-
tire families, execution style, and that Hazaras were retaliating by abducting Pashtun ci-
vilians, raping Pashtun girls, shelling Pashtun neighborhoods, and killing indiscrimina-
tely. Every day, bodies were found tied to trees, sometimes burned beyond recognition.
Often, they'd been shot in the head, had had their eyes gouged out, their tongues cut out.
Babi tried again to convince Mammy to leave Kabul.
"They'll work it out," Mammy said. "This fighting is temporary. They'll sit down and
figure something out."
"Fariba, all these peopleknow is war," said Babi. "They learned to walk with a milk
bottle in one hand and a gun in the other."
"Whozrtyou to say?" Mammy shot back. "Did you fight jihad? Did you abandon
everything you had and risk your life? If not for the Mujahideen, we'd still be the Sovi-
ets' servants, remember. And now you'd have us betray them!"
"We aren't the ones doing the betraying, Fariba."
"You go, then. Take your daughter and run away. Send me a postcard. But peace is co-
ming, and I, for one, am going to wait for it."
The streets became so unsafe that Babi did an unthinkable thing: He had Laila drop out
He took over the teaching duties himself. Laila went into his study every day after sun-
down, and, as Hekmatyar launched his rockets at Massoud from the southern outskirts
of the city, Babi and she discussedtheghazals of Hafez and the works of the beloved
Afghan poet Ustad Khalilullah Khalili. Babi taught her to derive the quadratic equation,
showed her how to factor polynomials and plot parametric curves. When he was teac-
hing, Babi was transformed. In his element, amid his books, he looked taller to Laila.
His voice seemed to rise from a calmer, deeper place, and he didn't blink nearly as
much. Laila pictured him as he must have been once, erasing his blackboard with grace-
ful swipes, looking over a student's shoulder, fatherly and attentive.
But it wasn't easy to pay attention. Laila kept getting distracted.
"What is the area of a pyramid?" Babi would ask, and all Laila could think of was the
fullness of Tariq's lips, the heat of his breath on her mouth, her own reflection in his ha-
zel eyes. She'd kissed him twice more since the time beneath the tree, longer, more pas-
sionately, and, she thought, less clumsily. Both times, she'd met him secretly in the dim
alley where he'd smoked a cigarette the day of Mammy's lunch party. The second time,
she'd let him touch her breast.
"Pyramid. Area. Where are you?"
"Sorry, Babi. I was, uh…Let's see. Pyramid. Pyramid. One-third the area of the base ti-
mes the height."
Babi nodded uncertainly, his gaze lingering on her, and Laila thought of Tariq's hands,
squeezing her breast, sliding down the small of her back, as the two of them kissed and
* * *
One daY that same month of June, Giti was walking home from school with two clas-
smates. Only three blocks from Giti's house, a stray rocket struck the girls. Later that
terrible day, Laila learned that Nila, Giti's mother, had run up and down the street where
Giti was killed, collecting pieces of her daughter's flesh in an apron, screeching hysteri-
cally. Giti's decomposing right foot, still in its nylon sock and purple sneaker, would be
found on a rooftop two weeks later.
AtGiti'sfaiiha, the day after the killings, Laila sat stunned in a roomful of weeping wo-
men. This was the first time that someone whom Laila had known, been close to, loved,
had died. She couldn't get around the unfathomable reality that Giti wasn't alive anymo-
re. Giti, with whom Laila had exchanged secret notes in class, whose fingernails she had
polished, whose chin hair she had plucked with tweezers. Giti, who was going to marry
Sabir the goalkeeper. Giti was dead.Dead. Blown to pieces. At last, Laila began to weep
for her friend. And all the tears that she hadn't been able to shed at her brothers' funeral
came pouring down.
JLaila could hardly move, as though cement had solidified in every one of her joints.
There was a conversation going on, and Laila knew that she was at one end of it, but she
felt removed from it, as though she were merely eavesdropping. As Tariq talked, Laila
pictured her life as a rotted rope, snapping, unraveling, the fibers detaching, falling
It was a hot, muggy afternoon that August of 1992, and they were in the living room of
Laila's house. Mammy had had a stomachache all day, and, minutes before, despite the
rockets that Hekmatyar was launching from the south, Babi had taken her to see a doc-
tor. And here was Tariq now, seated beside Laila on the couch, looking at the ground,
hands between his knees.
Saying that he was leaving.
Not the neighborhood. Not Kabul. But Afghanistan altogether.
Laila was struck blind.
"Where? Where will you go?"
"Pakistan first. Peshawar. Then I don't know. Maybe Hindustan. Iran."
"I don't know."
"I mean, how long have you known?"
"A few days. I was going to tell you, Laila, I swear, but I couldn't bring myself to. I
knewhow upset you'd be."
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