A Thousand Splendid Suns

Page 45

In less than two hours, both towers have collapsed.

Soon all the TV stations are talking about Afghanistan and the Taliban and Osama bin Laden.

"DID YOU HEAR what the Taliban said?" Tariq asks. "About bin Laden?"

Aziza is sitting across from him on the bed, considering the board. Tariq has taught her to play chess. She is frowning and tapping her lower lip now, mimicking the body language her father assumes when he's deciding on a move.

Zalmai's cold is a little better. He is asleep, and Laila is rubbing Vicks on his chest.

"I heard," she says.

The Taliban have announced that they won't relinquish bin Laden because he is a mehman, a guest, who has found sanctuary in Afghanistan and it is against the Pashtunwali code of ethics to turn over a guest. Tariq chuckles bitterly, and Laila hears in his chuckle that he is revolted by this distortion of an honorable Pashtun custom, this misrepresentation of his people's ways.

A few days after the attacks, Laila and Tariq are in the hotel lobby again. On the TV screen, George W. Bush is speaking. There is a big American flag behind him. At one point, his voice wavers, and Laila thinks he is going to weep.

Sayeed, who speaks English, explains to them that Bush has just declared war.

"On whom?" says Tariq.

"On your country, to begin with."

* * *

"IT MAY NOT be such a bad thing," Tariq says.

They have finished making love. He's lying beside her, his head on her chest, his arm draped over her belly. The first few times they tried, there was difficulty. Tariq was all apologies, Laila all reassurances. There are still difficulties, not physical now but logistical. The shack they share with the children is small. The children sleep on cots below them and so there is little privacy. Most times, Laila and Tariq make love in silence, with controlled, muted passion, fully clothed beneath the blanket as a precaution against interruptions by the children. They are forever wary of the rustling sheets, the creaking bedsprings. But for Laila, being with Tariq is worth weathering these apprehensions. When they make love, Laila feels anchored, she feels sheltered. Her anxieties, that their life together is a temporary blessing, that soon it will come loose again in strips and tatters, are allayed. Her fears of separation vanish.

"What do you mean?" she says now.

"What's going on back home. It may not be so bad in the end."

Back home, bombs are falling once again, this time American bombs - Laila has been watching images of the war every day on the television as she changes sheets and vacuums. The Americans have armed the warlords once more, and enlisted the help of the Northern Alliance to drive out the Taliban and find bin Laden.

But it rankles Laila, what Tariq is saying. She pushes his head roughly off her chest.

"Not so bad? People dying? Women, children, old people? Homes destroyed again? Not so bad?"

"Shh. You'll wake the children."

"How can you say that, Tariq?" she snaps. "After the so-called blunder in Karam? A hundred innocent people! You saw the bodies for yourself!"

"No," Tariq says. He props himself up on his elbow, looks down at Laila. "You misunderstand. What I meant was - "

"You wouldn't know," Laila says. She is aware that her voice is rising, that they are having their first fight as husband and wife. "You left when the Mujahideen began fighting, remember? I'm the one who stayed behind. Me. I know war. I lost my parents to war. My parents, Tariq. And now to hear you say that war is not so bad?"

"I'm sorry, Laila. I'm sorry." He cups her face in his hands. "You're right. I'm sorry. Forgive me. What I meant was that maybe there will be hope at the other end of this war, that maybe for the first time in a long time - "

"I don't want to talk about this anymore," Laila says, surprised at how she has lashed out at him. It's unfair, she knows, what she said to him - hadn't war taken his parents too? - and whatever flared in her is softening already. Tariq continues to speak gently, and, when he pulls her to him, she lets him. When he kisses her hand, then her brow, she lets him. She knows that he is probably right. She knows how his comment was intended. Maybe this is necessary. Maybe there will be hope when Bush's bombs stop falling. But she cannot bring herself to say it, not when what happened to Babi and Mammy is happening to someone now in Afghanistan, not when some unsuspecting girl or boy back home has just been orphaned by a rocket as she was. Laila cannot bring herself to say it. It's hard to rejoice. It seems hypocritical, perverse.

That night, Zalmai wakes up coughing. Before Laila can move, Tariq swings his legs over the side of the bed. He straps on his prosthesis and walks over to Zalmai, lifts him up into his arms. From the bed, Laila watches Tariq's shape moving back and forth in the darkness. She sees the outline of Zalmai's head on his shoulder, the knot of his hands at Tariq's neck, his small feet bouncing by Tariq's hip.

When Tariq comes back to bed, neither of them says anything. Laila reaches over and touches his face. Tariq's cheeks are wet.

Chapter 50

For Laila, life in Murree is one of comfort and tranquillity. The work is not cumbersome, and, on their days off, she and Tariq take the children to ride the chairlift to Patriata hill, or go to Pindi Point, where, on a clear day, you can see as far as Islamabad and downtown Rawalpindi. There, they spread a blanket on the grass and eat meatball sandwiches with cucumbers and drink cold ginger ale.

It is a good life, Laila tells herself, a life to be thankful for. It is, in fact, precisely the sort of life she used to dream for herself in her darkest days with Rasheed. Every day, Laila reminds herself of this.

Then one warm night in July 2002, she and Tariq are lying in bed talking in hushed voices about all the changes back home. There have been so many. The coalition forces have driven the Taliban out of every major city, pushed them across the border to Pakistan and to the mountains in the south and east of Afghanistan. ISAF, an international peacekeeping force, has been sent to Kabul. The country has an interim president now, Hamid Karzai.

Laila decides that now is the time to tell Tariq.

A year ago, she would have gladly given an arm to get out of Kabul. But in the last few months, she has found herself missing the city of her childhood. She misses the bustle of Shor Bazaar, the Gardens of Babur, the call of the water carriers lugging their goatskin bags. She misses the garment hagglers at Chicken Street and the melon hawkers in Karteh-Parwan.

But it isn't mere homesickness or nostalgia that has Laila thinking of Kabul so much these days. She has become plagued by restlessness. She hears of schools built in Kabul, roads repaved, women returning to work, and her life here, pleasant as it is, grateful as she is for it, seems . . . insufficient to her. Inconsequential. Worse yet, wasteful. Of late, she has started hearing Babi's voice in her head. You can be anything you want, Laila, he says. I know this about you. And I also know that when this war is over, Afghanistan is going to need you.

Laila hears Mammy's voice too. She remembers Mammy's response to Babi when he would suggest that they leave Afghanistan. I want to see my sons' dream come true. I want to be there when it happens, when Afghanistan is free, so the boys see it too. They'll see it through my eyes. There is a part of Laila now that wants to return to Kabul, for Mammy and Babi, for them to see it through her eyes.

And then, most compellingly for Laila, there is Mariam. Did Mariam die for this? Laila asks herself. Did she sacrifice herself so she, Laila, could be a maid in a foreign land? Maybe it wouldn't matter to Mariam what Laila did as long as she and the children were safe and happy. But it matters to Laila. Suddenly, it matters very much.

"I want to go back," she says.

Tariq sits up in bed and looks down at her.

Laila is struck again by how beautiful he is, the perfect curve of his forehead, the slender muscles of his arms, his brooding, intelligent eyes. A year has passed, and still there are times, at moments like this, when Laila cannot believe that they have found each other again, that he is really here, with her, that he is her husband.

"Back? To Kabul?" he asks.

"Only if you want it too."

"Are you unhappy here? You seem happy. The children too."

Laila sits up. Tariq shifts on the bed, makes room for her.

"I am happy," Laila says. "Of course I am. But . . . where do we go from here, Tariq? How long do we stay? This isn't home. Kabul is, and back there so much is happening, a lot of it good. I want to be a part of it all. I want to do something. I want to contribute. Do you understand?"

Tariq nods slowly. "This is what you want, then?

You're sure?"

"I want it, yes, I'm sure. But it's more than that. I feel like I have to go back. Staying here, it doesn't feel right anymore."

Tariq looks at his hands, then back up at her.

"But only - only - if you want to go too."

Tariq smiles. The furrows from his brow clear, and for a brief moment he is the old Tariq again, the Tariq who did not get headaches, who had once said that in Siberia snot turned to ice before it hit the ground. It may be her imagination, but Laila believes there are more frequent sightings of this old Tariq these days.

"Me?" he says. "I'll follow you to the end of the world, Laila."

She pulls him close and kisses his lips. She believes she has never loved him more than at this moment. "Thank you," she says, her forehead resting against his.

"Let's go home."

"But first, I want to go to Herat," she says.


Laila explains.

* * *

THE CHILDREN NEED reassuring, each in their own way.

Laila has to sit down with an agitated Aziza, who still has nightmares, who'd been startled to tears the week before when someone had shot rounds into the sky at a wedding nearby. Laila has to explain to Aziza that when they return to Kabul the Taliban won't be there, that there will not be any fighting, and that she will not be sent back to the orphanage. "We'll all live together. Your father, me, Zalmai. And you, Aziza. You'll never, ever, have to be apart from me again. I promise." She smiles at her daughter. "Until the day you want to, that is. When you fall in love with some young man and want to marry him."

On the day they leave Murree, Zalmai is inconsolable. He has wrapped his arms around Alyona's neck and will not let go.

"I can't pry him off of her, Mammy," says Aziza.

"Zalmai. We can't take a goat on the bus," Laila explains again.

It isn't until Tariq kneels down beside him, until he promises Zalmai that he will buy him a goat just like Alyona in Kabul, that Zalmai reluctantly lets go.

There are tearful farewells with Sayeed as well. For good luck, he holds a Koran by the doorway for Tariq, Laila, and the children to kiss three times, then holds it high so they can pass under it. He helps Tariq load the two suitcases into the trunk of his car. It is Sayeed who drives them to the station, who stands on the curb waving goodbye as the bus sputters and pulls away.

As she leans back and watches Sayeed receding in the rear window of the bus, Laila hears the voice of doubt whispering in her head. Are they being foolish, she wonders, leaving behind the safety of Murree? Going back to the land where her parents and brothers perished, where the smoke of bombs is only now settling?

And then, from the darkened spirals of her memory, rise two lines of poetry, Babi's farewell ode to Kabul:

One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,

Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.

Laila settles back in her seat, blinking the wetness from her eyes. Kabul is waiting. Needing. This journey home is the right thing to do.

But first there is one last farewell to be said.

THE WARS IN Afghanistan have ravaged the roads connecting Kabul, Herat, and Kandahar. The easiest way to Herat now is through Mashad, in Iran. Laila and her family are there only overnight. They spend the night at a hotel, and, the next morning, they board another bus.

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