And the Mountains Echoed

Page 21

After lunch, Idris catches a taxi and asks to be taken to the hospital.

“But stop at a bazaar first,” he says.

Carrying the box, he walks down the hallway, past graffiti-spangled walls, rooms with plastic sheeting for doors, a shuffling barefoot old man with an eye patch, patients lying in stifling-hot rooms with missing lightbulbs. A sour-body smell everywhere. At the end of the hallway, he pauses at the curtain before pulling it back. He feels a lurch in his heart when he sees the girl sitting on the edge of the bed. Amra is kneeling before her, brushing her small teeth.

There is a man sitting on the other side of the bed, gaunt, sunburned, with a rat’s-nest beard and stubbly dark hair. When Idris enters, the man quickly gets up, flattens a hand against his chest, and bows. Idris is struck again by how easily the locals can tell he is a westernized Afghan, how the whiff of money and power affords him unwarranted privilege in this city. The man tells Idris he is Roshi’s uncle, from the mother’s side.

“You’re back,” Amra says, dipping the brush into a bowl of water.

“I hope that’s okay.”

“Why not,” she says.

Idris clears his throat. “Salaam, Roshi.”

The girl looks to Amra for permission. Her voice is a tentative, high-pitched whisper. “Salaam.”

“I brought you a present.” Idris lowers the box and opens it. Roshi’s eyes come to life when Idris takes out the small TV and VCR. He shows her the four films he has bought. Most of the tapes at the store were Indian movies, or else action flicks, martial-arts films with Jet Li, Jean-Claude Van Damme, all of Steven Seagal’s pictures. But he was able to find E.T., Babe, Toy Story, and The Iron Giant. He has watched them all with his own boys back home.

In Farsi, Amra asks Roshi which one she wants to watch. Roshi picks The Iron Giant.

“You’ll love that one,” Idris says. He finds it difficult to look at her directly. His gaze keeps sliding toward the mess on her head, the shiny clump of brain tissue, the crisscrossing network of veins and capillaries.

There is no electric outlet at the end of this hallway, and it takes Amra some time to find an extension cord, but when Idris plugs in the cord, and the picture comes on, Roshi’s mouth spreads into a smile. In her smile, Idris sees how little of the world he has known, even at thirty-five years of age, its savageness, its cruelty, the boundless brutality.

When Amra excuses herself to go see other patients, Idris takes a seat beside Roshi’s bed and watches the movie with her. The uncle is a silent, inscrutable presence in the room. Halfway through the film, the power goes out. Roshi begins to cry, and the uncle leans over from his chair and roughly clutches her hand. He whispers a few quick, terse words in Pashto, which Idris does not speak. Roshi winces and tries to pull away. Idris looks at her small hand, lost in the uncle’s strong, white-knuckled grasp.

Idris puts on his coat. “I’ll come back tomorrow, Roshi, and we can watch another tape if you like. You want that?”

Roshi shrinks into a ball beneath the covers. Idris looks at the uncle, pictures what Timur would do to this man—Timur, who, unlike him, has no capacity to resist the easy emotion. Give me ten minutes alone with him, he’d say.

The uncle follows him outside. On the steps, he stuns Idris by saying, “I am the real victim here, Sahib.” He must have seen the look on Idris’s face because he corrects himself and says, “Of course she is the victim. But, I mean, I am a victim too. You see that, of course, you are Afghan. But these foreigners, they don’t understand.”

“I have to go,” Idris says.

“I am a mazdoor, a simple laborer. I earn a dollar, maybe two, on a good day, Sahib. And I already have five children of my own. One of them blind. Now this.” He sighs. “I think to myself sometimes—God forgive me—I say to myself, maybe Allah should have let Roshi … well, you understand. It might have been better. Because I ask you, Sahib, what boy would marry her now? She will never find a husband. And then who will take care of her? I will have to. I will have to do it forever.”

Idris knows he has been cornered. He reaches for his wallet.

“Whatever you can spare, Sahib. Not for me, of course. For Roshi.”

Idris hands him a pair of bills. The uncle blinks, looks up from the money. He begins to say, “Two—” then clamps his mouth shut as though worried that he will alert Idris to a mistake.

“Buy her some decent shoes,” Idris says, walking down the steps.

“Allah bless you, Sahib,” the uncle calls out behind him. “You are a good man. You are a kind and good man.”

Idris visits the next day, and the day after that. Soon, it becomes a routine, and he is at Roshi’s side every day. He comes to know the orderlies by name, the male nurses who work the ground floor, the janitor, the underfed, tired-looking guards at the hospital gates. He keeps the visits as secret as possible. On his calls overseas, he has not told Nahil about Roshi. He does not tell Timur where he is going either, why he isn’t joining him on the trip to Paghman or for a meeting with an official at the Ministry of Interior. But Timur finds out anyway.

“Good for you,” he says. “It’s a decent thing you’re doing.” He pauses before adding, “Tread carefully, though.”

“You mean stop visiting.”

“We leave in a week, bro. You don’t want to get her too attached to you.”

Idris nods. He wonders if Timur may not be slightly jealous of his relationship with Roshi, perhaps even resentful that he, Idris, may have robbed him of a spectacular opportunity to play hero. Timur, emerging in slow motion from the blazing building, holding a baby. The crowd exploding in a cheer. Idris is determined not to let Timur parade Roshi in that way.

Still, Timur is right. They are going home in a week, and Roshi has started calling him Kaka Idris. If he arrives late, he finds her agitated. She ties her arms around his waist, a tide of relief washing over her face. His visits are what she looks forward to most, she has told him. Sometimes she clutches his hand with both of hers as they watch a tape. When he is away from her, he thinks often of the faint yellow hairs on her arms, her narrow hazel eyes, her pretty feet, her rounded cheeks, the way she cups her chin in her hands as he reads her one of the children’s books he has picked up from a bookstore near the French lycée. A few times, he has allowed himself to fleetingly imagine what it would be like to bring her to the U.S., how she would fit in with his boys, Zabi and Lemar, back home. This last year, he and Nahil had talked about the possibility of a third child.

“What now?” Amra says the day before he is scheduled to leave.

Earlier that day, Roshi had given Idris a picture, pencil-drawn on a sheet of hospital chart paper, of two stick figures watching a television. He’d pointed to the one with long hair. This is you?

And that one is you, Kaka Idris.

You had long hair, then? Before?

My sister brushed it every night. She knew how to do it so it didn’t hurt.

She must have been a good sister.

When it grows back, you can brush it.

I think I’d like that.

Don’t go, Kaka. Don’t leave.

“She is a sweet girl,” he says to Amra. And she is. Well-mannered, and humble too. With some guilt, he thinks of Zabi and Lemar back in San Jose, who have long professed their dislike of their Afghan names, who are fast turning into little tyrants, into the imperious American children he and Nahil had vowed they would never raise.

“She is survivor,” Amra says.


Amra leans against the wall. A pair of orderlies rush past them, pushing a gurney. On it lies a young boy with blood-soaked bandaging around his head and some kind of open wound on his thigh.

“Other Afghans from America, or from Europe,” Amra says, “they come and take picture of her. They take video. They make promises. Then they go home and show their families. Like she is zoo animal. I allow it because I think maybe they will help. But they forget. I never hear from them. So I ask again, what now?”

“The operation she needs?” he says. “I want to make it happen.”

She looks at him hesitantly.

“We have a neurosurgery clinic in my group. I’ll speak to my chief. We’ll make arrangements to fly her over to California and have the surgery.”

“Yes, but the money.”

“We’ll get the funding. Worst comes to worst, I’ll pay for it.”

“Out of wallet.”

He laughs. “The expression is ‘out of pocket,’ but, yes.”

“We have to get uncle’s permission.”

“If he ever shows up again.” The uncle hasn’t been seen or heard from since the day Idris gave him the two hundred dollars.

Amra smiles at him. He has never done anything like this. There is something exhilarating, intoxicating, euphoric even, in throwing himself headlong into this commitment. He feels energized. It nearly takes his breath away. To his own amazement, tears prickle his eyes.

“Hvala,” she says. “Thank you.” She stands on tiptoes and kisses his cheek.

“Banged one of the Dutch girls,” Timur says. “From the party?”

Idris lifts his head off the window. He had been marveling at the soft brown peaks of the tightly packed Hindu Kush far beneath. He turns to look at Timur in the aisle seat.

“The brunette. Popped half a Vitamin V and rode her straight to the morning call for prayer.”

“Jesus. Will you ever grow up?” Idris says, irked that Timur has burdened him again with knowledge of his misconduct, his infidelity, his grotesque frat-boy antics.

Timur smirks. “Remember, cousin, what happens in Kabul …”

“Please don’t finish that sentence.”

Timur laughs.

Somewhere in the back of the plane, there is a little party going on. Someone is singing in Pashto, someone tapping on a Styrofoam plate like a tamboura.

“I can’t believe we ran into ol’ Nabi,” Timur mutters. “Jesus.”

Idris fishes the sleeping pill he had been saving from his breast pocket and dry-swallows it.

“So I’m coming back next month,” Timur says, crossing his arms, shutting his eyes. “Probably take a couple more trips after that, but we should be good.”

“You trust this guy Farooq?”

“Fuck no. It’s why I’m coming back.”

Farooq is the lawyer Timur has hired. His specialty is helping Afghans who have lived in exile reclaim their lost properties in Kabul. Timur goes on about the paperwork Farooq will file, the judge he is hoping will preside over the proceedings, a second cousin of Farooq’s wife. Idris rests his temple once more against the window, waits for the pill to take effect.

“Idris?” Timur says quietly.


“Sad shit we saw back there, huh?”

You’re full of startling insight, bro. “Yup,” Idris says.

“A thousand tragedies per square mile, man.”

Soon, Idris’s head begins to hum, and his vision blurs. As he drifts to sleep, he thinks of his farewell with Roshi, him holding her fingers, saying they would see each other again, her sobbing softly, almost silently, into his belly.

On the ride home from SFO, Idris recalls with fondness the manic chaos of Kabul’s traffic. It’s strange now to guide the Lexus down the orderly, pothole-free southbound lanes of the 101, the always helpful freeway signs, everyone so polite, signaling, yielding. He smiles at the memory of all the daredevil adolescent cabbies with whom he and Timur entrusted their lives in Kabul.

In the passenger seat, Nahil is all questions. Was Kabul safe? How was the food? Did he get sick? Did he take pictures and videos of everything? He does his best. He describes for her the shell-blasted schools, the squatters living in roofless buildings, the beggars, the mud, the fickle electricity, but it’s like describing music. He cannot bring it to life. Kabul’s vivid, arresting details—the bodybuilding gym amid the rubble, for instance, a painting of Schwarzenegger on the window. Such details escape him now, and his descriptions sound to him generic, insipid, like those of an ordinary AP story.

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