And the Mountains Echoed

Page 32

“Afghanistan is mother to us all,” Adel’s father said, one thick index finger raised skyward. The sun caught the band of his agatering. “But she is an ailing mother, and she has suffered for a long time. Now, it is true a mother needs her sons in order to recover. Yes, but she needs her daughters too—as much, if not more!”

This drew loud applause and several calls and hoots of approval. Adel scanned the faces in the crowd. They were rapt as they looked up at his father. Baba jan, with his black bushy eyebrows and full beard, standing tall and strong and wide above them, his shoulders nearly broad enough to fill the entryway to the school behind him.

His father continued. And Adel’s eyes connected with Kabir, one of Baba jan’s two bodyguards standing impassively on the other side of Baba jan, Kalashnikov in hand. Adel could see the crowd reflected in Kabir’s dark-lensed aviator glasses. Kabir was short, thin, almost frail, and wore suits with flashy colors—lavender, turquoise, orange—but Baba jan said he was a hawk and that underestimating him was a mistake you made at your own peril.

“So I say this to you, young daughters of Afghanistan,” Baba jan concluded, his long, thick arms outstretched in an open gesture of welcome. “You have a solemn duty now. To learn, to apply yourselves, to excel at your studies, to make proud not only your own fathers and mothers but the mother who is common to us all. Her future is in your hands, not mine. I ask that you not think of this school as a gift from me to you. It is merely a building that houses the true gift inside, and that is you. You are the gift, young sisters, not only to me and to the community of Shadbagh-e-Nau but, most importantly, to Afghanistan herself! God bless you.”

More applause broke out. Several people shouted, “God bless you, Commander Sahib!” Baba jan raised a fist, grinning broadly. Adel’s eyes nearly watered with pride.

The teacher Malalai handed Baba jan a pair of scissors. A red ribbon had been tied across the entryway to the classroom. The crowd inched closer to get a better view, and Kabir motioned a few people back, shoved a couple of them in the chest. Hands rose from the crowd, holding cell phones to video the ribbon cutting. Baba jan took the scissors, paused, turned to Adel and said, “Here, son, you do the honors.” He handed the scissors to Adel.

Adel blinked. “Me?”

“Go ahead,” Baba jan said, dropping him a wink.

Adel cut the ribbon. Long applause broke out. Adel heard the clicking of a few cameras, voices crying out “Allah-u-akbar!”

Baba jan then stood at the doorway as the students made a queue and entered the classroom one by one. They were young girls, aged between eight and fifteen, all of them wearing white scarves and the pin-striped uniforms of black and gray that Baba jan had given them. Adel watched as each student shyly introduced herself to Baba jan on her way in. Baba jan smiled warmly, patted their heads, and offered an encouraging word or two. “I wish you success, Bibi Mariam. Study hard, Bibi Homaira. Make us proud, Bibi Ilham.”

Later, by the black Land Cruiser, Adel stood by his father, sweating now in the heat, and watched him shake hands with the locals. Baba jan fingered a prayer bead in his free hand and listened patiently, leaning in a bit, his brow furrowed, nodding, attentive to each person as he or she came to say thanks, offer prayers, pay respects, many of them taking the opportunity to ask for a favor. A mother whose sick child needed to see a surgeon in Kabul, a man in need of a loan to start a shoe-repair shop, a mechanic asking for a new set of tools.

Commander Sahib, if you could find it in your heart …

I have nowhere else to turn, Commander Sahib …

Adel had never heard anyone outside immediate family address Baba jan by anything other than “Commander Sahib,” even though the Russians were long gone now and Baba jan hadn’t fired a gun in a decade or more. Back at the house, there were framed pictures of Baba jan’s jihadi days all around the living room. Adel had committed to memory each of the pictures: his father leaning against the fender of a dusty old jeep, squatting on the turret of a charred tank, posing proudly with his men, ammunition belt strapped across his chest, beside a helicopter they had shot down. Here was one where he was wearing a vest and a bandolier, brow pressed to the desert floor in prayer. He was much skinnier in those days, Adel’s father, and always in these pictures there was nothing behind him but mountains and sand.

Baba jan had been shot twice by the Russians during battle. He had shown Adel his wounds, one just under the left rib cage—he said that one had cost him his spleen—and one about a thumb’s length away from his belly button. He said he was lucky, everything considered. He had friends who had lost arms, legs, eyes; friends whose faces had burned. They had done it for their country, Baba jan said, and they had done it for God. This was what jihad was all about, he said. Sacrifice. You sacrificed your limbs, your sight—your life, even—and you did it gladly. Jihad also earned you certain rights and privileges, he said, because God sees to it that those who sacrifice the most justly reap the rewards as well.

Both in this life and the next, Baba jan said, pointing his thick finger first down, then up.

Looking at the pictures, Adel wished he had been around to fight jihad alongside his father in those more adventurous days. He liked to picture himself and Baba jan shooting at Russian helicopters together, blowing up tanks, dodging gunfire, living in mountains and sleeping in caves. Father and son, war heroes.

There was also a large framed photo of Baba jan smiling alongside President Karzai at Arg, the Presidential Palace in Kabul. This one was more recent, taken in the course of a small ceremony during which Baba jan had been handed an award for his humanitarian work in Shadbagh-e-Nau. It was an award that Baba jan had more than earned. The new school for girls was merely his latest project. Adel knew that women in town used to die regularly giving birth. But they didn’t anymore because his father had opened a large clinic, run by two doctors and three midwives whose salaries he paid for out of his own pocket. All the townspeople received free care at the clinic; no child in Shadbagh-e-Nau went unimmunized. Baba jan had dispatched teams to locate water points all over town and dig wells. It was Baba jan who had helped finally bring full-time electricity to Shadbagh-e-Nau. At least a dozen businesses had opened thanks to his loans that, Adel had learned from Kabir, were rarely, if ever, paid back.

Adel had meant what he had said to the teacher earlier. He knew he was lucky to be the son of such a man.

Just as the rounds of handshaking were coming to an end, Adel spotted a slight man approaching his father. He wore round, thin-framed spectacles and a short gray beard and had little teeth like the heads of burnt matches. Trailing him was a boy roughly Adel’s own age. The boy’s big toes poked through matching holes in his sneakers. His hair sat on his head as a matted, unmoving mess. His jeans were stiff with dirt, and they were too short besides. By contrast, his T-shirt hung almost to his knees.

Kabir planted himself between the old man and Baba jan. “I told you already this wasn’t a good time,” he said.

“I just want to have a brief word with the commander,” the old man said.

Baba jan took Adel by the arm and gently guided him into the backseat of the Land Cruiser. “Let’s go, son. Your mother is waiting for you.” He climbed in beside Adel and shut the door.

Inside, as his tinted window rolled up, Adel watched Kabir say something to the old man that Adel couldn’t hear. Then Kabir made his way around the front of the SUV and let himself into the driver’s seat, laying his Kalashnikov on the passenger seat before turning the ignition.

“What was that about?” Adel asked.

“Nothing important,” Kabir said.

They turned onto the road. Some of the boys who had stood in the crowd gave chase for a short while before the Land Cruiser pulled away. Kabir drove through the main crowded strip that bisected the town of Shadbagh-e-Nau, honking frequently as he needled the car through traffic. Everyone yielded. Some people waved. Adel watched the crowded sidewalks on either side of him, his gaze settling on and then off familiar sights—the carcasses hanging from hooks in butcher shops; the blacksmiths working their wooden wheels, hand-pumping their bellows; the fruit merchants fanning flies off their grapes and cherries; the sidewalk barber on the wicker chair stropping his razor. They passed tea shops, kabob houses, an auto-repair shop, a mosque, before Kabir veered the car through the town’s big public square, at the center of which stood a blue fountain and a nine-foot-tall black stone mujahid, looking east, turban gracefully wrapped atop his head, an RPG launcher on his shoulder. Baba jan had personally commissioned a sculptor from Kabul to build the statue.

North of the strip were a few blocks of residential area, mostly composed of narrow, unpaved streets and small, flat-roofed little houses painted white or yellow or blue. Satellite dishes sat on the roofs of a few; Afghan flags draped a number of windows. Baba jan had told Adel that most of the homes and businesses in Shadbagh-e-Nau had been built in the last fifteen years or so. He’d had a hand in the construction of many of them. Most people who lived here considered him the founder of Shadbagh-e-Nau, and Adel knew that the town elders had offered to name the town after Baba jan but he had declined the honor.

From there, the main road ran north for two miles before it connected with Shadbagh-e-Kohna, Old Shadbagh. Adel had never seen the village as it had once looked decades ago. By the time Baba jan had moved him and his mother from Kabul to Shadbagh, the village had all but vanished. All the homes were gone. The only surviving relic of the past was a decaying windmill. At Shadbagh-e-Kohna, Kabir veered left from the main road onto a wide, quarter-mile-long unpaved track that connected the main road to the thick twelve-foot-high walls of the compound where Adel lived with his parents—the only standing structure now in Shadbagh-e-Kohna, discounting the windmill. Adel could see the white walls now as the SUV jostled and bounced on the track. Coils of barbed wire ran along the top of the walls.

A uniformed guard, who always stood watch at the main gates to the compound, saluted and opened the gates. Kabir drove the SUV through the walls and up a graveled path toward the house.

The house stood three stories high and was painted bright pink and turquoise green. It had soaring columns and pointed eaves and mirrored skyscraper glass that sparkled in the sun. It had parapets, a veranda with sparkly mosaics, and wide balconies with curved wrought-iron railings. Inside, they had nine bedrooms and seven bathrooms, and sometimes when Adel and Baba jan played hide-and-seek, Adel wandered around for an hour or more before he found his father. All the counters in the bathrooms and kitchen had been made of granite and lime marble. Lately, to Adel’s delight, Baba jan had been talking about building a swimming pool in the basement.

Kabir pulled into the circular driveway outside the tall front gates of the house. He killed the engine.

“Why don’t you give us a minute?” Baba jan said.

Kabir nodded and exited the car. Adel watched him walk up the marble steps to the gates and ring. It was Azmaray, the other bodyguard—a short, stocky, gruff fellow—who opened the gate. The two men said a few words, then lingered on the steps, lighting a cigarette each.

“Do you really have to go?” Adel said. His father was leaving for the south in the morning to oversee his fields of cotton in Helmand and to meet with workers at the cotton factory he had built there. He would be gone for two weeks, a span of time that, to Adel, seemed interminable.

Baba jan turned his gaze to him. He dwarfed Adel, taking up more than half the backseat. “Wish I didn’t, son.”

Adel nodded. “I was proud today. I was proud of you.”

Baba jan lowered the weight of his big hand on Adel’s knee. “Thank you, Adel. I appreciate that. But I take you to these things so you learn, so you understand that it’s important for the fortunate, for people like us, to live up to their responsibilities.”

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