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* * *
The dark was total, impenetrable and constant, without layer or
texture. Rasheed had filled the cracks between the boards with
something, put a large and immovable object at the foot of the door so
no light came from under it. Something had been stuffed in the keyhole.
Laila found it impossible to tell the passage of time with her eyes, so
she did it with her good ear. Azan and crowing roosters signaled
morning. The sounds of plates clanking in the kitchen downstairs, the
radio playing, meant evening.
The first day, they groped and fumbled for each other in the dark. Laila
couldn't see Aziza when she cried, when she went crawling.
"Aishee," Aziza mewled. "Aishee."
"Soon." Laila kissed her daughter, aiming for the forehead, finding the
crown of her head instead. "We'll have milk soon. You just be patient. Be
a good, patient little girl for Mammy, and I'll get you some aishee."
Laila sang her a few songs.
Azan rang out a second time and still Rasheed had not given them any
food, and, worse, no water. That day, a thick, suffocating heat fell on
them. The room turned into a pressure cooker. Laila dragged a dry
tongue over her lips, thinking of the well outside, the water cold and
fresh. Aziza kept crying, and Laila noticed with alarm that when she
wiped her cheeks her hands came back dry. She stripped the clothes off
Aziza, tried to find something to fan her with, settled for blowing on her
until she became light-headed. Soon, Aziza stopped crawling around. She
slipped in and out of sleep.
Several times that day, Laila banged her fists against the walls, used up
her energy screaming for help, hoping that a neighbor would hear. But
no one came, and her shrieking only frightened Aziza, who began to cry
again, a weak, croaking sound. Laila slid to the ground. She thought
guiltily of Mariam, beaten and bloodied, locked in this heat in the
Laila fell asleep at some point, her body baking in the heat. She had a
dream that she and Aziza had run into Tariq. He was across a crowded
street from them, beneath the awning of a tailor's shop. He was sitting
on his haunches and sampling from a crate of figs. That's your father,
Laila said. That man there, you see him? He's your real baba. She called
his name, but the street noise drowned her voice, and Tariq didn't hear.
She woke up to the whistling of rockets streaking overhead.
Somewhere, the sky she couldn't see erupted with blasts and the long,
frantic hammering of machine-gun fire. Laila closed her eyes. She woke
again to Rasheed's heavy footsteps in the hallway. She dragged herself
to the door, slapped her palms against it.
"Just one glass, Rasheed. Not for me. Do it for her. You don't want her
blood on your hands." He walked past-She began to plead with him. She
begged for forgiveness, made promises. She cursed him. His door closed.
The radio came on.
The muezzin called azan a third time. Again the heat. Aziza became
even more listless. She stopped crying, stopped moving altogether.
Laila put her ear over Aziza's mouth, dreading each time that she would
not hear the shallow whooshing of breath. Even this simple act of lifting
herself made her head swim. She fell asleep, had dreams she could not
remember. When she woke up, she checked on Aziza, felt the parched
cracks of her lips, the faint pulse at her neck, lay down again. They
would die here, of that Laila was sure now, but what she really dreaded
was that she would outlast Aziza, who was young and brittle. How much
more could Aziza take? Aziza would die in this heat, and Laila would have
to lie beside her stiffening little body and wait for her own death. Again
she fell asleep. Woke up. Fell asleep. The line between dream and
It wasn't roosters or azan that woke her up again but the sound of
something heavy being dragged. She heard a rattling- Suddenly, the
room was flooded with light. Her eyes screamed in protest. Laila raised
her head, winced, and shielded her eyes. Through the cracks between
her fingers, she saw a big, blurry silhouette standing in a rectangle of
light. The silhouette moved. Now there was a shape crouching beside
her, looming over her, and a voice by her ear.
"You try this again and I will find you. I swear on the Prophet's name
that I will find you. And, when I do, there isn't a court in this godforsaken
country that will hold me accountable for what I will do. To Mariam first,
then to her, and you last. I'll make you watch. You understand me? I'll
make you watch."
And, with that, he left the room. But not before delivering a kick to the
flank that would have Laila pissing blood for days.
Madam SEPTEMBER 1996
Iwo and a half years later, Mariam awoke on the morning of September
27 to the sounds of shouting and
whistling, firecrackers and music. She ran to the living room, found
Laila already at the window, Aziza mounted on her shoulders. Laila
turned and smiled.
"The Taliban are here," she said.
* * *
Mariam had first heard of the Taliban two years before, in October
1994, when Rasheed had brought home news that they had overthrown
the warlords in Kandahar and taken the city. They were a guerrilla force,
he said, made up of young Pashtun men whose families had fled to
Pakistan during the war against the Soviets. Most of them had been
raised-some even born-in refugee camps along the Pakistani border, and
in Pakistani madrasas, where they were schooled in Shari'a by mullahs.
Their leader was a mysterious, illiterate, one-eyed recluse named Mullah
Omar, who, Rasheed said with some amusement, called himself
Leader of the Faithful.
"It's true that these boys have no risha, no roots," Rasheed said,
addressing neither Mariam nor Laila. Ever since the failed escape, two
and a half years ago, Mariam knew that she and Laila had become one
and the same being to him, equally wretched, equally deserving of his
distrust, his disdain and disregard. When he spoke, Mariam had the sense
that he was having a conversation with himself, or with some invisible
presence in the room, who, unlike her and Laila, was worthy of his
"They may have no past," he said, smoking and looking up at the
ceiling. "They may know nothing of the world or this country's history.
Yes. And, compared to them, Mariam here might as well be a university
professor. Ha! All true. But look around you. What do you see? Corrupt,
greedy Mujahideen commanders, armed to the teeth, rich off heroin,
declaring jihad on one another and killing everyone in between-that's
what. At least the Taliban are pure and incorruptible. At least they're
decent Muslim boys. Wallah, when they come, they will clean up this
place. They'll bring peace and order. People won't get shot anymore
going out for milk. No more rockets! Think of it."
For two years now, the Taliban had been making their way toward
Kabul, taking cities from the Mujahideen, ending factional war wherever
they'd settled. They had captured the Hazara commander Abdul Ali
Mazari and executed him. For months, they'd settled in the southern
outskirts of Kabul, firing on the city, exchanging rockets with Ahmad
Shah Massoud. Earlier in that September of 1996, they had captured the
cities of Jalalabad and Sarobi.
The Taliban had one thing the Mujahideen did not, Rasheed said. They
"Let them come," he said. "I, for one, will shower them with rose
They "went our that day, the four of them, Rasheed leading them from
one bus to the next, to greet their new world, their new leaders. In every
battered neighborhood, Mariam found people materializing from the
rubble and moving into the streets. She saw an old woman wasting
handfuls of rice, tossing it at passersby, a drooping, toothless smile on
her face. Two men were hugging by the remains of a gutted building, in
the sky above them the whistle, hiss, and pop of a few firecrackers set
off by boys perched on rooftops. The national anthem played on cassette
decks, competing with the honking of cars.
"Look, Mayam!" Aziza pointed to a group of boys running down Jadeh
Maywand. They were pounding their fists into the air and dragging rusty
cans tied to strings. They were yelling that Massoud and Rabbani had
withdrawn from Kabul.
Everywhere, there were shouts: Ailah-u-akbar!
Mariam saw a bedsheet hanging from a window on Jadeh Maywand. On
it, someone had painted three words in big, black letters: zendabaad
taliban! Long live the Taliban!
As they walked the streets, Mariam spotted more signs-painted on
windows, nailed to doors, billowing from car antennas-that proclaimed
* * *
Mariam sawher first of the Taliban later that day, at Pashtunistan
Square, with Rasheed, Laila, and Aziza. A melee of people had gathered
there. Mariam saw people craning their necks, people crowded around
the blue fountain in the center of the square, people perched on its dry
bed. They were trying to get a view of the end of the square, near the
old Khyber Restaurant.
Rasheed used his size to push and shove past the onlookers, and led
them to where someone was speaking through a loudspeaker.
When Aziza saw, she let out a shriek and buried her face in Mariam's
The loudspeaker voice belonged to a slender, bearded young man who
wore a black turban. He was standing on some sort of makeshift
scaffolding. In his free hand, he held a rocket launcher. Beside him, two
bloodied men hung from ropes tied to traffic-light posts. Their clothes
had been shredded. Their bloated faces had turned purple-blue.
"I know him," Mariam said, "the one on the left."
A young woman in front of Mariam turned around and said it was
Najibullah. The other man was his brother. Mariam remembered
Najibullah's plump, mustachioed face, beaming from billboards and
storefront windows during the Soviet years.
She would later hear that the Taliban had dragged Najibullah from his
sanctuary at the UN headquarters near Darulaman Palace. That they had
tortured him for hours, then tied his legs to a truck and dragged his
lifeless body through the streets.
"He killed many, many Muslims!" the young Talib was shouting through
the loudspeaker. He spoke Farsi with a Pashto accent, then would switch
to Pashto. He punctuated his words by pointing to the corpses with his
weapon. "His crimes are known to everybody. He was a communist and a
This is what we do with infidels who commit crimes against Islam!"
Rasheed was smirking.
In Mariam's arms, Aziza began to cry.
* * *
The following day, Kabul was overrun by trucks. In Khair khana, in
Shar-e-Nau, in Karteh-Parwan, in Wazir Akbar Khan and Taimani, red
Toyota trucks weaved through the streets. Armed bearded men in black
turbans sat in their beds. From each truck, a loudspeaker blared
announcements, first in Farsi, then Pashto. The same message played
from loudspeakers perched atop mosques, and on the radio, which was
now known as the Voice of Short 'a. The message was also written in
flyers, tossed into the streets. Mariam found one in the yard.
Our watan is now known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. These
are the laws that we will enforce and you will obey:
Ail citizens must pray five times a day. If it is prayer time and you are
caught doing something other, you will be beaten.
Ail men will grow their beards. The correct length is at least one
clenched fist beneath the chin. If you do not abide by this, you will be
Ml boys will wear turbans. Boys in grade one through six will wear black
turbans, higher grades will wear white. Ail boys will wear Islamic clothes.
Shirt collars will be buttoned.
Singing is forbidden.
Dancing is forbidden.
Playing cards, playing chess, gambling, and kiteflying are forbidden.
Writing books, watching films, and painting pictures are forbidden.
If you keep parakeets, you will be beaten. Your birds will be killed.
If you steal, your hand will be cut off at the wrist. If you steal again,
If you are not Muslim, do not worship where you can be seen by
Muslims. If you do, you will be beaten and imprisoned. If you are caught
trying to convert a Muslim to your faith, you will be executed.
You will stay inside your homes at all times. It is not proper for women
accompanied by a
mahram, a male relative. If you are caught alone on
the street, you will be beaten and sent home.
You will not, under any circumstance, show your face. You will cover
with burqa when outside. If you do not, you will be severely beaten.
Cosmetics are forbidden.
Jewelry is forbidden.
You will not wear charming clothes.
You will not speak unless spoken to.
You will not make eye contact with men.
You will not laugh in public. If you do, you will be beaten.
You will not paint your nails. If you do, you will lose a finger.
Girls are forbidden from attending school All schools for girls will be
Women are forbidden from working.
If you are found guilty of adultery, you will be stoned to death
Listen. Listen well. Obey. Allah-u-akbar.
Rasheed turned off the radio. They were sitting on the living-room
floor, eating dinner less than a week after they'd seen Najibullah's corpse
hanging by a rope.
"They can't make half the population stay home and do nothing," Laila
"Why not?" Rasheed said. For once, Mariam agreed with him. He'd done
the same to her and Laila, in effect, had he not? Surely Laila saw that.
"This isn't some village. This is Kabul. Women here used to practice law
and medicine; they held office in the
Rasheed grinned. "Spoken like the arrogant daughter of a
poetry-reading university man that you are. How urbane, how Tajik, of
you. You think this is some new, radical idea the Taliban are bringing?
Have you ever lived outside of your precious little shell in Kabul, my gull
Ever cared to visit the real Afghanistan, the south, the east, along the
tribal border with Pakistan? No? I have. And I can tell you that there are
many places in this country that have always lived this way, or close
enough anyhow. Not that you would know."
"I refuse to believe it," Laila said "They're not serious."
"What the Taliban did to Najibullah looked serious to me," Rasheed
said. "Wouldn't you agree?"
"He was a communist! He was the head of the Secret Police."
Mariam heard the answer in his laugh: that in the eyes of the Taliban,
being a communist and the leader of the dreaded KHAD made Najibullah
only slightly more contemptible than a woman.
JLaila was glad, when the Taliban went to work, that Babi wasn't around
to witness it. It would have crippled him.
Men wielding pickaxes swarmed the dilapidated Kabul Museum and
smashed pre-Islamic statues to rubble-that is, those that hadn't already
been looted by the Mujahideen. The university was shut down and its
students sent home. Paintings were ripped from walls, shredded with
blades. Television screens were kicked in. Books, except the Koran, were
burned in heaps, the stores that sold them closed down. The poems of
Khalili, Pajwak, Ansari, Haji Dehqan, Ashraqi, Beytaab, Hafez, Jami,
Nizami, Rumi, Khayyam, Beydel, and more went up in smoke.
Laila heard of men being dragged from the streets, accused of skipping
and shoved into mosques. She learned that Marco Polo
Restaurant, near Chicken Street, had been turned into an interrogation
center. Sometimes screaming was heard from behind its black-painted
windows. Everywhere, the Beard Patrol roamed the streets in Toyota
trucks on the lookout for clean-shaven faces to bloody.
They shut down the cinemas too. Cinema Park. Ariana. Aryub.
Projection rooms were ransacked and reels of films set to fire. Laila
remembered all the times she and Tariq had sat in those theaters and
watched Hindi films, all those melodramatic tales of lovers separated by
some tragic turn of fate, one adrift in some faraway land, the other
forced into marriage, the weeping, the singing in fields of marigolds, the
longing for reunions. She remembered how Tariq would laugh at her for
crying at those films.
"I wonder what they've done to my father's cinema," Mariam said to her
one day. "If it's still there, that is. Or if he still owns it."
Kharabat, Kabul's ancient music ghetto, was silenced. Musicians were
beaten and imprisoned, their rubab%
trampled upon. The Taliban went to the grave of Tariq's favorite singer,
Ahmad Zahir, and fired bullets into it.
"He's been dead for almost twenty years," Laila said to Mariam. "Isn't
dying once enough?"
* * *
Rasheed wasnt bothered much by the Taliban. All he had to do was
grow a beard, which he did, and visit the mosque, which he also did.
Rasheed regarded the Taliban with a forgiving, affectionate kind of
bemusement, as one might regard an erratic cousin prone to
unpredictable acts of hilarity and scandal.
Every Wednesday night, Rasheed listened to the Voice of Shari'a when
the Taliban would announce the names of those scheduled for
punishment. Then, on Fridays, he went to Ghazi Stadium, bought a Pepsi,
and watched the spectacle. In bed, he made Laila listen as he described
with a queer sort of exhilaration the hands he'd seen severed, the
lashings, the hangings, the beheadings.
"I saw a man today slit the throat of his brother's murderer," he said
one night, blowing halos of smoke.
"They're savages," Laila said.
"You think?" he said "Compared to what? The Soviets killed a million
people. Do you know how many people the Mujahideen killed in Kabul
alone these last four years? Fifty thousand Fifty thousand! Is it so
insensible, by comparison, to chop the hands off a few thieves? Eye for
an eye, tooth for a tooth. It's in the Koran. Besides, tell me this: If
someone killed Aziza, wouldn't you want the chance to avenge her?"
Laila shot him a disgusted look.
"I'm making a point," he said.
"You're just like them."
"It's an interesting eye color she has, Aziza. Don't you think? It's neither
yours nor mine."
Rasheed rolled over to face her, gently scratched her thigh with the
crooked nail of his index finger.
"Let me explain," he said. "If the fancy should strike me-and I'm not
saying it will, but it could, it could-I would be within my rights to give
Aziza away. How would you like that? Or I could go to the Taliban one
day, just walk in and say that I have my suspicions about you. That's all
it would take. Whose word do you think they would believe? What do you
think they'd do to you?"
Laila pulled her thigh from him.
"Not that I would," he said. "I wouldn't. Nay. Probably not. You know
"You're despicable," Laila said.
"That's a big word," Rasheed said. "I've always disliked that about you.
Even when you were little, when you were running around with that
cripple, you thought you were so clever, with your books and poems.
What good are all your smarts to you now? What's keeping you off the
streets, your smarts or me? I'm despicable? Half the women in this city
would kill to have a husband like me. They would kill for it."
He rolled back and blew smoke toward the ceiling.
"You like big words? I'll give you one: perspective. That's what I'm
doing here, Laila. Making sure you don't lose perspective."
What turned Laila's stomach the rest of the night was that every word
Rasheed had uttered, every last one, was true.
But, in the morning, and for several mornings after that, the queasiness
in her gut persisted, then worsened, became something dismayingly
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