Authors: Timeri N. Murari
Timeri N. Murari
For Roger and Briony, to celebrate our long years of friendship. And for Maureen, with love.
Cruel leaders are replaced only to have new leaders turn cruel.
There is no place for any act of violence on the field of play.
T FORGOTTEN ME
NE OF HIS MINIONS
delivered the note to our home.
Rukhsana, daughter of Gulab, is to appear in person at 11:00
at the Ministry for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, Salang Wat, Kabul, Lekshanbeh 18 Sawr 1379 at the command of Zorak Wahidi, Minister for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
No further explanation. I was just to appear in only a few hours' time on this Sunday of May 7, 2000. I had prayed, over the last four years, to slip from his mind.
“I refuse to go,” I announced to my brother.
“You can't just refuse,” Jahan insisted, putting on a brave face. “And I'm going with you, so you don't have to be afraid.”
The slip of paperâwhat it said, and what it left unsaidâwas a threat. Why would he summon me? What crime had I committed now? Had I revealed my face, accidentally, to a stranger? Had I, accidentally, spoken out loud in the bazaar? Had I, accidentally, revealed an ankle or a wrist? Who knew what rules were encircling us like serpents in a pit?
Or could it be that he had finally caught me doing what he had warned me never to do again. As a journalist, to keep my sanity, I had to write about what I saw and heard going on around me. But I had taken extraordinary steps to remain anonymous, undetectable. I filed my stories under a pseudonym, and never directly, with the
in Delhi. I faxed them, when the line worked, to the home of a political columnist and friend of Father's. He banked my pay and made sure the desperately needed money reached me without raising suspicion. I also contributed to the publications of RAWA, the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, through a complex chain of contacts.
As Jahan and I climbed the stairs to Mother's room, I replayed the day, four years ago, I had first met the minister, when he brutally dismissed me from my post at the
, and I had come home bruised and bloodied.
We tried to hide our anxiety from Mother, but despite her illness, she had an instinct for trouble. When she pressed me, I told her about the note.
“What have you done to remind him of your presence?”
“Nothing,” I said innocently.
She didn't believe me. “Rukhsana, please tell me you haven't written anything recently. It has become too dangerousâyou said you would stop.”
“I never sign my name. I use a pseudonym,” I said quietly.
“Do you think a pseudonym will protect you from someone like him?” she asked.
I heard Jahan shift uncomfortably on his feet behind meâhe had reluctantly helped me, as my
accompanying me when I needed to meet my sources.
“And your latest subject?” my mother said at last, tears coming to her eyes.
“Zarmina's executionâbut, Maadar, I didn't sign it. If this is truly why I am being summoned, I will deny authorship. There were at least thirty thousand people at Ghazi Stadium. I am told there is even video footage. Any one of them could have sent the story.”
“But none as reckless as my daughter.” She shook her head. “Be very careful,” she said, resigned. “They must have found out, somehow.”
The house felt ominously quiet as we prepared to leave. While Jahan washed in the bathroom, I held the bedpan for my mother, emptied it in the toilet downstairs, and then washed her. Afterward, she lay in the large bed, a frail figure framed by white sheets. She obediently swallowed her morning medications.
“You're in the wrong profession,” Mother said and smiled. “You should've been a nurse.”
“I wouldn't have this patience with strangers.” I drew back the curtains and opened the window to let in the morning light. She would not let me leave for the ministry with ill feelings between us.
“But you do have it for your mother. I never expected that from you.” She sighed loudly. “You were always too spirited, as your grandfather said.”
I leaned over and kissed her. “Dr. Hanifa will be here soon.”
“By now, you should have married Shaheen, as we'd arranged, and had your own children.”
He was my mother's uncle's sister-in-law's son, an only child, and we had known each other most of our lives. We were meant for each other; even from a young age we were told of the future arrangement for our lives. We had met at a wedding when I was six years old and Shaheen was ten. We were expected to bond like two small magnets. We didn't. He was a quiet, solemn child with a square face and a superior air, while I was noisy and mischievous. Unlike me, he was always neatly dressed and made sure that his clothes remained clean throughout any games we cousins played together. His parents pampered him and he expected the same service whenever he visited our home. His father was a very successful businessman, chairman of an import-export company that traded with Iran, Iraq, Dubai, Pakistan, and India.
“Then I wouldn't be able to care for you, would I?”
I smiled as I left the room, and went to hurry Jahan along. I knocked on the bathroom door. “Save some water for me, okay?”
I looked down at the garden where our rosebushes grew wild. The fallen petals were like wounds on the lawn, which was parched, but water was as precious as life itself, and we had to survive on four buckets a day purchased weekly from a tanker.
Jahan stepped out, trying to smile, and tousled my disheveled hair. “There's enough, if you don't wash your hair.”
I washed hurriedly. The bathroom had been half open to the sky for six years. Now, in summer, it was pleasant to feel the warmth of the sun through the opening, but in winter the wind would blow its cold breath through and freeze you while you washed. There was no money, or workmen to pay to repair it. A rocket exploded in our back garden in 1994 at the start of the civil war with the Taliban, the latest bloody chapter in the power struggle among greedy warlords that began when the Russians left in 1987. The rocket made the building shiver, as if with pain, and yet somehow the house stayed upright and only this part of the ceiling was destroyed. My grandparents and I were sheltered in the basement, but our servants, Asif and Sima, who had worked for our family for twenty years, refused to join us because they believed they would be safer in the outbuilding. They stubbornly remained in their home and were, mercifully, instantly killed in the explosion. We still mourned the loss of such good people.
I dressed in jeans and a blouse but did not look in a mirror. My face would be pasty, the color of watery flour, and as soft as dough. It wouldn't have the flush of health and exercise, or the light tan of an afternoon in the sun. I didn't want to look into my eyesâthey would be dull, and set in deep purple circles. Like all women I existed only in the house, or else covered with my burka in the street.
We went to say good-bye to Mother, propping her door open so she would not feel trapped.
I leaned over and kissed her. “Now, don't worry, we'll be back soon,” I said, stroking her forehead.
“I pray you will.” And then a command: “Take Parwaaze too.”
“I'm old enough,” Jahan protested as he came in to kiss her. “I've been her
every time she has to go out.”
“So, take another
this time, Parwaaze.” Then, to me, “And keep your mouth shut, don't answer back.”
“Yes, Maadar,” I said meekly.
She didn't have to add that if something happened to us, she would be left all alone in the world. One of us must return.
I buried myself in my burka and Jahan and I crossed our yard, to the gate. It was the same height as our compound walls, twelve feet, to shield us from inquisitive eyes. We had a rambling old house with a stern frontage of pillars. When I was a child, two old poplar trees framed the gate, but Russian soldiers had cut them down for firewood. When Grandfather went out to protest, they merely pointed their guns at him. The Talib might have shot him for protesting. We had long been stripped of our own armed guard, so he could only mourn the loss of the trees and remain furious at the Russians for invading his kingdom.
Our ancient, white-bearded watchman, Abdul, with the resigned air of his age, came out from the guardhouse and ran his one good eye over us as we approached. In most houses, the only defense against intruders was someone like Abdul. He used to live in the old city, four streets south of the Pul-e-Khishti Mosque. His wife and children did not survive the war with the Talib. Now, he lived in the ruined quarters behind our house.
“Your ankles are showing,” he announced, sounding pleased with himself. “Cover them or you'll be beaten.” I tugged my burka down as far as it would go.
“I was beaten yesterday by a Talib because I did not pray. What do they expect?” He could afford to be indignant behind our compound walls. “I'm supposed to just stop doing what I'm doing and drop down to prayâfive times a day too, as if I have nothing better to do and God has nothing better to do than listen to us? Before they came, I prayed once a day and went to the mosque on Fridays. God doesn't want to be reminded of our presence so often.
“You women are lucky behind your burkas,” he continued. “You don't have to grow beards and pray five times a day. I was handsome without this,” he said, tugging at his scruffy white beard, “and now what young girl will want to marry this old man?”
“Don't worryâthey're out there waiting for you,” I told him, as I did each time we received Abdul's daily litany of complaints.
“And, if you're lucky, you'll die happily in their arms,” Jahan added.
“Ah, if only I could die that way.” He moved toward the smaller side gate but grabbed Jahan's arm. “You too will be beaten by the Talib. Look at your
!” My brother's turban was perchedâillegallyâon top of his unruly hair, a show of adolescent defiance. Abdul flattened Jahan's curls and then pressed the turban down to his ears so the hair was completely hidden. He so resembled Father, with his square face, slim, straight nose, and the same gray eyes. His long eyelashes were the envy of women, including his sister. He had Father's height but not his strong build and wide shoulders. “They will cut your hair all off if they see it. And don't forget to pray when you hear the call. Where are you going, may I ask?”
“To see Parwaaze,” I said quickly before Jahan could answer. “Oh, and Dr. Hanifa will be here in a few minutes to see Mother.”
He unlocked the small gate beside the larger one to let us out. He followed us to the street, watching until we were out of sight, then he would wait for Dr. Hanifa to arrive.
HE SUMMER IN
is hot, and when the wind blows down from the mountains it brings with it a harsh brown dust. That morning, though, the sky was a clear indigo and little clouds floated past. Often I would go up to our roof to look out at Paghman Mountain and the Kohi Asamayi and Kohi Sher Darwaza hills. At night the mountain and hills would melt into arms of the sky, but were forced apart, like lovers, by the harsh light of day. Between the hills, I can just glimpse the northern suburb of Wazir Akbar Khan and the rising mound of Bibi Mahro behind it. Crowning it is the huge abandoned swimming pool, complete with diving boardsâbut no waterâbuilt by the Russians, and nearer home the yellow brick silo they built on the border of Karte Seh, out of imperial charity, that supplied flour to their troops and subsidized our daily naan. It is such a splendid tower, our skyscraper; how the rockets missed it is both a miracle and a mystery. As a child I imagined that if I climbed to the top, I could look to a horizon, beyond the hills and mountains that encircle us.
I had no sense of the limitless world beyond until I went to Delhi. I wondered often what it must be like to stand in a desert, or by the sea, and see great distances stretching beyond my imagination. I sometimes blamed these natural fortifications for our misfortunes. They should have sealed us off from the world, made us into a Shangri-La nestled within their folds, but instead they seemed to welcome in a thousand invaders. We cannot even view the length and breadth of our city for the hills that divide us.
Jahan and I followed the winding pathway through the bomb-damaged roads toward Parwaaze's houseâonly two streets away. Apart from the sparrows that nested in the eaves of our house, there weren't any other birds to be seen. Over the years, we had chopped down our trees for firewood and they had fled to more hospitable habitations. It was an obstacle course of deep craters and ruts from tanks and armored carriers that had churned up the landscape around our homes. We passed our neighbors' houses, some partial ruins like ours, others reduced to rubble. Parwaaze's house had lost its entire right side; a balcony hung from it like a dislocated jaw and the front walls bled red dust from bullet holes. The green tiles along the front were all broken into shards. His windows were patched with plastic sheets or plywood. Like our house, it had once risen proudly to two floors but now crouched humbly with its many wounds.
His watchman, as old as Abdul, peered through a narrow slat and opened the small gate, but I waited by the entrance while Jahan went in. I didn't want to meet my female relatives in Parwaaze's house and listen to the familiar litany of complaints about the sapping boredom of their incarceration. Jahan came out with Parwaaze, who was rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Parwaaze was my mother's nephew and, at nineteen, five years younger than me but three years older than Jahan. At one time, he had the spirit of an adventurer and a dreamer; I think that if I had told him the story of Icarus he would have attached wings to his back and tried to fly over the mountains. But now, his shoulders drooped and he wore a permanent frown. He and his family had survived the war, but without their spirit intact. His clear gray eyes were now watchful and suspicious. Despite all this, he was still my handsomest cousin. His beard was thin, and there was a slight dent in his nose, as if it had been broken and badly set, and he was always immaculate in his dress.