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A Thousand Splendid Suns (Page 34)

"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 kafir. 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 Shari’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:

All citizens must pray five times a day. If it is prayer time and you are caught doing something other, you will be beaten.

All 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 beaten.

All boys will wear turbans. Boys in grade one through six will wear black turbans, higher grades will wear white.

All boys will wear Islamic clothes. Shirt collars will be buttoned.

Singing is forbidden.

Dancing is forbidden.

Playing cards, playing chess, gambling, and kite flying 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, your foot will be cut off.

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.

Attention women:

You will stay inside your homes at all times. It is not proper for women to wander aimlessly about the streets. If you go outside, you must be 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 closed immediately.

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 said.

"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 government – "

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 gul ? 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."

Rasheed laughed.

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.

Chapter 38

Laila

Laila 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, Khayyám, Beydel, and more went up in smoke.

Laila heard of men being dragged from the streets, accused of skipping namaz, 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 rubabs, tam-bouras, and harmoniums 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 WASN’T 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 me."

"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 familiar.

ONE COLD, overcast afternoon soon after, Laila lay on her back on the bedroom floor. Mariam was napping with Aziza in her room.

In Laila’s hands was a metal spoke she had snapped with a pair of pliers from an abandoned bicycle wheel.

She’d found it in the same alley where she had kissed Tariq years back. For a long time, Laila lay on the floor, sucking air through her teeth, legs parted.

She’d adored Aziza from the moment when she’d first suspected her existence. There had been none of this self-doubt, this uncertainty. What a terrible thing it was, Laila thought now, for a mother to fear that she could not summon love for her own child. What an unnatural thing. And yet she had to wonder, as she lay on the floor, her sweaty hands poised to guide the spoke, if indeed she could ever love Rasheed’s child as she had Tariq’s.

In the end, Laila couldn’t do it.

It wasn’t the fear of bleeding to death that made her drop the spoke, or even the idea that the act was damnable – which she suspected it was. Laila dropped the spoke because she could not accept what the Mujahideen readily had: that sometimes in war innocent life had to be taken. Her war was against Rasheed. The baby was blameless. And there had been enough killing already. Laila had seen enough killing of innocents caught in the cross fire of enemies.

Chapter 39

Mariam

SEPTEMBER 1997

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