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HOME > Classical Novels > A Thousand Splendid Suns > Chapter 50.
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Chapter 50.
For Laila, life in Murree is one of comfort and tranquillity.
The work is not cumbersome, and, on their days off, she andTariq take the children to ride the chairlift to Patriata hill, orgo to Pindi Point, where, on a clear day, you can see as faras Islamabad and downtown Rawalpindi. There, they spread ablanket on the grass and eat meatball sandwiches withcucumbers and drink cold ginger ale.
It is a good life, Laila tells herself, a life to be thankful for. Itis, in fact, precisely the sort of life she used to dream forherself in her darkest days with Rasheed. Every day, Lailareminds herself of this.
Then one warm night in July 2002, she and Tariq are lyingin bed talking in hushed voices about all the changes backhome. There have been so many. The coalition forces havedriven the Taliban out of every major city, pushed them acrossthe border to Pakistan and to the mountains in the south andeast of Afghanistan. ISAF, an international peacekeeping force,has been sent to Kabul. The country has an interim presidentnow, Hamid Karzai.
Laila decides that now is the time to tell Tariq.
A year ago, she would have gladly given an arm to get out ofKabul. But in the last few months, she has found herselfmissing the city of her childhood. She misses the bustle of ShorBazaar, the Gardens of Babur, the call of the water carrierslugging their goatskin bags. She misses the garment hagglers atChicken Street and the melon hawkers in Karteh-Parwan.
But it isn't mere homesickness or nostalgia that has Lailathinking of Kabul so much these days. She has becomeplagued by restlessness. She hears of schools built in Kabul,roads repaved, women returning to work, and her life here,pleasant as it is, grateful as she is for it, seems… insufficient toher. Inconsequential Worse yet, wasteful. Of late, she hasstarted hearing Babi's voice in her head.You can be anythingyou want, Laila, he says.I know this about you. And Ialsoknow that when this war is over, Afghanistan is going to needyou.
Laila hears Mammy's voice too. She remembers Mammy'sresponse to Babi when he would suggest that they leaveAfghanistan.Iwant to see my sons' dream come true. I want tobe there when it happens, when Afghanistan is free, so theboys see it too. They'll see it through my eyes. There is a partof Laila now that wants to return to Kabul, for Mammy andBabi, for them to see it throughher eyes.
And then, most compellingly for Laila, there is Mariam. DidMariam die for this? Laila asks herself. Did she sacrifice herselfso she, Laila, could be a maid in a foreign land? Maybe itwouldn't matter to Mariam what Laila did as long as she andthe children were safe and happy. But it matters to Laila.
Suddenly, it matters very much.
"I want to go back," she says.
Tariq sits up in bed and looks down at her.
Laila is struck again by how beautiful he is, the perfect curveof his forehead, the slender muscles of his arms, his brooding,intelligent eyes. A year has passed, and still there are times, atmoments like this, when Laila cannot believe that they havefound each other again, that he is really here, with her, that heis her husband.
"Back? To Kabul?" he asks.
"Onlyif you want it too.""Are you unhappy here? You seem happy. The children too."Laila sits up. Tariq shifts on the bed, makes room for her.
"Iam happy," Laila says. "Of course I am. But…where do wego from here, Tariq? How long do we stay? This isn't home.
Kabul is, and back there so much is happening, a lot of itgood. I want to be a part of it all. I want todo something. Iwant to contribute. Do you understand?"Tariq nods slowly. "This is what you want, then? You'resure?""I want it, yes, I'm sure. But it's more than that. I feel likeIhave to go back. Staying here, it doesn't feel right anymore."Tariq looks at his hands, then back up at her.
"But only-only-if you want to go too."Tariq smiles. The furrows from his brow clear, and for a briefmoment he is the old Tariq again, the Tariq who did not getheadaches, who had once said that in Siberia snot turned toice before it hit the ground. It may be her imagination, butLaila believes there are more frequent sightings of this old Tariqthese clays.
"Me?" he says. "I'll follow you to the end of the world, Laila."She pulls him close and kisses his lips. She believes she hasnever loved him more than at this moment. "Thank you," shesays, her forehead resting against his.
"Let's go home.""But first, I want to go to Herat," she says.
"Herat?"Laila explains.
* * *The children need reassuring, each in their own way. Lailahas to sit down with an agitated Aziza, who still hasnightmares, who'd been startled to tears the week before whensomeone had shot rounds into the sky at a wedding nearby.
Laila has to explain to Aziza that when they return to Kabulthe Taliban won't be there, that there will not be any fighting,and that she will not be sent back to the orphanage. "We'll alllive together. Your father, me, Zalmai. And you, Aziza. You'llnever, ever, have to be apart from me again. I promise." Shesmiles at her daughter. "Until the dayyou want to, that is.
When you fall in love with some young man and want tomarry him."On the day they leave Murree, Zalmai is inconsolable. He haswrapped his arms around Alyona's neck and will not let go.
"I can't pry him off of her, Mammy," says Aziza.
"Zalmai. We can't take a goat on the bus," Laila explainsagain.
It isn't until Tariq kneels down beside him, until he promisesZalmai that he will buy him a goat just like Alyona in Kabul,that Zalmai reluctantly lets go.
There are tearful farewells with Sayeed as well For good luck,he holds a Koran by the doorway for Tariq, Laila, and thechildren to kiss three times, then holds it high so they canpass under it. He helps Tariq load the two suitcases into thetrunk of his car. It is Sayeed who drives them to the station,who stands on the curb waving good-bye as the bus sputtersand pulls away.
As she leans back and watches Sayeed receding in the rearwindow of the bus, Laila hears the voice of doubt whispering inher head. Are they being foolish, she wonders, leaving behindthe safety of Murree? Going back to the land where herparents and brothers perished, where the smoke of bombs isonly now settling?
And then, from the darkened spirals of her memory, rise twolines of poetry, Babi's farewell ode to Kabul:
One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her -walls.
Laila settles back in her seat, blinking the wetness from hereyes. Kabul is waiting. Needing. This journey home is the rightthing to do.
But first there is one last farewell to be said.
* * *The wars in Afghanistan have ravaged the roads connectingKabul, Herat, and Kandahar. The easiest way to Herat now isthrough Mashad, in Iran. Laila and her family are there onlyovernight. They spend the night at a hotel, and, the nextmorning, they board another bus.
Mashad is a crowded, bustling city. Laila watches as parks,mosques, andchelo kebab restaurants pass by. When the buspasses the shrine to Imam Reza, the eighth Shi'a imam, Lailacranes her neck to get a better view of its glistening tiles, theminarets, the magnificent golden dome, all of it immaculatelyand lovingly preserved. She thinks of the Buddhas in her owncountry. They are grains of dust now, blowing about theBamiyan Valley in the wind.
The bus ride to the Iranian-Afghan border takes almost tenhours. The terrain grows more desolate, more barren, as theynear Afghanistan. Shortly before they cross the border intoHerat, they pass an Afghan refugee camp. To Laila, it is a blurof yellow dust and black tents and scanty structures made ofcorrugated-steel sheets. She reaches across the seat and takesTariq's hand.
* * *In Herat, most of the streets are paved, lined with fragrantpines. There are municipal parks and libraries in reconstruction,manicured courtyards, freshly painted buildings. The traffic lightswork, and, most surprisingly to Laila, electricity is steady. Lailahas heard that Herat's feudal-style warlord, Ismail Khan, hashelped rebuild the city with the considerable customs revenuethat he collects at the Afghan-Iranian border, money that Kabulsays belongs not to him but to the central government. Thereis both a reverential and fearful tone when the taxi driver whotakes them to Muwaffaq Hotel mentions Ismail Khan's name.
The two-night stay at the Muwaffaq will cost them nearly afifth of their savings, but the trip from Mashad has been longand wearying, and the children are exhausted. The elderly clerkat the desk tells Tariq, as he fetches the room key, that theMuwaffaq is popular with journalists and NGO workers.
"Bin Laden slept here once," he boasts.
The room has two beds, and a bathroom with running coldwater. There is a painting of the poet Khaja Abdullah Ansaryon the wall between the beds. From the window, Laila has aview of the busy street below, and of a park across the streetwith pastel-colored-brick paths cutting through thick clusters offlowers. The children, who have grown accustomed to television,are disappointed that there isn't one in the room. Soonenough, though, they are asleep. Soon enough, Tariq and Lailatoo have collapsed. Laila sleeps soundly in Tariq's arms, exceptfor once in the middle of the night when she wakes from adream she cannot remember.
* * *The next morning, after a breakfast of tea with fresh bread,quince marmalade, and boiled eggs, Tariq finds her a taxi.
"Are you sure you don't want me to come along?" Tariq says.
Aziza is holding his hand Zalmai isn't, but he is standing closeto Tariq, leaning one shoulder on Tariq's hip.
"I'm sure.""I worry.""I'll be fine," Laila says. "I promise. Take the children to amarket. Buy them something."Zalmai begins to cry when the taxi pulls away, and, whenLaila looks back, she sees that he is reaching for Tariq. Thathe is beginning to accept Tariq both eases and breaks Laila'sheart.
* * *"You're not from herat," the driver says.
He has dark, shoulder-length hair-a common thumbing of thenose at the departed Taliban, Laila has discovered-and somekind of scar interrupting his mustache on the left side. There isa photo taped to the windshield, on his side. It's of a younggirl with pink cheeks and hair parted down the middle intotwin braids.
Laila tells him that she has been in Pakistan for the last year,that she is returning to Kabul. "Deh-Mazang."Through the windshield, she sees coppersmiths welding brasshandles to jugs, saddlemakers laying out cuts of rawhide to dryin the sun.
"Have you lived here long, brother?" she asks.
"Oh, my whole life. I was born here. I've seen everything.
You remember the uprising?"Laila says she does, but he goes on.
"This was back in March 1979, about nine months before theSoviets invaded. Some angry Heratis killed a few Sovietadvisers, so the Soviets sent in tanks and helicopters andpounded this place. For three days,hamshira, they fired on thecity. They collapsed buildings, destroyed one of the minarets,killed thousands of people.Thousands. I lost two sisters in thosethree days. One of them was twelve years old." He taps thephoto on his windshield. "That's her.""I'm sorry," Laila says, marveling at how every Afghan story ismarked by death and loss and unimaginable grief. And yet, shesees, people find a way to survive, to go on. Laila thinks ofher own life and all that has happened to her, and she isastonished that she too has survived, that she is alive andsitting in this taxi listening to this man'sstory.
* * *Gul Daman is a village of a few walled houses rising amongflatkolbas built with mud and straw. Outside thekolbas, Lailasees sunburned women cooking, their faces sweating in steamrising from big blackened pots set on makeshift firewood grills.
Mules eat from troughs. Children giving chase to chickens beginchasing the taxi. Laila sees men pushing wheelbarrows filledwith stones. They stop and watch the car pass by. The drivertakes a turn, and they pass a cemetery with a weather-wornmausoleum in the center of it. The driver tells her that avillage Sufi is buried there.
There is a windmill too. In the shadow of its idle, rust-coloredvanes, three little boys are squatting, playing with mud. Thedriver pulls over and leans out of the window. Theoldest-looking of the three boys is the one to answer. Hepoints to a house farther up the road. The driver thanks him,puts the car back in gear.
He parks outside the walled, one-story house. Laila sees thetops of fig trees above the walls, some of the branches spillingover the side.
"I won't be long," she says to the driver.
* * *The middle-aged man who opens the door is short, thin,russet-haired. His beard is streaked with parallel stripes of gray.
He is wearing achapan over hispirhan-tumban.
They exchangesalaam alaykums.
"Is this Mullah Faizullah's house?" Laila asks.
"Yes. I am his son, Hamza. Is there something I can do foryou,hamshireh? ”
"I've come here about an old friend of your father's, Mariam."Hamza blinks. A puzzled look passes across his face.
"Mariam…""Jalil Khan's daughter."He blinks again. Then he puts a palm to his cheek and hisface lights up with a smile that reveals missing and rottingteeth. "Oh!" he says. It comes out sounding likeOhhhhhh, likean expelled breath. "Oh! Mariam! Are you her daughter? Isshe-" He is twisting his neck now, looking behind her eagerly,searching. "Is she here? It's been so long! Is Mariam here?""She has passed on, I'm afraid."The smile fades from Hamza's face.
For a moment, they stand there, at the doorway, Hamzalooking at the ground. A donkey brays somewhere.
"Come in," Hamza says. He swings the door open. "Pleasecome in."* * *They srr on the floor in a sparsely furnished room. There isa Herati rug on the floor, beaded cushions to sit on, and aframed photo of Mecca on the wall They sit by the openwindow, on either side of an oblong patch of sunlight- Lailahears women's voices whispering from another room. A littlebarefoot boy places before them a platter of green tea andpistachiogaaz nougats. Hamza nods at him.
"My son."The boy leaves soundlessly.
"So tell me," Hamza says tiredly.
Laila does. She tells him everything. It takes longer than she'dimagined. Toward the end, she struggles to maintaincomposure. It still isn't easy, one year later, talking aboutMariam.
When she's done, Hamza doesn't say anything for a longtime. He slowly turns his teacup on its saucer, one way, thenthe other.
"My father, may he rest in peace, was so very fond of her,"he says at last. "He was the one who sangazan in her earwhen she was born, you know. He visited her every week,never missed. Sometimes he took me with him. He was hertutor, yes, but he was a friend too. He was a charitable man,my father. It nearly broke him when Jalil Khan gave heraway.""I'm sorry to hear about your father. May God forgive him."Hamza nods his thanks. "He lived to be a very old man. Heoutlived Jalil Khan, in fact. We buried him in the villagecemetery, not far from where Mariam's mother............
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