Kabul – February 1981
“NOOR—NOOR, MY love, please get up.”
Noor opens her eyes to find her mother crouched over her, her mother’s lantern just bright enough to bathe her face in a warm glow. Noor fights the urge to go back to sleep.
“The Russians are coming,” her mother says.
Noor’s eyes snap open, and she swings her feet onto the cold stone floor.
“Wait,” her mother says. “Put these on first.”
Her mother holds out a set of clothes. It’s only now that Noor realizes her mother is wearing a shalwar kameez.
“Mamaan, do I have to?”
“Think of it as a disguise.”
That at least makes it palatable.
“Now quick,” her mother says, “we’ve no time to waste.”
Her mother hastens away. Noor pulls her pajamas off and grabs the first article of clothing, a pale green kameez.
“You ready?” a voice hisses.
Noor clutches her kameez to her chest. Her brother, Tariq, stands in the doorway, holding a lamp of his own, his shadow looming behind him.
“Get out, I’m dressing,” she says.
“Nothing to see,” Tariq smirks.
“Not the point.”
“Well hurry up.”
Noor waits for Tariq to leave before slipping on the kameez and the baggy shalwar pants. She shoves her feet into her tennis shoes and takes off at full tilt. She finds everyone in the kitchen, their faces lit by the flickering light of the stove. Her Aunt Sabha is crying, and her sobs only intensify upon seeing Noor.
“Oh my sweet, sweet girl. When will we see you again?”
“You’ll come and see us in America,” Noor says.
“That’s right, that’s exactly what we’ll do.”
Aunt Sabha sweeps Noor into her ample bosom.
“Do you have the letter from Doctor Abdullah?” her Uncle Aasif asks her father.
“The letter?” her father says.
“Good God, Aamir,” her mother snaps, “the introduction to the American Ambassador.”
Her father searches his jacket pockets and emerges with a crumpled envelope.
“Give it to me,” her mother says snatching it away.
Her mother looks around.
“She’s awake,” her father says.
“But was she out of bed when you left her?”
It’s clear from her father’s expression that Bushra wasn’t.
“Noor, go and get your sister now,” her mother says.
Noor grabs a lantern and sprints back upstairs. She finds her older sister asleep, her shalwar kameez lying undisturbed beside her. Noor shakes her.
“Bushra, you’ve got to get up.”
Bushra groans and draws her covers close. Noor rips them off and yanks Bushra out of the bed.
“The Russians are coming to arrest Baba,” Noor says.
Bushra yelps and jumps to her feet.
“We’ve got to go,” Bushra says
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”
Bushra scrambles into her shalwar kameez, and the two of them run out the room. Noor halts outside her bedroom door.
“Keep going, I’ll be right there.”
Noor enters her room and takes one last look around; at the doll’s house her father built last Eid and which, to her eternal guilt, she hasn’t played with once; her posters of Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova; her pet rabbit Bjorn, sitting up in his cage, his nose twitching. She thinks about setting him loose but knows he wouldn’t last more than a day before becoming someone’s dinner. She puts a finger through the mesh and rubs his forehead.
“I’ve got to go, Bjorn. A long way away, but I’ll always love you, remember that.”
Bjorn’s ears prick up; outside some cars screech to a halt. Doors open, and a man yells out commands in Russian. Noor sprints out of the room and back downstairs.
“They’re here,” she screams.
Aunt Sabha lets out a shriek. Booming thuds reverberate from the front door.
“I’ll delay them,” Uncle Aasif says. “Now go, go.”
Noor’s mother grabs Noor’s hand, and they run out of the kitchen across the snow covered courtyard, past the ancient apricot tree that, to Noor’s eternal triumph, she climbed higher than Tariq the week before. Her mother tugs her into the dusty old servants’ quarters past the laundry room with its wooden washboards and iron ringer and up to a large metal door. Her mother yanks it open and pulls Noor into an alley where a donkey and cart await.
“Why aren’t we taking the Oldsmobile?” Noor says.
“It’s too conspicuous.”
Her mother grabs Noor by the waist and throws her up onto the straw. Tariq and Bushra bundle in beside her while her parents sit up front. Her father clicks his tongue, and the donkey starts plodding forward.
“Put this on, Bushra,” her mother says.
She holds out another article of clothing: it’s a burqa. Bushra complies, and her mother puts on one of her own. Noor shivers. They look like jinns sent to steal her soul. Tariq nudges her.
“You scared?” he says.
Her mother hisses at them to be quiet. Noor looks towards the end of the alley. Despite the early hour, the street beyond is already bustling with traffic.
“Faster,” her mother says.
Her father urges the donkey on, but if anything the donkey seems to slow.
“We’re a simple peasant family from Aynak,” her mother says. “If we’re stopped let your father do the talking.”
“But what if they ask us questions?” Noor says.
“But what if they do?”
“Then only speak Pashtu. If they speak to you in English pretend you don’t understand.”
A car pulls into the alley its round headlamps lighting the morning mist a garish yellow.
Her father and mother stiffen.
Noor squints; in the glare it’s impossible to tell who’s inside. The car honks and she senses her parents relax; she assumes if it were Russians they’d have gotten out by now. Her father looks over his shoulder to see if he can back up.
“Don’t you dare,” her mother says.
The car nudges forward, but for once the donkey’s obstinacy works to their advantage. After some virulent honking the driver puts the car into reverse. The donkey keeps pace, as if galvanized by its victory.
Noor hears shouts behind them and twists around to see four men emerging from the back of their house.
“Stop,” one shouts.
Her mother grabs the reins from her father and whacks the donkey as hard as she can.
“Stop right now, or we’ll shoot,” another yells.
The men pull guns from their holsters.
“Children, get down,” her mother shouts.
Her mother grabs a hold of Noor and shoves her into the straw. Shots ring out, and Noor clenches her eyes shut.
Her mother yells at the donkey to keep going, there’s another crackle of gunfire. The din of traffic and the sweet scent of petroleum fumes engulfs them.
Noor opens her eyes; her brother’s crotch is inches from her, a dark urine stain smearing the front of his pants. She rises up onto her elbows and sees the owner of the car shake his fist at them before accelerating back down the alley. Her mother hands the reins to Noor’s father.
“Turn right on Chicken Street,” she says panting.
She looks back at her children.
“Is everyone alright?”
Tariq sits up doing his best to hide his piss stain with a handful of straw. He catches Noor looking at him and reddens. They turn down Chicken Street with its souvenir shops and restaurants. Bushra lies on the straw moaning.
“Bushra, are you alright?” her mother says.
“Then sit up.”
They come to the end of the street and merge onto another bustling thoroughfare. A convoy of Soviet armored personnel carriers rumbles towards them. Noor holds her breath. One of the helmeted gunners stares at her: the days of the soldiers pretending to be their friends are long gone. The final personnel carrier passes by, and Noor thinks it permissible to breathe again. She looks at Zarnegar Park, the Mir Abdul Rahman Tomb’s dull, copper dome framed by the snow covered mountains. She wonders if she’ll ever see it again.
The cart hits a pothole. It sends Noor tumbling forward and elicits a pained groan from her mother. Noor puts a hand on the floor and feels something damp. At first she assumes it’s Tariq’s urine, but when she brings her hand up she sees it’s stained with blood. She notices her mother is bent over.
“Yes, my love.”
“Are you alright?”
Her mother doesn’t answer. Her father looks across.
“What’s the matter?” he says.
Her mother pulls up the front of her burqa. Even in the pale light of dawn Noor can see her mother’s kameez is soaked in blood. Noor cries out.
“Shh,” her mother says, “don’t draw attention to us.”
Up ahead, just before the turn for the river, a group of Russian soldiers have set up a checkpoint. The traffic slows. Her father yanks on the reins and tries to turn the cart around. It’s impossible, a bus is right behind them.
“They’ll see me,” her mother says to her father.
“No, just stay where you are. We will be past this at any moment, and we will go find a doctor.”
“Aamir, it’s too late for that.”
The cart edges forward, and her mother rests her burqa on top of her head. Her cheeks, so rosy even in the coldest weather, are drained. She looks at each of her children as though she wants to burn their images into her soul.
“I love you all,” she says, “more than you’ll ever know.”
“No,” Tariq screams.
Up ahead a soldier looks in their direction. Tariq wraps his arms around his mother.
“Don’t go, don’t go,” he says.
Her mother strokes his hair and whispers into his ear. The cart trundles forward again; they’re now only three vehicles away from the checkpoint.
“Please, Aamir,” her mother says.
Her father stares at her, unwilling to grasp what’s unfolding in front of him.
“For their sake,” she says.
Somehow he manages to nod. Her mother leans forward and kisses her father on the forehead.
“I love you, Aamir,” she says. “Look after them for me.”
She extricates herself from her son’s grasp, and Noor’s father wraps his arms around Tariq. Tariq fights back, his legs kicking out, his arms flailing.
“Take the reins,” her mother says to Noor.
Noor scrambles into the front seat. Her mother grabs her by shoulders.
“Never compromise who you are. You hear me?”
Her mother places the reins in Noor’s hand and pushes herself off the cart. Noor looks back. Her mother lies there in the street, blood already staining the snow around her. With whatever life she has left she struggles back up onto her feet. Tariq breaks free and crawls to the back of the cart.
“Mamaan,” he screams. “Mamaan.”
Her mother looks stricken. From beneath her burqa she pulls out the envelope containing Dr. Abdullah’s letter. She collapses on the ground, and a woman in the bus behind lets out a piercing shriek. Soon soldiers are running past them until her mother’s body is lost amidst a sea of green uniforms. With the checkpoint no longer manned the donkey picks up its pace. The road bends to the left, and soon the checkpoint is out of sight.
Noor turns back and sees her father’s eyes are brimming with tears. In the back her brother lies on the straw sobbing while her sister sits immobile as a statue. Noor takes her father’s hand in hers, gives the donkey a whack with the reins, and they continue on out of the city.
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Genre – Literary Fiction / Romance
Rating – PG13