"Laila!" he called now. "I'm going to be late for work!"
Laila put on her shoes and quickly brushed her shoulder-length, blond curls in the mirror. Mammy always told Laila that she had inherited her hair color - as well as her thick-lashed, turquoise green eyes, her dimpled cheeks, her high cheekbones, and the pout of her lower lip, which Mammy shared - from her great-grandmother, Mammy's grandmother. She was a pari, a stunner, Mammy said. Her beauty was the talk of the valley. It skipped two generations of women in our family, but it sure didn't bypass you, Laila. The valley Mammy referred to was the Panjshir, the Farsi-speaking Tajik region one hundred kilometers northeast of Kabul. Both Mammy and Babi, who were first cousins, had been born and raised in Panjshir; they had moved to Kabul back in 1960 as hopeful, bright-eyed newlyweds when Babi had been admitted to Kabul University.
Laila scrambled downstairs, hoping Mammy wouldn't come out of her room for another round. She found Babi kneeling by the screen door.
"Did you see this, Laila?"
The rip in the screen had been there for weeks. Laila hunkered down beside him. "No. Must be new."
"That's what I told Fariba." He looked shaken, reduced, as he always did after Mammy was through with him. "She says it's been letting in bees."
Laila's heart went out to him. Babi was a small man, with narrow shoulders and slim, delicate hands, almost like a woman's. At night, when Laila walked into Babi's room, she always found the downward profile of his face burrowing into a book, his glasses perched on the tip of his nose. Sometimes he didn't even notice that she was there. When he did, he marked his page, smiled a close-lipped, companionable smile. Babi knew most of Rumi's and Hafez's ghazals by heart. He could speak at length about the struggle between Britain and czarist Russia over Afghanistan. He knew the difference between a stalactite and a stalagmite, and could tell you that the distance between the earth and the sun was the same as going from Kabul to Ghazni one and a half million times. But if Laila needed the lid of a candy jar forced open, she had to go to Mammy, which felt like a betrayal. Ordinary tools befuddled Babi. On his watch, squeaky door hinges never got oiled. Ceilings went on leaking after he plugged them. Mold thrived defiantly in kitchen cabinets. Mammy said that before he left with Noor to join the jihad against the Soviets, back in 1980, it was Ahmad who had dutifully and competently minded these things.
"But if you have a book that needs urgent reading," she said, "then Hakim is your man."
Still, Laila could not shake the feeling that at one time, before Ahmad and Noor had gone to war against the Soviets - before Babi had let them go to war - Mammy too had thought Babi's bookishness endearing, that, once upon a time, she too had found his forgetfulness and ineptitude charming.
"So what is today?" he said now, smiling coyly. "Day five? Or is it six?"
"What do I care? I don't keep count," Laila lied, shrugging, loving him for remembering. Mammy had no idea that Tariq had left.
"Well, his flashlight will be going off before you know it," Babi said, referring to Laila and Tariq's nightly signaling game. They had played it for so long it had become a bedtime ritual, like brushing teeth.
Babi ran his finger through the rip. "I'll patch this as soon as I get a chance. We'd better go." He raised his voice and called over his shoulder, "We're going now, Fariba! I'm taking Laila to school. Don't forget to pick her up!"
Outside, as she was climbing on the carrier pack of Babi's bicycle, Laila spotted a car parked up the street, across from the house where the shoemaker, Rasheed, lived with his reclusive wife. It was a Benz, an unusual car in this neighborhood, blue with a thick white stripe bisecting the hood, the roof, and the trunk. Laila could make out two men sitting inside, one behind the wheel, the other in the back.
"Who are they?" she said.
"It's not our business," Babi said. "Climb on, you'll be late for class."
Laila remembered another fight, and, that time, Mammy had stood over Babi and said in a mincing way, That's your business, isn't it, cousin? To make nothing your business. Even your own sons going to war. How I pleaded with you. But you buried your nose in those cursed books and let our sons go like they were a pair of haramis.
Babi pedaled up the street, Laila on the back, her arms wrapped around his belly. As they passed the blue Benz, Laila caught a fleeting glimpse of the man in the backseat: thin, white-haired, dressed in a dark brown suit, with a white handkerchief triangle in the breast pocket. The only other thing she had time to notice was that the car had Herat license plates.
They rode the rest of the way in silence, except at the turns, where Babi braked cautiously and said, "Hold on, Laila. Slowing down. Slowing down. There."
IN CLASS THAT DAY, Laila found it hard to pay attention, between Tariq's absence and her parents' fight. So when the teacher called on her to name the capitals of Romania and Cuba, Laila was caught off guard.
The teacher's name was Shanzai, but, behind her back, the students called her Khala Rangmaal, Auntie Painter, referring to the motion she favored when she slapped students - palm, then back of the hand, back and forth, like a painter working a brush. Khala Rangmaal was a sharp-faced young woman with heavy eyebrows. On the first day of school, she had proudly told the class that she was the daughter of a poor peasant from Khost. She stood straight, and wore her jet-black hair pulled tightly back and tied in a bun so that, when Khala Rangmaal turned around, Laila could see the dark bristles on her neck. Khala Rangmaal did not wear makeup or jewelry. She did not cover and forbade the female students from doing it. She said women and men were equal in every way and there was no reason women should cover if men didn't.
She said that the Soviet Union was the best nation in the world, along with Afghanistan. It was kind to its workers, and its people were all equal. Everyone in the Soviet Union was happy and friendly, unlike America, where crime made people afraid to leave their homes. And everyone in Afghanistan would be happy too, she said, once the antiprogressives, the backward bandits, were defeated.
"That's why our Soviet comrades came here in 1979. To lend their neighbor a hand. To help us defeat these brutes who want our country to be a backward, primitive nation. And you must lend your own hand, children. You must report anyone who might know about these rebels. It's your duty. You must listen, then report. Even if it's your parents, your uncles or aunts. Because none of them loves you as much as your country does. Your country comes first, remember! I will be proud of you, and so will your country."
On the wall behind Khala Rangmaal's desk was a map of the Soviet Union, a map of Afghanistan, and a framed photo of the latest communist president, Najibullah, who, Babi said, had once been the head of the dreaded KHAD, the Afghan secret police. There were other photos too, mainly of young Soviet soldiers shaking hands with peasants, planting apple saplings, building homes, always smiling genially.
"Well," Khala Rangmaal said now, "have I disturbed your daydreaming, Inqilabi Girl?"
This was her nickname for Laila, Revolutionary Girl, because she'd been born the night of the April coup of 1978 - except Khala Rangmaal became angry if anyone in her class used the word coup. What had happened, she insisted, was an inqilab, a revolution, an uprising of the working people against inequality. Jihad was another forbidden word. According to her, there wasn't even a war out there in the provinces, just skirmishes against troublemakers stirred by people she called foreign provocateurs. And certainly no one, no one, dared repeat in her presence the rising rumors that, after eight years of fighting, the Soviets were losing this war. Particularly now that the American president, Reagan, had started shipping the Mujahideen Stinger Missiles to down the Soviet helicopters, now that Muslims from all over the world were joining the cause: Egyptians, Pakistanis, even wealthy Saudis, who left their millions behind and came to Afghanistan to fight the jihad.
"Bucharest. Havana," Laila managed.
"And are those countries our friends or not?"
"They are, moalim sahib. They are friendly countries."
Khala Rangmaal gave a curt nod.
WHEN SCHOOL LET OUT, Mammy again didn't show up like she was supposed to. Laila ended up walking home with two of her classmates, Giti and Hasina.
Giti was a tightly wound, bony little girl who wore her hair in twin ponytails held by elastic bands. She was always scowling, and walking with her books pressed to her chest, like a shield. Hasina was twelve, three years older than Laila and Giti, but had failed third grade once and fourth grade twice. What she lacked in smarts Hasina made up for in mischief and a mouth that, Giti said, ran like a sewing machine. It was Hasina who had come up with the Khala Rangmaal nickname.
Today, Hasina was dispensing advice on how to fend off unattractive suitors. "Foolproof method, guaranteed to work. I give you my word."
"This is stupid. I'm too young to have a suitor!"
"You're not too young."
"Well, no one's come to ask for my hand."
"That's because you have a beard, my dear."
Giti's hand shot up to her chin, and she looked with alarm to Laila, who smiled pityingly - Giti was the most humorless person Laila had ever met - and shook her head with reassurance.
"Anyway, you want to know what to do or not, ladies?"
"Go ahead," Laila said.
"Beans. No less than four cans. On the evening the toothless lizard comes to ask for your hand. But the timing, ladies, the timing is everything. You have to suppress the fireworks 'til it's time to serve him his tea."
"I'll remember that," Laila said.
"So will he."
Laila could have said then that she didn't need this advice because Babi had no intention of giving her away anytime soon. Though Babi worked at Silo, Kabul's gigantic bread factory, where he labored amid the heat and the humming machinery stoking the massive ovens and mill grains all day, he was a university-educated man. He'd been a high school teacher before the communists fired him - this was shortly after the coup of 1978, about a year and a half before the Soviets had invaded. Babi had made it clear to Laila from a young age that the most important thing in his life, after her safety, was her schooling.
I know you're still young, but I want you to understand and learn this now, he said. Marriage can wait, education cannot. You're a very, very bright girl. Truly, you are. You can be anything you want, Laila. I know this about you. And I also know that when this war is over, Afghanistan is going to need you as much as its men, maybe even more. Because a society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated, Laila. No chance.
But Laila didn't tell Hasina that Babi had said these things, or how glad she was to have a father like him, or how proud she was of his regard for her, or how determined she was to pursue her education just as he had his. For the last two years, Laila had received the awal numra certificate, given yearly to the top-ranked student in each grade. She said nothing of these things to Hasina, though, whose own father was an ill-tempered taxi driver who in two or three years would almost certainly give her away. Hasina had told Laila, in one of her infrequent serious moments, that it had already been decided that she would marry a first cousin who was twenty years older than her and owned an auto shop in Lahore. I've seen him twice, Hasina had said. Both times he ate with his mouth open.
"Beans, girls," Hasina said. "You remember that. Unless, of course" - here she flashed an impish grin and nudged Laila with an elbow - "it's your young handsome, one legged prince who comes knocking. Then . . ."
Laila slapped the elbow away. She would have taken offense if anyone else had said that about Tariq. But she knew that Hasina wasn't malicious. She mocked - it was what she did - and her mocking spared no one, least of all herself.