Tariq reached to sample a morsel of veal cooked with potatoes.
"Ho bacha!" Giti slapped the back of his hand. Tariq stole it anyway and laughed.
He stood almost a foot taller than Laila now. He shaved. His face was leaner, more angular. His shoulders had broadened. Tariq liked to wear pleated trousers, black shiny loafers, and short-sleeve shirts that showed off his newly muscular arms – compliments of an old, rusty set of barbells that he lifted daily in his yard. His face had lately adopted an expression of playful contentiousness.
He had taken to a self-conscious cocking of his head when he spoke, slightly to the side, and to arching one eyebrow when he laughed. He let his hair grow and had fallen into the habit of tossing the floppy locks often and unnecessarily. The corrupt half grin was a new thing too.
The last time Tariq was shooed out of the kitchen, his mother caught Laila stealing a glance at him. Laila's heart jumped, and her eyes fluttered guiltily. She quickly occupied herself with tossing the chopped cucumber into the pitcher of salted, watered-down yogurt. But she could sense Tariq's mother watching, her knowing, approving half smile.
The men filled their plates and glasses and took their meals to the yard. Once they had taken their share, the women and children settled on the floor around the sofrah and ate.
It was after the sofrah was cleared and the plates were stacked in the kitchen, when the frenzy of tea making and remembering who took green and who black started, that Tariq motioned with his head and slipped out the door.
Laila waited five minutes, then followed.
She found him three houses down the street, leaning against the wall at the entrance of a narrow-mouthed alley between two adjacent houses. He was humming an old Pashto song, by Ustad Awal Mir:
Da ze ma ziba watan,
da ze ma dada watan.
This is our beautiful land,
this is our beloved land.
And he was smoking, another new habit, which he'd picked up from the guys Laila spotted him hanging around with these days. Laila couldn't stand them, these new friends of Tariq's. They all dressed the same way, pleated trousers, and tight shirts that accentuated their arms and chest. They all wore too much cologne, and they all smoked. They strutted around the neighborhood in groups, joking, laughing loudly, sometimes even calling after girls, with identical stupid, self-satisfied grins on their faces. One of Tariq's friends, on the basis of the most passing of resemblances to Sylvester Stallone, insisted he be called Rambo.
"Your mother would kill you if she knew about your smoking," Laila said, looking one way, then the other, before slipping into the alley.
"But she doesn't," he said. He moved aside to make room.
"That could change."
"Who is going to tell? You?"
Laila tapped her foot. "Tell your secret to the wind, but don't blame it for telling the trees."
Tariq smiled, the one eyebrow arched. "Who said that?"
"You're a show-off."
"Give me a cigarette."
He shook his head no and crossed his arms. This was a new entry in his repertoire of poses: back to the wall, arms crossed, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, his good leg casually bent.
"Bad for you," he said.
"And it's not bad for you?"
"I do it for the girls."
He smirked. "They think it's sexy."
"I assure you."
"You look khila, like a half-wit."
"That hurts," he said.
"What girls anyway?"
"I'm indifferently curious."
"You can't be both." He took another drag and squinted through the smoke. "I'll bet they're talking about us now."
In Laila's head, Mammy's voice rang out. Like a mynah bird in your hands. Slacken your grip and away it flies. Guilt bore its teeth into her. Then Laila shut off Mammy's voice. Instead, she savored the way Tariq had said us. How thrilling, how conspiratorial, it sounded coming from him. And how reassuring to hear him say it like that – casually, naturally. Us. It acknowledged their connection, crystallized it.
"And what are they saying?"
"That we're canoeing down the River of Sin," he said.
"Eating a slice of Impiety Cake."
"Riding the Rickshaw of Wickedness?" Laila chimed in.
"Making Sacrilege Qurma."
They both laughed. Then Tariq remarked that her hair was getting longer. "It's nice," he said.
Laila hoped she wasn't blushing. "You changed the subject."
"The empty-headed girls who think you're sexy."
"That I only have eyes for you."
Laila swooned inside. She tried to read his face but was met by a look that was indecipherable: the cheerful, cretinous grin at odds with the narrow, half-desperate look in his eyes. A clever look, calculated to fall precisely at the midpoint between mockery and sincerity.
Tariq crushed his cigarette with the heel of his good foot. "So what do you think about all this?"
"Who's the half-wit now? I meant the Mujahideen, Laila. Their coming to Kabul."
She started to tell him something Babi had said, about the troublesome marriage of guns and ego, when she heard a commotion coming from the house. Loud voices. Screaming.
Laila took off running. Tariq hobbled behind her.
There was a melee in the yard. In the middle of it were two snarling men, rolling on the ground, a knife between them. Laila recognized one of them as a man from the table who had been discussing politics earlier. The other was the man who had been fanning the kebab skewers. Several men were trying to pull them apart. Babi wasn't among them. He stood by the wall, at a safe distance from the fight, with Tariq's father, who was crying.
From the excited voices around her, Laila caught snippets that she put together: The fellow at the politics table, a Pashtun, had called Ahmad Shah Massoud a traitor for "making a deal" with the Soviets in the 1980s. The kebab man, a Tajik, had taken offense and demanded a retraction. The Pashtun had refused. The Tajik had said that if not for Massoud, the other man's sister would still be "giving it" to Soviet soldiers. They had come to blows. One of them had then brandished a knife; there was disagreement as to who.
With horror, Laila saw that Tariq had thrown himself into the scuffle. She also saw that some of the peacemakers were now throwing punches of their own. She thought she spotted a second knife.
Later that evening, Laila thought of how the melee had toppled over, with men falling on top of one another, amid yelps and cries and shouts and flying punches, and, in the middle of it, a grimacing Tariq, his hair disheveled, his leg come undone, trying to crawl out.
IT WAS DIZZYING how quickly everything unraveled.
The leadership council was formed prematurely. It elected Rabbani president. The other factions cried nepotism. Massoud called for peace and patience.
Hekmatyar, who had been excluded, was incensed. The Hazaras, with their long history of being oppressed and neglected, seethed.
Insults were hurled. Fingers pointed. Accusations flew. Meetings were angrily called off and doors slammed. The city held its breath. In the mountains, loaded magazines snapped into Kalashnikovs.
The Mujahideen, armed to the teeth but now lacking a common enemy, had found the enemy in each other.
Kabul's day of reckoning had come at last.
And when the rockets began to rain down on Kabul, people ran for cover. Mammy did too, literally. She changed into black again, went to her room, shut the curtains, and pulled the blanket over her head.
It's the whistling," Laila said to Tariq, "the damn whistling, I hate more than anything."
ITariq nodded knowingly.
It wasn't so much the whistling itself, Laila thought later, but the seconds between the start of it and impact. The brief and interminable time of feeling suspended. The not knowing. The waiting. Like a defendant about to hear the verdict.
Often it happened at dinner, when she and Babi were at the table. When it started, their heads snapped up. They listened to the whistling, forks in midair, unchewed food in their mouths. Laila saw the reflection of their half-lit faces in the pitch-black window, their shadows unmoving on the wall. The whistling. Then the blast, blissfully elsewhere, followed by an expulsion of breath and the knowledge that they had been spared for now while somewhere else, amid cries and choking clouds of smoke, there was a scrambling, a bare-handed frenzy of digging, of pulling from the debris, what remained of a sister, a brother, a grandchild.
But the flip side of being spared was the agony of wondering who hadn't. After every rocket blast, Laila raced to the street, stammering a prayer, certain that, this time, surely this time, it was Tariq they would find buried beneath the rubble and smoke.
At night, Laila lay in bed and watched the sudden white flashes reflected in her window. She listened to the rattling of automatic gunfire and counted the rockets whining overhead as the house shook and flakes of plaster rained down on her from the ceiling. Some nights, when the light of rocket fire was so bright a person could read a book by it, sleep never came. And, if it did, Laila's dreams were suffused with fire and detached limbs and the moaning of the wounded.
Morning brought no relief. The muezzin's call for namaz rang out, and the Mujahideen set down their guns, faced west, and prayed. Then the rugs were folded, the guns loaded, and the mountains fired on Kabul, and Kabul fired back at the mountains, as Laila and the rest of the city watched as helpless as old Santiago watching the sharks take bites out of his prize fish.
EVERYWHERE LAILA WENT, she saw Massoud's men. She saw them roam the streets and every few hundred yards stop cars for questioning. They sat and smoked atop tanks, dressed in their fatigues and ubiquitous pakols. They peeked at passersby from behind stacked sandbags at intersections.
Not that Laila went out much anymore. And, when she did, she was always accompanied by Tariq, who seemed to relish this chivalric duty.
"I bought a gun," he said one day. They were sitting outside, on the ground beneath the pear tree in Laila's yard. He showed her. He said it was a semiautomatic, a Beretta. To Laila, it merely looked black and deadly.
"I don't like it," she said. "Guns scare me."
Tariq turned the magazine over in his hand.
"They found three bodies in a house in Karteh-Seh last week," he said. "Did you hear? Sisters. All three raped. Their throats slashed. Someone had bitten the rings off their fingers. You could tell, they had teeth marks – "
"I don't want to hear this."
"I don't mean to upset you," Tariq said. "But I just . . . I feel better carrying this."
He was her lifeline to the streets now. He heard the word of mouth and passed it on to her. Tariq was the one who told her, for instance, that militiamen stationed in the mountains sharpened their marksmanship – and settled wagers over said marksmanship – by shooting civilians down below, men, women, children, chosen at random. He told her that they fired rockets at cars but, for some reason, left taxis alone – which explained to Laila the recent rash of people spraying their cars yellow.
Tariq explained to her the treacherous, shifting boundaries within Kabul. Laila learned from him, for instance, that this road, up to the second acacia tree on the left, belonged to one warlord; that the next four blocks, ending with the bakery shop next to the demolished pharmacy, was another warlord's sector; and that if she crossed that street and walked half a mile west, she would find herself in the territory of yet another warlord and, therefore, fair game for sniper fire. And this was what Mammy's heroes were called now. Warlords. Laila heard them called tofangdar too. Riflemen. Others still called them Mujahideen, but, when they did, they made a face – a sneering, distasteful face – the word reeking of deep aversion and deep scorn. Like an insult.