The 1980s, as you know, Mr. Markos, were actually not so terrible in Kabul since most of the fighting took place in the countryside. Still, it was a time of exodus, and many families from our neighborhood packed their things and left the country for either Pakistan or Iran, with hopes of resettling somewhere in the West. I remember vividly the day Mr. Bashiri came to say good-bye. I shook his hand and wished him well. I said my farewells also to his son, Idris, who had grown into a tall, lanky fourteen-year-old with long hair and peach fuzz above his lip. I told Idris I would miss very much the sight of him and his cousin Timur flying kites and playing soccer on the street. You may recall that we met the cousins many years later, you and I, Mr. Markos, when they were grown men, at a party you threw at the house in the spring of 2003.
It was in the 1990s that fighting at last broke out within the city limits. Kabul fell prey to men who looked like they had tumbled out of their mothers with Kalashnikov in hand, Mr. Markos, vandals all of them, gun-toting thieves with grandiose, self-given titles. When the rockets began to fly, Suleiman stayed in the house and refused to leave. He stoutly declined information about what was going on outside the walls of his house. He unplugged the television. He cast aside the radio. He had no use for newspapers. He asked that I not bring home any news of the fighting. He scarcely knew who was battling whom, who was winning, who was losing, as though he hoped that by doggedly ignoring the war it would return the favor.
Of course it did not. The street where we lived, once so quiet and pristine and gleaming, turned into a war zone. Bullets hit every house. Rockets whistled overhead. RPGs landed up and down the street and blasted craters in the asphalt. At night, red-and-white tracers flew every which way until dawn. Some days, we would have a bit of reprieve, a few hours of quiet, and then sudden bursts of fire would break it, rounds cracking off from every direction, people on the street screaming.
It was during those years, Mr. Markos, that the house absorbed most of the damage that you witnessed when you first saw it in 2002. Granted, some of it was due to the passage of time and neglect—I had aged into an old man by then and no longer had the wherewithal to tend to the house as I once had. The trees were dead by then—they had not borne fruit in years—the lawn had yellowed, the flowers perished. But war was ruthless on the once beautiful house. Windows shattered by nearby RPG blasts. A rocket pulverized the wall on the eastern face of the garden as well as half of the veranda, where Nila and I had held so many conversations. A grenade damaged the roof. Bullets scarred the walls.
And then the looting, Mr. Markos. Militiamen would walk in at will and make off with whatever struck their fancy. They whisked away most of the furniture, the paintings, the Turkoman rugs, the statues, the silver candlesticks, the crystal vases. They chiseled loose lapis tiles from the bathroom counters. I woke one morning to the sound of men in the foyer. I found a band of Uzbek militiamen ripping the rug from the stairwell with a set of curved knives. I stood by and watched them. What could I do? What was another old man with a bullet in the head to them?
Like the house, Suleiman and I too were wearing down. My eyesight dimmed, and my knees took to aching most days. Forgive me this vulgarity, Mr. Markos, but the mere act of urinating turned into a test of endurance. Predictably, the aging hit Suleiman harder than it did me. He shrank and became thin and startlingly frail. Twice, he nearly died, once during the worst days of the fighting between Ahmad Shah Massoud’s group and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s, when bodies lay unclaimed for days on the streets. Suleiman had pneumonia that time, which the doctor said he got from aspirating his own saliva. Though both doctors and the medicines they prescribed were in short supply, I managed to nurse Suleiman back from what was surely the brink of death.
Perhaps because of the daily confinement and the close proximity to each other, we argued often in those days, Suleiman and I. We argued the way married couples do, stubbornly, heatedly, and over trivial things.
You already cooked beans this week.
No I didn’t.
But you did. On Monday you did!
Disagreements on how many games of chess we had played the day before. Why did I always set his water on the windowsill, knowing the sun would warm it?
Why didn’t you call for the bedpan, Suleiman?
I did, a hundred times I did!
Which are you calling me, deaf or lazy?
No need to pick, I’m calling you both!
You have some gall calling me lazy for someone who lies in bed all day.
On and on.
He would snap his head side to side when I tried to feed him. I would leave him and give the door a good slam on my way out. Sometimes, I admit, I willfully made him worry. I left the house. He would cry, Where are you going? and I would not answer. I pretended I was leaving for good. Of course I would merely go down the street somewhere and smoke—a new habit, the smoking, acquired late in life—though I did it only when I was angry. Sometimes I stayed out for hours. And if he had really roiled me up, I would stay out until dark. But I always came back. I would enter his room without saying a word and I would turn him over and fluff his pillow, both of us averting our eyes, both of us tight-lipped, waiting for a peace offering from the other.
Eventually, the fighting ended with the arrival of the Taliban, those sharp-faced young men with dark beards, kohl-rimmed eyes, and whips. Their cruelty and excesses have also been well documented, and once again I see little reason to enumerate them for you, Mr. Markos. I should say that their years in Kabul were, ironically enough, a time of personal reprieve for me. They saved the bulk of their contempt and zealotry for the young, especially the poor women. Me, I was an old man. My main concession to their regime was to grow a beard, which, frankly, spared me the meticulous task of a daily shave.
“It’s official, Nabi,” Suleiman breathed from the bed, “you’ve lost your looks. You look like a prophet.”
On the streets, the Taliban walked past me as though I were a grazing cow. I helped them in this by willfully taking on a muted bovine expression so as to avoid any undue attention. I shudder to think what they would have made of—and done to—Nila. Sometimes when I summoned her in my mind, laughing at a party with a glass of champagne in hand, her bare arms, her long, slender legs, it was as though I had made her up. As though she had never truly existed. As though none of it had ever been real—not only she but I too, and Pari, and a young, healthy Suleiman, and even the time and the house we had all occupied together.
Then one morning in the summer of 2000 I walked into Suleiman’s room carrying tea and freshly baked bread on a platter. Immediately, I knew something had happened. His breathing was ragged. His facial droop had suddenly become far more pronounced, and when he tried to speak he produced croaking noises that barely rose above a whisper. I put down the platter and rushed to his side.
“I’ll fetch a doctor, Suleiman,” I said. “You just wait. We’ll get you better, like always.”
I turned to go, but he was shaking his head violently. He motioned with the fingers of his left hand.
I leaned in, my ear close to his mouth.
He made a series of attempts at saying something but I could not make out any of it.
“I’m sorry, Suleiman,” I said, “you must let me go and find the doctor. I won’t be long.”
He shook his head again, slowly this time, and tears leaked from his cataract-laden eyes. His mouth opened and closed. He motioned toward the nightstand with his head. I asked him if there was something there he needed. He shut his eyes and nodded.
I opened the top drawer. I saw nothing there but pills, his reading glasses, an old bottle of cologne, a notepad, charcoal pencils he had stopped using years before. I was about to ask him what I was supposed to find when I did find it, tucked underneath the notepad. An envelope with my name scribbled on the back in Suleiman’s clumsy penmanship. Inside was a sheet of paper on which he had written a single paragraph. I read it.
I looked down at him, his caved-in temples, his craggy cheeks, his hollow eyes.
He motioned again, and I leaned in. I felt his cold, rough, uneven breaths on my cheek. I heard the sound of his tongue struggling in his dry mouth as he collected himself. Somehow, perhaps through sheer force of will—his last—he managed to whisper in my ear.
The air whooshed out of me. I forced the words around the lump that had lodged itself in my throat.
“No. Please, Suleiman.”
“Not yet. I’m going to nurse you back. You’ll see. We’ll get through it like we always have.”
How long did I sit there by him? How long did I try to negotiate? I cannot tell you, Mr. Markos. I do remember that I finally rose, walked around the side of the bed, and lay down next to him. I rolled him over so he faced me. He felt light as a dream. I placed a kiss on his dry, cracked lips. I put a pillow between his face and my chest and reached for the back of his head. I held him against me in a long, tight embrace.
All I remember after was the way the pupils of his eyes had spread out.
I walked over to the window and sat, Suleiman’s cup of tea still on the platter at my feet. It was a sunny morning, I remember. Shops would open soon, if they hadn’t already. Little boys heading off to school. The dust rising already. A dog loped lazily up the street escorted by a dark cloud of mosquitoes swirling around its head. I watched two young men ride past on a motorcycle. The passenger, straddling the rear carrier pack, had hoisted a computer monitor on one shoulder, a watermelon on the other.
I rested my forehead against the warm glass.
The note in Suleiman’s drawer was a will in which he had left me everything. The house, his money, his personal belongings, even the car, though it had long decayed. Its carcass still sat in the backyard on flat tires, a sagging hulk of rusted-over metal.
For a time, I was quite literally at a loss as to what to do with myself. For more than half a century I had looked after Suleiman. My daily existence had been shaped by his needs, his companionship. Now I was free to do as I wished, but I found the freedom illusory, for what I wished for the most had been taken from me. They say, Find a purpose in your life and live it. But, sometimes, it is only after you have lived that you recognize your life had a purpose, and likely one you never had in mind. And now that I had fulfilled mine, I felt aimless and adrift.
I found I could not sleep in the house any longer; I could hardly stay in it. With Suleiman gone, it felt far too big. And every corner, every nook and cranny, evoked ripe memories. So I moved back into my old shack at the far end of the yard. I paid some workers to install electricity in the shack so that I would have a light to read by and a fan to keep me cool in the summer. As for space, I did not need much. My possessions amounted to little more than a bed, some clothes, and the box containing Suleiman’s drawings. I know this may strike you as odd, Mr. Markos. Yes, legally the house and everything in it belonged to me now, but I felt no true sense of ownership over any of it, and I knew I never really would.
I read quite a bit, books I took from Suleiman’s old study. I returned each when I had finished. I planted some tomatoes, a few sprigs of mint. I went for walks around the neighborhood, but my knees often ached before I had covered even two blocks, forcing me to return. Sometimes I pulled up a chair in the garden and just sat idly. I was not like Suleiman: Solitude did not suit me well.
Then one day in 2002 you rang the bell at the front gates.
By then, the Taliban had been driven out by the Northern Alliance, and the Americans had come to Afghanistan. Thousands of aid workers were flocking to Kabul from all over the world to build clinics and schools, to repair roads and irrigation canals, to bring food and shelter and jobs.
The translator who accompanied you was a young local Afghan who wore a bright purple jacket and sunglasses. He asked for the owner of the house. There was a quick exchange of glances between the two of you when I told the translator he was speaking to the owner. He smirked and said, “No, Kaka, the owner.” I invited you both in for tea.