The conversation that ensued, on the surviving section of the veranda over cups of green tea, was in Farsi—I have, as you know, Mr. Markos, learned some English in the seven years since, largely thanks to your guidance and generosity. Through the translator, you said you were from Tinos, which was an island in Greece. You were a surgeon, part of a medical group that had come to Kabul to operate on children who had suffered injuries to their face. You said you and your colleagues needed a residence, a guesthouse, as it is called these days.
You asked how much I would charge you for rent.
I said, “Nothing.”
I recall still how you blinked after the young man in the purple jacket translated. You repeated your question, perhaps thinking I had misunderstood.
The translator drew himself forward to the edge of his chair and leaned toward me. He spoke in a confidential tone. He asked if my mind had gone to rot, whether I had any idea what your group was willing to pay, did I have any notion of what rentals were going for now in Kabul? He said I was sitting on gold.
I told him to remove his sunglasses when he spoke to an elder. Then I instructed him to do his job, which was to translate, not give advice, and I turned to you and offered, among my many reasons, the one that was not private. “You have left behind your country,” I said, “your friends, your family, and you have come here to this godforsaken city to help my homeland and my countrymen. How could I profit off you?”
The young translator, whom I never saw with you again, tossed his hands up and chuckled with dismay. This country has changed. It was not always like this, Mr. Markos.
Sometimes at night, I lie in the dark privacy of my quarters and I see the lights burning in the main house. I watch you and your friends—especially the brave Miss Amra Ademovic, whose enormous heart I admire to no end—on the veranda or in the yard, eating food from plates, smoking cigarettes, drinking your wine. I can hear the music too, and at times it is jazz, which reminds me of Nila.
She is dead now, this I know. I learned it from Miss Amra. I had told her about the Wahdatis and shared with her that Nila had been a poet. She found a French publication on the computer. They had published online an anthology of their best pieces of the last forty years. There was one about Nila. The piece said she had died in 1974. I thought of the futility of all those years, hoping for a letter from a woman who was already long dead. I was not altogether surprised to learn that she had taken her own life. I know now that some people feel unhappiness the way others love: privately, intensely, and without recourse.
Let me finish with this, Mr. Markos.
My time is near now. I weaken by the day. It will not be much longer. And thank God for that. Thank you as well, Mr. Markos, not only for your friendship, for taking the time to visit me daily and sit down for tea and for sharing with me news of your mother on Tinos and your childhood friend Thalia, but also for your compassion for my people and the invaluable service you are providing children here.
Thank you as well for the repair work that you are doing around the house. I have spent now the bulk of my life in it, it is home to me, and I am certain that I will soon take my last breath under its roof. I have borne witness to its decline with dismay and heartbreak. But it has brought me great joy to see it repainted, to see the garden wall repaired, the windows replaced, and the veranda, where I spent countless happy hours, rebuilt. Thank you, my friend, for the trees you have planted, and for the flowers blooming once more in the garden. If I have in some way aided in the services you render the people of this city, then what you have graciously done for this house is more than enough payment for me.
But, at the risk of appearing greedy, I will take the liberty of asking you for two things, one for me, one for another. First is that you have me buried in the Ashuqan-Arefan cemetery, here in Kabul. I am sure you know it. Walk to the north end from the main entrance and if you look for a short while you will find Suleiman Wahdati’s grave. Find me a plot nearby and bury me there. This is all I ask for myself.
The second is that you try to find my niece Pari after I am gone. If she is still alive, it may not prove too difficult—this Internet is a wondrous tool. As you can see enclosed in the envelope along with this letter is my will, in which I leave the house, the money, and my few belongings to her. I ask that you give her both this letter and the will. And please tell her, tell her that I cannot know the myriad consequences of what I set into motion. Tell her I took solace only in hope. Hope that perhaps, wherever she is now, she has found as much peace, grace, love, and happiness as this world allows.
I thank you, Mr. Markos. May God protect you.
Your friend always,
The nurse, whose name is Amra Ademovic, had warned Idris and Timur. She had pulled them aside and said, “If you show reaction, even little, she going to be upset, and I kick you out.”
They are standing at the end of a long, poorly lit hallway in the men’s wing of Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital. Amra said the only relative the girl had left—or the only one who visited—was her uncle, and if she’d been placed in the women’s wing he would not be permitted to visit her. So the staff had placed her in the men’s wing, not in a room—it would be indecent for the girl to room with men who were not relatives—but here, at the end of the hallway, a no-man’s- and no-woman’s-land.
“And here I thought the Taliban had left town,” Timur says.
“It’s crazy, no?” Amra says, then lets out a bewildered chuckle. In the week that Idris has been back in Kabul, he has found this tone of lighthearted exasperation common among the foreign-aid workers, who’ve had to navigate the inconveniences and idiosyncrasies of Afghan culture. He is vaguely offended by this entitlement to cheerful mocking, this license to condescend, though the locals don’t seem to take notice, or take it as an insult if they do, and so he thinks he probably shouldn’t either.
“But they let you here. You come and go,” Timur says.
Amra arches an eyebrow. “I don’t count. I am not Afghan. So I am not real woman. You don’t know this?”