Timur issues a groan, downs the rest of his drink. “Well, either you hate money, old friend, or you are a far better man than I am.”
Amra walks into the room, wearing a sapphire Afghan tunic over faded jeans. “Nabi jan!” she exclaims. Nabi seems a little startled when she kisses his cheek and coils an arm around his. “I love this man,” she says to the group. “And I love to embarrass him.” Then she says it in Farsi to Nabi. He tilts his head back and forth and laughs, blushing a little.
“How about you embarrass me too,” Timur says.
Amra taps him on the chest. “This one is big trouble.” She and Markos kiss Afghan-style, three times on the cheek, same with the Germans.
Markos slings an arm around her waist. “Amra Ademovic. The hardest-working woman in Kabul. You do not want to cross this girl. Also, she will drink you under the table.”
“Let’s put that to the test,” Timur says, reaching for a glass on the bar behind him.
The old man, Nabi, excuses himself.
For the next hour or so, Idris mingles, or tries to. As liquor levels in the bottles drop, conversations rise in pitch. Idris hears German, French, what must be Greek. He has another vodka, follows it up with a lukewarm beer. In one group, he musters the courage to slip in a Mullah Omar joke that he had learned in Farsi back in California. But the joke doesn’t translate well into English, and his delivery is harried. It falls flat. He moves on, and listens in on a conversation about an Irish pub that is set to open in Kabul. There is general agreement that it will not last.
He walks around the room, warm beer can in hand. He has never been at ease in gatherings like this. He tries to busy himself inspecting the décor. There are posters of the Bamiyan Buddhas, of a Buzkashi game, one of a harbor in a Greek island named Tinos. He has never heard of Tinos. He spots a framed photograph in the foyer, black-and-white, a little blurry, as though it had been shot with a homemade camera. It’s of a young girl with long black hair, her back to the lens. She is at a beach, sitting on a rock, facing the ocean. The lower left-hand corner of the photo looks like it had burned.
Dinner is leg of lamb with rosemary and imbedded little cloves of garlic. There is goat cheese salad and pasta topped with pesto sauce. Idris helps himself to some of the salad, and ends up toying with it in a corner of the room. He spots Timur sitting with two young, attractive Dutch women. Holding court, Idris thinks. Laughter erupts, and one of the women touches Timur’s knee.
Idris carries his wine outside to the veranda and sits on a wooden bench. It’s dark now, and the veranda is lit only by a pair of lightbulbs dangling from the ceiling. From here, he can see the general shape of some sort of living quarters at the far end of the garden, and, off to the right side of the garden, the silhouette of a car—big, long, old—likely American, by the curves of it. Forties model, maybe early fifties—Idris can’t quite see—and, besides, he has never been a car guy. He is sure Timur would know. He would rattle off the model, year, engine size, all the options. It looks like the car is sitting on four flats. A neighborhood dog breaks into a staccato of barks. Inside, someone has put on a Leonard Cohen CD.
“Quiet and Sensitive.”
Amra sits beside him, ice tinkling in her glass. Her feet are bare.
“Your cousin Cowboy, he is life of party.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“He is very good-looking. He is married?”
“With three kids.”
“Too bad. I behave, then.”
“I’m sure he’d be disappointed to hear that.”
“I have rules,” she says. “You don’t like him very much.”
Idris tells her, quite truthfully, that Timur is the closest thing he has to a brother.
“But he make you embarrassed.”
It’s true. Timur has embarrassed him. He has behaved like the quintessential ugly Afghan-American, Idris thinks. Tearing through the war-torn city like he belongs here, backslapping locals with great bonhomie and calling them brother, sister, uncle, making a show of handing money to beggars from what he calls the Bakhsheesh bundle, joking with old women he calls mother and talking them into telling their story into his camcorder as he strikes a woebegone expression, pretending he is one of them, like he’s been here all along, like he wasn’t lifting at Gold’s in San Jose, working on his pecs and abs, when these people were getting shelled, murdered, raped. It is hypocritical, and distasteful. And it astonishes Idris that no one seems to see through this act.
“It isn’t true what he told you,” Idris says. “We came here to reclaim the house that belonged to our fathers. That’s all. Nothing else.”
Amra snorts a chuckle. “Of course I know. You think I was fooled? I have done business with warlords and Taliban in this country. I have seen everything. Nothing can give me shock. Nothing, nobody, can fool me.”
“I imagine that’s true.”
“You are honest,” she says. “At least you are honest.”
“I just think these people, everything they’ve been through, we should respect them. By ‘we,’ I mean people like Timur and me. The lucky ones, the ones who weren’t here when the place was getting bombed to hell. We’re not like these people. We shouldn’t pretend we are. The stories these people have to tell, we’re not entitled to them … I’m rambling.”
“I’m not making sense.”
“No, I understand,” she says. “You say their stories, it is gift they give you.”
“A gift. Yes.”
They sip some more wine. They talk for some time, for Idris the first genuine conversation he has had since arriving in Kabul, free of the subtle mocking, the vague reproach he has sensed from the locals, the government officials, those in the aid agencies. He asks about her work, and she tells him that she has served in Kosovo with the UN, in Rwanda after the genocide, Colombia, Burundi too. She has worked with child prostitutes in Cambodia. She has been in Kabul for a year now, her third stint, this time with a small NGO, working at the hospital and running a mobile clinic on Mondays. Married twice, divorced twice, no kids. Idris finds it hard to guess at Amra’s age, though likely she’s younger than she looks. There is a fading shimmer of beauty, a roughshod sexuality, behind the yellowing teeth, the fatigue pouches under the eyes. In four, maybe five years, Idris thinks, that too will be gone.
Then she says, “You want to know what happen to Roshi?”
“You don’t have to tell,” he says.
“You think I am drunk?”
“Little bit,” she says. “But you are honest guy.” She taps him on the shoulder gently, and a little playfully. “You ask to know for right reasons. For other Afghans like you, Afghans coming from West, it is like—how do you say?—stretching the neck.”
“Like p**n ography.”
“But maybe you are good guy.”
“If you tell me,” he says, “I will take it as a gift.”
So she tells him.
Roshi lived with her parents, two sisters, and her baby brother in a village a third of the way between Kabul and Bagram. One Friday last month, her uncle, her father’s older brother, came to visit. For almost a year, Roshi’s father and the uncle had had a feud over the property where Roshi lived with her family, property which the uncle felt belonged rightfully to him, being the older brother, but which his father had passed to the younger, and more favored, brother. The day he came, though, all was well.
“He say he want to end their fight.”
In preparation, Roshi’s mother had slaughtered two chickens, made a big pot of rice with raisins, bought fresh pomegranates from the market. When the uncle arrived, he and Roshi’s father kissed and embraced. Roshi’s father hugged his brother so hard, his feet lifted off the carpet. Roshi’s mother wept with relief. The family sat down to eat. Everyone had seconds, and thirds. They helped themselves to the pomegranates. After that, there was green tea and small toffee candies. The uncle then excused himself to use the outhouse.
When he came back, he had an ax in his hand.
“The kind for chopping tree,” Amra says.
The first one to go was Roshi’s father. “Roshi told me her father never even know what happened. He didn’t see anything.”
A single strike to the neck, from behind. It nearly decapitated him. Roshi’s mother was next. Roshi saw her mother try to fight, but several swings to the face and chest and she was silenced. By now the children were screaming and running. The uncle chased after them. Roshi saw one of her sisters make a run for the hallway, but the uncle grabbed her by the hair and wrestled her to the ground. The other sister did make it out to the hallway. The uncle gave chase, and Roshi could hear him kicking down the door to the bedroom, the screams, then the quiet.
“So Roshi, she decide to escape with the little brother. They run out of the house, they run for front door but it is locked. The uncle, he did it, of course.”
They ran for the yard, out of panic and desperation, perhaps forgetting that there was no gate in the yard, no way out, the walls too tall to climb. When the uncle burst out of the house and came for them, Roshi saw her little brother, who was five, throw himself into the tandoor, where, only an hour before, his mother had baked bread. Roshi could hear him screaming in the flames, when she tripped and fell. She turned onto her back in time to see blue sky and the ax whooshing down. And then nothing.
Amra stops. Inside, Leonard Cohen sings a live version of “Who By Fire.”
Even if he could talk, which he cannot at the moment, Idris wouldn’t know the proper thing to say. He might have said something, some offering of impotent outrage, if this had been the work of the Taliban, or al-Qaeda, or some megalomaniacal Mujahideen commander. But this cannot be blamed on Hekmatyar, or Mullah Omar, or Bin Laden, or Bush and his War on Terror. The ordinary, utterly mundane reason behind the massacre makes it somehow more terrible, and far more depressing. The word senseless springs to mind, and Idris thwarts it. It’s what people always say. A senseless act of violence. A senseless murder. As if you could commit sensible murder.
He thinks of the girl, Roshi, back at the hospital, curled up against the wall, her toes knotted, the infantile look on her face. The crack in the crown of her shaved head, the fist-sized mass of glistening brain tissue leaking from it, sitting on her head like the knot of a sikh’s turban.
“She told you this story herself?” he finally asks.
Amra nods heavily. “She remember very clearly. Every detail. She can tell to you every detail. I wish she can forget because of the bad dreams.”
“The brother, what happened to him?”
“Too many burns.”
“And the uncle?”
“They say be careful,” she says. “In my job, they say be careful, be professional. It’s not good idea to get attached. But Roshi and me...”
The music suddenly dies. Another power outage. For a few moments all is dark, save for the moonlight. Idris hears people groaning inside the house. Halogen torches promptly come to life.
“I fight for her,” Amra says. She never looks up. “I don’t stop.”
The next day, Timur rides with the Germans to the town of Istalif, known for its clay pottery. “You should come.”
“I’m going to stay in and read,” Idris says.
“You can read in San Jose, bro.”
“I need the rest. I might have had too much to drink last night.”
After the Germans pick up Timur, Idris lies in bed for a while, staring at a faded sixties-era advertising poster hanging on the wall, a quartet of smiling blond tourists hiking along Band-e-Amir Lake, a relic from his own childhood here in Kabul before the wars, before the unraveling. Early afternoon, he goes for a walk. At a small restaurant, he eats kabob for lunch. It’s hard to enjoy the meal with all the grimy young faces peering through the glass, watching him eat. It’s overwhelming. Idris admits to himself that Timur is better at this than he is. Timur makes a game of it. Like a drill sergeant, he whistles and makes the beggar kids queue up, whips out a few bills from the Bakhsheesh bundle. As he hands out the bills, one by one, he clicks his heels and salutes. The kids love it. They salute back. They call him Kaka. Sometimes they climb up his legs.