“Afghanistan is mother to us all,” Adel’s father said, one thick index finger raised skyward. The sun caught the band of his agatering. “But she is an ailing mother, and she has suffered for a long time. Now, it is true a mother needs her sons in order to recover. Yes, but she needs her daughters too—as much, if not more!”
This drew loud applause and several calls and hoots of approval. Adel scanned the faces in the crowd. They were rapt as they looked up at his father. Baba jan, with his black bushy eyebrows and full beard, standing tall and strong and wide above them, his shoulders nearly broad enough to fill the entryway to the school behind him.
His father continued. And Adel’s eyes connected with Kabir, one of Baba jan’s two bodyguards standing impassively on the other side of Baba jan, Kalashnikov in hand. Adel could see the crowd reflected in Kabir’s dark-lensed aviator glasses. Kabir was short, thin, almost frail, and wore suits with flashy colors—lavender, turquoise, orange—but Baba jan said he was a hawk and that underestimating him was a mistake you made at your own peril.
“So I say this to you, young daughters of Afghanistan,” Baba jan concluded, his long, thick arms outstretched in an open gesture of welcome. “You have a solemn duty now. To learn, to apply yourselves, to excel at your studies, to make proud not only your own fathers and mothers but the mother who is common to us all. Her future is in your hands, not mine. I ask that you not think of this school as a gift from me to you. It is merely a building that houses the true gift inside, and that is you. You are the gift, young sisters, not only to me and to the community of Shadbagh-e-Nau but, most importantly, to Afghanistan herself! God bless you.”
More applause broke out. Several people shouted, “God bless you, Commander Sahib!” Baba jan raised a fist, grinning broadly. Adel’s eyes nearly watered with pride.
The teacher Malalai handed Baba jan a pair of scissors. A red ribbon had been tied across the entryway to the classroom. The crowd inched closer to get a better view, and Kabir motioned a few people back, shoved a couple of them in the chest. Hands rose from the crowd, holding cell phones to video the ribbon cutting. Baba jan took the scissors, paused, turned to Adel and said, “Here, son, you do the honors.” He handed the scissors to Adel.
Adel blinked. “Me?”
“Go ahead,” Baba jan said, dropping him a wink.
Adel cut the ribbon. Long applause broke out. Adel heard the clicking of a few cameras, voices crying out “Allah-u-akbar!”
Baba jan then stood at the doorway as the students made a queue and entered the classroom one by one. They were young girls, aged between eight and fifteen, all of them wearing white scarves and the pin-striped uniforms of black and gray that Baba jan had given them. Adel watched as each student shyly introduced herself to Baba jan on her way in. Baba jan smiled warmly, patted their heads, and offered an encouraging word or two. “I wish you success, Bibi Mariam. Study hard, Bibi Homaira. Make us proud, Bibi Ilham.”
Later, by the black Land Cruiser, Adel stood by his father, sweating now in the heat, and watched him shake hands with the locals. Baba jan fingered a prayer bead in his free hand and listened patiently, leaning in a bit, his brow furrowed, nodding, attentive to each person as he or she came to say thanks, offer prayers, pay respects, many of them taking the opportunity to ask for a favor. A mother whose sick child needed to see a surgeon in Kabul, a man in need of a loan to start a shoe-repair shop, a mechanic asking for a new set of tools.
Commander Sahib, if you could find it in your heart …
I have nowhere else to turn, Commander Sahib …
Adel had never heard anyone outside immediate family address Baba jan by anything other than “Commander Sahib,” even though the Russians were long gone now and Baba jan hadn’t fired a gun in a decade or more. Back at the house, there were framed pictures of Baba jan’s jihadi days all around the living room. Adel had committed to memory each of the pictures: his father leaning against the fender of a dusty old jeep, squatting on the turret of a charred tank, posing proudly with his men, ammunition belt strapped across his chest, beside a helicopter they had shot down. Here was one where he was wearing a vest and a bandolier, brow pressed to the desert floor in prayer. He was much skinnier in those days, Adel’s father, and always in these pictures there was nothing behind him but mountains and sand.
Baba jan had been shot twice by the Russians during battle. He had shown Adel his wounds, one just under the left rib cage—he said that one had cost him his spleen—and one about a thumb’s length away from his belly button. He said he was lucky, everything considered. He had friends who had lost arms, legs, eyes; friends whose faces had burned. They had done it for their country, Baba jan said, and they had done it for God. This was what jihad was all about, he said. Sacrifice. You sacrificed your limbs, your sight—your life, even—and you did it gladly. Jihad also earned you certain rights and privileges, he said, because God sees to it that those who sacrifice the most justly reap the rewards as well.
Both in this life and the next, Baba jan said, pointing his thick finger first down, then up.
Looking at the pictures, Adel wished he had been around to fight jihad alongside his father in those more adventurous days. He liked to picture himself and Baba jan shooting at Russian helicopters together, blowing up tanks, dodging gunfire, living in mountains and sleeping in caves. Father and son, war heroes.
There was also a large framed photo of Baba jan smiling alongside President Karzai at Arg, the Presidential Palace in Kabul. This one was more recent, taken in the course of a small ceremony during which Baba jan had been handed an award for his humanitarian work in Shadbagh-e-Nau. It was an award that Baba jan had more than earned. The new school for girls was merely his latest project. Adel knew that women in town used to die regularly giving birth. But they didn’t anymore because his father had opened a large clinic, run by two doctors and three midwives whose salaries he paid for out of his own pocket. All the townspeople received free care at the clinic; no child in Shadbagh-e-Nau went unimmunized. Baba jan had dispatched teams to locate water points all over town and dig wells. It was Baba jan who had helped finally bring full-time electricity to Shadbagh-e-Nau. At least a dozen businesses had opened thanks to his loans that, Adel had learned from Kabir, were rarely, if ever, paid back.