Adel knew this. Baba jan had explained to him that some of the people who had fought alongside him against the Soviets in the 1980s had become both powerful and corrupt. They had lost their way, he said. And because he wouldn’t join in their criminal schemes, they always tried to undermine him, to pollute his name by spreading false, hurtful rumors about him. This was why Baba jan always tried to shield Adel—he didn’t allow newspapers in the house, for instance, didn’t want Adel watching the news on TV or surfing the Internet.
Gholam leaned in and said, “I also hear he’s quite the farmer.”
Adel shrugged. “You can see for yourself. Just a few acres of orchards. Well, and the cotton fields in Helmand too, I guess, for the factory.”
Gholam searched Adel’s eyes as a grin slowly spread across his face, exposing his rotting canine. “Cotton. You’re a piece of work. I don’t know what to say.”
Adel didn’t really understand this. He got up and bounced the ball. “You can say, ‘Rematch!’”
“Only, this time, I bet you don’t score one goal.”
Now Adel was the one grinning. “Name your bet.”
“That’s easy. The Zidane.”
“And if I win, no, when I win?”
“I were you,” Gholam said, “I wouldn’t worry about that improbability.”
It was a brilliant hustle. Gholam dove left and right, saved all of Adel’s shots. Taking off the jersey, Adel felt stupid for getting cheated out of what was rightfully his, what was probably his most prized possession. He handed it over. With some alarm, he felt the sting of tears and fought them back.
At least Gholam had the tact not to put it on in his presence. As he was leaving, he grinned over his shoulder. “Your father, he’s not really gone for three months, is he?”
“I’ll play you for it tomorrow,” Adel said. “The jersey.”
“I may have to think about that.”
Gholam headed back toward the main road. Halfway there, he paused, fished the rolled-up cigarette box from his pocket, and hurled it over the wall of Adel’s house.
Every day for about a week, after his morning lessons, Adel took his ball and left the compound. He was able to time his escapades with the armed guard’s schedule of rounds for the first couple of tries. But on the third try, the guard caught him and wouldn’t let him leave. Adel went back to the house and returned with an iPod and a watch. From then on, the guard surreptitiously let Adel in and out provided he venture no farther than the edge of the orchards. As for Kabir and his mother, they barely noticed his one- or two-hour absences. It was one of the advantages of living in a house as big as this.
Adel played alone behind the compound, over by the old tree stump in the clearing, each day hoping to see Gholam sauntering up. He kept an eye on the unpaved path stretching to the main road as he juggled, as he sat on the stump watching a fighter jet streak across the sky, as he listlessly flicked pebbles at nothing. After a while, he picked up his ball and plodded back to the compound.
Then one day Gholam showed up, carrying a paper bag.
“Where have you been?”
“Working,” Gholam said.
He told Adel that he and his father had been hired for a few days to make bricks. Gholam’s job was to mix mortar. He said he lugged pails of water back and forth, dragged bags of masonry cement and builder’s sand heavier than himself. He explained to Adel how he mixed mortar in the wheelbarrow, folding the mixture in the water with a hoe, folding it again and again, adding water, then sand, until the batch gained a smooth consistency that didn’t crumble. He would then push the wheelbarrow to the bricklayers and trot back to start a new batch. He opened his palms and showed Adel his blisters.
“Wow,” Adel said—stupidly, he knew, but he couldn’t think of another reply. The closest he had ever come to manual labor was one afternoon three years ago when he’d helped the gardener plant a few apple saplings in the backyard of their house in Kabul.
“Got you a surprise,” Gholam said. He reached into the bag and tossed Adel the Zidane jersey.
“I don’t understand,” Adel said, surprised and cautiously thrilled.
“I see some kid in town the other day wearing it,” Gholam said, asking for the ball with his fingers. Adel kicked it to him and Gholam juggled as he told the story. “Can you believe it? I go up to him and say, ‘Hey that’s my buddy’s shirt on you.’ He gives me a look. To make a long story short, we settle it in an alley. By the end, he’s begging me to take the shirt!” He caught the ball midair, spat, and grinned at Adel. “All right, so maybe I’d sold it to him a couple of days earlier.”
“That’s not right. If you sold it, it was his.”
“What, you don’t want it now? After everything I went through to get it back for you? It wasn’t all one-sided, you know. He landed a few decent punches.”
“Still …” Adel muttered.
“Besides, I tricked you in the first place and I felt bad about it. Now you get your shirt back. And as for me …” He pointed to his feet, and Adel saw a new pair of blue-and-white sneakers.
“Is he all right, the other guy?” Adel asked.
“He’ll live. Now, are we going to debate or are we going to play?”
“Is your father with you?”
“Not today. He’s at the courthouse in Kabul. Come on, let’s go.”
They played for a while, kicking the ball back and forth, chasing it around. They went for a walk later, Adel breaking his promise to the guard and leading them into the orchards. They ate loquats off the trees and drank cold Fanta from cans Adel covertly fetched from the kitchen.
Soon, they began to meet this way almost daily. They played ball, chased each other through the orchards’ parallel rows of trees. They chatted about sports and movies, and when they had nothing to say they looked out on the town of Shadbagh-e-Nau, the soft hillsides in the distance and the hazy chain of mountains farther yet, and that was all right too.
Every day now Adel woke up eager for the sight of Gholam sneaking up the dirt path, the sound of his loud, confident voice. He was often distracted during his morning lessons, his concentration lapsing as he thought of the games they would play later, the stories they would tell each other. He worried he would lose Gholam. He worried Gholam’s father, Iqbal, wouldn’t find steady work in town, or a place to live, and Gholam would move to another town, another part of the country, and Adel had tried to prepare for this possibility, steel himself against the farewell that would then follow.
One day, as they sat on the tree stump, Gholam said, “Have you ever been with a girl, Adel?”
“Yeah, I mean.”
Adel felt a rush of heat around his ears. He briefly contemplated lying, but he knew Gholam would see right through him. He mumbled, “You have?”
Gholam lit a cigarette and offered one to Adel. This time Adel took it, after glancing over his shoulder to make sure the guard wasn’t peeking around the corner or that Kabir hadn’t decided to step out. He took a drag and launched immediately into a protracted coughing fit that had Gholam smirking and pounding him on the back.
“So, have you or not?” Adel wheezed, eyes tearing.
“Friend of mine back at the camp,” Gholam said in a conspiratorial tone, “he was older, he took me to a whorehouse in Peshawar.”
He told the story. The small, filthy room. The orange curtains, the cracked walls, the single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, the rat he had seen dart across the floor. The sound of rickshaws outside, sputtering up and down the street, cars rumbling. The young girl on the mattress, finishing a plate of biryani, chewing and looking at him without any expression. How he could tell, even in the dim light, that she had a pretty face and that she was hardly any older than he. How she had scooped up the last grains of rice with a folded piece of naan, pushed away the plate, lain down, and wiped her fingers on her trousers as she’d pulled them down.
Adel listened, fascinated, enraptured. He had never had a friend like this. Gholam knew more about the world than even Adel’s half brothers who were several years older than him. And Adel’s friends back in Kabul? They were all the sons of technocrats and officials and ministers. They all lived variations of Adel’s own life. The glimpses Gholam had allowed Adel into his life suggested an existence rife with trouble, unpredictability, hardship, but also adventure, a life worlds removed from Adel’s own, though it unfolded practically within spitting distance of him. Listening to Gholam’s stories, Adel’s own life sometimes struck him as hopelessly dull.
“So did you do it, then?” Adel said. “Did you, you know, stick it in her?”
“No. We had a cup of chai and discussed Rumi. What do you think?”
Adel blushed. “What was it like?”
But Gholam had already moved on. This was often the pattern of their conversations, Gholam choosing what they would talk about, launching into a story with gusto, roping Adel in, only to lose interest and leave both the story and Adel dangling.
Now, instead of finishing up the story he had started, Gholam said, “My grandmother says her husband, my grandfather Saboor, told her a story about this tree once. Well, that was long before he cut it down, of course. My grandfather told it to her when they were both kids. The story was that if you had a wish, you had to kneel before the tree and whisper it. And if the tree agreed to grant it, it would shed exactly ten leaves on your head.”
“I never heard that,” Adel says.
“Well, you wouldn’t have, would you?”
It was then that Adel caught on to what Gholam had really said. “Wait. Your grandfather cut down our tree?”
Gholam turned his eyes to him. “Your tree? It’s not your tree.”
Adel blinked. “What does that mean?”
Gholam bore his gaze even deeper into Adel’s face. For the first time, Adel could detect no trace of his friend’s customary liveliness or of his trademark smirk or lighthearted mischief. His face was transformed, his expression sober, startlingly adult.
“This was my family’s tree. This was my family’s land. It’s been ours for generations. Your father built his mansion on our land. While we were in Pakistan during the war.” He pointed to the orchards. “These? They used to be people’s homes. But your father had them bulldozed to the ground. Just like he brought down the house where my father was born, where he was raised.”
“He claimed our land as his own and he built that”—here, he actually sneered as he threw a thumb toward the compound—“that thing in its stead.”
Feeling a little nauseated, his heart thumping heavily, Adel said, “I thought we were friends. Why are you telling these terrible lies?”
“Remember when I tricked you and took your jersey?” Gholam said, a flush rising to his cheeks. “You almost cried. Don’t deny it, I saw you. That was over a shirt. A shirt. Imagine how my family felt, coming all the way from Pakistan, only to get off the bus and find this thing on our land. And then your goon in the purple suit ordering us off our own land.”
“My father is not a thief!” Adel shot back. “Ask anyone in Shadbagh-e-Nau, ask them what he’s done for this town.” He thought of how Baba jan received people at the town mosque, reclined on the floor, teacup before him, prayer beads in hand. A solemn line of people, stretching from his cushion to the front entrance, men with muddy hands, toothless old women, young widows with children, every one of them in need, each waiting for his or her turn to ask for a favor, a job, a small loan to repair a roof or an irrigation ditch or buy milk formula. His father nodding, listening with infinite patience, as though each person in line mattered to him like family.