Today's Reading

Baba Jan continued as if he hadn't noticed his family's presence, as if he didn't need their support. "Look at your window right there!" He pointed at a very small hatchlike window that faced Baheer's family's compound. "How do I know your women aren't watching my men when you are not here? You come to my home tomorrow morning around eleven! I will show you how easy your women could be looking at us! According to Islam, you should first find the truth of the matter, then if something wrong has been done, you punish the wrongdoer! Not before you know the facts!"

"How dare you accuse my women of doing this?" The talib's voice squeaked a little as he shouted. His forehead wrinkled. "If you were not a white-haired man, I would have you beaten to death and buried right here, and no one would ever know what happened to you."

Baba Jan thumped his chest. "Do it! Do it, if you have the courage! Or come see tomorrow! I am Haji Mohammad Munir Khan! You know where I live!"

The talib said nothing for a long moment, but his eyes darted from Baba Jan to Uncle Kabir, then at the ground.

"OK," he said. "He can go. We'll investigate the matter and talk tomorrow."

Baheer's father and uncle untied Uncle Kabir and helped him to his feet. Baba Jan's fierce gaze remained locked on the talib until his three sons and grandson were heading out of the compound. At last, Baba Jan turned his back on the man and walked out.

"Don't tell the others about what happened here tonight," Baba Jan said outside the door of their own compound. "The women and children will be scared."

"But you invited the man to our compound tomorrow," Baheer said.

Baba Jan shook his head. "He realizes his mistake. And he is a coward. Deep down, most of the Taliban are cowards. He will not come."

"Bale, Haji Agha," said Uncle Kabir. "Tashakor."

"You're welcome." Baba Jan smiled and squeezed Uncle Kabir's shoulder.

"Bale, Baba Jan," Baheer said, a warm feeling rushing in to replace the cold fear that had sent shivers through his body the entire time they were in the talib's compound.

Baheer's father put his arm around him as the men headed into their compound, safe in their private family world behind the security of their high walls. Baheer watched his grandfather, old but firm and sure, laughing as he walked with Grandmother toward their room. He looked up at the cascade of bright stars in the dark Kabul night, and asked Allah to help him find even a small part of Baba Jan's courage and wisdom within himself.

September 11, 2001

The next day, Baheer was tired, having had trouble sleeping after the intense events of the night before. From the worrying reports about the death of Ahmad Shah Massoud and Baba Jan's fears about it, to the talib taking Uncle Kabir, Baheer had been plenty wound up, and even though it was a beautiful sunny day with hardly any wind, Baheer still couldn't escape the feeling that something was very wrong. Or maybe he was only dreading school as he always did.

"I hate this," he said, packing his chemistry book.

"What did you say?" his mother asked.

He should not have spoken aloud. His family did not like hearing him complain about school. "Nothing, Mother," he said. "Only this subject is so difficult."

She patted his back. "Ask your father for help. He was a great student and wanted to become a doctor. If it hadn't been for the Russians..." She sighed. "The infidel pigs were kidnapping young kids and forcing them to serve in their army."

"I know the story, Madar Jan," he said. All Afghans knew and shared it. The Russians and their Afghan puppets had ruined everything. They'd arrested Baba Jan multiple times for praying and fasting during Ramadan. Uncle Kabir had wanted to become a police officer like his father. Baheer's father had wanted to be a doctor. Uncle Feraidoon had wanted to finish school and learn how to sew. Baheer used to dream of being a teacher or even of writing for a newspaper, but the Taliban allowed no newspapers, and anyway, few could read. As to teaching, the instructors at his school were so harsh, brutally whipping the hands of their students even just for asking questions, and Baheer could never be part of that. The invasion and brutal war had destroyed over two million Afghan lives and crushed countless dreams.

When Baheer and Rahim finally reached the school, four black Toyota Hilux pickups blocked the entrance, their cargo beds crowded with taliban and their guns. Baheer slowed his bike, gripping the handlebars hard. He'd never seen such a big Taliban presence there before.

"Is this about what happened last night?" Rahim asked.

"It can't be," Baheer said quietly. "If this was about Uncle Kabir and Baba Jan confronting that talib, why wouldn't they just come to the house?" What he'd said made sense, but it did not ease his fear.

"Students!" A voice echoed from a loudspeaker on one of the trucks. "School is closed today. Go home."

This excerpt ends on page 18 of the hardcover edition.

Monday we begin the book Perfectly Parvin by Olivia Abtahi.


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