By Mariam Said ’15
The sound of laughter tinkled like wind chimes through the air. Children ran through the streets unattended, playing street soccer or flying kites or sprinting through alleys to feel their clothes and hair fly behind them. Inside, Ferishta sat on the couch trying to read her book around her cat Charlie’s plopped body. It wasn’t working. Eventually she gave up, as she couldn’t concentrate with her mother back from work “speaking loudly” to their neighbor across the street through the kitchen window. It was always “speaking loudly,” not yelling, because her mother didn’t like to sound like an angry person.
“Mamy Jaan, do you think you can go and talk to her at her house?”
Mamy Jaan waved Ferishta away and continued her conversation with their neighbor. That night they were having a party with one of Kabul’s most famous singers and Mamy Jaan had forgotten to buy a few key ingredients for the dessert. Her conversation with their neighbor wasn’t really a conversation, it was a strategic negotiation for flour and sugar.
Ferishta was in medical school and was always trying to find a quiet place to study, but between her cat, her mom, and her father’s almost nightly gatherings, she was having a difficult time getting through one page. Put out, she looked out the living room window just in time to see her brother. Hamid struggled up the walkway with his school bag slung over one shoulder and his tabla drums cradled to his chest. She pushed Charlie off of her book to open the front door. He angrily licked his side. Ferishta was oblivious to her cat’s glare as she stepped outside.
“Give one of them to me.” Ferishta reached for the tabla.
Hamid quickly stepped back but then relinquished one of his tabla drums. He knew how stubborn his older sister was.
“Thank you.” She said. Ferishta took one of the drums and made her way back inside. She noticed the bones in her hands sticking out in high relief against the drum she was carrying. Carpals, metacarpals, proximal phalanges, intermediate phalanges, distal phalanges. The names flew through her head and landed on the tip of her tongue easily. Her walking slowed down as her thinking accelerated.
Hamid pushed passed her, put his things down inside the door, and came back outside to retrieve the drum from Ferishta. He rolled his eyes at her. She followed behind him, lost in her bone reverie. Ferishta shook her head back into the present moment as she walked again to the couch she was studying at earlier. Just as she opened her book Hamid began playing the tabla in the corner of the room. He and his uncle were a musical duo. His uncle played the harmonium and sang, and he only expected the best out of Hamid, so Hamid needed to get a little extra practice in for the big party that night. Ferishta looked at the ceiling and blew at her bangs, exasperated at all the noise around her. Seeing the open space, her cat climbed onto her chest, making it harder to breathe and effectively halting any studying she had hoped to complete.
There were at least thirty people packed into their living room. Ferishta was being pushed from side to side as people clapped and swayed with the music. These parties were a lot easier when her sister Malika was there, but after she got married she’d moved to Paris with her husband. The sisters were only left with letters to communicate their respective discomfort and excitement over the parties and to convey the gossip that inevitably came with a room packed like a sardine can.
Their most recent exchange on Ferishta’s side covered their father’s new job as president in the Ministry of Planning, her life as a medical student, Hamid’s upcoming high school graduation, their mother’s newest projects, and the endless parties that their family hosted. Oh, and for some reason the American Embassy didn’t have their Christmas tree up this year! Malika’s most recent letter delivered a sole piece of happy news: she was pregnant. In the midst of the imprisoning party crowd, Ferishta smirked at how her sister always managed to outdo her, even from the other side of the world.
The musicians had long ago retired to the sofas lining the walls, their fingers and throats sore from hours of playing. The tabla and the harmonium sat abandoned in a dark corner. Still, the party continued to thrum with life like every other night of the week at one family’s house or another. Baba Jaan was sitting in the corner detachedly observing the dancers. He drummed his fingers on the couch’s arm, smiled at people talking to him, and drummed some more. Finally, he stood up to get away from the what-was-interesting-three-hours-ago small talk. He changed the record and played slower music to encourage people to leave, then returned to his seat.
Ferishta watched Baba Jaan doze off a few times. The guests continued to dance around him. They alternately took turns dancing and sitting; one guest sat down with a little too much force next to Baba Jaan and he startled awake, blinking rapidly. Annoyed, he stood up one last time and turned the music off, returned to his seat, crossed his arms, and pointedly stared at the wall. There were murmurs of “Oh, Aghai Jahani must be getting tired.” The first lights of the morning shone through the windows. The conversation began to die down and float out of the front door with the guests. Like wisps of candle smoke they began to disappear, and all the while Baba Jaan began to smile again and wave goodbye to his guests. “See you tomorrow night!” The guests smiled and answered in the affirmative. Baba Jaan closed the door, sighed, and went to sleep.
The first bomb shook the city on Christmas Eve 1979. Ferishta startled awake, sweating from the too-high heating system. She heard movement in the house and blearily noticed the first rays of the sunrise peeking through her curtains. Heart beating quickly, she shuffled over to the family room. Hamid, Baba Jaan, and Mamy Jaan were all gathered around the tv, their faces drawn and pale. Ferishta’s heart began beating a steadily increasing rhythm as she looked from her family to the tv.
“…a coup d’etat. The Russians invaded this morning, and have begun bombing and shooting at any visible protesters…”
Spots began to dot Ferishta’s vision and her knees collapsed beneath her. The news anchor’s voice was muffled by a black fog of fear that asphyxiated all of her senses. There was nothing. Nothing and bomb tremors. Nothing and gunfire. Nothingness is infinite, and one cannot sit through infinity. Life goes on. Parents go to work. Children go to school. Activity is a blessing that distracts from the hopeless emptiness of nothingness.
Ferishta’s only activity was walking to campus and back. Days crawled by as the situation got worse, the misty damp of nothingness swallowing up time like a black hole. Everyone dealt with the turmoil differently. Mamy Jaan brought home three pomegranates. The irregular tapping of the seeds hitting the bowl, and the red, peculiarly pomegranate scent that pervaded the air brought some sense of normalcy back into their home. Parties were no longer possible. The Russians had created a ten o’clock curfew that everyone was to follow. So Mamy Jaan bought fruit. Farms were not attacked as much as the highly populated cities and plants always find a way to flourish in the toughest of situations.
Ferisha sat on a stool in the kitchen watching her mother deseed her favorite fruit. Charlie rubbed against her legs, but she was too tired to push him away. She had just gotten back home from basketball practice and was mentally and physically exhausted by her day. Classes were cancelled. There were too many protests. But she could continue to pretend that none of this was real as long as she kept some sense of routine. Her walk home was all whispers and nervous glances; more Russians arrived, toting guns and emitting danger. Hundreds of people were missing, and hundreds more were declared dead. Russian civilians were moving in, but shopkeepers refused to sell to them. Shopkeepers died.
Ferishta loved calculating statistics, but this time her calculations didn’t bring her any satisfaction. It was unlikely that her family would go much longer untouched by the war. All of her friends had lost a loved one, and she was either the next to lose a loved one or the next to die.
“Help! Help! Please, somebody has got to help me!”
Multiple medics rushed eight people in on gurneys. Limbs were missing and blood was spurting. Ferishta no longer grew nauseous at the metallic smell or countless deaths. She stepped forward to help. She was there to assist the doctors and had to be strong for the family of the dead. Ferishta and her classmates volunteered at the hospital during their free time since classes were indefinitely cancelled. There was a shortage of doctors, and untrained medical students were better than nothing. Someone bumped into her and yelled to get out of the way. Ferishta backed up against the wall again. She observed. Looking for something, anything to do.
It was obvious by looking at them that the most recent patients were not going to survive the hour. Ferishta went to speak with the woman that rushed in with them. They were bombed at a wedding and the woman had already seen three of her daughters die that day. Everyone was running away, but the bombs followed them. They killed or maimed everyone but the lucky few who managed to stay hidden. The bride and the groom were two of the people who were rushed in; the groom’s left hand was no longer there to hold his wife’s right hand. The bride in her blood-stained, green dress was mouthing something to her husband: narahatam merawi, dooset daram. I’m sad you’re leaving. I love you.
Ferishta brought a blanket and a cup of tea for the woman, then stepped outside for some fresh air. She looked up at the sky. She thought detachedly that it was far more peaceful at night. She looked forward again just as three more bomb victims were rushed into the hospital. She heaved with her head between her knees, then sprinted forward to resist falling.
Ferishta ran. She ran from the victims’ pain. She ran for her own pain. She ran to feel something, some semblance of control in her life. She ran home. Home to her family. Home to her mother. She ran and ran and ran, worry lines claiming new homes between and above her eyes. She ran past the abandoned Danish Consulate where her mother used to work. She ran up the hill to her house overlooking the city. She ran through the front door. And she collapsed into her mother’s arms.
Baba Jaan wasn’t home yet. Mamy Jaan, Hamid, and Ferishta looked through the window, awaiting his arrival. Mamy Jaan stood up and paced between the phone and the window. Baba Jaan had already quit his job as president in the Ministry of Planning, but he was still the active president in the Ministry of Justice for the next week. Government officials were seized or killed every day. It was not a good time to be late.
Mamy Jaan picked up the phone and dialed. There was not a sound in the house as they waited for an answer on the other line of the phone. Gunfire droned on outside, almost a white noise now. Where are you? Please don’t be dead. Please don’t be dead. Please don’t be dead. Ferishta repeated the chant in her head, one for three, over and over. Mamy Jaan breathed a sigh of relief and gifted a quivering smile and a shaky nod to her children. They returned to their stations at the window, it was almost curfew. No one was safe until everyone was home.
Five minutes away from curfew, Baba Jaan returned home from the English language center he founded. Mamy Jaan wasn’t happy. Ferishta and Hamid could hear them arguing through their closed bedroom door. They stood next to each other, arm touching arm, pillars to hold the other one straight. Mamy Jaan stormed out of the room and broke through the two siblings. Hamid looked wounded while Ferishta stood tall, staring into the open door of her parents’ bedroom. She heard a yell, then a thump. She ran through the door and saw her father collapsed on the floor.
“Call an ambulance!”
“I don’t know, just call!”
Everything was a flurry of motion. Hamid running, curtains flying, Mamy Jaan rushing, and Ferishta crying.
Baba Jaan woke up clutching his chest. It had been nearly twenty minutes and the ambulance still hadn’t arrived. He winced as he climbed up off the floor and onto the bed with Mamy Jaan’s help. Hamid brought him pain killers and water. Another half hour passed and the ambulance still hadn’t arrived. Baba Jaan hid his pain well.
Almost two hours later a military jeep arrived to take Baba Jaan to the hospital, civilian EMTs were not allowed to work after curfew. Hamid and Mamy Jaan joined Baba Jaan in the jeep. Ferishta bit her nails as she watched them leave. She kept watch at the window, occasionally stroking her cat, until Hamid and Mamy Jaan were finally dropped back off at home, after the curfew was over. A few of Ferishta’s nails were bleeding because of how violently she tore at them with her teeth. Ferishta stopped looking, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to see them anymore. They shuffled through the front door, eyes red and noses raw. And Ferishta knew. Another chunk of her heart was ripped out from her chest and through her throat. Tears were an impossibility, and the infinite nothingness that she had just managed to stave off enveloped her once again. She closed her eyes and whispered dooset daram to the smell of him that still lingered on the couch.
A year of war. A year of death. A cousin missing. A father dead.
Ferishta stayed home most days now. She and Hamid sat next to each other rereading their sister’s letters. Malika’s life was so far from theirs. It was normal, a word Ferishta would have scrunched her nose at before. The letters were friendly inquiries into their health and safety, nothing too critical of the Russians. Though the Russians couldn’t read Dari, they had wormed their way into all aspects of Afghan society through the Afghans who truly believed in what they were doing and through the Afghans who had no alternative choice.
Ferishta and Hamid were reading their most recent letter from Malika. It had been a month now since their last exchange. This letter was an account of married life like the rest of them: Malika was quickly growing bored of her husband, but his brother’s wife made divine French pastries so he was okay for now. This letter also included pictures of Lyra, Malika’s daughter. Ferishta held the pictures tightly in her hands. Normalcy was a rare commodity, and Ferishta grabbed at it when she could.
Narahatam merawi. The Afghanistan that Ferishta knew and loved was quickly slipping through her fingers; it slid down the road and into the curbside sewage. Narahatam merawi. With each passing day more people she loved were disappearing or leaving. Narahatam merawi. She was no longer the person she was last winter.
After Baba Jaan’s death, Mamy Jaan withdrew all of the money they had at the bank and kept the cash under her bed. She knew people who had already escaped and had gotten the contact information of the man who had helped them get past the checkpoints the Russians had set up. She asked endless questions, trying to elucidate every possible scenario. How were they leaving? Who was taking them? How much did it cost? How many people could they take? She carefully planned their escape. The small family continued on with their daily lives as if nothing were wrong, all the while preparing their inner lives for the stormy upheaval that was to come.
Three more years passed in violent monotony before Mamy Jaan decided that it was the right time for them to leave. And three more months of planning and half of their savings later, Mamy Jaan was able to buy passage for what was left of their family to escape to Pakistan.
The family packed themselves into the back of a cloth covered truck with twenty other people also seeking a better life. In order to slip through the checkpoints, everyone needed to pretend that they were villagers returning home. The women donned blue burqas and the men changed into shalwar kameezes. Ferishta, unaccustomed to the small eye holes, lifted her burqa up to see where she was walking. She made her fellow escapees nervous. Lifting her burqa exposed her as someone from the city, someone who wasn’t accustomed to the long, draping cloths. Mamy Jaan scolded her, the driver scolded her. She could get them all killed. Days flew by in the truck, no one slept. The truck jerked the passengers around their respective seats. The man sitting across Ferishta rubbed at his unfamiliar beard with an unsteady hand. His other hand was clasped with a woman’s who was clad in a burqa. Daughter or wife? It was impossible to distinguish any visible aging features. Ferishta noticed the deep circles under his eyes. She wondered if she looked the same. They slipped through their third checkpoint without incident. No one slept. Sleep is for the safe, and they were still as far from safe as they could be.
The driver stopped at his house during their journey south when they received news that the truck in front of them had been bombed. The Russians found out that it was full of people who were escaping. Ferishta’s truck could very well be next. The driver offered his home and food to the people for the night and they continued their journey in the morning.
“Stop that truck!”
The driver immediately halted, jolting all of the people hiding in the back. Those who were able to see through the openings of the cloth noticed that it was an Afghan man who stopped them and let their fellow escapees know.
Their relief didn’t last long. The man marched to the back of the truck and exposed all of the people.
“I need all of the able men to step out of this truck. Join the war against the Russians.”
This man was a soldier with the mujahedeen. A freedom fighter for the Afghan people. Looks of mixed admiration and shame were directed at him. How could they all just leave their land behind, forgetting everyone and everything they once knew? They felt like cowards. The men stepped off of the truck. The soldier glanced around the rest of the truck. His eyes landed on Hamid. “Get out. Fight for your country.”
Hamid had just turned twenty the month before, and his mother and sister had protected him from most of the bloodshed since his Baba Jaan’s death. Mamy Jaan stood up; all five feet and two inches of her against the towering soldier.
“If he’s not leaving, then neither am I.”
There was a strength in her eyes that Ferishta had never seen before. Mamy Jaan narrowed her eyes at the soldier and dared him to do something. They had a staring match, each more determined than the other to win. Finally, the soldier backed up and waved the truck forward. Mamy Jaan weakly sat down next to Hamid and embraced him. Her strength was just a façade. They were so close to freedom. She squeezed Hamid a little tighter.
Mamy Jaan, Ferishta, and Hamid stayed in Peshawar for one week before they moved to Islamabad. The rest of their savings went towards renting a house with other Afghans who had escaped. They were among the lucky few Afghans who had had enough money on them to circumvent the refugee camps. They were able to escape the poverty and food and water shortages that are prevalent in the camps. They were able to escape the voyeuristic eyes of photojournalists who arrived intending to advance their careers by recording grief and loss. And they were able to escape the ever present reminders of what the, thus far, four year war had done and was doing to their people.
Narahatam merawi. They were unable to sell their houses in Kabul and Jalalabad because it would have alerted the Russians to their plans, but Ferishta still remembered the smells and sounds of her houses. She left a piece of herself behind in the large creek that ran through the front yard of her house in Jalalabad. She left a piece of herself behind on the snowy mountains that surrounded Kabul. She left a piece of herself behind with her father, whose grave she knew she’d never be able to return to. Pieces of herself were scattered throughout the escape route to Pakistan, like Hansel and Gretel’s bread crumbs leading them back home. She knew, though, that she wouldn’t be going back to retrieve them. Narahatam merawi.
Still, life goes on. Ferishta couldn’t sit in perpetual numbness forever. After a month in Islamabad she ventured out again. She began shadowing a doctor, clutching at any semblance of the life she had before. She ate out at restaurants. The chicken kabob in Islamabad was the best that she had ever tasted; she could practically taste the fire and stones that had cooked it to perfection. Every once in a while she thought of the delicious street kabobs she and Hamid used to buy at the markets in Kabul, but she brushed those memories away. They were useless to her now.
During this time Mamy Jaan began applying for visas to go to the United States. Her closest friend from Afghanistan had arrived there years before, and had wanted their families to join together once again. After a year of waiting, they were finally able to move to their new home in the United States.
Ferishta cut her hair. She switched out the loose-fitting pullovers and comfortable pants from back home for shoulder pads and dresses. She went back to school to learn a new language. She and Hamid only spoke to each other of happy things — in English. Mamy Jaan met with her friends from back home, but Ferishta and Hamid made new ones.
Narahatam merawi. Dooset daram. Ferishta lovingly bade farewell to what she knew before, because she knew that the only way to move on was to create new experiences and mold new parts for herself. She forged her way into her new world. Her feet were liquid fire, melting and molding her surrounding environment to fit her. She looked up at the same moon that shone over Afghanistan and whispered a little secret to it dooset daram and continued on her way.