In the Time Before
In the time before the fighting, before the rockets, before the warlords and their false promises, before the sudden disappearance of so many people we knew to graves or foreign lands, before the Taliban and their madness, before the smell of death hung daily in the air and the ground was soaked in blood, we lived well.
* * *
We have no photos. It was too dangerous to keep them during the time of the Taliban, so we destroyed them. But the images of our lives before all hope fled Afghanistan remain sharp and clear.
My mother is wearing her short skirt, sitting in her office in a bank, tending to a long line of customers. She is respected for her knowledge of banking, and her ability to solve people’s problems.
My father looks like a movie star in his bell-bottom trousers, speeding through the Kabul streets on his motorcycle. Sometimes he ties me to his back with a tight belt. His long hair catches the wind as we ride off. When he turns the corners sharply, the metal guards he wears on his knees shoot sparks into the air as they scrape the pavement. The next day I tell my classmates about that, and make them envious.
One of my uncles goes on business trips to other countries. The other uncles and aunts study at universities in Kabul. All of them wear the latest styles. Grandfather, his thick white hair neatly combed, is elegantly dressed in finely tailored suits from Italy that emphasize his affluence. When he enters a room, he dominates it.
Grandfather is an impressive man, tall, with broad shoulders. Unlike many other Afghans, he keeps his well-tanned face freshly shaved. It is his wide, black eyes that you notice most. So deep. So commanding. So gentle.
* * *
The images come in a rush. Sometimes they play out in little scenes.
* * *
My father is calling me to get ready for school. I open my eyes and look at the clock above my bed. It is too early, but what can I say to him? He is my father. I am his son. Pashtun sons must obey their fathers.
But I am not ready to wake up. I rub my eyes. My father keeps calling, “Get up! Put on your gloves. I’m waiting for you in the ring.” He wants me to exercise with him before breakfast. He has started training me to become a famous boxer like himself, and fight as he has in international competitions.
I hate waking up early, but I love exercising with my father. He always lets me beat him, even though I am seven years old.
* * *
I love school, too. I have perfect attendance. I am smart and popular. Sometimes the boys complain to the headmaster about me when I punch them in their faces. The headmaster covers for me, because he is Grandfather’s best friend. But he never smiles at me.
My sister and I are in the same school. She is a year and a half older than I, and even smarter and more popular, but she never punches any girls, even though she is the daughter of a well-known boxer.
* * *
The heart of our world is my grandfather’s house.
Grandfather had built it in the late 1960s, when he was the senior accounting officer in the Bank-e-Millie, the National Bank of Afghanistan. The country was prosperous, and he could see that Kabul would outgrow its twisted thousand-year-old streets along the Kabul River.
He bought about five acres on the far side of the small, steep mountain with the two peaks that for centuries had protected Kabul on its south and west sides. The land beyond them was then all farms with mud-brick villages, but not for long.
Grandfather had studied the land, talked to the farmers who knew it, and carefully chose the piece that had the best well. We had always had water even in the driest months, even when our neighbors had shortages. He enclosed most of his land with a sturdy cement wall, but set part of it aside for a school for all the kids whose families he knew would transform the farmlands into a neighborhood.
My father and six of his seven brothers, along with their wives and kids, all lived comfortably within Grandfather’s wall. I had more than twenty-five cousins to play with, most of them around my age. Every family had two large rooms of its own. The rooms were clustered in a single-story building on one side of the garden. Grandfather’s rooms were on the other side. Between us were sixty McIntosh apple trees. Grandfather’s cousin had brought them from America as little branches that he had grafted onto Afghan apple tree roots. They were very rare in Afghanistan, and Grandfather was proud of having them.
At one end of the property was a block-long building with two floors of apartments above the shops on the street level. Grandfather rented out the apartments to people who were not relatives. All the windows in the apartments faced the street. No Afghan allows strangers to look into his family’s garden.
My father set up a gym in one of the shops. Every day after school, dozens of young men would come there to train as boxers. My cousin Wakeel and I would watch them from the sidewalk pounding the punching bag, or doing push-ups, or skipping rope, while my father sparred with one or sometimes two at a time inside the ring he had built.
Wakeel was seven years older than I was. He was the older brother I never had. I was the younger brother he always wanted. He let me use him as a punching bag when I imitated the boxers. Every time I hit him, he laughed.
Grandfather, by then retired from the bank, used one of the larger shops as a warehouse for his carpets. It had a thick door with a strong lock and was filled with the sweet, lanolin-rich smell of wool. He had thousands of carpets in there. My boy cousins and I liked to jump from one high pile of folded carpets to another.
* * *
All of my uncles had their own businesses, except Wakeel’s father. He was a major in the National Army of Afghanistan. He always said, “Business is too risky. Most of these businessmen have heart attacks, or die at an early age.” He was my grandfather’s oldest son, and thus had a special place in the family. He and his wife enjoyed a relaxed life on his army salary with Wakeel, my favorite cousin, and their two daughters.
One day he went to his office and never came back. We still do not know whether he is alive or dead. It was in the time when I first heard the word “Communists,” but I did not know what it meant then. For more than twenty-five years, his wife has been waiting for him to come home. Even now, she runs to the door whenever someone knocks.
* * *
My father was the third son. Like all my uncles, he had only one wife. It was not our family’s custom to have more than one.
Our neighbors respected my father like a holy man. They came to see him and talked with him about their businesses and their problems. They called him Lala, “older brother,” even though some of them were older than he was. They told him, “Your thoughts are older than your age.” He was a man willing to try everything. He had no use for the word “no.”
He was also the only one of his father’s sons who was involved in carpets. His five younger brothers saw carpets as something from the past. They were looking to the future, making money in new ways.
One was importing goods from Russia. Two others were still in university but looking into importing medicine to sell to pharmacies all over Afghanistan.
* * *
Often, we all ate dinner together, more than fifty of us sitting on cushions around one cloth spread on the well-trimmed lawn that Grandfather had sown at one corner of our courtyard. Colorful little lightbulbs hung above us. After dinner, my grandfather and his sons sat in a circle talking about their businesses, or to which universities in Europe or America they should send my boy cousins and me.
The women made a separate circle to talk about their own things. It was the responsibility of the older women to find good husbands for the younger ones, such as my father’s two unmarried sisters, who lived with us. His two older sisters were already married, and had moved away to the homes of their husbands’ families in other parts of Kabul. Discussions on suitors could go on for months and involve the whole family until a choice was made.
My cousins and I sat in another circle, boys and girls together, telling one another scary tales, and staring at Kabul’s clear night sky with the moon and stars scattered across it. When we got tired of stories, we shaped animals from the stars and laughed.
Sometimes after we had finished eating, my father or one of my uncles would take the kids around the mountain to buy us ice cream at Shahr-e-Naw Park, or to one of the Kabul movie theaters for an Indian or American film.
* * *
Kabul was like a huge garden then. Trees lined the wide streets and touched each other overhead in tall, leafy arches. The city was full of well-tended parks, in which tall pink hollyhocks competed for attention with bright orange marigolds and hundreds of shades of roses. Every house had a garden with pomegranate, almond, or apricot trees. Even the mountain with the two peaks was covered in low-growing weeds and grasses that came to life with the spring rains. In both spring and fall, the sky filled with the brightly colored water birds that rested in the wetlands around the city as they flew between the Russian steppes and India. Ancient underground channels brought water from the mountains, and kept our gardens green.
* * *
Every Friday, the Muslim holy day when schools and businesses closed, we carried a large lunch to one of the gardens of our neighbors, or to picnic spots nearby at Qargha Lake or in the Paghman Valley, or sometimes even as far as the Salang Pass, high in the mountains of the Hindu Kush an hour’s drive north of Kabul. This was a day for extended families to spend together, visiting and joking and gossiping.
My cousins and I climbed hills, while the elders reclined against huge pillows in the shade of willow trees or under the broad leafy branches of a panj chinar tree. My unmarried aunts were kept busy boiling water for the others who drank one cup of tea after another. In these long afternoons they took turns spinning some small event into a big story that made everybody laugh. They all tried to outdo one another, of course. They are Afghans. Of them all, my mother was the best.
My uncles were tabla drummers, and my father played the wooden flute, though he had never had lessons. We stayed until late into the evenings, singing, dancing, and cooking over an open fire.
Sometimes on these outings, the cousins held a school lessons competition. Whoever got the highest score could demand that the other cousins buy whatever he or she liked, no matter the cost. We, too, were very competitive. Our parents were the judges, and cheered loudly every time one of us got a correct answer. Sometimes the competition ended in a tie. We hated that.
Occasionally, some of the cousins fought and did not talk to each other for a day or two. But we could not maintain that for very long. Our games were more important, and never ended, whether we were playing hide-and-seek in the garden, or shooting marbles, or racing our bicycles in the park near our house, or especially when we were flying kites from the roof.
Every afternoon in the spring and autumn, when the weather brought a gentle breeze, hundreds of kites would fill the sky above Kabul and stay there until dark. Kite flying was more than a game; it was a matter of the greatest personal pride to cut the string of your rival’s kite. The trick was to draw your kite string against your opponent’s with speed and force, and slice through his string.
Wakeel was the kite master, the kite-flying teacher to us all. The kids on the street had given him the title of “Wakeel, the Cruel Cutter,” because he had cut so many of their kites.
One afternoon, Wakeel looked at me as we were heading to the roof with our kites and said, “Let’s have a fight!” As usual, his long, dark hair fell over his forehead, brushing his thick eyebrows. And below them were his deep-set, dark eyes that sparkled, always.
I said okay, though I knew he would cut me right away. But from the earliest age we are taught never to run away from a fight, even if we think we cannot win.
The roof of Grandfather’s apartment block was ideal for kite flying. Rising high above the trees that grew along the street, it was like a stage. People below—adults as well as kids—would see the kites going into the air, and stop everything that they were doing to watch the outcome. A good fight would be talked about for days after.
After we had had our kites in the air for half an hour, taunting and feinting, Wakeel called from the far end of the roof in amazement, “You have learned a lot! It used to take me only five minutes to cut you. Now it has been more than half an hour, and you are still in the sky.”
Suddenly, he used a trick that he had not yet shown me. He let his kite loop around mine as if he were trying to choke it. I felt the string in my hand go slack, and there was my kite, flat on its back, wafting back and forth like a leaf in autumn, drifting off across the sky away from me.
Wakeel laughed and made a big show of letting his kite fly higher so everybody in the street could see he had yet again been the victor. I ran downstairs to get another kite.
Berar, a Hazara teenager who worked with our gardener, loved kite fighting. All the time I had been battling Wakeel, he had been carefully following every dive, envious.
Berar was a few years older than Wakeel, tall, handsome, and hardworking. His family lived in Bamyan, where the big statues of Buddha were carved into the mountains. Berar was not his real name. Berar in Hazaragi dialect means “brother.” We did not know what his real name was, and he did not mind us calling him Berar.
As the suspense had built between Wakeel and me, Berar could not stop watching us. The old gardener spoke to him impatiently several times: “The weeds are in the ground, not in the sky. Look down.” The gardener was always harsh to Berar.
“Give the boy a break,” Grandfather told the gardener. They were working together on Grandfather’s beloved rosebushes. I had just sent a second kite into the air. Grandfather nodded at Berar. “Go on,” he said.
Berar ran up to the rooftop, where I was struggling to gain altitude while avoiding Wakeel’s torpedoing attacks. Berar took the string from me and told me to hold the reel.
I had never seen Berar fly a kite before. I kept shouting at him, “Kashko! Kashko! Pull it in!” But Berar did not need my instructions; he knew exactly what to do. Wakeel shouted at me that I could have a hundred helpers and he would still cut me. Though he was tall and skinny, he was very strong and he was furiously pulling in his kite to circle it around mine.
Berar was getting our kite very high very fast, until in no time at all it was higher than Wakeel’s. Then he made it dive so quickly that it dropped like a stone through the air. Suddenly, there was Wakeel’s kite, drifting back and forth from left to right, floating off to Kandahar, separated from the now limp string in Wakeel’s hand.
I climbed on Berar’s shoulders, screaming for joy. I had the string of my kite in my hands. My kite was so high in the sky, it looked like a tiny bird. The neighbor kids on the street were shouting, too. They had not seen Berar doing it, only me on Berar’s strong shoulders, cheering and shouting: “Wakeel, the Cruel Cutter, has been cut!” I kissed Berar many times. He was my hero. He gave me the title of “Cutter of the Cruel Cutter,” even though it was he who had made it happen.
Wakeel sulked, and did not talk to me for two days.
* * *
We had another cousin who was a few months younger than I. He never really got along with any of the others. Wakeel used to call him a jerk. All the other cousins, everyone, started to call him “Jerk” as well.
If he bought new clothes, he would walk in front of us to show them off and say something stupid. “We went to a shop in Shahr-e-Naw that opened a few weeks ago. They bring everything they sell from London and Paris. The owner told my parents that I have a good taste for clothes. I don’t think you guys can afford a suit like this.” When I asked how much he paid, he would triple the price.
Wakeel would ask, “Hey, Jerk, do your clothes do any magic for such a price?”
Jerk could never see a joke coming, and would ask something witless like, “What kind of magic?”
“Can they make you look less ugly?” Wakeel replied, his voice cracking into shrieking guffaws.
We’d all laugh, and Jerk would run toward his house and complain to his parents. We would run to the roof, or outside the courtyard, or hide in the garage inside my father’s car to escape punishment.
Once when Jerk had on his good clothes and was showing off, Wakeel filled his mouth with water, and I punched him in his stomach. That forced Wakeel to spit it all on Jerk. Poor Jerk looked at us in disbelief and asked with outrage in his voice why we had done that.
Wakeel told him, “We are practicing to be tough. We punch each other unexpectedly, so we will be prepared if we get into a fight with someone. You should be tough, too.” Then we punched him in his stomach, but avoided his face so we would not leave any bruises, because we knew that would get us spanked by his parents.
Jerk had one unexpected strength: he was always a reader. For his age, he had more information than he needed. He had a good mind for memorizing, too. That turned us even more against him.
* * *
Wakeel teased Jerk all the time when we were at home playing with our cousins. Outside, though, Wakeel would not let anybody bother him. Wakeel was like an older brother to all of us. When Jerk got into fights with the neighbor boys, which happened a lot, Wakeel defended him. When we were playing football in the park, Wakeel always made sure that Jerk and I were on his team, so he could protect us.
Our neighbors were like us, quiet and educated people. When there was a wedding or engagement party in one of their houses, everyone in the neighborhood was invited, along with their kids and servants.
Every week my grandfather talked for ten minutes in the mosque after Friday prayers about how to keep our neighborhood clean, or how to solve water and electricity problems, or how to take care of the public park and create more facilities where the kids could play together. He had never been elected to any position, but people listened to him.
When a family was having financial problems, one of its older men would quietly speak to Grandfather and ask for the community’s help. Then, after Friday prayers, Grandfather would explain to the other men in the mosque that some money was needed without ever saying by whom. It was important to protect the dignity of the family in need.
One Friday after the others had left the mosque, I saw my grandfather giving the money he had collected to a neighbor whose wife had been sick for many months. The man kissed Grandfather’s hands, and said, “You always live up to our expectations. May God grant you long life, health, and strength.” When Grandfather noticed that I was watching him, he scowled at me, and I quickly turned away. This was something I was not meant to see.
* * *
Grandfather’s house was his great pride, and the McIntosh apple trees were his great joy. He was in his late sixties when I was born, and soon after became a widower. By then he had retired from the bank, and busied himself in the courtyard, planting roses, geraniums, and hollyhocks or watering his McIntosh apple trees, always singing in a whispery voice under his teeth, or quietly reciting the ninety-nine names of God.
And for hours he would sit reading, surrounded by his books. His favorite, in two beautiful leather-bound volumes, was Afghanistan in the Path of History by Mir Ghulam Mohammad Ghobar. The title was embossed on the cover in gold. Sometimes he read to me from it.
He also had the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, which had beautiful covers as well; but he did not read those to me. When I asked about them, he said he would give them to me when I was old enough.
In winter, he studied the poets Rumi, Shams Tabrizi, Hafiz, Sa’adi, and Omar-e-Khayyam. Sometimes he invited his friends to discuss the political affairs of Afghanistan and the world. But before long, the talk would turn to poetry. He always wanted me and my boy cousins to listen to what was being said, and to ask questions.
My sisters and girl cousins were never part of those discussions. Their lives moved on a different path from those of the boys, but they were always allowed to read Grandfather’s books. Indeed, Grandfather always encouraged them to do so. “Education,” he would say, stressing the word, “is the key to the future.” They read lots of poetry, as well as novels by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, and some Afghan and Iranian novelists whose names no one knows in the rest of the world. All these books were in Dari.
Some of the older girls, including Wakeel’s sisters, read Grandfather’s books by Sigmund Freud long before I did. We could hear them whispering about something called “the Oedipus complex,” and then laughing. As soon as any of the younger cousins got too close to them, though, they stopped talking and looked at us in a way to make us understand that we were not welcome.
One day during one of Grandfather’s discussions, Wakeel raised his hand and asked what politics was all about.
One of Grandfather’s friends answered, “In fact, politics is really just a bunch of lies, and politicians are very gifted liars who use their skill to control power and money and land.”
“They must be devious people, then,” Wakeel said.
“Which country has the most devious politicians?” Wakeel asked.
“Let me tell you a story, my son,” Grandfather’s friend said, clearing his throat. “Someone asked Shaitan, the devil, ‘Since there is such a large number of countries in the world, how do you manage to keep so many of them in turmoil all the time, like Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and Palestine? You must be very busy.’”
“Shaitan laughed and said, ‘That is no problem. Not for me.’ He leaned back on his cushion and raised the mouthpiece of his chillum to his scaly lips. He drew in a sour-smelling smoke that made the water in the pipe turn black with oily bubbles, then let the smoke drain out of the corners of his mouth. ‘There is one country on the earth that does a better job than me in creating problems everywhere.’”
“Really?” Wakeel asked. “Which country is more devious than Shaitan?”
“‘It is called England,’ Shaitan said.”
My grandfather and his friends all laughed, and then they talked about poetry again.
It would be years before I understood the bad feelings that many Afghans have for England, which three times invaded Afghanistan and three times was driven out. For nearly three centuries, the English used Afghanistan like a playing field to challenge the Russians in a very ugly game. Neither side won, and neither side cared how many Afghans they killed or how much suffering they inflicted on Afghan people.
* * *
Those days were long in the past, like the battles between the ancient kings who had fought to rule our country. Life was smooth, and easy, and full of joy, except maybe for Jerk when we played tricks on him. Time moved graciously with the pace of the seasons, and nudged us gently through the stages of life. But then one night the air was filled with the unexpected cries of “Allah-hu-Akbar,” and nothing has ever been the same since.
Copyright © 2013 by Qais Akbar Omar