Sample Novel Based on a True Story
*All names have been changed or omitted for personal use as a portfolio sample
From another room there comes the laughter of my sons.
The letter begins this way:
I have come to the fact after so many years, that I have a story to tell. It is important to me because it is mine. It is important to you because it is yours also….
From somewhere else, the movement of my wife. In my mind, a hot wind blows through the doorless room of a mud house. I write, the tally of the small tragedies of life add up to this: the human spirit will seem to bend endlessly until the spine of the world breaks. Our Robert Frost talks of yellow woods. For myself, the roads diverged somewhere else entirely. But what can I tell you, old friend, that you do not already know? You, who have been there yourself, have struggled in both the same and different ways. I offer my apologies. I offer forgiveness too.
Kabul, Afghanistan 2010
How many times must we end and begin again? I am on a plane to Kabul. I close my eyes on the descent so I do not have to see again the way the city looks on approach. I finish my drink and the plane shudders just in time for the ice to slip in the cup and the contents to run down over my chin and my shirt. I let out an embarrassed laugh. I appreciate distractions. I never look at Kabul below me when I fly in.
The first I see of my homeland is through the window in the airport. The Kabul International Airport building is washed out blue and fading white. The walkways are crowded. Outside the morning is smoggy and brown, as if a dust cloud has just blown past and the city is left, choking in the aftermath. In the vestibule of the airport I wait for my luggage and an old man approaches. I think perhaps he knows me since he is grinning, nearly toothless. I think he might have been a neighbor, the uncle of a friend maybe. Around us the noise of the many passengers is like the static of a bad connection. Boarding and departure announcements are made over the speakers but the people go about their business, not really hearing or caring. He stands for a time beside me before I greet him.
“Ah, my son,” he says, obviously pleased, “you are very like one I knew…before,” he waves his hand, a practiced gesture that dismisses everything that has gone on before, since, after. “But I know you cannot be him. Where are you from?”
“My father’s family is from Shah Rara, my mother’s from Shor Bazaar. I am Kabuli asseel,” I add as an afterthought; strangely, because I have not said those words in years.
“Shor Bazaar?” He whispers, “I too am from Shor Bazaar.” His voice catches, “She is not the same. She was beautiful, generous, loyal. I had so many friends there…”
He has loosened my mind and my memory. I drop my guard and tell him about the jewelry store at Kotche Ali Reza Khan that my grandfather owned, about my mother’s father and her mother. About my mother as a young girl, the first to throw off her burqa, to ride a bicycle through town, to study in secret. All the while he listens with a smile on his face and tears running rivers down his cheeks.
“I feel so sorry for her, the innocent girl,” I do not know if he speaks of my mother, or of the city he loved. The old man leans against the wall behind us, giving it all of his weight. I believe his health might be failing him, but then he speaks.
“My father, he used to play the rebab.” The old man’s voice is a thin reed with air whistling through it, “The music of it spread out and into the night and called to lovers everywhere. I was a young boy working the dough into the rough boards laid on the ground in the naan shop. I used to love the sounds of that music more than anything. More than the eyes of a beautiful girl. More than the feel of running. I was a good runner then. But it was the music that spoke to my heart. I loved the music and I loved the bazaar. The sounds of the people walking by and the vendors shouting, selling their wares.”
The old man turns to me and only then do I see the glaze over his eyes. The old man is nearly blind. He grins again, “I only wish God made me blind sooner. Do you know what I have seen? I have seen horror. Yet I have seen no different than any other Kabuli has seen. I worked at the zoo when I was a young man. I was there when it opened, in 1967. I learned so much about the animals in that time. They were like people, only tame. During the civil war, I watched them slaughter the animals at the zoo. To eat them! Can you imagine? My wife, I came home to find her soaked in blood one day. It was not her blood, praise Allah, but I found out that it was the blood of my brother. He had come there to hide. I am older than you my son but I do not remember a time that my life has not been touched by war. It is unjust to take away a man’s sight and leave him with his hearing. I hear the gunshots. I hear screams and explosions and then I sleep and dream I hear the music of the rebab. I know it is a dream because I see my father. Waking is the only nightmare.”
It moves me. The spontaneous bursting of memory, the longing for a different time regardless of whether that time was better or not. Our baggage runs in circles repeatedly and we do not rush to claim it.
The air conditioner in the cab blows loudly but I feel no coolness. I doubt it does anything but kick up dust. The car stereo, too, blasts the stale voices of talk radio. The home that is no longer my home rises in front of me as the cab turns a corner and we are in Micro Rayan.
“Stop here,” I say with a hand on the driver’s shoulder. His eyes meet mine in the rearview.
The road ahead is clogged with vehicles and children bob and weave through the knot of traffic to tap on windows and display the goods they have for sale. There is the general chaos of voices and honking horns.
“Where are you from?” the driver asks.
I laugh to ward off his suspicion, “From behind those walls,” I gesture at the building, and clap him on the shoulder again. He takes my money, counts it swiftly while I am still gathering my bag. A nod as I depart is the only gesture of brotherhood.
I will walk the rest of the way on foot. I see the building ahead, the apartment complex built by the Russians, where we lived. Father, mother, my sisters and me. There is the field where we played soccer when I was a young boy. I can see myself now with Omar, yelling at General Rashid’s dog to stop chasing the only ball we had.
At school there was an old man who guarded the gate. He prayed at the same mosque as my uncle and so he knew me. When I grew tired of waiting in line at the school kiosk to buy a snack, I approached the old man and we reached a deal. He turned his back while I slipped through the gate and ran to the nearby stores. The first time, I bought only enough poury nakhod for myself, my entire savings worth. But when my classmates saw what I had done, they offered me their money to buy the treats I had. That time I sold them to my friends for a profit and the next time I got more. When I made enough money vending to the kids at school, I bought the soccer ball. It was the first toy I owned that was not given to me second-hand by a generous neighbor.
Dust kicks up from the empty field next to the apartment building and a scrawny dog runs across, slinking through a hole in the fence. In the way that happens when you are thinking of the past and the present intervenes, I think for a moment that this is the same dog from my childhood, but then the addition of years reminds me it could not be so.
When I turn down the next alley on the path I used to take home, the noise of the road fades behind me. Here the only sound is that of the birds. Laundry hangs on clotheslines from the high windows over my head and flap gently in the breeze. The sky is blue and the birds…the birds remind me of who I once was, though I am no longer that boy and might not recognize him if he passed me on this walk. The roses are in bloom and the grass in the fenced yard is as green as the memory of youth. I might have stepped back in time. I spot Swifts and Starlings and Oriental Skylarks, diving in and out of the branches of trees and hopping around in the shady grass, pecking for bugs. I stand there for a long time, taking in the familiar sights and sounds. I shade my eyes and look up, the sun glowing behind the sheets that fly in the breeze. There on the clothesline above me is a small black bird, bobbing on the line. I squint to try and see it clearly but the sun intervenes and I have to blink the sun-blindness from my eyes. As I look back the bird flies off and I follow its path to the window ledge. It is too high up to tell for sure but I would bet on its being a Black Drongo by the curl at the end of the tail-feathers. It flies and lands for a moment at my feet and takes off again and then I am sure. But it has been many years and many places since I last saw that bird.
In Kabul, I often find myself transported by memory to other places and times in my past. There is history running through my veins. I recall myself to the present. Instead of bleaching the color out of the afternoon, the sun seems to have poured warm color into everything. Women walk by me, their burqas bright under the sun. Blue and green, yellow and red. I pick the window out of the dozens that line the wall. The one my mother used to lean out of to call me, or to pinch the dry clothes from the line. The building is five floors and typical of the Russian-built apartment complexes installed in the 1950’s; another gesture of good will that ultimately seemed self-serving. Sometimes you do not know your friends from enemies.
I cannot ignore the fact that I have come to sell the home of my childhood. The last good thing perhaps that remains of what used to be mine. Tomorrow I meet with the realtor to go over the details, to see the apartment for the first and last time in years. Today I tear myself away from the ghost of the past. I walk away although the smell of roses clogs my senses. I return to the street and to the chaos and noise of the known world. There are so many instances of this in Kabul: of stepping back and forth through time. One hardly has a right to belong to anything here.
Imagine this. Imagine you are walking down a crowded street in Micro Rayan, where the noise of pedestrians and the voices from cab radios creates a layer of interference almost as thick as the smog that settles over the city. Imagine you take a detour down an alley that you suddenly remember, feeling again like a child in your old haunts, remembering the contours of the path where your feet once pounded on the dry dirt and your heart pounded to match. It is dusk now and that familiar black cloud leaks across the sky. A girl in a burqa passes by, lifts her eyes in a way that young girls are trained not to. You think perhaps you know her, but her eyes are those of a stranger and they are haunted. Imagine she whispers to you,
“Do not go that way.”
You watch her pass you by until she is the shadow disappearing around the corner of the wall. Stand in the middle of the alley, torn. Walk on, despite her warning.
Imagine there is a man at the end of the alley with a hole in his chest. A woman crying over him. There are shouts from the other end of the street, groups of men arguing, another girl running to summon the police, who walk slowly in the direction of the dying man and who will wait to settle the evidence of his death in the favor of the highest bidder. And then imagine she stays with you; the girl in the alley with the haunted eyes. The hole in the man’s chest becomes the hole in yours. The crying woman…she too stays. Imagine you are one with all of humanity. You bear the mark of every person you have met and forgotten, met and remembered. What would you do?
You would go on living. We all do.