The conversation that ensued, on the surviving section of the veranda over cups of green tea, was in Farsi—I have, as you know, Mr. Markos, learned some English in the seven years since, largely thanks to your guidance and generosity. Through the translator, you said you were from Tinos, which was an island in Greece. You were a surgeon, part of a medical group that had come to Kabul to operate on children who had suffered injuries to their face. You said you and your colleagues needed a residence, a guesthouse, as it is called these days.
You asked how much I would charge you for rent.
I said, “Nothing.”
I recall still how you blinked after the young man in the purple jacket translated. You repeated your question, perhaps thinking I had misunderstood.
The translator drew himself forward to the edge of his chair and leaned toward me. He spoke in a confidential tone. He asked if my mind had gone to rot, whether I had any idea what your group was willing to pay, did I have any notion of what rentals were going for now in Kabul? He said I was sitting on gold.
I told him to remove his sunglasses when he spoke to an elder. Then I instructed him to do his job, which was to translate, not give advice, and I turned to you and offered, among my many reasons, the one that was not private. “You have left behind your country,” I said, “your friends, your family, and you have come here to this godforsaken city to help my homeland and my countrymen. How could I profit off you?”
The young translator, whom I never saw with you again, tossed his hands up and chuckled with dismay. This country has changed. It was not always like this, Mr. Markos.
Sometimes at night, I lie in the dark privacy of my quarters and I see the lights burning in the main house. I watch you and your friends—especially the brave Miss Amra Ademovic, whose enormous heart I admire to no end—on the veranda or in the yard, eating food from plates, smoking cigarettes, drinking your wine. I can hear the music too, and at times it is jazz, which reminds me of Nila.
She is dead now, this I know. I learned it from Miss Amra. I had told her about the Wahdatis and shared with her that Nila had been a poet. She found a French publication on the computer. They had published online an anthology of their best pieces of the last forty years. There was one about Nila. The piece said she had died in 1974. I thought of the futility of all those years, hoping for a letter from a woman who was already long dead. I was not altogether surprised to learn that she had taken her own life. I know now that some people feel unhappiness the way others love: privately, intensely, and without recourse.
Let me finish with this, Mr. Markos.
My time is near now. I weaken by the day. It will not be much longer. And thank God for that. Thank you as well, Mr. Markos, not only for your friendship, for taking the time to visit me daily and sit down for tea and for sharing with me news of your mother on Tinos and your childhood friend Thalia, but also for your compassion for my people and the invaluable service you are providing children here.
Thank you as well for the repair work that you are doing around the house. I have spent now the bulk of my life in it, it is home to me, and I am certain that I will soon take my last breath under its roof. I have borne witness to its decline with dismay and heartbreak. But it has brought me great joy to see it repainted, to see the garden wall repaired, the windows replaced, and the veranda, where I spent countless happy hours, rebuilt. Thank you, my friend, for the trees you have planted, and for the flowers blooming once more in the garden. If I have in some way aided in the services you render the people of this city, then what you have graciously done for this house is more than enough payment for me.
But, at the risk of appearing greedy, I will take the liberty of asking you for two things, one for me, one for another. First is that you have me buried in the Ashuqan-Arefan cemetery, here in Kabul. I am sure you know it. Walk to the north end from the main entrance and if you look for a short while you will find Suleiman Wahdati’s grave. Find me a plot nearby and bury me there. This is all I ask for myself.
The second is that you try to find my niece Pari after I am gone. If she is still alive, it may not prove too difficult—this Internet is a wondrous tool. As you can see enclosed in the envelope along with this letter is my will, in which I leave the house, the money, and my few belongings to her. I ask that you give her both this letter and the will. And please tell her, tell her that I cannot know the myriad consequences of what I set into motion. Tell her I took solace only in hope. Hope that perhaps, wherever she is now, she has found as much peace, grace, love, and happiness as this world allows.
I thank you, Mr. Markos. May God protect you.
Your friend always,
The nurse, whose name is Amra Ademovic, had warned Idris and Timur. She had pulled them aside and said, “If you show reaction, even little, she going to be upset, and I kick you out.”
They are standing at the end of a long, poorly lit hallway in the men’s wing of Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital. Amra said the only relative the girl had left—or the only one who visited—was her uncle, and if she’d been placed in the women’s wing he would not be permitted to visit her. So the staff had placed her in the men’s wing, not in a room—it would be indecent for the girl to room with men who were not relatives—but here, at the end of the hallway, a no-man’s- and no-woman’s-land.
“And here I thought the Taliban had left town,” Timur says.
“It’s crazy, no?” Amra says, then lets out a bewildered chuckle. In the week that Idris has been back in Kabul, he has found this tone of lighthearted exasperation common among the foreign-aid workers, who’ve had to navigate the inconveniences and idiosyncrasies of Afghan culture. He is vaguely offended by this entitlement to cheerful mocking, this license to condescend, though the locals don’t seem to take notice, or take it as an insult if they do, and so he thinks he probably shouldn’t either.
“But they let you here. You come and go,” Timur says.
Amra arches an eyebrow. “I don’t count. I am not Afghan. So I am not real woman. You don’t know this?”
Timur, unchastised, grins. “Amra. Is that Polish?”
“Bosnian. No reaction. This is hospital, not zoo. You make promise.”
Timur says, “I make promise.”
Idris glances at the nurse, worried that this tease, a little reckless and unnecessary, might have offended her, but it appears Timur has gotten away with it. Idris both resents and envies his cousin for this ability. He has always found Timur coarse, lacking in imagination and nuance. He knows that Timur cheats on both his wife and his taxes. Back in the States, Timur owns a real-estate mortgage company, and Idris is all but certain that he is waist-deep in some kind of mortgage fraud. But Timur is wildly sociable, his faults forever absolved by good humor, a determined friendliness, and a beguiling air of innocence that endears him to people he meets. The good looks don’t hurt, either—the muscular body, the green eyes, the dimpled grin. Timur, Idris thinks, is a grown man enjoying the privileges of a child.
“Good,” Amra says. “All right.” She pulls the bedsheet that has been nailed to the ceiling as a makeshift curtain and lets them in.
The girl—Roshi, as Amra had called her, short for “Roshana”—looks to be nine, maybe ten. She is sitting up on a steel-frame bed, back to the wall, knees bent up against her chest. Idris immediately drops his gaze. He swallows down a gasp before it can escape him. Predictably, such restraint proves beyond Timur. He tsks his tongue, and says, “Oh! Oh! Oh!” over and over in a loud, pained whisper. Idris glances over to Timur and is not surprised to find swollen tears shivering theatrically in his eyes.
The girl twitches and makes a grunting sound.
“Okay, finished, we go now,” Amra says sharply.
Outside, on the crumbling front steps, the nurse pulls a pack of Marlboro Reds from the breast pocket of her pale blue scrubs. Timur, whose tears have vanished as swiftly as they’d materialized, takes a cigarette and lights both hers and his. Idris feels queasy, light-headed. His mouth has gone dry. He worries he’s going to vomit and disgrace himself, confirm Amra’s view of him, of them—the wealthy, wide-eyed exiles—come home to gawk at the carnage now that the boogeymen have left.
Idris expected Amra to reprimand them, at least Timur, but her manner is more flirtatious than scolding. This is the effect Timur has on women.
“So,” she says, coquettishly, “what do you say for yourself, Timur?”
In the States, Timur goes by “Tim.” He changed his name after 9/11 and claims that he has nearly doubled his business since. Losing those two letters, he has said to Idris, has already done more for his career than a college degree would have—if he’d gone to college, which he hadn’t; Idris is the Bashiri family academic. But now since their arrival in Kabul, Idris has heard him introduce himself only as Timur. It is a harmless enough duplicity, even a necessary one. But it rankles.
“Sorry about what happened in there,” Timur says.
“Maybe I punish you.”
Amra turns her gaze to Idris. “So. He’s cowboy. And you, you are quiet, sensitive one. You are—what do they call it?—introvert.”
“He’s a doctor,” Timur says.
“Ah? It must be shocking for you, then. This hospital.”
“What happened to her?” Idris says. “To Roshi. Who did that to her?”
Amra’s face closes. When she speaks, it is with the pitch of maternal determination. “I fight for her. I fight government, hospital bureaucracy, bastard neurosurgeon. Every step, I fight for her. And I don’t stop. She has nobody.”
Idris says, “I thought there was an uncle.”
“He’s bastard too.” She flicks her cigarette ash. “So. Why you come here, boys?”
Timur launches into it. The outline of what he says is more or less true. That they are cousins, that their families fled after the Soviets rolled in, that they spent a year in Pakistan before settling in California in the early eighties. That this is the first time back for them both in twenty years. But then he adds that they have come back to “reconnect,” to “educate” themselves, “bear witness” to the aftermath of all these years of war and destruction. They want to go back to the States, he says, to raise awareness, and funds, to “give back.”
“We want to give back,” he says, uttering the tired phrase so earnestly it embarrasses Idris.
Of course Timur does not share the real reason they have come back to Kabul: to reclaim the property that had belonged to their fathers, the house where both he and Idris had lived for the first fourteen years of their lives. The property’s worth is skyrocketing now that thousands of foreign-aid workers have descended on Kabul and need a place to live. They were there earlier in the day, at the house, which is currently home to a ragtag group of weary-looking Northern Alliance soldiers. As they were leaving, they had met a middle-aged man who lived three houses down and across the street, a Greek plastic surgeon named Markos Varvaris. He had invited them to lunch and offered to give them a tour of Wazir Akbar Khan Hospital, where the NGO he worked for had an office. He also invited them to a party that night. They had learned about the girl only upon their arrival at the hospital—overhearing two orderlies talking about her on the front steps—after which Timur had elbowed Idris and said, We should check it out, bro.
Amra seems bored with Timur’s story. She flings her cigarette away and tightens the rubber band that holds her curly blond hair in a bun. “So. I see you boys at party tonight?”
It was Timur’s father, Idris’s uncle, who had sent them to Kabul. The Bashiri family home had changed hands a number of times over the last two decades of war. Reestablishing ownership would take time and money. Thousands of cases of property disputes already clogged the country’s courts. Timur’s father had told them that they would have to “maneuver” through the infamously sluggish, ponderous Afghan bureaucracy—a euphemism for “find the right palms to grease.”