Parwana keeps marching toward her new life. She keeps walking, the darkness around her like a mother’s womb, and when it lifts, when she looks up in the dawn haze and catches a band of pale light from the east striking the side of a boulder, it feels like being born.
In the Name of Allah the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful, I know that I will be gone when you read this letter, Mr. Markos, for when I gave it to you I requested that you not open it until after my death. Let me state now what a pleasure it has been to know you over the last seven years, Mr. Markos. As I write this, I think fondly of our yearly ritual of planting tomatoes in the garden, your morning visits to my small quarters for tea and pleasantry, our impromptu trading of Farsi and English lessons. I thank you for your friendship, your thoughtfulness, and for the work that you have undertaken in this country, and I trust that you will extend my gratitude to your kindhearted colleagues as well, especially to my friend Ms. Amra Ademovic, who has such capacity for compassion, and to her brave and lovely daughter, Roshi.
I should say that I intend this letter not just for you, Mr. Markos, but for another as well, to whom I hope you will pass it on, as I shall explain later. Forgive me, then, if I repeat a few things you may already know. I include them out of necessity, for her benefit. As you will see, this letter contains more than an element of confession, Mr. Markos, but there are also pragmatic matters that prompt this writing. For those, I fear I will call upon your assistance, my friend.
I have thought long on where to begin this story. No easy task, this, for a man who must be in his mid-eighties. My exact age is a mystery to me, as it is to many Afghans of my generation, but I am confident in my approximation because I recall quite vividly a fist-fight with my friend, and later to be brother-in-law, Saboor, on the day we heard that Nader Shah had been shot and killed, and that Nader Shah’s son, young Zahir, had ascended to the throne. That was 1933. I could begin there, I suppose. Or somewhere else. A story is like a moving train: no matter where you hop onboard, you are bound to reach your destination sooner or later. But I suppose I ought to begin this tale with the same thing that ends it. Yes, I think it stands to reason that I bookend this account with Nila Wahdati.
I met her in 1949, the year she married Mr. Wahdati. At the time, I had already been working for Mr. Suleiman Wahdati for two years, having moved to Kabul from Shadbagh, the village where I was born, back in 1946—I had worked for a year in another household in the same neighborhood. The circumstances of my departure from Shadbagh are not something I am proud of, Mr. Markos. Consider it the first of my confessions, then, when I say that I felt stifled by the life I had in the village with my sisters, one of whom was an invalid. Not that it absolves me, but I was a young man, Mr. Markos, eager to take on the world, full of dreams, modest and vague as they may have been, and I pictured my youth ebbing away, my prospects increasingly truncated. So I left. To help provide for my sisters, yes, that is true. But also to escape.
Since I was a full-time worker for Mr. Wahdati, I lived at his residence full-time as well. In those days, the house bore little resemblance to the lamentable state in which you found it when you arrived in Kabul in 2002, Mr. Markos. It was a beautiful, glorious place. The house shone sparkling white in those days, as if sheathed with diamonds. The front gates opened onto a wide asphalt driveway. One entered into a high-ceilinged foyer decorated with tall ceramic vases and a circular mirror framed in carved walnut, precisely the spot where you for a while hung the old homemade-camera photo of your childhood friend at the beach. The marble floor of the living room glistened and was partly covered by a dark red Turkoman carpet. The carpet is gone now, as are the leather sofas, the handcrafted coffee table, the lapis chess set, the tall mahogany cabinet. Little of the grand furniture has survived, and I am afraid it is not in the shape it once was.
The first time I entered the stone-tiled kitchen, my mouth fell wide open. I thought it had been built large enough to feed all of my home village of Shadbagh. I had a six-burner stove, a refrigerator, a toaster, and an abundance of pots, pans, knives, and appliances at my disposal. The bathrooms, all four of them, had intricately carved marble tiles and porcelain sinks. And those square holes in your bathroom counter upstairs, Mr. Markos? They were once filled with lapis.
Then there was the backyard. You must one day sit in your office upstairs, Mr. Markos, look down on the garden, and try to picture it as it was. One entered it through a semilunar veranda bordered by a railing sheathed with green vines. The lawn in those days was lush and green, dotted with beds of flowers—jasmine, sweetbriar, geraniums, tulips—and bordered by two rows of fruit trees. A man could lie beneath one of the cherry trees, Mr. Markos, close his eyes and listen to the breeze squeezing through the leaves and think that there wasn’t on earth a finer place to live.
My own living space was a shack in the back of the yard. It had a window, clean walls with white paint, and provided enough space to accommodate an unmarried young man his meager needs. I had a bed, a desk and a chair, and enough room to unroll my prayer rug five times a day. It suited me just fine then and it suits me fine now.
I cooked for Mr. Wahdati, a skill I had picked up first from observing my late mother and later from an elderly Uzbek cook who worked at a household in Kabul where I had served for a year as his help. I was also, and quite happily, Mr. Wahdati’s chauffeur. He owned a mid-1940s model Chevrolet, blue with a tan top, matching blue vinyl seats, and chrome wheels, a handsome car that drew lingering looks wherever we went. He allowed me to drive because I had proven myself to be a prudent and skilled driver, and, besides, he was the rare breed of man who did not enjoy the act of operating a car.
Please do not think I am boasting, Mr. Markos, when I say I was a good servant. Through careful observation, I had familiarized myself with Mr. Wahdati’s likes and dislikes, his quirks, his peeves. I had come to know his habits and rituals well. For instance, every morning after breakfast he liked to go for a stroll. He disliked walking alone, however, and thus I was expected to accompany him. I abided by this wish, of course, though I did not see the point of my presence. He hardly said a word to me in the course of these walks and seemed forever lost in his own thoughts. He walked briskly, hands clamped behind his back, nodding at passersby, the heels of his well-polished leather loafers clicking against the pavement. And because his long legs made strides I could not match, I was always falling behind and forced to catch up. The rest of the day, he mostly retreated to his study upstairs, reading or playing a game of chess against himself. He loved to draw—though I could not attest to his skills, at least not then, because he never shared his artwork with me—and I would often catch him up in the study, by the window, or on the veranda, his brow furrowed in concentration, his charcoal pencil looping and circling over the sketch pad.