Sunny Day
Photo by Adobe Stock

In the yard on a Tandoor clay oven, Mrs. Hassan cooked dumplings. She stared absentmindedly into the pot at the small lumps of dough that stared back at her like bulging eyes from behind a veil of rising steam. The water vapor wound on and on upwards and dampened the leaves of the apricot tree which shaded the ochre-hued Tandoor just as the smell of freshly baked naan that wafted into the yard from the kitchen dampened Mrs. Hassan's spirits. Bread baking again. Day in, day out. Housework, that's all she can do now. That's all we, mothers and wives and daughters and sisters, can do now. Mrs. Hassan let out a heavy sigh. Allah! Why did you make me so? This hopelessness ... How will Moska live through this?

And as Mrs. Hassan struggled with these thoughts not unlike a trapped dove struggling to escape a cage, she instinctively reached for another log to feed the fire. The timber was wet. It stung her eyes. She broke into a coughing fit.

Day by day Mrs. Hassan had grown more distracted: she pricked her fingers when she mended Moska's skirt; she forgot to refill Badih's thermos one morning; and only the day before, she neglected to latch the door of the makeshift coop, and their only remaining hen, the white layer, fled the safety of the yard during the night through a small gap by the back gate.

It had all started almost two months before—the first day of school. Still early in the morning, Moska returned home. From the kitchen Mrs. Hassan heard the front gate slammed shut.

"Maman, maman, where are you?" Moska shouted as she stormed into the house.

"In the kitchen, Moska-jan."

Mrs. Hassan turned from the colander of apricots she was rinsing in the sink. Through the open door, she watched Moska as she almost tripped on the hallway runner in her haste. Her face glistened with sweat. Once inside the kitchen she rushed to the table, jammed her schoolbag in the corner chair, and cried out:

"Maman! I can't go to school anymore!

"What do you mean, Moska-jan?"

"The biology teacher, she came into the classroom before the lesson started and told the girls to pack their bags and go home."

"Only the girls?"

"Yes, maman, only the girls! We've been shut out of school! Driven away! Thrown out!"

Mrs. Hassan spoke in an unsteady voice, "Did the teacher say anything else?"

"She wouldn't answer our questions, so I left," the girl yelled. "What's happening, maman? What if I can't finish high school? Maman ... say something!"

Mrs. Hassan walked over to Moska. She cradled her trembling body in her arms. In the silence of the room, she took in the girl's short, fast breaths. She let her cry.

"Maman! Why? Why is this happening? Maman, I want to go back to school. Will I, maman?"

As Mrs. Hassan held Moska, she gritted her teeth. Her face tightened in anguish. Hadn't this already come to pass? Why was it happening all over again? Over Moska's shoulder she gazed vacantly at the whitewashed wall of the kitchen. On it projected was another whitewashed wall in another kitchen and standing against it were a man and a young girl. The man's hands trembled, so he thrust them behind his back. Then he whispered harshly to the girl:

"You must do it, Kaameh-jan."

"But, baba ... I'm only thirteen ..."

"You're the eldest of your sisters. Inshallah, you must marry."

"But, baba ... I want to return to school. I want to become a teacher."

"Girls can't go back now ... and I've lost my job, Kaameh-jan."

"But, baba ... ."

The man's voice quivered.

"Kaameh-jan ... you must do it, you must marry for the dowry."

The little girl sobbed, "Maman, maman ... where are you?"


It was less than a week later that the bride price was settled and the young girl whose body trembled and heart thudded dully in her chest travelled to Kabul for the first time in the 90s as Mrs. Hassan: the wife of a graying carpet shop owner with a newborn son whose mother had died in childbirth.

Mrs. Hassan regained her breath.

"Blasted smoke!" she muttered under her breath. She stirred the dumplings one last time before she removed the large pot. She drained it then carried it inside the kitchen. She placed the dish on the countertop then said, "Moska-jan, I'll start on the rice."

"We're out, maman," Moska said behind her.

Mrs. Hassan opened the cupboard, scowled at the empty rice container. Now I need to wait for Badih-jan to return from school, she thought resentfully.

She closed the cupboard then turned to face her daughter. With slow, mechanical movements Moska was kneading a second batch of naan dough at the table. Because she baulked at leaving the house at all now—even to sit in the courtyard—for fear of the Taliban fighters who prowled the streets of Kabul in search of brides, her face had taken on a sickly pallor.

At first, she had poured over her battered textbooks. Later, she drew sketches of the human body then taped them to her bedroom wall. "Look, maman, these are blood veins. Give me your arm, I'll show you. Put your finger here. Can you feel the blood rushing through your body? I'll still be a pediatrician one day, maman. You'll see. Think of all the babies and little children I'll treat in my office. Do you think I should place a candy dish on my desk? You know, like our doctor Anaya does? Tell me, maman, when can I go back to school? I'm missing so much of eleventh grade. Maman ... why are you so quiet?"

Gradually, as the days grew cold so did Moska. She shuffled around the house, bony shoulders slumped forward. She contemplated the sketches a little less each day and, when she did, it was only for a short while before she gave them a half-hearted shrug and slowly walked away as if the blood had run dry in her veins and her body was spent from an unbearable feeling that any attempt to fight would be in vain. "I'll take you down. I'll take you down soon," she'd mutter. And as Mrs. Hassan peeked anxiously into her daughter's bedroom at night, she thanked Allah for each day that the sketches survived.

Mrs. Hassan walked over to the table.

"Moska-jan, stop kneading."

The girl looked up expectantly. "Have you any news?" she asked.

"Alas, Moska-jan, that underground school is full. The teacher won't take any more students."

"But she told you she'd think about it."

"She did, Moska-jan. She sent word only this morning. She's afraid more students will attract unwanted attention."

Moska frowned. She lowered her head.

"But, maman ... if she won't take me in ... ."

"Inshallah, we'll try somewhere else."

"Where, maman?" the girl asked disheartened then pressed her hands to her temples and whispered, "Who?"

But before Mrs. Hassan could reply, they heard the front gate open. Quick footsteps pattered across the yard. A moment later, a small boy tore into the kitchen. On his shoulders rested a worn-out backpack and high above his head he swung a thermos whose strap was looped around his thin, sweaty wrist. He threw down the backpack, put his turban on the table then looked at Mrs. Hassan. "Maman, I'm thirsty."

"Come, Badih-jan. Put that thermos down. Sit at the table. I'll pour you some chai."

He watched her pour the chai. "I'm hungry, too," the boy said. "Can I have some naan with it?"

"It's not ready yet," Moska snapped.

"We'll eat, Inshallah, but not now, Badih-jan. Drink your chai then accompany me to the store."

The boy lifted the cup to his lips.

"It's too hot," he grumbled. "And I don't want to go. Take her instead." Badih pointed and stuck out his tongue at Moska.

Moska threw a kitchen towel at him.

"Stop it, you two! Come, Badih-jan, stir in it a bit. It will cool down," Mrs. Hassan said. "Be good. I'll buy you an ice cream at the store."

"Really?" the boy turned to face her again. "Can I have an ice cream sandwich?" He grinned. "The one with chocolate cookies in it?"

"All right, Badih-jan. All right."

"The same one I had yesterday when we went to auntie's house?"

"The same one, Badih-jan," Mrs. Hassan said then she let out a heavy sigh. "I'll go get ready." And she left the kitchen.

In the hallway, in front of the wrought iron mirror, Mrs. Hassan pulled a chadari over her head in one swift, practiced motion. In the blink of an eye the blue fabric concealed all traces of her thirty-eight summers: the bow-shaped mouth which sagged at the corners; the round waist; the thick ankles. From behind the concealing grille, all she could see now in the large mirror was her figure enveloped in an old chadari which she had stored away in a wooden chest after the American soldiers occupied Kabul in her youth.

"Badih-jan, let's hurry," she called out. Badih sprinted out of the kitchen with the turban in his hand.

"Maman, Moska poured my tea in the sink! And I told her I went thirsty at school today," the boy protested. "She yelled out she'd like to be thirsty at school, too. Maman, she's nuts!"

"Let's just go, Badid-jan. Put your turban on!" Mrs. Hassan said and pursed her lips under the veil.

"But, maman ..."

"Put it on! Do you want that ice cream or not?"

The boy scowled.


Mrs. Hassan hastened out of the yard with Badih skipping at her heels. It had started to drizzle. The air felt colder. Mrs. Hassan's gaze darted left and right as she struggled to see clearly from behind the grille. Spinneys Express Supermarket was only a short distance away on Wazir Akbar Khan Street, but the days were shorter now and Mrs. Hassan wanted to return home before the evening prayer and before dark settled in over the city.

It was the towering oak tree across the street from the shop that came into full view first. It stood bare against the setting sun, but even in the winter its crown was still visible from Mrs. Hassan's house. She often sat in her living room and admired the strong and majestic soul it had metamorphosed into over the years from the mere slender sapling it was when she first entered Kabul.

They rounded the left corner. The shop came into view. And near the shop's entrance stood guard the Virtue and Vice Police. The Talib was a tall, middle-aged man with a scarred face. Slung over his torso was an automatic rifle with whose trigger the man fidgeted, and snaked around his head was a turban as black as the baton holstered at his side. His face betrayed no emotion. He simply scrutinized the women filing in and out of the shop—were they wearing a chadari? Were there traces of nail polish on their fingernails? Were they accompanied by a mahram?

 Mrs. Hassan clutched harder at her purse and slowed her steps to grab hold of Badih's hand. Then she lowered her head and hurried past the Talib into the shop.

As she reached out for a shopping basket, she heard Badih call out, "Faiz! Faiz!"

The mahram of the woman who had walked in before them turned around. At the sight of his neighbor, Faiz ran over.

"Badih, look! Maman said I can have this—" He held up a bar of chocolate. "I'll be nine tomorrow! Just like you," Faiz beamed.

Mrs. Hassan turned to the blue-clad figure standing next to Faiz.

"Neighbor?" she whispered.

"It's me," the woman replied.


"Wa Alaikum As-Salam. What brings you here?" the neighbor asked.

"I've run out of rice," Mrs. Hassan said. "And you?"

"Faiz wants chocolate, but I've actually come for cream rolls. Inshallah, Afsoon might eat some."

"How is she holding out?"

"Alas, I'm at my wits' end. At first, she rearranged the furniture in the entire house, even Faiz's bedroom, but now she's taken to watching movies all day long. She's said it's easier to pass the time this way. And she barely eats a morsel."

"Tell her to come visit Moska."

"I have. She's refused."

The blue shuttlecock that was Mrs. Hassan's head nodded in assent. She struggled to make out her neighbor's eyes behind the concealing grille, but she knew that they were swollen from crying and stained with dark shadows from lack of sleep.

"I know. Moska also misses school," Mrs. Hassan said in a hushed tone.

"Have you had any luck?" the neighbor asked in a barely audible voice.

"No, no luck. We heard back this morning."

"How dreadful it all is. They're reliving our youth ..."

Mrs. Hassan did not reply. They were both consumed by the same worries.

"I must run now," Mrs. Hassan said presently. "Tell your daughter not to lose heart. May Allah protect us!"

* * *

That evening after dinner an aromatic fragrance lingered in the kitchen and blended with the sweet spicy smell of the cardamom seeds crushed earlier for their chai. Mrs. Hassan stored the leftovers in the refrigerator then reached for the whistling kettle on the stove. She poured the steaming water over loose tea leaves while Badih was finishing his ice cream at the table, chocolate smeared around his mouth. Moska had already left the kitchen. Noisy television sounds spilled out from her bedroom.

 Badih wiped his mouth with the back of his hand then he considered the hot tea in the small istakhan glass thoughtfully.


"What is it, Badih-jan?" Mrs. Hassan asked as she replaced the kettle on the burner.

"Maman, can you fill my thermos to the top tomorrow? I want more chai at school."

"What do you need more chai for? You've always had your thermos filled only halfway. Won't it be too heavy to carry?"

"No, not really, well ... maybe," he trailed off. "But I'll be thirsty again if you don't. Hooman keeps asking me for chai."

"Your classmate? Doesn't he have his own thermos?" Mrs. Hassan asked.

"He does, but he's always thirsty or hungry these days. He said he can't have breakfast at home anymore before school starts."

"Why is that, jan?"

"His older sister always has guests now. Some come early in the morning, some in the afternoon. She makes him eat his naan cold on the way to school. So, can I have more chai? Enough for both of us?"

Mrs. Hassan scanned Badih's face for traces of mischief. The boy had turned the ice cream wrapper inside out and was licking it clean of chocolate. He told the truth.

"Sure, Badih-jan. I'll fill your thermos to the brim tomorrow morning," Mrs. Hassan said. Then, hesitating slightly, she added, "Did he say who these guests are?"

"He said they're girls. And they always bring books. When he asked his sister about them, she shushed him, made him promise not to tell anyone. He only told me because we sit at the same desk. I let him copy out my homework. He hates math," Badih said then stood up to throw the wrapper away.

"All right, Bahid-jan," Mrs. Hassan said pensively. "Drink your chai and go to bed early."

When Mrs. Hassan was alone again, she picked up her glass of cardamom chai and went to sit in the living room on the Afghan rug. Night had fallen. The oak tree was no longer visible from her window. Thoughts dark as the inky winter sky seized her mind. Even I hoped ... but how can I blame the teacher? This hunger for learning that Moska feels. She's hungry yet she eats no food. Then she closed her eyes and through half-parted lips she let out a fervent prayer to her maker: "Allah, you're the merciful, don't take away our light, don't leave us in the darkness. O Allah, I hope for your mercy. Do not leave me to myself even for a blink of an eye."

And so she prayed until her chai no longer warmed her calloused hands and her legs went numb, and it was only when a burning stillness had descended upon her that Mrs. Hassan finally opened her eyes, let them rest on Moska's tattered books in the corner by the loom, and uttered aloud determinedly: "I must find her a school. I must find her a school before she kills the sketches, or she kills herself."

* * *

"Wake up, Badih-jan," Mrs. Hassan nudged.


"Wake up, jan."

"Am I late for school?" Badih asked and sat up in bed yawning.

"No, jan. You're not late. But you'll go to school later today."

"Why, Maman?"

"I need you to take me to Hooman's house first."

"Now?" Badih said and looked up groggily at Mrs. Hassan.

"Now, Badih-jan. Go get ready. And don't be loud. Moska's still asleep."

A short while after the morning call to prayer, Mrs. Hassan creaked opened the front gate. The previous evening's drizzle had not let up. The slick pavement reflected ashen clouds and the streets, quiet and empty, felt threatening. It was too early to go anywhere, yet too late to hide anything.

"Hurry up, jan. Don't drag your feet," Mrs. Hassan said as she pulled Badih behind her. A fluttery feeling in her chest had settled in right before they left the house, but she ignored the discomfort and, instead, imagined in her head the conversation she would have with the stranger she was about to meet.

"But, maman, I'm so tired," the boy replied rubbing his right eye.

Mrs. Hassan started to turn to cajole Badih, but she stumbled upon something on the ground.

"Yuck, look at that!" Badih said. He wrinkled his nose. "It stinks. Can I poke at it?" the boy said in an excited tone. He scanned the sidewalk for a stick.

From behind the eye grille, Mrs. Hassan peered at the carcass carefully and recognized their white hen. Streaks of blood covered the white wet feathers of its stiff body as it lay on the sidewalk in plain view.

Mrs. Hassan shook her head and murmured, "Why did you leave the yard, you fool? Didn't you know the streets are dangerous now?" Then she looked away quickly, her jaw set under the chadari. "Come, jan. Leave it. We must keep going. Tell me, how far is Hooman's house?"

"It's after the mosque," Badih said, disappointed that he missed his chance to turn over the carcass to look for ants and maggots.

"The mosque past Spinneys?"

"Yes," the boy replied. He was more alert now.

"All right, Badih-jan. Be sure to show me where to turn."

"It's that big road by the Presidential Palace. Where all the foreigners come."

"You mean where Kabul Star Hotel is?" Mrs. Hassan asked, increasing her stride even as they traveled downhill.

"That's it," Badih said, struggling to keep up with his mother. "Maman, you're going too fast. I'm thirsty, I didn't have my chai this morning."

"The thermos is in your backpack. You can have some at Hooman's house."

"Maman ...," he hesitated then looked up at his mother's veiled face. "Why do you always take me everywhere you go now? Don't you love Moska anymore? I think she wants to come, too. I heard her crying in her room."

"Shush, Badih! Shush!" Mrs. Hassan said sharply.

The boy could not see his mother's pained expression, but he heard the tremor in her voice, and he knew to keep silent.

By the time they reached Kabul Star Hotel, the shops were slowly starting to open. Some owners sorted through their wares, some huddled on low stools sipping chai out of istakhan glasses, some simply stood in the entryway of their shop searching the gray November skies for signs of warmer weather. The raindrops fell faster now, and they all dreaded the flooding in the streets when they'd have to pull up their shalwar kameez and waddle through muddy puddles.

"This way, maman," Badih said, and he turned left on Suih Road. "It's right there. See that yellow house?"

Tucked away at the end of a narrow alley, the one-story home stood sheltered behind a white wall. On either side, tall, bare trees guarded a green gate. The house was shrouded in silence. The only sounds came from a dove that circled above once then dipped low and now cooed on the house's flat roof where the family dried fruits and vegetables in the summer.

They walked up to the gate. Mrs. Hassan rang the doorbell.

Nothing and no one seemed to stir inside.

They waited.

Badih fidgeted with his backpack then struggled to peek through a narrow gap where the hinge of the gate was mounted to the wall.

"Hooman, Hooman!" he called out.

"Be quiet, Badih-jan," Mrs. Hassan admonished him. Small beads of sweat had started to form at the nape of her neck. With her lips pursed and jaw clenched, she watched the gate like a hunter its prey.

Suddenly, they heard the scuttling of footsteps behind the gate.

"It's Hooman," Badih announced.

A small hand reached out through the gap to Badih then a woman's strained voice spoke softly.

"Who is it?"

"Noor-jan, it's my friend Badih, open up." Hooman pressed her from inside the yard.

Mrs. Hassan remained silent as the green gate was unlatched then opened slowly and only wide enough for her to make out the figure of a tall woman in a blue chadari.

"Yes?" the woman inquired.

But before Mrs. Hassan could reply, a small child wiggled out of the yard and exclaimed delighted, "Badih!"

"Look, I've brought you chai for your naan," Badih blurted out and tried to unzip his backpack to rummage for the thermos.

Through her eye grille, the woman watched Mrs. Hassan intently.

"As-Salaam-Alaikum. I am the mother of Badih. Can we talk?"

The woman did not reply.

"Please," Mrs. Hassan pleaded. She could read the hesitation in the woman's bearing. Oh, please, let me in, she silently screamed in her head.

After a few long moments, the woman nodded slowly. She stood back to open the gate wider and, once they were all inside, she rushed to shut the gate.

It was a long yard and at the other end Mrs. Hassan noticed a water heater that rested next to a clothesline. Behind it, few amber leaves still clung to the vines that braved the heavy rain on a trellis. Small stones mixed in with jumbled shards of pottery in the muddy puddle which had formed under a three-panel window painted in the same hue of green as the gate. The window, though almost twice as wide as the front door of the house, was heavily draped on the inside with dark fabric.

"Wa Alaikum As-Salam. What can I do for you?" the woman asked.

Mrs. Hassan blinked rapidly. She wished she could wipe her sweaty hands. Why did she wear such a heavy jumper today? And what was wrong with the rain? Why were the raindrops that lashed out at her chadari hot? All of a sudden, she no longer heard the boys' frolics, no longer heard the dove's coos, no longer heard the rain's pitter-patter; the world was so silent that she could hear the obstinate beating of her own heart. And as Mrs. Hassan stood in front of this unfamiliar woman, she silently prayed to Allah that her instincts did not mislead her. Then she took a deep breath, cleared her throat, tilted her head forwards and in barely a whisper, she said, "Do you have a place for my daughter at your school?"

Mrs. Hassan felt the woman's eyes bore into her through the chadari's grille. Thus they stood in the yard for what appeared to Mrs. Hassan to be seemingly endless moments at the end of which the young woman spoke quietly, "Let's talk inside."

Mrs. Hassan nodded. They were led through the yard inside the house and into a hallway where the woman took off her chadari. "Hooman," she said, "why don't you take your friend into the kitchen? Pack yourself some naan for school."

The boys skipped away.

Then the woman beckoned to Mrs. Hassan to follow her into a large rectangular room. She wandered to the window, and she drew slightly one of the dark drapes that Mrs. Hassan had noticed from the yard. Feeble rays of light darted inside to soften the harsh whiteness of the walls. No chairs, no desks, no signs of learning. The austere monotony was interrupted by the white Taliban flag on which the Islamic creed was emblazoned in black and, above the surahs from the Quran which adorned the opposite wall, someone had taped a drawing of the evil eye to ward off wicked spirits. A blood-red Afghan carpet sheltered their feet from the cold floor.

The woman returned to face her unexpected visitor. She was young and had a kind face and the green of her eyes reminded Mrs. Hassan of unripe apricots in early summer.

"I am the sister of Hooman," the young woman said. Then warily, "Tell me, Auntie, who told you I teach from my home?"

"Nobody did, but I'm almost sure that you do," Mrs. Hassan replied. "Do you not?"

Though Mrs. Hassan had taken off her chadari in the hallway, she felt even warmer now in her wool jumper and thick cotton skirt; the beads of sweat extended presently from the nape of her neck to also cover her forehead.

"I haven't told anyone. Don't be wary of me," Mrs. Hassan said, then waited as the young woman watched her, sized her up, made up her mind. The young woman noticed Mrs. Hassan's flushed cheeks, read the anxiety in her furrowed brows. Finally, she sighed and in a gesture of hospitality asked, "Will you have some chai?"

Mrs. Hassan was thirsty but instead replied, "Thank you, but it's very early and I won't stay long."

"Then I'm afraid I can't be of much help."

Mrs. Hassan narrowed her eyes and said, "But you do teach, don't you?"

"I do, Auntie, but the girls ... they're already so many who come here. Every day I live in fear that they might attract attention and my underground school will be raided."

"Sixteen. My daughter is only sixteen. She wants to become a pediatrician. I can't teach her. I didn't go to high school," Mrs. Hassan said in a straggled voice.

"I really am sorry, Auntie, but I can't take in any more students."

"But how can I tell her that?" Mrs. Hassan continued. "She used to be so happy and now... She's already been turned down by another teacher: too many girls, she also said. But what's one more girl in a big room like this?" she pleaded, as she took in the walls which no longer seemed cold and bare and harsh but warm and full and merciful.

Mrs. Hassan brought a shaky hand to wipe her forehead. She wished she could sit down. A wave of heat overwhelmed her senses momentarily, and she could hardly control her words. In a trembling voice she went on and on about Moska while the young woman listened with a sad smile.

It was the same story the young woman had been told countless times. It was the same story she herself lived through when her fifteen-year-old sister slowly lost interest in any daily activities. Then one day when the teenager curled up in bed and refused to eat, the young woman agreed with her parents that she herself would take over her sister's science education. She had graduated from the Higher Teachers' College in Kabul but was now barred from doing the job she loved. Before long, word spread and other girls in the neighborhood knocked at her gate. When they grew in numbers, she split them in groups, terrified that they might be discovered. As she listened to Moska's story, she gave Mrs. Hassan an understanding nod. What was there that she hadn't yet heard?

When Mrs. Hassan finished her story, she took a handkerchief out of the pocket of her skirt and wiped the tears on her face. She had spoken at length and now waited apprehensively. The young woman also dabbed at her eyes with a tissue, but she was torn and thus avoided Mrs. Hassan's gaze. Just then, a teenage girl appeared in the doorframe of the room and startled them both.

"Noor-jan, I'm ready. When do we start? I want to learn about the heart and lungs today."

"Wait for me in your room. I'll come get you," the young woman said, and she followed the girl with her eyes until she was out of sight.

Then she turned to Mrs. Hassan again.

"That's my sister. She also wants to become a pediatrician," she said with a wavering smile.

Mrs. Hassan remained silent. It was obvious to her that the young woman struggled to decide.

"Auntie—" the young woman started then shook her head gently.

Mrs. Hassan waited.

Finally, the young woman released a deep breath then spoke decisively:

 "Tell your daughter she can join us today, Inshallah. Tell her to get here thirty minutes after the noon prayer."

Mrs. Hassan pressed her palms to her eyes, uttered soft thanks.

"May Allah protect you!" she said, and she swallowed hard for her throat had become dry. Then she embraced the young woman. "I'll rush back home to give Moska the good news."

"May Allah protect you, also, Auntie! And tell your daughter not to forget her Quran."

"Do you also teach the Quran?"

"I don't. But if we're discovered, we'll recite surahs like in an official religious madrassa."

* * *

As the green gate closed behind them, Mrs. Hassan urged Badih to hurry. Moska must make it here on time, she thought. The boy followed as he swung his thermos in the air and pretended to dodge the fat rain drops that weighed down his turban. They started back and were about to turn the corner by Kabul Star Hotel when Mrs. Hassan realized that Moska needed her own chadari.

"Why do I need one?" she had yelled out when asked about it. "I'll never leave this house again if I can't go to school!"

 And Mrs. Hassan herself had put off the task for another reason—might these circumstances be only temporary? She had dared to hope. But there was no mistaking the need now. Badih would chaperone Moska on some days, and perhaps she could share a mahram with one of the girls on other days but, presently, Moska needed a chadari.

 So, instead of turning right off Suih Road, Mrs. Hassan and Badih sped farther downhill toward Mandawi Bazaar.

It was almost a month since Mrs. Hassan had wandered the lanes of the bazaar, but she had no intention to slow down or to look around in any of her favorite shops. She even scolded Badih when the boy asked to visit his uncle's shop. The uncle was Mrs. Hassan's brother-in-law who had taken over the carpet business from Mr. Hassan when word got out that the Taliban forcibly recruited young men to bolster their troops. Mr. Hassan lost no time then and fled Kabul with his first-born son; both were now in Tehran working in his cousin's carpet shop. Mrs. Hassan did not hear from them often, but it was often enough to know that they were still alive.

The bazaar's alleyways were waterlogged and gloomy. Fluffed up parakeets huddled together in bleak cages. The little ragged boys who usually smoked out evil spirits with homemade censers weighed down by charcoal embers were crammed under the awning of a butcher's pork carcasses dangling high above their heads on metal hooks. The cart pushers struggled through the grubby mire. The kaleidoscope of colors, painted on a sunny day by the scores of spice baskets chockfull of cardamom and saffron and turmeric, was now veiled by monochrome tarps. The rain poured. The cold chilled.

But Mrs. Hassan paid no heed to the hostile weather. Eyes focused ahead through the grille, she pressed on. Sweat trickled down her tightened back now, and the moisture trapped under the chadari had no means of escape. She was very thirsty and yearned to soothe her throat with a mouthful of chai, but there was no time and no place then for something so trivial.

"In here, Badih," she said in a hoarse voice once they reached the chadari shop. Large rolls of fabric stood guard by the entrance, and inside they were greeted by colorful garments that murmured only faintly now to the gentle customers who graced the shop. Instead, all the women present, shepherded by their own mahrams, gathered at the back of the shop where high above ground, hung from a curtain rod and forged to protect men from the temptation of women, were powder blue full-size cocoons—the chadaris.

Mrs. Hassan took Badih's hand.

"Can't I go wait for you with the men by the entrance?" he asked.

But in response Mrs. Hassan tightened her grip for she was afraid that the little boy would lose sight of her. She herself wore a chadari; so, too, did all the other women in the shop. To the eyes of a nine-year old, she'd be indistinguishable.

Mrs. Hassan drew near. She took a deep breath and mentally prodded the woman who was then making a payment to hurry up. While she waited, she leaned forward and whispered few words to the woman next in line. The woman made an animated gesture but allowed her to cut the line in front of her. When the seller finally turned to Mrs. Hassan, she took little time to decide. She pointed to a powder blue chadari behind the counter and asked him to wrap it up.

Back in the alleyway, Mrs. Hassan grasped that in her haste they had traveled deep into Mandawi. She was now afraid that they wouldn't make it back home before the noon prayer, so she quickened her pace. Twice she had to prompt Badih to go faster. The heavy rain had turned back into a drizzle and, one by one, the vendors started to remove the tarps. The carts of sweets piled high with syrupy baklava, rose-flavored sticky pudding, and Afghan biscuits enticed the little boy who wanted to linger and convince his mother to reward him for waking up so early that morning.

As they hurried out of Mandawi, Mrs. Hassan started to feel slightly faint. The plastic bag which held Moska's chadari almost slipped from her clammy hands. She was parched. She passed her tongue over her cracked lips, but her mouth was dry, and she gained no relief. But how could she slow down? Not now, not when she was about to save Moska. I'm here for you, Moska-jan. I've found you a school. You won't go hungry, jan. My mother ... she stood by. But I won't. Thus deep in her thoughts, Mrs. Hassan was startled to find herself stumbling forward. She fell.

"Maman, maman," Badih rushed over. "Are you all right?"

Mrs. Hassan nodded slowly.

"Why don't you watch where you're going?" Badih shouted at the cart pusher who had lost control of his cart and had grazed her left leg.

The man grabbed the handles of his cart and scurried away.

"Here, lend me your shoulder, Badih-jan," Mrs. Hassan said, and she labored to lift herself off the ground. "Help me walk back, jan. It's all uphill from here," she said as she contemplated the road ahead through the narrow eye grille.

Mrs. Hassan found it increasingly arduous to make the journey back home. She felt feverish, but she bit down her bottom lip and continued for a while, aware that by and by the muezzin's call to prayer from the nearby Wazir Akbar Khan Mosque would charge the air.

They were now across the street from Spinneys Express. It was almost midday and Mrs. Hassan walked with a stagger. When they stopped so she could lean against her cherished oak tree to catch her breath, she reluctantly recognized that she would be unable to make it back home before noon.

She turned to Badih and said, "Badih-jan, help me sit down here."

"Maman?" the boy said and fearfully watched her eyes through the grille.

"Jan, run ahead home. Tell Moska she must go to Hooman's house after prayer."

"Why maman? I want to stay with you."

"Don't worry, jan. I'll be fine. You need to take Moska to Hooman's house."

"I won't go. Moska's mean."

"Badih-jan, listen to me! You must accompany Moska. She doesn't know where Hooman lives. His sister will be waiting for her. Tell her to bring her Quran. Hurry now!"

The boy was rooted to the spot.

"But you'll be alone if I leave," he persisted.

"Look, Spinneys is right there," Mrs. Hassan said and she pointed at the shop. "Come back for me after you've taken Moska. I'll buy you an ice-cream sandwich. We'll buy one for Faiz, too. Isn't his birthday today?"

Before Badih could protest any further, Mrs. Hassan continued, "Here, give this to Moska."

She thrusted the bag which held the chadari into his hands.

"And I'll hold your thermos so you can run faster," she said as she eyed the thermos greedily.

Reluctantly, Badih wriggled his wrist out of the strap and handed the thermos to Mrs. Hassan. The liquid sloshed inside.

"See," she quipped feebly in an attempt to reassure him, "I'll just sit here until you return, have some of your chai."

But Badih still hesitated, so Mrs. Hassan raised her voice and urged him. "Run along now, jan. Run before Moska runs out of time."

Finally, the boy gave in. He clutched the bag to his chest, took a final look at the veiled figure of his mother, and dashed to cover the remaining distance to their home. Mrs. Hassan watched as Badih's figure receded into the distance then turned the right corner onto their street. She closed her eyes and prayed, "O Allah, I hope for your mercy. Do not leave me to myself even for a blink of an eye ..."

When Mrs. Hassan opened her eyes again, the inside of her mouth tasted like blotting paper. She felt lightheaded. By then, the drizzle had given way to a low winter sun and through the chadari she felt the warm rays caress her face which then grew redder and hotter. Her fingers hurt. She glanced down to examine them and saw that lodged in her tense grip was the thermos. An excruciating thirst overcame her. She turned her head to the left then to the right and through the eye grille she carefully scanned the street for the Virtue and Vice Police. None were in sight. She uncapped the thermos and surreptitiously raised the hem of her face veil up to her lips.

But before Mrs. Hassan could quench her thirst, before the thermos dropped from her grip its warm contents spilling on the sunlit pavement, before she screamed and crossed her arms over her face, the doors of Spinneys Express had opened and the man who had been watching her emerged from within and shot across the street fanatical in his desire to mete out punishment.

Now the Talib struck her with his black baton. Resolutely, he raised the weapon high above his scarred face to then bring it down, blow after agonizing blow, on her already weakened body.

Mrs. Hassan shrieked. Her cries did nothing to dissuade the Talib.

"Why are you indecent, woman?" the Talib chastised her. "And where is your mahram?" he roared and carried on.

Suddenly, the muezzin's call to prayer pierced the air. Another man came into view, beckoned the enforcer to join him.

The Talib lowered his baton one last time then barked, "Go home, woman! Time for prayer." And he walked away in the direction of the Wazir Akbar Khan Mosque.

Mrs. Hassan lay on the ground sobbing softly. After a while, she sat up then leaned against the oak tree again. Her body throbbed. As the minutes trickled by, rage welled up inside her. She ached to let out a mighty wail to wreck all walls—seen and unseen.

But then, from the depths of her anguish, Mrs. Hassan discerned faint, familiar voices. She tensed her body to still the shaking and peered out from behind the tree: in the brilliant light of the afternoon, a powder blue chadari-clad figure floated gently past Spinneys Express on the other side of the street. Badih was her mahram.

So, Mrs. Hassan smothered the mighty wail. She knew that some battles must be fought silently.

About the Author

Mara Woods

Mara Woods is an expatriate writer. She is currently working on a short story collection in which she tackles social issues through the wondrous power of storytelling.