I’m delighted to post an excerpt from Baro Shalizi’s novel in progress, THE RISING MOON OF HEAVEN below. He describes the book:
With inspiration from a verse in Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat:
Behold! The Rising Moon of Heaven again
Seeks us, my love, through the quivering Plane trees;
How often, hereafter, rising will she search
Amongst these leaves, for one of us in vain!
The novel follows the lives of two young Afghans, as exile, loss and separation, destroys their world and threatens to crush their soul and spirit.
Baro received his Creative Writing Certificate from the Santa Fe Community College and is currently on the editorial staff of “The Santa Fe Literary Review.” His bio note: “Born in India to an Indian mother and Afghan father, I was raised in Afghanistan until the family was forced to leave following the coup that overthrew the King. I have lived in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Soviet Union and the US. I obtained my B.A. in Russian Language and Literature from Brandeis University and my M.A. in International Law and Business from The American University in Washington, DC. I currently live in Santa Fe, NM.”
The novel is currently looking for representation from an agent, or an editor interested in publishing it. Please feel free to comment as a reader, too!
This is the first of two sections–stay tuned to read the second in the next few days.
Kabul, June 1973
“What are you doing here?” his father demanded.
What in Mr. Shahir’s youth had been a lean, athletic body had now, in his middle years, turned fleshy, a result of countless hours behind a desk. His once thick, brown hair was now sparse and lightly sprinkled with grey. Nonetheless, his energy was palpable. Piercing, intelligent, hazel eyes were hidden behind the reflection on his glasses. His high forehead and hooked nose were reminders of the many Arabs and Jews who had settled in Afghanistan over the millennia. While many Afghans claimed descent from the lost tribes of Israel, others prided themselves on their descent from the Prophet Mohammed.
“Wha—What do you mean?” Mirwais stammered. As it was, he was quite put out that no one had met him at the airport. And now without so much as a hug, an Assalaam Alaikum—Peace be with you, his father was yelling at him. He couldn’t recollect when he had last seen his father so angry. Surely his coming home, even if unexpected, couldn’t be grounds for such anger. “It’s my summer vacation,” he said, on the brink of tears. “I wrote and told you I was coming home today. Didn’t you get my letter?” Mirwais’ two dogs, Golla, a German Shepherd and Jolly, a Black lab, were jumping all over him happy to have him home. Obeying his hand signals, they immediately sat.
“A letter? Coming home?” His father responded, still shouting. “Didn’t you write just a few weeks ago asking permission to spend your summer vacation with your friend Valodya in Leningrad?” Mr. Shahir took off his glasses and brushed a hand across his tired eyes. “Well, don’t just stand there, answer me.”
“Yes, I did, Daddy-jan, but then the Soviet authorities denied me permission to travel from Moscow to Leningrad. I sent a second letter. Perhaps Mummy-jan received the letter?”
“Your mother and sister, Ariana, are visiting your grandparents and Roxana in India.”
Mirwais’ mother, originally from India, often visited her parents in Bombay. Two years ago when he’d turned fourteen and left to attend boarding school in Pakistan, his grandparents had invited his sister, Roxana, then twelve, to live with them and attend school in Bombay. His parents felt that Ariana, who had only recently celebrated her tenth birthday, too young to leave home.
In a milder tone, Mr. Shahir added, “Well, Bachim, my son, now that you are here, we might as well make the best of a bad situation. Don’t just stand there, come on in. Wash up and get changed for dinner, it will be served shortly.”
Mirwais didn’t need to be told a second time. He whipped past his father, almost slipping on the highly polished marble floor. Lovingly he ran his hand along the beautifully carved, wood balustrade as he ran up the stairs. At the top of the stairs, he stopped to look at his favorite painting, a scene depicting horsemen in traditional Afghan outfits admiring the world’s tallest statue of the standing Buddha in the Bamiyan Valley. When the artist had delivered the painting, Mirwais had been so enthralled that his father had framed a photo of the painting for him.
Mirwais jogged down the maize of corridors, right then left then right again until he was in front of his bedroom. Once inside, he let out a deep sigh as he took in the familiar surroundings—the rich, red, Afghan carpet, hand-knotted in Mazar-i-Sharif; the bed with the soft, white duvet and hand embroidered pillows neatly stacked against the headboard; the many books on dogs, horses and pigeons mixed in with old school books lay askew on the table; the familiar photos on the wall. His eyes sought out one photo in particular, a young girl, her auburn hair tumbling down in loose curls past her shoulders, her skin flawless—golden, the color of honey, her large almond shaped eyes looking out on the world with wonder—Anahita, his closest friend, confidant, and cousin. He flopped onto the bed and let himself melt into the soft bedding, never taking his eyes off the photo.
One of the servants brought up his suitcase and shyly welcomed him home. Mirwais quickly unpacked, then went to the bathroom to do his ablutions before saying his evening prayers. As he washed his face, he looked at himself in the mirror. Smiling, he spoke to his reflection, “You sure are a handsome chap.” Effeminate in looks, his friends and relatives jokingly called him Pretty Boy.
Blushing, he remembered the time when his cousin Anahita’s girlfriends had teased him mercilessly. “Oh, Miro, what I would give to have thick, wavy hair like yours,” one girl said as she ran her fingers through his hair. Another added, “And those beautiful, sensual lips—are they naturally so red or do you use lipstick?” The comments were greeted by a round of laughter. “And those eyes, they remind me of my Labrador, so gentle and soulful.” Another round of laughter followed. One of Anahita’s friends, Fawzia, a particularly brazen girl, had eyed his crotch and asked, “Can you prove that you’re a boy?” Mirwais, too bashful to respond to such an open challenge to his manhood, had run away, but not before glancing at Anahita. She stood apart from her friends, her gentle brown eyes open wide, focused on him, a look of sympathy mixed with something else—expectation? What had she waited for—for him to stand up for himself, defend himself?
At sixteen, he was barely five and a half feet tall and weighed only one hundred and ten pounds. As if to compensate for his lack of physical stature, nature had bestowed him with an unusually sharp intellect. He had completed his first year of college while his peers where still in their junior year in high school. Unfortunately, Mirwais had little interest in intellectual pursuits. His father often reprimanded him, “If only you would apply yourself, you could be an A-plus student.” His mother just as frequently interceded, “Honey, let the boy be. He’s a teenager and a B + average isn’t all that bad.” In high school, Mirwais was bored in class and had often played truant. He’d dropped off his books at home and spent the rest of the day with his dogs, horses and pigeons.
Having said his prayers, he joined his father at dinner. Not a word was spoken while they ate. Mirwais played with his food, looking over at his father a few times, but he was lost in a world he wasn’t willing to share. After a servant cleared the dessert dishes and they were left alone again, Mirwais cleared his throat, “Is something bothering you, Daddy-jan?”
“Bachim, you must be tired from your trip. I suggest you go straight to bed,” his father replied, not looking at his son.
Mirwais wanted to stay, to ask more questions, but dared not. He had too often paid the price for disobeying his father. Sleep was hard coming that night. He wished his mother were in Kabul. She would tell him what was happening, but she was in India. He longed for Anahita—someone to share his fears and concerns with, but she was far away in America.
He awoke to the sound of gunfire and the high-pitched scream of fighter jets flying overhead. He bolted up in bed and looked out the window, the mountains were barely visible, the inky mantle of night was slowly lifting as dawn smiled upon Kabul. Jumping out of bed, he hurriedly put on a light-weight shirt, tumbling onto the soft silk carpet as in his haste he stuck both feet in the same pant leg. He cursed under his breath. Slipping his feet into a pair of sandals, he rushed outside. Golla and Jolly came bounding across the lawn, the minute they saw him. The scream of the planes continued. Mirwais got on his knees and hugged the two dogs all the while staring into the sky. The dogs trembled as jets thundered overhead. He had wanted to name his German Shepherd, Bullet, after Roy Roger’s dog, but his father insisted he use the Afghan word for Bullet, Golla.
As dawn’s light gently flooded the sky, Mirwais saw dozens of fighter jets and military helicopters crisscrossing the skies over Kabul—a swarm of angry bees. In the distance, he distinctly heard the sporadic staccato of machine-gun fire. Both dogs cowered. “It’s okay,” Mirwais reassured them, scratching behind their ears. What was going on? Why all the fighter planes and the gunfire? It was too early for Jashen – Independence Day. Had Pakistan invaded? It was a possibility. Ever since Pakistan’s independence, tensions had been high between the two countries, each claiming the stretch of land Pakistan called the Northwestern Frontier Province and Afghanistan called Pashtunistan.
Abdul Karim, his father’s chauffeur, was standing by the fountain in the center of the garden, face upturned, his boat-shaped Persian lamb’s skin cap pushed back to give him an unhindered view of the sky. “Salaam Alaikum, Mirwais-jan,” he said on seeing his employer’s son.
“Walaikum Assalaam-And Peace be with you. What’s going on?” Mirwais asked. His eyes searched the sky, as if expecting the answer to be emblazzaned there in large letters for all to see.
“I don’t know,” Abdul Karim answered. “But whatever it is, it can’t be good.” Taking Mirwias’ hand in his as he had often done when Mirwais was a little boy, Abdul Karim hustled him out of the open and toward the house. “We should ask Sadrazam sahib, I’m sure he’ll know.” Mirwais was touched by the chauffer’s implicit trust and confidence in his father. Even though Mr. Shahir had long ago resigned as His Majesty, King Mohammad Zahir Shah’s Prime Minister, out of respect, everyone still called him Sadrazam sahib, Mister Prime Minister.
Upon entering the library, Abdul Karim immediately snatched off his cap. Mr. Shahir was fiddling with the knob on the radio in search of the latest news. Radio Kabul was blaring military music. Impatiently he drummed his fingers on the table. As he reached over to turn the dial yet again. The announcer blared: “We interrupt this program to congratulate the people of Afghanistan on a successful coup d’etat! His Excellency, General Mohammed Daoud, has overthrown the corrupt and ineffective monarchy to bring democracy and equality to us, the people. Rejoice! We have been released from the yoke of tyranny! Long live the republic of Afghanistan! Long live President Daoud!” Military music blared again. There was always military music after a coup, never popular music—the people’s music.
Mr. Shahir leaned back in his chair, a faint smile on his face.
Mirwais, his voice quivering asked, “What tyranny, what is he talking about? His Majesty was a benign and benevolent king, loved by the people. What does all this mean? What will it mean for us?”
In a rare display of affection, Mr. Shahir ruffled his son’s hair. “Everything will be just fine. There’s nothing to fear. Some time ago, I was notified by Mr. Anderson—you remember him, don’t you?”
“You mean the USAID chap with the red hair?”
“That’s the one—”
“I remember him well.”
“Actually, he’s a CIA operative, but as I was saying,” his father proceeded, “Mr. Anderson informed me that the Soviets were going to make a move on Afghanistan—”
“But surely the Americans,” Mirwais interrupted, “will come to our aid. After all, from Turkey to India, we’re the only democracy. They won’t let the Soviets take over Afghanistan.”
“According to Mr. Anderson,” Mr. Shahir continued, “during the SALT II Treaty negotiations in Moscow, the Soviets and Americans came to a secret agreement that required Afghanistan to slip into the Soviet sphere of influence in return for Egypt moving into the American sphere.”
Abdul Karim blanched on hearing the Super Powers were involved—nothing good ever came of a coup orchestrated by the Super Powers.
Mirwais asked, “Mr. Anderson’s a spy—an undercover agent?” Could his father hear the excitement in his voice? “Did he tell you himself? Is he a double agent? Will he be coming by the house again?”
“Bachim, don’t be naive. In the world of espionage, these things aren’t talked about openly, but I knew—”
“Yet you trust Mr. Anderson?”
“Yes, to the extent that one can trust a foreign agent, I trust him. He, poor fool, is one of those rare Americans who genuinely believe that his country wants to spread democracy and help poorer nations. He appreciates my nationalism.”
“So, Mr. Anderson warned you of the coup?”
“No, he only knew that the Soviets and the Americans had come to an understanding regarding Afghanistan—”
“Just like that, the Super Powers swapped Afghanistan for Egypt like toys, with no regard for the desires or aspirations of the people?” Mirwais was outraged. “What gives them the right to play with other people’s futures?”
“For a change, Bachim, you’ve asked a truly insightful question. Not long after my conversation with Anderson, General Daoud Khan approached me with a plan to overthrow the king. He wouldn’t have taken the risk of asking unless the Super Powers had given him the green light. We planned the coup meticulously.”
Mirwais and Abdul Karim looked at Mr. Shahir wide-eyed. “You helped plan the coup?” For a brief moment Mirwais stood stockstill. “But, Daddy-jan, how could you—overthrow the King—a close friend, didn’t you feel guilty?”
“Ah, Bachim, if only politics were that straightforward and simple. But, yes, you’re correct, I have a great deal of respect for His Majesty, but it was necessary to avert a civil war and bloodshed.” Mr. Shahir looked at his son—his eyes pleading for understanding, forgiveness? Mirwais stared back, not understanding what was expected of him.
“I’m surprised Daoud Khan would work for the Soviets, he’s such a nationalist—and it’s even more surprising that he would ask you to help. He, of all people, knows how much both Super Powers dislike you.” Mirwais smiled to himself thinking of all the times his father had foiled both Super Powers’ ambitions and assisted the King in maintaining Afghanistan’s neutrality.
“That’s precisely why he came to me.” Mr. Shahir looked out the window at two sparrows squabbling in a nearby tree. “Daoud Khan, in addition to being a nationalist, is also self-centered and egotistical. He’s never forgiven His Majesty for declaring Afghanistan a Constitutional monarchy and forcing him to retire as Prime Minister.”
“Daoud Khan is taking revenge?” Mirwais’ eyes flew around the room, alighting on photos of his parents with the King and Queen, with Daoud Khan.
“In some ways, yes. If he didn’t agree to head the coup, the Soviets would have found someone else. He saw an opportunity to forestall the country from becoming a Soviet client state, gain power for himself and at the same time take revenge on his cousin.”
“So … he’s using the Soviets and they are using him.”
“Yes, and that’s what worries me. At some point Daoud Khan and the Soviets are going to clash. When that happens, the Afghan people will get crushed like a grain of wheat caught between two mill stones.”
Mirwais pictured the Afghan people crushed to dust, pulverized, decimated. Why would his father be a willing participant? “You haven’t finished your explanation, Daddy-jan. Why did Daoud Khan ask for your help? Why did you agree?”
“Ah, yes,” his father responded with a small laugh. “The President knew I’d help minimize the fallout from a coup. My insights and recommendations averted a bloodbath, and by timing the coup while the King was out of the country, I believe I saved the lives of the Royal Family. Knowing his ego, had I denied him, the whole family could have ended up in prison or worse.”