Letters To The Dead

Who is your audience? That’s an ordinary writing workshop question. But I think it is more common than we’ll admit–dead people. Ancestors, lost loves, dead friends and family, the unborn. Are they listening?
Of course this caught my interest–

MAIZURU, Kyoto Prefecture–Those who want to post messages to the dead can deposit their letters in a “green mailbox” at a Buddhist temple in this western city facing the Sea of Japan.
Anyone is welcome to leave a letter in the mailbox, which stands in the grounds of Daishoji temple in Maizuru’s Kitasui district.
Temple officials don’t open the letters, but burn them in a ritual in a “gomadan” fire altar.
A parishioner who used to be a postmaster donated the pillar-style mailbox about 30 years ago.
The box was installed beneath a wisteria trellis beside the temple’s main hall and was sometimes used as a collection box for offerings as it is near a sacred waterfall and the fire altar.

To read more, click here.

***

So…I’m thinking about more memoir. “In Bluebeard’s Castle” will be out next month from Red Mountain–it’s about my dad, gangster and intellectual. “A Hundred Cups of Coffee” launches from Tres Chicas Books in the fall. What’s next to write about? As always, whatever I’ve been avoiding, currently, AIDS, sexuality, San Francisco in the 1980’s, and more.
It’s always an assemblage process. I’m thinking of this piece near the start–if I can connect it.

***

This Island Is Not Real

     The summer I was seventeen I took a fiction writing class at the New School. Every day I’d leave the daycare center where I worked mornings to take the number 84 bus into Manhattan and the subway downtown. On Mondays and Wednesdays I’d take a modern dance class, on Tuesdays and Thursdays it was fiction.
     After class, in the late afternoon, I’d walk crosstown a few miles west to where my boyfriend had a summer sublet in a Chelsea brownstone. This was when that neighborhood, at 23rd Street, was unremarkable and cheap, and where a secretary who was somehow related to someone my father knew had a sad dusty narrow studio apartment that was mostly furnished in a bed up against the only window at the far end of the apartment and a kitchen table. This was just fine with us–me and my eighteen year old boyfriend who somehow seemed much older than me because he was already in college. Really all we cared about was the bed.
     Except for food. He’d cook me strange little hot dinners–experimenting–chops and peas, burgers and onions, not right for the small sweltering apartment but tasty and necessary. What else did we do that summer? I can hardly remember. Once we walked around Wall Street and looked at three tiny overgrown cemeteries, scattered along the blocks like a series of weedy pocket parks, the tilting submerged headstones of Sephardic Jewish colonists unreadable. between the Hebrew and the decay. And we had tickets to several of the Mostly Mozart concerts.
     The fiction class was very disappointing. However, I did not complain–my parents had paid, after all. The instructor, in her thirties, with black hair dyed blacker still, was more Beat than hippie, or perhaps proto-punk. She spoke at length during each class about the difficulties, actually impossibilities, of being a writer. She for example, was forced to support herself by writing the captions and dialogue for comic strips. Then, she criticized our work.
    My final story, the one I had been working on all summer, was set on a mythical tropical island, probably Caribbean. At least, palm trees blew. And in a fanciful addition, flocks of black and white butterflies filled the air, pausing only to mate on the shiny hoods of the cars of the rich. There was a pair of lovers in the story, lovers who quarreled (I can no longer remember the reason) and in the final scene she pushed him backwards off the dock, where he allowed himself to drown. Or perhaps he pushed her? This is a long time ago to remember. But looking back, I do not think that in 1971 I would have written a story in which a man drowned a woman.
     When we went to the Mostly Mozart concerts, we left directly from the apartment. I had a blue and white dress of a soft slinky material, and I had to ask my boyfriend to zip up the back. I added a long strand of white beads I’d borrowed from my mother. The beads were tiny, making a shimmering rope. I saw myself in the mirror in the blue dress, with my boyfriend zipping me up, and I wondered if this was the first scene of many like it, stretching out over a lifetime.
     The teacher hated my story. She felt the setting–my favorite part–was unrealistic and unconvincing. Butterflies do not mate in a trade wind. Men born on islands do not just drown. Where was the grit, the poverty, the fried plantains? THIS ISLAND IS NOT REAL she wrote in bold black letters across the first page of my story.
     I went to a different college from my boyfriend and then I broke up with him. I married a man who had once hunted octopus off a dock in Key West simply because he was hungry. We were married for thirteen years and then he died, leaving me a can full of pens and sharpened pencils in which there was also a tiny two-pronged utensil–a lobster fork. Meanwhile my boyfriend had hitchhiked…but who cares, this part of his past is not in this story. Anyway, I married my old boyfriend and am his wife to this day.
     This island is not real.  Manhattan is an island. I’d walk crosstown, past the discount shoe bins and the lively crowds of people of all nations–Haitians, Puerto Ricans, east Indians. The big Greek selling slices of lamb off the steamy rotating grill called me sweetie as he handed me a simple sandwich–meat and pita bread–wrapped in a thick slice of paper. I loved the walk, between the mean fiction teacher and the hot apartment.
     This island is real.

Have You Ever Used The Same Imaginary Place

From one novel to the next? I don’t mean in fantasy, more like magical realism. In my novel Black Rainbow I had a huge imaginary club called Babylon, where the teenage lovers end up in the middle of the night, circa 1968. Now I’m working on a novella set in Brooklyn just after the end of the war in Bosnia. Times have changed, so has the club, now called Babel.

Will this work? Should I focus more on how the very different characters experience it or on its own metamorphosis? I don’t expect readers to have read the earlier book, so it is “explained” (it is rather inexplicable!)

Kathleen Lee on Writing Her Novel

Kathleen Lee will be reading excerpts from her new book, “All Things Tending towards the Eternal” in Las Cruces, NM, as part of the Nelson/Boswell Reading Series.

When: 7:30pm, March 6th
Where: New Mexico State University, the Health & Social Services Auditorium, Room 101A.

If you’re in Las Cruces, make sure to drop by!

***

Q. You started off as a travel writer, essayist, and short story writer before tackling the novel. The novel has multiple points of view–it is essentially a web of interconnected stories that are heading for a shared denouement. What major differences do you find between novel and short story. Obviously one is long, ha ha, but how different are the conceptions, impulses, execution. And is the novel “based” in some way on shorter work?

A. No, the novel is not based on shorter work. And I’ve mostly failed in my attempts to extract some story-like excerpts from it. I don’t know how to describe the difference between a story and a novel. A story is a single cookie and a novel is a whole cake. Both are dessert but the cake is larger, with more layers and more complexity; with more opportunity for making a mess of things, too. I wanted to write a book that captured what it feels like to travel loosely, for long periods of time, and I thought a novel would be the best way to do that (in part because you can have all of those different points of view which seems a necessary feature of the portrayal I was after since I think that travel is about so much more than a single self, even a single self as a lens through which to see the world). It turned out that long, unstructured travel might be pretty much the opposite of what a novel requires: some kind of structure, and the necessity that the action and characters be fully engaged with each other. When you’re traveling, cause & effect exists in small, sometimes amusing, sometimes miraculous, sometimes irritating ways. But in terms of a driving force, cause & effect seems to relinquish its hold on your life, to be replaced by a kind of baffling, luxurious randomness. You buy a ticket somewhere for no reason you can imagine and later on you go someplace else and you do that over and over again and after half a year of this going here and there, the world has somehow become distinct to you, and your self within it. Which feels seamless and inevitable, but it’s not a novel.
             

The Rising Moon of Heaven by Baro Shalizi–Part 2

“Oh!” Mirwais responded, drying sweaty hands on his pants, images of guillotines and firing squads rushing to mind. At the Moscow State University, he had to study both the French and Russian Revolutions in detail. He was only too aware of the fate of both Royal families and aristocracies. Republics scared him, especially republics run by dictators. During his decade as Prime Minister, General Daoud had been autocratic and short tempered.
“But the king …” Mirwais began.
“Unfortunately, Bachim, in politics there is rarely room for friendships. One does what one can, but there are so many factors to consider,” Mr. Shahir said. After a moment’s thought he added, “I am pleased with the results. No civilians were killed, and His Majesty is safe in Italy.” Mr. Shahir looked up at his son. He looked so young and innocent—so vulnerable. “For the next few days I don’t want you leaving the compound—not for any reason,” he said gently.
“Yes, sir!”
“Come here,” Mr. Shahir said, hugging his son. “Had you let me know you were coming home instead of just showing up, I would have told you to join your mother and sisters in India. As a member of the Indian Parliament, should it become necessary, your grandfather could get all of you asylum in India. But what’s done is done.”
Mirwais wasn’t sure if his father was referring to the coup or his returning home.
Mr. Shahir, lost in thought, was silent for so long that Mirwais thought he had forgotten that both he and Abdul Karim were still there. “You know, Bachim, my one regret is not having notified your Uncles Hadee-jan, and Javed-jan, about the coup”—Mr. Shahir referred to his brother and brother-in-law—“but General Daoud was adamant that no one be told.”
Disengaging from his father’s embrace, Mirwais said, “But Daddy-jan, Uncle Hadee-jan is the Minister of Defense—responsible for the safety and security of the country. Uncle Javed-jan, is the Minister of Interior—overseeing all the provincial governors, the police force and the secret service. Surely they should have been told, especially if the plan was to ensure a bloodless coup.”
“My very words to General Daoud, but he was vehement that our plans be kept absolutely secret.”
“But what about my uncles?” Miro’s voice went up an octave. “Surely, not telling them could put their lives in danger.”
“As you can see, Bachim, all is well. The coup was a success, no one has been hurt. You don’t need to worry about your uncles.” Images flashed through Mr. Shahir’s memory, images of a fist-fight in high school, protecting his favorite sibling, his only brother, Hadee, from the school bully. Fast forward—his wedding day, his brother standing next to him. Fast forward—principal of the high school, Hadee his vice principal. Fast forward—Ambassador to the Court of St. James, Hadee his Charge-de-Affairs. Fast forward—Prime Minister, his brother his deputy. It had always been that way, until now. He, always the older brother, the protector; Hadee, in a supportive role, in the shadow.

Confined to the compound with only his father and the servants for company, Mirwais grew restless. He chaffed under his father’s restrictions. Much as he loved playing fetch with Golla and Jolly—training them to obey advanced hand signals, grooming the horses till their coats glistened, or watching his pigeons in their coop, he was bored. The day after the coup he snuck out secure in the knowledge that should his father send for him, it could take a servant a couple of hours to search the mansion and accompanying gardens for him.
Mirwais wandered the streets of Kabul. The sky above was a brilliant blue with only a few wispy clouds floating leisurely across it. He noticed a flock of pigeons wheeling across the sky. As if guided by one mind, they twisted and turned as one entity, the individual subservient and in sync with the group. How symbolic of the Afghan culture, Mirwais thought. Here, too, the individual must flow with the community—the welfare of the community superseding the desires of the individual.
A dry breeze half-heartedly swirled a little dust before dying down again. Beautiful young girls in mini-skirts walked down the sidewalk, laughing and joking with each other. Young men likewise were out strolling and flirting with the girls. Cassette players boomed Bollywood music from the roadside cafes, cinema posters proclaimed the latest American movies.

The city was calm. On street corners in the bazaar, at the barber’s shop, little knots of men gathered to discuss the coup. “Don’t you think it cowardly of the President to have overthrown the monarchy while the King is out of the country and a woman is sitting on the throne?” Another said, “Will life be any better with a President instead of a King? After all, they are still the same family.” No one worried—perhaps they didn’t realize—the coup was but the first step on a journey to hell.
Hurrying back before he was missed, Mirwais spent the rest of the day on the roof with his pigeons. The chiming of the little metal and plastic bells on the pigeon’s feet as they strutted and cooed were a poignant reminder of Anahita, the daughter of his father’s only brother, Hadee. When he acquired his first flock of pigeons, she had given him the bells as a gift.
Though cousins, since early childhood, they had always been very close, like twins, inseparable, each a mirror to the other. While in boarding school in Pakistan, Mirwais had started praying five times a day. When Anahita heard about it, she too, prayed five times a day.
Mirwais had been inconsolable when her parents decided to send her to Washington, DC to attend college.
“I don’t know what you’re so upset about,” Anahita pouted. “You’re not the one going to live with a brother you haven’t seen for the greater part of your life. The last time I saw Lemar was before he left for college. I was only six and he, sixteen. Now, I’m sixteen and he’s twenty-six—”
“I can do the math,” Mirwais snapped.
“For all practical purposes, we’re strangers. What if we don’t get along?”
“Of course, you’ll get along. He’s your brother.” Still cross, Mirwais added, “You’re abandoning me! Don’t you love me?”
“Don’t be silly, I have no say in my parents’ decisions. Why don’t you ask your parents to send you to America, too,” Anahita suggested.
“I’d love to go to America—the land of milk and honey, where anything is possible—to see the desert Southwest where Zane Grey, Louis L’Amour, and Max Brand, set their stories,” Mirwais said, excitedly. “You’re right, I should ask my parents to send me to America.”
Before Mirwais could summon enough courage to approach his father, Mr. Shahir announced, “Bachim, I’ve decided to send you to Moscow State University.”
“But Daddy-jan, I don’t want to go to Russia, a communist country.”
“That’s irrelevant,” Mr. Shahir said with a wave of his hand. “I have talked with the Soviet Ambassador, you leave in two weeks. With Lemar and soon Anno studying in America, it is prudent that at least one Shahir study in the Soviet Union. We must appear to be neutral.”
The next day, in tears, Mirwais confided in Anahita, “Daddy-jan has decided that I should attend the Moscow State University. Who’ll take care of the animals?”
Anahita hugged him. “You’re funny, Miro. Of course the servants will take care of them, like they did while you were in Pakistan.”
“And you’ll be in America. I wish you weren’t going so very far away.”
Hiding her own desperation, Anahita reassured Mirwais. “It’s not like I’m going to another planet, just to America.”
“It might as well be another planet,” Mirwais responded.
“Let’s make a vow,” Anahita excitedly said, “once we’re adults, we won’t let anyone make decisions for us. We’ll be in charge of our own lives.”
“I promise,” Mirwais said, cheering up.
The evening before Anahita left for the States, Mirwais went to her home to say goodbye. He wanted to see her without her many friends surrounding her as they were bound to do at the airport. He found her alone in her room finalizing her packing. He sat on the edge of her bed and the two talked for hours about what the future may hold for them.
“Promise you’ll write every week,” Anahita pleaded. “Tell me all that is going on in your life. I’ll do the same.”
“Promise!” As he turned to leave, she held out her hand. In the center of her palm rested a little brown stone.
“What is it?” He took the stone and examined it. “It’s beautiful, shaped just like a little bird, so smooth and shiney.”
“It is, isn’t it?” she asked. “I found it five years ago, the year you went to boarding school in Pakistan. It wasn’t so shiney then. I’ve kept it in my pocket all these years as a reminder of you and your love of birds.”
Their eyes met and held as he handed it back.
“No, keep it,” she said shyly, “to remember me.”
“I’ll never forget you.” On impulse, he hugged her and then gently kissed her on her lips, immediately pulling away. They stood facing each other, embarrassed. Then he rushed out of the room.
“I’ll always love you, Miro,” she whispered, but he was already gone.

Now, back in Kabul, Mirwais fervently wished Anahita were home, sharing in this new adventure. Being prisoner in his own home wouldn’t be so intolerable with Anahita by his side.
Mirwais also missed his mother. Particularly those rare occasions when she cooked, in the upstairs kitchen—the family kitchen—and he served as sous chef. She never cooked in the big kitchen downstairs, where the servants congregated, that was the chef’s domain.
Bored, Mirwais took over the supervision of their fifteen Holstein and six Jersey milch cows, over eight hundred White Leghorn and Rhode Island Red hens, and the odd assortment of other creatures he had accumulated over the years—most rescued from certain death—a golden eagle with a broken wing, two gazelles whose mother had been shot by a hunter friend of his father’s, and an orphaned four-horned ram. Of course, the servants did all the manual work.
With most of the family in India, meals were taken in the library instead of the cavernous dining room and, to Mirwais’ relief, were relatively silent affairs. They did, however, give him an opportunity to covertly observe his father, whose anxiety level grew by the day. Fair-skinned like their Aryan ancestors, Mr. Shahir spent most of his time sitting by the telephone. Occasionally, he’d pick up the receiver, listening for a dial tone. Satisfied that the phone was working, he’d hang up. At other times he started to dial a number without completing the call.
One day, mustering his courage, Mirwais asked, “Daddy-jan, is something wrong?”
“Huh, Bachim? Did you say something?”
“I was wondering if, perhaps, something is bothering you? You seem upset. I’ve never seen you like this before.” Mirwais wasn’t sure how his father would respond. Normally, he didn’t tolerate anyone questioning his actions.
“It’s been ten days since the coup and the President hasn’t called to thank me for my help.”
“Perhaps he’s busy consolidating his power?”
“No, that can’t be it. There’s been no opposition.”
“Have you called to congratulate him on becoming President?” Mirwais asked softly.
“Me? Call him? Of course not! He should call and thank me for helping him become President.” And so the days passed. The King recognized the republic, and the Queen and the Royal family were allowed to leave Afghanistan and join the King in Italy, and tension continued to mount in the Shahir house.
Tentatively, Mirwais suggested that until his mother returned, he should stay in Kabul to supervise the farm and help his father in whatever way necessary.
“No, Bachim, there’s nothing more important than your education. However, in light of current events, I think it best that you join your mother and sisters in Bombay and continue your education there.” With a smile he added, “I think with our twelve servants I can manage to run the place.”
“But Daddy-jan, why can’t I just go back to Moscow?”
“Because I say so.” Mr. Shahir didn’t explain that with the President’s close ties to Moscow, Mirwais would be in easy reach of the President’s grasp—a ready hostage whom the President could and would use. Mr. Shahir didn’t want his son to live in daily fear of what could happen, constantly looking over his shoulder, scared of his own shadow.
“But that means starting all over again, applying to colleges, waiting for admissions, I could lose a whole year.”
“Better to lose a year of college—” Mr. Shahir hesitated. Should he confide his fears to his son? He was seventeen, almost a man “—than to lose your life. I’ll make arrangements for you to leave by Friday.” Before Mirwais could protest, Mr. Shahir added, “And this time, young man, make sure you don’t return without my express permission.”
Mirwais swallowed hard. “Yes, sir!”

The Rising Moon of Heaven by Baro Shalizi

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.”