Today's Reading

Uncle Kabir pointed at his brother with a piece of naan. "Speaking of Taliban rules, keep your turban on at all times when you go out. Your beard isn't long enough, so you need to keep your head shaved."

Uncle Feraidoon protested. "I don't like shaving my head."

"Oh, Zarlashta, you did such a wonderful job with this korma." Grandmother's smile seemed forced. "Don't you all—"

"The Taliban have tried to kill the Lion for years," Baba Jan said. "They couldn't have succeeded without help. I've heard of their new allies. This Al-Qaeda. Dangerous men. Outsiders."

Uncle Kabir shrugged, wiping a bit of sauce off his beard with the back of his hand. "Ever since I was a teenager there has been one terrible thing or another. The Soviet invasion. The civil war. The terrible—"

Uncle Feraidoon coughed loudly. "Careful."

"The Taliban," Uncle Kabir said quietly. "Fighting never stops, but we push on. More rugs to sell."

Baheer fought the urge to check the east wall. His brother Rahim, sitting next to him, leaned over to bump his shoulder against Baheer, raising his eyebrows as if asking if Baheer could believe all this. Baheer and Rahim didn't always need words to communicate.

"I think tomorrow we might have chicken," Grandmother tried again. "I have an idea to try some new spices."

"That sounds wonderful," Baheer's mother said nervously.

Baheer knew they would not succeed in changing the subject. Even if they did, he felt sure Maryam would ask Baba Jan a question to get them back on the topic of Ahmad Shah Massoud. She loved keeping up with Afghan and world events.

"This situation is different. I can feel it," Baba Jan said. Baba Jan was the bravest man Baheer had ever known.

He had been chief of police many years ago. After the Soviet Union invaded, he was eventually arrested for continuing to follow the ways of Islam. He was sentenced to death, but his friend, a high-ranking military officer in the puppet Afghan government the Soviets had established, convinced the Russians to release him. Baba Jan was unstoppable, but now he tugged his beard, the lines in his face deepening somehow. Baheer hadn't seen him this way in a long time.

"Allah will protect us," Grandmother said.

Baba Jan stared toward the east wall and the talib's compound. "Something very bad will happen soon. Allah have mercy."

"You know Allah's words from the Holy Quran. Trust him." Grandmother sounded soothing.

"I know. Allah says in his book, in chapter 22, verse 65, 'For God is Most Kind and Most Merciful to man.'"

His grandfather was also the wisest man Baheer knew. He read the Holy Quran every day, memorizing many passages. He read histories and poetry. He remembered and sometimes talked about better times in Afghanistan, when the country was so wonderful and peaceful that Westerners would visit on vacation. And he sometimes spoke of the terrible tragedy of the country's wars. There were ruins of a stall in the bazaar a few blocks away that Baba said used to be a bookstore until it was burned down during the civil war among the Mujahideen. No one dared to open the bookstore now in the dark era of the Taliban. Baba Jan sometimes told Maryam, Rahim, Baheer, and his other grandchildren about how he had often stopped by the stall to talk to his friend, who owned the place, and to pick up a new treasure in the form of a book.

Baheer might have understood such enthusiasm for learning back at his school in Pakistan, where his teachers were kind and they cared about student success. Back where the Taliban didn't control everything.

The Taliban had a special department called Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. Their job was to make sure men kept long beards, tied turbans on their heads, went to mosque at the five different prayer times, and did not sing or listen to music, have televisions, watch movies, dance, fly kites, own pet birds, possess pictures of people or animals, or own forbidden books. They were the Morality Police.

Baheer hated them. Baheer feared them. Whenever he left home—and now even at home, since the Taliban family had moved in on the other side of the wall—Baheer felt like he was a little kid trying to sneak a treat without getting caught. Except the Taliban had so many rules and enforced them so harshly it was hard to escape the constant feeling that at any moment he might face cruel punishment. It was exhausting. It left him feeling physically sick deep in his stomach.
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