In the Time Before
In the time before the fighting, before the rockets, before the warlords and their false promises, before the sudden disappearance of so many people we knew to graves or foreign lands, before the Taliban and their madness, before the smell of death hung daily in the air and the ground was soaked in blood, we lived well.
* * *
We have no photos. It was too dangerous to keep them during the time of the Taliban, so we destroyed them. But the images of our lives before all hope fled Afghanistan remain sharp and clear.
My mother is wearing her short skirt, sitting in her office in a bank, tending to a long line of customers. She is respected for her knowledge of banking, and her ability to solve people's problems.
My father looks like a movie star in his bell-bottom trousers, speeding through the Kabul streets on his motorcycle. Sometimes he ties me to his back with a tight belt. His long hair catches the wind as we ride off. When he turns the corners sharply, the metal guards he wears on his knees shoot sparks into the air as they scrape the pavement. The next day I tell my classmates about that, and make them envious.
One of my uncles goes on business trips to other countries. The other uncles and aunts study at universities in Kabul. All of them wear the latest styles. Grandfather, his thick white hair neatly combed, is elegantly dressed in finely tailored suits from Italy that emphasize his affluence. When he enters a room, he dominates it.
Grandfather is an impressive man, tall, with broad shoulders. Unlike many other Afghans, he keeps his well-tanned face freshly shaved. It is his wide, black eyes that you notice most. So deep. So commanding. So gentle.
* * *
The images come in a rush. Sometimes they play out in little scenes.
* * *
My father is calling me to get ready for school. I open my eyes and look at the clock above my bed. It is too early, but what can I say to him? He is my father. I am his son. Pashtun sons must obey their fathers.
But I am not ready to wake up. I rub my eyes. My father keeps calling, "Get up! Put on your gloves. I'm waiting for you in the ring." He wants me to exercise with him before breakfast. He has started training me to become a famous boxer like himself, and fight as he has in international competitions.
I hate waking up early, but I love exercising with my father. He always lets me beat him, even though I am seven years old.
* * *
I love school, too. I have perfect attendance. I am smart and popular. Sometimes the boys complain to the headmaster about me when I punch them in their faces. The headmaster covers for me, because he is Grandfather's best friend. But he never smiles at me.
My sister and I are in the same school. She is a year and a half older than I, and even smarter and more popular, but she never punches any girls, even though she is the daughter of a well-known boxer.
* * *
The heart of our world is my grandfather's house.
Grandfather had built it in the late 1960s, when he was the senior accounting officer in the Bank-e-Millie, the National Bank of Afghanistan. The country was prosperous, and he could see that Kabul would outgrow its twisted thousand-year-old streets along the Kabul River.
He bought about five acres on the far side of the small, steep mountain with the two peaks that for centuries had protected Kabul on its south and west sides. The land beyond them was then all farms with mud-brick villages, but not for long.
Copyright © 2013 by Qais Akbar Omar
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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