Grandfather had studied the land, talked to the farmers who knew it, and carefully chose the piece that had the best well. We had always had water even in the driest months, even when our neighbors had shortages. He enclosed most of his land with a sturdy cement wall, but set part of it aside for a school for all the kids whose families he knew would transform the farmlands into a neighborhood.
My father and six of his seven brothers, along with their wives and kids, all lived comfortably within Grandfather's wall. I had more than twenty-five cousins to play with, most of them around my age. Every family had two large rooms of its own. The rooms were clustered in a single-story building on one side of the garden. Grandfather's rooms were on the other side. Between us were sixty McIntosh apple trees. Grandfather's cousin had brought them from America as little branches that he had grafted onto Afghan apple tree roots. They were very rare in Afghanistan, and Grandfather was proud of having them.
At one end of the property was a block-long building with two floors of apartments above the shops on the street level. Grandfather rented out the apartments to people who were not relatives. All the windows in the apartments faced the street. No Afghan allows strangers to look into his family's garden.
My father set up a gym in one of the shops. Every day after school, dozens of young men would come there to train as boxers. My cousin Wakeel and I would watch them from the sidewalk pounding the punching bag, or doing push-ups, or skipping rope, while my father sparred with one or sometimes two at a time inside the ring he had built.
Wakeel was seven years older than I was. He was the older brother I never had. I was the younger brother he always wanted. He let me use him as a punching bag when I imitated the boxers. Every time I hit him, he laughed.
Grandfather, by then retired from the bank, used one of the larger shops as a warehouse for his carpets. It had a thick door with a strong lock and was filled with the sweet, lanolin-rich smell of wool. He had thousands of carpets in there. My boy cousins and I liked to jump from one high pile of folded carpets to another.
* * *
All of my uncles had their own businesses, except Wakeel's father. He was a major in the National Army of Afghanistan. He always said, "Business is too risky. Most of these businessmen have heart attacks, or die at an early age." He was my grandfather's oldest son, and thus had a special place in the family. He and his wife enjoyed a relaxed life on his army salary with Wakeel, my favorite cousin, and their two daughters.
One day he went to his office and never came back. We still do not know whether he is alive or dead. It was in the time when I first heard the word "Communists," but I did not know what it meant then. For more than twenty-five years, his wife has been waiting for him to come home. Even now, she runs to the door whenever someone knocks.
* * *
My father was the third son. Like all my uncles, he had only one wife. It was not our family's custom to have more than one.
Our neighbors respected my father like a holy man. They came to see him and talked with him about their businesses and their problems. They called him Lala, "older brother," even though some of them were older than he was. They told him, "Your thoughts are older than your age." He was a man willing to try everything. He had no use for the word "no."
He was also the only one of his father's sons who was involved in carpets. His five younger brothers saw carpets as something from the past. They were looking to the future, making money in new ways.
One was importing goods from Russia. Two others were still in university but looking into importing medicine to sell to pharmacies all over Afghanistan.
* * *
Often, we all ate dinner together, more than fifty of us sitting on cushions around one cloth spread on the well-trimmed lawn that Grandfather had sown at one corner of our courtyard. Colorful little lightbulbs hung above us. After dinner, my grandfather and his sons sat in a circle talking about their businesses, or to which universities in Europe or America they should send my boy cousins and me.
Copyright © 2013 by Qais Akbar Omar
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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