We were seated around a table, Soraya and I
dressed in green-the color of Islam, but also the color of spring and new beginnings. I wore a suit, Soraya (the only woman at the table) a veiled long-
sleeved dress. Baba, General Taheri (in a tuxedo this time), and several of Soraya's uncles were also present at the table. Soraya and I looked down,
solemnly respectful, casting only sideways glances at each other. The mullah questioned the witnesses and read from the Koran. We said our oaths. Signed the certificates. One of Soraya's uncles from Virginia, Sharif jan, Khanum Taheri's brother, stood up and cleared his throat. Soraya had told me that he had lived in the U.S. for more than twenty years. He worked for the INS and had an American wife. He was also a poet. A small man with a birdlike face and fluffy hair, he read a lengthy poem dedicated to Soraya, jotted down on hotel stationery paper. "Wah wah, Sharif jan!" everyone exclaimed when he finished.
learned about the Taheris I learned after I married into their family. For example, I learned that, once a month, the general suffered from blinding migraines that lasted almost a week. When the headaches struck, the general went to his room, undressed, turned off the light, locked the door, and didn't come out until the pain subsided. No one was allowed to go in, no one was allowed to knock. Eventually, he would emerge, dressed in his gray suit once more, smelling of sleep and bed sheets, his eyes puffy and bloodshot. I learned from Soraya that he and Khanum Taheri had slept in separate rooms for as long as she could remember. I learned that he could be petty, such as when he'd take a bite of the qurma_ his wife placed before him, sigh, and push it away. "I'll make you something else," Khanum Taheri would say, but he'd ignore her, sulk, and eat bread and onion. This made Soraya angry and her mother cry. Soraya told me he
took antidepressants. I learned that he had kept his family on welfare and had never held a job in the U.S., preferring to cash government-issued checks than degrading himself with work unsuitable for a man of his stature-he saw the flea market only as a hobby, a way to socialize with his fellow Afghans. The general believed that, sooner or later, Afghanistan would be freed, the monarchy
restored, and his services would once again be called upon. So every day, he donned his gray suit, wound his pocket watch, and waited.
been famous in Kabul for her enchanting singing voice. Though she had never sung professionally, she had had the talent toâ€" I learned she could sing folk songs, ghazals, even raga, which was usually a man's domain. But as much as the
general appreciated listening to music-he owned, in fact, a considerable collection of classical ghazal tapes by Afghan and Hindi singers-he believed the
performing of it best left to those with lesser reputations. That she never sing in public had been one of the general's conditions when they had married. Soraya told me that her mother had wanted to sing at our wedding, only one song, but the general gave her one of his looks and the matter was buried. Khala Jamila played the lotto once a week and watched Johnny Carson every night. She spent her days in the garden, tending to her roses, geraniums, potato vines, and orchids.
The novel was released in the summer of that following year, 1989, and the publisher sent me on a five-city book tour. I became a minor celebrity in the Afghan community. That was the year that the Shorawi completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan. It should have been a time of glory for Afghans.
Instead, the war raged on, this time between Afghans, the Mujahedin, against the Soviet puppet government of Najibullah, and Afghan refugees kept flocking to
Pakistan. That was the year that the cold war ended, the year the Berlin Wall came down. It was the year of Tiananmen Square. In the midst of it all, Afghanistan was forgotten. And General Taheri, whose hopes had stirred awake after the Soviets pulled out, went back to winding his pocket watch.
That was also the year that Soraya and 1 began trying to have a child.
THE IDEA OF FATHERHOOD unleashed a swirl of emotions in me. I found it frightening, invigorating, daunting, and exhilarating all at the same time. What sort of father would I make, I wondered. I wanted to be just like Baba and I wanted to be nothing like him.
But a year passed and nothing happened. With each cycle of blood, Soraya grew more frustrated, more impatient, more irritable. By then, Khala Jamila's
initially subtle hints had become overt, as in "Kho dega!" So! "When am I going to sing alahoo for my little nawasa?" The general, ever the Pashtun, never made any
queries--doing so meant alluding to a sexual act between his daughter and a man, even if the man in question had been married to her for over four years. But his eyes perked up when Khala Jamila teased us about a baby.
passion for trains-his office was littered with books about the history of railroads, model locomotives, paintings of trains trundling on tracks through
green hills and over bridges. A sign above his desk read, LIFE IS A TRAIN. GET ON BOARD.
He laid out the plan for us. I'd get checked first. "Men are easy," he said, fingers tapping on his mahogany desk. "A man's plumbing is like his mind:
simple, very few surprises. You ladies, on the other hand... well, God put a lot of thought into making you." I wondered if he fed that bit about the plumbing to all of his couples.
"Lucky us," Soraya said.
Dr. Rosen laughed. It fell a few notches short of genuine. He gave me a lab slip and a plastic jar, handed Soraya a request for some routine blood tests. We shook hands. "Welcome aboard," he said, as he showed us out.
I PASSED WITH FLYING COLORS.
The next few months were a blur of tests on Soraya: Basal body temperatures, blood tests for every conceivable hormone, urine tests, something
called a "Cervical Mucus Test," ultrasounds, more blood tests, and more urine tests.
Soraya underwent a procedure called a hysteroscopy--Dr. Rosen inserted a telescope into Soraya's uterus and took a look around. He found nothing. "The plumbing's clear," he announced, snapping off his latex gloves. I wished he'd stop
calling it that--we weren't bathrooms. When the tests were over, he explained that he couldn't explain why we couldn't have kids. And, apparently, that wasn't so unusual. It was called "Unexplained Infertility."
Then came the treatment phase. We tried a drug called Clomiphene, and hMG, a series of shots which Soraya gave to herself. When these failed, Dr. Rosen advised in vitro fertilization. We received a polite letter from our HMO, wishing
us the best of luck, regretting they couldn't cover the cost.
down payment on a pretty, two-bedroom Victorian house in San Francisco's Bernal Heights. It had a peaked roof, hardwood floors, and a tiny backyard which ended in a sun deck and a fire pit. The general helped me refinish the deck and paint the walls. Khala Jamila bemoaned us moving almost an hour away, especially since she thought Soraya needed all the love and support she could get-oblivious to the fact that her well-intended but overbearing sympathy was precisely what was driving Soraya to move.
SOMETIMES, SORAYA SLEEPING NEXT TO ME, I lay in bed and listened to the screen door swinging open and shut with the breeze, to the crickets chirping in the yard. And I could almost feel the emptiness in Soraya's womb, like it was a
living, breathing thing. It had seeped into our marriage, that emptiness, into our laughs, and our lovemaking. And late at night, in the darkness of our room, I'd feel it rising from Soraya and settling between us. Sleeping between us.
Like a newborn child.
Chapter Thirteen begins at the Taheris' house with "lafz, the ceremony of "giving word." Even though Baba is very ill, he proclaims it "the happiest day of [his] life." Baba made a speech and General Taheri welcomed Amir into his family. Then Soraya joined the celebration and kissed Baba's hands. Traditionally, lafz is followed by an engagement party called Shirini-kori and an engagement period, but everyone agreed that they should skip it because Baba was so close to death. Baba spent almost all the money he had left on the traditional Afghan wedding ceremony, called awroussi. According to the ceremony, Amir and Soraya were left alone together under a veil to gaze at each other's reflections in a mirror. There, Amir told her he loved her for the first time. Amir could not help wondering whether Hassan had gotten married and what his wife was like. The party continued until the early morning, after which Amir and Soraya made love for the first time.
Soraya moved in with Amir and Baba after the wedding so that Amir could spend his father's last days with him. Soraya cared for Baba as though he were her own father, bathing him, reading to him, cooking for him, and giving him anything else he needed. One day, Amir came home to find Soraya hiding Rahim Khan's notebook under Baba's mattress. Baba admitted that he had coaxed Soraya to read him Amir's stories. Amir left the room to cry tears of joy, since he knew Baba disliked seeing him cry. A month after the wedding, Soraya's family came over to Baba's for dinner. Amir could see how happy Baba was to see him happily married. At the end of the night, Soraya and Amir helped Baba into bed. He refused his morphine, saying, "There is no pain tonight." He died in his sleep.
Baba's funeral took place at a nearby mosque. The men's and women's sections of the mosque were separate, so Amir sat next to General Taheri while Soraya and her mother were in another room. Amir acknowledged that Baba was his obstinate self until the end; he even died "on his own terms." Countless people whom Amir had never seen shook his hand and told him how Baba had helped them in one way or another. As he listened to their remarks, Amir realized that he no longer had Baba to define him or guide him; he felt terribly alone. After the burial, Amir and Soraya walked through the cemetery together and Amir cried at last.
After Baba's death, Amir got to know the Taheris much more closely. General Taheri was a complicated man. He did not work and collected welfare because he considered this more dignified than taking on a blue collar job as Baba had. He suffered from terrible headaches lasting days, and spent the rest of his time waiting for the liberation of Afghanistan. He felt sure that he would be called back to serve in the government at any time, so he always wore his grey suit and watch in preparation to leave. Khanum Taheri was a talented singer, but the general forbid her to sing. Instead, she focused her energies on homemaking. Now that Soraya was married, Khanum Taheri focused much of her attention on Amir. She adored him especially because he listened to her long list of imagined ailments; ever since her stroke, she became convinced that every small disturbance in her body was a serious ailment. Amir knew that Khanum Taheri was grateful to him not only for this, but for relieving her of her greatest fear-of Soraya becoming a spinster.
One night, Soraya told Amir the story of how the general forced her to end her affair. He came to her lover's house and told him he would kill him and himself if Soraya did not come home. Soraya told her father she wished he was dead, but she came home with him. At home, he made her cut off all her hair. Ever after, Soraya heard derogatory whispers everywhere she went. After Soraya told Amir the story, he asked her never to mention it again. He understood too well the torment of guilt and betrayal, but he also pitied Soraya for being a woman in Afghan society; even in America, she was subject to a double standard regarding sexual behavior.
Amir and Soraya moved into their own apartment. The Taheris helped them furnish it, and the general gave Amir a typewriter. They both enrolled at San Jose University, where Amir worked toward a degree in English and Soraya, in teaching. In 1988, Amir finished his first novel, "a father-son story set in Kabul." Soon after, he got a lierary agent and became a published writer. Amir's feelings of success were tempered with his guilt; he felt himself to be undeserving. That same year, international politics were particularly fraught. The Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, but a new conflict erupted between the Mujahedin and the remaining communist government. The Berlin wall was destroyed and the Tiananmen Square riots occurred. In their safe American abode, Amir and Soraya began trying to conceive a child.
After months of trying to conceive, Amir and Soraya consulted fertility doctors. Neither of them had any detectable fertility problems, but they were still unable to have a child. When they told Soraya's parents, General Taheri and Khanum Taheri were disappointed. The general urged them not to adopt, most of all because Afghan society depends on the line of succession, which the act of adoption obliterates. Amir thought privately that his and Soraya's infertility was punishment for his betraying Hassan so many years before. Soon after they discovered they could not have a family, Amir and Soraya bought a house. Despite their newfound material comforts, the absence of a child tormented them both.