“Be careful, Amir,” he said as I began to walk. “Of what, Baba?”
“I am not an ahmaq, so don’t play stupid with me.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Remember this,” Baba said, pointing at me, “The man is a Pashtun to the root. He has nang and namoos.” Nang. Namoos. Honor and pride. The tenets of Pashtun men. Especially when it came to the chastity of a wife. Or a daughter.
“I’m only going to get us drinks.”
“Just don’t embarrass me, that’s all I ask.” “I won’t. God, Baba.”
Baba lit a cigarette and started fanning himself again.
I walked toward the concession booth initially, then turned left at the T-shirt stand-where, for $5, you could have the face of Jesus, Elvis, Jim Morrison, or all three, pressed on a white nylon T-shirt. Mariachi music played overhead, and I smelled pickles and grilled meat.
I spotted the Taheris’ gray van two rows from ours, next to a kiosk selling mango-on-a-stick. She was alone, readirig. White ankle-length summer dress today. Open-toed sandals. Hair pulled back and crowned with a tulip-shaped bun. I meant to simply walk by again and I thought I had, except suddenly I was standing at the edge of the Taheris’ white tablecloth, staring at Soraya across curling irons and old neckties. She looked up.
“Salaam,” I said. “I’m sorry to be mozahem, I didn’t mean to disturb you.”
“Is General Sahib here today?” I said. My ears were burning. I couldn’t bring myself to look her in the eye.
“He went that way,” she said. Pointed to her right. The bracelet slipped down to her elbow, silver against olive.
“Will you tell him I stopped by to pay my respects?” I said. “I will.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Oh, and my name is Amir. In case you need to know. So you can tell him. That I stopped by. To … pay my respects.”
I shifted on my feet, cleared my throat. “I’ll go now. Sorry to have disturbed you.”
“Nay, you didn’t,” she said.
“Oh. Good.” I tipped my hed and gave her a half smile. “I’ll go now.” Hadn’t I already said that? “Khoda hafez.”
I began to walk. Stopped and turned. I said it before I had a chance to lose my nerve. “Can I ask what you’re reading?”
She blinked. I held my breath. Suddenly, I felt the collective eyes of the flea market Afghans shift to us. I imagined a hush falling. Lips stopping in midsentence. Heads turning. Eyes narrowing with keen interest.
What was this? Up to that point, our encounter could have been interpreted as a respectful inquiry, one man asking for the whereabouts of another man. But I’d asked her a question and if she answered, we’d be … well, we’d be chatting. Me a mojarad, a single young man, and she an unwed young woman. One with a history, no less. This was teetering dangerously on the verge of gossip material, and the best kind of it. Poison tongues would flap. And she would bear the brunt of that poison, not me—I was fully aware of the Afghan double standard that favored my gender. Not Did you see him chatting with her? but Wooooy! Did you see how she wouldn’t let him go? What a lochak!
By Afghan standards, my question had been bold. With it, I had bared myself, and left little doubt as to my interest in her. But I was a man, and all I had risked was a bruised ego. Bruises healed. Reputations did not. Would she take my dare?
She turned the book so the cover faced me. Wuthering Heights. “Have you read it?” she said.
I nodded. I could feel the pulsating beat of my heart behind my eyes. “It’s a sad story.”
“Sad stories make good books,” she said.
“I heard you write.”
How did she know? I wondered if her father had told her, maybe she had asked him. I immediately dismissed both scenarios as absurd. Fathers and sons could talk freely about women. But no Afghan girl—no decent and mohtaram Afghan girl, at least, queried her father about a young man. And no father, especially a Pashtun with nang and namoos, would discuss a mojarad with his daughter, not unless the fellow in question was a khastegar, a suitor, who had done the honorable thing and sent his father to knock on the door.
Incredibly, I heard myself say, “Would you like to read one of my stories?”
“I would like that,” she said. I sensed an unease in her now, saw it in the way her eyes began to flick side to side. Maybe checking for the general. I wondered what he would say if he found me speaking for such an inappropriate length of time with his daughter.