After a few weeks, Tariq still hasn’t returned. Laila initially is able to distract herself, but then grows anxious that he’ll never come back, or that he’s been hit by another land mine, like the one that caused him to lose a leg when he was five. One night, though Laila sees a flashlight winking from down the street, and is enormously relieved.
The loss of Tariq’s leg has been mentioned subtly, but here we learn for the first time how Afghan history and politics has directly impacted his life. Laila worries about him because of these real dangers, but also simply because she cares about him.
The next day Laila hurries to Tariq’s house, where she exclaims at his newly shaved head and his sunburned cheeks. He says his uncle was sick, which is why they stayed so long. Tariq’s parents welcome Laila, whom they jokingly call their daughter-in-law. She stays for lunch: Laila loves eating at Tariq’s since they always eat as a family, beginning each meal with fresh yogurt and joking with each other at ease.
Again, everyone in the neighborhood seems to understand the special relationship between Laila and Tariq, teasing them as a result. Tariq’s family could not be more different than Laila’s, and by eating with them she can imagine a distinct, more vibrant family life.
Though they are Pashtuns, they speak Farsi rather than Pashto for Laila’s sake. Babi says that there are tensions between Tajiks, like them, and Pashtuns—Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group—since Pashtun kings have ruled for many more years. Babi says that all that matters should be the Afghan identity, but he understands the rivalry and resentment.
Afghanistan is composed of many different ethnic groups, and the novel attempts to reveal this diversity through the languages and heritage of different characters. There is a tension throughout the novel between these strong ethnic identities and a national Afghan identity.
After lunch, Laila and Tariq go to his room, where he tells Laila about his trip and they play games. She remembers the first time she saw his stump.
Friends since they were small children, Laila and Tariq have already weathered difficult times.
The two decide to go to the zoo. Laila says that she’s missed him, and after a pause Tariq makes a face and asks what’s wrong with her. She realizes that with boys, friendship doesn’t necessarily need constant confirmation and validation.
Though all the neighbors make fun of Laila and Tariq’s childhood romance, Laila and Tariq themselves just dance around the issue,
At the bus stop, she sees Khadim grinning at her from down the street, and she tells Tariq the story. Clenching his teeth, he crosses the street to Khadim, and bends down as if to tie his shoe. He hops up on one leg, charging at Khadim with his unstrapped leg. The other boys step aside and allow Tariq a free path to Khadim—who never bothers Laila again.
Unable to rely on Mammy to protect her, Laila turns to Tariq, whose loyalty means that he’ll do whatever it takes to defend Laila from the neighborhood troublemakers—even with his physical disability.
That night, Laila sets the table for her and Babi alone, as usual. Babi asks Laila what she’s working on—every night, he helps her with homework and gives her extra lessons. Even though the communists fired Babi, he thinks they’ve done well to promote the education of women, and encourages Laila to take advantage of it. He says that their attitude is one reason people in the provinces, where women are far more repressed and ancient tribal laws reign, have taken up arms against the communists.
Unlike with Tariq’s family, Laila’s dinners are for just Laila and Babi. Though this means their meals are more subdued than they’d be with Mammy and Laila’s brothers, it also allows Babi to stress the importance of education for Laila—a progressive belief in women’s rights that is not shared by everyone in Afghanistan.
Laila decides to tell Babi about Tariq’s fight with Khadim, but doesn’t have time before a stranger knocks at the door with news.
Another cliffhanger, which interrupts Laila’s decision to boast a bit about Tariq’s loyalty.