One day that September, Tariq races into the bungalow to announce that Ahmad Shah Massoud is dead. He was giving an interview to a pair of supposed journalists, when a bomb hidden in their video camera went off —they were probably from Al-Qaeda. Laila recalls how Mammy had always refused to blame Massoud, even after the warring between factions. Laila, though, remembers the gratuitous violence under Massoud’s watch—she remembers, though she’s tried to forget, Babi’s headless torso hitting the ground beside her after the rocket.
Massoud has been a constant presence in Afghan affairs for decades, most recently as an agent attempting to rally the West against the Taliban. Laila’s recollections, however, make it clear that no one in Afghanistan’s past is either entirely guilty or entirely blameless (including herself). The brutal way her parents died is still blazed into her memory.
Two days later, they’re cleaning a room when they hear a commotion. In the hotel lobby, everyone’s crowded around the TV, which is tuned to BBC and shows a tower with black smoke billowing out. Suddenly, a plane appears and crashes into the tower next to them. Soon, all the TV stations are talking about Afghanistan, the Taliban, and bin Laden.
September 11, 2001 is the first time internal Afghan affairs—which the Western reader has come to know intimately through the story—intersect explicitly with a piece of American history, though the reader is meant to understand the long and complex history behind this one terrorist event.
Tariq says that the Taliban have announced they won’t hand over bin Laden because he’s a guest in Afghanistan, and it would be against the Pashtunwali code of ethics to turn him in. Tariq laughs bitterly: he’s dismayed by this perversion of the Pashtun custom. A few days later, they see the American president Bush on TV, declaring war.
Though Tariq is Pashtun as well, his dismay at the Taliban’s interpretation of this code of ethics reveals that ethnic identity is far from the only possible source of loyalty for Afghans.
Tariq suggests that war with the Americans might not be so bad in the end. Laila is shocked, asking him how he can say such a thing. Her voice rising, she says that he wasn’t around for the Mujahideen battles that killed her parents—he wouldn’t know. He apologizes, saying that he just thought that there might be hope at the end of this for the first time in a long while. Laila begins to soften, but she is still not convinced that any new war is “worth it,” and she cannot bring herself to celebrate.
Tariq, unlike Laila, is able to consider war in a more geopolitical, strategic sense. Laila, though, has seen what war has wrought directly—just as she could not abort her child, and thus abide by the Mujahideen laws of sacrificing the innocent, she cannot live by a law in which suffering can validate a greater good.
That night, Zalmai wakes up coughing, and Tariq rocks him back and forth. When he comes back to bed, they’re silent, but Laila reaches over and sees that Tariq has been crying.
Zalmai and Tariq have had a complex relationship, but Tariq’s tears serve as a wordless symbol of his love for Zalmai, even if he’s not his son.