Tariq, Laila, and Babi are in a taxi leaving Kabul on a day trip—the destination is Babi’s surprise, though he says it will contribute to Laila’s education. The landscape shifts from mountains to deserts and canyons with rock outcroppings, dotted with the black tents of Koochi nomads. Laila also glimpses burned-out cars and helicopters, and thinks that this is Abdul and Noor’s Afghanistan, not Kabul.
Babi is deeply committed to ensuring that Laila will be not only cultivated but also well-prepared to enter the public sphere. The landscape outside their window conveys the vast diversity of Afghanistan, in which cosmopolitan city life coexists with nomadic villages.
As they enter a valley, Babi points to ancient-looking red walls in the distance. They are Shahr-e-Zohak or the Red City, an ancient fortress built nine hundred years ago for defense. Genghis Khan’s grandson was killed trying to attack it, and Genghis Khan then destroyed it. The driver says that this is the story of Afghanistan—constantly invaded, and battered as a result, but still standing.
Already, we have seen Afghanistan weather several changes in government, as well as the Soviet invasion. This tumultuousness is, we now learn, far from unusual, and even stretches back a millennium. Afghanistan’s ability to endure such invasions instills a certain nobility and pride in its people.
Half an hour later, they get out of the taxi and find themselves in front of two enormous Buddhas, chiseled into a rock cliff and flanked by caves. Babi says that Bamiyan had once been a thriving home of Buddhism before Islamic Arabs began to control it in the ninth century. Buddhist monks had lived in these sandstone cliffs, and had painted frescoes along the walls of their caves.
The Bamiyan Buddhas are another example of Afghanistan’s vibrant cultural heritage and storied path. The diversity of experiences, ethnic and otherwise, remained constant from this 9th-century historical period to the ethnic diversity of contemporary Afghanistan.
At the top, they look out over the Bamiyan Valley with its farming fields of winter wheat, alfalfa, and potatoes, crisscrossed by streams and dotted with tiny figures of women washing their clothes. Laila makes out people on the roofs of their mud brick dwellings, the main town road lined with poplars, and, beyond, the foothills and then the massive, snowcapped Hindu Kush. Babi says he wanted the children to see and feel their country’s heritage in person.
The narrator’s vivid description helps to paint an image of Afghanistan that counters images Westerners may have of a war-torn, barren country. Babi’s words again underline his belief in the importance of female education, but also of understanding Afghan identity through its cultural heritage.
Babi says that he often brought Mammy up here, back when she was adventurous and alive. He smiles at the memories, and Laila knows she’ll always remember Babi in this way, happy and reminiscing. Tariq heads off to explore the caves, and Babi says to Laila that he also misses the boys, even if he shows it in a different way from Mammy. But he says he thanks God that he has Laila—he doesn’t know what he’d do without her. Sometimes, he continues, he has thoughts of leaving Afghanistan, maybe to Pakistan first and eventually to America, where they could open up an Afghan restaurant. Laila could go to school and even college, and in the meantime help out at the restaurant, which would host parties and birthdays for other Afghans fleeing the war.
Laila once again has a glimpse of what Mammy used to be like, the woman Babi married. During their sons’ funeral, Babi was shooed away and unable to participate fully in the social customs that delimit and structure grief. Here, he is able both to share his own suffering and—in a way that Mammy cannot—insist on his love for Laila. Babi’s dream for leaving Afghanistan is, ironically, based in his love for the country—a love he thinks can be better kept alive by continuing to celebrate its culture and cuisine abroad.
When Babi is done, they both grow quiet, knowing that Mammy would never leave the land of her martyr sons—and Babi would never leave without her. Laila remembers Mammy saying that she had married a man with no convictions, but Laila knows that Mammy is the one constant conviction of his life.
Almost immediately, this bewitching dream yields to the reality of the situation that Babi and Laila must endure—in Babi’s case, thanks to his unyielding loyalty to his wife, despite her grief and depression.
Later, Tariq naps and Babi reads under the acacias. Laila dips her feet into the water and thinks about Babi’s dreams of America. She has to admit to herself that she is partly glad they can’t go—she would miss Giti, Hasina, and especially Tariq, as irrational as wanting to stay in a disintegrating country might be.
Though Babi had believed he could stay loyal to Afghanistan even while abroad, for Laila, her understanding of Afghanistan is bound up with the memories of the people she loves in the country.
Six months later, in April 1988, Babi returns home to announce that a treaty has been signed in Geneva. Mammy claims that the communist puppet president, Najibullah, is still staying. She won’t celebrate until the Mujahideen march in victory in Kabul.
Once again, the political winds are shifting in Afghanistan, though for Mammy, her sons’ martyrdom will only lead to one particular political outcome.