It’s April 2001, shortly before Laila turns twenty-three, and Aziza is packing a few clothes and possessions. A few days earlier, Massoud had gone to speak to the European Parliament about his opposition against the Taliban. He had warned the West about terrorist camps in Afghanistan and had asked the US to help him fight. Laila had learned that a month earlier, the Taliban had blown apart the giant Buddhas in Bamiyan, despite a worldwide outcry. Laila remembers standing atop one of them in 1987 with Tariq and Babi.
The Taliban’s draconian laws seem to have developed into even more frightening policies—a Western reader may begin to notice more familiar talk of the Taliban’s toleration of terrorism. For Laila, Buddhas have long symbolized the true Afghanistan, as well as a glimmer of happiness that remains from her past. The Taliban have refused to accept this rich cultural heritage as part of their Afghanistan.
Laila has told Aziza that she’s going to a special school where the children stay to eat and sleep, rather than telling her the truth. Rasheed and Zalmai wait two blocks from the barracks-style building, and Rasheed carelessly holds out a piece of gum as a goodbye present. Laila reminds Aziza to say that the Mujahideen killed her father. She and Mariam assure Aziza that they’ll come back to visit her all the time.
It seems as though the family’s poverty is finally forcing them to sacrifice Aziza—a sacrifice that, of course, means little to Rasheed. The web of lies and truth is complex, since it isn’t entirely false that the Mujahideen’s violence has ultimately led to the situation in which Laila finds herself.
The orphanage director, Zaman, is kind-looking, though Laila catches a glimpse of children with disheveled hair in ragged clothes, and of a weedy lot with an old swing set in the yard. Zaman says that he can tell Mariam is from Herat—a city of artists and writers. Mariam and Aziza leave for a moment, and Laila tells the lie (which is, oddly, really the truth) about Aziza’s father. Laila begins to cry, and Zaman comforts her, saying that they’re underfunded but that they manage, with God’s will.
Though the orphanage is far from what a mother would want for her child, Laila is slightly cheered by the kindness of Zaman, who treats Mariam and Laila as friends and seems to embrace Aziza into a place where she might find some kind of belonging. Laila’s tears reveal both her sorrow and shame at having to give away her daughter.
When it’s time to leave, Aziza panics, and on the way home Laila can’t get her cries or desperation out of her head. At first, Rasheed accompanies her, Mariam, and Zalmai to the orphanage for visits, though he makes sure Laila knows how much trouble it is. He never lets them stay more than fifteen minutes. Mariam also misses Aziza deeply, though she bears it quietly, and Zalmai asks for his sister every day.
Laila applies her general stubbornness to her determination to see Aziza as much as she can. However, a mother’s love is not necessarily the strongest kind: Mariam, too, as Laila’s closest friend, suffers Aziza’s absence, and Zalmai misses her with the love of a child.
One day Rasheed says he won’t accompany Laila anymore. She keeps trying to visit the orphanage, though half the time she is stopped by the Taliban and sent home, often with a beating. But usually she finds another route. If she makes it past the Taliban, it’s worth it—she can spend all the time she wants with Aziza. Aziza says that Zaman teaches them something every day, pulling the curtains so the Taliban don’t see them and pretending to knit if there’s a Taliban inspection. On one visit, Laila recognizes a middle-aged woman visiting with three boys and a girl. She realizes it’s Khala Rangmaal, her progressive teacher, but she doesn’t seem to recognize Laila.
Under the Taliban, women are forbidden from traveling alone—meaning that Laila has been more dependent on Rasheed than ever. She willingly suffers beatings, however, for the chance to see her daughter, who seems to be gradually gaining the type of education that Babi wished for Laila. When Laila was a child, Khala Rangmaal was simply one character of many, an enthusiastic communist teacher who stuck to the Party line—now Laila understands her to be a true person, and a mother.
On one visit in June 2001, Rasheed relents, as he does rarely, and accompanies all of them to the orphanage. Aziza tells them all about tectonic plates and oxygen atoms, which she’s learning about with Zaman. Aziza is always chatty during visits, laughing in a new way—meant to reassure, Laila thinks. She can tell Aziza is embarrassed by the dirt under her fingernails, or if a naked little kid wanders past. She’s also begun to stammer.
Laila pays close attention to Aziza, knowing that not all of her suffering will be expressed in words. Aziza is clearly growing more mature and adopting conventions of both her mother and of Mariam—enduring without complaining, putting the people she loves first.
That Friday, they leave with Aziza for a short outing—Rasheed soon has to return to work as a doorman for the Intercontinental. He’s wearing his uniform and looks vulnerable and almost harmless. They all take the bus to Titanic City. Rasheed tells Zalmai and Aziza to pick something out, but after trying to haggle, he snaps at Aziza he can’t afford both gifts, and she’ll have to give hers back.
It is remarkable how someone as tyrannical as Rasheed in the home can be seen as a normal, subdued individual to others—revealing how difficult it is to fully grasp the suffering of others. As usual, Rasheed privileges Zalmai over Aziza by only allowing Zalmai to keep his gift.
As they approach the orphanage, Aziza grows quiet, and Laila has to be the chatty one. When she leaves, Laila thinks about Aziza’s stutter, and about what she’d said about tectonic plates—there may be fractures deep down, but all we can see on the surface is a tremor.
When they arrive home, Zalmai yells at an unknown man to get away. Laila follows his pointing finger and sees a man at the front door, limping towards them. She stops, her knees weaken, and she stands stock still, fearing that it’s an illusion that will be broken at the slightest movement. She closes her eyes, but when she opens them again Tariq is still there. She takes a step, then another, then runs towards him.
We first see Tariq through Zalmai’s eyes, as a limping stranger of whom Zalmai, quite understandably, is suspicious. But for Laila, there is an entire history and saga contained in the figure. At this moment, though it makes no sense to see Tariq before her, she does not need an explanation.