Tariq is telling Laila about one of the men in a jail cell with him, whose cousin had been beaten publicly for painting flamingos. Laila is still barely able to believe he’s sitting in front of her. Tariq continues, saying that the Taliban were offended by the birds’ long bare legs, and had told him either to destroy the paintings or make them decent. He painted pants on each bird: “Islamic flamingos,” Tariq says. Laila wants to laugh but is ashamed of her yellowing teeth with one incisor missing. But she notices that Tariq has a missing tooth as well.
As they sit on the couch, Tariq attempts to strike the same kind of playful note as during their adolescent bantering so many years ago—here, he pokes fun at and makes light of the Taliban’s strict Shari’a laws, showing how ridiculous they can be. Though Laila initially feels shame at how she’s weathered the years, this shame is countered by the knowledge that the two of them have both suffered.
Laila marvels how adult Tariq seems. He is still handsome but with weathered instead of fair skin and his hair receding. She’d told Tariq what she thought had happened to him and his parents. He shook his head, but told her that they’ve both died. He now hands her a small paper bag, from “Alyona,” he says—a block of cheese. She asks if that’s his wife, her voice wavering, but he says it’s her goat. She remembers that Alyona had been the protagonist of the Soviet film they’d watched, the day he’d worn the enormous Russian fur hat as the Soviets left Kabul.
Though many years have passed, Laila still thinks of Tariq as the teenager whom she kissed in secret, and now has to reconcile that image with the adult sitting before her. Tariq, though, has obviously also kept much of their past together alive in his memory, as his reference to the long-ago Russian film makes clear.
Tariq says that he lives in the foothills in Pakistan, near Islamabad, at a summer retreat called Murree built by the British. Tariq says he’s sorry about Laila’s parents—he talked to some neighbors earlier. He says he doesn’t recognize Kabul, and Laila admits that she doesn’t either, even though she’s never left.
As Tariq and Laila catch up with each other, they each must adjust the way they’ve imagined the other over the years. They’ve changed just as Kabul has, becoming unrecognizably different from the Kabul of their youth.
That night, Zalmai will tell Rasheed that Mammy has a new friend—a man. “Does she, now?” Rasheed will reply.
Before Rasheed even knows of Tariq’s return, he is quick to condemn Laila for flouting her place as a woman by welcoming a man.
Tariq tells Laila about his family’s stay at a refugee camp in Pakistan with sixty thousand other Afghans. It had been a model camp during the Soviet war, but afterward the West lost interest and the camp became desolate and barren, with rampant sickness. Tariq’s father died that first winter in his sleep. That same season, Tariq cornered a kid, holding a shard of glass to his throat until he gave Tariq his blanket, which Tariq gave to his mother suffering from pneumonia.
During the Soviet occupation, Americans had a vested interest in Afghanistan, as it was a proxy war for their Cold War battles with the Soviet Union. The camp’s disintegration reflects how regular Afghans have suffered the brunt of international powers’ use of Afghanistan as part of a political chess game.
Tariq vowed to get his family out of the camp. In fall 1993 he met a shopkeeper, who offered to pay him to take a leather coat to Lahore. He said that if Tariq got caught, he’d be on his own. He didn’t get far—a policeman cut open the coat at the bus station and hashish spilled out.
Tariq’s loyalty to his family, and their increasing desperation, made him willing to take wild risks in order to have a chance to provide for them.
Back to dinner that night: Zalmai says the man has a limp. Rasheed, stony-faced, says that Laila let Tariq into his home, with his son. Laila says that he lied to her, and Rasheed roars that it was Laila who lied to him—he knew all about her harami.
Until now, Laila and Rasheed have maintained an uneasy truce regarding her past—now he is willing to hurl the shame of the word “harami” at her, whereas earlier Aziza’s status could have shamed him as well.
That afternoon: Tariq doesn’t mention much about his years in prison. His mother tried to see him but never was allowed to. He wrote Laila tons of letters, he says, even though he doubted she’d receive them. At that moment, Zalmai starts crying upstairs.
As the narrative toggles back and forth between Tariq’s visit and Laila’s confrontation with Rasheed later that night, the tensions between Laila’s feelings for Tariq and the needs of her family grow increasingly apparent.
That night: Rasheed asks if Laila let Tariq see her face, and Zalmai pipes in that she did.
Laila has clearly flouted the norms set for her by Rasheed as well as the Taliban.
That afternoon: Tariq says that her son doesn’t like her much. Laila feels guilty, knowing that Zalmai is simply a child who loves his father, and his dislike of a male stranger is understandable.
Laila is torn before the pure love she feels for Tariq, and the more complicated guilt and responsibility she feels for allowing him into her home.
Tariq says that he befriended a Pakistani named Salim, who had plenty of contacts. Salim found out that Tariq’s mother died of exposure. Tariq spent seven years in prison, and when he got out Salim gave him the phone number of his brother Sayeed, who owned a hotel in Murree. Tariq immediately liked Murree—it seemed like a place that had never known violence. He got a job as a janitor and handyman.
Even though he had to endure years in prison, Tariq was able to establish a loyal friendship while there. A “place that had never known violence” is foreign to Tariq—as well as to Laila—contrasting with the tumultuousness of their upbringing in Afghanistan.
Laila says, again, that she thought Tariq was dead. She asks for his forgiveness for having married Rasheed. Tariq doesn’t blame her. But Laila continues, saying that there’s something—someone—he doesn’t know about.
Laila feels guilty for not remaining loyal to Tariq—though she did believe she was staying loyal by marrying Rasheed, and thus ensuring the safety of his daughter.
That night: Rasheed asks Zalmai if he talked to the man too, and Zalmai seems uncertain, aware that he’s stumbled into something bigger than he thought.
Zalmai, who loves both his parents, is caught between them in a way he is too young to understand.
As Tariq leaves, he says he wants to meet Aziza. Laila thinks back to the times they’d met in secret in the alley, ten years before. But at that moment, it seems as if all the time, and the violence that’s filled it, are nothing. Then Tariq turns serious, touching her split lower lip and saying that her husband did this to her. He says he wishes he’d taken her with him—that he’d tried harder to marry her when he could. But Laila begs him not to talk that way. She tells him to return the next day, and she’ll take him to Aziza.
Laila and Tariq have both suffered in different ways through these ten years, and both feel regret and guilt for different reasons, but they are confident that their love for each other can overcome such pain. Still, Tariq’s return is too overwhelming for Laila to do more than make a smaller plan, for the next day.