click for homepage

       The Barcelona Review


Author Bio



We are gathered in the dry September heat, waiting for the jirga to begin. Baba has still not turned up. Seven days have passed since Baba killed Zaman Noori’s son and disappeared, but Zaman Noori exhibits no gestures of mourning, only the air of outrage that he’s always carried like his patrimony: resentment over a generations-old offense. My brother Bahram Khan rests under a banyan tree, and within point-blank range, Zaman Noori and his kin squat facing him. Ma and I are holding hands, standing at the periphery, watching the men. We are praying, hoping.
       Our collective gaze falls on the verdant hill where conifers are thickly settled, their tall, distant silhouettes observing us in return. A steady breeze carries the smell of rotting blueberries, then dies out, as if struck by a sense of decency, or an impulse to tread carefully, and we breathe the still, vitiated air hanging in the folds of tightly furled turbans and loosely flung chadors.
       Here is a rocky expanse, here are men seeking revenge, their blood coursing fast along the darkened alleyways of their bodies; here I, a daughter and sister of Pashtuns, watch the drama unfold—how my tongue gets loosed this close to the end!

Twenty years ago, Zaman Noori’s father killed my grandfather, and a jirga intervened, marrying Baba and Zaman Noori’s sister to seal the peace. Baba received ten acres in dowry—blood money—and Zaman Noori’s family was left landless. Zaman Noori’s sister died soon after. Time passed, Baba remarried. Zaman Noori accumulated debts; with nowhere to graze, his herd grew smaller.
       Three years ago, Zaman Noori rented five acres of our land and grew a rice crop but refused to pay rent when the year ended. A jirga was called again. Zaman Noori contended that Baba never farmed the land beyond the dike and had no right to its fruits. Baba said that he’d sooner burn the entire crop of rice than let Zaman Noori steal from him. The jirga ruled in Baba’s favor and ordered Zaman Noori to pay three hundred thousand rupees and vacate our land.
       That week, Baba bought a majestic Arabyhorse for eighty thousand rupees at a public auction. People said that Baba bought the Araby to spite Zaman Noori. When Baba brought the Araby home, he said, “Natasha, my dear, this one is yours forever. You have a name for him?” And when I said, “Sheroo,” Baba kissed my forehead.
       Sheroo is from a race of warrior horses; a buckskin that turns gold in the setting sun, with a black tail silkier than my hair. We keep him in a shed three kilometres south of our village street. Whenever Ma sends me to milk our cows, I visit Sheroo in secret. He lifts his head when he sees me coming, as if asking, Are we doing this again? His brown eyes glint, like he knows all my desires. Then I put the bit in his mouth, use a stool to mount him, and take the reins. Shoeless, saddleless, we trot outside, tracing a path hidden by elm trees. And the next hour a slow progression, a lurching forward and a holding backward, the sun hanging low, watchful; Sheroo majestic; the white mountains endless; our land, sectioned, stretching before us, barren here, irrigated there; while a bulbul wails in the distance and I tug my cold feet gently against Sheroo’s silken body and turn my head back in the direction of our village where Ma waits for me in the veranda.
       We live in Kurram Valley. Our house has brick walls and rooms forming a U around the veranda. We are four: Baba, Ma, Bahram Khan and I. Fourteen-years-old, I am the youngest and Baba is the oldest.
       Everyone in our village is Pashtun, and all the men carry guns. So, it didn’t surprise me when Bahram Khan received a rifle from Baba last year. Before that, Bahram Khan and I used to play together in the rice fields. What did surprise me was how quickly the world of grown-ups swallowed Bahram Khan, hardened his face and body, and replaced his old easy manners. With grave bemusement, I’ve considered these changes. He speaks to me in the formal, guarded tone of strangers. He hunts and wrestles and travels alone wherever Baba sends him. Most days, Bahram Khan and Baba leave the house before sunrise and don’t return before nightfall. For months I’ve avoided Bahram Khan, ignored his presence, in silent protest. I love him dearly still, but I no longer trust him with my secrets. The ease with which he has fallen out of rhythm with me and into some other rhythm, some other pattern, frightens me. I do not resent him perks of manhood, but I cannot ignore the painful truth that separation has not made him seek me out, that loss of our friendship has not disturbed his peace of mind.
       Perhaps Ma, too, has felt these changes, though she has not discussed them with me. Bahram Khan fears Ma. Last month, Ma made pulao, and Bahram Khan said he hated it. Tears formed in Ma’s almond eyes and collected on her thin oval face. Then Baba slapped Bahram Khan, slapped him twice with the level, tired intensity he brings to every task. So of course, Bahram Khan touched Ma’s feet and apologized. And when Ma screams at Bahram Khan for entering the house with dirty sandals, he runs to wash his feet without question.
       I think Ma is harmless. Whenever she is angry at me, I kiss her hands, and she relents, but you can’t keep secrets from Ma, for she always finds out the truth. One time it rained when I was with Sheroo, and I returned home with my shalwar muddied. I washed quickly before I went to Ma. I can smell him on you still, she said. Go wash yourself again. Ma is always telling us to wash ourselves.    
       Every morning she opens the windows and turns on the radio—a treasure from her dowry that survived the journey from Parachinar, her hometown. In the morning light, she teaches me to read and write. Then she sweeps our veranda. She makes roti by hand on our brick stove. She churns butter as the slanted rays of afternoon sun fall on her golden curls. She makes our Eid clothes with her sewing machine.
       She knows all the ghazals that play on the radio, and sometimes she sings. When Ma sings her voice transforms, signalling to secrets, and her face is lifted to the white mountains as if they can hear her and will answer back soon. I love ghazals, love how you can tell the name of the poet from the last couplet, and even if it’s just takhallus, it gives you a grain of truth to hold. Poetry is good, I believe, and if you allow it, it’ll seize you and never leave you. Ma’s favorite ghazals speak of tragedy, regret and unrequited love; they’re mournful, melancholy, thrilling. I wonder if a quiet life can deliver thrills, if Ma keeps secrets. I wonder about Ma’s dreams. 
       In my dreams I see my future; I suspect it will arrive suddenly, like Ma’s: her marriage was arranged after an accidental encounter between Baba and Ma’s father in a tea shop a hundred miles away. In my future I see a mountain village and a man stronger than Bahram Khan and he, this man, has Araby horses and the quietness of the moor about him, and I see a journey in my future, somewhere quieter than my village, where a naked stream runs along a cobbled bed and only the bulbuls get heard. I have dreamed of this stream and run barefoot in the meadow by it, the smell of grass and the land all over me. And when this future arrives I hope I’m ready for it and worthy of my family’s name.

A tall dark-haired man begins speaking. He asks Zaman Noori to stand. Zaman Noori stands. Baba should have been here by now, I think. I can sense Ma scanning the crowd for Baba’s face. Ma has not spoken a word to me all morning, and I am filled with shame, because I could’ve prevented all this from happening, because I made a mistake eight days ago. Baba and Bahram Khan were gone on business to a neighboring village, and Ma sent me to get milk. It was a warm cloudless evening. Air smelled of citrus. For two weeks westerly winds had blown, prompting us to wear scarves, but that night the air moved like a baby’s gentle breathing. Doors were left ajar in our village street and passing them I saw figures stirring in verandas.
       Of course, I visited Sheroo first.
       Sheroo and I trotted behind the elm trees. The night hung over us like a moist blanket. In the distance stood Suleiman mountain, which is old and removed from us and carries secrets we can never know, and which will outlast us. I was thinking about what lies beyond the mountain, about  highways, cities teeming with people, glass buildings, irrigated plains. And suddenly, I was filled with longing. My days with Sheroo were numbered and the land in front was endless. Involuntarily, a refrain from an old ghazal rose to my mouth. This night, don’t insist on returning. I found myself repeating it, again and again. My face was burning.
       Then I dropped the reins, whistled, and coaxed Sheroo into a gallop. And then we were gliding, the elm trees and rice fields behind us, wind slapping our faces, fog hanging on the low peaks ahead, the land beneath us shaking, then leaping upwards, uncertain and enchanting. Our path grew narrower and I tasted dust at the roof of my mouth. When we stopped near a cluster of conifer trees, we were completely alone.
       This was the farthest I’d ever ventured. I thought about how I might look to someone working in the fields, if they saw me from the distance. The night’s shroud would provide some protection but my golden-brown hair, shoulder length, would be visible in the moonlight, and I am taller than most girls. In my village, I am still considered a child, and I do not wear a burqa when I go outside, and while it’s true that children may do as they please, girls are a different matter; girls may keep secrets but they may not lead secret lives. In my village, the secret life of a girl can be dangerous. A girl riding a horse saddleless, miles outside the village can raise more than eyebrows. What would people think if they saw me? Draw the wrong conclusions? A lover’s meeting? I thought about all of this and then I was afraid. If Baba found out, there would be trouble. Then Sheroo nickered and the fear disappeared, and we were riding like the wind, Suleiman at our backs.
       We were approaching our village. I tugged the reins gently and Sheroo slowed. I was breathless from the exercise, and this change of pace was a relief. We were crossing the dike that separates two sections of our land, and that’s when I saw it: on the other side, a cluster of sheep, grazing on our hard moonlit land. Not our sheep, but on our land. And a figure, tall, pale, wearing a frayed turban, wielding a tree branch. A familiar face, and unwelcome.
       Looking at Zaman Noori, I felt momentarily that old fierce grief of blood. Sheroo and I hid in the shadow of elm trees, and from there I watched Zaman Noori, his face lifted to the moon, as he hummed something in dari, but I couldn’t decipher the words. Was it a song? Or a poem? There was no hurry in his movements, no secrecy in his voice, and he wasn’t so much directing his herd as being led by it. His herd led him from one corner of the dike to the other and then back, as if bent on treading every inch of our land. Thick weeds grew on this section, which Baba had not plowed or rented this year. I waited and after what seemed like a long time, Zaman Noori’s herd crossed the dike and moved on, dust rising and falling in their wake, falling and rising like my fast beating heart. Long after the herd left, I could still hear their steady baleful bleating ringing in my ears. And I was filled with rage.
       When I told Ma about it, she said, “Don’t tell your Baba. Perhaps, you made a mistake.” That night I couldn’t sleep, even after Baba and Bahram Khan returned, ate dinner, and went to bed. Around midnight, I left my room and crept to the veranda, where Bahram Khan slept on the charpoy. The moon was large on the northern plains, and the night was humid. Bahram Khan slept barechested, without any bedsheets. When I touched his shoulder, he sat up. In that moment, he looked a man several years older. He held my hand. “What’s wrong?” he asked. His voice was tender, and I was surprised by its tenor. I told him about Zaman Noori. I didn’t mention the business that sent me outdoors at night, and he asked no questions. “Go to bed. It’s almost morning,” he said when I was finished, his voice cool and distant then. In the morning he told Baba that Zaman Noori was grazing his sheep on our land. Then Baba saddled Sheroo, slung his Kalashnikov over his shoulder, and went looking for him. He found Zaman Noori’s son instead, and shot him twice. 
       Then Baba and Sheroo disappeared. Every night I dreamed about them: there is Baba leaving the veranda, his gun burning hot in the noon sun; there is Baba riding to the dike, and Sheroo—oh that majestic Araby—serene, no distress, no heat of the land, no doubt clouding his eyes, a burning halo around him, golden and pale grey and white; and Sheroo jumps the dike in one breathless lurch of his feet. There is Zaman Noori’s boy standing in silent awe, as Baba waves his gun in the air and screams the name of his Maker, who is also his Maker, and the bullets, fired from a waving gun by a man on a raging horse, know where to go.

When I was a child Baba used to take me in his arms and tell me about our ancestors. “You have the nose of Sanday Khan who died two years before you were born,” Baba would say. “His father Choor Khan killed a Raeesani man and disappeared. But the kill was clean and he kept his honor. And his father was Feroz Khan, the sardar of sardars, man of the west—do you know he fought the British on these hills? He lost half his tribe, all our land, but the British left and we are still here, and we will be here after others have come and gone. Do you know Alexander passed here? But he could not subdue us. And he was a true warrior and perhaps his blood runs in our veins. And Feroz Khan’s father, you want to hear about him too, don’t you?” But Baba doesn’t hold me anymore.
       When the jirga announces Baba’s name, he appears from the shadows of the banyantree. He is a Pashtun man and there is no fear in him when he surrenders, as if he’s placing himself in the hands of the thousand-year-old Pashtunwali and not the jirga, and he’s lived his life by the Pashtunwali, Baba, and he’s not about to stop now, and the Pashtunwali has never let him down, and I know this because I am Pashtun too and the blood rages in me a little when I see him place his gun on the ground.
       I notice Bahram Khan standing behind Baba, scan his solemn face and wonder what version of anguish and ambiguity he is feeling. After all, Bahram Khan is as much to blame. He appears lost, standing under the banyan tree, on his face the same look that came over it years ago when Ma tried to teach him to read. He never learned. “There is no substitute for experience,” he often repeats. And it’s true that Bahram Khan inspects our land every day and meets men from neighboring towns and is an expert in animal husbandry. Bahram Khan boasts about knowing the mountains better than anyone. “I’ve climbed some perilous paths,” he says. I envy him the solitude of a climb and its secret rituals. When he wants to please, he can be an arresting storyteller. But I have read Iqbal’s poems and Ghalib’s ghazals. And I know when the mountain breeze blows the seeds off the conifer trees, when they sway on the still mornings, and when they stand erect on the land, I know there is poetry in that and in the Hand of the Maker. I know when Ma says her prayers, when it is dark still, and the cadence of her verse, even here, elevated there, rings stern in the dappled darkness, when light is but a sliver on the horizon, I know there is poetry in that. And I know about grace; for have I not stood on a soft October night on my prayer mat and shed tears to my Maker, and how He makes the hard things easy on me.
       Baba’s sudden appearance produces no change in Bahram Khan’s face. I wonder if Bahram Khan knew all along where Baba was hiding. I turn to Ma to ask if she knew, if I was the only one not told, but Ma is grief-stricken. I hug Ma and tell her things are going to be fine, the jirga won’t allow more bloodshed. Ma is wearing a blue burqa. I can feel her discomfort every time men turn to look at us. I can’t remember the last time she left the house. Then I realize we are not the only onespresent. Bhel, Zaman Noori’s wife, the dead boy’s mother, stands alone several feet behind Zaman Noori. Clad in white, her face bared, she glares at the conferring men, as if daring them to meet her gaze. If I’d said nothing, perhaps her son might be alive. If I’d stayed home, away from Sheroo, perhaps none of this would have happened. And Bhel is a mother too, and perhaps she too waited by the door, like Ma, when her son was out in the world, and for a moment I imagine her praying and waiting by the door, even as Baba saddled Sheroo and raced to the rice fields, wild with rage.
       Zaman Noori consults his kin. Zaman Noori is an old man with a grey beard and large nose and hands. He stands six feet tall and his face is the color of the land—pale, desolate of happiness, I think. His clothes are starched stiff and white. His open mouth appears toothless and a black mole protrudes from his right eyebrow. He turns from his kin and I shudder as his gaze falls on me. He spits on the ground and rests his tongue on his lower lip.
       In a circle, men of the jirga huddle. Outside the circle, we wait. The sun hovers straight above us, and its rasp-red rays burn the land. Squatting men are shifting their feet. Even the horses and camels seem restless and I can hear their minor scuffles and cries. Sheroo is not among them. Left in a removed spot for a speedy escape?
       Then someone says, “Enough blood has been spilt already.”
       Then the jirga splits up and the men spread out. There is confusion. Ma and I are pushed back, the circle made wider. At the same time, sounds of cursing, laughing and rage—and something else—move through the crowd like waves, rising and rising, and I am afraid. I can see Baba, his gaze fixed at the mountain, as if engaged in an argument no other soul can be privy to. I can’t stop looking at Baba.
       Then someone says, “Restitution must be made to Zaman Noori.” They are asking for our horses. How many do we have, they ask. Bahram Khan answers them but Baba appears indifferent to these questions of assets. How many sheep have we got, they ask. Bahram Khan tells them. Sheroo appears from the shadows—seven lonely days since I last saw Sheroo—and my heart fills up.
       The questioning stops and the men consult once more. I want to know what is happening. I want to ask Baba but he is far away, and I want to ask Ma, whose legs graze mine, but I sense that she too is far away. Her face is covered. I can see only her eyes and they are the brightest I have ever seen them.  
       Three men of the jirga address the gathered crowd; their mannerisms are pacific. They are not from our tribe or our village. They recite verses from Quran and the quietude fallen on us seems a blessing. “One Arabyhorse,” they say, “will be given to Zaman Noori, to do with as he pleases. And sixty sheep—”
       I should have expected this but shock has gripped my throat, is choking all happiness and goodness out of me. Sheroo! I’ve brushed and held his body; questioned him on the story of his life, speculated on accidents and rough chances; told him secrets, loved him. I’ve ridden him through rock and hill; he’s shown me speed and grace. And he is my friend. Baba said Sheroo was mine forever, but he should have said, You can have him but you cannot keep him. Before I can even draw breath I’ve understood this: if we can bear to lose Sheroo, we can have Baba back. 
       Baba won’t turn away from the mountain. Ma grips my right arm so securely that it hurts. The circle parts as Sheroo, flanked by my brother, is brought to the center. The sun’s striated rays fall on Sheroo, punctuating his distinguished forehead, his arrogant walk, his muzzle, his weathered flanks and shoulders, his delicate and sleek mane. There is an imperiousness to his gait and a murmur runs through the crowd as if to acknowledge this. Bahram Khan steps forward holding Sheroo’s reins and offers them to Zaman Noori, who does not take them.
       Zaman Noori’s face resembles something framed by broken glass. He turns to the jirga, rubs his forehead. In a voice as hollow as spaces between stars, he says, “My boy is dead. This is not justice.” 
       The jirga begins conferring once again.
       Zaman Noori’s kin have taken Sheroo’s reins. They have wrapped Sheroo’s head in white cloth. They are steering Sheroo away. Further and further they take him till I can only see white shirts and grey turbans and the fierce sun cutting through all shade. How far Sheroo has gone from me: between us a host of men.
       Above the circle of grey turbans I notice a white blade; it catches the sun and burns. Then the crowd goes silent; even Zaman Noori, his eyes consumed by a jealous rage, turns to look. Then rifle shots from the crowd, then a hush like a quick insuck of breath, and then the white blade falls and the crowd presses.
       I see Sheroo’s head rising in the air. Sheroo of Araby blood, from an old race, a lineage of warring horses. The head falls on a large boulder, crumpled like a doormat, shapeless— slaughtered for grief. The day is bright and burgundy and there is no sorrow in the watching eyes.
       Then the jirga splits up once again.
       Then someone says, “What about the girl—Natasha?”
        Everyone turns to look at me. Their gaze is the searching kind; it will open doors, part curtains, find you and hold you. I am too young to stand against it. I am not wearing a burqa. I am holding the tips of my golden-brown sausage curls. I am wearing a black khaddar shirt and a white chador printed with fighting lions. A girl’s dress.
       Then someone says, “Zaman Noori has lost a son after all.”
       The westerly wind hums in my ears. The wind came from nothing, unexpectedly. Now I listen to it and hear my name, distinct, aged. When the wind came it swept away the tension on the faces of men; it hardened Ma’s grip on my arm; it sharpened Baba’s gaze fixed at the mountaintop.
       The crowd parts. Ma and I are pushed to the center, closer to Zaman Noori and the jirga. Zaman Noori’s body seems immense suddenly, bigger even than a mountain. His lips have a peculiar curve; he wets them from time to time and swallows. His hand is raised in the air and its deep-creased scars are as old as erosions in a desert.
       I run to Baba. He takes my hand. I think, At last, I am safe. Baba has no fear in him and he will protect me, I think. I remember years ago I awakened feverish on a cold winter night. I cried for Ma, trusting that she would set right whatever cruel chance or mistake of fate that made my body ache and burn. But it was Baba who took me in his arms and held my face against his breast. I touched his henna-streaked beard, swaying rhythmically with his lullaby, and found peace in its warmth. Baba brings me roses in spring. He taught me how to milk a cow. He named me after a character of this Russian tale he heard during his travels. But the Russian tale exists in his past, and it’s business of present that holds him now.
       Baba’s head is bowed and on his face the same tired pitiless expression that he’s always carried with him, which brings me near tears. Baba, Baba, I say, lifting my face to him. He does not answer. Then we are surrounded: men are embracing Baba, congratulating him. Mashallah, Mashallah, they murmur. Then, in front of everyone, Zaman Noori walks towards us. The dark arcs underneath his eyelids are olive. The veins of his outstretched hands are lemon. His face is khaki. Baba shakes Zaman Noori’s two hands. Then I understand and it’s no bolt of thunder but instinct and memory whispering in my ear what I should have never forgotten in the first place; I understand that Baba’s anger is gone now, has abated, retreated to a more careful, calculating place; understand that my life, my dreams were never my own but someone else’s property.
       What shall I do? First Sheroo, taken from me, and now, I, being given away, on a spur of the moment, without objection, reluctance, not even cold cunning negotiation, given away without even the pretense of my permission, not so much as a question, a look, an apology, traded away like an animal or a piece of land, not even a chance to speak for myself, to plead my case. 
       If I run, where will I go? If I stay, Zaman Noori will have me. If I call for help, who will answer? Bahram Khan is nearby, shock coating his face, but he is helpless, I can see that he will not bring guns to my defense, he will not rage for me, not against the jirga, the tribal code. Between us there is blood and history and the unbroken chain of beloved and valorous ancestors—an ancient mist that has always been between us, overwhelming our minds with nostalgia, dictating our lives.
       In a minute, I will give my hand to Zaman Noori, who is watching me, no concerns for revenge or money or land on his face but a look dripping with ageless longing. Zaman Noori will not be circumvented here, nor later when he reaches for me wordlessly in the middle of night, shocking me no matter how many nights it’s already happened, the faint musty smell of sawdust in the room, no oil left in the lamps, no escape from his mephitic musk, no way to loosen his grip; and none to call but Bhel, stirring in the veranda, reciting Quran in the pale glow of the moon.
       Ma has found me. She is saying my name. I cannot reply. My lungs are airless. I think, there is no hope, only false promises whispered in children’s ears, no beauty, only white peaks of mountains that withstand all time, Ma. I pull at her burqa. She takes me in her arms and screams—a terrible sound rolling out of her, shrill and metallic, heard everywhere in Kurram Valley, witnessed by the vast steel blue sky and not acknowledged.

© Munib Khan 2018

The Barcelona Review is a registered non-profit organization

Author Bio
Munib KhanMunib Khan grew up in Lahore, Pakistan, and attended Connecticut College and Purdue University. His fiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner and been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. He has received fellowships from Toor Cummings Center, National Society of Arts and Letters, and Key West Literary Seminars, among others. He has worked for Banipal and Wasafiri magazines in the United Kingdom.  He is pursuing a PhD at Florida State University.