The Apple Tree

A Story About the Taliban

My Dear Mahnaz,

There are two types of fire in this world, azizam. The first is a calm, tender fire, one whose gentle heat warms the bones and comforts the soul. This is the kind your father was. Atash means fire, but he was more of a candle. The second kind of fire, and I don’t mean to scare you Mahnaz jan, is a furious, vicious fire. One that rampages through villages, destroys entire cities and families in just one turn of the earth, leaving behind nothing but death and ashes. This kind, my daughter, my doxtar, is the Taliban.

Many years ago, before you were born, your father and I went on a trip. We packed a picnic—warm Chapati and Chalaow. We ate by a lake, and oh, Mahnaz, there was not a breath of wind to disturb the serene tranquillity of its still, glassy surface. The sky reflected at our feet when we looked down into the water and our faces were hazy and rippled like a dream. Such peaceful, subtle beauty is but a fantasy now. When the Taliban came, they took the peace with them.

In the summer of 1992, you turned three. In that same summer, the Taliban took Kabul. We lived on the outskirts, Mahnaz jan, and so they reached us first. They tore through our streets, leaving in their wake broken windows and rubble. The impact of the Taliban in Kabul sent vibrations through our lives, like an earthquake, and tilted our world on its axis. I have never known evil like the Taliban, azizam. The wrath of one thousand angry Gods could not compare.

I lived always in a black cotton cage, with only a slit through which to see the world. You will never have to wear one, azizam, a burqa, and for this at least I thank Allah. For nine months we lived like this, and your poor father… his candle burnt low. He began to question the existence of Allah, peace be upon him, and often I would find him on the prayer mat whispering feverishly to our God.

March 22, 1993. It was the kind of cold that hides in your bones, that holds you in its unyielding, icy grasp and does not let go. I was in the kitchen cooking Shorba, because it was a Friday. I was expecting your father any minute. I heard shouting outside.

You understand, Mahnaz jan, this is very difficult for me to talk about. I peered through the curtains, azizam, and what I saw seized me by the throat and stole the air from my lungs. Your father was arguing with a Talib solider, a tall, arrogant man with a thick, wiry beard and a customary turban atop his head. I watched as the Talib lit a cigarette, lifted his gun and pulled the trigger, then glanced down to inspect with a look of contemptuous boredom the body at his feet. These events unfurled so slowly, azizam, like the smoke curling from his cigarette, and yet I was powerless to do anything to stop them. He took a last drag on his cigarette, threw it on your father’s body and stubbed it out with his toe.

With an abruptness that startled me from my petrified immobility, he glanced up and saw me. Oh, azizam. Never will I forget the look in his eyes, not until my weary body draws its last breath nor until the sun swallows the earth. They were cavernously empty: huge, gaping black holes.

Looking at that Talib, Mahnaz, I was overcome by the sensation of falling, falling, falling. His eyebrow rose as his eyes appraised me, and with slow deliberation he walked towards the front door.

As a woman, my doxtar, I am considered stupid. Naïve. But I needn’t be a scholar to know what this man would do to me, to you, if he caught us.

I had to make a decision, Mahnaz jan. I had but three seconds to make it. I ran. I bundled you in my arms and took off into the night, through the back door and out across the fields. I heard his heavy footsteps behind us and almost gave up. Almost threw myself to the ground beneath his feet where he thought I belonged, begged him not to hurt you. But to what avail? To do so would be like begging a statue to dance.

Eventually I tripped on a patch of uneven earth. Perhaps Allah, peace be upon him, placed it there on purpose. I covered you with my body. There was a silence that hurt my eardrums, broken only by your whimpers and his laboured breathing.

The sound of the gunfire rang in my ears long after it had ceased. I heard his footsteps move away, yet millennia passed and I did not move. Nor did you. You won’t remember this, my doxtar, and for that I am grateful. It happened so quickly: the deliberate angle of the nozzle of his gun, the inaudible sigh as your little body loosened its grip on life.

I lay you beneath an apple tree. The grass was long and smelled sweet like honey suckle, and glistening drops of morning dew ran down its blades. You looked so peaceful there among the grass, Mahnaz jan. I wanted never to move again, was content spending the rest of my eternity just staring at your face. Allah knows I would have, had the fires of life not been raging inside me. The Taliban had taken the lives of my husband, my daughter. They would not take the last life I had. Mine.

I walked for 17 days. I ate fruit from the trees in the forest, though it had never grown as ripe nor as plentiful since the Taliban arrived. I drank murky water from streams that once ran clear. On the 17th day, under the light of a full moon, I found them. A group of women refugees fleeing Kabul, just as I was.

I marvelled at the presence of children, though I did not mourn you any longer. Though my soul cried with longing and my arms ached with your absence, I felt your spirit above me. For I did not tell you, Mahnaz, your name means "like the moon."

I knew you were there, in the shadows that concealed us at night as we stole silently through villages, and at dusk when I turned my face to the heavens and let the moon’s ethereal light wash over me and cleanse my soul. In the mornings, I would feel a pang of sadness as you gave up your stage to the sun. But I knew you’d be back. As will I, my doxtar. When Kabul is safe and plentiful again, I will go back to the apple tree, where I know you will be waiting.

Forever,

Madär

Glossary

  • Doxtar—Daughter
  • Jan—Meaning ‘dear’ when used after a name
  • Azzizam—Darling
  • Shorba—Traditional Afghan soup
  • Madär—Mother
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The Apple Tree