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The Incident

by: Khaled Khan

Seventeen-year-old Hosai lay in her bed awake. She did not want to leave it. She loved the feel of her silky quilt, her soft mattress and her feather pillow. She gazed at the ceiling lost in her thoughts. Finally, she raised her head slightly and looked at the white round clock that hung on the wall near the door. It was ten to eight. She stood up, stretched and took a deep breath. The morning air refreshed her entire body and she loved it. She thought it was more soothing than the bed. She wore a white sleeping dress with tiny pink flowers on it as scattered little drops. The dress was so light and loose that she hardly felt anything on her skin. She stepped out of the room and paused in front of the mirror in the corridor that had a light on each side like two candles. She always loved watching herself in that mirror, but ever since she started hearing the older women in her family and other relatives remarking about her, “God be praised, Hosai has become so beautiful as a young lady” or “What lovely youth God has bestowed to Hosai,” she never hastened in observing the details of her adorable face. She was standing still like a statue carved out of white marble and gazed at the curls of her black hair that rolled down on each side of her kittenish and milky white face. Her forehead, eyebrows, large eyes, slender turned up nose, rosy lips, round chin and long neck, that seemed even longer due to her low neckline, seemed so lovely to her that she herself fell in love with her beauty. Once again she took a deep breath raising her bosom and a faint smile, full of pride, played on her lips. She looked away and went into the kitchen as if flying, opened the window and looked out. She thought Kabul had woken up two hours before her.  She opened the refrigerator to take out the bottle of water and started humming a song, when she heard a boom. It was not very loud as it sounded far way, but it was heavy, so heavy that it shook the entire city of Kabul.

The same morning at four thirty, in a slum in the outskirts of Kabul an old man of sixty-five, a street vender that sold shornakhod (boiled grams) for a living, woke up in a room of a low mud hut. He sat up in his bed, which was a folded threadbare quilt lying on the floor covered with a white plastic sheet, his knees bent and drawn to him with his hands crossed over them. His head was deep in his shoulders and his eyes sunk in his skull seemed like two holes in the dark. His name was Sudruddin. Silence prevailed everywhere, and the sound of barking dogs came now and then from somewhere distant. He sat still for a long moment as if clearing his mind, then picked up his turban from the floor next to his ragged pillow and put it on his head as he heard the morning call for prayer. He adjusted the turban on his head and slowly stood up and shambled out of the room. Across the little corridor from his room was another room where his widow daughter-in-law, Zarlashta, his five-year-old grandson Jamal and three-year-old granddaughter Ogai slept. Sudruddin paused to have a look at the children dearer to him than his life. Shrouded in the darkness, they seemed to him like shadows. Jamal and Ogai were lying together on a mattress and their mother lying next to them on the floor. He walked out stepping lightly not to wake them up.

It was dark outside. A few stars glittered in the clear sky. He walked through a couple of streets and neared the mosque. A dim light cast on the street from the window of the mosque and an old man and a small boy were walking towards the door of it. When he entered the mosque, the prayer-leader was still preparing for the prayer. A few worshipers were already in the mosque. In a few minutes, the number of people increased. The portly prayer leader stood in the front and the followers stood behind him in three rows. After the payer was finished, the worshipers dispersed and Sadruddin too left the mosque for home. The sky was brighter towards the east and the morning crows of cocks were heard from here and there. Some people had already left their houses for work: a man in his middle age was pushing a wheelbarrow; a young man was riding a donkey; a boy walked with a large sack rolled up under his arm.  When Sadruddin opened the low wooden door of his house, he saw his daughter-in-law sitting in the yard in front of the stove, Jamal squatting on her one side and Ogai standing on the other. Jamal was wearing his mother’s plastic slippers and Ogai was barefoot and without pajama pants. Jamal was imitating his mother and blew into the stove. “Grandpa is here!” cried Jamal hearing the door open and ran towards him. Little Ogai, with her shaggy hair followed him. Zarlashta adjusted her scarf that had slipped down and greeted her father-in-law:

“Do not be tired, father!”

“God bless you,” answered Sadruddin. “Will shorkakhod be ready soon?”

“Yes, by the time you eat your breakfast and take Jamal to school it will be cooked and ready.”
Jamal was grabbing his grandpa’s shirt; Sadruddin picked him up in his arm. “You had promised to buy me some pomegranate juice. When are you buying it?” complained Jamal, the corners of his lips tilted down.   

“Ha, ha, ha!” Sadruddin laughed in a soft voice peculiar to old people, which now resembled more coughing than laughing. “You are such a naughty boy! You never forget anything,” he said and kissed him on his little forehead. “Now you go take your breakfast and then get ready for school.” He put Jamal back on the ground next to his sister, Ogai.

Zarlashta put an old rug near the stove in front of the window of Sadruddin’s room and spread a square little piece of plastic on it. Sadruddin and the children sat around it on the rug, and then Zarlashta put a glass and a piece of bread in front of everyone. Green tea in an iron teapot blackened by smoke along with sugar in an open pot was also fetched. Only Jamal and Ogai, dared to put the sugar in their glasses. Sadruddin ate his breakfast of green tea with no sugar in it and a piece of bread leftover from yesterday. Zarlashta also ate the same things sitting next to the stove and continued to cook the shornakhod. The breakfast was eaten and after sometime Jamal was also ready for school. Instead of pajama pants, he was wearing pantaloons with the same shirt and had his plastic shoes on instead of his mother’s slippers. From his shoulder hung his school bag that his mother had stitched by hand out of old jeans. “I am ready!” He announced beaming as if he said, “OK, let us go now and buy me the juice.”

Sadruddin got the message and gave him a loving smile in response.
Sadruddin put on his black rubber shoes, held Jamal by the hand and left the house. Ogai followed them to the door and shut it after them. In the street, the dust floated in the air like thin fog, indicating that a vehicle had just gone by. They started walking towards the main road. A truck appeared from around the corner. The old vehicle, weighed down by a mass of sand, rumbled towards them on the bumpy street and its wheels seemed as if they could break away any moment. The thick black smoke produced by its engine poured out from its right side and fused into the white cloud of dust that arose from the ground. “Cover your nose!” exclaimed Sadruddin as the gigantic machine roared past.

Sadruddin and Jamal walked through a couple of streets before they reached the main road. The road was crowded with a variety of vehicles: cars, minibuses, buses, trucks and long trailers. On the unpaved sides of the road, men and women walked, most of them towards downtown. Groups of young and older boys and girls were walking to school. Some civil servants in suits and ties, and some military and police officers in uniforms rode bicycles to work.

Jamal neither saw anything nor heard anything. He had even forgotten that he was headed to school, which he did not like much, as his universe at that time was stalked with a single thought—getting pomegranate juice.  A joy tingled in his chest and he swung his grandfather’s hand with every step. The closer they got to the school, the more crowded it got on the road and the sides of it. “OK, here we are, in front of the school now...and when are you buying the juice?” asked Jamal.

Sadruddin reached in his pocket and felt the money he had stashed for his medicine. There was a shop about fifty meters away from the road, he glanced at it and then told Jamal, “OK, then you stay here. I am going to that shop and coming back with the juice.” He looked around. Groups of school children were converging at the school entrance, but he was struck by the glimpse of beige color that he caught in the traffic. It was an American military vehicle in the crowd of civilian vehicles. “Stand a little away from the road,” he told Jamal.
“Okay!” Jamal replied impatiently and then grinning.  

From the open rooftop of the armored vehicle stuck out an American soldier wearing a uniform the same color as the vehicle and an armored helmet covered his head. With one hand, he held the large black machinegun and kept waving the other hand telling the drivers in the cars around him to keep away. He clasped the gun and his gaze darted nervously. He was scared of any possible suicide bombers in the crowd around him. The people stuck in traffic around him were scared, too. It was not safe to be very close to an American vehicle. There was a slender young man with a silky little beard covering his chin, perhaps he was still in his teens, who sat behind the wheel of a crimson car only two cars away from the Americans. His green eyes seemed deep-set on the sides of his high nose bridge. He was not scared. He glared at the American soldier fixedly and wished to fly over the cars in front of him and strike at the military vehicle. The Humvee had not yet reached near Jamal, when a car between it and the crimson car moved out and when it just rolled past Jamal, the other vehicle also pulled aside. The crimson car rushed towards the Americans only giving the soldier an opportunity for a single shot. The shot had hardly been heard when all ears, eyes and brains ceased to work. There was an explosion, massive as though thunder struck from the sky.

To the eyes in distance, it seemed like lightning followed by an enormous black cloud of smoke mixed with dark flames rising from the ground. Windows and doors of the surrounding shops, houses and the school were blown. Some twenty seconds after the explosion the head of a young man with high nose and deep green eyes still open landed on the roof of a house about one hundred and fifty meters away. Smoke and dust covering the spot were so intense that even if someone had survived the explosion and his brain still worked, he would not have seen anything. As moments passed, the spot gradually became visible. The surface of the road, about three meters wide and round, was pressed into the ground by half a meter. In the center of it was a piece of metal, a faint flame rising from it and converting into a stream of thick black smoke. It was the crimson car. The armored vehicle lay overturned on the roadside some ten meters away, also burning in flames and the torso of the American soldier lay even further away.

When the explosion took place, Sadruddin was near the shop. The impact had flung him and then rolled him on the ground. Now he lay with his face up, his limbs sprawled and his mouth open. His weak heart had survived this catastrophe and he was breathing, too. Suddenly, he opened his eyes and saw the dulled sky. He did not recognize it at first; he felt his head heavy and his skull swollen; and there was a continuous sound of buzzing in it. Failing to gather where he was, he raised his head and glanced towards the road. Crashed and scattered pieces of vehicles and human bodies told him instantly what had happened. A surge ran through his body. He rose from the ground with all his force letting out a cry, “Jamal! Jamal, oh my son!” and ran towards the road. He had hardly taken a few steps and he fell back to the ground, struggled to stand up, but was trembling so heavily that he could not. He crawled, rose, fell again and rose again. Thus he reached the road. Among the mangled bodies, he saw a child with his head missing. He reached down to it, clutched the collar of the bloody shirt with both hands as if he was angry at him. “Jamal!” he said in a wavering low voice as if speaking to him. His eyes ran all over the body searchingly and he saw that the child wore leather shoes and not plastic. He thrust back the body.

The people dear to God and the darlings of their mothers and fathers were scattered everywhere in bits and pieces and smeared in their own blood. The grandpa that shed tears when little Jamal injured his finger was looking for him by picking up hands, and legs and heads from the ground.

At this moment, soldiers of international forces in Kabul arrived and surrounded the area. They started putting the injured and dead into vehicles. A soldier saw Sadruddin fallen on his knees and thought he was injured, too. He called out to another soldier and they grasped his arms and raised him. Sadruddin shook his shoulders in protest and tried to release himself from their grip, but his old limbs were helpless before the strength of those powerful hands. “Leave me! Where are you taking me? What has happened to me?” he cried turning to one. The soldier did not understand a single word of it. Again, he shook his shoulders with all his force and shouted, “I am telling you leave me alone! I am looking for my little son, Jamal!” When they got closer to the military ambulance and Sadruddin realized that they were putting him there, he blubbered helplessly, “If my little Jamal is lost what am I going to tell his mother? Why don’t you take mercy on me? Please fear God and let me find my child!” He was put in the vehicle, the door was shut and it drove away.

As the sound of this explosion had reached the house of Hosai, she shut the door of the refrigerator and stopped humming. Her brows contracted and she glanced out the window. The boom had scared the birds into a short flight from the branches of the trees. They circled in the air and sat back. “I think there was another bomb blast,” she murmured to herself. She continued to stand like that for a few seconds and then the wrinkles between her brows disappeared. She started humming the song again, drank water from the refrigerator and paused in front of the mirror to have a look at herself after she left the kitchen.


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