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The Pearl that Broke Its Shell

Seawater begs the pearl

To break its shell 

From the ecstatic poem Some Kiss We Want

By Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Rumi  13 C Persian poet


Chapter 1


Shahla stood by our front door, the bright green metal rusting on the edges.  She craned her neck. Parwin and I rounded the corner and saw the relief in her eyes.  We couldn’t be late again.

Parwin shot me a look and we picked up our hurried pace.  Running would draw too much unwanted attention so we did our best.  Rubber soles slapped against the road and raised puffs of dusty smoke.  The hems of our skirts flapped against our ankles.  My head scarf clung to beads of sweat on my forehead.  I guessed Parwin’s was doing the same, since it hadn’t yet blown away. 

Damn them.  It was their fault!  Those boys with their shameless grins and tattered pants!  This wasn’t the first time they’d made us late. 

We ran past the doors, blue, purple, burgundy.  Spots of color on a clay canvas. 

Shahla waved us toward her.

“Hurry!” she hissed frantically.

Panting, we followed her through the front door.  Metal clanged against the door frame. 

“Parwin! What did you do that for?”

“Sorry, sorry! I didn’t think it would be that loud.”

Shahla rolled her eyes, as did I.  Parwin always let the door slam.

“What took you so long?  Didn’t you take the street behind the bakery?”
            “We couldn’t, Shahla!  That’s where he was standing!”

We had gone the long way around the market place, avoiding the bakery where the boys loitered, their shoulders hunched and their eyes scouting the khaki jungle that was our village.

Besides pick-up games of street soccer, this was the main sport for school age boys – watching girls.  They hung around waiting for us to come out of our classrooms.  Once off school grounds, a boy might dart between cars and pedestrians to tail the oblivious girl who’d caught his eye.  Following her helped him stake his claim.  This is my girl, it told the others, and there’s only room for one shadow here.  Today, my twelve year old sister, Shahla, was the magnet for unwanted attention. 

The boys meant it to be flattering.  But it frightened the girl since people would love to assume that she’d sought out the attention.  There just weren’t many ways for the boys to entertain themselves.

“Shahla, where is Rohila?”  I whispered.  My heart was pounding as we tiptoed around to the back of the house.

“She’s taken some food to the neighbor’s house.  Madar-jan cooked some eggplant for them. I think someone died.”

Died?  My stomach tightened and I turned my attention back to following Shahla’s footsteps.

“Where’s Madar-jan?” Parwin said, her voice a nervous hush.

“She’s putting the baby to sleep,” Shahla said, turning towards us.  “So you better not make too much noise or she’ll know you’re just coming home now.”

Parwin and I froze.  Shahla’s face fell looking at our widened eyes.  She whipped around to see Madar-jan standing behind her.  She had come out of the back door of the house and was standing in the small paved courtyard behind the house.

“Your mother is very much aware of exactly when you girls have gotten home and she is also very much aware of what kind of example your older sister is setting for you.”  Her arms were as crossed as her tone. 

Shahla’s head hung in shame.  Parwin and I tried to avoid Madar-jan’s glare. 

“Where have you been?”

            How badly I wanted to tell her the truth! 

A boy, lucky enough to have a bicycle, had followed Shahla, riding past us and then circling back and forth.  Shahla paid no attention to him.  When I whispered that he was looking at her, she hushed me, as if speaking it would make it true. On his third pass, he got too close.

            He looped ahead of us and came back in our direction.  He raced down the dirt street, slowing down as he neared us. Shahla kept her eyes averted and tried to look angry.

            “Parwin, watch out!”

Before I could push her out of the way, the cycling stalker’s front wheel rolled over a metal can in the street, veering left and right, then swerving to avoid a stray dog.  The bicycle came straight at us.  The boy’s eyebrows were raised, his mouth open as he struggled to regain balance.  He swiped Parwin before toppling over on the front steps of a dried goods shop.

“Oh my God,” Parwin exclaimed, her voice loud and giddy. “Look at him!  Knocked off his feet!”

“Do you think he’s hurt?” Shahla said.  She had her hand over her mouth, as if she had never seen a sight so tragic.

“Parwin, your skirt!” My eyes had moved from Shahla’s concerned face to the torn hem of Parwin’s skirt.  The jagged wires holding the spokes of the bicycle together had snagged Parwin’s dress. 

It was her new school uniform and instantly Parwin began to weep.  We knew if Madar-jan told our father, we would keep us home instead of sending us to school.  It had happened before.         

            “Why are you all silent only when I ask you something?  Do you have nothing to say for yourselves?  You come home late and look like you were chasing dogs in the street!”

            Shahla had spoken on our behalf plenty of times and looked exasperated.  Parwin was a basket of nerves, always, and could do nothing but fidget.  I heard my voice before I knew what I was saying.

            “Madar-jan, it wasn’t our fault!  There was this boy on a bicycle and we ignored him but he kept coming back and I even yelled at him.  I told him he was an idiot if he didn’t know his way home.”          Parwin let out an inadvertent giggle.  Madar-jan shot her a look.

            “Did he come near you?” she asked turning to Shahla.

            “No, Madar-jan. I mean, he was a few meters behind us.  He didn’t say anything.” 

            Madar-jan sighed and brought her hands to her temples. 

            “Fine.  Get inside and start your homework assignments.  Let’s see what your father says about this.”

            “You’re going to tell him?”  I cried out.

            “Of course I am going to tell him,” she answered and spanked my backside as I walked past her into the house.  “We are not in the habit of keeping things from your father!”

            We whispered about what Padar-jan would say when he came home while we dug our pencils into our notebooks.  Parwin had some ideas.

            “I think we should tell Padar that our teachers know about those boys and that they have already gotten in trouble so they won’t be bothering us anymore,” Parwin suggested eagerly.

            “Parwin, that’s not going to work.  What are you going to say when Madar asks Khanum Behduri about it?”  Shahla, the voice of reason.

            “Well, then we could tell him that the boy said he was sorry and promised not to bother us again.  Or that we are going to find another way to get to school.”

            “Fine, Parwin. You tell him.  I’m tired of talking for all of you anyway.”

            “Parwin’s not going to say anything.  She only talks when no one’s listening,” I said.

            “Very funny, Rahima. You’re so brave, aren’t you? Let’s see how brave you are when Padar-jan comes home,” Parwin pouted.

            Granted, I wasn’t a very brave nine year-old when it came time to face Padar-jan. I kept my thoughts bottled behind my pursed lips, which did not go unnoticed.  In the end, Padar-jan decided to pull us out of school again. 

            We begged and pleaded with Padar-jan to let us return to school.  One of Parwin’s teachers, a childhood friend of Madar-jan, even showed up at the house, and tried to reason with our parents.  Padar-jan had relented in the past but this was time was different.  He wanted us to go to school but struggled with how to make that happen safely.  How would it look for his daughters to be chased by local boys for all to see?  Awful.

            “If I had a son this would not be happening!  God damn it!  Why do we have a house full of girls!  Not one, not two – but five of them!” he would yell.  Madar-jan would busy herself with housework, feeling the weight of disappointment on her shoulders.

            His temper was worse these days.  Madar-jan would tell us to hush and be respectful.  She told us too many bad things had happened to Padar-jan and it had made him an angry man. She said if we all behaved then he would go back to being his normal self soon.  But it was getting harder and harder to remember a time when Padar-jan wasn’t angry and loud. 

Since we were home, I was given the extra chore of bringing the groceries from the store.  My older sisters were quarantined since they were older and noticable.  I was, thus far, invisible to boys and not a risk.

            Every two days I stuffed a few bills from Madar-jan in the pouch that she had sewn into my dress pocket so I would have no excuse for losing them.  I would wind my way through the narrow streets and walk thirty minutes to reach the market I loved.  The stores were bustling with activity.  Women looked different now than they had a few years ago.  Some wore long blue chadoris and others wore long skirts and modest head scarves.  The men all dressed like my father, long tunics with billowing pantaloons – colors as drab as our landscape.  Little boys wore ornate caps with small round mirrors and gold scrolling.   By the time I got there, my shoes were again dusty and I would resort to using my headscarf as a filter for the clouds of dirt the hundreds of cars left in their wake.  It was as if the khaki colored landscape were dissolving into the air of our village.

            Two weeks into our expulsion from school, the shop owners had gotten to know me.  There were not many nine year old girls who would walk determinedly from shop to shop.  And having watched my parents haggle prices down, I thought I could do the same.  I would argue with the baker who tried to charge me double what I had seen him charge my mother.  I bickered with the grocer trying to tell me that the flour I wanted was imported and, thus, subject to a surcharge.  I pointed out that I could just as easily buy the same fancy flour from Agha Mirwais down the block and scoffed at the price he quoted.  He gritted his teeth and put the flour in the bag along with the other groceries, muttering words under his breath that no child should hear. 

            Madar-jan was pleased to have my help with the market.  She was busy enough with Sitara, who was just taking her first steps.  Madar-jan had Parwin look after Sitara while she and Shahla took care of the household chores of dusting, sweeping and preparing the night’s meal.  In the afternoons, Madar-jan made us all sit down with our books and notebooks and complete the homework she assigned us.

            For Shahla, the days were long and difficult.  She longed to see her friends and talk with her teachers.  Shahla’s strengths were her intuition and her intelligence.  She wasn’t at the very top of her class, but she usually charmed her teachers just enough to push her into the short list of star pupils.  She was average looking but put extra care in her appearance.  She would spend at least five minutes brushing her hair every night, since someone told her it would make her locks grow longer.  Shahla’s face was what people would call pleasant, not beautiful or memorable.  But her personality made her glow.  People looked at her and couldn’t help but smile.  Polite and proper, she was a favorite in school.  She had a way of looking at you and making you feel important.  In front of family and friends, Shahla made Madar-jan proud as she would speak maturely and inquire after each member of the family.

            “How is Farzana-jan doing?  It’s been so long since I’ve seen her!  Please do tell her that I was asking about her,” she would say.  Grandmothers would nod in approval, praising Madar-jan for raising such a respectable girl.

Parwin was another story.  She was striking.  Her eyes were not the mud brown color the rest of us had.  Instead, hers were a hazel-gray blend that made you forget what it was that you were going to say.  Her hair hung around her face in wavy locks with a natural luster.  She was undeniably the best looking girl in our whole extended family.

But she was completely lacking in social skills.  If Madar-jan’s friends stopped by, Parwin would shrink into a corner, busying herself with folding and refolding a tablecloth.  If she could manage to escape before company made it into the room, even better.  Nothing was more of a relief than avoiding the traditional three kiss greeting.  She kept her answers brief and all the while kept her eyes on the nearest escape route.

            “Parwin, please! Khala Lailoma is asking you a question.  Can you please turn around?  Those plants do not need to be watered at this very moment!”

            What Parwin lacked in social skill, she more than made up for in artistic ability.  She was masterful with pencil and paper.  Graphite turned into visual energy in her hands.  Wrinkled faces, an injured dog, a house too damaged to repair.  She had a gift, an ability to show you what you did not see, even though your eyes graced the same sights as hers.  She could sketch a masterpiece in minutes but washing the dishes could take hours.

            “Parwin is from another world,” Madar-jan would say.  “She is a different kind of girl.”

            “What good is that going to do her?  She’s going to have to survive and make her way through this world,” Padar-jan would retort, but he loved her drawings and kept a pile of them at his bedside to flip through from time to time.

            The other problem with Parwin was that she’d been born with a bad hip.  Someone had told Madar-jan she must have been lying on her side too much when she was pregnant.  From the time Parwin started to crawl, it was obvious something was off.  It took her much longer to learn to walk and to this day she hadn’t lost her limp.  Padar-jan had taken her to a doctor when she was five or six but they said it was too late.

            Then there was me.  I didn’t mind the expulsion as much as my sisters.  I suppose this was because it gave me opportunity to venture out on my own, without two older sisters to chastise me or insist I hold their hands as we crossed the street.  Finally, I had freedom – even more than my sisters!

            Madar-jan needed help with the errands and lately it was impossible to depend on Padar-jan for anything.  She would ask him to pick up some things from the market on his way home and inevitably he would forget, then curse her for an empty pantry.  But if she went to the bazaar by herself, he went into an even worse rage.  From time to time, Madar-jan asked the neighbors to pick up an item or two for her but she tried not to do that too often, knowing they already whispered about the peculiar way Padar-jan had of walking up and down our small street, his hands gesturing wildly as he explained something to the birds.  My sisters and I wondered about his behavior too, but Madar-jan told us our father needed to take a special medicine and that was why he sometimes acted strangely. 

            At home, I could not help but talk about my adventures in the outside world.  It bothered Shahla more than Parwin, who was content with her pencils and paper. 

            “I think tomorrow I’ll pick up some roasted chick peas from the market.  I have a few coins. If you like, I could bring you some, Shahla.”

            Shahla sighed and shifted Sitara from one hip to another.  She looked like a young exasperated mother.

            “Forget it. I don’t want any. Just go and finish the chores, Rahima.  I’m sure you’re just dawdling out there.  In no rush to come home, I’m sure.”

            “I’m not dawdling.  I go and do the errands that Madar-jan tells me to do.  But never mind. I’ll see you later.”

            It wasn’t so much that I wanted my sisters to be envious.  It was more that I wanted to celebrate my new privileges to come and go, to wander through the shops without my sister’s supervision.  If I had a little more tact, I would have found another way to express myself.  But I think it was my loud mouth caught Khala Shaima’s attention.  Maybe there was a higher purpose to my insensitivity.

            Khala Shaima was my mother’s sister – her older sister.  Madar-jan was closer to her than anyone else in her family and we saw her often.  Had we not grown up around her, we probably would have been frightened by her appearance.  Khala Shaima was born with a crooked spine that wiggled through her back like a snake.  Although our grandparents had hoped to find a suitor before her shape became too obvious, she was passed over time and again.  Families would come to ask about my mother or Khala Zeba, the youngest of the sisters but no one wanted Khala Shaima with her hunched back and one raised shoulder.

            She understood early in life that she would not catch anyone’s eye and decided not to bother fussing with appearances at all.  She let her eyebrows grow in, left those few stray chin hairs and dressed in the same drab clothing day in and day out.

            Instead, she focused her energies on her nieces and nephews and taking care of my grandparents as they aged.  Khala Shaima supervised everything – making sure we were doing satisfactorily in school, that we had proper clothing for the winter and that lice hadn’t nested in our hair.  She was a safety net for anything our parents might have not been able to do for us and she was one of the few people who could stand being around Padar-jan.

But you had to know Khala Shaima to get her.  I mean to really get her.  If you didn’t know that she had the best intentions at heart, you could be put off by the lack of pleasantries in her conversation, by her sharp criticisms or by the doubtful squint in her eyes while she listened to you talk.  But if you knew how she’d been spoken to her whole life, by strangers and family, you wouldn’t be surprised. 

She was good to us girls and always came with candy-laden pockets.  Padar-jan would comment snidely that her pockets were the only sweet thing about Khala Shaima.  My sisters and I would feign patience while we waited for the rustle of chocolate wrappers.  When she arrived, I had just returned from the market and in plenty of time to get my share of the sweets.

            “Shaima, honest to God, you’re spoiling these girls!  Where are you getting chocolates like these from these days!  They can’t be cheap!”

            “Don’t stop a donkey that’s not yours,” she fired back.  That was another thing about Khala Shaima.  Everyone used those old Afghan proverbs Khala Shaima could hardly speak without them.  It made conversations with her as circuitous as her spine.  “Stay out of it and let’s let the girls get back to their homework.”

            “We’re done with our homework, Khala Shaima-jan,” Shahla said.  “We’ve been working on it all morning.”

            “All morning?  Didn’t you go to school today?”  Shaima’s eyebrows furrowed.

            “No, Khala Shaima.  We don’t go to school anymore,” Shahla said, widening her eyes and knowing full well that she was throwing Madar-jan into the fire.

            “What does that mean? Raisa! Why aren’t the girls in school?”

            Madar-jan lifted her head from the teapot, reluctantly. 

            “We had to take them out again.”

            “In God’s name, what ridiculous excuse did you come up with this time to keep them from their studies?  Did a dog bark at them in the street?”

            “No, Shaima. Don’t you think I would much rather have them going to school?  It’s just that they’re running into foolishness in the streets. You know how boys can be.  And, well, their father is just not happy to send them out so they can be toyed with by the neighborhood boys. I don’t blame him, really.  You know, it’s only been a year that the girls are even able to walk in the street.  Maybe it’s just too soon.”

            “Too soon?  How about too late! They should have been going to school all this time but they haven’t.  Imagine how far behind they are and now that they can catch up, you’re going to keep them at home to scrub the floors?  There will always be idiots in the street saying all kinds of things and giving all kinds of looks.  You can believe that.  If you hold these girls back for that, you’re no better than the Taliban who closed their schools.”

            Shahla and Parwin shot each other looks.

            “Then what I am supposed to do?  Arif’s cousin Haseeb told him that—“

            “Haseeb?  That moron with a mouth louder and dumber than a Russian tank? You’re making decisions for your children based on something Haseeb said? Sister, I thought more of you.”

            Madar-jan huffed in frustration and rubbed her temples.

            “Then you stay here till Arif gets home and you tell him yourself what you think we should do!”

            “Did I say I was leaving?”  Khala Shaima said cooly.  She propped a pillow behind her uneven back and leaned against the wall.  We braced ourselves.  Padar-jan hated dealing with Khala Shaima’s intrusions and he was just as blunt as she was about it.



            “You’re a fool to think these girls are better off rotting in this home instead of learning something in school.”

            “You never went to school and see how well you turned out,” Padar-jan said facetiously.

            “I’ve got a lot more sense than you, engineer-sahib.”   A low blow.  Padar-jan had wanted to major in engineering when he finished high school but his marks didn’t make the cut.  Instead, he took some general classes for one semester and then dropped out to start working.  He had a shop now where he fixed old electronics and, though he was pretty good at what he did, he was still bitter about not making it as an engineer, a highly regarded title for Afghans.

            “Damn you, Shaima! Get out of my house! They’re my daughters and I don’t need to listen to a cripple tell me what I should do with them!”

            “Well, this cripple has an idea that may solve your problem – let you keep your precious pride while the girls can get back into school.”

            “Forget it.  Just get out so I don’t have to look at your face any more.  Raisa! Where the hell is my food?”

            “What is your idea, Shaima?”  Madar-jan jumped in, eager to hear what she had to say.  She did respect her sister, ultimately.  More often than not, Shaima was right.  She hurriedly fixed a plate of food and brought it over to Padar-jan, who was now staring out the window blankly.

            “Raisa, don’t you remember the story our grandmother told to us? Remember Bibi Shekiba?”

            “Oh, her!  Yes, but how does that help the girls?”

            “She became what her family needed.  She became what the king needed.”

            “The king.” Padar-jan scoffed.  “Your stories get crazier every time you open your ugly mouth.”

            Khala Shaima ignored his comment.  She had heard much worse.

            “Do you really think that would work for us too?”

            “The girls need a brother.”

            Madar-jan looked away and sighed with disappointment.  Her failure to bear a son had been a sore spot since Shahla’s birth.  She had not anticipated that it would be brought to everyone’s attention again tonight.  She avoided Padar-jan’s eyes.

            “That’s what you’ve come here to tell me!  That we need a son?  Don’t you think I know that? If your sister were a better wife, then maybe I would have one!”

            “Quit jabbering and let me finish.”

            But she didn’t finish.  She only started.  That night Khala Shaima started a story of my great-great-grandmother, Shekiba, a story that my sisters and I had never before heard.  A story that transformed me.

Chapter 2



Your name means a gift, my daughter.  You are a gift from Allah.

Who could have known that Shekiba would become the name she was given, a gift passed from one hand to another.  Shekiba was born at the turn of the 20th century, in an Afghanistan eyed lasciviously by Russia and Britain.  Each would take turns promising to protect the borders they had just invaded, like a pedophile who professes to love his victim. 

The borders between Afghanistan and India were drawn and re-drawn from time to time, as if only penciled in.  People belonged to one country and then the other, nationalities changing as often as the direction of the wind.  For Great Britain and the Soviet Union, Afghanistan was the playing field for their “Great Game,” the power struggle to control Central Asia.  But the game was slowly coming to an end, the Afghan people ferociously resisting outside control.  Chests expanded with pride when Afghans talked about their resilience.

But parts of Afghanistan were taken – little by little until its borders shrank in like a wool sweater left in the rain.  Areas to the north like Samarkand and Bukhara had been lost to the Russian Empire.  Chunks of the south were chipped away and the western front was pushed in over the years.

In that way, Shekiba was Afghanistan.  Beginning in her childhood, tragedy and malice chipped away at her until she was just a fragment of the person she should have been. If only Shekiba had been prettier, something at least pleasing for the eye to gaze upon.  Maybe then, her father could have hoped to arrange a proper marriage for her when her time came.  Maybe people would have looked at her with an ounce of kindness. 

But Shekiba’s village was unforgiving. To get to Kabul, one had to ride one week, crossing a river and three mountains.  Most people spent their entire lives in the village, in the green fields surrounded by mountains, walking the dirt roads that connected one compound to another.  Their village was a valley, dark soil nurtured by the nearby river and tall peaks giving a sense of enclosure, privacy.  There were a few dozen clans, extended families who had known each other over generations.  Most people were related to each other, somehow, and gossip was one way to keep busy.

Shekiba’s parents were second cousins, their marriage arranged by Shekiba’s paternal grandmother.  Their family, like many others, lived off the land.  Each generation splintered the family’s land so that people would have a place to build a home, if they decided to leave the clan’s main house.  Shekiba’s father, Ismail Bardari, was the youngest in his home.  His older brothers had married before him and filled the compound with their wives and children.

Seeing there was no room for him and his new bride, Shafiqa, Ismail picked up his chisel and set to work.  He was lucky though, in that his father bequeathed him the lot with such fertile soil that his share of crop would be guaranteed.  He knew it was because he was the hardest working of his brothers and his father wanted to ensure that the land’s potential would be realized.  There were many hungry mouths to feed and a good yield could bring in extra income from the village.  His brothers lacked Ismail’s instincts.  He had a gift.  He knew just the right temperature to plant, how often to till the soil and the perfect amount of water to make crops grow.  Ismail’s brothers resented him for being their father’s favorite.  They pretended to prefer living in the main home.  In the end, he surrounded the house with a wall of mud and stones to give it privacy, as a proper Afghan home needed. 

Ismail brought his nervous bride to their new home, surrounded by a small plot of land that bordered his brother’s land.  Standing outside, she could see her in-laws coming and going from the house, their chadoris blue spots on a khaki landscape.  When the women headed in her direction she would hurry inside and cover herself, embarrassed that her belly was swollen with child.  But Shafiqa’s in-laws found her dull and timid and over time, they took less interest in her or her children.  The women sighed heavily when they spoke with her, and whispered to her husband when she wasn’t near.  Had Shekiba’s father been like most other men, he might have heeded those whispers and taken a second wife.  But Ismail Bardari was unlike some other men and stayed with the one wife he had, however his mother and sisters felt about her.

Shekiba’s brothers, Tariq and Munis, were the only real link to the clan.  Shafiqa watched over Shekiba and her little sister Aqela, nicknamed “Bulbul” because her light, melodic voice reminded Ismail of the local songbird.  Tariq and Munis would come and go between their father’s and their grandfather’s homes, acting as couriers of clothing, vegetables and news.  The boys were well liked by their grandparents, and valued as male heirs.  Ismail’s mother, Bobo Shahgul, often said the two boys were the only good thing to come from Shafiqa.  The boys overheard many hateful comments but they knew better than to share everything they heard.  Shekiba and Aqela didn’t realize how little their father’s family cared about them since they spent their days close at their mother’s side.  Sometimes, too close. 

A clumsy two year old Shekiba changed her life in the blink of an eye.  She woke from a mid-morning nap and set off to find her mother.  Shekiba heard the familiar sounds of peeling in the kitchen and stumbled into the cooking niche.  Her small foot caught on the hem of her dress and her arm flailed into the air, knocking a pot of hot oil from a burner top before her mother could reach her.  It was too late.  The oil flew out and melted the left half of Shekiba’s cherub face into blistered and ragged flesh. 

            Shafiqa had screamed and doused her daughter’s face with cool water but it was too late.  It took months to heal, as Shafiqa diligently kept Shekiba’s face clean, using a compound the local alchemist had mixed for them.  The pain got worse as her skin fought to recover.  The itching nearly drove Shekiba mad and her mother was forced to wrap her hands in cloth, especially while she picked away at the dead, blackened skin.  Fevers came, so high they made the toddler’s body tremble and writhe and Shafiqa had nothing to offer, nothing she could do but pray at her daughter’s side, her body rocking back and forth and beseeching Allah for mercy. 

Bobo Shahgul came to see Shekiba when she heard about the incident.  Shafiqa anxiously waited to hear any helpful advise her mother-in-law might offer but Bobo Shahgul had none.  Before she left, she suggested Shafiqa pay closer attention to her children and muttered thanks that it hadn’t been one of the boys.

Shekiba’s survival was nothing short of a miracle, another gift from Allah.  Though her face healed, she was not the same.  From then on, Shekiba was halved.  When she smiled, only half her face smiled.  When she cried, only half her face cried.  But the worst part was the change in people’s expressions.  People who saw her profile from the right and would begin to smile but as their view turned the corner, beyond her nose, their own faces would change.  Every reaction reminded Shekiba that she was ugly, a horror.  Some people would step back and cover a gaping mouth with a hand.  Others would dare to lean in, eyes squinted, to get a better look.  From across the road, people would stop in their tracks and point.

            There.  Did you see her?  There goes the girl with half a face.  Didn’t I tell you she was horrid looking?  God only knows what they did to deserve that.

            Even her aunts and uncles would shake their heads and cluck their tongues every time they saw her, as if every time they were freshly disappointed and shocked to see what she looked like.  Her cousins came up with twisted names for her.  Shola face, as her skin resembled the lumpy soft rice.  Babaloo, or monster.  That one she hated more than the others, since she too was afraid of the babaloo, the creature that frightened every Afghan child in the night. 

Shafiqa tried to keep her sheltered from the comments, the jeers, the stares but it was too late to save Shekiba’s self-esteem, a commodity people didn’t value much anyway.  She covered Shekiba with a chadori when she saw people approaching their home, or on the rare occasion when the family ventured into the village. 

Remember, Shekiba means a gift.  You are our gift my daughter.  No need to let others gawk at you.

Shekiba knew she was horribly disfigured and that she was lucky to even be accepted by her immediate family.  In the summers, the chadori was hot and stifling but she felt safer within it, protected.  She was not exactly happy, but satisfied to stay in the house and out of sight.  Her days passed with fewer insults that way.  Her parents withdrew even more from the clan, and the resentment toward Shafiqa’s aloofness grew.

Tariq and Munis were both energetic and, being just a year apart in age, they could pass for twins.  When they were eight and nine, they were helping their father with the fieldwork and running errands in the village.  They usually ignored the comments they heard about their “cursed sister” but Tariq had been known to throw back insults from time to time.  On one occasion, Munis came home with scattered bruises and a foul temper.  He’d had more than he could take of the local boys pestering him about his half-faced sister.  Padar-jan had gone to the boy’s home to make amends with his parents but he never reprimanded Tariq or Munis for defending their sister.

Aqela, always smiling, would sing nursery rhymes in her sweet bulbul voice and kept her mother and Shekiba’s spirits lifted as they did the chores.  They were happy keeping to themselves.  They didn’t have much, but they had everything they needed and never felt lonely.

In 1903, a wave of cholera decimated Afghanistan.  Children shriveled up in hours and succumbed in their mothers’ weak arms.  Shekiba’s family had no choice but to use the poisoned water that coursed through their village.  First Munis, then the others.  The illness came quickly and it came strong.  The smell was unbearable.  Shekiba was stunned.  She saw her siblings’ faces grow pale and thin in days.  Aqela was quiet, her songs reduced to a soft moan.  Shafiqa was frantic, Ismail quietly shook his head.  Word came from the compound that two children had died, one from each of Shekiba’s uncles. 

Shekiba and her parents waited for their own bellies to begin cramping.  They nervously cared for the others, watching each other and waiting to see who else would become ill.  Shekiba saw her father put his arms around his wife’s shoulders as she rocked and prayed.  Aqela’s skin was graying, Tariq’s eyes were sunken.  Munis was quiet and still. 

She was thirteen when she helped her parents wash and wrap Tariq, Munis and Aqela, the songbird, in white cloth, the traditional garb for the deceased.  Shekiba sniffled quietly, knowing she would be haunted by the memory of helping her moaning father to dig the graves for her teenaged brothers and delicate Aqela, who had just turned ten.  Shekiba and her parents were among the survivors. 

It was the first time in years that the clan made an appearance.  Shekiba watched her uncles and their wives come in and out of the house, paying their obligatory respects before moving on to the next home grieving their dead.  It went without saying that they pitied Shekiba’s parents, not so much for the loss of their three children, but with disappointment that Allah could not have spared one of the sons instead of the defective girl.  Luckily, Shekiba was numb by then. 

Thousands died that year.  Her family’s losses were notches on the epidemic’s belt.

One week after her three children were buried, Shafiqa began to whisper to herself when no one was looking.   She asked Tariq to help her with the water pails.  She warned Munis to eat all his food so that he would grow up to be as tall as his brother.  Her fingers moved through the yarn of the blanket as if were braiding Aqela’s hair. 

Then Shafiqa started sitting idly, plucking individual hairs from her head, one by one until her scalp was bare, her eyebrows and lashes disappeared.  With nothing left to pluck, she resorted to picking at the skin of her arms and legs.  She ate her food but gagged on pieces that she had forgotten to chew.  Her whispers became louder and Shekiba and her father pretended not to notice.  Sometimes she would listen and then giggle with a lightheartedness alien to their household.  Shekiba slowly became her mother’s mother, making sure she bathed and reminding her to go to sleep at night.

A year later, in the same dismal month of Qows, Shekiba’s languishing mother decided not to wake up from sleep.  It came as no surprise. 

Ismail held his wife’s hands and thought how tired they must be from all the wringing they had endured.  Shekiba brought her cheek to her mother’s and saw that her eyes had lost their desperate glassiness.  Madar-jan must have died looking at the face of God, Shekiba thought.  Nothing else could have brought the look of peace so quickly. 

The house sighed in relief.  Shekiba bathed her mother one last time, taking care to wash her bald head and realizing that her mother had even plucked the hairs from her womanly parts.  The weight of sadness lifted, her corpse was shockingly light. 

By the following day, Shekiba and her father were back in the field to open the earth once more.  They did not bother to tell the rest of the family.  Her father read a prayer over the mound of earth and they looked at each other, quietly wondering which of them would join the others first. 

Shekiba was left with her father.  A cousin stopped by to tell them of an upcoming wedding and took back news of the new widower to the rest of the clan.  The hawks descended on the house within days, extending their condolences but only after they advised Shekiba’s father that he now had the opportunity to begin again with a new wife.  They named a few families with eligible daughters in the village, most of them only a few years older than Shekiba, but her father was so heartbroken and fatigued that his family could not manage to arrange a new wife for him. 

            Shekiba came of age with only her father to turn to, his sparse words, his lonely eyes.  She worked beside him day and night.  The more she did, the easier it was for him to forget that she was a girl.  He began to think of her as a son, sometimes even slipping and calling her by her brothers’ names.  The village chattered about them.  How could a father and daughter live alone?  Sympathy gave way to criticism and Ismail and Shekiba grew even more distant from the outside world.  The clan did not want to be associated with them and the village had no interest in a scarred old man and his even more scarred daughter-son.

            Over the years, Ismail lulled himself into believing that he had always lived without a wife and that he always had only one child.  He managed by ignoring everything.  He was the only person who did not see Shekiba’s marred face and did not notice that, as a young woman, she might need some direction from a female.  When she bled every month, he pretended not to smell the soiled rags that she would keep soaking and hidden behind a stack of logs in their two room home.  And when he heard her shed tears, he shrugged her sniffles off to a touch of flu.

            Shekiba’s father took his daughter-son to the fields to help him manage their small plot of land.  She hoed, she slaughtered and she chopped as any strong-backed son would do for his father.  She made it possible for Ismail to go on believing that life had always been father and son.  Shekiba proved to be able-bodied, affirming her father’s confidence in her abilities to manage the farm.  Her arms and shoulders knotted with muscle.

Years passed.  Shekiba’s features grew coarser, her palms and soles were thick and calloused.  Every day, Ismail’s back hunched more, his eyes saw less and his needs grew.  There were days Shekiba was left to run the entire farm and house on her own.

            Had Shekiba been any other girl, she probably would have felt lonesome in this solitary life but her circumstances were different.  The children nearby would always point and tease, as would their parents.  Her appearance was shocking everywhere, except at home. 

            People who are beset by tragedy once and twice are sure to grieve again.  Fate finds it easier to retrace its treads.  Shekiba’s father became weaker, his voice raspier, his breaths shallower.  One day, as Shekiba watched from the wall of stone and mud, he grabbed his chest, took two steps and crumpled to the ground with a sickle in his grip.           

Shekiba was eighteen years old but she knew what to do.  She dragged her father’s body back to the house on a large cloth, stopping every few steps to adjust her grasp and to wipe away the tears that trickled down the right side of her face.  The left side of her face remained stoic.

            She laid his body in the living room and sat at his side, repeating the four or five Quranic verses that her parents had taught her until the sun came up.  In the morning, she began the ceremony she had performed too often in her short life.  She undressed her father, careful to keep his private areas hidden beneath a rag.  The ritual washing should have been done by a man but Shekiba had no one to call on.  She would rather invite Allah’s wrath into her home than turn to those vile people.

She bathed him, turning away as she poured water onto his man parts and blindly wrapping his stiff body in a cloth, as she and her mother had done with her sister.  She dragged him back outside and opened the earth one final time to complete her family’s interment.  Shekiba chewed her lip and debated digging one more spot for herself, thinking there would be no one left to do so when her turn came.  Too tired to do anything more, Shekiba said a few prayers and watched her father disappear under clods of earth – disappear like her sister, her brothers and her mother.           

She walked back to the hollow house and sat silently – afraid, angry and calm. 

Shekiba was alone.

Chapter 3


            “We wouldn’t be the first.  It’s been done before.”

            “You’re listening to that lunatic Shaima and that story about your precious grandmother.”

            “It wasn’t my grandmother.  It was—“

            “I don’t care.  All I know is that woman makes my head ache.”

            “Arif-jan, I think it would be wise for us to consider this.  For everyone’s sake.”

            “And what good will come of it?  You see everyone else who has done it?  They all have to change back in a few years. It doesn’t change anything.”

            “But Arif-jan, she would be able to help us.  She could go to the store.  She could walk her sisters to school.”

            “Do what you want. I’m going out.”

            I listened carefully from the hallway, just a few feet from the bedroom we all shared.  Our kitchen was behind the sitting room, a few pots and a gas burner.  Our home was spacious, built in a time when my grandfather’s family had more.  Now these walls were bare and cracking and looked more like those of our neighbors. 

When I heard Padar-jan strain to get up, I quickly tiptoed off, my bare toes silent on the carpet.  When I was sure he was gone, I came back to the living room to find my mother lost in thought.


            “Eh?  Oh.  Yes, bachem.  What is it?”

            “What were you and Padar-jan talking about?”

            She looked at me and bit her lip.

            “Sit down,” she said.  I sat cross-legged in front of her, careful that the hem of my skirt reached over my knees and covered my calves.  “You remember the story your Khala Shaima told the other night?”

            “The one about our great-great-great-great…”

            “You’re worse than your father, sometimes.  Yes, that one.  I think it is time we change something for you.  I think it would be best if we let you be a son to your father.”

“A son?”

“It’s simple and it’s done all the time, Rahima-jan.  Just think how happy that would make him! And you could do so many things that your sisters wouldn’t be able to do.”
            She knew how to pique my interest.  I cocked my head to the side and waited for her to go on.

“We could change your clothes and we’ll give you a new name. You’ll be able to run to the store anytime we need anything.  You could go to school without worrying about the boys bothering you.  You could play games.  How does that sound?”

It sounded like a dream to me!  I thought of the neighbors’ sons.  Jameel.  Faheem.  Bashir.  My eyes widened at the thought of being able to kick a ball around in the street as they did.

Madar-jan wasn’t thinking of the boys in the street.  She was thinking of our empty cupboard.  She was thinking of Padar-jan and how much he had changed.  We were lucky when he brought home some money from an odd job here or there.  Every once in a while, his mind focused enough that he was able to tinker with an old engine and breathe it back to life.  His small earnings were spent, unevenly, on his medicine and keeping us clothed and fed.  The more Madar-jan thought about it, the more she realized how desperate our situation was becoming.

“Come with me.  There’s no reason to delay anything. Your father is taking more and more…medicine these days.  Your Khala Shaima is right.  We need to do something or we’re going to be in real trouble.”

We girls were nervous about getting sick.  We worried that if we did, we would have to take the same medicine that Padar-jan took.  It made him do funny things, behave in funny ways.  Mostly he just wanted to lie about the house and sleep.  Sometimes he said things that didn’t make sense.  And he never remembered anything we said.  It was worse when he didn’t take his medicine.

He had broken nearly everything in the house that could be broken.  The dishes and glasses survived only because he lacked the energy to pull them from the cabinet.  Anything within reach had already been thrown against a wall and smashed to pieces.  A ceramic urn.  A glass plate that Madar-jan had received as a gift.  They were casualties of the war inside Padar-jan’s head.

Padar-jan had fought with the Mujahideen for years, shooting at the Russian troops that bombarded our town with rockets.  When the Soviets finally slinked back to their collapsing country, Padar-jan came home and prayed that life would return back to normal, though few people could recall such a time.  That was 1989. 

In that year, he returned home to his parents who barely recognized the seventeen year old boy who had left home with a gun slung over his shoulder in the name of God and his country.  His mother and father hurriedly arranged a marriage for him.  At twenty-four years old, he was long overdue and they thought a wife and children would bring him back to normal, but Padar-jan, just like the rest of the country, had forgotten what normal was.

Madar-jan was barely eighteen when they were wed.  I imagine she must have been as terrified on her wedding night as I was on mine.  Sometimes I wonder why she did not warn me but I suppose those are not things women should speak of.

As the country planned for new beginnings, so did my parents.  My sister Shahla came first, followed by Parwin and me.  Then came Rohila and Sitara.  We were all a year apart and close enough in age that only our mother could tell us apart once we were walking.  But with one daughter after another, Madar-jan did not become the wife that Padar-jan expected.  Even more sorely disappointed was my grandmother, who had respectably borne five sons and only one daughter.

Things fell apart at home, just as they did across the country when Russia left.  While the Afghan warriors turned their guns and rockets on each other, Padar-jan tried to settle into life at home.  He tried to work alongside his father as a carpenter but a man who had been taught only to destroy found it hard to create.  Loud sounds jarred him.  He grew frustrated and drifted back to the warlord, Abdul Khaliq, he had fought under. 

Warlords were Afghanistan’s new aristocracy.  Allegiance to a man with local clout meant a better life.  It meant an income when there otherwise would be none.  It wasn’t long before Padar-jan had oiled his machine gun, slung it over his shoulder and went off to fight again, this time in Abdul Khaliq’s name.  He returned home every so often.  When he returned the first time and found that Madar-jan had given birth to yet another girl, me, he walked out again and returned to the killing fields with fresh anger.

Madar-jan was left behind with a houseful of girls and only her bitter in-laws to turn to.  We lived in a small two room house, part of the family’s compound.  War pushed families together.  Two of my uncles were killed in the fighting.  My uncle’s wife died giving birth to her sixth child.  Until he could remarry two months later, his children were cared for by my mother and my other aunts.  We should have felt like one big family.  We should have been kind to each other.  But there was resentment.  There was anger.  There was jealousy.  There was, as there would be in the rest of the country, civil war.

Madar-jan’s family lived a few kilometers away, but they might as well have been on the other side of the Hindu Kush Mountains.  They had given their daughter to Padar-jan and did not want to interfere in her relationship with her new family.  Madar jan’s deformed sister, Shaima, was the exception. 

Deformities were not easily forgiven so Khala Shaima steeled herself to resist the name-calling, the ridiculing, the gawking.  Older than Madar-jan by nearly ten years, our aunt would tell us things that no one else would say.  She would tell us about the war, how the warlords controlled everything and conquered without mercy, even attacking women in the most shameful way of all.  Usually Madar-jan hushed her older sister with a pleading look.  We were young, after all, and it wasn’t Khala Shaima who would have to quiet our night terrors.  Sometimes Khala Shaima forgot we were children and told us so much that we sat wide-eyed, frightened of our own father.

When Padar-jan came home, we cowered.  His moods ranged from jubilant to foul but there was no predicting where on the spectrum he would be or when he would make an appearance.  Madar-jan was lonely and welcomed her sister’s visits, even if her mother-in-law griped about it.  My grandmother made sure to report to her son just how many times Khala Shaima had come to visit while he was away, clucking her tongue in disapproval and inciting his wrath.  It was her way of showing Madar-jan that she was in control of our home, even if it sat fifty feet away from the main house.

Everyone wanted control but it was hard to get.  The only one who seemed to have any was Abdul Khaliq Khan, the warlord.  He and his militia were able to gain control of our town and the neighboring towns, having pushed back their rivals.  We were north of Kabul and hadn’t seen any fighting in about four years but from what we heard, Kabul was besieged.  People in our town shook their heads in dismay at the news but our homes were already pockmarked and turned to rubble.  It was time for the privileged in Kabul to see what we had survived.

Those were ugly times.  I can only imagine what my father must have seen from the time he was just a teenage boy.  Like so many others, he numbed himself to the ugliness with the “medicine” that Madar-jan referred to.  He clouded his mind with the opium that Abdul Khaliq kept around, as crucial to this men’s ability to wage war as the artillery strapped to his back. 

            Madar-jan grew weary of our father but all she could do was look after us girls.  Khala Shaima brought her some concoction that she took so she wouldn’t have any more children after me.  I don’t know what the medicine was, but it worked for six years.  When Madar-jan felt her belly stretch again, she prayed and prayed and did all the things that Khala Shaima told her to do.  Nothing worked.  Disappointed and fearful, she named our youngest sister Sitara and dreaded the day that Padar-jan would come home to find out she had brought yet another daughter into his home.

            Then came the Taliban.  They were just another faction in the civil war but they gained in strength and their regime crept across the country.  It didn’t affect us much until we were pulled out of school, windows were blackened and music was banned.  Madar-jan sighed but carried on, her daily routine largely unaffected by the new codes. 

            When word got out that our town had fallen to the Taliban, Abdul Khaliq brought his men back home to fight back – and to defend his honor as a warlord.  There were weeks of explosions, crying, burying and then the men came home, victorious.  Our town was again our own.

            Padar-jan stayed home for a few months.  He spent time with his brothers, tried to help his father recover some business and even helped some of the neighbors to rebuild their homes.  Things were going well until the day that a young boy came knocking on our door with a message for Padar-jan.  The next morning, Padar-jan oiled his machine gun, donned his pakol hat and headed back out to re-join the war.

            He came back here and there but his mood swings were worse with each visit.  We saw him only two or three days at a time and we were children, to young to understand the rage he brought home.  He was not the same person at all.  Even Bibi-jan, my grandmother, would cry after his visits, saying she had lost another son to the war.

            It was my cousin Siddiq who told us about the news.  He had heard from our grandfather. 

            “Amrika.  That’s who.  They came and they’re bombing the Taliban.  They have the biggest guns, the biggest rockets!  And their soldiers are so strong!”

            “Why didn’t Amrika come before?”  Shahla had asked.  She was nearly twelve years old then.  Wise enough to come up with questions that made us look at her with admiration. 

            Siddiq was ten but had the confidence of a boy twice his age.  His father had been killed years ago and he grew up under our grandfather’s wing.  He was the man of his house.

            “Because the Taliban bombed Amrika.  Now they’re angry and they’re bombing them back.”

            Our grandfather entered the courtyard and overheard our conversation.

            “Siddiq-jan, what are you telling your cousins?”

            “I was just telling them about Amrika, Boba-jan.  That they’re firing rockets at the Taliban!”

            “Padar-jan,” Shahla asked timidly.  “Did the Taliban destroy many homes in Amrika?” 

            “No, bachem.  Someone attacked a building in Amrika.  Now they are angry and they’ve come after him and his people.”

            “Just one building?”


            We were silent.  It sounded like good news.  A big, powerful country had come to our rescue!  Our people had an ally in the war against the Taliban!

            But Boba-jan could see in Shahla’s eyes that there was something that puzzled her and he knew just what it was.  Why would Amrika be so upset after just one building was attacked?  Half our country had crumbled under the Taliban.  We were all thinking the same thing. 

If only Amrika would have been upset about that too.


Chapter 4


Shekiba continued to toil in the fields as if her father were at her side.  She fed the chicken and the donkey and fixed the plow when the axle snapped on a stone in the field.  The house was quiet, somber.  Sometimes the silence grated on her nerves and she would try to erase it with the sounds of chores, or by talking to the birds perched on the wall.  Some days she felt content, almost happy to be self-sufficient.  She hoped her mother liked the small flowers she had planted while she listened to the bulbul sing over Aqela’s grave.

Some things were difficult.  Without her father around, Shekiba had no connection with the village or its resources.  She used the cooking oil sparingly and was careful with how much she harvested from their field so that she would not go hungry.  She dug a small trench between the house and the wall and buried some potatoes so that she would have a stock for the coming winter months.  She picked the beans and ate a few, leaving the rest to dry for later. 

Her father’s death seemed to usher winter in sooner than usual, by Shekiba’s warped sense of time.  Shekiba had little reason to care about the month or year.  The sun would rise and fall and she continued to do her chores, occasionally bothering to wonder what would come of her.  How long would this existence last?  More than once she thought of ending her life.  Once, she’d pinched her nose and shut her mouth.  She felt her chest tighten and tighten until she finally took a breath and continued to live, cursing her weakness.

She again contemplated digging her own plot, beside her father, and laying down in it.  Maybe the dark angel Gabriel would see her and reunite her with her family.  Shekiba wondered if she would see her mother again.  If she did, she prayed it would be the mother who sang while she cooked their meals, not the bald, glassy eyed woman Shekiba had buried.  

Winter came and Shekiba floundered along, subsisting on what she had managed to keep through the fall.  Each time she bothered to undress and bathe, she noticed her ribs protrude more.  She used her siblings clothing to cushion her hip bones from the hard floor.  She grew weak, her hair brittle and frayed.  Her gums bled when she chewed but she barely noticed the taste of blood in her mouth.

Spring came and Shekiba looked forward to the warmth of the sun and the tasks that came with it.  But along with spring came a visitor, and the first hint that Shekiba would not be allowed to live like this for long. 

She was feeding the chicken when she saw a young boy in the distance, coming toward her home from her grandfather’s house.  She could not tell who it was but went inside and donned her chadori.  She paced back and forth, peeking through the door from time to time to confirm that the boy was still coming toward her.  Indeed he was and, as he neared, Shekiba could see that he was no more than seven or eight years old.  She marveled at how healthy he looked and wondered what her cousins were eating at the main house.  Once more, Shekiba was thankful for the ability to hide behind the blue cloak.

“Salaaaaaam!”  His voice called out when he was near enough.  “I am Hameed!  Dear uncle, I want to speak to you!”

Hameed?  Who was Hameed?  It did not surprise Shekiba that she didn’t recognize him.  Likely many cousins had been born since she lost contact with the clan.  Shekiba wondered how to reply.  Should she answer or should she keep quiet?  What would invite less inquiry?

“Salaaaaaaam!  I am Hameed!  Dear—“

Shekiba cut him off.

“Your uncle is not home.  He cannot speak to you now.”

There was no answer for a time.  She wondered if Hameed had been warned about her.  She could imagine the conversation.

But be careful.  Your uncle has a daughter, a monster, really.  She is terrible to look at, so don’t be too frightened.  She’s insane and may say crazy things.

Shekiba put her ear to the wall, trying to hear if Hameed was still there or if he was walking away.

“Who are you?”

Shekiba did not know how to answer.

“I said who are you?”

“I am…I am….” 

“Are you my uncle’s daughter?  Are you Shekiba?”


“Where is my uncle?  I was told to bring him a message.”

“He is not here.”

“Where is he then?”

At the edge of the field.  Did you see the tree?  The one that should be growing apples but grows nothing at all?  That’s where he is.  You walked right past him, along with my mother, my sister and my two brothers.  If you have anything to tell him, you can tell him as you make your way back to the house with all the food.

But Shekiba did not say what she was thinking.  She had that much sense left in her.

“I said, where is he?”

“He has gone out.”

“When will he be back?”

“I do not know.”

“Well, tell him that Bobo Shahgul wants to see him.  She wants him to come to the house.”

Bobo Shahgul was Shekiba’s paternal grandmother.  Shekiba hadn’t seen her since before the cholera took her family.  Bobo Shahgul had come over to tell her son about a girl in the village, the daughter of a friend.  She had wanted her son to take her on as a second wife, maybe even to have him move back into the family compound with the second wife and keep the first wife at this house.  Shekiba remembered watching her mother listen to the conversation with her head bowed, saying nothing.

“Tell Bobo Shahgul that…that he is not here now.”

She was skirting the truth.

“You will tell my uncle what I have said?”

“I will.”

She could hear his footsteps grow distant but waited a full hour before emerging from the wall, just in case.  She wasn’t the brightest girl, but even Shekiba knew it was just a matter of time before her grandmother sent another message. 

Three months passed. 

Shekiba was attaching the harness to the donkey to begin tilling the soil when she saw two men walking toward the house.  She darted inside and grabbed her chadori in a panic.  Her heart fluttered as she waited for them to near.  She kept her ear against the inner wall, listening for footsteps.

“Abdullah!  Come out and speak to us!  Your brothers are here!”

Her father’s brothers?  Bobo Shahgul meant business.  Shekiba frantically tried to think of something reasonable to say. 

“My father is not at home!” 

“Enough with the nonsense, Abdullah!  We know you’re here!  You’re too much of a coward to leave your home!  Come on out or we’ll barge in there and shake some sense into you!”

“Please, my father is not home!” She could hear her voice cracking.  Would they force their way in?  It wouldn’t take much effort. The door would fold in at their slightest touch.

“God damn you, Abdullah! What are you doing hiding behind your daughter!  Move aside, girl, we are coming in!”


Chapter 5


Madar-jan took me behind the house with Padar-jan’s scissors and razor.  I sat nervously while my sisters watched.  She pulled my long hair into a pony tail behind my head, whispered a prayer and slowly began to shear away.  Shahla looked astonished.  Rohila looked entertained and Parwin had watched only for a moment before running back into the house for her pencils and paper.  She sketched furiously with her back turned from me. 

Madar-jan cut and trimmed, bending my ear forward to trim around it.  She cut my bangs short and straight across my forehead.  I looked at the ground around me and saw hair everywhere.  She brushed the loose strands from my shoulders, blew at my neck and dusted off my back.  My neck felt bare, exposed.  I giggled with nervous excitement.  Only Shahla noticed the single tear that trickled down Madar-jan’s cheek. 

The next step was my clothing.  Madar-jan asked my uncle’s wife for a shirt and pair of pants.  My cousin had outgrown them, as had his older brother and my other cousin before him.  She sent me inside to get dressed while she and my sisters swept my girl hair from the courtyard.

I slipped one leg in and then the other.  They were slimmer and heavier than the usual balloon pants I wore under my dresses.  I cinched the strings at the waist and made a knot.  I pulled the tunic over my head and realized there was no pony tail to pull through after it.  I let my hand run against the back of my head, feeling the short ends.

I looked down and saw my knobby knees through the pantaloons. I folded my arms across my chest and cocked my head, as I’d seen my cousin Siddiq do so many times.  I kicked my foot, pretending there was a ball in front of me.  Was that it?  Was I a boy already?

I thought of Khala Shaima.  I wondered what she would say if she were to see me like this.  Would she smile?  Had she really meant it when she suggested I should be turned into a boy?  She told us our great-great-grandmother had worked on the farm like a boy, that she’d been a son to her father.  I had waited for her to go on, to get to the part where our great-great-grandmother turned into a boy.  Khala Shaima said she would come back and tell us more of the story another day.  I hated having to wait.

I smoothed my shirt down and went back out to see what my mother thought.

“Well!  Aren’t you a handsome young boy!” Madar-jan said. Even I could detect the hint of nervous uncertainty in her voice. 

“Are you sure, Madar-jan?  Don’t I look odd?”

Shahla covered her mouth with her hand at the sight of me.

“Oh my goodness!  You look just like a boy! Madar-jan, you can hardly tell it’s her!”

Madar-jan nodded.

“You won’t have to get your knots taken out anymore,” Rohila said enviously.  Getting the knots brushed out of our hair was a painful morning routine.  Her hair coiled into a mess of tiny birds’ nests that Madar-jan struggled to brush out while Rohila winced and squirmed.

Bachem, from now on we’re going to call you Rahim instead of Rahima,” Madar-jan said tenderly.  Her eyes looked heavier than they should at the age of thirty.

“Rahim!  We have to call her Rahim?”

“Yes, she is now your brother, Rahim.  You will forget about your sister, Rahima and welcome your brother.  Can you do that, girls?  It’s very important that you speak only of your brother Rahim and never mention that you have another sister.”

“Just in case we forget what she looked like, Parwin drew this picture of Rahima.”  Rohila handed Madar-jan the sketch Parwin had done while she was cutting my hair.  It was an incredible likeness of me, the old me with long hair and naïve eyes.  Madar-jan looked at the drawing and whispered something we didn’t understand.  She folded the paper and placed in on the table top. 

“Is that it?  Just like that?  She’s a boy?”  Shahla looked skeptical.

“Just like that,” Madar-jan said quietly.  “This is how things are done.  People will understand.  You’ll see.”  She knew my sisters would be the hardest to convince.  Everyone else – teachers, aunts, uncles, neighbors – they would accept my mother’s new son without reservation.  I wasn’t the first bacha posh.  This was a common tradition for families in want of a son.  What Madar-jan was already dreading was the day they would have to change me back.  But that would only be when I began to change into a young woman.  That was still a few years away. 

“Oh, wow.” Parwin had returned to the courtyard to see what happened.

“So just like that.  She’s a boy.”

“Nope, not yet,” Parwin said calmly.  “She’s not a boy yet.”

“What do you mean?” Rohila asked.

“She’s got to walk under a rainbow.”

“A rainbow?”

“What are you talking about?”

 “My God Parwin,” Madar-jan said, smiling faintly.  “I don’t remember telling you that poem.  How do you even know about it?”

Parwin shrugged her shoulders.  We weren’t surprised.  Parwin couldn’t tell you if she had eaten breakfast but she often knew things that no one expected her to know.

“What is she talking about, Madar-jan?” I asked, curious to find out if Parwin was right or if her imagination had gotten the best of her today.

“She’s talking about an old poem. I don’t know if I can even remember how the story goes but it’s about what happens if you pass under a rainbow.”

“What happens if you pass under a rainbow?” Rohila asked.

“There’s a legend that walking under a rainbow changes girls into boys and boys into girls.”

“What? Is that true? Could that really happen?” 

This perplexed me.  I hadn’t walked under a rainbow.  I’d never even seen one, for that matter.  How was this change supposed to work?

“Tell us the poem, Madar-jan.  I know you remember it.  We drank in spirits…”  Parwin started her off.

Madar-jan sighed and went into the living room.  We followed.  She sat with her back against the wall and looked to the ceiling, trying to recall the details.  Her chador fell across her shoulders.  We sat around her and waited expectantly.

Afsaanah, see-saanah…” she began.  One story, thirty stories.  And then she sang the poem.


We drank in spirits and played in fields

Enamored of

Indigos, saffrons and teals

There was fog in the space

Between them and I

Colors reach to touch God in the sky

I envy the arc, stretched strong and wide

As one brilliance blends into another

Colors bow deeply to welcome a brother

We humble servents, meekly pass under

Rostam’s bow changes girl to boy, makes one the other

Until the air grows dry and tires of the game

And the mist opens its arms, colors reclaimed

The Pearl that Broke Its Shell
by by Nadia Hashimi

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 0062244760
  • ISBN-13: 9780062244765