In the third year of the Taliban, 1998, Father and I were waiting for customers in our carpet shop on Chicken Street in Kabul. Customers were scarce. In fact, we had not sold anything in weeks. The sun was already dropping behind the mountains. Father was sitting on a chair in front of his desk, sipping green tea. I was stretched out on a rug near the window. Father looked gloomy and old with his long grey beard, which he had not trimmed for two and a half years because the Taliban did not allow it.
Father sipped his green tea slowly. His stomach growled, and my stomach made a noise as if they were competing to announce our hunger. Neither of us had eaten lunch. We had sat there for the entire day, hoping to sell a carpet and use the profit to buy a kabob to share. It was the first day of the week, Saturday. Afghans believe that if we make a sale on a Saturday, the week will be profitable. It is just a superstition, of course, but on a Saturday with no customers, worry creeps into the back of every shopkeeper's mind.
I closed my Dari translation of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables and put it on the shelf. It was getting dark, and I was having a hard time seeing the lines.
"This tea makes me hungrier," Father said. He took off his white hat and put it on the desk.
"Maybe we should go home," I suggested.
"I hope your mother cooked something nice for dinner."
"She told me this morning that we have run out of rice, beans, and potatoes."
"I don't have money to buy anything, son."
"I don't think we should worry. Mother is resourceful."
"I hope she didn't cook turnips again. Sometimes I feel like I'll turn into a turnip one day."
"But you often say that it is full of natural antibiotics, Father." I quoted him: "Eat turnips this year, and you won't get sick next year." Father was a physics teacher, and his knowledge of science extended to the nutrients of fruits and vegetables.
"True. But the body needs other things besides antibiotics." Father got up and drank the last drop of his tea. "Let's go home,"he said.
As we were about to leave, my uncle Hashim entered our shop. There was an old man with him carrying a carpet on his bony shoulders. Without saying hello to Father or me, the old man dropped it on the floor. A cloud of dust flew up and covered all of us. The old man took a dirty white handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the glistening sweat on his forehead. Then he sat on a pile of folded rugs near the door, breathing hard.
"This is Haji Naseeb," Uncle Hashim said. "My old friend." He took off his brown turban, scratched his bald head, and put it back on.
Father walked to Haji Naseeb and shook hands with him. "How are you?" he said.
"Very tired. This carpet weighs as much as a fat woman."
"Not a fat man?" Father said and chuckled.
"I've never carried a fat man before, only my wife."
We all laughed.
"Haji Naseeb is in need of money," Uncle Hashim said.
"Don't we all need money?" Father asked.
"He is more desperate than us. How much do you think you can pay for this carpet that he has brought from his living room?"
"I haven't sold anything in weeks," Father sighed. "I can't buy more while my shop is full of inventory. The market is bad."
Uncle Hashim's habit of bringing his friends to sell their carpets to Father was not something new. But in the past when business was good, Father could afford to buy everything. Not anymore.
"We're all living through hard times," Haji Naseeb said. "At least you have your shop. How many pieces do you have here, two or three hundred? I sold every valuable thing I had in the house to feed my seven daughters and my wife. I came here as a last resort. We haven't had a decent meal in months. There are eight hungry stomachs waiting for me to come home with a few naan."
Father looked at my uncle with annoyance in his eyes. He had not sold the last carpet Uncle Hashim had bought from another one of his friends a month earlier. Father's saving were almost gone. All his money was tied to the shop.
Uncle Hashim had two sons and two daughters, but he did not have the obligation of feeding and providing for all of them. His daughters were married and living with their families in Pakistan. His sons were living with him and his wife. His older son was in the import and export business, and his younger son was a successful tailor. Both provided for their parents and gave them pocket money. Uncle Hashim did not have a job. Every day he went to his friends' houses, checking on them, and chatting for hours.
"Have mercy on your countryman," Haji Naseeb went on. "One day I'll try to help you in return."
Father did not say anything as Haji Naseeb stared at him.
"During the Communist era in the 1980s, I used to be the adviser to the Minister of Finance," Haji Naseeb continued. "When these dark-minded Taliban took over, they fired me. My wife was a judge. As you know, she is no longer allowed to work. These backwards Taliban will disappear one day and we'll have a better life. But until then, we must help each other."
Father remained silent.
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