Authors: Alice Walsh
“Is this it?” Rabia asked the driver as the cab pulled up in front of a large brick house surrounded by orange and lemon trees. It was in one of the more upscale neighborhoods in Quetta.
“It's the address you gave me.”
Before Rabia could say anything further, a woman came running out of the house. “Ayeesha!” she called, swallowing Mama in a hug.
“It's all right,” Rabia told the driver. She paid him and he drove away.
She barely recognized Aunt Roxanne, who had lost weight; her hair was almost completely gray. Auntie released Mama from her embrace, and fixed her gaze on Karim, who stood off to one side. Mama said something to her sister in a low voice.
“Karim, my darling.” Aunt Roxanne said, approaching him. She framed his face with her hands and kissed both his cheeks.
Karim looked ill at ease, but he did not pull away.
Aunt Roxanne turned her attention to Rabia, engulfing her in a hug. “Look at you, niece,” she said, holding Rabia at arm's length. “You are all grown up.”
“I turned fourteen two months ago,” Rabia said.
“And where is Amir?” Auntie asked, as if it had just occurred to her that he was not with them.
“He had to flee,” Mama said. “To Iran.” She explained about his encounter with the Taliban.
“I am sorry, Ayeesha,” Aunt Roxanne said. “It must be very difficult.”
“Yes,” Mama agreed.
Aunt Roxanne shook her head sadly. “How was your journey?”
Mama sighed wearily. “Such a long way, sister.”
“Yes,” Rabia nodded in agreement. “After the bus from Kabul, two days and two nights on the train from the border to Quetta. The train was so slow, I probably could have walked here faster.” She shrugged. “Butâ¦we are here now.”
“I am glad to see you, niece.” Aunt Roxanne said. “Your cousin, Sima, is resting, but you will see her later.”
Rabia looked around the courtyard at the rosebushes and mulberry trees. “Do you and Sima live alone here, Auntie?”
Her aunt gave a small, mirthless laugh. “Heavens no, child. We are merely servants here. I should have explained in my letter. The house belongs to Abdullah Hekmatyar and his wife, Nadia. The family owns a number of businesses in Pakistan.”
“Will they mind us staying here?”
“Come inside, niece, and we will talk.”
Rabia felt uneasy as they followed Aunt Roxanne into a large foyer with marble tiles. Two little boys stared, wide-eyed, as they passed. In another room, they could hear the sound of a television. Laughter floated out from behind the closed door.
Auntie led them down a wide hallway and into a dining area where a woman sat at a table with a fat baby in her arms. The woman's dark eyes studied them intently.
Introductions were made all around.
“So this is your sister and her family.” Nadia Hekmatyar seemed pleased to see them. She went on to explain that their servant, Abia, was in Peshawar attending to her dying father. “And we had to fire the lazy, ungrateful Safa. All day long she watched American programs on television.”
Rabia turned to look at Aunt Roxanne. Why was the woman telling them this?
“My husband is away a lot of the time,” Nadia continued. “And I am busy attending to our businesses.” She looked at Mama. “Our six children need constant care. Since your sister started sewing for our shops, she does not have a lot of free time to attend to household chores.”
Rabia finally understood. Nadia wanted them to work for her. She must have discussed it with Aunt Roxanne before they came.
“There is a lot of work to be done in a house this size.” Nadia moved the baby from her lap to her shoulder. “Meals have to be prepared. There is washing and ironing to be done. Beds to be made. In exchange, you will get room and board.”
Rabia nodded numbly.
Nadia shifted her gaze from Mama to Karim, who was staring at the tiled floor. “What is wrong with the boy?” she asked bluntly.
“He has not been himself since his brother was killed,” Mama said sadly.
Nadia frowned. “He will not cause trouble, will he?”
“No,” Rabia said quickly. “Karim is no trouble. He is a good boy.”
At that moment, a girl about Rabia's age came into the room. At first Rabia thought it might be Sima, but she quickly realized this girl was much shorter than her cousin.
“Hada,” Nadia said, “bring our visitors something to eat. They must be hungry after their long journey.”
The girl turned to glare at them, but did as she was told.
The baby started to fuss and Nadia stood up. “I must get this little one to bed.” She fixed her gaze on Mama. “Make yourself at home. Your sister will show you to your room.”
Hada returned a few minutes later carrying a platter filled with rice, chicken, lentils, chickpeas, and beans. She placed it on the table in front of them. For the next few minutes there was very little talk. They concentrated on filling their hollow bellies. It was a simple meal, but after days of nothing but naan and tea, it felt like a feast.
After they finished eating, they gathered in Aunt Roxanne and Sima's basement room. In contrast to the upstairs rooms, it was dark and dank and smelled of mold. Little light came through the high, small, rectangular windows, and the concrete walls made it feel like a dungeon. But Rabia, relaxed from the meal, did not mind. They had food, a place to stay. Even when Sima told her that she would be expected to work very hard, she was not discouraged.
It is only temporary,
she told herself. And she was overjoyed at seeing her aunt and cousin again. She had not seen them in many years, and at sixteen, Sima had grown up.
For hours, they talked about friends and relatives back in Afghanistan, Aunt Roxanne dabbing at her eyes when she learned that one of them had died. After a while, she turned her attention to Sima. My daughter is getting married,” she said happily. “She is marrying Hasan the butcher.”
Two bright red spots appeared in Sima's cheeks.
“I am happy for you, cousin,” Rabia said, giving her a hug. “Will you and your new husband be going to America?”
Aunt Roxanne shook her head. “We have changed our minds, niece.”
Rabia sucked in her breath. Had she heard right? Aunt Roxanne and Sima were not going to America?
“As it turns out, the relief organization I told you about is a Christian one. They will force us to eat pork. We will not be able to practice our Muslim faith.” Aunt Roxanne lowered her voice. “There are rumors that they are taking widows and children to America to sell them into slavery.”
“Auntie, where did you hear such things?” Rabia asked. She'd asked Omar to check out the organization, and, from what he learned, it rescued refugees from desperate situations around the world. Still, hearing her aunt's words unsettled her.
“Nadia and her family have decided to stay another day with their relatives,” Aunt Roxanne announced at the breakfast table one morning. “They will return tomorrow.”
Well, at least we will not have the bossy Hada looking over our shoulders while we work,
Rabia thought. She had been in the Hekmatyar household for nearly a month now. Sima had not been mistaken when she said the work was hard. Every morning they got up at dawn, before the mullah chanted the
, the morning call to prayer. Afterwards, Hada and her brothers and sisters went back to bed. Rabia and Sima stayed awake to help Mama and Aunt Roxanne with the housework. They were kept busy every minute of the day â cleaning, cooking, scrubbing floors, doing laundry and other chores
At the end of the day her arms and back ached from all the heavy lifting. Hada, who was only a year older than Rabia, ordered the girls around like slaves.
Despite all of this, Aunt Roxanne had decided not to go to America. And now, she had Mama convinced that bad things would happen. Rumors were running wild in Quetta that refugees would be sold into slavery. Mama was terrified, and Rabia was afraid she might change her mind about going.
Rabia pushed eggs around on her plate. She could not imagine spending her life here working for this family. The only thing that made it bearable was having her cousin beside her. She and Sima had grown close during their time together.
It will not be too long now, before I can leave
, Rabia reminded herself. In a few days, the relief organization would be setting up its headquarters. Nadia had grudgingly said Rabia could go to register. Mama though, would have to stay behind to help with the housework.
“Nadia wants the children's playroom cleaned before they return,” Aunt Roxanne said, yanking Rabia out of her thoughts. “You girls can start right after breakfast. Ayeesha and I will take care of the breakfast dishes.”
Sima got up from the table. “We might as well get started,” she said.
Rabia took her dishes to the sink and followed Sima down the wide hallway to the playroom. “What a mess,” Sima said when she opened the door.
Rabia glanced around the room. Stuffed animals, books, dolls, toy trucks and cars littered the carpet. The room had high ceilings and was painted a bright yellow. Two large windows looked out on a well-tended lawn. There were shelves filled with books and toys. A desk held a computer with all the latest games and software. “Nadia should make her children clean up after themselves,” Sima said. “They are like little pigs.”
Rabia had never seen so many toys and games. Nadia's children were very spoiled. And they were unruly at times. She let her eyes stray to the corner of the room where a large television with a VCR stood on a shelf. Maybe they could watch a program while they worked. Rarely did they get to watch television, they were kept so busy with household chores.
An idea suddenly came to Rabia. “I will be right back,” she told Sima and quickly left the room. She returned minutes later holding the video. She removed it from its plastic case, and slipped it into the VCR.
Sima watched the screen, a confused look on her face. After some time a black-and-white image of a large ship emerged. Crowds of people waved from the deck. Sima continued to watch, not knowing what to expect. Then suddenly the image changed to a dark rolling sea and the single word
appeared on the screen.
“Rabia?” Sima asked breathlessly. “Where did you get this movie?”
“I brought it with me,” Rabia said, pleased with herself. The look on her cousin's face was worth the risk she had taken smuggling it out of Afghanistan. “I thought we could watch it while we cleaned.”
Several minutes went by without either of them lifting a finger. They were too absorbed in what was happening on the screen. Finally, Rabia picked up a dust rag. “We better get this place cleaned up,” she said.
Sima began picking up toys and books, her eyes glued to the television set.
From the beginning, their hearts were with the two main characters, Rose and Jack. They laughed out loud when Jack taught Rose to fly on the bow of the boat. They clapped when Rose defied her mother by choosing Jack over the rich Cal Hockley, to whom she had been promised in marriage. They shot each other nervous glances when the ship hit an iceberg.
An hour later, Rabia left the room to get a fresh pail of water.
“You girls are taking a long time cleaning the playroom,” Aunt Roxanne said.
“It is very dirty, Auntie,” Rabia said, feeling guilty for deceiving her aunt. But Mama and Aunt Roxanne were sitting at the kitchen table drinking tea. They did not seem to be in any hurry to clean the house.
Good for them,
They deserve a little free time after working like dogs all week long.
When Rabia returned to the playroom, Sima was sitting on the floor crying, her hands covering her face.
“Cousin, it is only a film,” Rabia said. “A true story, yes. But it happened so long ago, the people would all be dead now.”
“It's not that,” Sima sniffed.
“Then what is it?” Rabia knelt on the floor beside her. “Are you okay?”
Sima swiped at her eyes. “If only I had the courage to stand up to Mama the way Rose stood up to
Rabia put a hand on her cousin's shoulder. “What are you saying, Sima?”
“I don't want to marry Hasan,” Sima admitted. She looked at Rabia with such sorrow, it broke her heart.
“Did you tell your mother how you feel?”
“Mama thinks that if I don't marry Hasan, I will not find another husband.” She met Rabia's gaze. “She's concerned about what will happen to me when she is no longer around. That is part of the reason she did not want to go to America. She didn't want me to leave Hasan.” Sima bit her lip. “Hasan and his family were born here and have no desire to leave.”
Rabia stared silently at her cousin.
“If I marry Hasan, I will be trapped forever,” Sima continued. “I do not want to get married. Not to Hasan, not to anyone. I want to go to America.” She grasped Rabia's arm. “You are so lucky, Rabia. In America, girls are free to choose whom they want to marry. And if they do not wish to marry, no one cares. Your life is so full of hope, while mine isâ¦” Fresh tears spilled down Sima's cheeks.
Rabia didn't know what to say. She glanced helplessly at the television screen where the
was filling up with water. Panic-stricken passengers were screaming and shouting, all trying desperately to get away from the doomed ship.
September 11, 2001
, Rabia wanted to shout as the plane picked up speed, the gray tarmac rushing past the window. After months of waiting, it was finally happening. She was on her way to America. On her way to a better life where she had a chance to go to school, go to college if she chose. Even so, as the plane climbed and banked, Islamabad tilting beneath her, she felt a small twinge of regret. She was leaving behind friends and relatives, everything familiar. Would she ever see Father and Amir again?
She glanced at Karim; he was staring straight ahead, his expression hard to read. Mama's eyes were red from weeping.
It is going to be okay, Mama,
Rabia wanted to reassure her.
Things will be better in America. You can be a photographer again. Maybe even have your own studio.
Rabia could only imagine what her mother was going through. Not only was she uncertain about going to America, but Mama also felt guilty about leaving Father and Amir behind. Rabia had tried to convince her that she was not abandoning her husband and son. This move was good for all of them. Hadn't Father prepared his children for the day when they would possibly go to America? In Afghanistan they were shut in the house most of the time, afraid to go out. In Pakistan, they would always be refugees and servants.
Mama will grow to love America,
Rabia told herself. She only wished Sima could have come with them.
Dear, sweet Sima
ou deserve to be happy
I can only pray that you will find the courage to stand up to Aunt Roxanne,
Rabia thought as she gazed out the window at the shrinking mountains and blue-domed mosques of Pakistan.
Making it into the program had been much more difficult than Rabia had imagined. The relief organization had set up their operation on an isolated field outside Quetta where thousands of refugees flocked to register. For three days, Rabia tried to obtain an interview. The first couple of days she couldn't get anywhere near the gate.
In the end, it was her foot that saved her. Rabia smiled now at the memory. Not that her artificial foot made her stand out in any way. Hundreds of people who came to register had missing limbs. Many of them were worse off than she.
After days of waiting, people had grown frustrated. They pushed and shoved, elbowing their way to the gates. Rabia was jostled from side to side. She stumbled, and, to her horror, her prosthesis fell off. Losing her balance, she landed flat on her face. She might have been trampled if a man from the organization hadn't picked her up. He ushered her inside the gate, gave her a glass of water and a bandage for her scraped forehead. For hours she waited on a wooden bench, her head throbbing and her leg aching. But Rabia didn't mind. She was finally going to be interviewed. Her family would have a chance to go to America.
Rabia turned her attention to the brochure she had been given. She felt a surge of excitement as she looked at the colorful photographs of California, the state they were going to. Rows of wood and brick houses ran along wide tree-lined avenues. Tall glass buildings rose into the sky. The lady at the relief office told her that California was more than seven thousand miles from Afghanistan.
Seven thousand miles to freedom,
In America, people shopped at places called malls that had dozens of stores and moving staircases. A woman from the organization told her that in a mall you could buy everything from bread and books to television sets and clothing.
There were photographs of women and men walking along white sandy beaches. The women wore scanty clothing. Rabia knew she could never walk around half naked like that. But she would never again hide her face under a burqa. She turned a page in the brochure, pausing to look at a picture of a girl running down a grassy knoll, long hair streaming in the wind. She tried to imagine her own long dark hair flying free. Leaning back in her seat, Rabia felt the powerful thrust of the engine carry her upward into the clouds.