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Nothing Good Happens in Wazirabad on Wednesday


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About The Book

In this novel about peace in a time of war, debut author Jamaluddin Aram masterfully breathes life into the colourful characters of the town of Wazirabad, in early 1990s Kabul, Afghanistan.

It is the early 1990s, in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Russian occupation has ended, and civil war has broken out, but life roars on in full force in the working-class town of Wazirabad.

A rash of burglaries has stolen people’s sleep. Fifteen-year-old Aziz awakens from a dark dream that prompts him to plant shards of glass along the wall surrounding his house to protect his family against theft. Aziz’s sister, Seema, decorates kites with her calligraphy and sells fresh scorpions to spare her mother from servicing the local soldiers. Along the main street, three militiamen wait for the fighting to resume, while the Baker, the Watchmaker, the Tailor, and the Vegetable Seller make their modest living and the Bonesetter reads poetry to his cat. And every day at noon, a flaming red rooster walks three blocks to visit his favourite hens.

But tensions rise among the town’s people. The burglaries have put everyone on edge. The militiamen are on the hunt for the thief who stole their dog—and their ammunition. And a widow, who is the target of men’s lust and women’s scorn, soon finds herself on the periphery of a terrible violence. While the armed conflict rages on in the background, rumours swirl with a feverish frenzy, culminating in the collective chorus of the town’s living, breathing dreams.

In this brilliantly kaleidoscopic, darkly funny, and wholly captivating novel about peace in a time of war, Jamaluddin Aram breathes life into the families and friends, lovers and loners, neighbours and sworn enemies who wander the winding alleys of Wazirabad.


1. It Was Wednesday IT WAS WEDNESDAY - 1 -
IN WAZIRABAD THE WALLS HAD mice and the mice had ears and listened when people talked. Compounds and rooms and back rooms and vestibules and nooks and corners provided no privacy. As though the very air that gave life also stole the thought from the edge of a person’s imagination and took it to the next house and then the next until someone, dreaming or awake, reached for it and began to read like one would read something scribbled on a piece of paper washed up by wind and rain. They mouthed the words slowly, tasting and pausing and thinking before moving on until they were through with the little that was legible and had to invent the rest. Then when what they understood from it all wasn’t enough and curiosity made them restless, they visited relatives and acquaintances, whispering and nodding; they went to the mosque, to the Bonesetter’s shop, to the drugstore on the main street, to the power station, the bakery, the tailor shop, the barbershop, and to the football field at the edge of town, where the youths played and talks were always wild and fresh. In this way a rumor was born, which despite all its inaccuracies and malice was a search for truth.

And like air, rumor was everywhere. It was in the dream that Aziz had; it was in his frayed white undershirt and military fatigue pants, and it was in the awful odor of Wednesday to which he had woken up in his bed of thin mattress on the floor with the slow, baffled look of an old person recovering from a troubled siesta. There was again that thick, clean smell of ironed cotton in the semi-dark room pierced by a needle pulling coarse thread through fabric, and the sputtering of an oil lamp set on the sill of the window behind which the night waited…

“Why are you up in the middle of the night? Go back to sleep,” Aziz’s mother whispered so as to not wake his little sister, Seema, who was talking in her sleep about the scorpion bite she had gotten in the fall.

Aziz sat quietly in that warm, clean, cotton-smelling dimness until he found his voice. Then he cleared the sleep from his throat, and began to tell his dream to his mother. He spoke so lucidly, as if he were still dreaming.

She listened without saying a word or looking up from the heel of a man’s grey sock she was mending while waiting for the electricity to come back on so she could press the rest of the soldiers’ wash. When Aziz finished talking, she put the needle in between her teeth, turned the sock inside out, and leaned toward the lantern to inspect her stitches.

“A small boy and such strange dreams,” she said through the threaded needle.
- 2 -
IF IT WASN’T FOR THE dream, Aziz, like the other boys in the neighborhood, would slip out of bed at the first glimmer of dawn without waking anyone and go out the door, skip through the twists and turns of the sleeping alleys, and come out onto the wide rutted dirt road flanked by the tall concrete poles that once carried electricity, then just dead wires, then nothing, when most of the above-ground cables were cut and stolen during the second year of the fighting, then he would cross and walk parallel to the crumbling walls of abandoned houses, which separated the road from the football field, until the houses ended and the standing waters began and he would circle around the head of the pond and get up on the bank, the football field falling behind him, the stretches of rising wheat to his right, and down below to his left his moving reflection cast on the water, and he would continue on the bank until he arrived at the barbed-wire picketed fence and crawl headfirst under it and emerge on the other side dusting off his clothes and then part the knee-high summer cypresses and crowfoot grass where it was rumored that the evening before someone knowingly or unknowingly had made the grave mistake of discovering unopened boxes of ammunition—that everyone would later learn belonged to the three Militiamen—wrapped in plastic and buried in the soil, which was then sold to a junkyard and the cash was carried in a burlap sack, as the wads of money wouldn’t fit in any pocket.

But Aziz had that dream.

Before dawn broke hot and cloudy, he put on his shirt, a soldier’s old, sun-faded green uniform that his mother had altered to fit him, and stepped outside. The morning air was sweet and alive with the attar of yellow senjed blossoms, ripening grains, and the song of sparrows.

He moved about in the dark in the far corner of the courtyard, where he shoveled out soil and added handfuls of chaff to it from a burlap sack and mixed them before pouring water. He let the enforced clay rest while he went into the storage room and felt around for the rusted milk can amid the foul rat stench.

When the ink-black sky started to brighten to a milky light, he packed some of the hardening clay in a pail, put up the reed ladder, and mounted it onto the adobe courtyard wall. He set the pail and went back down and came up with a milk can filled with shards. He then squatted between the pail and the can, and from the tilting pail he poured a layer of clay on top of the wall that was warm with night air. He worked in small patches, smoothing the clay with his palm before reaching behind him for the can to take and plant the glass in the mud.

By the time his friends, Sikandar and Hossain, came to get Aziz so the three of them could go join the hunt for the spoils of war in the fenced field, he had already glassed a quarter of the wall.

Sikandar and Hossain were the grandsons of the store owner Baba Gul Ahmad, whom the townspeople called the Mule because of his stubbornness. They now waited for Aziz out in the alley and listened to him recounting his dream.

Sikandar, the younger of the two boys, sat on his haunches with his back to the mosque across from Aziz’s house, his lips puckered in acute concentration, prying a scab on his forearm. His cousin, Hossain, stood forlornly, scratching something on the wall of the Widow’s house after he had offered and been rejected to go up on the wall and help Aziz.

“The three of them sailed over this wall. Once they were in the house, someone from the alley tossed them their guns,” Aziz said of the thieves in his dream.

For years Wazirabad knew no theft. There were occasional incidents where a thief came on moonless nights and made away with a chicken or a colander or an old bicycle. But when the war began, the thieves paid no heed to the moon; they came often and swept the houses so clean that the owners, having been robbed even of their surprise, sat on the bare floor as if they never had any earthly possessions to their names except for the clothes on their backs.

“In the dream our house had more rooms. Big, empty, doorless, and windowless rooms like the classrooms at the school,” Aziz continued. “The men moved about in the dark bringing things out into the courtyard. I hid behind a low mud parapet in one of the rooms. A woman was weeping. ‘They are looking for me,’ she said. She was sitting flat on the floor combing her hair and her hair was greying with each stroke of the comb. Suddenly her hair was so white that it lit the room and I could see that she was our neighbor the Widow.”

The mention of the Widow in the dream peaked Hossain’s interest. He stopped the scratching, the short-blade knife red with rust still serious in his hand. Save for the plastic flip-flops, Hossain looked overdressed for a Wednesday. He wore a white T-shirt, a pair of old blue denim pants, and a navy-blue double-breasted blazer with big brass buttons that he had gotten against two months of his salary from his employer, the Bucktoothed Tailor. It was a custom-made jacket the client hadn’t picked up; it was too big for Hossain, the shoulders sagged as if hung from a wire coat hanger, the flaps came down almost to his knees, and the sleeves folded back three times.

“What else did she say?” Hossain asked.

“That’s it,” Aziz said. “My mother was ironing clothes and the smell woke me.”

“You’re glassing the wall to stop the thieves?” Sikandar asked.

“Yes,” Aziz said and reached for the milk can without turning. “It’ll be better than nothing.” He worked steadily and with such trust and precision as if the broken bottles, windows, and mirrors were going to take root and bear fruit.

Hossain resumed the scratching.

“Bachem, glass won’t stop these thieves. Let’s go,” Sikandar said. “And they’re not going to come this very night.”

“How do you know they are not?” Hossain interjected. “Let him finish.”

“If it were up to him, he would want to stay here all day,” Sikandar said of Hossain. “Since he heard the rumors about the Electrician and the Widow,” he continued in a lower voice, talking to Aziz, “all he does is dream about the Widow. He’s been growing out his hair too, have you noticed? And he wears his best jacket every day just in case he runs into her.”

Aziz turned and moved the milk can; then, poised on the balls of his feet, he waddled backward and resumed twisting the glass shards into the mud.

“How come you can think about that barren woman, your neighbor, Husnia, the Water Seller’s wife, and I can’t think about the Widow?” Hossain said.

“Is it true that the thieves got into the Water Seller’s house the other night?” Aziz asked Sikandar.

“I don’t know,” Sikandar said, still fiddling with the scab on his forearm. “I didn’t hear anything.”

“He wouldn’t say even if he’d heard things,” Hossain said. “He’s in love with the Water Seller’s wife.”

“I’m not in love with her. I like her.”

“And you think about her.”

“Yes, I think about her, but not the way you think about the Widow,” Sikandar said.

“How do you think about her?”

“I think good things.”

“I do too.”

“You don’t,” Sikandar said. “Tying her hands behind her with a rope and gagging her with her chadar are good things, you think?”

“Kosish, it’s all love,” Hossain said. “Also every which way you look at it, I’m better than the Electrician.” He now took a step back to examine the heart he had etched on the wall. “He’s fat. A drunk. And he has a wife and kids at home down south.”

“He isn’t from down south. He’s from up north.”

Hossain went back to carving. “Okay. Up north,” he said. “If she lets a fat, drunk, married man from up north like her, she’ll let me, too.”

“He is a man and he can provide her round-the-clock electricity. You’re a boy. What can you give her?”

“First of all, I’m not a boy anymore and my father doesn’t beat me like your father beats you. Second, I’m sixteen and a half. Almost three years older than you are. And I’m a tailor. I can make her nice dresses,” Hossain said, his voice growing taut with determination.

“You’re a tailor’s apprentice. If you were that good you would alter that jacket to your size. By the time you learn and Rajab the Bucktooth, and his near-blind assistant, Qari, let you touch a woman’s dress, the Widow will be gone,” Sikandar said. Then he called on Aziz, “Bekhi borem bachem, do the rest later.”

Aziz glanced over his shoulder into his house. Over the limp and empty blue nylon ropes, which on most days strained under the load of men’s outfits dirtied by blood, grime, and remnants of lust that didn’t come off in the water nor fade in the sun, he saw his mother still by the window among piles of soldiers’ clothes, waiting for the electricity. She saved all the ironing for Wednesday, the only day of the week they had power. When Wednesday came and the power went or didn’t come at all, she was left frustrated like now, sitting stiffly, her neck erect, her head bowed a little, and no movement in her arms except the shallow strokes of pulling the needle to make a stitch. From that distance, her grey hairs weren’t visible. And in her irritation, she looked raw and younger than her thirty-four years. Aziz wondered if this was how she appeared to the soldiers when she went to those faraway parts of the city to collect their laundry; men readying to go to the war or coming from it or waiting to go to it were bored to the point of madness, hanging around and smoking, seated on empty ammunition boxes out in the sun and through squinting eyes seeing her coming into the barracks compound, and flicking away the butt of the cigarette, one of them standing up, “I’ll take her first this time; last time, by my turn, she was too tired and lay there unmoving like a corpse,” and when she was closer, “Sister, I have some laundry. Follow me, I’ll show you where they are,” and she walking behind the man.

Aziz shut his eyes to stop his imagination from going past that dark doorway that led to the soldiers’ sleeping quarters. In moments when he fell into such bottomless black holes, life disgusted him and so did the food he ate and the clothes he wore. He dreamed of a day he would have a job and earn enough that he could pay for all the household expenses and be able to buy himself a pair of normal pants and a shirt from a secondhand store and set the military fatigue outfit aflame.

“You go. My mother will get mad if I leave now,” he said through the lump in his throat. “We can go swimming in the afternoon, if the fighting doesn’t start.”

“You are not going to go to school?” Hossain asked.

“No, I’m quitting,” Aziz said, surprised by the decisiveness in his voice. The tears in his throat began to clear. “I need to find a job.”

“You can’t swim with that wound,” Sikandar said, finally removing the scab from his forearm, which he held between his thumb and index finger and up against the sunless sky as though expecting light through the crust of dead cells.

“It’s nothing,” Aziz said and shifted his weight on his left foot and pulled up the right leg of his fatigue pants. There was a small, deep, clean hole at the bottom of which his shinbone shone blue. “I’ll put some Vaseline on it.”

Hossain didn’t look at the wound; he continued carving on the Widow’s wall until he was happy with the heart.
- 3 -
AZIZ’S MOTHER CAME OUT INTO the courtyard. “Who have you been talking to?” she said.

“A girl had broken her arm,” Aziz lied, and he cleared his throat, a cue for Sikandar and Hossain to leave. “Her mother was asking for the Bonesetter’s shop. I gave them directions.”

“You gave them directions? What fool in this town doesn’t know the way to the Bonesetter’s shop?” she said and went to the entrance, opened the narrow sky-blue wooden door, and peeked outside. She saw the two boys walking leisurely up the alley, pretending they were just passing through. “How many times do I have to tell you, don’t hang out with the Mule’s grandsons?” She closed the door and stood in the courtyard, demanding an answer. “You couldn’t find anyone with a worse family reputation than them!”

“How can I hang out with them when I’m on the wall?”

“Don’t reason with me,” she said. “Pray to God that I don’t catch you with them, or I’ll give you such a thrashing the tanners won’t be able to tell the color of your skin.”

When she went back inside, Seema came out to wash her hands and face.

“Come down, Mother says. Breakfast is ready.”
- 4 -
IN THE VESTIBULE, AZIZ’S MOTHER was telling Seema that she had talked in her sleep the night before.

“What was I saying?” Seema asked, giggling.

“You were selling the scorpions to someone and you were showing them the scorpion bite on your finger. Later it was something about newspapers to do your calligraphy on.”

“I can’t remember the part about selling the scorpions,” Seema said. “But I remember talking to Aja. The newspapers I practice my calligraphy on, I borrow from her and then return them because she makes grocery bags out of them.”

Aziz joined them on the floor around a hand-loomed, burgundy tablecloth with cobalt-blue stripes. There was tea and bread. The tea was weak and sugarless, and the bread smelled strange.

“This bread smells of rats,” Aziz said.

“It does a little,” Seema said. “But it’s edible.” She broke a piece, placed it in her mouth, and started chewing loudly.

“Qara, patch patch nako,” her mother said to Seema. Then, after a brief pause, she addressed Aziz with mild indignation. “I bought rat poison. Set up traps. I don’t know what else to do,” she said. “Instead of wasting the glass and soil on the wall, you should have closed off the holes that the rats use to come into the house.”

“If I don’t glass the wall and the thieves come, then?” Aziz said. “Didn’t you hear that the thieves got into the Water Seller’s house the other night?”

“If those thieves have their senses, they’d know we can barely feed ourselves,” she responded, “or we wouldn’t be out begging for things from our relatives and strangers alike.” And as if her statement reminded her of something that had skipped her memory, she said, “On your way back from school today, go to your aunt’s house and borrow some salt.”

“What for?”

“For dinner. What else do people need salt for?”

“So early in the morning and you’re already thinking about dinner,” Aziz said sulkily.

“Don’t reason with me.”

“Why don’t you send her?” He pointed with his chin at Seema.

“She’s going to school.”

“After school!”

“After school she has homework and calligraphy practice.”

“I can’t go. My leg is hurting,” Aziz said.

“Your leg is hurting? It wasn’t hurting yesterday when you were out playing football all day.”

“It’s hurting today.”

“No, it is not.”

“It is.”

“Don’t reason with me,” his mother said.

Aziz pushed away his teacup and the loaf of bread in protest. “Her head hurts, ‘Aziz, go borrow a painkiller.’ Guests come, ‘Aziz, go borrow a loaf of bread.’ Always ‘Aziz, go bring this; Aziz, go bring that.’?” He spoke hysterically, his voice breaking.

When Aziz’s emotions got out of hand, his mother took it as a failure of her efforts to raise him well, much like seeing him mixing with Baba Gul Ahmad the Mule’s grandsons. Her face grew hard and serious, and she went very quiet and fixed him with her eyes, a stern reprimanding gaze that reminded Aziz of his father, who used to stare him down whenever he misbehaved.

It had been many months since that dreadful summer night when two men took turns and pack-strap carried Aziz’s father home. They laid him on the veranda in the courtyard in a heap filled with shrapnel. Dr. Jamal heard the news and came without being sent for; he managed to slow the bleeding and gave him painkillers as they waited for a break in the fighting so they could take him to the hospital. But the fighting only got worse, and his pain was death itself, which no painkillers could kill. All night he screamed that he was burning, that the shrapnel still moved inside his body and tore through flesh and bones. Then, in the early hours of the morning, his voice grew weaker, the moving pieces inside him came to rest, the flames died out, and he passed.

Yet Aziz felt his father’s scolding stare beyond death, as if he had never left.
- 5 -
AFTER BREAKFAST, SEEMA WENT TO school, his mother returned to her post by the window, and Aziz mounted the ladder to finish planting the glass. As he worked, he wished his aunt lived anywhere but the house she lived in, because Aziz would have to cross the main street by the posta—a small elevated military watchtower with short walls of stacked sandbags and a raised roof of flattened oil barrels—where the three Militiamen hung out with their guns and their dog. The wound on his shin began to throb at the thought of them.

By noon, Aziz had finished the wall. The sky had grown darker and heavier, and it was hot. His mother warmed some leftover plain rice for him so he could eat and go to school. While he was having lunch in the vestibule in silence, the loudspeaker was switched on in the mosque and the Muezzin coughed into the microphone and began to say the call for the Midday Prayer.

“There’s electricity in the station,” Aziz’s mother said ruminatively through the open door from inside the room as if talking to herself. “But that good-for-nothing, fat bastard Electrician doesn’t let us have it. He has stopped giving me his laundry because he drinks every rupee he makes. So I have no power over him.”

After lunch, Aziz lay down in the vestibule and said he needed a nap.

“You need a nap? How about a thrashing? If there was football right now you wouldn’t need a nap,” his mother said. “Only when you have to go to school all of a sudden you need a nap.”

“Most teachers don’t show up to class,” Aziz said. “The only one who does is Malem the Calligrapher. We never get to open the book because he spends the entire period giving us life advice and sometimes says things nobody understands.”

“Whatever he says is better than wandering around the neighborhood with the Mule’s grandsons.”

“You haven’t heard the things Malem says or you wouldn’t insist,” Aziz said.

Malem was a man of ordinary height and weight and competence, prone to unusually long silences after having read a book he wasn’t supposed to read. Mother of Books was a rare title everyone had heard of, but no one was sure what it was about for no one had risked finding out. Yet there was a general consensus which treated the book and its reader as if they were wrestlers and the act of reading was a battle. You either beat the book or the book beat you. In the first, most unlikely situation, you conquered it and achieved enlightenment; or you got overpowered by the book and lost your mind. Malem had gone insane. In the course of reading the book he had aged prematurely and his hair had gone white; he had lost weight that he never recovered, and afterward he was either so quiet that he could be mistaken for a mute, or spoke so relentlessly of things people in Wazirabad were not used to hearing. For example, he said something to the effect that in essence loving a man or woman was the same as loving God. And those who refused themselves love and pleasure in this life were but idiots because there might not be an afterlife after all.

Aziz’s mother went quiet and stared him down. Then, still dizzy with those blasphemous ideas put forward by Malem, she said, “If you’re not going to school, go to your aunt’s house and get the salt.”

“I’m tired.”

“Will you go or should I get the broom?” she said in a tone as if she were asking for Aziz’s opinion.

“Take the broom,” he said, and she got up with a start, and he sprang and bolted out of the vestibule, darting in bare feet across the courtyard toward the entrance. She stood in the doorframe and threw his shoes at him. “There’s no life left in these,” Aziz said angrily as he thrust his feet into the tattered white canvas sneakers.

“Then don’t play football in them.”

“Do you want me to play barefoot?”

“Do I want you to play barefoot? I want you to not play at all.”

At that moment, Seema returned from school and the Widow’s Welsummer rooster appeared on the wall. It was a big, beautiful, flaming-red bird with a magnificent crimson comb and long green tail feathers. The rooster stood and studied the finished line of jagged shards. Aziz looked at his mother; she and Seema looked at the rooster. After some contemplation, the bird started to walk on the edge of the roof around the courtyard to avoid the glass, then continued on its way toward Jahangir the Kite Seller and pigeon fancier’s house.

“See, it works,” Aziz said.

“Go now,” his mother said.

When his mother and sister went inside, and the rooster was out of sight, Aziz left the house and walked toward the dirt road that was the main street. The dog’s canine wound on his shin began to hurt as though it remembered the day that he was delivering a fresh loaf of bread to his aunt’s when one of the Militiamen set the dog loose to chase him. It was a quiet sunny day. Two of them, the Mason and Sandals, had sat on the steps of the posta. They smoked and listened to the Cobbler’s Son, who sat cross-legged on the ground next to the panting black-and-yellow German shepherd, trying to make them laugh by guessing what the dog would say if he could talk. Then Aziz heard something about bread, and he was running, fear crackling through his body like electricity, and the dog was a gasping and growling ball of speed. Soon he was on the ground and the dog was standing square on him, shaking him by the right leg. Now, as he walked, he felt very light-headed, thinking about that day. He considered the possibility of lying to his mother and going to the edge of town instead, where the boys were searching for hidden ammunition among the summer cypresses and crowfoot grass, and some were perhaps taking a break to dip in the standing waters nearby, or flocking by the crook-necked Qorban’s cucumber cart near the football field. When his mother asked, he would say his aunt had run out of salt. But, he thought, who runs out of salt? So, he went.

He had not yet turned the corner when the first shot went off. Two startled turtledoves launched from the dead electric lines overhead. Aziz stood in the middle of the alley and watched them fly away against the grey sky. Then came more shots and he listened to their report. It sounded as if the sky were breaking open and the rain was going to come down. His fear of the dog lessened, knowing that if the Cobbler’s Son was busy fighting, he wouldn’t have the time to urge the dog to chase him.
- 6 -
THE MAIN STREET WASN’T REALLY a main street, it was an extension of the wide rutted dirt road at the edge of town that forked then lost its width snaking among the houses and continued west for a kilometer and a half until it was relieved of its burden once the asphalted road began and made its way toward downtown Kabul. For people in Wazirabad, however, this street was the center of everything, including the present armed dispute. Past the power station, Aziz stood and watched for the dog through the crowd of pedestrians who, blocked by the shooting, had gathered out of the way of the bullets in the area between the drugstore and the posta. The Vegetable Seller, whose shop was in the line of fire, had stepped out in time and was talking to Ibrahim the Porter. Aziz looked past them inside the posta; then he scanned the Watchmaker’s booth by the window of the drugstore, where Dr. Jamal sat with a cat in his lap, glanced across the street in front of Baba Gul Ahmad’s store, and over the stream of bullets to the right under the window of the bakery. The dog wasn’t there either.

Aziz felt the beginning of a great happiness. He walked past the Watchmaker and the drugstore entrance, leaned a shoulder against the wall, and began to watch the fighting. A few meters away, at the mouth of the alley leading to Aziz’s aunt’s house, in front of the small shipping container that had been padlocked since the beginning of the war, the Mason and Sandals huddled in the freshly dug trench. The Mason planted his right knee into the damp soil and bent his left leg to support his steady firing. He manned a long-range Soviet DShK and was the only one who aimed before working the gun. Crouching to his right, Sandals fired aimlessly in the general direction of the enemy’s position at the end of the street near the standing waters. The Cobbler’s Son didn’t aim either. He lay flat on his stomach outside the trench in the middle of the street, unafraid of death, his feet bare, the front of his loose navy-blue perahan tunban covered in dust. He fought passionately, and the hot empty brass casings were thrust out of his gun and fell by his side, clinking and bouncing, the sound stopping only momentarily when he paused to reload or wipe the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand. Aziz had always seen the Cobbler’s Son a little fidgety with a foolish smile on his face (like the day he urged the dog to chase Aziz), but now he was calm and serious.

Aziz watched on and nothing happened but the fighting. He cupped his hands over his ears. The heat remained where it was, and the sound of war came from far away. Then he removed his hands from his ears and the cracking of guns returned and the heat grew so thick that nothing but the bullets could pierce it. The street smelled of sulfur and hot metal from the firing and humidity in the air, and the aseptic and sickness odor that came from inside the drugstore. How long would it be before he could cross the street and get the salt? He would receive a good beating if the fighting didn’t end soon. He took in his surroundings. There were more people now hanging around waiting for the fighting to stop so they could go about their lives, but no one shared Aziz’s concern.

Baba Gul Ahmad, his friends’ grandfather, who hadn’t left his seat when the first shot had gone off, believing it was impossible a bullet could find its way to him because the door of his store opened perpendicular to the direction of the bullets, now seemed worried. A bullet could go astray, take an unfortunate swerve, and come upon him in his seat. He put away his teacup, moved his chair back, and sat listening to the outgoing bullets zip through the air, and the incoming ones that made small thudding noises upon hitting mud and a menacing ringing when striking iron.

To the left of the trench, through the open window of the bakery, the Baker heard what Baba Gul Ahmad heard, but he didn’t care and went about his work. Save for his eyes, his head and face were covered in an off-white piece of cloth. He sat with his legs folded under him, sprinkled water on the rafeda, fixed the flattened dough on it, and bent down into the oven, then came back up with a practiced efficiency. Across from him, the fat Bakery Owner sat leaning against the soot-darkened wall. He drank his afternoon tea and aired himself with the lap of his perahan. In the back, the two apprentices weighed and kneaded dough.

Aziz got tired of watching the fighting and went over to where some pedestrians had gathered around Ibrahim the Porter and the Vegetable Seller, who talked loudly over the staccato of gunshots about the increase in the rate of armed robberies and how some naïve people had started planting glass shards on their walls, as if that would stop the thieves. They laughed. Aziz listened to them with disdain.

Amid rumors, laughter, and the sound of bullets, the myopic Watchmaker continued to work uninterrupted at his booth by the drugstore. His apprentice, the cross-eyed boy, stood next to him and watched Ibrahim the Porter resting on his back in the bed of his wheelbarrow, his hands folded under his head, his feet on the ground between the handles, laughing shyly at the Vegetable Seller’s jokes.

The young Widow and her old mother-in-law came out of the alley. When they saw the fighting, they stood by the drugstore window. The Widow didn’t look anything like she had appeared in Aziz’s dream the night before; she was young and beautiful with dark hair, and Aziz could see why Hossain was obsessed with her.

The men stopped talking and all eyes turned toward the two women. Then Dr. Jamal, with the cat in his arm, thrust his torso out the door, looked at them over his gold-rimmed spectacles, and invited them to come wait inside the drugstore.

Aziz thought about how Hossain would have died to see the Widow. But he wasn’t there. He worked at the tailor shop in the morning and went to school in the afternoon, except the days that he skipped classes to go swimming in the standing waters. Now the Widow was there, and Hossain was either in class or in the water, and Sandals yelled for the Cobbler’s Son to get into the trench. But the Cobbler’s Son didn’t have time to respond. A bullet whizzed past his ear and hit the wall of Baba Gul Ahmad’s store behind them. People who saw it let out a bewildered cry.

“Da kos khowar shomo,” the Cobbler’s Son shouted and jolted forward, the proximity of death having fired him up.

The Vegetable Seller gave out a lighthearted laugh and looked in the direction of the drugstore to see if the Widow and her mother-in-law had heard the women’s private parts spoken about so publicly.

“What happened?” Baba Gul Ahmad the Mule called curiously from inside his store.

“Come hang out with us and watch,” Ibrahim the Porter replied.

“Is there brain in your skull?” Baba Gul Ahmad said. “I can’t walk through bullets.”

The Bakery Owner craned his neck to see what was going on. The Baker put the rafeda down and turned for a quick peek at the street below. The two apprentices sprang to their feet and sat back down when they realized the moment had passed.

“They’re wasting ammunition on such useless matters,” said the Vegetable Seller.

“How did all this begin?” asked a bystander, a small man constantly moving his jaws to adjust his false teeth; he knew this fighting was insignificant, and as meaningless as the bigger war that had been engulfing the country for years now, yet he wanted to know and repeated his question.

Aziz moved in closer to hear the answer.

“I heard that the Northerners kidnapped the dog, these guys’ dog,” the Vegetable Seller said.

“They’re out to kill one another over a dog?” said the man, grinding his jaws, his dentures making an empty sound.

“Some people say that it was originally the Northerners’ dog,” said the Vegetable Seller, “and these guys stole it.” He gestured with his chin to the street, where the three Militiamen were shooting their guns.

The Vegetable Seller would have continued talking hadn’t the Cobbler’s Son ducked his head again. This time a bullet hit the exposed section of the bottom side rail of Baba Gul Ahmad’s shipping container, then ricocheted. The man’s false teeth fell out of his mouth as he screamed and sat on the ground, holding his right leg.

Everyone on the drugstore side of the street ran toward the injured man. They formed a large circle around him and watched. Baba Gul Ahmad stood in his place to assess the situation from afar. A slight shiver went through him. As though death had been a hibernating beast living inside him for seventy years, and was awakened by the sound of gunshots and the man’s cry. The fear of getting hit by a stray bullet was tangible now that someone shouted that the man’s thigh was bleeding.

Ibrahim the Porter asked people to open the way while the Vegetable Seller lifted the wounded man and placed him in Ibrahim’s wheelbarrow. The man kept mumbling and waving his hand.

“What’s he saying?” the Vegetable Seller asked.

“What are you saying?” Ibrahim the Porter leaned over and brought his ear to the man’s gaping, toothless mouth. Then he parked the wheelbarrow and asked everyone to look for the man’s dentures on the ground.

“No one’s going to steal his teeth. Just take him away,” Baba Gul Ahmad called from across the street. “Have you seen how thin he is? He’s not going to last long if he continues to bleed like that.”

“Very good point, Baba,” the Vegetable Seller said, chuckling. “We’ll send his teeth after him.”

“Should I take him to the Bonesetter or the Snake Catcher?” Ibrahim the Porter asked as he started pushing the wheelbarrow into the alley, away from the main street.

At the mention of the Bonesetter, Baba Gul Ahmad the Mule’s face twisted into a grimace. He spat on the floor in disgust, reminded of the day his now estranged daughter, Gulcheen, threw all prudence and decency away to go and become the Bonesetter’s wife.

“He was hit by a bullet, not bitten by a snake,” the Vegetable Seller said.

“How should I know, the Snake Catcher says prayers and wraps wounds too,” Ibrahim the Porter said and ran off toward the Bonesetter’s shop. The injured man held firmly on to the sides of the wheelbarrow tray, his legs dangling over the edge above the wheel, still asking for his dentures.

Through the open door inside the drugstore, Dr. Jamal could hear everything out on the street. He shook his head in disappointment as he held three of his cats in his lap so they didn’t jump on the young Widow and her mother-in-law.

“If this war doesn’t kill us, these people’s stupidity will,” he said.

“Why didn’t they bring him to you?” the Widow asked.

Her mother-in-law elbowed her in the ribs to keep quiet.

“Because they have more faith in that Bonesetter than they have in modern medicine,” Dr. Jamal replied.

Outside, it was the Watchmaker’s cross-eyed apprentice who found the man’s teeth. He liked the Bonesetter’s wife and wanted to get a glimpse of her, so he asked his employer with enthusiasm if he could take the teeth to the Bonesetter’s shop. But the Watchmaker shook his head, and the excitement drained from the Apprentice’s face. He gave the teeth to the Vegetable Seller.

A young man, who had arrived late and wanted to see what became of the wounded man, volunteered to take the dentures.
- 7 -
THE MASON AND SANDALS HAD stopped shooting, but they stayed low in the trench amid empty magazines and piles of spent shell casings. The Mason was disassembling his DShK. Every now and then, a bullet rang in the air, and the Cobbler’s Son fired back. This went on for a while. No one wanted to bear the burden of being the first to accept defeat.

Eventually the shooting ended as arbitrarily as it had begun.

The pedestrians started crossing the street when they believed it safe. The Widow and her mother-in-law came out of the drugstore. The Vegetable Seller went back to his shop and started sprinkling water over the fresh vegetables.

Aziz crossed the street and waited at the mouth of the alley, his eyes set on the empty casings that lay in and around the trench.

The Mason asked Sandals to help him carry the DShK back to the posta. Sandals flung his Kalashnikov over his shoulder and carried the stand of the heavy machine gun. The Cobbler’s Son was the last to get up. He dusted off his clothes and brought his old Russian PK gun to the posta before he went back for his shoes, which lay facedown on the ground.

As soon as the three Militiamen cleared the street, Aziz rushed to the trench. He took fistfuls of the spent shell casings, some of which were still warm, and fitted them in his pockets. Then, out of nowhere, two kids jumped into the trench beside him. They had come prepared. One of them unfolded and held the sack open while the other scooped the casings with both hands hungrily into the mouth of the sack.

As Aziz walked out of the trench holding his pants up by the belt loops, his pockets full and heavy, he saw more kids arriving to the scene empty-handed from their search in the fenced field, some with dried shirts and wet pants, having dived into the standing waters for a soaking. They were now there to collect shell casings.

Aziz headed toward his aunt’s house. On the way the grey sky made sounds, a warm wind blew, and the rain came.
- 8 -
BY THE TIME AZIZ RETURNED to the main street with the salt, the rain had stopped, the heat had eased off, the sky had cleared, and the sun was out. Everything looked washed and clean. In the fragrance of rain and damp earth, people gathered in front of the bakery to buy fresh bread for dinner. Some went in and out of the drugstore. The Mason, Sandals, and the Cobbler’s Son sat on empty ammunition boxes on the floor inside the posta, leaning against the sandbags. The dog issue was not settled, and the fight would go on, but for now, they enjoyed the joint that they passed around.

Across from the posta, Ibrahim the Porter scrubbed the injured man’s blood from the bed of his wheelbarrow, while the Vegetable Seller poured water over Ibrahim’s hands with an aluminum ewer. Baba Gul Ahmad the Mule stood next to them holding his teacup. They talked and laughed and shook their heads.

Aziz walked home with the salt tied in a knot of plastic in his hand, the empty shell casings jingling in the pockets of his military fatigue pants. He thought about how to sum up the fighting to his mother so she wouldn’t beat him for taking so long.

About The Author

Photograph by Abdullah Tawakoli

Jamaluddin Aram is a documentary filmmaker, producer, and writer from Kabul, Afghanistan. His works have appeared in Numero CinqThe Write Launch, and Cagibi literary magazine among others. Jamaluddin’s short story “This Hard Easy Life” was a finalist for RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers in 2020. He was selected as a mentee by Michael Christie for the Writers’ Trust of Canada Mentorship program for his book Marchoba, now titled Nothing Good Happens in Wazirabad on Wednesday, his debut novel. He is the associate producer of the Academy Award–nominated film Buzkashi Boys. Jamaluddin has a bachelor’s degree in English and history from Union College in Schenectady, New York. He lives in Toronto. Connect with him on Facebook @Jamaluddin.Aram or on Instagram and Twitter @JamaluddinAram.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (June 6, 2023)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668009857

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Raves and Reviews

“This is a moving and original debut novel from a very talented writer. I loved its inventive structure, which guides the reader through the linked lives of the people of Wazirabad. Chapter by chapter we’re invited into their dreams, to experience the tenderness and troubles of their lives. The result is resonant and communal storytelling about people and a place that will stick with you for a long time.”
ALIX OHLIN, award-winning author of We Want What We Want and Dual Citizens

“In this evocative, confident debut Jamaluddin Aram paints a vivid portrait of a neighbourhood and its denizens, obstinately going about their daily lives despite deprivation and violence. Anyone who has been ensconced in a close-knit community will recognize these complicated characters whose humanity Aram reveals with unerring and unsentimental precision. . . . A vivacious debut from an author to watch.”
SHARON BALA, bestselling author of The Boat People

“With this sublimely engrossing novel, Jamaluddin Aram has evoked the spirit of a small Afghani community by cataloguing its dreams, crimes, visions, jokes, characters, and myths. All with an aching tenderness that warms every single page. This is the work of a fully formed literary talent, a writer you should not only watch, but listen to, as closely as you possibly can.”
MICHAEL CHRISTIE, bestselling author of Greenwood

“This book is a masterpiece, and I do not say those words lightly. Opening Aram’s novel is like waking into a lucid dream. Here, fable and nightmare fuse into a single flavor. Everything feels strange and yet so preternaturally real, and the strangest thing of all is how normal it all comes to feel . . . Some books demand admiration for the intensity of the writer’s imagination, some for the depth of detail, some for the poetry of the language, some for the authority of the writer’s voice—rarely do we see all these powers operating in consort as we do here.”
TAMIM ANSARY, author of The Invention of Yesterday

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