old joke, that you can't stretch a leg in Herat without poking a poet in the rear."
Next to Laila, Aziza snorted.
Zaman feigned a gasp. "Ah, there. I've made you laugh, little hamshira. That's usually the
hard part. I was worried, there, for a while. I thought I'd have to cluck like a chicken or bray
like a donkey. But, there you are. And so lovely you are."
He called in an attendant to look after Aziza for a few moments. Aziza leaped onto
Mariam's lap and clung to her.
"We're just going to talk, my love," Laila said. "I'll be right here. All right? Right here."
"Why don't we go outside for a minute, Aziza jo?" Mariam said. "Your mother needs to
talk to Kaka Zaman here. Just for a minute. Now, come on."
When they were alone, Zaman asked for Aziza's date of birth, history of illnesses,
allergies. He asked about Aziza's father, and Laila had the strange experience of telling a lie
that was really the truth. Zaman listened, his expression revealing neither belief nor
skepticism. He ran the orphanage on the honor system, he said. If a hamshira said her
husband was dead and she couldn't care for her children, he didn't question it.
Laila began to cry.
Zaman put down his pen.
"I'm ashamed," Laila croaked, her palm pressed to her mouth.
"Look at me, hamshira "
"What kind of mother abandons her own child?"
"Look at me."
Laila raised her gaze.
"It isn't your fault. Do you hear me? Not you. It's those savages, those wahshis, who are to
blame. They bring shame on me as a Pashtun. They've disgraced the name of my people.
And you're not alone, hamshira We get mothers like you all the time all the time mothers
who come here who can't feed their children because the Taliban won't let them go out and
make a living. So you don't blame yourself. No one here blames you. I understand." He
leaned forward."Hamshira I understand."
Laila wiped her eyes with the cloth of her burqa.
"As for this place," Zaman sighed, motioning with his hand, "you can see that it's in dire
state. We're always underfunded, always scrambling, improvising. We get little or no
support from the Taliban. But we manage. Like you, we do what we have to do. Allah is
good and kind, and Allah provides, and, as long He provides, I will see to it that Aziza is