restaurants pass by. When the bus passes the shrine to Imam Reza, the eighth Shi'a imam,
Laila cranes her neck to get a better view of its glistening tiles, the minarets, the
magnificent golden dome, all of it immaculately and lovingly preserved. She thinks of the
Buddhas in her own country. They are grains of dust now, blowing about the Bamiyan
Valley in the wind.
The bus ride to the Iranian Afghan border takes almost ten hours. The terrain grows more
desolate, more barren, as they near Afghanistan. Shortly before they cross the border into
Herat, they pass an Afghan refugee camp. To Laila, it is a blur of yellow dust and black
tents and scanty structures made of corrugated steel sheets. She reaches across the seat and
takes Tariq's hand.
In Herat, most of the streets are paved, lined with fragrant pines. There are municipal
parks and libraries in reconstruction, manicured courtyards, freshly painted buildings. The
traffic lights work, and, most surprisingly to Laila, electricity is steady. Laila has heard that
Herat's feudal style warlord, Ismail Khan, has helped rebuild the city with the considerable
customs revenue that he collects at the Afghan Iranian border, money that Kabul says
belongs not to him but to the central government. There is both a reverential and fearful
tone when the taxi driver who takes them to Muwaffaq Hotel mentions Ismail Khan's name.
The two night stay at the Muwaffaq will cost them nearly a fifth of their savings, but the
trip from Mashad has been long and wearying, and the children are exhausted. The elderly
clerk at the desk tells Tariq, as he fetches the room key, that the Muwaffaq is popular with
journalists and NGO workers.
"Bin Laden slept here once," he boasts.
The room has two beds, and a bathroom with running cold water. There is a painting of
the poet Khaja Abdullah Ansary on the wall between the beds. From the window, Laila has
a view of the busy street below, and of a park across the street with pastel colored brick
paths cutting through thick clusters of flowers. The children, who have grown accustomed
to television, are disappointed that there isn't one in the room. Soon enough, though, they
are asleep. Soon enough, Tariq and Laila too have collapsed. Laila sleeps soundly in Tariq's
arms, except for once in the middle of the night when she wakes from a dream she cannot
The next morning, after a breakfast of tea with fresh bread, quince marmalade, and boiled
eggs, Tariq finds her a taxi.
"Are you sure you don't want me to come along?" Tariq says. Aziza is holding his hand
Zalmai isn't, but he is standing close to Tariq, leaning one shoulder on Tariq's hip.