Return to the Little Coffee Shop of Kabul Excerpt
Are you blind, you stupid girl? Do you want to get me killed?”
The boy picked his bike out of the gutter and shook his small fist at her, but she just kept running. Her sneakers grew heavy with the mud underfoot and she struggled to keep her pace as she hurried through the narrow streets of the city. Around her, everything seemed to be moving in slow motion—the men pushing their carts piled high with pomegranates and cantaloupes, the covered women walking in pairs, leading their children by the hand, the mass of fat-tailed sheep being urged along with a sharp stick—but inside, her heart was racing so fast she thought it might burst.
She flew around a corner and elbowed her way through the crowds of people gathered near the outdoor food stalls, the smell of garbage and kabobs hitting her like an avalanche. All of her senses seemed to be turned up high—car horns blared, bicycle bells clanged, vendors shouted out their prices, generators whirred. How lucky she was that nobody seemed to bother with her, a frantic girl rushing through the streets with her hands covering her ears. But of course they wouldn’t. No man would dare to put a hand on her in public, and the women would all be too wary to get involved. Yet she continued to jerk her head around like a frightened bird, her eyes on the lookout for anyone who might be following.
Past the shops with their sagging awnings and crumbling façades she fled, weaving in and out of the traffic that was becoming heavier the closer she got to the business center, where the glass and steel Kam Air building rose up from the sidewalk like a giant faceless robot. She grasped at the head scarf slipping back on her silky hair, and nearly tripped over a burqa’d beggar sitting in the middle of Qala-e-Musa Road, a baby resting on rags at her side, the only visible part of her body the one bare hand reaching out to the passing cars. But the girl had to keep going, had to move faster.
As she approached Shaheed Square she quickened her pace, leaping over the potholes that made the roads nearly impassible. Suddenly she felt her left foot slide out from under her and heard a cry as her hip hit the ground. She sat stunned for a moment, the mud oozing through her fingers and soaking her long blouse and jeans through to her skin. Two men walked their bikes in a wide circle around her, and ahead she could see another man in a white cap getting a shave on the street corner. Neither he nor the street barber holding a razor in one hand, keeping the man’s face steady with the other, even blinked. It was as if she were invisible.
She stood and, without bothering to wipe away the filth that covered half her body, continued to run. Now the streets had become a little wider, the traffic lighter, the high walls lining the roads making her picture herself as a rat in a giant maze. She moved as quickly as her feet would take her. She was almost there.>
But as she approached the guardhouse, her chest heaving with exhaustion, a small movement across the street attracted her eye. Through the window of a white Toyota, she saw a man pulling something black over his head. The chokidor must have noticed as well, for all at once the air was filled with activity. A car door slammed, the guard yelled and reached toward his gun, and the girl slipped through the gate and dashed toward the coffeehouse door.
The Starbucks latte she’d downed on shore an hour earlier threatened a comeback as Sunny gripped the metal rail of the seesawing ferry, her fingers turning an unnatural shade of blue against the peeling green paint. A boat? Really? Why on earth nobody had bothered to build a bridge between civilization and this godforsaken island was beyond her, as was the reasoning behind Jack’s decision to buy there. But, she could almost hear Jack saying, no passing judgment until you’ve seen it with your own eyes. That is, she thought, if you’re even able to see it through all this fucking fog and rain.
She remembered the time Jack had first told her about the place, back when they were both living in Kabul. He had just returned from one of his missions to the south, one in a string of many Sunny couldn’t seem to get a handle on. All he had really told her about his job was that he was a skilled negotiator, but she already knew that from personal experience, as he always seemed to get his way with everything before she even realized what was happening. It was a Wednesday night, the night when all of Kabul, at least the UN, embassy and NGO workers, the missionaries and journalists who were still bold enough to venture out that late, would gather at her coffeehouse to hear one of the speakers she’d brought in to draw business. The place was buzzing with Dari, English, French, and Italian, filled to the rafters despite the bitter cold that refused to stay outside where it belonged seeping through the windows and barging in full force every time the door opened.
And then in came Jack, all chin and smile, plopping himself down in his usual spot like he was the one who owned the joint instead of her. “Salaam dost e man,” he warmly greeted Bashir Hadi, her barista, cook, and self-proclaimed protector. “Two glasses of your finest, kind sir!” he added. Bashir Hadi smiled and gave the nod to Yazmina, who ducked behind the counter and returned with a ceramic teapot concealing what he had to know was the usual crappy Chianti Sunny managed to dig up only by scouring the Chinese brothels—the last places in town to have even a drop, thanks to the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice committee. Yazmina greeted Jack shyly, lowering her piercing green eyes as she poured the watery red liquid into the two demitasse cups she had hooked over her slender fingers. As Sunny rushed past his table, anxious to get everyone settled in time for the talk, she felt a tug on the back of her jeans. “Sit, woman! It’s time to enjoy the fruits of your labor.” Sunny tried to swat Jack’s hand away, but his grasp on her belt loop was firm, and down she went.
“Happy to see you too, baby.” She glowered at him in mock indignation. He knew how much she hated to be called baby. “Ah,” he said, rotating his cup in a circle until its contents had spun themselves into a tiny red whirlpool, then lifting it to his nose. “A fine vintage. Perhaps a ’97, or maybe something a bit more recent, like an ’05?” Jack took a slurp and swished the wine noisily around his mouth as if it were a swig of mouthwash. Sunny rolled her eyes.
“It’ll do,” he said as he set the cup down with a thud. “But mine will be better.”
“Yours? What, did you get your hands on some black market Merlot or something? Hand it over, mister.” Sunny stretched out her arm.
“No. I mean mine. Really mine. Someday, I promise you, you’re gonna sit back and enjoy a bottle with the very name of yours truly slapped across the label.”
“What, there’s gonna be a Jack’s Big-Mouth Red?”
“Ha-ha. Very funny. You’ll be sorry. Now you’ll be lucky if I share any of it with you. And mark my words, it’s going to be a helluva lot better than this rotgut.”
“Big deal. Even I could toss a bunch of grapes into that mop bucket over there and stomp around a little bit, and it would be an improvement on this crap.”
“No, my dear,” he said, leaning back precariously in the heavy wooden chair, “I’m serious. You just happen to be talking to one of the proud new owners of Screaming Peacock Vineyards, Twimbly Island, Washington, USA.”
Twimbly Island. There came a point in their relationship when she thought if she heard that name one more time she’d scream. You’d love it, Jack had told her over and over, going on and on about its golden sunrises, its miles of driftwood-strewn beaches, the snow geese, the eagles, the great blue herons, the orcas heading inland for the winter, so close you could almost touch them from shore, as he tried his damnedest to work his magic on her. She remembered how relaxed he had seemed each time he returned from a visit to the island, and could just see how his steely blue eyes had warmed up whenever he fantasized about making a life there. So she’d force herself to smile politely and just listen, summoning up any latent traces of a skill she’d struggled to master throughout her entire lifetime.
It wasn’t until after they finally packed their bags and sadly left Kabul behind that Jack’s fantasy became a possibility, one that freaked Sunny out as much as everything else was freaking her out at that point. For her, oddly enough, Kabul had been the only place that felt like home, and she had planned never to leave. But things had changed over the six years she’d been living there. Friends were gone, places were shuttered, and the deadly missives launched by the increasing number of returning Taliban were now becoming too frequent, and too close to home, to ignore. Jack had his concerns about foreigners becoming targets, but beyond that, he felt strongly that it was high time to give Afghanistan back to the Afghans. We treat them like idiots, he had said. And you know, and I know, that Halajan, Yazmina, Bashir Hadi, even Ahmet are not idiots, he added, speaking of those who worked with her, those who had become as close to family as it got for Sunny. We Americans infantilize everyone not like us. You’ve got to love a guy like that, who sees a world beyond his own concerns, who will do the right thing just because it’s the right thing to do.
And love him she did, so much so that before she knew it she had followed Jack back to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where his son was just starting college, and where he had landed a job as an international security advisor for a large NGO.
Worst. Decision. Ever. What had made Sunny think that she could go from Kabul hotshot to Michigan housewife just like that? Was she nuts? No, she was in love. And as the old woman Halajan, who owned the building where the coffeehouse stood, had once told her, reason is powerless in the expression of love. She—courtesy of her favorite poet, Rumi—sure got that one right, Sunny thought. But it wasn’t only Sunny who was having trouble adjusting. She knew that Jack felt like an overweight pet-store hamster trapped in a communal cage in his corner cubicle. The only missions he took now were down the hall to the break room for coffee and candy bars, which, in her opinion, he seemed to be doing way too often. He was miserable, and seeing as how his son was now so busy with his own life, between his classes and his new friends, after a year of sticking it out Jack proposed to Sunny that they hit the road. His destination of choice? Twimbly Island.
But the winery was Jack’s dream, not Sunny’s. So they made a deal. They’d take a time-out to explore, to travel the world and try things on for size. No decisions for one year. They’d both keep an open mind. No pressure. And if nothing spoke to them after that one year, they’d give Twimbly a try.
They spent twelve months hopscotching from country to country, city to city, house to house, taking advantage of all the friendships they had made during their years in Afghanistan. Jack saw tons of possibilities, but each and every opportunity Jack put forward, Sunny pushed back. A bar in some quaint seaside town in Maine? Too boring. An adventure travel company in Peru? No hiking, llamas or Sherpas for this girl. A civilian boot camp in South Africa? No dice. She’d sooner jump off a cliff blindfolded and naked than deal with the ticks and testosterone that would come with that job.
Twelve months turned into thirteen, then fourteen. But being the gentleman that he was, Jack kept his word and continued to indulge Sunny’s restlessness, even though he felt it was crucial that they start living a normal life, and the sooner the better. He’d seen way too many friends and colleagues who had become so addicted to living in war zones that they were now painfully restless and uncomfortable living anywhere else, and Jack told her he feared he was starting to see inklings of that in both of them.
After wearing out welcome mats from Cairo to Caracas, Sunny finally conceded to at least considering the winery, or so she told Jack. He’d been so patient that she felt it was only right to agree to take a look at the place. After one last fling, that is. Jack had been aching to go on a heli-skiing trip to Whistler with a bunch of his buddies, and graciously invited Sunny along. “I’m good,” she’d responded, opting instead for a solitary long weekend exploring Santa Fe. They would meet in Seattle, and from there it would be off to the island.
Now she stood alone as the dock disappeared from view. For Jack’s dream had evaporated on the side of a mountain when his heart gave out at eight thousand feet, causing hers, upon receiving that devastating call in the desert below, to shatter into a million little pieces.
Sunny swatted at the tiny rivulets of fog and rain dampening her cheeks, a gesture all too familiar from day after day of bawling at the drop of a hat. She felt like crying now, as the ferry barreled into the misty abyss. Would it have all looked better with him by her side? she wondered. “Damn you, Jack,” she said out loud as she pulled the tote holding the flimsy cardboard box containing his ashes a touch closer. She was almost grateful he wasn’t there to witness the stupid little hissy fit she was having with herself. The care he’d shown by placing her on the deed for the winery, despite his ex-wife’s legal maneuverings, now made her feel ashamed of her own selfishness. If only she had said yes to the place earlier, Jack might have had a chance to live the life he had wanted so badly. How she hoped Jack’s spirit wasn’t watching over her at this moment, that he’d never have a clue about her plans to rid herself of the place as quickly as possible. She’d spent the months since his death in a fog, not unlike the one that was now wrapping its fingers around the approaching shoreline, and all she could hope for was that selling off her share to Jack’s partner, Rick Stark, might offer a shred of closure. And maybe even a scintilla of clarity.
Sunny had never felt as lost as she did now, bobbing up and down in this dismal sea, as grey as the sky above. The path ahead seemed to be twisting into one giant question mark. Deep down she knew that, as much as she wanted to, she shouldn’t go back to Kabul. Jack’s predictions of escalating danger, particularly for foreigners, seemed to be coming disastrously true. She’d just read of yet another kidnapping, this time a French aid worker, and not long before that word had come of a US diplomat killed by a suicide bomber while delivering books to a local school. But none of that meant she might not still go back. She’d left the coffeehouse behind for Halajan, her son Ahmet and his wife Yazmina to run in partnership with Bashir Hadi, with wishes for their success and gratitude for their unflagging support, and for a friendship that meant more than anything in the world to her. Though it didn’t seem as though she was really needed, she had no doubt that they would all welcome her back with open arms, as was their way, should she ever decide to return.
But for now here she was, on a boat. Headed toward Jack’s dream. Without Jack. She took a deep breath and jammed her nearly numb hands deep into the pockets of her down jacket, where the latest letter from Halajan remained crumpled inside. Don’t grieve, the old woman had quoted from Rumi. Anything you lose comes round in another form. Well, Sunny thought, I’m good with that. As long as it doesn’t come around as a shitload of fog.
Bashir Hadi was hard at work, rubbing the copper espresso machine until it sparkled with the orange and green glow of the coffeehouse walls surrounding it. The aroma of fresh lemon from his worn rag blended with the sweet scent of chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven, enough to make anyone’s stomach purr with anticipation.
Outside, the temperature was dropping, but inside they were safe and warm, busy with the chores that needed to be completed before the Thursday evening rush. The calm before the storm, Sunny used to say. Hopefully tonight would bring the kind of storm they wanted—a crowd that would fill every table in the place—and not the kind that appeared to be brewing in the cloudy sky above. It had become difficult enough to keep the customers they’d worked so hard to get while Sunny was still there, what with the increased measures required by the UN, embassies, and NGOs to ensure the safety of their workers. Yazmina was grateful to Bashir Hadi for convincing first a stubborn Sunny, then later Ahmet and the rest of them, to increase the security. The wall, which now stood tall and defiant beneath Sunny’s magnificent painting of a thousand doves set against a cobalt sky, was the first step, the one that got them UN compliance, that gave sanction for UN personnel to frequent the café. Which they did, until the rules became even tougher. So then came the blast film for the windows, to keep the glass from shattering into hundreds of deadly shards, as well as a safe room for customers to run to upon word of a coming attack. The shipping container they had installed up against the front gate, to serve as an extra checkpoint and a place to deposit weapons, had helped gain more customers, as had the addition of a second chokidor, a young man who was hired to stand guard inside the coffeehouse during busy times. But even with all that, there was nothing they could do about the growing number of foreigners leaving Kabul each day, and there were some nights when their own voices seemed to echo off the walls as they straightened vacant chairs and wiped down the empty tables, trying their best to appear busy.
Despite the chatter they’d heard from others in the neighborhood who had come to resent the foreigners’ presence in their country, at the coffeehouse they were always welcoming to those who had remained, those who had come to treasure the place as one of the last of its kind in a changing Kabul. But honestly, where else could these people find such good cappuccino and even better conversation? Sunny had worked hard to make the coffeehouse a special gathering place for those far from home, a place filled with laughter and warmth and aromas that clung sweetly to your clothes long into the night. Its reputation was something they were all grateful for, and something Yazmina was determined to preserve, no matter what. Thank goodness tomorrow would be Friday, the start of the Afghan weekend, and the day they would—inshallah, God willing—be making extra money from holding their weekly bazaar in the courtyard out front.
Friday! Yazmina pushed herself up from the wooden chair where she had settled in to fold a pile of soft purple napkins. So much still to be done.
“I am fine,” she assured Bashir Hadi when she noticed his slanted dark eyes narrow with concern. She placed her hands on her slightly rounded belly and gently rubbed, the warmth from her palms seeping through the thick cotton of her shalwaar kameez and onto her skin. So far no sickness with this little one, not like the last time. She remembered how hard it had been to try to keep hidden the sudden waves of nausea, and the mound growing from under her clothing, for so long. Seven months—from the day Sunny had taken her in until the day when her daughter Najama was born—of concealing the truth from almost everyone around. That her husband was gone, killed by a land mine while walking his goats, was no protection from the shame, or worse, that would have been inflicted upon her had her secret come out. When no husband was present, everyone was a suspect, and the pregnant woman considered a whore.
How things had changed for her since then, how different she was from that scared mountain girl, on the run from the men who had taken her from her home as payment for a debt owed by her uncle. The girl she was then would have never dared dream of all this; the coffeehouse, a home filled with laughter and joy, a new husband whose heart had grown large enough to allow him to see past the old ways and embrace her dead husband’s child as his own. Even Kabul had come to feel like home, the staggered muezzin’s call to prayer that was broadcast from the highest minaret of every mosque now a welcome background to the sounds of daily life, instead of a noise that made her jump right out of her skin, and the crowds of people of all colors and clothing now as familiar a sight as the goats that brayed on the hillside back home.
“Najama! Pay attention, qandom, my sweet one. Don’t you want to learn to read?” Across the room, Halajan struggled with the fidgety little girl squirming on her lap. Yazmina smiled at her mother-in-law’s wrinkled brown face, remembering how eager the old woman had once been to learn to read herself, and how grateful she had been to Yazmina for her help.
“Listen to your nana,” she said, using the name Sunny had given Halajan after Yazmina had married her son Ahmet. How fortunate she was to have this woman as her mother-in-law, so unlike those she had heard of who beat and scarred their sons’ wives for bearing girls instead of boys, or those who starved and abused the young girls sold into marriage with their sons.
Yet she had not always held so much love in her heart for Halajan, whom she had at first seen only as a stubborn busybody with a tongue as quick as a serpent and an attitude to match. How shocked she had been by the thoughts the woman stubbornly held onto, and shared with the world so unashamedly. Of course, she was still all those things, but now Yazmina understood better. Halajan, as well as her husband Rashif, came from a different time, a time that she and Ahmet had never witnessed, a time when ideas were not cause for punishment, and when women could be doctors or lawyers without being considered immoral. Yazmina had also come to admire her strength and her fierce loyalty. Halajan would do anything to protect her family, the café, her home. And hidden underneath that grey chador, along with the baggy denim pants and defiantly short grey hair she kept concealed from the outside world, Yazmina knew there was a heart that was softer than the baby-fine pelts used to make President Karzai’s sheepskin hats. Just to observe the way she looked into the eyes of her husband Rashif was enough proof of that. How lucky she felt to have this new family to fill the dark hole left by the loss of her own parents, so many years ago now.
Yazmina placed a fresh kettle of water on the bokhaari, pausing to savor the heat from the burning wood inside as it softened her limbs one by one. If only Layla were here. It had been one month since she had tearfully kissed her little sister goodbye, with equal measures of hope and fear. Sunny’s friend Candace had convinced them that a stay in America would be good for the girl, and had generously called upon her connections to obtain a student visa. How could Yazmina say no? She longed for the world for Layla, so who was she to keep it from her? Yet she counted the days until her sister’s safe return to Kabul.
Across the room she saw Halajan’s eyes light up as the door to the coffeehouse opened. In came Rashif, accompanied by a blast of cool air so strong that he scrambled to shut the door behind him.
“You are early!” Halajan said, clearly delighted. Najama slid off her lap and ran to embrace the short man’s knees in a tight hug. He, in turn, magically produced a piece of toffee from the pocket of his brown korti, handing it to the child with a kiss on the top of her head.
“Are they still there?” He nodded toward the passageway that led to the house where he lived with Halajan. Yazmina knew he was eager to join her husband and the other men, that he had closed the tailor shop early for this very reason. After all, Rashif had been the one to push Ahmet in this direction, the one who had first encouraged him to open his eyes and form his own ideas, who had convinced him to loosen his grip on some of the old fundamentalist ways. Sitting among Ahmet and his friends from the university, discussing new ideas and new ways of doing things, surely must bring back memories of Rashif’s own early days as an activist. If only it were not so risky, meeting like that in a time and a place where anything that went on behind closed doors was cause for gossip, or worse.
“They have been in there for hours already. Please tell Ahmet he is needed here in the coffeehouse. It’s getting late.” But before she had finished her sentence, Rashif was already out the back door.
“Let them be, dokhtar.” Halajan rose to begin setting the tables. “If our country is to find its way forward, we must make room for thoughts to simmer a little. Talk can be a powerful weapon, because one day it will lead to action. We must use patience. Our struggle has been a long one, but stumbling forward is better than plunging back.”
Yazmina knew better than to argue with the old woman. Although she could hear Rashif’s voice in Halajan’s words, she knew how proud she was of her son’s virtuous nature and his ability to allow change in himself, even if it sometimes seemed to come at a pace as slow as a mule’s. But deep down he was clearly his mother’s son, her modernist ways seeping in through the blood they shared.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of the phone. There was a girl at the gate, reported Daoud, the chokidor who was on guard. Zara, she said she was called. She was asking for someone named Omar. Perhaps someone should come to see what this was about?
“I will go,” said Yazmina, seeing Bashir Hadi bend over to open the oven door in an attempt to rescue his cookies from burning. She pulled her pashmina shawl around her. “Bya, come Poppy,” she ordered the German shepherd that Sunny had left behind. She waited as the old dog rose from her spot by the warm oven and stretched, first her front legs, then the back. Though she wasn’t much of a watchdog anymore, Poppy merely being there was enough to make many people think twice about their actions.
When Yazmina saw the visitor standing alone by the gate, she understood why Daoud had hesitated to let her enter. Women in burqas were not a common sight at the coffeehouse. And with the chatter about threats of suicide bombings against places where foreigners gather, conducted by men disguised as covered women, one had to have suspicions about what that burqa might be hiding.
But as Yazmina drew closer she could see by the shivering narrow shoulders and the feet—small and slender even in their sneakers—that this was truly just a young girl. “Come inside, little one,” she said softly. “Let us get out of this cold.”
Yazmina saw Bashir Hadi’s face turn stiff with alarm as she entered with the covered girl. Halajan stood defiantly and drew Najama tightly into her arms. For one long moment, the coffeehouse remained silent.
The girl must have noticed as well, for suddenly she flipped the entire burqa up and over her head to reveal the blue denim jeans and yellow T-shirt underneath. “Please,” she said, “I am sorry to disturb you. I am only looking for my friend Omar.”