“That would be my department,” Timur had said as if it needed saying.
Idris’s own father had died nine years before after a long bout with cancer. He had died at his home, with his wife, two daughters, and Idris at his bedside. The day he died, a mob descended on the house—uncles, aunts, cousins, friends, and acquaintances—sitting on the couches, the dining chairs, and, when those were taken, on the floor, the stairs. Women gathered in the dining room and kitchen. They brewed thermos after thermos of tea. Idris, as the only son, had to sign all the papers—papers for the medical examiner, who arrived to pronounce his father dead; papers for the polite young men from the funeral home, who came with a stretcher to take his father’s body.
Timur never left his side. He helped Idris answer phone calls. He greeted the waves of people who came to pay respects. He ordered rice and lamb from Abe’s Kabob House, a local Afghan restaurant run by Timur’s friend Abdullah, whom Timur teasingly called Uncle Abe. Timur parked cars for elderly guests when it started to rain. He called a buddy of his at one of the local Afghan TV stations. Unlike Idris, Timur was well connected in the Afghan community; he once told Idris that he had over three hundred contact names and numbers on his cell phone. He made arrangements for an announcement to run on Afghan TV that same night.
Early that afternoon, Timur drove Idris to the funeral home in Hayward. It was pouring by then, and traffic was slow on the northbound lanes of the 680.
“Your dad, he was all class, bro. He was old-school,” Timur croaked as he took the Mission off-ramp. He kept wiping tears with the palm of his free hand.
Idris nodded somberly. His whole life he’d not been able to cry in the presence of other people, at events where it was called for such as funerals. He saw this as a minor handicap, like color blindness. Still, he felt vaguely—and, he knew, irrationally—resentful toward Timur for upstaging him back at the house with all the running around and dramatic sobbing. As if it was his father who had died.
They were escorted to a sparely lit, quiet room with heavy darktoned furniture. A man in a black jacket and hair parted in the middle greeted them. He smelled like expensive coffee. In a professional tone, he offered Idris his condolences, and had him sign the Interment Order and Authorization form. He asked how many copies of the death certificate the family would desire. When all the forms were signed, he tactfully placed before Idris a pamphlet titled “General Price List.”
The funeral home director cleared his throat. “Of course these prices don’t apply if your father had membership with the Afghan mosque over on Mission. We have a partnership with them. They’ll pay for the lot, the services. You’d be covered.”
“I have no idea if he did or not,” Idris said, scanning the pamphlet. His father had been a religious man, he knew, but privately so. He’d rarely gone to Friday prayer.
“Shall I give you a minute? You could call the mosque.”
“No, man. No need,” Timur said. “He wasn’t a member.”
“Yeah. I remember a conversation.”
“I see,” the funeral director said.
Outside, they shared a cigarette by the SUV. It had stopped raining.
“Highway robbery,” Idris said.
Timur spat into a puddle of dark rainwater. “Solid business, though—death—you have to admit. Always a need for it. Shit, it beats selling cars.”
At the time, Timur co-owned a used-car lot. It had been failing, quite badly, until Timur had gone in on it with a friend of his. In less than two years, he had turned it around into a profitable enterprise. A self-made man, Idris’s father had liked to say of his nephew. Idris, meanwhile, was earning slave wages finishing up his second year of internal medicine residency at UC Davis. His wife of one year, Nahil, was putting in thirty hours a week as a secretary at a law firm while she studied for her LSATs.
“This is a loan,” Idris said. “You understand that, Timur. I’m paying you back.”
“No worries, bro. Whatever you say.”
That wasn’t the first or the last time that Timur had come through for Idris. When Idris got married, Timur had given him a new Ford Explorer for a wedding present. Timur had cosigned the loan when Idris and Nahil bought a small condo up in Davis. In the family, he was by far every kid’s favorite uncle. If Idris ever had to make one phone call, he’d almost surely call Timur.
Idris found out, for instance, that everyone in the family knew about the loan cosigning. Timur had told them. And at the wedding, Timur had the singer stop the music, make an announcement, and the key to the Explorer had been offered to Idris and Nahil with great ceremony—on a tray, no less—before an attentive audience. Cameras had flashed. This was what Idris had misgivings about, the fanfare, the flaunting, the unabashed showmanship, the bravado. He didn’t like thinking this of his cousin, who was the closest thing Idris had to a brother, but it seemed to him that Timur was a man who wrote his own press kit, and his generosity, Idris suspected, was a calculated piece of an intricately constructed character.
Idris and Nahil had a minor spat about him one night as they were putting fresh sheets on their bed.
Everyone wants to be liked, she said. Don’t you?
Okay, but I won’t pay for the privilege.
She told him he was being unfair, and ungrateful as well, after everything Timur had done for them.
You’re missing the point, Nahil. All I’m saying is that it’s crass to plaster your good deeds up on a billboard. Something to be said for doing it quietly, with dignity. There’s more to kindness than signing checks in public.
Well, Nahil said, snapping the bedsheet, it does go a long way, honey.
“Man, I remember this place,” Timur says, looking up at the house. “What was the owner’s name again?”
“Something Wahdati, I think,” Idris says. “I forget the first name.” He thinks of the countless times they had played here as kids on this street outside of these front gates and only now, decades later, are they passing through them for the first time.
“The Lord and His ways,” Timur mutters.
It’s an ordinary two-story house that in Idris’s neighborhood in San Jose would draw the ire of the HOA folks. But by Kabul standards, it’s a lavish property, with high walls, metal gates, and a wide driveway. As he and Timur are led inside by an armed guard, Idris sees that, like many things he has seen in Kabul, the house has a whiff of past splendor beneath the ruin that has been visited upon it—of which there is ample evidence: bullet holes and zigzagging cracks in the sooty walls, exposed bricks beneath wide missing patches of plaster, dead bushes in the driveway, leafless trees in the garden, yellowed lawn. More than half of the veranda that overlooks the backyard is missing. But also like many things in Kabul, there is evidence of slow, hesitant rebirth. Someone has begun to repaint the house, planted rosebushes in the garden, a missing chunk of the garden’s east-facing wall has been replaced, albeit a little clumsily. A ladder is propped against the side of the house facing the street, leading Idris to think that roof repair is under way. Repair on the missing half of the veranda has apparently begun.
They meet Markos in the foyer. He has thinning gray hair and pale blue eyes. He wears gray Afghan garments and a black-and-white-checkered kaffiyeh elegantly wrapped around his neck. He shows them into a noisy room thick with smoke.
“I have tea, wine, and beer. Or maybe you prefer something heavier?”
“You point and I pour,” Timur said.
“Oh, I like you. There, by the stereo. Ice is safe, by the way. Made from bottled water.”
Timur is in his element at gatherings like this, and Idris cannot help but admire him for the ease of his manners, the effortless wisecracking, the self-possessed charm. He follows Timur to the bar, where Timur pours them drinks from a ruby bottle.
The twenty or so guests sit on cushions around the room. The floor is covered with a burgundy red Afghan rug. The décor is understated, tasteful, what Idris has come to think of as “expat chic.” A Nina Simone CD plays softly. Everyone is drinking, nearly everyone smoking, talking about the new war in Iraq, what it will mean for Afghanistan. The television in the corner is tuned to CNN International, the volume muted. Nighttime Baghdad, in the throes of Shock and Awe, keeps lighting up in flashes of green.
Vodka on ice in hand, they are joined by Markos and a pair of serious-looking young Germans who work for the World Food Program. Like many of the aid workers he has met in Kabul, Idris finds them slightly intimidating, world savvy, impossible to impress.
He says to Markos, “This is a nice house.”
“Tell the owner, then.” Markos goes across the room and returns with a thin, elderly man. The man has a thick wall of salt-and-pepper hair combed back from the brow. He has a closely cropped beard, and the sunken cheeks of the nearly toothless. He is wearing a shabby, oversize olive-colored suit that may have been in style back in the 1940s. Markos smiles at the old man with open affection.
“Nabi jan?” Timur exclaims, and suddenly Idris remembers too.
The old man grins back shyly. “Forgive me, have we met before?”
“I’m Timur Bashiri,” Timur says in Farsi. “My family used to live down the street from you!”
“Oh great God,” the old man breathes. “Timur jan? And you must be Idris jan?”
Idris nods, smiling back.
Nabi embraces them both. He kisses their cheeks, still grinning, and eyes them with disbelief. Idris remembers Nabi pushing his employer, Mr. Wahdati, in a wheelchair up and down the street. Sometimes he would park the chair on the sidewalk, and the two men would watch him and Timur play soccer with the neighborhood kids.
“Nabi jan has lived in this house since 1947,” Markos says, his arm around Nabi’s shoulder.
“So you own this place now?” Timur says.
Nabi smiles at the look of surprise on Timur’s face. “I served Mr. Wahdati here from 1947 until 2000, when he passed away. He was kind enough to will the house to me, yes.”
“He gave it to you,” Timur says incredulously.
Nabi nods. “Yes.”
“You must have been one hell of a cook!”
“And you, if I may say, were a bit of a troublemaker, as I recall.”
Timur cackles. “Never did care for the straight and narrow, Nabi jan. I leave that to my cousin here.”
Markos, swirling his glass of wine, says to Idris, “Nila Wahdati, the wife of the previous owner, she was a poet. Of some small renown, as it turns out. Have you heard of her?”
Idris shakes his head. “All I know is that she’d already left the country by the time I was born.”
“She lived in Paris with her daughter,” one of the Germans, Thomas, says. “She died in 1974. Suicide, I think. She had problems with alcohol, or, at least, that is what I read. Someone gave me a German translation of one of her early volumes a year or two ago and I thought it was quite good, actually. Surprisingly sexual, as I recall.”
Idris nods, again feeling a little inadequate, this time because a foreigner has schooled him on an Afghan artist. A couple of feet away, he can hear Timur engaged in an animated discussion with Nabi over rent prices. In Farsi, of course.
“Do you have any idea what you could charge for a place like this, Nabi jan?” he is saying to the old man.
“Yes,” Nabi says, nodding, laughing. “I am aware of rental prices in the city.”
“You could fleece these guys!”
“And you’re letting them stay for free.”
“They’ve come to help our country, Timur jan. They left their homes and came here. It doesn’t seem right that I should, as you say, ‘fleece them.’ ”