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Earth and Ashes

by Atiq Rahimi and Erdag Goknar

Hardcover, 81 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $19 |


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Atiq Rahimi and Erdag Goknar

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Book Summary

A short novel set during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan follows Dastaguir, an elderly man who witnesses the destruction of his village and the deaths of his family.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Earth And Ashes

"I'm hungry."

You take an apple from the scarf you've tied into a bundle and wipe it on your dusty shirt. The apple just gets dirtier. You put it back in the bundle and pull out another, cleaner one, which you give to your grandson, Yassin, who is sitting next to you, his head resting on your tired arm. The child takes it in his small, dirty hands and brings it to his mouth. His front teeth haven't come through yet. He tries to bite with his canines. His hollow, chapped cheeks twitch. His narrow eyes become narrower. The apple is sour. He wrinkles up his small nose and gasps.

With your back to the autumn sun, you are squatting against the iron railings of the bridge that links the two banks of the dry riverbed north of Pul-i-Khumri. The road connecting Northern Afghanistan to Kabul passes over this very bridge. If you turn left on the far side of the bridge, onto the dirt track that winds between the scrub-covered hills, you arrive at the Karkar coal mine....

The sound of Yassin whimpering tears your thoughts away from the mine. Look, your grandson can't bite the apple. Where's that knife? You search your pockets and find it. Taking the apple from his hands, you cut it in half, then in half again, and hand the pieces back to him. You put the knife in a pocket and fold your arms over your chest.

You haven't had any naswar for a while. Where's the tin? You search your pockets again. Eventually you find it and put a pinch of naswar in your mouth. Before returning the tin to your pocket, you glance at your reflection in its mirrored lid. Your narrow eyes are set deep in their sockets. Time has left its mark on the surrounding skin, a web of sinuous lines like thirsty worms waiting around a hole. The turban on your head is unraveling. Its weight forces your head into your shoulders. It is covered with dust. Maybe it's the dust that makes it so heavy. Its original color is no longer apparent. The sun and the dust have turned it gray...

Put the box back. Think of something else. Look at something else.

You put the tin back into one of your pockets. You draw your hand over your gray-streaked beard, then clasp your knees and stare at your tired shadow which merges with the orderly shadows cast by the railings of the bridge.

An army truck, a red star on its door, passes over the bridge. It disturbs the stony sleep of the dry earth. The dust rises. It engulfs the bridge then settles. Silently it covers everything, dusting the apples, your turban, your eyelids...You put your hand over Yassin's apple to shield it.

"Don't!" your grandson shouts. Your hand prevents him from eating.

"You want to eat dust, child?"


Leave him alone. Keep yourself to yourself. The dust fills your mouth and nostrils. You spit your naswar out next to five other small green plugs on the ground. With the loose flap of your turban, you cover your nose and mouth. You look over at the far end of the bridge, at the road to the mine. At the black wooden hut of the guard posted at the road barrier. Wisps of smoke fly from its little window. A few seconds of indecision and then you grip one of the bridge's rusty railings with one hand and grab your bundle with the other. Pulling yourself to your feet, you shuffle in the direction of the hut. Yassin gets up too and follows you, clinging to your shirt. Together you approach the hut. You put your head through the small, paneless window. The hut is full of smoke. There's the smell of coal. The guard is in exactly the same position as he was before, his back against one of the walls, his eyes still closed. His cap might have been pulled slightly further down, but that's all. Everything else is just the same, even the half-smoked cigarette between his dry lips...

Try coughing.

Even you can't hear your cough, let alone the guard. Cough again, a bit louder. He doesn't hear that either. Let's hope the smoke hasn't suffocated him. You call out.


"What do you want now, old man?"

He can speak, thank goodness. He's alive. But he's still motionless, his eyes closed under his cap...Your tongue moves, preparing to say something. Don't interrupt him!

"...You're killing me. I told you a hundred times. When a car comes past, I'll throw myself in its path, I'll beg them to take you to the mine. What else do you want? Till now have you seen any cars? No? You want someone else's word?"

"I wouldn't dream of it, my good brother. I know there's been no car. But you never know...what if you were to forget us..."

"How on earth do you expect me to forget, old man? If you want I can recite your life story. You told it to me enough times. Your son works at the mine, you are here with his son to see him."

"My God, you remember everything...It's me who's losing my memory. I thought I hadn't told you. Sometimes I think others forget the way I do. I'm sorry. I've bothered you..."

The truth is, your heart is burdened. It's been a long time since a friend or even a stranger listened to you. A long time since a friend or stranger warmed your heart with their words. You want to talk and to listen. Go on, speak to him. But you're unlikely to get a response. The guard won't listen to you. He is deep in his own thoughts. Preoccupied with himself. Let him be.

You stand silently in front of the hut, gazing away from it at the pitch and roll of the valley. The valley is dried out, covered in thorn bushes-silent. And at the end of the valley is Murad, your son.

You turn away from the valley and stare back inside the hut. You want to tell the guard that you're only waiting here like this for a vehicle to pass because of your grandson Yassin. If you were alone, you'd have set out on foot a long time ago. For you, walking four or five hours is nothing. Each and every day you're on your feet working for ten hours, or longer, working your land. You're a courageous man...So what? Why tell the guard all this? What's it to him? Nothing. Then let him be. Sleep in peace, brother...We're off. We won't bother you again.

But you don't go. You stand there quietly.

The click of colliding stones at your feet draws your attention to Yassin. He is squatting down, crushing a piece of apple between two stones.

"What are you doing? For God's sake! Eat your apple!"

You grab Yassin by the shoulders and pull him to his feet. The child shouts:

"Don't! Let me go...Why don't these stones make any noise?"

The smell of smoke escaping from the hut mingles with the roar of the guard's voice:

"You're killing me! Can't you keep your grandson quiet for one minute?"

You don't have the chance to apologize, or rather, you can't face it. You take hold of Yassin's hand and drag him to the bridge. You drop back down to the ground against the iron railings, put the bundle by your side and, wrapping your arms around the little boy, scold him:

"Will you behave!"

To whom are you speaking? To Yassin? He can't even hear the sound of stones, let alone your feeble voice. Yassin's world is now another world, one of silence. He wasn't deaf. He became deaf. He doesn't realize this. He's surprised that nothing makes a sound anymore. Until a few days ago it wasn't this way.

Just imagine. You're a child, Yassin, who heard perfectly well just a short time ago, a child who didn't even know what "deafness" was. And then, one day, suddenly you can't hear a sound. Why? It would be foolish to try to tell you it was deafness. You don't hear, you don't understand. You don't think it's you who can't hear; you think others have become mute. People have lost their voices; stones have lost their sound. The world is silent...So then, why are people moving their mouths?

Yassin hides his small, question-filled face under your shirt.

Your gaze is drawn over the side of the bridge, to the dried-up river that has become a bed of black stones and scrub. You look above the riverbed to the rocky mountains in the distance. They merge with Murad's face.

"Why have you come, father? Is everything all right?" he asks.

For more than a week now, this face with this question has haunted your days and your nights.

Why have you come? The question gnaws at your bones. Can't that brain in your head find an answer? If only there were no such question. No such word as "why." You've come to see how your son's doing. That's all. After all, you're a father, you think about your son from time to time. Is it a sin? No. You know why you've really come.

You look for your box of naswar, tip a little into the palm of your hand, and put it under your tongue. If only things were simple, full of pleasure-like naswar, like sleep...Your gaze rises above the summits of the mountains to the sky...But Murad's face still mingles with the mountains. The rocks are slowly becoming hot; they're turning red. It is as if they have become coal, and the mountains are one great furnace. The coal catches fire, erupting from the mountain and flowing down the dry riverbed toward you. You are on one side of the river, Murad is on the other. Murad keeps asking, "Why have you come? Why have you come alone with Yassin? Why have you given Yassin silent stones?"

Then Murad starts to cross over to you.

"Murad," you shout, "stay where you are, child! It's a river of fire. You'll get burned! Don't come!"

You ask yourself who could believe such a thing: a river of flowing fire? Have you become a seer of visions? Look, Murad is wading through the river without getting burned. No, he must be getting burned, but he's not reacting. Murad is strong. He doesn't break down. Look at him. His body is covered in sweat.

"Murad," you shout again, "Stop! The river's on fire!"

But Murad continues to move toward you, asking, "Why have you come? Why have you come?"

From somewhere, you're not sure where, the voice of Murad's mother rises.

"Dastaguir, tell him to stay there. You cross the river. Take my apple-blossom patterned scarf with you and go and wipe away his sweat. Take my scarf for Murad..."

Your eyes open. You feel your skin covered in cold sweat. You're not able to sleep in peace. It's been a week now since you've had a restful sleep. As soon as you close your eyes, it's Murad and his mother or Yassin and his mother or fire and ash or shouts and wails...and you wake up again. Your eyes burn. They burn with sleeplessness. Your eyes don't see anymore. They're exhausted. Out of exhaustion and sleeplessness you keep falling into a half-sleep-a half-sleep filled with visions. It's as if you live only in these images and dreams. Images and dreams of what you've witnessed and wish you hadn't...maybe also what you yet must see, wishing you didn't have to.

If only you slept like a child, like Yassin. Yassin?

No, like any child other than Yassin, who whimpers and moans in his sleep. Maybe Yassin's sleep has become like yours, full of images, dirt, fire, screams, and tears...No, not like Yassin's. Like any other child's. Like a baby's. A sleep without images, memories-without dreams.

If only it were possible to begin life again from the beginning, like a newborn baby. You'd like to live again, if only for a day, an hour, a minute, a second.

You think for a moment about the time Murad left the village, when he walked out through the door. You too should have left the village with your wife and children and your grandchildren and gone to another village. You should've gone to Pul-i-Khumri. Never mind if you'd had no land, no crops, no work. May the land rot in Hell! You would have followed Murad. You would have worked in the mines, shoulder-to-shoulder with him. Then today, no one would be asking you why you've come.

If only...

In the four years Murad has worked at the mine, you haven't had a single chance to visit him. It's been four years since he entrusted his young wife and his son Yassin to you and left for the mine to earn his living.

The truth is, Murad wanted to flee the village and its inhabitants. He wanted to go far away. So he left...Thank God he left.

Four years ago your neighbor Yaqub Shah's unworthy son made advances toward Murad's wife, and your daughter-in-law told Murad. Grabbing a spade, Murad ran to Yaqub Shah's house, demanded his son come out and, without asking questions or waiting for answers, brought the spade hard down on the crown of his head. Yaqub Shah took his wounded son to the village council, and Murad was sentenced to six months in prison.

After he was freed, Murad collected his things together and left for the mine. Since then he has returned to the village only four times. It hasn't been a month since his last visit and now you're going to the mine to see him, holding his son by the hand. He'll definitely wonder why.


With Yassin's shout, your eyes drop from the mountains to the dry riverbed, and from the riverbed to the parched lips of your grandson.

"From where should I get water, child?"

You glance furtively toward the guard's wooden hut. You don't have the nerve to ask him for water again. This morning you took some from his jug for Yassin, and if you ask him again...No, this time he'll get angry and bring the jug down on your head...Better ask elsewhere.

Shading your eyes with your hand, you scan the other end of the bridge. This morning you stopped at a little makeshift shop there to ask the shopkeeper the way to the mine, and the man was kind. Go there again and ask him for water. You start to rise, but then remain nailed to the ground. If a vehicle goes past and the guard doesn't see you, all this waiting will have been for nothing. No, you'd better stay put. The guard isn't the sort of man to wait for you or call out to you...No, Dastaguir, stay just where you are.

"Water, Grandfather, water!"

Yassin is sobbing. You kneel down, take an apple from your bundle and hold it out to him.

"No, I want water, water!"

You let the apple drop to the ground, heave yourself up, grab Yassin with one hand and the bundle with the other, and hurry off toward the shop.

The shop is just a small wooden stand with three mud walls. At the front, four uneven planks form a window that is covered with plastic sheeting. Behind a small opening sits a black-bearded man. His shaven head is hidden by an embroidered cap and he wears a black waistcoat. A large pair of scales almost completely obscures his thin torso. He is bent over a book. At the sound of your footsteps, he raises his head and adjusts his spectacles on his nose. Despite his pensive expression, his eyes, magnified by the thick lenses, are strikingly bright. He greets you with a kind smile and asks, "Back from the mine?"

You spit your naswar onto the ground and respond meekly.

"No, my good brother, we haven't gone to the mine yet. We're waiting for a vehicle to pass. My grandson is very thirsty. Would you be kind enough to give him a little water..."

The shopkeeper pours some water from his jug into a copper cup. On the back wall of the shop there's a large painting: behind a large rock, a man holds the Devil fast by the arm. Both of them are watching an old man who has fallen into a deep pit.

The shopkeeper hands the cup to Yassin and asks, "Have you come far?"

"From Abqul. My son works in the mine. I am going to see him."

You keep your eye on the guard's hut.

"It was a bad state of affairs over there, wasn't it?"

The shopkeeper tries to begin a conversation but you keep your eyes fixed on the hut. You remain silent, as if you haven't heard anything. If you are honest, you did not want to hear. Or rather, you don't want to answer. Come on, brother, let Dastaguir be!

"I hear the Russians reduced the whole village to smoke and ashes last week. Is it true?"

You'll have no peace. You came for water, not tears. A mouthful of water, nothing more. Brother, by the grace of God, don't pour salt on our wounds.

What is this, Dastaguir? Moments ago your heart was heavy. You wanted to talk to anyone about anything. Now, here is someone who'll listen to what lies in your heart, whose look alone is a comfort. Say something!

Without taking your eyes off the hut, you answer, "Yes, brother. I was there. I saw everything. I saw my own death..."

You fall silent. If you get involved in a conversation, you might forget about the car.

The shopkeeper takes off his glasses and pokes his head out the window to see what interests you so much. As soon as he sees the hut, he understands. He sits back behind his large pair of scales.

"My good brother, it's still too early. A vehicle always comes by around two. You've got two hours ahead of you."

"At two? Why didn't the guard say anything?"

"Probably because he isn't too sure himself. It's not his fault. The cars and trucks come at odd times. Besides, what's on time in this country that transport should be? These days..."

"Grandfather, jujube fruits!"

Yassin's words interrupt the shopkeeper. You take the copper cup from Yassin's hands. He hasn't finished it.

"First drink your water."

"I want jujubes, jujubes!"

You put the cup to Yassin's mouth and gesture impatiently for him to finish. Yassin turns his head away and continues in a voice choked with sobs, "Jujubes! Jujubes!"

The shopkeeper reaches out through the shop window and passes Yassin a handful of fruit. The child grabs it and sits down at your feet. And you, cup of water in hand, try to keep your temper. God help me. You sigh.

"That child will make a madman of me."

"Don't say that, father. He's a child. He doesn't understand."

You sigh again more deeply than before and say, "I'm afraid, brother, the problem isn't that he can't understand...The child has gone deaf."

"May God heal him! What happened?"

You finish the remainder of your grandson's water and continue, "He lost his hearing during the bombing of the village. I don't know how to make him understand. I speak to him the same as before. I still scold him...It's just habit..."

As you talk, you pass the copper cup back through the window. The man takes it and looks sympathetically at Yassin, then at you, then at the empty cup...He prefers silence. Like a ghost, he withdraws into the shop. His hand reaches for a small bowl on one of the wooden shelves. He fills it with tea and hands it to you.

"Take a mouthful of tea, good brother. You're exhausted. You still have plenty of time. I know all the vehicles that go to the mine. If one comes, I'll tell you."

You glance over at the guard's hut and, after a moment's hesitation, take the bowl of tea, saying, "You're a man with a good heart. May your forebears rest in peace!"

The sound of your sipping brings a kind smile to the shopkeeper's lips.

"If you're feeling cold, come inside; your grandson also looks cold."

"God bless you, brother, it's fine here. There's sun. We don't want to disturb you any more. What if a car were to come? I'll drink my tea and we'll be gone."

"Father, I just told you. I'll let you know if a car comes. You can see them pass from here. Now, if you don't want to stay, that's another story."

"I swear to you, brother, it's not a matter of wanting or not wanting. That guard isn't the kind of man to make a car wait."

"Dear father, it takes a long time for him to issue a pass and then open the barrier. And he isn't a bad man, that guard. I know him. He comes here a lot. It's sorrow that has ruined him."

The man falls silent. He puts a cigarette into the corner of his mouth and lights it. Then he goes on:

"You know, father, sorrow can turn to water and spill from your eyes, or it can sharpen your tongue into a sword, or it can become a time bomb that, one day, will explode and destroy you....The sorrow of Fateh the guard is like all three. When he comes to see me, his sadness flows out in tears. If he remains alone in his hut, it becomes a bomb...When he steps out of the hut and sees others, his sorrow turns itself into a sword and he wants to..."

You don't hear the rest of the shopkeeper's words. Your thoughts pull you inward, to where your own misery lies. Which has your sorrow become? Tears? No, otherwise you'd cry. A sword? No, you haven't wounded anyone yet. A bomb? You're still living. You can't describe your sorrow; it hasn't taken shape yet. It hasn't had a chance to show itself. If only it wouldn't take shape at all. If only it would fall silent, be forgotten...It will be so, of course, it will...As soon as you see Murad, your son...Where are you, Murad?

"Good father, where have you drifted off to?"

The shopkeeper's question brings you back from your interior journey. You reply humbly.

"Nothing, brother, you were talking of sorrow..."

You finish the tea in one gulp and give the empty bowl back to the shopkeeper. You pat your pockets, take out your box of naswar and put a pinch into your mouth. Then you go and sit at the base of one of the wooden posts propping up the shop's corrugated iron roof. Yassin plays silently with the stones from the jujube fruit. You take him by the arm and pull him to your side. You want to say something but the sound of footsteps silences you. A man in military uniform approaches.

"Salaam, Mirza Qadir."

"Waleykom salaam, Hashmet Khan."

The soldier asks for a pack of cigarettes and engages Mirza Qadir in conversation.

At your feet, your grandson is busy playing with an ant attracted by the naswar you have spat out onto the ground. Yassin mixes the naswar, the earth, and the ant together with a jujube stone. The insect squirms in the green mud.

The soldier says good-bye to Mirza Qadir and walks past you.

Yassin digs with his jujube stone at a footprint left by the soldier.

The ant is no longer there. Ant, mud, and naswar are stuck to the boot of the departing soldier.

Mirza Qadir abandons his spot behind the scales and withdraws to a corner of the shop to perform his midday prayers.

It has been a week now since you've been to the mosque or prayed. So, have you forgotten about God? No, your clothes are not in a fit state for prayer. This same pair of clothes has been on your back day and night for a week. Yet, God is merciful...

Whether you pray or not, the reality is that God isn't concerned with you. If only he'd turn his attention to you for a moment, if only he'd come to your side...No, Allah has forsaken his subjects. If this is how he looks after his subjects, you yourself, in your absolute ruin, could be lord of a thousand worlds!

God help me! Dastaguir, you're committing blasphemy. Damn the temptations of Satan. Damn you.

Occupy your thoughts with something else. But what?

Aren't you hungry? Spit out your naswar.

"My good man, your tongue will wear out. Your insides will wear out. For days naswar has been your bread and water."

You hear the words Murad's mother would say to you before you sat down to eat. When Murad was in prison, you would make up excuses to avoid coming to the table. Naswar under your tongue, you'd disappear into the little garden saying that you wanted to catch the last rays of daylight or that you had weeding to do. You would sit among the plants and open your laden heart to the earth and flowers. Your wife's voice would boom out into the courtyard declaring that, after your death until the Day of Judgment, your mouth would fill with earth and your body would turn to earth from which a tobacco field would grow. In Hell you would burn in an inferno of tobacco leaves...forever.

You have yet to face Judgment Day and you are already burning. Who needs the flames of Hell and a bonfire of tobacco?

You spit out your naswar. You take a piece of bread out of the bundle and share it with Yassin.

Your teeth aren't able to chew the bread. No, they are. It's the bread that is at fault. It is days old and hard. If there's one thing that's still all right, it's your teeth. You have teeth, but no bread. If only you had the right to choose: teeth or bread. Would that be free will?

You take an apple from the bag and resume your conversation with God. You request that He lower himself from the heavens. You untie and spread out the apple-blossom scarf as if to invite him to share your dry bread. You want to ask him what it is you have done to deserve such a destiny.

"The soldier says the Russians destroyed the village."

Mirza Qadir comes between you and God. You bless him for asking you a question that prevents you from continuing your argument with God. You ask for divine mercy and respond to Mirza Qadir.

"Don't ask, brother. They didn't spare a single life...I don't understand why God saw fit to punish us...The village was reduced to dust."

"Why did they attack?"

"My friend, in this country, if you wonder why something happened, you have to start by making the dead talk. What do we understand? A while back a group of government troublemakers came to our village to enlist fighters for the Russians. Half the young people fled, the other half hid. On the pretext of searching the houses, the government soldiers wrecked and looted everything. In the middle of the night, men from the next village arrived and killed the government soldiers...The next morning they left with the men who had hidden to avoid serving under the red flag...Not even a day had passed before the Russians came and surrounded the village. I was at the mill. Suddenly, there was an explosion. I ran out. I saw fire and clouds of dust. I ran in the direction of my house. Why wasn't I killed before I reached home? What wrong had I committed to be condemned to witness..."

Your throat is seized with sobs. Tears well in your eyes. No, they are not tears. Your grief is melting and overflowing. Let it flow!

Mirza Qadir, stunned into silence in the entrance of his shop, looks like a portrait, as if he has become part of the scene on the wall behind him.

"I ran toward the house through the dust and fire. Before I arrived, I saw Yassin's mother. She was running, completely naked...She wasn't shouting, she was laughing. She was running around like a madwoman. She had been in the bathhouse. A bomb had hit and destroyed it. Women were buried alive and died. But my daughter-in-law...If only I'd been blind and hadn't seen her dishonored. I ran after her. She vanished into the smoke and flames. I came to the house, not knowing how I'd found it. There was nothing left...The house had become a grave. A grave for my wife, a grave for my other son, his wife and their children..."

A sob constricts your throat. A tear drops from your eye. With the loose flap of your turban, you wipe it away:

"Only my grandson survived. But he doesn't understand what I say. I feel like I'm speaking to a stone. It tears me to pieces...It's not enough to talk, brother. If your words aren't heard, those words turn to tears..."

You hug Yassin's head against your body. The child raises his eyes and looks at you. He stands and calls out, "Grandfather's crying. My uncle's dead, Mother's gone...Qader's dead, Grandmother's dead!"

Each time Yassin sees you crying, he repeats these words. Each time, he goes on to describe the bombing, miming it with his hands:

"The bomb was huge. It brought silence. The tanks took away people's voices and left. They even took Grandfather's voice away. Grandfather can't talk anymore, he can't scold me..."

The child laughs and runs toward the guard's hut.

You call to him. "Come back! Where are you going?"

It's useless. Let him play.

© P.O.L. editeur, 2000

English translation copyright © 2002 by Erda?g M. Göknar

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

This is a translation of Khâkestar-o-khâk