In a white house on Sher Hakimullah road eight thirty on Friday morning has come too early.
The bazaar is opening slowly, rearranging its schedule to accommodate Eid's last-minute shoppers. Light drizzle hits the dusty footpaths, carefully, so as not to disturb the shopkeepers pulling up their shutters. The clouds dip low over Mir Ali and, from a distance, the fog makes it seem as though the tanks aren't there at all. On the roofs of the town's buildings, snipers lie in their nests, surrounded by sandbags, their military rain ponchos cold and clammy against their necks, and wait for the day to begin.
Three brothers live under the same roof—a home they share with their widowed mother, who occupies a solitary room on the ground floor, spending her days in the company of a young maid who gives her medicine and homeopathic tonics and twists her long white hair into a single plait every morning.
Two of the brothers are the other occupants of the ground-floor rooms, alongside the family kitchen and a small sitting room. Upstairs, the third brother and his family and their home in disarray as mobile phones beep in lieu of alarm clocks and showers with aged, corroded pipes drip water onto the heads of those who did not remember to fill a bucket the night before. A small cricket bat leans against a bedroom wall, next to a set of plastic cars.
Soggy towels and wet bath mats lie around the bathroom. Socks that stepped in soapy puddles and have to be discarded are strewn on the floor. Muddy footprints of dirty shoes that stomp through the wet-tiled bathroom leave traces of black rings from room to room.
Fridays are always chaotic in the house on Sher Hakimullah road and this morning difficult decisions have been made. The brothers cannot—will not—it is finally decided after some days of deliberation, pray together on Eid.
In Mir Ali, where religion crept into the town's rocky terrain like the wild flowers that grew quietly where no grass ought to have grown, you chose your mosque carefully. Fridays were no longer about the supplicants; they were about the message delivered to them by faithful translators of the world's clearest religion. In Mir Ali nowadays you were spoilt for choice.
There were the mellow congregations, whose mullahs invoked harmony and goodness amongst mankind. These were the mosques that did not keep their flock for long, only enough time to remind them of their duties as a promised people. The sermons might proffer some elementary guidance in such endeavours, but it was largely a drive-through service.
There were the jumma namaz mosques that specialized in distinctive foreign-policy-based diatribes—lashings of rhetoric against great satans and the little men who did their bidding. These mosques yearned for converts to their cause but they lost them in Mir Ali, where people preferred to go to the houses of God that had taught their fathers and grandfathers about justice. There was no greater cause in Mir Ali than justice.
One by one the brothers filter into the kitchen to drink their morning tea. White onions sizzle in a frying pan, sweating from the heat. The brothers arrive to claim their place at the small table, draped with a sticky plastic tablecloth, where the day's first meal will be served —sweet parathas and omelettes with diced tomatoes, onions and green chillies. The air smells of the pepper being shaken onto the chopped onions, pungent but sweet. The three brothers take their tea without too much sugar but the aged cook, who brews the tea leaves in a blackened saucepan with fresh goat's milk, ignores them and heaps in palmfuls of refined white sugar anyway.
On the occasion of the first day of Eid, the brothers at the morning table speak to each other in a toneless, secretive mumble. Heads bent low, they don't talk as they normally do, with voices that come with secret smiles and banter that falls out of the mouth playfully. This morning there are few teases and no arguments, only the question of how to proceed with the day ahead.
It is too dangerous, too risky, to place all the family together in one mosque that could easily be hit. They no longer know by whom.
'By drugged-up Saudi pubescents trained in the exact extermination of Shias,' ventures Aman Erum, the eldest brother.
'No, it's not just Saudis,' protests Sikandar, the middle of the three, as he looks around the kitchen for his wife. 'Sometimes there's politics behind it, not God.' She is nowhere to be seen. He swallows his sugary tea uncomfortably.
'Yes, yes, sometimes they're pubescents from Afghanistan. Still Sunnis, though,' jokes Aman Erum, folding a paratha into his mouth as he stands up to leave.
'Where are you going?' Sikandar shouts at him. 'We're eating—come back.' He notices, as he speaks, that Hayat, the youngest brother, hasn't lifted his eyes from the blue-and-green-
checked pattern of the plastic tablecloth.
He has to go to work, Aman Erum says, to check in before Friday prayers shut the city down for the afternoon. He reminds Sikandar to pass on his business card, newly printed and designed, to a colleague at the hospital.
'Kha, kha,' Sikandar says, tucking the crisp white and red import/export rectangle into his wallet.
'Wait, which mosque?' Aman Erum asks, turning round and displaying his mouth, stuffed full of the flaky, buttered bread.
'You're going to Hussain Kamal street jumat,' replies Hayat, looking up. Sikandar looks at his younger brother's eyes; they are bloodshot. Hayat has decided where each of them will offer his supplications today. He has barely spoken all morning; this is the first time he has broken his silence. 'You know that,' he says to Aman Erum abruptly.
Aman Erum doesn't look at Hayat. 'Yes, yes,' he mumbles, turning away from his brother. 'I know.' The paratha is chewed and swallowed, a hand raised in farewell, and for a second there is a lull in the siblings' chatter as they adjust to the prospect of praying alone, without each other, for the first time.
And then the noise picks up again, seamlessly. The remaining two brothers rise to greet their aged mother, Zainab, who looks around the kitchen as she sits down at the table. 'Where is Mina?' she asks Sikandar as the brothers shuffle around each other to make space for two more cups of chai before their separate journeys through Mir Ali begin.
From The Shadow of the Crescent Moon by Fatima Bhutto. Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright Fatima Bhutto, 2013.