By BINA SHAH
Shazmina’s best friend, Gul Noor, died on a Monday, pinned down under the wheels of a speeding bus on the long road that stretched all the way down to the beach. Or maybe it happened on a Tuesday or a Saturday. Shazmina was never sure about the names for the days of the week. Monday-Thursday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Saturday melted, one into the other, like the trickles of oily water the buses left in their wake.
Shazmina, who hated getting her feet wet in those streams, knew the difference between a weekday and a Sunday, and that Friday was the most important day of the week because of the crowds in front of the mosque in the middle of the day. On Fridays, Shazmina didn’t even have to smile too much, or toss her hair, to get the coins and notes that she had to work so hard for on a Monday or a Thursday.
Shazmina was envious of Gul Noor, whose hair was blonde; she always attracted more attention no matter what day of the week it was. But they were best friends, so Gul Noor always shared the food people gave: packets of biscuits, sweets, half-eaten apples and chocolate bars.
The blonde hair had been the only part of her friend Shazmina had been able to recognize once the bus had done its work and Gul Noor was a crumpled piece of cloth on the ground. They’d said the bus was going the wrong way, or maybe it was Gul Noor who had gone the wrong way, darting onto the road as the bus forced itself through traffic and crushed her underneath its wheels.
It could have just as easily been Shazmina; they were both impulsive, wild creatures, hair matted and tangled, clothes askew. They didn’t know their own birthdays or their addresses; they barely knew their own names and those of their parents and some of their siblings. She’d been asked all these things once, by a teacher in a government school she’d tried to attend a few years ago. She’d shrugged in response, uncaring about what others thought she was supposed to know.
Shazmina wondered why there was no blood. When her brother had gotten into a fight with the other boys at the intersection, he’d been cut by a knife and there was blood everywhere.
But the day Gul Noor died, there was only the bus halted in the middle of the road, crowds of people shouting and screaming, and strands of Gul Noor’s golden mane lying fanned out on the hard ground, the ends of the tendrils catching the breeze.
Up until that day, Shazmina would have said she was a lucky girl. Lucky to be a girl, first of all, not a boy like her brother, who spent his days picking through the garbage heaps all over town to find anything of value that they could sell, or food that they could eat, or clothes they could wear. Her brother came home every day stinking of garbage. When Shazmina slept at night, she could smell garbage in her dreams.
Lucky to be a girl who didn’t have to dress like a boy, like her friend Meena, whose mother had no sons, so she cut her daughter’s hair like a boy, dressed her in boy’s clothes, and told her to call herself Mohsen when she was out on the roads earning her living selling pencils to passersby outside the shopping mall at the end of the long beach road. Shazmina had long hair, and she wore a dress with flowers on it, the same dress every day, blackened with the soot from the cars and buses and muddy at the edges, but it was a dress all the same.
And Shazmina was allowed to dance and laugh with the other girls when the traffic lights were red, chasing each other while their mothers couldn’t reach out to slap them because they were occupied with the baby sisters and brothers that kept appearing year after year, like flowers that bloomed in the same place each spring.
Most of all, she was lucky to be friends with Gul Noor, whom she’d met at the big intersection where nobody paid attention to whether the traffic light was green or red. Life on the streets was always chaotic. Sometimes Shazmina got a slap from her mother for eating too much for dinner the night before, and she was always hungry when she went out in the mornings because her mother gave most of the food to her brother. Shazmina did not have to explain the hunger pangs or the bruises on her face to Gul Noor, who often had similar bruises on her face, and whose stomach growled loud enough for Shazmina to hear it over the din of the traffic, where they faced the world holding hands.
Shazmina couldn’t remember how long they had been friends—a year, maybe. Gul Noor had simply appeared one day, like a ghost that decides to make itself known to the still-living. She stood at the traffic light, staring longingly as all the children who’d known each other since the day they were born romped around her. Sharp-eyed Shazmina noticed the new girl’s yellow hair and would have befriended her just for that. Then she looked down at the rubber sandals the stranger wore—Shazmina was barefoot, like the other girls—and marched over and declared to the stranger: “You’re wearing your shoes wrong.”
“I am not!” answered Gul Noor, just as boldly.
“Yes, you are. They’re on backwards. That’s your left shoe on your right foot and your right shoe on your left. Don’t you know anything?”
Apparently not: Gul Noor’s family had left Torkham, crossed the border, and traveled on a bus all the way down to Karachi to make a new life for themselves. Gul Noor stared at Shazmina for a full two minutes, while Shazmina wondered if the stranger was in full possession of all her senses. Finally, she took off her shoes and tossed them over to Shazmina.
“What are you doing?”
“Show me how to wear them if you know so much.”
The big cars and rickshaws whizzed by so close they stirred up a wind that made the ends of Gul Noor’s hair dance, but Shazmina wasn’t cowed. She had grown up on these streets. Nothing could distract her from the important task of showing Gul Noor what was what around here. She nudged her dirty feet into the sandals, right foot first, then left. She marched around in a circle in front of Gul Noor. “See? Like this.”
Gul Noor said, “Why did you put your right shoe on first?”
“That’s how you’re supposed to do it, or else the devil pinches your toes.”
“How do you know that?”
“My mother told me,” said Shazmina. Then, in a whisper, “I really like your hair. Can I touch it?”
Gul Noor snorted, “My mother told me that the devil gets on your brain if you sit under a tree at maghrib with your hair loose.” But she bent her head closer to Shazmina, who stroked the gold strands, her mouth open in wonder.
“Do you want to wear one and I’ll wear the other?”
Shazmina squinted at Gul Noor. “No, that’s stupid. They’re yours. Besides, it’ll just make us limp.”
“But then everyone will know we’re friends.” Gul Noor pushed her left sandal toward Shazmina, who put it on hesitantly. Despite all her earlier braggadocio, she’d never worn a shoe before. It looked strange on her foot, but when she saw its mirror twin on Gul Noor’s right foot, Shazmina’s heart soared like the kites the boys loved to fly over the Christian cemetery across the road. They were now bound together by the shoes that they shared, and the life that stretched ahead of them, long and filled with traps and pitfalls, like the game of snakes and ladders. But if they could figure out the rules, they just might be able to climb up, instead of sliding down.
They spent an infinite number of days linked arm-in-arm, inseparable. They mocked the children going by in school buses and crowded Suzuki vans, hot and red-faced, while they were free to do as they liked. Once or twice they sat down giggling at the school for street children in the empty plot on the corner, charmed by the blue plastic chairs, the enthusiasm of the teenage volunteers, and the pencils and paper they could have for free.
But they soon bored of the lessons and were back on the street again, thinking up tricks to play on the newspaper sellers, insults for the dirty little boys that played with them, and curses for the wealthy men who wouldn’t open their windows to give them money. They saved the worst ones, learned from passing motorists, for the well-dressed lady who opened her car window not to give them money but to lecture them about how they should be in school and shouldn’t be begging on the streets. “School jaiye, apnay zindagi ko behtar banaiye,” she said, in fancy Urdu they could barely understand.
They retorted that she was a whore and ran away screaming with laughter while she fumed, her cheeks as red as the traffic light, until it changed and she sailed away in her monstrous black car. What did that woman, wearing beautiful clothes and jewels, no doubt going home to her plump, well-fed children, know about their lives?
That was the same day Shazmina’s brother got into that terrible knife fight. Mirza always moved in a tight knot through the street with his other friends. Their huge sacks were slung on their backs, filled with the things that other people discarded foolishly. On that day, Mirza and his friends ran into a gang of rival boys: known thieves, pickpockets, and drug addicts. Last week this gang had surrounded the smallest boy in Mirza’s gang and punched the child to the ground before going through his sack and taking what they wanted.
They weren’t planning to fight. But when the boys bumped into each other on the corner of the street, within seconds they all threw down their bags and laid into each other. What ensued could hardly be called a fight; more like a tornado or a tsunami: limbs flailing, shoes flying, teeth and nails like weapons, screams and shouts, and the dirt that always covered them rising in the air in puffs of dust.
The spectacle drew a huge crowd of local boys and men from the nearby dhabas and shops. Some urged the boys on; others tried to pull them apart. Then someone produced a knife, and everyone backed off, except for Mirza, who had the temper of a mountain lion and the stubbornness of an ox. He and the knife wielder circled each other; the knife reflected the sunlight like a mirror, flashing a bright trail between the both of them.
When Mirza tried to rush the other boy to grab it from him, it was as if the boy was still and the knife moved of its own volition, finding skin and flesh willing to part underneath its blade. Then the blood spurted everywhere, and Mirza shrieked out in pain and anger, “You sisterfuckers, just wait and see—the army’s going to catch each one of you and send you back to your motherfucking home, and every last one of you will fucking die!”
Shazmina’s screaming mother flew toward them with the unerring sense of a woman whose son’s blood has been spilled in a useless battle. Mirza’s attacker flung down the knife and ran. The police showed up; everyone else melted away, except for Shazmina and Gul Noor. Shazmina was terrified by the blood, her mother’s screams, Mirza’s howls of pain. And she anticipated more pain, for all of them; Mirza had long been the troublemaker in the family, and she’d seen many showdowns between him and their father. This one would earn all of them a beating. Even their mother, who should have known better than to raise a pack of useless vermin like them, would not be spared.
Later that night, as Mirza and Shazmina both lay in their tent under the bridge, listening to their father beat their mother, Shazmina whispered to Mirza, “Why did you say that?” She was holding his good hand, while the wounded one was wrapped in a weeping bandage that had already become filthy in the few short hours since the fight.
“What?” growled Mirza. He sounded angry, but Shazmina knew he was as tearful as she was. Their mother never cried out when she was being hit, but the sound of their father’s hand striking her always made Shazmina gasp and screw her eyes shut, even in the dark.
“About them going home. Being sent back to die. We’re from there too, aren’t we?”
“We’re different. We were born here. Not like them. They just came over now. They don’t belong here like we do. We were here first.”
But Shazmina couldn’t see much of a difference between herself and Gul Noor. They spoke Pashto; they liked the same food; they both had grandmothers from Khost, who might even have been neighbors. What was the difference?
After the fight, Gul Noor’s face had turned the color of milk, and she continued to stand there, mouth agape, long after everyone had melted away. “Come on,” hissed Shazmina, wanting to escape the scene and avoid her father’s wrath.
Finally Gul Noor moved. They went and found a part of the pavement that nobody occupied, so they could sit and talk about what happened. But Gul Noor didn’t want to say a word. She could only stare into the traffic while Shazmina held her hand, squeezing and pinching her flesh to reassure herself that Gul Noor was still alive, still solidly present. In those stunned, silent moments after the fight, their hearts thrummed in their chests as if they were two sides of the same drum, like those dugdugis the toy sellers peddled that Shazmina and Gul Noor could never afford.
Everything was normal the next day, at least for Shazmina. Her father ate his breakfast and left. Mirza stayed home to rest and be fussed over by their mother, who drew her chador down low over her face to hide the red and purple imprints of her husband’s hand. Shazmina had not been beaten after all; her father had tired of hitting their mother and spared Mirza because of his wounds. He’d even looked proud to see his son’s patched-up wounds. “You’ve kept our honor,” he said, cuffing Mirza on the shoulder, who grimaced bravely through his pain.
But, for Gul Noor, it was as if something fundamental, unrecoverable, had broken inside her. One day a monkey keeper’s monkey reached into the open window of a rich man’s car and snatched off the hat from his head. As the monkey put the hat on its own flea-ridden skull, the rich man stopped the car to come and beat up the monkey keeper. Shazmina and all the other children burst into peals of laughter, rolling on the dusty ground. Gul Noor only watched them with a glassy look on her face. Shazmina poked her and pointed at the spectacle in front of them, but Gul Noor barely raised a smile.
Over the next several weeks, Gul Noor refused to play with the rest of the children, preferring to stay close to her mother, clasping the end of her chador. She even put her thumb in her mouth and sucked on it as if she were a toddler, earning her the disdain of the others. But Shazmina could not find it in herself to abandon her best friend. She would run back to Gul Noor from time to time, checking on her in case she changed her mind. One morning she coaxed the girl to come for a little walk, just to the end of the pavement and back. Holding hands, it felt like old times again, as they stopped to admire a small pink flower growing through the cracks in the stone.
“Someone must have just dropped the seed there and it grew,” said Gul Noor, wonderingly.
Shazmina retorted, “But it won’t last long. Someone will step on it. Or a dog will come and eat it.”
“Then another one will grow. Just like us.”
Secretly Shazmina wondered if maybe Gul Noor really didn’t belong there among the rest of them, as her brother had said. Gul Noor, blonde and delicate, might well think of herself as a rose, like her name. Shazmina knew herself to be different. She and the others like her, who had been born and brought up on the streets, were weeds, left to grow anywhere and any which way they could. They knew how to survive on the smallest scraps and crumbs, hardier than this delicate, pure flower that rustled in the slightest breeze. Tomorrow, the flower would be dead, its petals scattered on the wind, or it would dry up in the sun. They, the weeds, would still be everywhere.
It was January now: the early days of the new year. Shazmina shivered her way onto the street. In the weak winter sun, she longed for a jacket. Her brother had only found one in the garbage and laid claim to it. He didn’t even offer to share it with her.
Gul Noor came out a little while later. Their mothers sat together on a spread-out sheet of plastic, so that the ground wouldn’t feel so cold. Their babies lay around them, squirming, clawing, tumbling in and out of their laps. Gul Noor’s mother was pregnant. Her chador was arranged artfully around her stomach, but it couldn’t hide the mountainous lump that contained the new life burgeoning within her belly.
“Do you want a brother or a sister?” said Shazmina.
“A brother,” said Gul Noor, automatically. Shazmina didn’t have to ask why, even though she’d have wanted a sister, someone to boss around the way Mirza bossed her and her mother.
The day followed the same patterns the traffic did: passing slowly, then in quick spurts, then slowly again. Nothing interesting ever happened until noon, when the newspaper hawkers made their appearance on the streets, clutching the early editions of the afternoon papers. Then the boys with their buckets and mops would gather around, and the cripples, and all the rest of the circus. Everything that was important to Shazmina and her family happened on those few meters of broken pavement, overflowing sewers and open manholes, plastic bags flapping in the dusty wind.
The newspaper sellers always appeared just when the rush of traffic bringing children home from school began to clog the roads like a barrel expanded to the bursting point. Today, in the hawkers’ wake, more men than usual had gathered, talking and gesticulating frantically. The boys swirled around, bouncing off the men, who barely bothered to notice them. The cripples in their carts, barely higher than the ground, tugged at their shirts, demanding to know what was going on.
“What is it?” Shazmina asked Gul Noor, who was staring goggle-eyed at them as she always did. Shazmina repeated her question to her mother, who happened to be nearby. Her mother shrugged. It was a mystery to all of them—they couldn’t read what the newspapers said.
Then one of the boys from Mirza’s gang swaggered past, catching Shazmina’s eye. She gestured toward the commotion, and the boy nodded, then darted to the men. He ran back in a few moments, shouting in a shrill voice, “They’re making us leave! They’re kicking us out!”
“What are you talking about?” said Shazmina’s mother. “Who’s making who leave?”
“The government. They’ve decided. All Afghan refugees have to leave Pakistan at the end of the month. We’re to go back home.” The boy spoke quickly, as if he hardly understood the message he’d been given, just that it was important. He knew too that he was important for relaying it to the women and children, who were not as important as him, and never could be.
A shockwave went through all of them as they stared at the men, searching their faces for confirmation and explanation. Hardly anyone glanced back at the little group.
Shazmina watched as one face after another crumpled with fear. Mirza was wrong, she realized in that instant; they were all Afghans, all refugees, whether or not they’d been born here. They’d all have to leave, but where would they go? What would become of them? None of it made any sense. What was this “home” that she’d have to go back to? Home was the tent under the bridge, with the smell of exhaust fumes and diesel from the nearby petrol station blackening the insides of their noses and ears. Home was the greasy saalan and stone-hard naan that their father brought for them from the charity restaurant around the corner. Home was this riot of Urdu and Pashto and Dari and Sindhi and Balochi on the streets, the crows and eagles in the sky, the red spittle and trash on the ground.
She glanced over to see if Gul Noor’s face telegraphed the same sick roiling she was feeling inside. She wanted to clutch Gul Noor’s hand in her own and hear Gul Noor tell her that they would all be all right, as long as they had each other.
The muscles in Gul Noor’s face were working, and her chest rose and fell, her breath rattling within like a broken engine. “Go back?” she gasped. “We can’t go back. Not there. I won’t go back.” She stood up then, and let out a series of high-pitched cries.
“Gul Noor, what are you doing? Be quiet,” hissed Shazmina. She grabbed Gul Noor by the arm and tried to shake her. Gul Noor continued to babble: “I won’t go back. I won’t go back. Not there. Not ever.” With every word her voice got louder and louder, until it was a scream that drew everyone’s attention to the two girls.
Gul Noor’s mother lumbered to her feet, getting ready to come over to the two girls and slap Gul Noor into her senses. But the child in her belly slowed her down. Before she could reach them, Gul Noor broke away from Shazmina’s grasp and ran out into the road, right into the path of the bus that was hurtling into the middle of the intersection, through the red light.
The sound of the bus striking Gul Noor confused Shazmina at first. She’d seen plenty of car crashes: the clashing of metal, as if someone had thrown a whole steel basin filled with forks and knives down the stairs; glass that spread out like diamonds glittering on the road; the air filled with the shouts and curses of the men driving the cars. Once, a car had hit a motorcycle and the man had gone flying, but then had stood up almost immediately; everyone had shouted out “Subhanallah” at having witnessed a miracle of God. This was different: a thump—a warm, dry sound, like a bag of potatoes being tossed into the air and landing on the ground. And then silence.
All the men and boys milling around the newspaper hawkers raised their heads at once. Then they came running over to see what had happened. The bus driver quickly climbed out of the window, ducked his head, and tried to run. One of the men caught him by the neck and dragged him back, and the rest of the men set upon him, beating the driver with fists and shoes, his eyes wide, dazed, and uncomprehending as he tried to shield his head from their blows. Then the police arrived, and everyone stood around, jabbering excitedly to each other, pointing with outrage to the place where Gul Noor’s body, crushed flat as a piece of bread, hugged the ground. The child’s face was frozen in profile, her mouth open, teeth showing in a last gasp of astonishment.
Shazmina quickly averted her eyes, following instead the golden tendrils of Gul Noor’s hair blowing softly in the wind. She couldn’t quite grasp what had happened. One moment Gul Noor had been there; the next she was not, as if she had never existed. In her ears rang the screams of Gul Noor’s mother as she fell to her knees and tore at her clothes and rent her hair. The other women tried to comfort her, hold on to her, and take her away from the scene. Later that night, she gave birth to a stillborn child, a boy.
The funeral took place at the same time that Gul Noor’s mother was in labor, but only men and boys were allowed to bear the small body in the charpai and take it to the grave where all the Afghans buried their people. Gul Noor’s father and Shazmina’s brother, Mirza, as well as some of the neighborhood men, were among the ones who helped lower her body into the ground. Shazmina had no idea who had prepared Gul Noor’s body for burial, who had washed her and wrapped her in the white cotton cloth that had been brought over from the corner mosque. Some of the flower sellers had donated a few strands of yellow marigolds for her funeral, but the roses were too expensive to be spared.
In the days that followed, nobody asked Shazmina if she was all right, if she missed her friend. They were all too wary to come near the girl, as if Gul Noor’s bad luck was contagious and would infect them too. Focusing on the details of the accident, the near-lynching of the bus driver, the disdain of the police, allowed them to avoid thinking about the bigger news of their expulsion from the country. They discussed every moment of those fateful two minutes over and over again, hardly caring that Shazmina was sitting nearby. Every time they retold the tale, Shazmina pushed her fists into her eyes and slapped herself to stop the tears from coming out.
A week passed by, then a month, and then a year. The government never made good on its threat to expel them, rescinding the decision on “humanitarian” grounds. At fourteen, Shazmina was married and then became a mother, giving birth to children who grew up at the same intersection where she and Gul Noor had romped. Some of them reminded her of weeds, the others flowers, although she couldn’t remember why she thought to classify them in that way. The years passed; Shazmina no longer thought every day of the friend she’d lost to the intersection, but sometimes a vague fear would grip her and she would stop her children from playing on the road.
Her ban never lasted more than a day, though; she could not keep her children from the streets any more than she could keep the sun away from the sky. More years went by, and Shazmina became a grandmother. She and her children and children’s children still lived on the end of the street, on the edges of the world. Sometimes, on the coldest days, she remembered Gul Noor’s name.
Bina Shah is a Karachi-based author of five novels and two collections of short stories, including a feminist dystopia called Before She Sleeps, published in 2018. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and Pakistan’s biggest English-language newspaper, Dawn; the literary journal Granta; and other international newspapers and journals.