Saving Kabul Corner
ARIANA HAPHAZARDLY SHOVELED PISTACHIOS into a bin and tried not to glare at her cousin, Laila, who knelt near the cash register, carefully stacking jars of cherry jam. Laila’s long-lashed aquamarine eyes glowed with concentration, and a thoughtful frown marred her face, which was framed with silky brown hair roped together in a neat braid. After finishing her task quickly and efficiently, Laila floated down the aisle toward a stack of boxes that had just been delivered. She wasn’t stampeding like a rhino, which Ariana had often been told she resembled. Ariana could just imagine her mother’s voice ringing in her ears. Ariana jaan, please try to be more ladylike. . . . Walk, don’t gallop. . . . Watching Laila glide down the checkered linoleum floor, Ariana fumed. She really is perfect.
Nearly thirteen, Laila could cook like a proper Afghan girl, as well as sew, embroider, recite classical poetry, and sing in three languages—Pukhto, Farsi, and English. She’d also been the top student at her all-girls school back in Kabul. Only a few months younger, Ariana could barely toast a Pop-Tart without burning it, or sew a button on a shirt without pricking her finger on the needle. As Ariana surreptitiously watched Laila, she tried to squash the hot, throbbing sensation blossoming near her heart. She couldn’t help it. I hate her guts. Which are probably also perfect.
With a dejected sigh Ariana glowered at the pistachios that had escaped the bin, a hint of guilt blossoming in her heart. Laila was her cousin, and it wasn’t Laila’s fault that she was, well, perfect. But ever since Laila had arrived and moved into their tiny town house with them on Peralta Boulevard a month ago, things had changed drastically for Ariana. While Laila’s mother had taken Ariana’s eldest brother, Zayd’s, bedroom, Laila had moved into Ariana’s postage-stamp-size space that she’d already been sharing with their grandmother Hava Bibi. Laila’s father was Hava Bibi’s nephew and part of the huge Shinwari clan from which they got their last name. Since Hava Bibi was an elder within a close-knit Afghan family, she was considered to be Laila’s grandmother too. The moment Laila and her mother had touched down in San Francisco, their extended family had flown into a frenzy of activity. Every other day there had been a party, welcoming them to their new life in the United States, away from war-torn Afghanistan. Ariana felt like an extra shoe, lying around, trying to find the right foot to fit.
With a muffled sigh Ariana looked away, trying to think of something, anything, to squelch the flood of negative thoughts. Then it flashed before her, the date she’d circled in red on her Peanuts calendar back home—January 27, one hundred and forty-seven days away. That day represented something that she’d hungered for for as long as she could remember—privacy. During spring break her parents had taken her and her three brothers down to a new subdivision at the foot of Mission Hills. After touring the model homes, her father, Jamil, had put a down payment on a two-story white stucco house with a red tiled roof. It was their dream house, which they’d been saving up for four years, and her dad made sure there was something for everyone: a modern kitchen with modern steel appliances for her mother, and a huge family room with a brand-new wide screen television so Hava Bibi could watch her Afghan soaps. A spacious backyard jutted out behind the house, and best of all, there was a separate bedroom for each of the four kids. Ariana recalled the blueprints, printed on soft turquoise paper, where her father had pointed out her very own bedroom, overlooking the green hills beyond.
“Hey,” grumbled Zayd, interrupting Ariana’s daydream. At seventeen he’d appointed himself third in command, after their father and their father’s younger brother Uncle Shams, co-owners of the family grocery store, Kabul Corner. “Who’s going to eat those?” he asked, glaring at the stray nuts on the floor. “Do you think money grows on trees or something?”
Thankfully, she didn’t have to answer, because their nine-year-old twin brothers, Omar and Hasan, teetered by, lugging a fifty-pound bag of flour between them.
“Man, can you lift higher?” complained Omar. He was younger than Hasan by two minutes.
“Dude, I’m doing the best I can,” grumbled Hasan, his skinny arms trembling.
In their haste to reach the bakery at the back of the store, they crashed into a shelf, sending a line of cans thudding to the floor.
“Watch it, you two!” yelled Zayd, running toward them.
Laila came running around the corner, carrying an unwieldy box, her head barely visible behind it. “I’ll help them,” she said. Laila set down the box and grabbed one end of the bag. “Come on, I know you have the muscles, but I’m going to help you navigate to the bakery.”
“Thanks,” chorused the twins, following her lead.
“Ari!” shouted Zayd, using her nickname, his arms full of cans. “Get with it! The store’s about to open. Help Laila with that box.”
Before Ariana could get up off the floor, Laila returned to move the box of cashews herself. She avoided Ariana’s gaze and focused on reaching the nut bins.
“Thanks for being so helpful around the store,” said Zayd, smiling at Laila, then shooting Ariana an irritated look.
“It’s no problem,” said Laila, giving Zayd a tentative smile. “I like helping out.”
“You’re totally awesome,” said Zayd, ruffling her hair and handing her a scoop.
Steamed at the love fest, Ariana fled to the front of the store, leaving Laila to fill the cashew bin with perfect precision, not dropping a single nut. Ariana paused a moment to run her hand along a display of embroidered cushions, letting the soft maroon velvet soothe her fingertips. All around the store she could see the hard work her father and uncle had put in. It was their pride and joy. When Kabul Corner had opened its doors nearly a decade before, it had been the first large Afghan grocery store in the city. With a prime location in central Fremont, the hub of the Afghan community, the store had quickly become the place to find spices; freshly baked bread; halal meat, slaughtered according to Islamic regulations; and a good gossip session. She sniffed the warm, sweet scent of cinnamon, mixed in with the earthy smell of cumin, and knelt beside the spice rack to organize it, just as her uncle walked through the door.
“Salaam alaikum, Uncle Shams,” said Ariana.
“Walaikum a’salaam, jaan,” said Uncle Shams, narrowing his eyes at the stack of spice packets. “Make sure those are hung properly. Last time, you mixed the cayenne pepper in with the cinnamon. Mrs. Balkh accidently bought the wrong thing and complained to me about it for a week.”
“Yes, Uncle Shams,” muttered Ariana, ducking away.
“Salaam,” Uncle Shams greeted Jamil.
“Walaikum a’salaam,” replied Jamil, who was organizing the cash register.
This was the final countdown. Thirty minutes until opening, and there was still a lot of work to do.
“I’m glad you got more flour,” said Jamil. “We were running out.”
“I picked it up at Costco,” said Uncle Shams, angling his rotund body through the gap to slip behind the counter. He was short and round, in contrast to Ariana’s father, who was lanky and slim. People sometimes joked that they couldn’t possibly be related. “You won’t believe who I ran into while standing in line to pay.”
“Who?” asked Jamil.
“General Sahib. Remember him?”
“Of course! He’s the one who single-handedly took out two Soviet tanks during the war in ’79.”
“Yes, that’s the one. Well, he just returned from Afghanistan.”
“And?” asked Jamil, his eyebrow cocked, expecting more.
“Well,” Uncle Shams said with a sigh, “the news’s not so good.”
Jamil paused from unwrapping a roll of quarters, and Ariana could see him frown. “Of course it isn’t good, Shams,” he said. “The war in Afghanistan has been going on since 2001. That’s more than six years now.”
Ariana threaded packets of saffron onto the rack, remembering how the Americans, French, and forty other countries now had troops stationed in Afghanistan.
Uncle Shams sighed. “Well, President Karzai continues to be a disappointment. Everyone had hoped that after his election he’d bring law and order, security and a sense of peace, after decades of war.”
Jamil shook his head, his voice gruff. “He’s corrupt and ineffectual—so what can we expect but bad news?”
Ariana noticed Laila stiffen at the talk of Afghanistan and start to rub the locket she wore on a short chain around her neck. Ariana usually ignored all the talk about Afghanistan, since it all seemed so far away and had nothing to do with her life here. But watching Laila freeze like a startled rabbit made her pay attention. Laila’s father was still in Afghanistan, finishing up his assignment as a translator with the American army. The position could be dangerous, since many considered translators to be traitors because they helped Americans, whom Afghans considered to be foreign invaders.
“But the news this morning was particularly bad. Twenty-three Koreans passing through Ghazni were taken hostage by the Taliban,” said Shams in hushed tones.
Taliban. That was a word Ariana knew well. The Taliban were a group of students who’d taken over Afghanistan in 1996 after the invading Soviets had left. Initially they’d brought order and peace to the country, ending years of civil war. But then they’d become corrupt warlords themselves.
“It’s as if history is repeating itself,” said Jamil. “The Taliban are gaining in strength, and there’s fear they’ll soon have a foothold in the country.”
Laila dropped a bottle of rose water, and as she scrambled to pick it up, Ariana watched her father and Uncle Shams exchange a guilty look.
“Ariana jaan,” called out her father. “Why don’t you and Laila go get us some coffee at the new café. Get something for yourselves, too.”
They’re trying to get rid of us, Ariana thought. Recognizing an order when she heard one, Ariana took a twenty-dollar bill from her father and exited the front door. “Come on,” she said, grudgingly inviting Laila.
Outside, Ariana paused to wait for her cousin. She noticed the big FOR SALE sign on the dilapidated auto parts warehouse behind Wong Plaza. It had been there for a year, and she hoped that it would be turned into something nice—maybe a park, since it was such an eyesore. Ariana plodded ahead, her flip-flops slapping against the pavement. Laila followed, her long tunic-like kameez billowing in the faint breeze. She’d been in the United States for only a few weeks, and although they’d taken her shopping for American clothes—jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers—she still preferred to wear Afghan clothes at home. When they went outside, she put jeans on under her kameez.
“Hey, Ariana, how’s it going?” called out Mr. Martinez, the owner of Juan More Tacos, the restaurant next door.
“Hi, Mr. Martinez,” Ariana said, waving. “Everything’s good.”
“Who’s that with you?” he asked.
“My cousin from Afghanistan,” said Ariana. “She’s staying with us.”
“Great. Well, you can both come by for some chips and salsa when you want.”
“Thanks. We will,” replied Ariana.
They continued down Wong Plaza, the strip mall where their store was located, anchored on the west end of the plaza. Laila slowed to admire a fuchsia and lime-green sari hanging at Milan’s Indian Emporium while Ariana trudged past the Beadery Bead Shoppe and paused at the sale sign at Well-Read Secondhand Books. Her nose pressed against the cool window, she watched Mrs. Smith stack jewel-toned washi—thick, handmade Japanese paper—and shimmering square pieces of foil in the front display. Ariana’s fingers itched to touch the roughly textured washi; at 50 percent off, it would be perfect for making origami.
She gave Mrs. Smith a friendly wave and made a mental note to come back later with her allowance. As she waited for Laila to catch up, she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the window. She wrinkled her nose at the streak of flour in her short, curly hair. Her mother had tried to tame it into a bob, but sadly, it resembled a squat bowl perched on top of her head. A soft T-shirt and fleece sweats enveloped her sturdy frame; the soft fabric was the only type of material that didn’t cause her to itch and leave angry red marks on her skin. With a deep sigh she spotted Laila’s slender silhouette behind her and pivoted left, waving at Mrs. Kim and her pug, Kimchi, at Koo Koo Dry Cleaning. She noticed that Hooper’s Diner still had a FOR LEASE sign hanging out front.
At the bus stop they paused at the light, waiting for their turn to cross. Laila, ever curious about her surroundings, examined the schedule and the line of posters hanging on the wall. Half a dozen faces stared down from multicolored flyers, all asking the residents of Fremont for their vote in the upcoming elections. The light turned green and the girls hurried across the street to the brand-new strip of stores and the Daily Grind Café. The rich aroma of coffee washed over them as they entered, and luckily, the line was short, so Ariana ordered for her father and uncle.
“Two lattes, please. And—,” said Ariana, turning to Laila. “Do you want something?”
Laila shrugged, looking around the store with wide, curious eyes.
Ariana bristled. Laila never talked to her much—she seemed to talk to everyone else in the family, but mostly ignored her. Ariana would have blown Laila off, but her father had told her to get something for both of them. “How about a hot chocolate?”
“Hot chocolate?” repeated Laila, a look of confusion on her face. “Chocolate that is hot?”
“You’ll like it. Give me two small hot chocolates, too,” she added to the barista.
“Should we get something for the boys?” asked Laila.
Ariana had forgotten about them. “And a couple of chocolate chip cookies, please.”
While the barista whipped up their order, Laila wandered off to look at the ceramic teapot display. Ariana stood watching a group of men playing chess near the front door and spotted a familiar stooped figure, partially hidden behind the coffee display: it was Lucinda Wong, their landlord. The elderly woman was deep in conversation with a short, burly man with a mane of reddish hair. His back was toward Ariana, so she couldn’t make out his face. The barista handed her a cardboard tray with the drinks and cookies, and when Ariana turned back, Mrs. Wong and the man were gone.
Ariana watched the look of wonder spread across Laila’s face as they exited. Her cousin had taken a tentative sip of the rich, smooth hot chocolate, and whipped cream lined her upper lip.
Ariana couldn’t help but smile. “It’s good, huh?”
Laila nodded, licking her lip clean.
Eyes shielded from the bright glare of the sun, Ariana noticed a sign hanging from the empty building at the east end of Wong Plaza. That’s odd, she thought. The building had been empty for more than a year, and she’d heard her father say that Lucinda had been trying to rent it out for months. Curious, Ariana walked over to read the notice.
Purveyor of fine foods, halal meat, breads, and Afghan groceries
Ariana stood in front of the sign, her hot chocolate forgotten. A competing Afghan grocery store was opening in the same strip mall as Kabul Corner. Father and Uncle Shams are not going to like this—not at all, thought Ariana.