The Curse of 39

Wisconsin University- Madison, United States


Maryam adjusted her seat. She twitched and yanked, as she desperately tried to pacify her nerves, jangling at the speed of knots. She’d recently completed her Masters in International Relations. She was brimming with confidence of being able to crack this interview and bag herself a coveted post in the American Consulate. It’d been eleven years, since she’d left her motherland, to settle in the United States.


She’d always been critical of being labelled as an Afghan. After all, she’d been here, ever since she was twelve. She didn’t enshroud herself in black satraps, nor did she hang around with her Afghan counterparts, or adhere to any of the traditional Afghan customs. She wondered why her uncle, Wali Baksh, was keenly adamant to maintain his Afghan identity, stressing intently to preserve their national fabric and traditions.


Maryam had vague memories of her childhood, further clouded by the blizzards of time. She recalled her favourite bed time story, which her mother used to recount to her.


“Once upon a time in Afghanistan, there lived a beautiful bird known as Huma bird. They were few, who’d actually seen her though tale of her beauty, strength and generous gifts spread far and wide. It was believed that when the shadow of the Huma bird was cast over someone’s’ head, he’d be conferred with the honour of kingship. She lived in the countryside, in the mystic land of Koh-I-Quaf. One day, a poor peasant, exhausted by the hard strides he’d put in, was resting under a tree. As he slept, a young Huma bird happened to fly past. The Huma bird always felt compassionate for those people who’d struggle assiduously, against the vicissitudes of destiny. Hovering above him, she thought of a plan. She’d quietly drop in a golden egg by his side, so that he could sell itoff and break away from the clutches ‘of this wretched poverty. The peasant gladly picked up the egg and rushed to the market to sell it. The shopkeeper was scrupulously aware of this treasure, for he’d long heard the stories of the gifts of the great Huma bird. He promised the poor peasant, to laden him with riches, if he could somehow bring that bird who’d left that egg to him. The peasant, oblivious to the sinistral motives of the shopkeeper, sat beneath thesame tree, pretending to sleep, hoping to catch the Huma bird off guard…”


A loud sound fetched Maryam back from the timelines of her past life. She picked up her diary from the ground. It was a fairly old diary, its rugged pages suggesting that it must’ve been at least a couple of decades old. A Persian couplet was inscribed on top of it- “Words are a pretext. It is the inner bond that draws one person to another, not words”.


Earlier this morning, she’d landed up in a heated dialogue with her uncle, Wali Baksh, who was desperately trying to dissuade her from settling in the United States, stating that she owed an unprecedented debt to her motherland, and now that the war was over, she ought to invest her energies for the resurrection of her country, torn apart by couple of decades of internal strife and antagonistic dissensions.


Maryam vehemently opposed her uncle’s stance, which she felt was adopted in a fit of perverse zealotry and patriotic fervourism. She felt her uncle was entertaining apocryphal notions of being able to restore Afghanistan with her past glory and finesse. Her Uncle was hoping for a miracle, which seemed far too whimsical to materialise into the realms of reality.


“You need to go back to Afghanistan, to fulfil your promise. A promise, too sacred to violate, to sacrosanct, to infringe!” said Wali Baksh.


“Which promise are you referring to, Baba Jaani?” asked Maryam.


Wali Baksh handed over the diary to her, saying “Herein, lies the answers to all those questions, which have been confounding you, ever since your childhood. This is your mother’s diary.”


Maryam was shell-shocked. She’d enquired her uncle umpteen times about her mother, but her uncle had always retorted with inconclusive and vague responses. Suddenly, out of nowhere, he was handing her over her diary, which might open the flood gates, to the feelings, simmering in Maryam’s conscience from the past eleven years. Maryam flipped the pages of her mother’s diary, embarking upon a poignant journey, which would leave her at odd and ends, shredding her into bits and pieces.


March, 1997


The constant internal strife between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban is weakening the social rubric of the nation. My earnest prayers are with Ahmad Shah Masood, the charismatic leader of the Northern Alliance. They need to exterminate the Taliban; else the nation and its people shall bear the brunt of the authoritarian and patriarchal Taliban government.


September, 1998


All those clichés, those things you hear about having a baby and motherhood, all of them are true and all of them are the most beautiful things you will ever experience. Being a mother is learning about strengths, you didn’t know you had, and dealing with fears you didn’t know existed.

I’ve named her Maryam, after the name of the mother of Jesus Christ. I hope that she’d grow up to be a determined lady, resolute enough to stand up for the rights of the weak and underprivilegedand someone who’d face the storms of adversity and affliction with impeccable fortitude, just like Maryam, the mother of Jesus Christ had done.


January, 2001


The Taliban has unleashed their reign of terror on the innocent Afghan population, banning all artefacts of art and culture, along with all sorts of music and poetry. Public executions and flogging have turned out to be the order of the day. Women are forbidden to seek jobs and are required to cover themselves up in black satraps,whereas men are required to grow long beards and abstain from allactivities which are considered Un-Islamic by the Taliban regime, such a singing, dancing and painting.


9th September, 2001


Our ultimate hopes of redemption and liberation have been vanquished today. The darling son of Afghanistan, the lion of Panjsheer, Ahmad Shah Masood was assassinated today by couple of anonymous suicide bombers. Not only has the nation lost a heroic figure today, but I am afraid it has lost all hopes of regaining its past glory and splendour, all hopes of building a society, whose foundations are based on the edifice of rationalism, rather than coercion.


15th October, 2001


In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the United States in coalition with other nation has decided to annihilate the menace of the Taliban, once in for all. Finally, a glimmer of hope, for a nation gutted in the swamps of despondency. Welcome America! Salutations to democracy.


1st January, 2002


Democracy did come, though with a gruesome companion- B-52 bomber jets. Apparently, it is always the common en masse, which has to bear the brunt of vengeful retributions. The European powers are here and their modus operandi is quite evident to the rational mind – Kill as many people as possible and hope that many of those killed would belong to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Once the war begins, it will develop a momentum, a logic, and a justification of its own and we’ll lose sight of why it’s being fought in the first place.


Murder is murder, regardless of whether you crash a plane into a building or plot to bomb innocent civilians to satiate your self conceitedness.


4th April, 2002


Entire neighbourhood has been razed to dust. Even a ten-year-old kid, on the streets, knows how to dismantle a Kalashnikov in under a minute. I’d flip through a math’s textbook intended for third grade and I’d find word problems such as “If you have 100 grenades and 20 mujahedeen, how many grenades per mujahedeen do you get?” War has infiltrated every facet of life. Our men are away, trying to keep our backs safe of B-52 bomber jets.


I fear for Maryam. We haven’t eaten anything for the past four days. One of my husbands’friends landed up at our place, a couple of day ago, to make an offer. Had it not been for this miserable situation I find myself in, I would’ve killed him for encroaching upon my personal honour and dignity. He had offered me five thousand Afghan rupees, provided I spent the night with him. My rational faculties pinged me to consider the offer critically. By all means, Maryam’s dad might be dead by now, as he hasn’t traced his way back since the last eight months. I cannot let Maryam starve to death, for she and all the children like her are the future of this nation. They’ll have to dig in and survive the haggard winters of life to get through to that summer, which would radiate their lives with the sparkles of optimism and exuberance.


In Afghan culture, the number “39” is deemed as a cursed number; it is believed that the number is purportedly related to prostitution. I am quite willing to embrace the badge of indignity and disgrace to safeguard the prospects of my country. My body shall bear countless abrasions, scratches and gnaw marks. The curves of my lips shall entertain copious entities, offering them a trip into those inviolable spaces, which had always been veiled by the satraps of bashfulness and diffidence, and yet my soul shall remain unscathed by the filth of promiscuity.


15th May, 2003


Maryam, you need to leave this country and go with your uncle. It’ll be a great day, when education gets all the money it needs and the Air Force has to hold a bake sale to buy bombers. You’ll have to study with indefatigable vigour, so that in due course of time you could come back to your country to resurrect it from ashes. You can be anything that you want Maryam. I know this is about you. Promise me, you shall return; because when the war gets over, Afghanistan is going to need you, as much as its men, if not more. Because a society loses all hopes of success if its women are uneducated. Promise me. Remember- we are Afghans. We’d rather prefer dying than turning back on our word.


Maryam’s eyes welled up with tears, as she stood up, viciously determined to honour the sanctity of her promise. “We are Afghans. We’d rather prefer dying than turning back on our word,” she said to herself. The dialectics of life are indeed strange. You have a very painful rupture at the beginning and then this tearful reconciliation at the end, except the revelation and reconciliation you are granted aren’t the ones you are expecting.


6 months later



She’d decided to settle in Afghanistan, working along with the United Nations to supervise the rehabilitation programme. A group of children requested her feverously to narrate them a story. She gleefully obliged.


“…The Huma bird once again confronted the poor peasant, dropping by a golden egg by his side. The peasant immediately clasped her legs. The Huma bird pleaded fervently before the peasant to let her off. She told the peasant that she was the miraculous Huma bird and if he’d let her go, she’d ensure that he makes a huge fortune. The peasant dismissed the pleas of the Huma bird, labelling them as mere figments of imagination, which bore no resemblance to the real world. He tied the Huma bird to one of the branches of the tree and rushed away towards his village to fetch the shopkeeper. When both of them reached the tree, the bird lay on the ground, dead, due to the constrained effort he’d made to liberate herself. The golden egg was gone. The Huma bird never reappeared before the peasant and he lived forever, struggling to keep his head above water. The peasant counselled his children to trust in stories, keep watch for the glorious Huma bird and believe in miracles.


“Miracles,” Maryam repeated to herself.


She’d changed her perception of a miracle and now she could witness miracles all around herself.


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