When the Soviet army arrives in Afghanistan, the elderly Dastaguir witnesses the destruction of his village and the death of his clan. His young grandson Yassin, deaf from the sounds of the bombing, is one of the few survivors. The two set out through an unforgiving landscape, searching for the coal mine where Murad, the old man's son and the boy's father, works. They reach their destination only to learn that they must wait and rely for help on all that remains to them: a box of chewing tobacco, some unripe apples, and the kindness of strangers.
Haunting in its spareness, Earth and Ashes is a tale of devastating loss, but also of human perseverance in the face of madness and war.
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Born in Kabul in 1962, Atiq Rahimi was seventeen years old when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. He left the country during the war, eventually obtaining political asylum in France. Rahimi now lives in Paris, where he makes documentary films. Earth and Ashes is his first book.
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...
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 ...
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Book Description Harcourt. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. 0151006989 . Bookseller Inventory # GHT2113HDVW053116H0422P
Book Description Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2002. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. 1. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0151006989
Book Description Harcourt, 2002. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # P110151006989