In 2019, Éditions Le Soupirail published the first-ever collection of Afghan women's short fiction to appear in France. It received widespread acclaim for its raw, imaginative, and tense writing and its vivid depictions of Kabul. Now English speaking readers can delve into these 12 powerful stories thanks to translator Elaine Kennedy.
Under a Kabul Sky (Inanna Publications) includes stories by Wasima Badghisi, Batool Haidari, Alia Ataee, Sedighe Kazemi, Khaleda Khorsand, Masouma Kawsari, Mariam Mahboob, Toorpekai Qayum, Manizha Bakhtari, Homeira Qaderi, Parween Pazhwak, and Homayra Rafat.
Called spellbinding and haunting by turns, the collection showcases different styles and perspectives, weaving together these talented women's voices into one unforgettable volume. We're proud to present two of the stories here today as an exclusive excerpt courtesy of Inanna Publications: "Doubt" by Khaleda Khorsand, a taut and absorbing exploration of anxiety, parenthood, and marriage, and "Number Thirteen" by Batool Haidari, a dark tale of death and the cruelty of random chance (CW: death of a child).
Excerpts from Under a Kabul Sky, translated by Elaine Kennedy:
DOUBT by Khaleda Khorsand
You pull the handle down and push the door. It’s locked, isn’t it? You remember locking it, don’t you? You insert the key and turn it once, then a second time, hearing the click-clack. You pull the handle down again, push the door again, check that it’s locked again... It’s locked, yes, it’s locked.
You make your way over to the refrigerator cautiously in the semi-darkness and open the door. There’s the red pot with your daughter’s food, the Chinese dish with the yogurt you fermented... Breakfast, lunch... Everything’s ready for tomorrow. You knee the refrigerator door shut, keeping the flow of cold air inside, and step away. Oh, what about the ice cubes for tomorrow? You come back quietly and check the freezer without waking your daughter. And you mustn’t forget to put the leftover food on the stove in the fridge. Good, that’ll be done. Both lights under the hood of the stove are on. You lift the lid on the pot and see that you’ve already put the leftovers away. Ah yes, you were supposed to disconnect the water heater. There’s no need for hot water this time of day. Why isn’t there a plug on the cable? you wonder, irritated. You’ve told him to repair the damn cable so you don’t get electrocuted! You get a shock. You almost cry out in pain, but hold it in: your little girl’s in bed. She lost her stuffed bear earlier this evening. You have to find it because she can’t sleep without it. Your gaze falls on your daughter through the half-open door. That’s right, you did find it... Little by little, the night deepens and becomes darker. What a black night. You glance at the calendar. Of course it’s frightfully cold, it’s January.
You had cramping in your stomach and tingling in your feet. You had phoned your mother, which had made her happy. It was frigid and snowing outside. Your baby girl was breathing quietly by your side. The labour had exhausted you. You examined your baby. She looked a little like you with her big eyes. She was watching what was going on around her, and her mouth was making little sucking sounds.
The doctor washed his hands. You looked at him; you were in pain again. He removed the gloves he’d just pulled on, shook his head, and carefully washed his hands once more. You looked at him again. He asked the nurse for a sterile wipe and seemed a little worried. He filled a syringe and, handing it to the nurse, snapped, “You don’t know how to do your job!” The nurse pressed the plunger slowly, injecting all the medication. You asked for water, but the nurse didn’t hear you. She was holding the medication vial and reading the label attentively. She walked over to the doctor and exchanged a few words with him. The doctor nodded and read the label on the vial. The nurse smiled; you asked her for water again. She brought you a glass of cool water and set it down on the table. As she was walking away, she frowned and returned to the vial. She read a few lines on the label, which was written in a foreign language, then showed it to the doctor. The doctor was washing his hands and looked worried. Your belly seemed to be contorting inside, the pain clenching your waist like a tight belt. You felt compelled to scream, and you screamed. The doctor’s instruments were ready. You remember that you had to scream. Your screams travelled through the air and window, mixed with the snowflakes, fell to the ground and froze.
The temperature in the fridge isn’t properly adjusted, and the food is losing its flavour. You sit up in bed; he moves his hand slightly on the pillow. You lay your hand on his and make sure he’s sleeping: his big hand is freezing. You swing your feet over the side of the bed, get up and turn up the heat. Then you make your way to the fridge and turn the temperature control knob. It stops on a random number.
Back in bed, you pull the blanket up to your neck. He takes you in his arms and says, “You should turn off the fridge or the stove. Why on earth do you leave them both on at the same time?” If you turn off the fridge, tomorrow’s breakfast and the pot of food will spoil. The humidity and rotting smell will give the fruit and the food you’ve prepared a bad taste. You sit up in bed again; he’s breathing slowly. His head is resting on his hand. He meddles too much in your affairs, and you’ve told him so many times. Life has become bitter for you. You no longer feel any joy or pleasure. All because of his thoughtless remarks, “The cheese at breakfast wasn’t good. The rice wasn’t cooked enough...”
Your CanLit News
Subscribe to Open Book’s newsletter to get local book events, literary content, writing tips, and more in your inbox
How furious you were about the name he imposed. You shouted and sulked and noted the name you chose on a piece of paper— Bahâr. You wrote half the cards: “It is with joy that we thank God for the birth of our daughter, Bahâr.” When you’d almost finished preparing the last announcement, you knew there was going to be an argument. This time, for the first time, you were sure of yourself. Yes, Bahâr was the most beautiful name for your daughter.
“Samira’s awake. She’s crying,” he said, gesturing.
Whimpers were coming from your daughter’s room. You rushed in, stroked her soft hair and tucked her pillow back under her head. Go to sleep, Bahâr! Go to sleep, Samira!
You thought that Samira was a lovely name, too. But your daughter’s name is Bahâr. Go to sleep, Bahâr!
You tiptoe down to the basement and press on the switch. A dim light cast by a dusty bulb illuminates the cellar. Everything is old and worn. You trip on a faded kilim, fall against an armoire, cushioning yourself with your hands, and straighten up. The perpetual longing to sell these inherited things wells up in your breast. The big heavy wall clock made of carved wood still has a nostalgic tick tock. You smile when you see that it reads two in the afternoon. Then your smile disappears, as if a terrifying thought has just crossed your mind. Troubled, you rush over to the large armoire with worn doors. I haven’t ironed my daughter’s clothes, you think. You quickly rummage through the old clothes in the armoire. When you go back up to the living room, you have a stack of birth announcements in your hand. You examine them under the bright light there. Yes, you were the one who wrote them, “It is with joy that we thank God for the birth of our daughter...” You make your way into your daughter’s room. She’s snoring softly, rolled up in her blanket. Her room feels icy cold. You turn up the heat even more, quietly remove a pencil from her schoolbag and return to the living room. Something is wrenching in your chest, and you feel slightly nauseous. You look at the cards and check them one by one. The name Bahâr doesn’t appear on any of them. You take your courage in both hands and add “Bahâr” to the first one, the second, the third...
The crunching of car tires in the soft morning light snaps you out of your reverie: you have to make breakfast. You finish the last card and, as if you’ve managed to do something important, you open your arms toward the sunbeams and inhale deeply. Large hands encircle your waist. “Is breakfast ready?” he asks. And you think that you have to smile at someone as mediocre as him.
NUMBER THIRTEEN by Batool Haidari
The irritating whirl of the large fan in the wall was still buzzing in my ears. The long, narrow fluorescent tubes in the ceiling flickered on and off, then the dark room filled with light. The thin woman had returned, wearing tall, black rubber boots and a green scarf. Her hands on her hips, she walked over to the line of cell doors in the wall. She opened one of them and firmly pulled the iron handle toward her, drawing out a screeching metal tray. She called the fat woman over, the smell of camphor permeating the cold, damp air. The fat woman covered her mouth with a damkash(1)-like cloth, pushed her glasses up the bridge of her long nose and leaned down toward me. I lay stretched out on the metal table. She removed the cotton from my nostrils and scribbled on a page in the middle of a stack of papers she was holding.
“If no one’s claimed her by the end of the week, fill out the form in her file to have her transferred to the University of Medical Sciences. Don’t forget to specify that she’s a foreigner, an Afghan,” said the fat woman in a soft, listless voice.
The thin woman stuffed the cotton back in my nose, pushed the metal table back into the cell and closed the door.
“Apparently they’ve found her husband,” she said.
The fat woman, sitting at the far side of the table in the room, looked up at the thin woman, turning the ring on her finger.
“Well take the form for the university out of her file then.”
She stood up, slipped her hands in her pockets and stuck out her chest. She was wearing a short, white blouse.
"They find anything on her, apart from the card, when they washed her?”
The thin woman, wearing red latex gloves, lifted the receiver and dialed a number.
“Yes. She had a complete miniature Quran on her. They catalogued it with her card and her clothes.”
The fat woman shook her head and walked away, her shoes click-clacking on the floor.
I’ve been here for at least four days now. I’m tired, but more than anything, I’m worried about Âména. When I was about to leave the house, she’d finally fallen asleep. She’d been crying non-stop for a week. I kept wondering what was wrong with her. I massaged her stomach with oil and put a patch behind her ear, but she wouldn’t quiet down. She’d been irritable ever since we’d moved into that basement. I’d never wanted to rent that place. She howled day and night. Her mouth was wide open all the time.
When Gholâm told me that they’d arrested Ismaïl and taken him to a camp, I was distraught. I didn’t know what to do. I hoped they wouldn’t send him back to the border. He hadn’t found work in days. Every time he’d gone out to look, he’d taken his visa receipt instead of his ID card. So many people were being arrested. He’d heard that when they were, a corner of their card was cut off. I noticed his receipt lying on the shelf. He hadn’t taken his receipt that day or his card. I threw on my chador and left, locking the door and leaving Âména sleeping. I didn’t make it as far as the crossroads when I was suddenly hurled. I smashed into something very heavy and ended up flat on the ground. A crowd immediately gathered around me. The car horns and the hubbub grew louder. My legs were sprawled, and my dress was bunched up around my waist, my white skin exposed. I lay there on my back, blood running under my head, feeling so ashamed. My chador had landed quite a way off and was covered with dust. I hope someone will put it back on me, I thought, my eyes remaining open. A man with white hair came and covered me with my chador.
The metal table was pulled out again with a grating sound. I didn’t know when the cell door was opened. The thin woman appeared in front of me. This time she wasn’t alone but accompanied by a man in black. The fat woman was standing behind him, watching. I got a good look at the man: it was Ismaïl. The thin woman showed me to him. He came closer and peered down at me. His eyes were filled with tears and he was blinking rapidly. Oh, how he’d aged since I’d last seen him. He looked deathly pale.
“Are you sure this is her?” asked the fat woman.
“Yes, this is my wife,” Ismaïl sniffled, his head still bent.
The fat woman handed him a document and a pen. Ismaïl said something to her. She retrieved the pen and opened a small box, which she held out to him. He dipped his fingertip in it, then stamped the document as well as another one. The fat woman took my hand, pressed my fingertip firmly in the box, then again at the bottom of a yellow sheet of paper. She was wearing makeup that day and smelled good.
“Okay, he’s ID’ed her,” she called out. “You can take him away, but you have to come back and get her at two.”
An officer, dressed in green and waiting outside the room, appeared in the doorway, holding a pair of handcuffs, and staring at me all the while. Ismaïl, who had covered his face with his hands, was shaking his head. The sound of their footsteps grew fainter. It seemed as if Ismaïl was forcing himself to put one foot in front of the other. I think his shoulders were trembling.
“After they’ve washed number thirteen, they’ll bring her here,” said the fat woman. “When I stamp the death certificate, have them take her and the certificate upstairs.”
“The baby choked from crying?” asked the thin woman.
“Good thing you reminded me,” replied the fat woman. “Don’t forget to specify that it was a natural death, that she choked from crying, and that the body was almost putrefied. Just put ‘newborn’ for her age.”
The door to the room opens. A small bed is wheeled in. It’s covered with a large, light brown sheet, and a man is standing behind it. He hands the fat woman a document. She looks at it and signs it.
“Here. Go ahead and take her,” she says to the thin woman. “Be sure to fill out the form properly. I’ll be right back.”
The fat woman leaves the room, following close behind the man. The thin woman pulls the little bed toward her and removes the sheet.
Something in my heart crumples when I see Âména. How big she’s gotten. She’s all bloated. Her entire body’s turned blue. She has rings around her little eyes.
But she isn’t crying anymore. If only I’d taken her with me when I left. If only I hadn’t locked the door...
1 Damkash — a cloth used in Persian cuisine in braising rice.
Excerpt from Under a Kabul Sky translated by Elaine Kennedy, an anthology of short fiction published by Inanna Publications. English translation copyright Elaine Kennedy 2022. Reprinted with permission.
Born in Kabul in 1984, Khaleda Khorsand presently lives in Canada. She obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Persian Language and Literature in Herat. She works as a journalist.
Born in Syria in 1982, Batool Haidari now lives in Kabul. After completing her PhD in Psychology at the University of Ispahan, she became a university professor in Kabul. She has published two collections of short stories: Sar Ba Dârân in 2011 and Sadegh Hedayat Râ Man Kochta Am in 2013.
A native of Toronto now living in Victoria, Elaine Kennedy studied English literature, French language and civilization, as well as translation in North America and Europe. She has worked as a translator and editor in numerous fields. Today, she focuses on literary translation.