by Abdul Wakil Sulamal
translated by Palwasha Latif
Dedicated to His Majesty King Mohammed Zahir Shah (King of Afghanistan from 1933–1973)
Will the king be tall or short? Will he be fat or thin? Will his eyes be black or green? Will he be grumpy and angry or kind and gentle? Will his clothes be made of cotton or nylon? Will he wear a turban or a hat? Will his throne be made of red gold or white gold?
From the morning onwards, Bas Bibi was lost in these thoughts. These questions and tons more like these were flowing through her mind. At that time, unlike now, there were no televisions, nor any posters of politicians, like the ones one sees now all over the city. The only connection she had with the king was through the bank notes, which had the king’s picture printed on them.
Although her husband had seen the king quite a few times, as he had been a governor for a few years and then became the mayor of Kabul, she never asked him about the king again after he ridiculed her for asking
“What kind of man is the king?”
Her husband had replied: Why? It’s not like you’re marrying the king”.
This reply made her falter. Even if it was meant as a joke, it put her off asking her husband about the king. She didn’t know why she was thinking about the king again. She pictured him as different people in her head, as black, white, tall, fat, thin – the list goes on.
She was deep in her thoughts, creating and destroying the characters that she made for the king when suddenly she heard the door open and in the blink of an eye she came out of her fantasy world:
From hearing this sound, as if she was in a deep sleep she stood up straight. Her husband, who was so happy, unexpectedly popped up in front of her. He held a gift up to his wife and said:
When Bas Bibi saw her husband’s present she looked very glad and surprised and she lovingly said:
“What is it?”
“These are high heeled shoes; get ready for tomorrow because we are going out.”
Bas Bibi had a curious look on her face.
“What is happening, where are we going?”
“We are going to Kabul, to the celebration.”
“To the celebration?”
“Yes to the celebration.”
Bas Bibi, astounded, said:
“There are going to be men and the king there!!”
She couldn’t believe it; she thought that her husband was joking or worse, that he was making fun of her. But her husband killed her suspicions and said:
“Yes, I am going to take you to that exact place to meet the king.”
She looked at him in disbelief and started laughing.
“I’m sure that the king has better things to do than meet with me!”
Her husband leaned in closer and explained:
“The king won’t only be seeing you. The king’s, the prime minister’s, ministers’ and all of the civil servants’ wives will be coming tomorrow unveiled.”
Bas Bibi put her hand to her mouth in shock.
“Yes, Bas Bibi. Unveiled! Yesterday, a letter came that said that wherever celebrations took place, that the women should accompany the men to all ceremonies, unveiled.
Bas Bibi’s lips parted in surprise.
“What happened that made the king pity the women?”
“The king always wanted to do it, Bas Bibi, but he was waiting for when the men would have more open minds about it.”
She giggled again.
“You think that now the men will see sense and let the women walk around unveiled?”
He laughed too.
“Well, yes. Am I not a man who is taking you to see the king unveiled?”
She still couldn’t believe that the men would agree to let their wives go free and unveiled. She replied to her husband:
“You get a salary from the king, and he gives you orders.”
“He hasn’t ordered me to do this; he has invited us. The king isn’t a man to give such orders.”
Bas Bibi was so happy, she was jumping up and down as if she was a bird that had been freed from a cage where she had been imprisoned for a long time. She was flapping her wings as if she was about to fly. Her eyes were glowing as if she had stepped out of the darkness and into the light for the first time. She could feel the happiness coursing through her veins:
“It seems that the women will be allowed to walk around unveiled like in the villages?”
The man nodded his head, agreeing with her statement:
“This is the idea, but not everybody is required to follow the king’s request. The people can do as they please.”
After this he reminded his wife again:
“Be ready so we can leave the house earlier tomorrow.”
When she heard her husband repeat those words her heart was racing with joy, her cheeks turned red as if her wish to see the king had been fulfilled by God. She wasn’t only happy for herself but also for this historic moment for women. She couldn’t sleep at night from all the excitement. She was apprehensive, not only at the thought of meeting the king but also at being unveiled amongst all the men. Her newfound freedom made her nervous and shy. But she was also scared after hearing all the stories about women who had sinned by walking around unveiled.
In the morning she woke up on hearing the call for prayer from the nearest mosque. Then she took a shower and went to pray. After praying she put on her new clothes and she took the high heels that her husband had bought her out of the box and put them on. She put her makeup on. She stood in front of the mirror. She looked at her new clothes in the mirror. Before she brushed her hair she stood in front of her husband and said:
“How do I look?”
Her husband laughed and complimented her:
“You look just like a bride.”
She replied very lovingly
“Are you joking, I haven’t completed my makeup yet?”
Her husband, who looked like he was rating a model, said:
“If you finish doing your makeup you’ll look just like an angel.”
She got serious and turned red with anger,
“I told you to stop joking, should I do more makeup or not?”
Her husband gave her a direct answer:
“How are you going to go without makeup? You’re not a witch, you’re the wife of the mayor!”
Bas Bibi stood up straight like a soldier and marched to the mirror, adjusting her hair. After brushing her hair she wanted to put her lipstick on but there was something on her mind so she went back to her husband.
“Should I put some lipstick on?”
Her husband laughed in amusement,
“Just the other day at your nephew’s wedding, didn’t you put on some red lipstick?”
“That was a happy occasion.”
Her husband got up from his seat, stood in front of her and put his hand on her shoulder.
“You silly thing, that was a family wedding and tomorrow it is like the wedding of the whole of Afghanistan. It is Independence Day.”
She was embarrassed and didn’t know what to say. She turned back and put her lipstick on. After she opened her little bag of kohl and as she started to put it on her eyelids, she called her husband again.
“Should I put some kohl?”
Her husband, annoyed, roared:
“Why do you ask permission for everything like a little girl?”
The woman stopped asking questions and got busy with completing her makeup but after she had finished putting lipstick and kohl on and combed her hair there was something on her mind again. She approached her husband and asked,
“Shall I wear some jewellery?”
Her husband got irritated and his eyes bulged out, he looked her up and down. Despite her husband’s reaction she didn’t hesitate to speak her mind:
“Don’t think I am bad asking you all these questions, I just don’t want to stick out and my jewellery to jingle in front of all of that crowd and the king.”
Her husband laughed again. He nodded his head slowly and reassured her:
“Don’t think about other people; dress up as you like.”
Bas Bibi was ready and a little while later they intended to leave the house. But they hadn’t even reached the door when all of a sudden her father-in-law walked in. On seeing him they both panicked as if they had stolen something and had been caught red-handed.
They were really embarrassed. With Bas Bibi’s unveiled face and high heels her father-in-law was shocked, as if there was a foreign girl in his house. He asked sarcastically,
“What is happening, where are you taking this bride?”
Bas Bibi, as if she had committed a crime and had got caught, put her head down in shame.
However her husband replied coldly,
“To the celebration.”
His dad frowned and got angrier.
“Are you taking her unveiled so the king and all the people can see her?”
“Dad, this is the king’s orders. Even his wife will be unveiled.”
“If that is the case, then take your mother too.”
The mayor laughed.
“Well, she is your wife and that decision lies in your hands. No one can force you.”
His dad, got even angrier at this joke and shouted:
“Damn you and the king, the both of you. Today he unveiled your wife. Remember this day as the one when your own wife humiliated you. I know all the stories about the king Amanullah’s*1 wife.”
Then he angrily went inside the house. As soon as his father went inside, they sighed with relief and quickly made their way out of the house. As they were going out Bas Bibi grew worried; something was bothering her again. All of a sudden she put her hand on her husband’s shoulder, who was in deep thought about his father’s reaction, and suddenly jumped out of fear.
“What’s wrong now?”
His wife leaned in closer to his ear and whispered,
“Should I hide my face from the driver with my scarf?”
Her husband quickly put his hands in his pockets and took out some black sunglasses and loudly said:
“If you are so shy then put these glasses on.”
Outside, the driver was standing next to the car.
When the driver saw the mayor with an unveiled woman he was astonished and embarrassed at the same time. He lowered his head. Bas Bibi was also embarrassed and quickly sat in the car. In an hour they reached the Kabul stadium. The Kabul stadium was full of people and on the other side there was a large stage where the king and queen were sitting. Next to them was the prime minister and the other government ministers with their wives. Everybody was enjoying the celebration. A few minutes later there was a military parade in front of the king.
The crowd was overwhelmed and happy to see jet fighters and helicopters in the air. Bas Bibi was walking with her husband for the first time in her high heels, pale with embarrassment and fear. Her legs were getting weak and numb and she was walking very slowly. She thought all the men’s eyes were following her, and she could feel the weight of sin on her shoulders at being unveiled in front of them… At this moment all the stories that her mother and grandmother had told her about unveiled women and sin were coming back to her. She felt lost. She thought that the ground was shaking beneath her feet. Her husband, who was observing her, quietly whispered in her ear:
“What’s wrong with you? Are you asleep? Watch where you’re going.”
His wife carried on walking as if she was drunk, as if she hadn’t heard him.
When she got closer and saw the king and queen, in her anxiety, she slipped and fell right in front of the king, almost as if a car had hit her. Her husband got embarrassed and turned red with anger and said:
“If you walk like a fool of course you will fall down.”
Both the husband and wife were very embarrassed and felt as if they had no clothes on and were naked in front of the whole crowd. Suddenly they caught the king’s attention, and as if he was a father who had seen his children in trouble, he made his way towards the couple. In a very kind voice he shouted:
“It’s ok my dear, don’t be worried.”
Bas Bibi, who felt as if she had fallen down a well or been transported through a portal to a magical land, was speechless.
*1 Amanullah Khan Ruler of Afghanistan (1919 – 1929): Amanullah Khan reigned in Afghanistan from 1919 achieving full independence from the British Empire shortly afterwards. His transforming social and educational reforms included: “Adopting the solar calendar, requiring western dress in parts of Kabul and elsewhere, discouraging the veiling and seclusion of women, abolishing slavery and forced labour, introducing secular education (for girls as well as boys), adult education classes and educating nomads.”
Soraya Tarzi was King Amanullah Khan’s only wife who broke century’s tradition; she was the first Muslim consort who appeared in public together with her husband something which was unheard of at the time. Queen Soraya encouraged women to get education and opened the first school for girls in Kabul she sent 15 young women to Turkey for higher education in 1928.
About the author
Abdul wakil Sulamal is an Afghan writer currently based in London. He has published five books of short stories in Pashto: The Rain, Fifty Million, Wounded Hopes, The Medicine that Makes You Blind and Bed of Thorns, which have been translated into several languages. Several of his stories have been published in anthologies such as Gone with the Soul: an Anthology of SAARC Fiction, edited by Noor Zaheer, and Eight Neighbours, edited by Ajeet Cour and Noor Zaheer. He has also written a number of academic articles and political and literary essays, published in various journals in Afghanistan and elsewhere.