KABUL, Afghanistan — Raza Gul trudges the half-mile to work through a maze of brick and mud homes, sewage streams and toddlers running naked. She’s two months pregnant, and her lower back aches as she steps over ditches and eyes speeding cars. Her sister-in-law, a frail woman, shadows her. They say little.
The slight wind chills Gul and she thinks about the cost of wood to heat her home and keep her four children warm. She is certain that her husband is already prowling their neighborhood hillside, hunting his first hit of opium for the day.
She knows he’ll walk to one of the local dealers, then sit alone in their crumbling house, roll his stash in foil and smoke. He will tell her it brings him peace, and then beg her to forgive him.
The women reach the bakery where they work in the Russian Blocks neighborhood, a district of gray walk-up tenements shaded with long lines of trees where the educated and well-off live. People here say it’s one of the few good things the Soviets left from their decade of war.
The bakery, little more than a stone hut, is freezing, and piled with pots, sacks of flour and jerrycans of water. Milky sunlight pours through a window. A scuffed rusty pickax lies in the corner to split wood for the oven. The two women sit down on thin mats, one made from cardboard, to cushion them from the cold, hard floor. They prepare to greet their wealthy customers.
The blessings and curses of recent Afghan history are etched in the face of Gul, who is 35 but looks much older. Although her work at the bakery brings her pain, both real and emotional, she is her family’s sole means of support, something unthinkable during the years of civil war and Taliban rule.
Yet the U.S. military era in Afghanistan has brought no great gifts, merely a degree of stability and limited freedom. And that could all be gone tomorrow in a country that remains enmeshed in war — with foreign backers, like the U.S., that have championed women’s rights planning their exit.
In such a tenuous world, Gul concentrates on the one thing that matters: her children. She is making sure the younger ones get an education, including her 10-year-old daughter, in this land where a resurgent Taliban would like to deny girls that opportunity.
“My life with my husband is not right, my job is not right,” Gul says with the frown that rarely leaves her face. “Only my children make me happy.”
She does what is necessary to provide for them, no matter what: the backbreaking work of stacking the wood for the bakery. The bread oven’s smoke, lit up by sunbeams, swirls around her and sister-in-law Rokow and scours their lungs. The women cup the white bread dough, tossing the mounds back and forth in their palms, like they are basketballs.
Orange flames leap up from the hole at the top of the oven, and Gul decides the temperature is right. She plunges her arm inside, slaps the dough against the oven’s hot wall and then yanks her hand out before the flames singe her. Her face is sweaty and the smoke flows into her mouth and eyes. She dabs her brow with her head scarf and wipes her nose.
Customers start to file in. They ask after her kids. One woman hands Gul a leather handbag stuffed with clothes. Gul smiles and thanks her. It’s more hand-me-downs for her children, like most of the clothing they wear. The two women share an embarrassed look and later Gul praises her for being so kind.
Gul relies on her customers for news. They tell her of the suicide bombers killing Afghans and American troops, and it fills her with dread. She clings to the sliver of peace she has and her one fierce desire to provide for her children.
Gul is losing weight and her body is aching more these days. She worries she is killing her baby. She tells herself to stop working, but she can’t. If she does, her children will go hungry.
When she reaches home long after dark, her 10-year-old daughter puts a pillow behind her back and she has a cup of tea and some dried mulberry fruit.
Her husband, Abdul Jan, barely moves from his red cushion on the floor. Abdul Jan makes no secret of his addiction and prostrates himself in front of his guests. He has no money today and is waiting for Gul to give him 150 afghani (about $3) so he can buy a smoke on the hill.
Abdul Jan started smoking opium when he worked as a laborer in Iran. His wife had been living in their home village, Shamaly, with his parents when they told her they were too old and couldn’t support her anymore if their son wasn’t sending money. So five years ago, Gul headed to Kabul to live with another sister-in-law in the hillside slums.
“God is great — you will find your way,” the sister-in-law told her and hired Gul on at the bakery. When her sister-in-law fell sick from the oven smoke, Gul took over the business. When Abdul Jan returned from Tehran soon after, she no longer recognized him, his bones poking out from his flesh.
In front of his guests, he talks about how badly he wants to get clean. “I know God won’t bless me. I am smoking the money she brings home,” he says. “She puts bread in that tandoor oven and blesses me.”
He rolls up his sleeves to show the pink scar from when he sliced his wrist with a razor in an opium-fueled suicide attempt. Gul has no pity. Her face goes blank as he speaks. She says that in his dark moods, he shouts and beats their children.
What goes unsaid between them is that Abdul Jan is not her first love. She was married to his brother, who died of an illness in the Taliban’s time. She bore her first husband two children, a boy and a girl. She blushes when she remembers him: how he tolerated her tantrums as a teenage bride. She never wanted to marry again, but her in-laws took her children and wouldn’t give them back until she married Abdul Jan two years later.
She has fond memories of learning to love Abdul Jan while living in their village. Such warmth is long gone. Now her oldest boy from her first marriage is a carpenter in Iran and he calls her husband and yells at him on the phone to get clean. Gul feels she has failed her oldest daughter, who is now married.
“She is uneducated. Her husband is uneducated,” she says, sounding defeated. “Her future is not bright.”
But Gul has hope for her children from Abdul Jan.
Watching them brings a rare, faint smile to her face. She seems happy as her son Chamris, 12, carefully takes off his sky blue school uniform, straightens his shirt and hangs it from a peg on the wall. Slightly embarrassed, scrunching his nose, he recites his English lesson, speeding through it in a squeaky voice: “Johnny, Johnny, yes Papa, Papa, eating sugar, no Papa, Papa. Didn’t lie, no Papa, Papa.”
Gul doesn’t want her children to turn out like her, growing old and sick trapped on the hill.
“They should have a very good life, be educated and not be thieves,” she says. “I do my best for them. To get them pen, paper, books. I don’t want them to miss anything.”