“Help me! Help me… Help… me… please…”
His voice became quieter. Thirty people had walked past without paying him any attention. He felt hungry and cold, but he had to persist for the sake of his mother and sister at home.
Suddenly a well-dressed man appeared carrying a large, beautiful leather bag. Rahman thought, “That man seems rich. His bag may have enough money in it for me and my family to live on for several weeks. Should I take it? No Rahman, you are not a thief! For God’s sake! Shame on you!” Rahman had too many voices in his head.
Rahman was a twelve-year-old boy with a tired, handsome face. He lived with his family in Kabul. They were not rich; they led an ordinary life. His father, Masoud, was a soldier. Rahman was proud of him. His mother, Soraya, was a cook who prepared food for parties and weddings. It was a part-time job that suited her. His father was not at home most of the time. Like all soldiers, he was only allowed to go home on leave every three or four months. His mother was always worried when he was not at home; she watched the news constantly and prayed frequently. Rahman and his sister, Roya, did not realize how worried their mother was.
Roya was two years older than Rahman. In school they were both two years ahead of the other children their age because they had always been so eager to learn. Rahman did not have many possessions, and sometimes his family could not afford to buy him the things he really wanted, like a new bicycle. But he loved his family, and he was happy with his old bicycle and his other basic possessions. His sister was always by his side. She was a beautiful young girl who dreamed of becoming a journalist one day. His life was not that of an ordinary teenager, but he had his family and they had warm meals, and that was enough for him.
One day his father came home with a worried expression on his face. He always tried to be happy, even though his job was dangerous and unpredictable, but this time he didn’t seem well. At night he heard his father say to his mother that the Taliban was becoming more powerful, that they were going to conquer all of Afghanistan. “We may be in danger,” he said, “pray for us…”
Rahman did not comprehend what was going on, but his father, who in his eyes was a strong man, seemed worried. That was the last time he saw him. Three weeks later a soldier came to their home with the news that his father had been killed in combat. Rahman was coming back from school when he saw the soldier in front of their house. He could tell, even from a distance, that it was not his father or someone the family knew. Suddenly his mother was on her knees. He wanted to see the man and know what was going on, so he pedaled faster, but it felt as if he would never reach the house. He helped his mother to her feet, but he could not stop her crying. Rahman had a bad feeling in his heart. He didn’t recognize the soldier, who resembled an owl.
After they heard those words that day, their life changed completely. His mother was now the only person who supported the family, but she did not have a full-time job, and she couldn’t look for work because the Taliban had passed a new law decreeing that women were not allowed to work. His sister couldn’t study anymore because another new law decreed that girls did not have the right to study. Rahman was the only one in the family who had the right to work, but he was just a child. He had to stop studying to support the family. But who would give a job to a twelve-year-old boy? On top of that, the bereaved family did not even receive any compensation from the Taliban because his father had worked for the previous government.
Though he was a child, Rahman was smart and a fast learner, but that was not enough. Most people were in a bad economical situation. There were no new jobs. So Rahman started to beg. It was not out of choice but necessity. His mother thought he worked for a tailor—that was what Rahman had told her to ease her mind. It was all too much for a twelve-year-old boy to deal with. He had tried tailoring, but Kaka Hasan, the neighborhood tailor, was planning to go abroad with his family so he was not hiring. He had even tried garbage collecting, but the collectors employed their own children, and they didn’t want to take on another child.
One day when his sister was sick and he didn’t have any money to buy medicine, he felt so helpless he sat down in the street and cried silently, like an unwatered flower that had finally withered. It was then that he tried to beg for the first time, but it was too difficult and embarrassing. After a week of begging, he saw the man with the leather bag. He thought: life is cruel and unjust. What would happen if I stole his bag? I could buy some food to feed my family and have enough money left over for medicine and some clothes. “You should be embarrassed, Rahman! You are not a thief, your mother would never forgive you if she found out.”
He had been a muezzin at school, and sometimes the other students had asked him about religious questions. He could give them advice because he regularly went to the mosque with his father, and he loved reading. When he thought about the bag he was ashamed of himself. His father had always said, “Thank God both of my children are intelligent and religious. I hope you become doctors one day.”
He was arguing with himself in his mind, with everything that he remembered in that moment. But the pain in his foot and his fatigue and hunger distracted him. So he stole the bag and ran off. The man ran after him. He was scared, but he was fast and knew the neighborhood well. He went down an alley and lost the man.
His legs were hurting and he was sobbing but he kept asking himself, “Was it right? Should I keep it?” And sometimes he thought, “Was it wrong? Should I give it back?” He stood there until night fell, asking himself again and again, “Was it really wrong?” He had too many thoughts and voices in his head. Yet to passersby he was just a scared child with a big bag in his tiny hands in a dark alley.
16 May, 2023