It is July 2001, and eleven-year-old Fadi Nurzai's family are fleeing their home country of Afghanistan. Fadi along with his father Habib,his mother Zafoona, his older sister Noor and younger sister Mariam are packed into a taxi hurtling across the dusty plain in the dark. Their driver is Professor Sahib, Habib's former teacher at Kabul University. After a six hour ride from Kabul, they arrive in Jalalabad, a city in the eastern province of Nangarhar Province of Afghanistan. Here they will rendezvous with a truck to take them to across the Afghan border with Pakistan to Peshawar where Zafoona's cousin and her husband will meet them at the border.
Only a month earlier, Fadi's father had told them they were leaving Afghanistan. Zafoona needed better medical care for a cold that had turned into a serious illness. But also the Taliban had tried to recruit Fadi's father in what was a thinly veiled threat. Although he had put them off for the time being, it is inevitable that they will return.
Habib was born in Afghanistan but had travelled to Madison, Wisconsin where he earned a Ph.D in Agriculture. Afterwards he returned to his homeland inspired to help rebuild Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviets by the Taliban.
When he and Zafoona had returned to their homeland along with their family, the Taliban asked Habib to rid the country of the poppy fields used for opium. Gradually Habib had been successful in this endeavour, getting farmers to grow food for the country. However, the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islam began creating problems as they began suppressing civil rights. Music, movies, books and photography were banned, women were forced to wear the burka, and schools for girls were closed. Fadi's father had hoped to obtain work at Kabul University in the agriculture department but it was closed because of the years of war. Instead, Habib opened a dry goods store in downtown Kabul to support his family.
Just past midnight an army truck shows up at the rendezvous point to take them to Pakistan. Habib, realizing this is their ride, orders Fadi to take Mariam, while Noor follows with their mother. As they move towards the truck, suddenly dozens of people emerge from hiding, running towards the truck. Fadi is gripping Mariam's hand tightly and tries to steer them towards his father in the back of the truck. In the chaos, with everyone scrambling to get on the truck, the Taliban arrive, creating even more panic. But as Fadi's father pulls him into the back of the truck, Mariam slips from his grip, trying to retrieve her pink Barbie, Gulmina which as fallen to the ground.
Panicked by the approach of the Taliban, the truck driver announces he is leaving. To Fadi's horror, the truck roars away, leaving six-year-old Mariam behind with many others and the Taliban in hot pursuit. Zafoona, already ill and exhausted is completely hysterical. Her pleas for the truck to return to retrieve Mariam are ignored while Habib who wants to jump out of the truck, is held down by the other men. Returning would mean capture by the Taliban and possible execution.
On the plane to London, Fadi berates himself, feeling responsible for losing Mariam. He thinks back to when they arrived in Peshawar. Once in Peshawar, Fadi's father went back over the border in an attempt to locate Mariam, but could find no trace of her. Zafoona's cousin, Nargis promised to contact them and let them know when she heard any news. Unable to delay any longer, Fadi's family had to go to the American consulate in Peshawar to pick up the papers "arranged with the help of Habib's old college advisor in the United States." Zafoona had wanted to remain in Peshawar but Habib told her that if they did not leave their asylum papers would expire and they would have been stateless - unable to return to Afghanistan but unable to remain in Pakistan.
When they arrive in San Francisco, Fadi and his family are met at the airport by Uncle Amin, who is married to Zafoona's younger sister Khala Nilufer. Once a doctor in Kabul's main hospital, Amin and Nilufer had left Afghanistan in 1998 along with his parents Abay and Dada, a month after Fadi's parents had arrived back in the country from the United States. Uncle Amin works two jobs as a lab technician to support his family but he generously offers them to stat with him at his home in Fremont. Fadi meets his cousin, Zalmay, who is his age. While eating lunch, the adults talk about little Mariam and how UN Refugee Agency has sent out a bulletin about Mariam and how there are many people looking out for her. However, Fadi's feelings of guilt overwhelm him and he hides inside the pantry.
In August of 2001, Fadi's father and his Uncle Amin have contacted many family and friends in both Pakistan and Afghanistan, all searching on both sides of the border for Mariam. Meanwhile Habib moves his family out of Uncle Amin's house into an apartment at the Paradise Apartment Complex.
Fadi begins the school year at Brookhaven Middle School where he is in Mr. Torres' 6B class. Almost immediately he draws the attention of two bullies in his class, Felix and Ike. Fadi does a good deed by returning a classmate's wallet and she introduces herself as Anh Hong. Meanwhile at home, Fadi's family learns that Mariam may have been taken in by a family with two boys who were trying to get to Peshawar. This information upsets Zafoona and she argues with Habib telling him they should not have left Peshawar.Zafoona wants to return to Peshawar to search for Mariam but that requires money the Hurzai family does not have.
When Fadi learns about the school photography club and an upcoming contest with the chance to win tickets to India, he believes he just might have found a way to go back and help find Mariam. With the encouragement of Anh and Noor's money for the club fee, Fadi is determined to win. Meanwhile he must deal with the class bullies and his own feelings of guilt. When the contest doesn't produce the results Fadi is hoping for, he all but gives up until a remarkable meeting changes everything.
The events in Shooting Kabul bracket the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City and throughout the United States. The novel provides young readers with insight into the immigrant experience during this time. Fadi's parents who returned to their homeland of Afghanistan with the hope of helping to modernize their country are now refugees in the United States. But their relief at escaping from the Taliban is marred by the loss of Mariam who was accidentally left behind in Jalalabad.
Shooting Kabul focuses primarily on the struggles of eleven-year-old Fadi as he experiences tremendous guilt and shame for not being able to hang onto his little sister Mariam when they were trying to board truck to take them out of Kabul. He is so certain of his own guilt in the matter that he is shocked to discover that each member of his family is also struggling with guilt. Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, Zafoona confesses her feelings of guilt to her sister Nilufer,
" 'She's my baby. I'm her mother. It's all my fault,' cried Zafoona, and, she burst into ragged sobs...
'No you don't understand,' said Zafoona. 'If I wasn't so sick, I could have looked after her. But instead everyone was looking after me. Noor and Habib were so worried about getting me on board the truck that they lost track of Fadi and Mariam. It's my fault.'"
Despite hearing this, Fadi continues to believe Mariam's situation was his fault, and he withdraws, often withdrawing from his family. In their new apartment, Fadi overhears his sister Noor confessing her responsibility for the loss of Mariam to their father. Noor states that she was responsible for caring for Fadi and Mariam; "No, I'm the oldest. I should have taken care of them...It's my fault Mariam is lost!" Fadi is shocked to overhear this admission but he thinks, "Everyone things it's their fault she's gone. But it's my fault, not anyone else's. I'm the one who doesn't deserve to belong to this family. I'm the one who's torn it apart."
Fadi then hits on the idea that he will return to Peshawar to find
his sister. However without money this will be difficult so he devises a
plan to travel to Pakistan. Just how deeply Fadi feels the loss of his sister is demonstrated when he sneaks into the trunk of his father's taxi to hitch a ride to the airport. His plan is to board a flight to London and then to catch a plane to Peshawar. Fortunately for Fadi, when he is unable to get out of the trunk, disaster is averted when his father opens the trunk to place a passenger's luggage inside.
Fadi then becomes determined to win the grand prize of a trip to India, in a local photography contest. Although planning to enter the photography contest gives Fadi hope his pain and guilt surface in a destructive way when the family visits a Toys R Us store.
"From both sides of the aisle hundreds of Barbies stared down at him. Fadi closed his eyes. His body felt cold and his hand went numb...His eyelids flickered open. Cowgirl Barbie gave him an accusing glare. Artist Barbie stood next to her, holding a paintbrush, sharing a conspiratorial frown with Doctor Barbie....Assembled on the bottom row stood a platoon of Barbies from around the world. Native American, Korean, Spanish, Nigerian, and Austrian Barbie were whispering to one another...whispering about Gulmina." The sight of the Barbies triggers the image of Mariam "holding out Gulmina, asking him to put her into his backpack." Fadi becomes enraged and begins destroying the Barbie display. "He knocked off a line of dolls, and they crashed to the floor. He stomped on the slender rectangular boxes, his tennis shoes making crunching sounds. He fell to his knees and ripped of the lids and pulled out Diamond Princess Barbie. He shook her with all his might and started banging her and Soccer Barbie against the concrete floor. The store manager found him, huddled on a pile of crushed boxes and Barbies, sobbing." The scene is tragic and disturbing, portraying the trauma many refugees from war-torn areas experience.
Although both Zafoona and Noor have told someone about their guilt over Mariam, Fadi has been unable to confide in anyone, carrying his burden alone. However, after losing the photography contest and any chance of traveling to India, he confides in Ms. Bethune, telling her what happened that night in Kabul. Fadi is shocked that she does not consider him responsible and she helps him look at what happened in a different way, encouraging him not to blame himself for something he had little control over. Fadi never does tell his family about his guilt because the situation is resolved before he has the opportunity to do so.
Throughout the novel Senzai does an good job of incorporating recent Afghan history into the story so that younger readers have the background information to understand the events that occur. Readers experience the 9/11 attacks from the perspective of the Afghanistan refugees through the characters of Habib, Zafoona, Uncle Amin and others. The author also portrays how the Afghani people themselves view Osama Bin Laden, in the scene after 9/11 in the grocery shop in Little Kabul, and how they believe the events of 9/11 will impact their country. By incorporating many details about the country itself young readers from the United States and Canada are able to learn a bit about Afghanistan's a rich heritage and diverse ethnic groups.
Shooting Kabul is another fine novel from this author and is highly recommended. Senzai states in her Author's Note at the back that "I didn't want to write this book..." because it touched many sensitive and personal issues including Islam, Afghan history and politics. Senzai's father-in-law's experiences are mirrored in those of Habib making the novel a very personal story. But it is a story well worth reading because it provides young readers the opportunity to understand Afghan history and culture separate from the American perspective presented in the media and because it also portrays the challenges refugees experience in coming to a culture vastly different from their own.
Shooting Kabul by Naheed Hasnat Senzai
New York: A Paula Wiseman Book 2010