The kite runner, p.13
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       The Kite Runner, p.13
 

           Khaled Hosseini

  By that summer, Afghan families were working an entire section of the San Jose flea market. Afghan music played in the aisles of the Used Goods section. There was an unspoken code of behavior among Afghans at the flea market: You greeted the guy across the aisle, you invited him for a bite of potato bolani or a little qabuli, and you chatted. You offered tassali, condolences, for the death of a parent, congratulated the birth of children, and shook your head mournfully when the conversation turned to Afghanistan and the Roussis--which it inevitably did. But you avoided the topic of Saturday. Because it might turn out that the fellow across the isle was the guy you'd nearly blind-sided at the freeway exit yesterday in order to beat him to a promising garage sale.

  The only thing that flowed more than tea in those aisles was Afghan gossip. The flea market was where you sipped green tea with almond kolchas, and learned whose daughter had broken off an engagement and run off with her American boyfriend, who used to be Parchami--a communist--in Kabul, and who had bought a house with under-the-table money while still on welfare. Tea, Politics, and Scandal, the ingredients of an Afghan Sunday at the flea market.

  I ran the stand sometimes as Baba sauntered down the aisle, hands respectfully pressed to his chest, greeting people he knew from Kabul: mechanics and tailors selling hand-me-down wool coats and scraped bicycle helmets, alongside former ambassadors, out-of-work surgeons, and university professors.

  One early Sunday morning in July 1984, while Baba set up, I bought two cups of coffee from the concession stand and returned to find Baba talking to an older, distinguished-looking man. I put the cups on the rear bumper of the bus, next to the REAGAN/BUSH FOR '84 sticker.

  "Amir," Baba said, motioning me over, "this is General Sahib, Mr. Iqbal Taheri. He was a decorated general in Kabul. He worked for the Ministry of Defense."

  Taheri. Why did the name sound familiar?

  The general laughed like a man used to attending formal parties where he'd laughed on cue at the minor jokes of important people. He had wispy silver-gray hair combed back from his smooth, tanned forehead, and tufts of white in his bushy eyebrows. He smelled like cologne and wore an iron-gray three-piece suit, shiny from too many pressings; the gold chain of a pocket watch dangled from his vest.

  "Such a lofty introduction," he said, his voice deep and cultured. "Salaam, bachem." Hello, my child.

  "Salaam, General Sahib," I said, shaking his hand. His thin hands belied a firm grip, as if steel hid beneath the moisturized skin.

  "Amir is going to be a great writer," Baba said. I did a double take at this. "He has finished his first year of college and earned A's in all of his courses."

  "Junior college," I corrected him.

  "Mashallah," General Taheri said. "Will you be writing about our country, history perhaps? Economics?"

  "I write fiction," I said, thinking of the dozen or so short stories I had written in the leather-bound notebook Rahim Khan had given me, wondering why I was suddenly embarrassed by them in this man's presence.

  "Ah, a storyteller," the general said. "Well, people need stories to divert them at difficult times like this." He put his hand on Baba's shoulder and turned to me. "Speaking of stories, your father and I hunted pheasant together one summer day in Jalalabad," he said. "It was a marvelous time. If I recall correctly, your father's eye proved as keen in the hunt as it had in business."

  Baba kicked a wooden tennis racket on our tarpaulin spread with the toe of his boot. "Some business."

  General Taheri managed a simultaneously sad and polite smile, heaved a sigh, and gently patted Baba's shoulder. "Zendagi migzara," he said. Life goes on. He turned his eyes to me. "We Afghans are prone to a considerable degree of exaggeration, bachem, and I have heard many men foolishly labeled great. But your father has the distinction of belonging to the minority who truly deserves the label." This little speech sounded to me the way his suit looked: often used and unnaturally shiny.

  "You're flattering me," Baba said.

  "I am not," the general said, tilting his head sideways and pressing his hand to his chest to convey humility. "Boys and girls must know the legacy of their fathers." He turned to me. "Do you appreciate your father, bachem? Do you really appreciate him?"

  "Balay, General Sahib, I do," I said, wishing he'd not call me "my child."

  "Then congratulations, you are already halfway to being a man," he said with no trace of humor, no irony, the compliment of the casually arrogant.

  "Padar jan, you forgot your tea." A young woman's voice. She was standing behind us, a slim-hipped beauty with velvety coal black hair, an open thermos and Styrofoam cup in her hand. I blinked, my heart quickening. She had thick black eyebrows that touched in the middle like the arched wings of a flying bird, and the gracefully hooked nose of a princess from old Persia--maybe that of Tahmineh, Rostam's wife and Sohrab's mother from the Shahnamah. Her eyes, walnut brown and shaded by fanned lashes, met mine. Held for a moment. Flew away.

  "You are so kind, my dear," General Taheri said. He took the cup from her. Before she turned to go, I saw she had a brown, sickle-shaped birthmark on the smooth skin just above her left jawline. She walked to a dull gray van two aisles away and put the thermos inside. Her hair spilled to one side when she kneeled amid boxes of old records and paperbacks.

  "My daughter, Soraya jan," General Taheri said. He took a deep breath like a man eager to change the subject and checked his gold pocket watch. "Well, time to go and set up." He and Baba kissed on the cheek and he shook my hand with both of his. "Best of luck with the writing," he said, looking me in the eye. His pale blue eyes revealed nothing of the thoughts behind them.

  For the rest of that day, I fought the urge to look toward the gray van.

  IT CAME TO ME on our way home. Taheri. I knew I'd heard that name before.

  "Wasn't there some story floating around about Taheri's daughter?" I said to Baba, trying to sound casual.

  "You know me," Baba said, inching the bus along the queue exiting the flea market. "Talk turns to gossip and I walk away."

  "But there was, wasn't there?" I said.

  "Why do you ask?" He was looking at me coyly.

  I shrugged and fought back a smile. "Just curious, Baba."

  "Really? Is that all?" he said, his eyes playful, lingering on mine. "Has she made an impression on you?"

  I rolled my eyes. "Please, Baba."

  He smiled, and swung the bus out of the flea market. We headed for Highway 680. We drove in silence for a while. "All I've heard is that there was a man once and things . . . didn't go well." He said this gravely, like he'd disclosed to me that she had breast cancer.

  "Oh."

  "I hear she is a decent girl, hardworking and kind. But no khastegars, no suitors, have knocked on the general's door since." Baba sighed. "It may be unfair, but what happens in a few days, sometimes even a single day, can change the course of a whole lifetime, Amir," he said.

  LYING AWAKE IN BED that night, I thought of Soraya Taheri's sickle-shaped birthmark, her gently hooked nose, and the way her luminous eyes had fleetingly held mine. My heart stuttered at the thought of her. Soraya Taheri. My Swap Meet Princess.

  TWELVE

  In Afghanistan, yelda is the first night of the month of Jadi, the first night of winter, and the longest night of the year. As was the tradition, Hassan and I used to stay up late, our feet tucked under the kursi, while Ali tossed apple skin into the stove and told us ancient tales of sultans and thieves to pass that longest of nights. It was from Ali that I learned the lore of yelda, that bedeviled moths flung themselves at candle flames, and wolves climbed mountains looking for the sun. Ali swore that if you ate watermelon the night of yelda, you wouldn't get thirsty the coming summer.

  When I was older, I read in my poetry books that yelda was the starless night tormented lovers kept vigil, enduring the endless dark, waiting for the sun to rise and bring with it their loved one. After I met Soraya Taheri, every night of the week became a yelda for me. And when Sunday morning
s came, I rose from bed, Soraya Taheri's brown-eyed face already in my head. In Baba's bus, I counted the miles until I'd see her sitting barefoot, arranging cardboard boxes of yellowed encyclopedias, her heels white against the asphalt, silver bracelets jingling around her slender wrists. I'd think of the shadow her hair cast on the ground when it slid off her back and hung down like a velvet curtain. Soraya. Swap Meet Princess. The morning sun to my yelda.

  I invented excuses to stroll down the aisle--which Baba acknowledged with a playful smirk--and pass the Taheris' stand. I would wave at the general, perpetually dressed in his shiny overpressed gray suit, and he would wave back. Sometimes he'd get up from his director's chair and we'd make small talk about my writing, the war, the day's bargains. And I'd have to will my eyes not to peel away, not to wander to where Soraya sat reading a paperback. The general and I would say our good-byes and I'd try not to slouch as I walked away.

  Sometimes she sat alone, the general off to some other row to socialize, and I would walk by, pretending not to know her, but dying to.

  Sometimes she was there with a portly middle-aged woman with pale skin and dyed red hair. I promised myself that I would talk to her before the summer was over, but schools reopened, the leaves reddened, yellowed, and fell, the rains of winter swept in and wakened Baba's joints, baby leaves sprouted once more, and I still hadn't had the heart, the dil, to even look her in the eye.

  The spring quarter ended in late May 1985. I aced all of my general education classes, which was a minor miracle given how I'd sit in lectures and think of the soft hook of Soraya's nose.

  Then, one sweltering Sunday that summer, Baba and I were at the flea market, sitting at our booth, fanning our faces with newspapers.

  Despite the sun bearing down like a branding iron, the market was crowded that day and sales had been strong--it was only 12:30 but we'd already made $160. I got up, stretched, and asked Baba if he wanted a Coke. He said he'd love one.

  "Be careful, Amir," he said as I began to walk.

  "Of what, Baba?"

  "I am not an ahmaq, so don't play stupid with me."

  "I don't know what you're talking about."

  "Remember this," Baba said, pointing at me, "The man is a Pashtun to the root. He has nang and namoos." Nang. Namoos. Honor and pride. The tenets of Pashtun men. Especially when it came to the chastity of a wife. Or a daughter.

  "I'm only going to get us drinks."

  "Just don't embarrass me, that's all I ask."

  "I won't. God, Baba."

  Baba lit a cigarette and started fanning himself again.

  I walked toward the concession booth initially, then turned left at the T-shirt stand--where, for $5, you could have the face of Jesus, Elvis, Jim Morrison, or all three, pressed on a white nylon T-shirt. Mariachi music played overhead, and I smelled pickles and grilled meat.

  I spotted the Taheris' gray van two rows from ours, next to a kiosk selling mango-on-a-stick. She was alone, reading. White ankle-length summer dress today. Open-toed sandals. Hair pulled back and crowned with a tulip-shaped bun. I meant to simply walk by again and I thought I had, except suddenly I was standing at the edge of the Taheris' white tablecloth, staring at Soraya across curling irons and old neckties. She looked up.

  "Salaam," I said. "I'm sorry to be mozahem, I didn't mean to disturb you."

  "Salaam."

  "Is General Sahib here today?" I said. My ears were burning. I couldn't bring myself to look her in the eye.

  "He went that way," she said. Pointed to her right. The bracelet slipped down to her elbow, silver against olive.

  "Will you tell him I stopped by to pay my respects?" I said.

  "I will."

  "Thank you," I said. "Oh, and my name is Amir. In case you need to know. So you can tell him. That I stopped by. To . . . pay my respects."

  "Yes."

  I shifted on my feet, cleared my throat. "I'll go now. Sorry to have disturbed you."

  "Nay, you didn't," she said.

  "Oh. Good." I tipped my head and gave her a half smile. "I'll go now." Hadn't I already said that? "Khoda hafez."

  "Khoda hafez."

  I began to walk. Stopped and turned. I said it before I had a chance to lose my nerve: "Can I ask what you're reading?"

  She blinked.

  I held my breath. Suddenly, I felt the collective eyes of the flea market Afghans shift to us. I imagined a hush falling. Lips stopping in mid-sentence. Heads turning. Eyes narrowing with keen interest.

  What was this?

  Up to that point, our encounter could have been interpreted as a respectful inquiry, one man asking for the whereabouts of another man. But I'd asked her a question and if she answered, we'd be . . . well, we'd be chatting. Me a mojarad, a single young man, and she an unwed young woman. One with a history, no less. This was teetering dangerously on the verge of gossip material, and the best kind of it. Poison tongues would flap. And she would bear the brunt of that poison, not me--I was fully aware of the Afghan double standard that favored my gender. Not Did you see him chatting with her? but Wooooy! Did you see how she wouldn't let him go? What a lochak!

  By Afghan standards, my question had been bold. With it, I had bared myself, and left little doubt as to my interest in her. But I was a man, and all I had risked was a bruised ego. Bruises healed. Reputations did not. Would she take my dare?

  She turned the book so the cover faced me. Wuthering Heights. "Have you read it?" she said.

  I nodded. I could feel the pulsating beat of my heart behind my eyes. "It's a sad story."

  "Sad stories make good books," she said.

  "They do."

  "I heard you write."

  How did she know? I wondered if her father had told her, maybe she had asked him. I immediately dismissed both scenarios as absurd. Fathers and sons could talk freely about women. But no Afghan girl--no decent and mohtaram Afghan girl, at least--queried her father about a young man. And no father, especially a Pashtun with nang and namoos, would discuss a mojarad with his daughter, not unless the fellow in question was a khastegar, a suitor, who had done the honorable thing and sent his father to knock on the door.

  Incredibly, I heard myself say, "Would you like to read one of my stories?"

  "I would like that," she said. I sensed an unease in her now, saw it in the way her eyes began to flick side to side. Maybe checking for the general. I wondered what he would say if he found me speaking for such an inappropriate length of time with his daughter.

  "Maybe I'll bring you one someday," I said. I was about to say more when the woman I'd seen on occasion with Soraya came walking up the aisle. She was carrying a plastic bag full of fruit. When she saw us, her eyes bounced from Soraya to me and back. She smiled.

  "Amir jan, good to see you," she said, unloading the bag on the tablecloth. Her brow glistened with a sheen of sweat. Her red hair, coiffed like a helmet, glittered in the sunlight--I could see bits of her scalp where the hair had thinned. She had small green eyes buried in a cabbage-round face, capped teeth, and little fingers like sausages. A golden Allah rested on her chest, the chain burrowed under the skin tags and folds of her neck. "I am Jamila, Soraya jan's mother."

  "Salaam, Khala jan," I said, embarrassed, as I often was around Afghans, that she knew me and I had no idea who she was.

  "How is your father?" she said.

  "He's well, thank you."

  "You know, your grandfather, Ghazi Sahib, the judge? Now, his uncle and my grandfather were cousins," she said. "So you see, we're related." She smiled a cap-toothed smile, and I noticed the right side of her mouth drooping a little. Her eyes moved between Soraya and me again.

  I'd asked Baba once why General Taheri's daughter hadn't married yet. No suitors, Baba said. No suitable suitors, he amended. But he wouldn't say more--Baba knew how lethal idle talk could prove to a young woman's prospects of marrying well. Afghan men, especially those from reputable families, were fickle creatures. A whisper here, an insinuation there, and they fled like sta
rtled birds. So weddings had come and gone and no one had sung ahesta boro for Soraya, no one had painted her palms with henna, no one had held a Koran over her headdress, and it had been General Taheri who'd danced with her at every wedding.

  And now, this woman, this mother, with her heartbreakingly eager, crooked smile and the barely veiled hope in her eyes. I cringed a little at the position of power I'd been granted, and all because I had won at the genetic lottery that had determined my sex.

  I could never read the thoughts in the general's eyes, but I knew this much about his wife: If I was going to have an adversary in this--whatever this was--it would not be her.

  "Sit down, Amir jan," she said. "Soraya, get him a chair, bachem. And wash one of those peaches. They're sweet and fresh."

  "Nay, thank you," I said. "I should get going. My father's waiting."

  "Oh?" Khanum Taheri said, clearly impressed that I'd done the polite thing and declined the offer. "Then here, at least have this." She threw a handful of kiwis and a few peaches into a paper bag and insisted I take them. "Carry my Salaam to your father. And come back to see us again."

  "I will. Thank you, Khala jan," I said. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Soraya looking away.

  " I THOUGHT YOU WERE GETTING COKES," Baba said, taking the bag of peaches from me. He was looking at me in a simultaneously serious and playful way. I began to make something up, but he bit into a peach and waved his hand. "Don't bother, Amir. Just remember what I said."

  THAT NIGHT IN BED, I thought of the way dappled sunlight had danced in Soraya's eyes, and of the delicate hollows above her collar bone. I replayed our conversation over and over in my head. Had she said I heard you write or I heard you're a writer? Which was it? I tossed in my sheets and stared at the ceiling, dismayed at the thought of six laborious, interminable nights of yelda until I saw her again.

 
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