The kite runner, p.15
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       The Kite Runner, p.15
 

           Khaled Hosseini
"You've thought it over?"

  "Balay, Baba."

  "Then give me the phone. And my little notebook."

  I blinked. "Now?"

  "Then when?"

  I smiled. "Okay." I gave him the phone and the little black notebook where Baba had scribbled his Afghan friends' numbers. He looked up the Taheris. Dialed. Brought the receiver to his ear. My heart was doing pirouettes in my chest.

  "Jamila jan? Salaam alaykum," he said. He introduced himself. Paused. "Much better, thank you. It was so gracious of you to come." He listened for a while. Nodded. "I'll remember that, thank you. Is General Sahib home?" Pause. "Thank you."

  His eyes flicked to me. I wanted to laugh for some reason. Or scream. I brought the ball of my hand to my mouth and bit on it. Baba laughed softly through his nose.

  "General Sahib, Salaam alaykum . . . Yes, much much better . . . Balay . . . You're so kind. General Sahib, I'm calling to ask if I may pay you and Khanum Taheri a visit tomorrow morning. It's an honorable matter . . . Yes . . . Eleven o'clock is just fine. Until then. Khoda hafez."

  He hung up. We looked at each other. I burst into giggles. Baba joined in.

  BABA WET HIS HAIR and combed it back. I helped him into a clean white shirt and knotted his tie for him, noting the two inches of empty space between the collar button and Baba's neck. I thought of all the empty spaces Baba would leave behind when he was gone, and I made myself think of something else. He wasn't gone. Not yet. And this was a day for good thoughts. The jacket of his brown suit, the one he'd worn to my graduation, hung over him--too much of Baba had melted away to fill it anymore. I had to roll up the sleeves. I stooped and tied his shoelaces for him.

  The Taheris lived in a flat, one-story house in one of the residential areas in Fremont known for housing a large number of Afghans. It had bay windows, a pitched roof, and an enclosed front porch on which I saw potted geraniums. The general's gray van was parked in the driveway.

  I helped Baba out of the Ford and slipped back behind the wheel. He leaned in the passenger window. "Be home, I'll call you in an hour."

  "Okay, Baba," I said. "Good luck."

  He smiled.

  I drove away. In the rearview mirror, Baba was hobbling up the Taheris' driveway for one last fatherly duty.

  I PACED THE LIVING ROOM of our apartment waiting for Baba's call. Fifteen paces long. Ten and a half paces wide. What if the general said no? What if he hated me? I kept going to the kitchen, checking the oven clock.

  The phone rang just before noon. It was Baba.

  "Well?"

  "The general accepted."

  I let out a burst of air. Sat down. My hands were shaking. "He did?"

  "Yes, but Soraya jan is upstairs in her room. She wants to talk to you first."

  "Okay."

  Baba said something to someone and there was a double click as he hung up.

  "Amir?" Soraya's voice.

  "Salaam."

  "My father said yes."

  "I know," I said. I switched hands. I was smiling. "I'm so happy I don't know what to say."

  "I'm happy too, Amir. I . . . can't believe this is happening."

  I laughed. "I know."

  "Listen," she said, "I want to tell you something. Something you have to know before . . ."

  "I don't care what it is."

  "You need to know. I don't want us to start with secrets. And I'd rather you hear it from me."

  "If it will make you feel better, tell me. But it won't change anything."

  There was a long pause at the other end. "When we lived in Virginia, I ran away with an Afghan man. I was eighteen at the time . . . rebellious . . . stupid, and . . . he was into drugs . . . We lived together for almost a month. All the Afghans in Virginia were talking about it.

  "Padar eventually found us. He showed up at the door and . . . made me come home. I was hysterical. Yelling. Screaming. Saying I hated him . . .

  "Anyway, I came home and--" She was crying. "Excuse me." I heard her put the phone down. Blow her nose. "Sorry," she came back on, sounding hoarse. "When I came home, I saw my mother had had a stroke, the right side of her face was paralyzed and . . . I felt so guilty. She didn't deserve that.

  "Padar moved us to California shortly after." A silence followed.

  "How are you and your father now?" I said.

  "We've always had our differences, we still do, but I'm grateful he came for me that day. I really believe he saved me." She paused. "So, does what I told you bother you?"

  "A little," I said. I owed her the truth on this one. I couldn't lie to her and say that my pride, my iftikhar, wasn't stung at all that she had been with a man, whereas I had never taken a woman to bed. It did bother me a bit, but I had pondered this quite a lot in the weeks before I asked Baba to go khastegari. And in the end the question that always came back to me was this: How could I, of all people, chastise someone for their past?

  "Does it bother you enough to change your mind?"

  "No, Soraya. Not even close," I said. "Nothing you said changes anything. I want us to marry."

  She broke into fresh tears.

  I envied her. Her secret was out. Spoken. Dealt with. I opened my mouth and almost told her how I'd betrayed Hassan, lied, driven him out, and destroyed a forty-year relationship between Baba and Ali. But I didn't. I suspected there were many ways in which Soraya Taheri was a better person than me. Courage was just one of them.

  THIRTEEN

  When we arrived at the Taheris' home the next evening--for lafz, the ceremony of "giving word"--I had to park the Ford across the street. Their driveway was already jammed with cars. I wore a navy blue suit I had bought the previous day, after I had brought Baba home from khastegari. I checked my tie in the rearview mirror.

  "You look khoshteep," Baba said. Handsome.

  "Thank you, Baba. Are you all right? Do you feel up to this?"

  "Up to this? It's the happiest day of my life, Amir," he said, smiling tiredly.

  I COULD HEAR CHATTER from the other side of the door, laughter, and Afghan music playing softly--it sounded like a classical ghazal by Ustad Sarahang. I rang the bell. A face peeked through the curtains of the foyer window and disappeared. "They're here!" I heard a woman's voice say. The chatter stopped. Someone turned off the music.

  Khanum Taheri opened the door. "Salaam alaykum," she said, beaming. She'd permed her hair, I saw, and wore an elegant, ankle length black dress. When I stepped into the foyer, her eyes moistened. "You're barely in the house and I'm crying already, Amir jan," she said. I planted a kiss on her hand, just as Baba had instructed me to do the night before.

  She led us through a brightly lit hallway to the living room. On the wood-paneled walls, I saw pictures of the people who would become my new family: A young bouffant-haired Khanum Taheri and the general--Niagara Falls in the background; Khanum Taheri in a seamless dress, the general in a narrow-lapelled jacket and thin tie, his hair full and black; Soraya, about to board a wooden roller coaster, waving and smiling, the sun glinting off the silver wires in her teeth. A photo of the general, dashing in full military outfit, shaking hands with King Hussein of Jordan. A portrait of Zahir Shah.

  The living room was packed with about two dozen guests seated on chairs placed along the walls. When Baba entered, everybody stood up. We went around the room, Baba leading slowly, me behind him, shaking hands and greeting the guests. The general--still in his gray suit--and Baba embraced, gently tapping each other on the back. They said their Salaams in respectful hushed tones.

  The general held me at arm's length and smiled knowingly, as if saying, "Now, this is the right way--the Afghan way--to do it, bachem." We kissed three times on the cheek.

  We sat in the crowded room, Baba and I next to each other, across from the general and his wife. Baba's breathing had grown a little ragged, and he kept wiping sweat off his forehead and scalp with his handkerchief. He saw me looking at him and managed a strained grin. "I'm all right," he mouthed.

  In keeping with t
radition, Soraya was not present.

  A few moments of small talk and idle chatter followed until the general cleared his throat. The room became quiet and everyone looked down at their hands in respect. The general nodded toward Baba.

  Baba cleared his own throat. When he began, he couldn't speak in complete sentences without stopping to breathe. "General Sahib, Khanum Jamila jan . . . it's with great humility that my son and I . . . have come to your home today. You are . . . honorable people . . . from distinguished and reputable families and . . . proud lineage. I come with nothing but the utmost ihtiram . . . and the highest regards for you, your family names, and the memory . . . of your ancestors." He stopped. Caught his breath. Wiped his brow. "Amir jan is my only son . . . my only child, and he has been a good son to me. I hope he proves . . . worthy of your kindness. I ask that you honor Amir jan and me . . . and accept my son into your family."

  The general nodded politely.

  "We are honored to welcome the son of a man such as yourself into our family," he said. "Your reputation precedes you. I was your humble admirer in Kabul and remain so today. We are honored that your family and ours will be joined.

  "Amir jan, as for you, I welcome you to my home as a son, as the husband of my daughter who is the noor of my eye. Your pain will be our pain, your joy our joy. I hope that you will come to see your Khala Jamila and me as a second set of parents, and I pray for your and our lovely Soraya jan's happiness. You both have our blessings."

  Everyone applauded, and with that signal, heads turned toward the hallway. The moment I'd waited for.

  Soraya appeared at the end. Dressed in a stunning wine-colored traditional Afghan dress with long sleeves and gold trimmings. Baba's hand took mine and tightened. Khanum Taheri burst into fresh tears. Slowly, Soraya came to us, tailed by a procession of young female relatives.

  She kissed my father's hands. Sat beside me at last, her eyes downcast.

  The applause swelled.

  ACCORDING TO TRADITION, Soraya's family would have thrown the engagement party, the Shirini-khori--or "Eating of the Sweets" ceremony. Then an engagement period would have followed which would have lasted a few months. Then the wedding, which would be paid for by Baba.

  We all agreed that Soraya and I would forgo the Shirini-khori. Everyone knew the reason, so no one had to actually say it: that Baba didn't have months to live.

  Soraya and I never went out alone together while preparations for the wedding proceeded--since we weren't married yet, hadn't even had a Shirini-khori, it was considered improper. So I had to make do with going over to the Taheris with Baba for dinner. Sit across from Soraya at the dinner table. Imagine what it would be like to feel her head on my chest, smell her hair. Kiss her. Make love to her.

  Baba spent $35,000, nearly the balance of his life savings, on the awroussi, the wedding ceremony. He rented a large Afghan banquet hall in Fremont--the man who owned it knew him from Kabul and gave him a substantial discount. Baba paid for the chilas, our matching wedding bands, and for the diamond ring I picked out. He bought my tuxedo, and my traditional green suit for the nika--the swearing ceremony.

  For all the frenzied preparations that went into the wedding night--most of it, blessedly, by Khanum Taheri and her friends--I remember only a handful of moments from it.

  I remember our nika. We were seated around a table, Soraya and I dressed in green--the color of Islam, but also the color of spring and new beginnings. I wore a suit, Soraya (the only woman at the table) a veiled long-sleeved dress. Baba, General Taheri (in a tuxedo this time), and several of Soraya's uncles were also present at the table. Soraya and I looked down, solemnly respectful, casting only sideway glances at each other. The mullah questioned the witnesses and read from the Koran. We said our oaths. Signed the certificates. One of Soraya's uncles from Virginia, Sharif jan, Khanum Taheri's brother, stood up and cleared his throat. Soraya had told me that he had lived in the U.S. for more than twenty years. He worked for the INS and had an American wife. He was also a poet. A small man with a birdlike face and fluffy hair, he read a lengthy poem dedicated to Soraya, jotted down on hotel stationery paper. "Wah wah, Sharif jan!" everyone exclaimed when he finished.

  I remember walking toward the stage, now in my tuxedo, Soraya a veiled pari in white, our hands locked. Baba hobbled next to me, the general and his wife beside their daughter. A procession of uncles, aunts, and cousins followed as we made our way through the hall, parting a sea of applauding guests, blinking at flashing cameras. One of Soraya's cousins, Sharif jan's son, held a Koran over our heads as we inched along. The wedding song, ahesta boro, blared from the speakers, the same song the Russian soldier at the Mahipar checkpoint had sung the night Baba and I left Kabul:

  Make morning into a key and throw it into the well,

  Go slowly, my lovely moon, go slowly.

  Let the morning sun forget to rise in the east,

  Go slowly, my lovely moon, go slowly.

  I remember sitting on the sofa, set on the stage like a throne, Soraya's hand in mine, as three hundred or so faces looked on. We did Ayena Masshaf, where they gave us a mirror and threw a veil over our heads, so we'd be alone to gaze at each other's reflection. Looking at Soraya's smiling face in that mirror, in the momentary privacy of the veil, I whispered to her for the first time that I loved her. A blush, red like henna, bloomed on her cheeks.

  I picture colorful platters of chopan kabob, sholeh-goshti, and wild-orange rice. I see Baba between us on the sofa, smiling. I remember sweat-drenched men dancing the traditional attan in a circle, bouncing, spinning faster and faster with the feverish tempo of the tabla, until all but a few dropped out of the ring with exhaustion. I remember wishing Rahim Khan were there.

  And I remember wondering if Hassan too had married. And if so, whose face he had seen in the mirror under the veil? Whose henna-painted hands had he held?

  AROUND 2 A.M., the party moved from the banquet hall to Baba's apartment. Tea flowed once more and music played until the neighbors called the cops. Later that night, the sun less than an hour from rising and the guests finally gone, Soraya and I lay together for the first time. All my life, I'd been around men. That night, I discovered the tenderness of a woman.

  IT WAS SORAYA who suggested that she move in with Baba and me.

  "I thought you might want us to have our own place," I said.

  "With Kaka jan as sick as he is?" she replied. Her eyes told me that was no way to start a marriage. I kissed her. "Thank you."

  Soraya dedicated herself to taking care of my father. She made his toast and tea in the morning, and helped him in and out of bed. She gave him his pain pills, washed his clothes, read him the international section of the newspaper every afternoon. She cooked his favorite dish, potato shorwa, though he could scarcely eat more than a few spoonfuls, and took him out every day for a brief walk around the block. And when he became bedridden, she turned him on his side every hour so he wouldn't get a bedsore.

  One day, I came home from the pharmacy with Baba's morphine pills. Just as I shut the door, I caught a glimpse of Soraya quickly sliding something under Baba's blanket. "Hey, I saw that! What were you two doing?" I said.

  "Nothing," Soraya said, smiling.

  "Liar." I lifted Baba's blanket. "What's this?" I said, though as soon as I picked up the leather-bound book, I knew. I traced my fingers along the gold-stitched borders. I remembered the fireworks the night Rahim Khan had given it to me, the night of my thirteenth birthday, flares sizzling and exploding into bouquets of red, green, and yellow.

  "I can't believe you can write like this," Soraya said.

  Baba dragged his head off the pillow. "I put her up to it. I hope you don't mind."

  I gave the notebook back to Soraya and left the room. Baba hated it when I cried.

  A MONTH AFTER THE WEDDING, the Taheris, Sharif, his wife Suzy, and several of Soraya's aunts came over to our apartment for dinner. Soraya made sabzi challow--white rice with spinach and lamb. After dinner, we
all had green tea and played cards in groups of four. Soraya and I played with Sharif and Suzy on the coffee table, next to the couch where Baba lay under a wool blanket. He watched me joking with Sharif, watched Soraya and me lacing our fingers together, watched me push back a loose curl of her hair. I could see his internal smile, as wide as the skies of Kabul on nights when the poplars shivered and the sound of crickets swelled in the gardens.

  Just before midnight, Baba asked us to help him into bed. Soraya and I placed his arms on our shoulders and wrapped ours around his back. When we lowered him, he had Soraya turn off the bedside lamp. He asked us to lean in, gave us each a kiss.

  "I'll come back with your morphine and a glass of water, Kaka jan," Soraya said.

  "Not tonight," he said. "There is no pain tonight."

  "Okay," she said. She pulled up his blanket. We closed the door.

  Baba never woke up.

  THEY FILLED THE PARKING SPOTS at the mosque in Hayward. On the balding grass field behind the building, cars and SUVs parked in crowded makeshift rows. People had to drive three or four blocks north of the mosque to find a spot.

  The men's section of the mosque was a large square room, covered with Afghan rugs and thin mattresses placed in parallel lines. Men filed into the room, leaving their shoes at the entrance, and sat cross-legged on the mattresses. A mullah chanted surrahs from the Koran into a microphone. I sat by the door, the customary position for the family of the deceased. General Taheri was seated next to me.

  Through the open door, I could see lines of cars pulling in, sunlight winking in their windshields. They dropped off passengers, men dressed in dark suits, women clad in black dresses, their heads covered with traditional white hijabs.

  As words from the Koran reverberated through the room, I thought of the old story of Baba wrestling a black bear in Baluchistan. Baba had wrestled bears his whole life. Losing his young wife. Raising a son by himself. Leaving his beloved homeland, his watan. Poverty. Indignity. In the end, a bear had come that he couldn't best. But even then, he had lost on his own terms.

  After each round of prayers, groups of mourners lined up and greeted me on their way out. Dutifully, I shook their hands. Many of them I barely knew. I smiled politely, thanked them for their wishes, listened to whatever they had to say about Baba.

 
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