The kite runner, p.20
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       The Kite Runner, p.20
 

          

  "How could you hide this from me? From him?" I bellowed.

  "Please think, Amir jan. It was a shameful situation. People would talk. All that a man had back then, all that he was, was his honor, his name, and if people talked . . . We couldn't tell anyone, surely you can see that." He reached for me, but I shed his hand. Headed for the door.

  "Amir jan, please don't leave."

  I opened the door and turned to him. "Why? What can you possibly say to me? I'm thirty-eight years old and I've just found out my whole life is one big fucking lie! What can you possibly say to make things better? Nothing. Not a goddamn thing!"

  And with that, I stormed out of the apartment.

  EIGHTEEN

  The sun had almost set and left the sky swathed in smothers of purple and red. I walked down the busy, narrow street that led away from Rahim Khan's building. The street was a noisy lane in a maze of alleyways choked with pedestrians, bicycles, and rickshaws. Billboards hung at its corners, advertising Coca-Cola and cigarettes; Lollywood movie posters displayed sultry actresses dancing with handsome, brown-skinned men in fields of marigolds.

  I walked into a smoky little samovar house and ordered a cup of tea. I tilted back on the folding chair's rear legs and rubbed my face. That feeling of sliding toward a fall was fading. But in its stead, I felt like a man who awakens in his own house and finds all the furniture rearranged, so that every familiar nook and cranny looks foreign now. Disoriented, he has to reevaluate his surroundings, reorient himself.

  How could I have been so blind? The signs had been there for me to see all along; they came flying back at me now: Baba hiring Dr. Kumar to fix Hassan's harelip. Baba never missing Hassan's birthday. I remembered the day we were planting tulips, when I had asked Baba if he'd ever consider getting new servants. Hassan's not going anywhere, he'd barked. He's staying right here with us, where he belongs. This is his home and we're his family. He had wept, wept, when Ali announced he and Hassan were leaving us.

  The waiter placed a teacup on the table before me. Where the table's legs crossed like an X, there was a ring of brass balls, each walnut-sized. One of the balls had come unscrewed. I stooped and tightened it. I wished I could fix my own life as easily. I took a gulp of the blackest tea I'd had in years and tried to think of Soraya, of the general and Khala Jamila, of the novel that needed finishing. I tried to watch the traffic bolting by on the street, the people milling in and out of the little sweetshops. Tried to listen to the Qawali music playing on the transistor radio at the next table. Anything. But I kept seeing Baba on the night of my graduation, sitting in the Ford he'd just given me, smelling of beer and saying, I wish Hassan had been with us today.

  How could he have lied to me all those years? To Hassan? He had sat me on his lap when I was little, looked me straight in the eyes, and said, There is only one sin. And that is theft . . . When you tell a lie, you steal someone's right to the truth. Hadn't he said those words to me? And now, fifteen years after I'd buried him, I was learning that Baba had been a thief. And a thief of the worst kind, because the things he'd stolen had been sacred: from me the right to know I had a brother, from Hassan his identity, and from Ali his honor. His nang. His namoos.

  The questions kept coming at me: How had Baba brought himself to look Ali in the eye? How had Ali lived in that house, day in and day out, knowing he had been dishonored by his master in the single worst way an Afghan man can be dishonored? And how was I going to reconcile this new image of Baba with the one that had been imprinted on my mind for so long, that of him in his old brown suit, hobbling up the Taheris' driveway to ask for Soraya's hand?

  Here is another cliche my creative writing teacher would have scoffed at; like father, like son. But it was true, wasn't it? As it turned out, Baba and I were more alike than I'd ever known. We had both betrayed the people who would have given their lives for us. And with that came this realization: that Rahim Khan had summoned me here to atone not just for my sins but for Baba's too.

  Rahim Khan said I'd always been too hard on myself. But I wondered. True, I hadn't made Ali step on the land mine, and I hadn't brought the Taliban to the house to shoot Hassan. But I had driven Hassan and Ali out of the house. Was it too far-fetched to imagine that things might have turned out differently if I hadn't? Maybe Baba would have brought them along to America. Maybe Hassan would have had a home of his own now, a job, a family, a life in a country where no one cared that he was a Hazara, where most people didn't even know what a Hazara was. Maybe not. But maybe so.

  I can't go to Kabul, I had said to Rahim Khan. I have a wife in America, a home, a career, and a family. But how could I pack up and go back home when my actions may have cost Hassan a chance at those very same things?

  I wished Rahim Khan hadn't called me. I wished he had let me live on in my oblivion. But he had called me. And what Rahim Khan revealed to me changed things. Made me see how my entire life, long before the winter of 1975, dating back to when that singing Hazara woman was still nursing me, had been a cycle of lies, betrayals, and secrets.

  There is a way to be good again, he'd said.

  A way to end the cycle.

  With a little boy. An orphan. Hassan's son. Somewhere in Kabul.

  ON THE RICKSHAW RIDE back to Rahim Khan's apartment, I remembered Baba saying that my problem was that someone had always done my fighting for me. I was thirty-eight now. My hair was receding and streaked with gray, and lately I'd traced little crow's-feet etched around the corners of my eyes. I was older now, but maybe not yet too old to start doing my own fighting. Baba had lied about a lot of things as it turned out but he hadn't lied about that.

  I looked at the round face in the Polaroid again, the way the sun fell on it. My brother's face. Hassan had loved me once, loved me in a way that no one ever had or ever would again. He was gone now, but a little part of him lived on. It was in Kabul.

  Waiting.

  I FOUND RAHIM KHAN praying namaz in a corner of the room.

  He was just a dark silhouette bowing eastward against a bloodred sky. I waited for him to finish.

  Then I told him I was going to Kabul. Told him to call the Caldwells in the morning.

  "I'll pray for you, Amir jan," he said.

  NINETEEN

  Again, the car sickness. By the time we drove past the bullet-riddled sign that read THE KHYBER PASS WELCOMES YOU, my mouth had begun to water. Something inside my stomach churned and twisted. Farid, my driver, threw me a cold glance. There was no empathy in his eyes.

  "Can we roll down the window?" I asked.

  He lit a cigarette and tucked it between the remaining two fingers of his left hand, the one resting on the steering wheel. Keeping his black eyes on the road, he stooped forward, picked up the screwdriver lying between his feet, and handed it to me. I stuck it in the small hole in the door where the handle belonged and turned it to roll down my window.

  Farid gave me another dismissive look, this one with a hint of barely suppressed animosity, and went back to smoking his cigarette. He hadn't said more than a dozen words since we'd departed from Jamrud Fort.

  "Tashakor," I muttered. I leaned my head out of the window and let the cold midafternoon air rush past my face. The drive through the tribal lands of the Khyber Pass, winding between cliffs of shale and limestone, was just as I remembered it--Baba and I had driven through the broken terrain back in 1974. The arid, imposing mountains sat along deep gorges and soared to jagged peaks. Old fortresses, adobe-walled and crumbling, topped the crags. I tried to keep my eyes glued to the snowcapped Hindu Kush on the north side, but each time my stomach settled even a bit, the truck skidded around yet another turn, rousing a fresh wave of nausea.

  "Try a lemon."

  "What?"

  "Lemon. Good for the sickness," Farid said. "I always bring one for this drive."

  "Nay, thank you," I said. The mere thought of adding acidity to my stomach stirred more nausea. Farid snickered. "It's not fancy like American medicine, I know, just an old remedy m
y mother taught me."

  I regretted blowing my chance to warm up to him. "In that case, maybe you should give me some."

  He grabbed a paper bag from the backseat and plucked a half lemon out of it. I bit down on it, waited a few minutes. "You were right. I feel better," I lied. As an Afghan, I knew it was better to be miserable than rude. I forced a weak smile.

  "Old watani trick, no need for fancy medicine," he said. His tone bordered on the surly. He flicked the ash off his cigarette and gave himself a self-satisfied look in the rearview mirror. He was a Tajik, a lanky, dark man with a weather-beaten face, narrow shoulders, and a long neck punctuated by a protruding Adam's apple that only peeked from behind his beard when he turned his head. He was dressed much as I was, though I suppose it was really the other way around: a rough-woven wool blanket wrapped over a gray pirhan-tumban and a vest. On his head, he wore a brown pakol, tilted slightly to one side, like the Tajik hero Ahmad Shah Massoud--referred to by Tajiks as "the Lion of Panjsher."

  It was Rahim Khan who had introduced me to Farid in Peshawar. He told me Farid was twenty-nine, though he had the wary, lined face of a man twenty years older. He was born in Mazar-i-Sharif and lived there until his father moved the family to Jalalabad when Farid was ten. At fourteen, he and his father had joined the jihad against the Shorawi. They had fought in the Panjsher Valley for two years until helicopter gunfire had torn the older man to pieces. Farid had two wives and five children. "He used to have seven," Rahim Khan said with a rueful look, but he'd lost his two youngest girls a few years earlier in a land mine blast just outside Jalalabad, the same explosion that had severed toes from his feet and three fingers from his left hand. After that, he had moved his wives and children to Peshawar.

  "Checkpoint," Farid grumbled. I slumped a little in my seat, arms folded across my chest, forgetting for a moment about the nausea. But I needn't have worried. Two Pakistani militia approached our dilapidated Land Cruiser, took a cursory glance inside, and waved us on.

  Farid was first on the list of preparations Rahim Khan and I made, a list that included exchanging dollars for Kaldar and Afghani bills, my garment and pakol--ironically, I'd never worn either when I'd actually lived in Afghanistan--the Polaroid of Hassan and Sohrab, and, finally, perhaps the most important item: an artificial beard, black and chest length, Shari'a-friendly--or at least the Taliban version of Shari'a. Rahim Khan knew of a fellow in Peshawar who specialized in weaving them, sometimes for Western journalists who covered the war.

  Rahim Khan had wanted me to stay with him a few more days, to plan more thoroughly. But I knew I had to leave as soon as possible. I was afraid I'd change my mind. I was afraid I'd deliberate, ruminate, agonize, rationalize, and talk myself into not going. I was afraid the appeal of my life in America would draw me back, that I would wade back into that great, big river and let myself forget, let the things I had learned these last few days sink to the bottom. I was afraid that I'd let the waters carry me away from what I had to do. From Hassan. From the past that had come calling. And from this one last chance at redemption. So I left before there was any possibility of that happening. As for Soraya, telling her I was going back to Afghanistan wasn't an option. If I had, she would have booked herself on the next flight to Pakistan.

  We had crossed the border and the signs of poverty were everywhere. On either side of the road, I saw chains of little villages sprouting here and there, like discarded toys among the rocks, broken mud houses and huts consisting of little more than four wooden poles and a tattered cloth as a roof. I saw children dressed in rags chasing a soccer ball outside the huts. A few miles later, I spotted a cluster of men sitting on their haunches, like a row of crows, on the carcass of an old burned-out Soviet tank, the wind fluttering the edges of the blankets thrown around them. Behind them, a woman in a brown burqa carried a large clay pot on her shoulder, down a rutted path toward a string of mud houses.

  "Strange," I said.

  "What?"

  "I feel like a tourist in my own country," I said, taking in a goatherd leading a half-dozen emaciated goats along the side of the road. Farid snickered. Tossed his cigarette. "You still think of this place as your country?"

  "I think a part of me always will," I said, more defensively than I had intended.

  "After twenty years of living in America," he said, swerving the truck to avoid a pothole the size of a beach ball.

  I nodded. "I grew up in Afghanistan."

  Farid snickered again.

  "Why do you do that?"

  "Never mind," he murmured.

  "No, I want to know. Why do you do that?"

  In his rearview mirror, I saw something flash in his eyes. "You want to know?" he sneered. "Let me imagine, Agha sahib. You probably lived in a big two-or three-story house with a nice backyard that your gardener filled with flowers and fruit trees. All gated, of course. Your father drove an American car. You had servants, probably Hazaras. Your parents hired workers to decorate the house for the fancy mehmanis they threw, so their friends would come over to drink and boast about their travels to Europe or America. And I would bet my first son's eyes that this is the first time you've ever worn a pakol." He grinned at me, revealing a mouthful of prematurely rotting teeth. "Am I close?"

  "Why are you saying these things?" I said.

  "Because you wanted to know," he spat. He pointed to an old man dressed in ragged clothes trudging down a dirt path, a large burlap pack filled with scrub grass tied to his back. "That's the real Afghanistan, Agha sahib. That's the Afghanistan I know. You? You've always been a tourist here, you just didn't know it."

  Rahim Khan had warned me not to expect a warm welcome in Afghanistan from those who had stayed behind and fought the wars. "I'm sorry about your father," I said. "I'm sorry about your daughters, and I'm sorry about your hand."

  "That means nothing to me," he said. He shook his head. "Why are you coming back here anyway? Sell off your Baba's land? Pocket the money and run back to your mother in America?"

  "My mother died giving birth to me," I said.

  He sighed and lit another cigarette. Said nothing.

  "Pull over."

  "What?"

  "Pull over, goddamn it!" I said. "I'm going to be sick." I tumbled out of the truck as it was coming to a rest on the gravel alongside the road.

  BY LATE AFTERNOON, the terrain had changed from one of sun-beaten peaks and barren cliffs to a greener, more rural landscape. The main pass had descended from Landi Kotal through Shinwari territory to Landi Khana. We'd entered Afghanistan at Torkham. Pine trees flanked the road, fewer than I remembered and many of them bare, but it was good to see trees again after the arduous drive through the Khyber Pass. We were getting closer to Jalalabad, where Farid had a brother who would take us in for the night.

  The sun hadn't quite set when we drove into Jalalabad, capital of the state of Nangarhar, a city once renowned for its fruit and warm climate. Farid drove past the buildings and stone houses of the city's central district. There weren't as many palm trees there as I remembered, and some of the homes had been reduced to roofless walls and piles of twisted clay.

  Farid turned onto a narrow unpaved road and parked the Land Cruiser along a dried-up gutter. I slid out of the truck, stretched, and took a deep breath. In the old days, the winds swept through the irrigated plains around Jalalabad where farmers grew sugarcane, and impregnated the city's air with a sweet scent. I closed my eyes and searched for the sweetness. I didn't find it.

  "Let's go," Farid said impatiently. We walked up the dirt road past a few leafless poplars along a row of broken mud walls. Farid led me to a dilapidated one-story house and knocked on the wood-plank door.

  A young woman with ocean-green eyes and a white scarf draped around her face peeked out. She saw me first, flinched, spotted Farid and her eyes lit up. "Salaam alaykum, Kaka Farid!"

  "Salaam, Maryam jan," Farid replied and gave her something he'd denied me all day: a warm smile. He planted a kiss on the top of her head. T
he young woman stepped out of the way, eyeing me a little apprehensively as I followed Farid into the small house.

  The adobe ceiling was low, the dirt walls entirely bare, and the only light came from a pair of lanterns set in a corner. We took off our shoes and stepped on the straw mat that covered the floor. Along one of the walls sat three young boys, cross-legged, on a mattress covered with a blanket with shredded borders. A tall bearded man with broad shoulders stood up to greet us. Farid and he hugged and kissed on the cheek. Farid introduced him to me as Wahid, his older brother. "He's from America," he said to Wahid, flicking his thumb toward me. He left us alone and went to greet the boys.

  Wahid sat with me against the wall across from the boys, who had ambushed Farid and climbed his shoulders. Despite my protests, Wahid ordered one of the boys to fetch another blanket so I'd be more comfortable on the floor, and asked Maryam to bring me some tea. He asked about the ride from Peshawar, the drive over the Khyber Pass.

  "I hope you didn't come across any dozds," he said. The Khyber Pass was as famous for its terrain as for the bandits who used that terrain to rob travelers. Before I could answer, he winked and said in a loud voice, "Of course no dozd would waste his time on a car as ugly as my brother's."

  Farid wrestled the smallest of the three boys to the floor and tickled him on the ribs with his good hand. The kid giggled and kicked. "At least I have a car," Farid panted. "How is your donkey these days?"

  "My donkey is a better ride than your car."

  "Khar khara mishnassah," Farid shot back. Takes a donkey to know a donkey. They all laughed and I joined in. I heard female voices from the adjoining room. I could see half of the room from where I sat. Maryam and an older woman wearing a brown hijab--presumably her mother--were speaking in low voices and pouring tea from a kettle into a pot.

  "So what do you do in America, Amir agha?" Wahid asked.

  "I'm a writer," I said. I thought I heard Farid chuckle at that.

  "A writer?" Wahid said, clearly impressed. "Do you write about Afghanistan?"

  "Well, I have. But not currently," I said. My last novel, A Season for Ashes, had been about a university professor who joins a clan of gypsies after he finds his wife in bed with one of his students. It wasn't a bad book. Some reviewers had called it a "good" book, and one had even used the word "riveting." But suddenly I was embarrassed by it. I hoped Wahid wouldn't ask what it was about.

 
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