The kite runner, p.21
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       The Kite Runner, p.21
 

           Khaled Hosseini

  "Maybe you should write about Afghanistan again," Wahid said. "Tell the rest of the world what the Taliban are doing to our country."

  "Well, I'm not . . . I'm not quite that kind of writer."

  "Oh," Wahid said, nodding and blushing a bit. "You know best, of course. It's not for me to suggest . . ."

  Just then, Maryam and the other woman came into the room with a pair of cups and a teapot on a small platter. I stood up in respect, pressed my hand to my chest, and bowed my head. "Salaam alaykum," I said.

  The woman, who had now wrapped her hijab to conceal her lower face, bowed her head too. "Salaam," she replied in a barely audible voice. We never made eye contact. She poured the tea while I stood.

  The woman placed the steaming cup of tea before me and exited the room, her bare feet making no sound at all as she disappeared. I sat down and sipped the strong black tea. Wahid finally broke the uneasy silence that followed.

  "So what brings you back to Afghanistan?"

  "What brings them all back to Afghanistan, dear brother?" Farid said, speaking to Wahid but fixing me with a contemptuous gaze.

  "Bas!" Wahid snapped.

  "It's always the same thing," Farid said. "Sell this land, sell that house, collect the money, and run away like a mouse. Go back to America, spend the money on a family vacation to Mexico."

  "Farid!" Wahid roared. His children, and even Farid, flinched. "Have you forgotten your manners? This is my house! Amir agha is my guest tonight and I will not allow you to dishonor me like this!"

  Farid opened his mouth, almost said something, reconsidered and said nothing. He slumped against the wall, muttered something under his breath, and crossed his mutilated foot over the good one. His accusing eyes never left me.

  "Forgive us, Amir agha," Wahid said. "Since childhood, my brother's mouth has been two steps ahead of his head."

  "It's my fault, really," I said, trying to smile under Farid's intense gaze. "I am not offended. I should have explained to him my business here in Afghanistan. I am not here to sell property. I'm going to Kabul to find a boy."

  "A boy," Wahid repeated.

  "Yes." I fished the Polaroid from the pocket of my shirt. Seeing Hassan's picture again tore the fresh scab off his death. I had to turn my eyes away from it. I handed it to Wahid. He studied the photo. Looked from me to the photo and back again. "This boy?"

  I nodded.

  "This Hazara boy."

  "Yes."

  "What does he mean to you?"

  "His father meant a lot to me. He is the man in the photo. He's dead now."

  Wahid blinked. "He was a friend of yours?"

  My instinct was to say yes, as if, on some deep level, I too wanted to protect Baba's secret. But there had been enough lies already. "He was my half-brother." I swallowed. Added, "My illegitimate half brother." I turned the teacup. Toyed with the handle.

  "I didn't mean to pry."

  "You're not prying," I said.

  "What will you do with him?"

  "Take him back to Peshawar. There are people there who will take care of him."

  Wahid handed the photo back and rested his thick hand on my shoulder. "You are an honorable man, Amir agha. A true Afghan."

  I cringed inside.

  "I am proud to have you in our home tonight," Wahid said. I thanked him and chanced a glance over to Farid. He was looking down now, playing with the frayed edges of the straw mat.

  A SHORT WHILE LATER, Maryam and her mother brought two steaming bowls of vegetable shorwa and two loaves of bread. "I'm sorry we can't offer you meat," Wahid said. "Only the Taliban can afford meat now."

  "This looks wonderful," I said. It did too. I offered some to him, to the kids, but Wahid said the family had eaten before we arrived. Farid and I rolled up our sleeves, dipped our bread in the shorwa, and ate with our hands.

  As I ate, I noticed Wahid's boys, all three thin with dirt-caked faces and short-cropped brown hair under their skullcaps, stealing furtive glances at my digital wristwatch. The youngest whispered something in his brother's ear. The brother nodded, didn't take his eyes off my watch. The oldest of the boys--I guessed his age at about twelve--rocked back and forth, his gaze glued to my wrist. After dinner, after I'd washed my hands with the water Maryam poured from a clay pot, I asked for Wahid's permission to give his boys a hadia, a gift. He said no, but, when I insisted, he reluctantly agreed. I unsnapped the wristwatch and gave it to the youngest of the three boys. He muttered a sheepish "Tashakor."

  "It tells you the time in any city in the world," I told him. The boys nodded politely, passing the watch between them, taking turns trying it on. But they lost interest and, soon, the watch sat abandoned on the straw mat.

  "YOU COULD HAVE TOLD ME," Farid said later. The two of us were lying next to each other on the straw mats Wahid's wife had spread for us.

  "Told you what?"

  "Why you've come to Afghanistan." His voice had lost the rough edge I'd heard in it since the moment I had met him.

  "You didn't ask," I said.

  "You should have told me."

  "You didn't ask."

  He rolled to face me. Curled his arm under his head. "Maybe I will help you find this boy."

  "Thank you, Farid," I said.

  "It was wrong of me to assume."

  I sighed. "Don't worry. You were more right than you know."

  HIS HANDS ARE TIED BEHIND HIM with roughly woven rope cutting through the flesh of his wrists. He is blindfolded with black cloth. He is kneeling on the street, on the edge of a gutter filled with still water, his head drooping between his shoulders. His knees roll on the hard ground and bleed through his pants as he rocks in prayer. It is late afternoon and his long shadow sways back and forth on the gravel. He is muttering something under his breath. I step closer. A thousand times over, he mutters. For you a thousand times over. Back and forth he rocks. He lifts his face. I see a faint scar above his upper lip.

  We are not alone.

  I see the barrel first. Then the man standing behind him. He is tall, dressed in a herringbone vest and a black turban. He looks down at the blindfolded man before him with eyes that show nothing but a vast, cavernous emptiness. He takes a step back and raises the barrel. Places it on the back of the kneeling man's head. For a moment, fading sunlight catches in the metal and twinkles.

  The rifle roars with a deafening crack.

  I follow the barrel on its upward arc. I see the face behind the plume of smoke swirling from the muzzle. I am the man in the herringbone vest.

  I woke up with a scream trapped in my throat.

  I STEPPED OUTSIDE. Stood in the silver tarnish of a half-moon and glanced up to a sky riddled with stars. Crickets chirped in the shuttered darkness and a wind wafted through the trees. The ground was cool under my bare feet and suddenly, for the first time since we had crossed the border, I felt like I was back. After all these years, I was home again, standing on the soil of my ancestors. This was the soil on which my great-grandfather had married his third wife a year before dying in the cholera epidemic that hit Kabul in 1915. She'd borne him what his first two wives had failed to, a son at last. It was on this soil that my grandfather had gone on a hunting trip with King Nadir Shah and shot a deer. My mother had died on this soil. And on this soil, I had fought for my father's love.

  I sat against one of the house's clay walls. The kinship I felt suddenly for the old land . . . it surprised me. I'd been gone long enough to forget and be forgotten. I had a home in a land that might as well be in another galaxy to the people sleeping on the other side of the wall I leaned against. I thought I had forgotten about this land. But I hadn't. And, under the bony glow of a half-moon, I sensed Afghanistan humming under my feet. Maybe Afghanistan hadn't forgotten me either.

  I looked westward and marveled that, somewhere over those mountains, Kabul still existed. It really existed, not just as an old memory, or as the heading of an AP story of the San Francisco Chronicle. Somewhere over those mountains in the west
slept the city where my harelipped brother and I had run kites. Somewhere over there, the blindfolded man from my dream had died a needless death. Once, over those mountains, I had made a choice. And now, a quarter of a century later, that choice had landed me right back on this soil.

  I was about to go back inside when I heard voices coming from the house. I recognized one as Wahid's.

  "--nothing left for the children."

  "We're hungry but we're not savages! He is a guest! What was I supposed to do?" he said in a strained voice.

  "--to find something tomorrow." She sounded near tears. "What do I feed--"

  I tiptoed away. I understood now why the boys hadn't shown any interest in the watch. They hadn't been staring at the watch at all. They'd been staring at my food.

  WE SAID OUR GOOD-BYES early the next morning. Just before I climbed into the Land Cruiser, I thanked Wahid for his hospitality. He pointed to the little house behind him. "This is your home," he said. His three sons were standing in the doorway watching us. The little one was wearing the watch--it dangled around his twiggy wrist.

  I glanced in the side-view mirror as we pulled away. Wahid stood surrounded by his boys in a cloud of dust whipped up by the truck. It occurred to me that, in a different world, those boys wouldn't have been too hungry to chase after the car.

  Earlier that morning, when I was certain no one was looking, I did something I had done twenty-six years earlier: I planted a fistful of crumpled money under a mattress.

  TWENTY

  Farid had warned me. He had. But, as it turned out, he had wasted his breath.

  We were driving down the cratered road that winds from Jalalabad to Kabul. The last time I'd traveled that road was in a tarpaulin-covered truck going the other way. Baba had nearly gotten himself shot by a singing, stoned Roussi officer--Baba had made me so mad that night, so scared, and, ultimately, so proud. The trek between Kabul and Jalalabad, a bone-jarring ride down a teetering pass snaking through the rocks, had become a relic now, a relic of two wars. Twenty years earlier, I had seen some of the first war with my own eyes. Grim reminders of it were strewn along the road: burned carcasses of old Soviet tanks, overturned military trucks gone to rust, a crushed Russian jeep that had plunged over the mountainside. The second war, I had watched on my TV screen. And now I was seeing it through Farid's eyes.

  Swerving effortlessly around potholes in the middle of the broken road, Farid was a man in his element. He had become much chattier since our overnight stay at Wahid's house. He had me sit in the passenger seat and looked at me when he spoke. He even smiled once or twice. Maneuvering the steering wheel with his mangled hand, he pointed to mud-hut villages along the way where he'd known people years before. Most of those people, he said, were either dead or in refugee camps in Pakistan. "And sometimes the dead are luckier," he said.

  He pointed to the crumbled, charred remains of a tiny village. It was just a tuft of blackened, roofless walls now. I saw a dog sleeping along one of the walls. "I had a friend there once," Farid said. "He was a very good bicycle repairman. He played the tabla well too. The Taliban killed him and his family and burned the village."

  We drove past the burned village, and the dog didn't move.

  IN THE OLD DAYS, the drive from Jalalabad to Kabul took two hours, maybe a little more. It took Farid and me over four hours to reach Kabul. And when we did . . . Farid warned me just after we passed the Mahipar dam. "Kabul is not the way you remember it," he said.

  "So I hear."

  Farid gave me a look that said hearing is not the same as seeing. And he was right. Because when Kabul finally did unroll before us, I was certain, absolutely certain, that he had taken a wrong turn somewhere. Farid must have seen my stupefied expression; shuttling people back and forth to Kabul, he would have become familiar with that expression on the faces of those who hadn't seen Kabul for a long time.

  He patted me on the shoulder. "Welcome back," he said morosely.

  RUBBLE AND BEGGARS. Everywhere I looked, that was what I saw. I remembered beggars in the old days too--Baba always carried an extra handful of Afghani bills in his pocket just for them; I'd never seen him deny a peddler. Now, though, they squatted at every street corner, dressed in shredded burlap rags, mud-caked hands held out for a coin. And the beggars were mostly children now, thin and grim-faced, some no older than five or six. They sat in the laps of their burqa-clad mothers alongside gutters at busy street corners and chanted "Bakhshesh, bakhshesh!" And something else, something I hadn't noticed right away: Hardly any of them sat with an adult male--the wars had made fathers a rare commodity in Afghanistan.

  We were driving westbound toward the Karteh-Seh district on what I remembered as a major thoroughfare in the seventies: Jadeh Maywand. Just north of us was the bone-dry Kabul River. On the hills to the south stood the broken old city wall. Just east of it was the Bala Hissar Fort--the ancient citadel that the warlord Dostum had occupied in 1992--on the Shirdarwaza mountain range, the same mountains from which Mujahedin forces had showered Kabul with rockets between 1992 and 1996, inflicting much of the damage I was witnessing now. The Shirdarwaza range stretched all the way west. It was from those mountains that I remember the firing of the Topeh chasht, the "noon cannon." It went off every day to announce noontime, and also to signal the end of daylight fasting during the month of Ramadan. You'd hear the roar of that cannon all through the city in those days.

  "I used to come here to Jadeh Maywand when I was a kid," I mumbled. "There used to be shops here and hotels. Neon lights and restaurants. I used to buy kites from an old man named Saifo. He ran a little kite shop by the old police headquarters."

  "The police headquarters is still there," Farid said. "No shortage of police in this city. But you won't find kites or kite shops on Jadeh Maywand or anywhere else in Kabul. Those days are over."

  Jadeh Maywand had turned into a giant sand castle. The buildings that hadn't entirely collapsed barely stood, with caved in roofs and walls pierced with rockets shells. Entire blocks had been obliterated to rubble. I saw a bullet-pocked sign half buried at an angle in a heap of debris. It read DRINK COCA CO--. I saw children playing in the ruins of a windowless building amid jagged stumps of brick and stone. Bicycle riders and mule-drawn carts swerved around kids, stray dogs, and piles of debris. A haze of dust hovered over the city and, across the river, a single plume of smoke rose to the sky.

  "Where are the trees?" I said.

  "People cut them down for firewood in the winter," Farid said. "The Shorawi cut a lot of them down too."

  "Why?"

  "Snipers used to hide in them."

  A sadness came over me. Returning to Kabul was like running into an old, forgotten friend and seeing that life hadn't been good to him, that he'd become homeless and destitute.

  "My father built an orphanage in Shar-e-Kohna, the old city, south of here," I said.

  "I remember it," Farid said. "It was destroyed a few years ago."

  "Can you pull over?" I said. "I want to take a quick walk here."

  Farid parked along the curb on a small backstreet next to a ramshackle, abandoned building with no door. "That used to be a pharmacy," Farid muttered as we exited the truck. We walked back to Jadeh Maywand and turned right, heading west. "What's that smell?" I said. Something was making my eyes water.

  "Diesel," Farid replied. "The city's generators are always going down, so electricity is unreliable, and people use diesel fuel."

  "Diesel. Remember what this street smelled like in the old days?" Farid smiled. "Kabob."

  "Lamb kabob," I said.

  "Lamb," Farid said, tasting the word in his mouth. "The only people in Kabul who get to eat lamb now are the Taliban." He pulled on my sleeve. "Speaking of which . . ."

  A vehicle was approaching us. "Beard Patrol," Farid murmured.

  That was the first time I saw the Taliban. I'd seen them on TV, on the Internet, on the cover of magazines, and in newspapers. But here I was now, less than fifty feet from them, telling
myself that the sudden taste in my mouth wasn't unadulterated, naked fear. Telling myself my flesh hadn't suddenly shrunk against my bones and my heart wasn't battering. Here they came. In all their glory.

  The red Toyota pickup truck idled past us. A handful of stern-faced young men sat on their haunches in the cab, Kalashnikovs slung on their shoulders. They all wore beards and black turbans. One of them, a dark-skinned man in his early twenties with thick, knitted eyebrows twirled a whip in his hand and rhythmically swatted the side of the truck with it. His roaming eyes fell on me. Held my gaze. I'd never felt so naked in my entire life. Then the Talib spat tobacco-stained spittle and looked away. I found I could breathe again. The truck rolled down Jadeh Maywand, leaving in its trail a cloud of dust.

  "What is the matter with you?" Farid hissed.

  "What?"

  "Don't ever stare at them! Do you understand me? Never!"

  "I didn't mean to," I said.

  "Your friend is quite right, Agha. You might as well poke a rabid dog with a stick," someone said. This new voice belonged to an old beggar sitting barefoot on the steps of a bullet-scarred building. He wore a threadbare chapan worn to frayed shreds and a dirt-crusted turban. His left eyelid drooped over an empty socket. With an arthritic hand, he pointed to the direction the red truck had gone. "They drive around looking. Looking and hoping that someone will provoke them. Sooner or later, someone always obliges. Then the dogs feast and the day's boredom is broken at last and everyone says 'Allah-u—akbar!' And on those days when no one offends, well, there is always random violence, isn't there?"

  "Keep your eyes on your feet when the Talibs are near," Farid said.

  "Your friend dispenses good advice," the old beggar chimed in. He barked a wet cough and spat in a soiled handkerchief. "Forgive me, but could you spare a few Afghanis?" he breathed.

  "Bas. Let's go," Farid said, pulling me by the arm.

  I handed the old man a hundred thousand Afghanis, or the equivalent of about three dollars. When he leaned forward to take the money, his stench--like sour milk and feet that hadn't been washed in weeks--flooded my nostrils and made my gorge rise. He hurriedly slipped the money in his waist, his lone eye darting side to side. "A world of thanks for your benevolence, Agha sahib."

 
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