The kite runner, p.22
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       The Kite Runner, p.22
 

           Khaled Hosseini

  "Do you know where the orphanage is in Karteh-Seh?" I said.

  "It's not hard to find, it's just west of Darulaman Boulevard," he said. "The children were moved from here to Karteh-Seh after the rockets hit the old orphanage. Which is like saving someone from the lion's cage and throwing them in the tiger's."

  "Thank you, Agha," I said. I turned to go.

  "That was your first time, nay?"

  "I'm sorry?"

  "The first time you saw a Talib."

  I said nothing. The old beggar nodded and smiled. Revealed a handful of remaining teeth, all crooked and yellow. "I remember the first time I saw them rolling into Kabul. What a joyous day that was!" he said. "An end to the killing! Wah wah! But like the poet says: 'How seamless seemed love and then came trouble!'"

  A smile sprouted on my face. "I know that ghazal. That's Hafez."

  "Yes it is. Indeed," the old man replied. "I should know. I used to teach it at the university."

  "You did?"

  The old man coughed. "From 1958 to 1996. I taught Hafez, Khayyam, Rumi, Beydel, Jami, Saadi. Once, I was even a guest lecturer in Tehran, 1971 that was. I gave a lecture on the mystic Beydel. I remember how they all stood and clapped. Ha!" He shook his head. "But you saw those young men in the truck. What value do you think they see in Sufism?"

  "My mother taught at the university," I said.

  "And what was her name?"

  "Sofia Akrami."

  His eye managed to twinkle through the veil of cataracts. "'The desert weed lives on, but the flower of spring blooms and wilts.' Such grace, such dignity, such a tragedy."

  "You knew my mother?" I asked, kneeling before the old man.

  "Yes indeed," the old beggar said. "We used to sit and talk after class. The last time was on a rainy day just before final exams when we shared a marvelous slice of almond cake together. Almond cake with hot tea and honey. She was rather obviously pregnant by then, and all the more beautiful for it. I will never forget what she said to me that day."

  "What? Please tell me." Baba had always described my mother to me in broad strokes, like, "She was a great woman." But what I had always thirsted for were the details: the way her hair glinted in the sunlight, her favorite ice cream flavor, the songs she liked to hum, did she bite her nails? Baba took his memories of her to the grave with him. Maybe speaking her name would have reminded him of his guilt, of what he had done so soon after she had died. Or maybe his loss had been so great, his pain so deep, he couldn't bear to talk about her. Maybe both.

  "She said, 'I'm so afraid.' And I said, 'Why?,' and she said, 'Because I'm so profoundly happy, Dr. Rasul. Happiness like this is frightening.' I asked her why and she said, 'They only let you be this happy if they're preparing to take something from you,' and I said, 'Hush up, now. Enough of this silliness.'"

  Farid took my arm. "We should go, Amir agha," he said softly. I snatched my arm away. "What else? What else did she say?"

  The old man's features softened. "I wish I remembered for you. But I don't. Your mother passed away a long time ago and my memory is as shattered as these buildings. I am sorry."

  "But even a small thing, anything at all."

  The old man smiled. "I'll try to remember and that's a promise. Come back and find me."

  "Thank you," I said. "Thank you so much." And I meant it. Now I knew my mother had liked almond cake with honey and hot tea, that she'd once used the word "profoundly," that she'd fretted about her happiness. I had just learned more about my mother from this old man on the street than I ever did from Baba.

  Walking back to the truck, neither one of us commented about what most non-Afghans would have seen as an improbable coincidence, that a beggar on the street would happen to know my mother. Because we both knew that in Afghanistan, and particularly in Kabul, such absurdity was commonplace. Baba used to say, "Take two Afghans who've never met, put them in a room for ten minutes, and they'll figure out how they're related."

  We left the old man on the steps of that building. I meant to take him up on his offer, come back and see if he'd unearthed any more stories about my mother. But I never saw him again.

  WE FOUND THE NEW ORPHANAGE in the northern part of Karteh-Seh, along the banks of the dried-up Kabul River. It was a flat, barracks-style building with splintered walls and windows boarded with planks of wood. Farid had told me on the way there that Karteh-Seh had been one of the most war-ravaged neighborhoods in Kabul, and, as we stepped out of the truck, the evidence was overwhelming. The cratered streets were flanked by little more than ruins of shelled buildings and abandoned homes. We passed the rusted skeleton of an overturned car, a TV set with no screen half-buried in rubble, a wall with the words ZENDA BAD TALIBAN! (Long live the Taliban!) sprayed in black.

  A short, thin, balding man with a shaggy gray beard opened the door. He wore a ragged tweed jacket, a skullcap, and a pair of eyeglasses with one chipped lens resting on the tip of his nose. Behind the glasses, tiny eyes like black peas flitted from me to Farid. "Salaam alaykum," he said.

  "Salaam alaykum," I said. I showed him the Polaroid. "We're searching for this boy."

  He gave the photo a cursory glance. "I am sorry. I have never seen him."

  "You barely looked at the picture, my friend," Farid said. "Why not take a closer look?"

  "Lotfan," I added. Please.

  The man behind the door took the picture. Studied it. Handed it back to me. "Nay, sorry. I know just about every single child in this institution and that one doesn't look familiar. Now, if you'll permit me, I have work to do." He closed the door. Locked the bolt.

  I rapped on the door with my knuckles. "Agha! Agha, please open the door. We don't mean him any harm."

  "I told you. He's not here," his voice came from the other side. "Now, please go away."

  Farid stepped up to the door, rested his forehead on it. "Friend, we are not with the Taliban," he said in a low, cautious voice. "The man who is with me wants to take this boy to a safe place."

  "I come from Peshawar," I said. "A good friend of mine knows an American couple there who run a charity home for children." I felt the man's presence on the other side of the door. Sensed him standing there, listening, hesitating, caught between suspicion and hope. "Look, I knew Sohrab's father," I said. "His name was Hassan. His mother's name was Farzana. He called his grandmother Sasa. He knows how to read and write. And he's good with the slingshot. There's hope for this boy, Agha, a way out. Please open the door."

  From the other side, only silence.

  "I'm his half uncle," I said.

  A moment passed. Then a key rattled in the lock. The man's narrow face reappeared in the crack. He looked from me to Farid and back. "You were wrong about one thing."

  "What?"

  "He's great with the slingshot."

  I smiled.

  "He's inseparable from that thing. He tucks it in the waist of his pants everywhere he goes."

  THE MAN WHO LETUS IN introduced himself as Zaman, the director of the orphanage. "I'll take you to my office," he said.

  We followed him through dim, grimy hallways where barefoot children dressed in frayed sweaters ambled around. We walked past rooms with no floor covering but matted carpets and windows shuttered with sheets of plastic. Skeleton frames of steel beds, most with no mattress, filled the rooms.

  "How many orphans live here?" Farid asked.

  "More than we have room for. About two hundred and fifty," Zaman said over his shoulder. "But they're not all yateem. Many of them have lost their fathers in the war, and their mothers can't feed them because the Taliban don't allow them to work. So they bring their children here." He made a sweeping gesture with his hand and added ruefully, "This place is better than the street, but not that much better. This building was never meant to be lived in--it used to be a storage warehouse for a carpet manufacturer. So there's no water heater and they've let the well go dry." He dropped his voice. "I've asked the Taliban for money to dig a new well more times than I remember an
d they just twirl their rosaries and tell me there is no money. No money." He snickered.

  He pointed to a row of beds along the wall. "We don't have enough beds, and not enough mattresses for the beds we do have. Worse, we don't have enough blankets." He showed us a little girl skipping rope with two other kids. "You see that girl? This past winter, the children had to share blankets. Her brother died of exposure." He walked on. "The last time I checked, we have less than a month's supply of rice left in the warehouse, and, when that runs out, the children will have to eat bread and tea for breakfast and dinner." I noticed he made no mention of lunch.

  He stopped and turned to me. "There is very little shelter here, almost no food, no clothes, no clean water. What I have in ample supply here is children who've lost their childhood. But the tragedy is that these are the lucky ones. We're filled beyond capacity and every day I turn away mothers who bring their children." He took a step toward me. "You say there is hope for Sohrab? I pray you don't lie, Agha. But . . . you may well be too late."

  "What do you mean?"

  Zaman's eyes shifted. "Follow me."

  WHAT PASSED FOR THE DIRECTOR'S OFFICE was four bare, cracked walls, a mat on the floor, a table, and two folding chairs. As Zaman and I sat down, I saw a gray rat poke its head from a burrow in the wall and flit across the room. I cringed when it sniffed at my shoes, then Zaman's, and scurried through the open door.

  "What did you mean it may be too late?" I said.

  "Would you like some chai? I could make some."

  "Nay, thank you. I'd rather we talk."

  Zaman tilted back in his chair and crossed his arms on his chest. "What I have to tell you is not pleasant. Not to mention that it may be very dangerous."

  "For whom?"

  "You. Me. And, of course, for Sohrab, if it's not too late already."

  "I need to know," I said.

  He nodded. "So you say. But first I want to ask you a question: How badly do you want to find your nephew?"

  I thought of the street fights we'd get into when we were kids, all the times Hassan used to take them on for me, two against one, sometimes three against one. I'd wince and watch, tempted to step in, but always stopping short, always held back by something.

  I looked at the hallway, saw a group of kids dancing in a circle. A little girl, her left leg amputated below the knee, sat on a ratty mattress and watched, smiling and clapping along with the other children. I saw Farid watching the children too, his own mangled hand hanging at his side. I remembered Wahid's boys and . . . I realized something: I would not leave Afghanistan without finding Sohrab. "Tell me where he is," I said.

  Zaman's gaze lingered on me. Then he nodded, picked up a pencil, and twirled it between his fingers. "Keep my name out of it."

  "I promise."

  He tapped the table with the pencil. "Despite your promise, I think I'll live to regret this, but perhaps it's just as well. I'm damned anyway. But if something can be done for Sohrab . . . I'll tell you because I believe you. You have the look of a desperate man." He was quiet for a long time. "There is a Talib official," he muttered. "He visits once every month or two. He brings cash with him, not a lot, but better than nothing at all." His shifty eyes fell on me, rolled away. "Usually he'll take a girl. But not always."

  "And you allow this?" Farid said behind me. He was going around the table, closing in on Zaman.

  "What choice do I have?" Zaman shot back. He pushed himself away from the desk.

  "You're the director here," Farid said. "Your job is watch over these children."

  "There's nothing I can do to stop it."

  "You're selling children!" Farid barked.

  "Farid, sit down! Let it go!" I said. But I was too late. Because suddenly Farid was leaping over the table. Zaman's chair went flying as Farid fell on him and pinned him to the floor. The director thrashed beneath Farid and made muffled screaming sounds. His legs kicked a desk drawer free and sheets of paper spilled to the floor.

  I ran around the desk and saw why Zaman's screaming was muffled: Farid was strangling him. I grasped Farid's shoulders with both hands and pulled hard. He snatched away from me. "That's enough!" I barked. But Farid's face had flushed red, his lips pulled back in a snarl. "I'm killing him! You can't stop me! I'm killing him," he sneered.

  "Get off him!"

  "I'm killing him!" Something in his voice told me that if I didn't do something quickly I'd witness my first murder.

  "The children are watching, Farid. They're watching," I said. His shoulder muscles tightened under my grip and, for a moment, I thought he'd keep squeezing Zaman's neck anyway. Then he turned around, saw the children. They were standing silently by the door, holding hands, some of them crying. I felt Farid's muscles slacken. He dropped his hands, rose to his feet. He looked down on Zaman and dropped a mouthful of spit on his face. Then he walked to the door and closed it.

  Zaman struggled to his feet, blotted his bloody lips with his sleeve, wiped the spit off his cheek. Coughing and wheezing, he put on his skullcap, his glasses, saw both lenses had cracked, and took them off. He buried his face in his hands. None of us said anything for a long time.

  "He took Sohrab a month ago," Zaman finally croaked, hands still shielding his face.

  "You call yourself a director?" Farid said.

  Zaman dropped his hands. "I haven't been paid in over six months. I'm broke because I've spent my life's savings on this orphanage. Everything I ever owned or inherited I sold to run this godforsaken place. You think I don't have family in Pakistan and Iran? I could have run like everyone else. But I didn't. I stayed. I stayed because of them." He pointed to the door. "If I deny him one child, he takes ten. So I let him take one and leave the judging to Allah. I swallow my pride and take his goddamn filthy . . . dirty money. Then I go to the bazaar and buy food for the children."

  Farid dropped his eyes.

  "What happens to the children he takes?" I asked.

  Zaman rubbed his eyes with his forefinger and thumb. "Sometimes they come back."

  "Who is he? How do we find him?" I said.

  "Go to Ghazi Stadium tomorrow. You'll see him at halftime. He'll be the one wearing black sunglasses." He picked up his broken glasses and turned them in his hands. "I want you to go now. The children are frightened."

  He escorted us out.

  As the truck pulled away, I saw Zaman in the side-view mirror, standing in the doorway. A group of children surrounded him, clutching the hem of his loose shirt. I saw he had put on his broken glasses.

  TWENTY-ONE

  We crossed the river and drove north through the crowded Pashtunistan Square. Baba used to take me to Khyber Restaurant there for kabob. The building was still standing, but its doors were padlocked, the windows shattered, and the letters K and R missing from its name.

  I saw a dead body near the restaurant. There had been a hanging. A young man dangled from the end of a rope tied to a beam, his face puffy and blue, the clothes he'd worn on the last day of his life shredded, bloody. Hardly anyone seemed to notice him.

  We rode silently through the square and headed toward the Wazir Akbar Khan district. Everywhere I looked, a haze of dust covered the city and its sun-dried brick buildings. A few blocks north of Pashtunistan Square, Farid pointed to two men talking animatedly at a busy street corner. One of them was hobbling on one leg, his other leg amputated below the knee. He cradled an artificial leg in his arms. "You know what they're doing? Haggling over the leg."

  "He's selling his leg?"

  Farid nodded. "You can get good money for it on the black market. Feed your kids for a couple of weeks."

  TO MY SURPRISE, most of the houses in the Wazir Akbar Khan district still had roofs and standing walls. In fact, they were in pretty good shape. Trees still peeked over the walls, and the streets weren't nearly as rubble-strewn as the ones in Karteh-Seh. Faded streets signs, some twisted and bullet-pocked, still pointed the way.

  "This isn't so bad," I remarked.

  "No s
urprise. Most of the important people live here now."

  "Taliban?"

  "Them too," Farid said.

  "Who else?"

  He drove us into a wide street with fairly clean sidewalks and walled homes on either side. "The people behind the Taliban. The real brains of this government, if you can call it that: Arabs, Chechens, Pakistanis," Farid said. He pointed northwest. "Street 15, that way, is called Sarak-e-Mehmana." Street of the Guests. "That's what they call them here, guests. I think someday these guests are going to pee all over the carpet."

  "I think that's it!" I said. "Over there!" I pointed to the landmark that used to serve as a guide for me when I was a kid. If you ever get lost, Baba used to say, remember that our street is the one with the pink house at the end of it. The pink house with the steeply pitched roof had been the neighborhood's only house of that color in the old days. It still was.

  Farid turned onto the street. I saw Baba's house right away.

  WE FIND THE LITTLE TURTLE behind tangles of sweetbrier in the yard. We don't know how it got there and we're too excited to care. We paint its shell a bright red, Hassan's idea, and a good one: This way, we'll never lose it in the bushes. We pretend we're a pair of daredevil explorers who've discovered a giant prehistoric monster in some distant jungle and we've brought it back for the world to see. We set it down in the wooden wagon Ali built Hassan last winter for his birthday, pretend it's a giant steel cage. Behold the fire-breathing monstrosity! We march on the grass and pull the wagon behind us, around apple and cherry trees, which become skyscrapers soaring into clouds, heads poking out of thousands of windows to watch the spectacle passing below. We walk over the little semilunar bridge Baba has built near a cluster of fig trees; it becomes a great suspension bridge joining cities, and the little pond below, a foamy sea. Fireworks explode above the bridge's massive pylons and armed soldiers salute us on both sides as gigantic steel cables shoot to the sky. The little turtle bouncing around in the cab, we drag the wagon around the circular redbrick driveway outside the wrought-iron gates and return the salutes of the world's leaders as they stand and applaud. We are Hassan and Amir, famed adventurers and the world's greatest explorers, about to receive a medal of honor for our courageous feat . . .

 
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