The kite runner, p.29
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       The Kite Runner, p.29
 

          

  "You're going to be great," I said.

  "Oh, I almost forgot! I called Kaka Sharif."

  I remembered him reciting a poem at our nika from a scrap of hotel stationery paper. His son had held the Koran over our heads as Soraya and I had walked toward the stage, smiling at the flashing cameras. "What did he say?"

  "Well, he's going to stir the pot for us. He'll call some of his INS buddies," she said.

  "That's really great news," I said. "I can't wait for you to see Sohrab."

  "I can't wait to see you," she said.

  I hung up smiling.

  Sohrab emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later. He had barely said a dozen words since the meeting with Raymond Andrews and my attempts at conversation had only met with a nod or a monosyllabic reply. He climbed into bed, pulled the blanket to his chin. Within minutes, he was snoring.

  I wiped a circle on the fogged-up mirror and shaved with one of the hotel's old-fashioned razors, the type that opened and you slid the blade in. Then I took my own bath, lay there until the steaming hot water turned cold and my skin shriveled up. I lay there drifting, wondering, imagining . . .

  OMAR FAISAL WAS CHUBBY, dark, had dimpled cheeks, black button eyes, and an affable, gap-toothed smile. His thinning gray hair was tied back in a ponytail. He wore a brown corduroy suit with leather elbow patches and carried a worn, overstuffed briefcase. The handle was missing, so he clutched the briefcase to his chest. He was the sort of fellow who started a lot of sentences with a laugh and an unnecessary apology, like I'm sorry, I'll be there at five. Laugh. When I had called him, he had insisted on coming out to meet us. "I'm sorry, the cabbies in this town are sharks," he said in perfect English, without a trace of an accent. "They smell a foreigner, they triple their fares."

  He pushed through the door, all smiles and apologies, wheezing a little and sweating. He wiped his brow with a handkerchief and opened his briefcase, rummaged in it for a notepad and apologized for the sheets of paper that spilled on the bed. Sitting cross-legged on his bed, Sohrab kept one eye on the muted television, the other on the harried lawyer. I had told him in the morning that Faisal would be coming and he had nodded, almost asked something, and had just gone on watching a show with talking animals.

  "Here we are," Faisal said, flipping open a yellow legal notepad. "I hope my children take after their mother when it comes to organization. I'm sorry, probably not the sort of thing you want to hear from your prospective lawyer, heh?" He laughed.

  "Well, Raymond Andrews thinks highly of you."

  "Mr. Andrews. Yes, yes. Decent fellow. Actually, he rang me and told me about you."

  "He did?"

  "Oh yes."

  "So you're familiar with my situation."

  Faisal dabbed at the sweat beads above his lips. "I'm familiar with the version of the situation you gave Mr. Andrews," he said. His cheeks dimpled with a coy smile. He turned to Sohrab. "This must be the young man who's causing all the trouble," he said in Farsi.

  "This is Sohrab," I said. "Sohrab, this is Mr. Faisal, the lawyer I told you about."

  Sohrab slid down the side of his bed and shook hands with Omar Faisal. "Salaam alaykum," he said in a low voice.

  "Alaykum salaam, Sohrab," Faisal said. "Did you know you are named after a great warrior?"

  Sohrab nodded. Climbed back onto his bed and lay on his side to watch TV.

  "I didn't know you spoke Farsi so well," I said in English. "Did you grow up in Kabul?"

  "No, I was born in Karachi. But I did live in Kabul for a number of years. Shar-e-Nau, near the Haji Yaghoub Mosque," Faisal said. "I grew up in Berkeley, actually. My father opened a music store there in the late sixties. Free love, headbands, tie-dyed shirts, you name it." He leaned forward. "I was at Woodstock."

  "Groovy," I said, and Faisal laughed so hard he started sweating all over again. "Anyway," I continued, "what I told Mr. Andrews was pretty much it, save for a thing or two. Or maybe three. I'll give you the uncensored version."

  He licked a finger and flipped to a blank page, uncapped his pen. "I'd appreciate that, Amir. And why don't we just keep it in English from here on out?"

  "Fine."

  I told him everything that had happened. Told him about my meeting with Rahim Khan, the trek to Kabul, the orphanage, the stoning at Ghazi Stadium.

  "God," he whispered. "I'm sorry, I have such fond memories of Kabul. Hard to believe it's the same place you're telling me about."

  "Have you been there lately?"

  "God no."

  "It's not Berkeley, I'll tell you that," I said.

  "Go on."

  I told him the rest, the meeting with Assef, the fight, Sohrab and his slingshot, our escape back to Pakistan. When I was done, he scribbled a few notes, breathed in deeply, and gave me a sober look. "Well, Amir, you've got a tough battle ahead of you."

  "One I can win?"

  He capped his pen. "At the risk of sounding like Raymond Andrews, it's not likely. Not impossible, but hardly likely." Gone was the affable smile, the playful look in his eyes.

  "But it's kids like Sohrab who need a home the most," I said. "These rules and regulations don't make any sense to me."

  "You're preaching to the choir, Amir," he said. "But the fact is, take current immigration laws, adoption agency policies, and the political situation in Afghanistan, and the deck is stacked against you."

  "I don't get it," I said. I wanted to hit something. "I mean, I get it but I don't get it."

  Omar nodded, his brow furrowed. "Well, it's like this. In the aftermath of a disaster, whether it be natural or man-made--and the Taliban are a disaster, Amir, believe me--it's always difficult to ascertain that a child is an orphan. Kids get displaced in refugee camps, or parents just abandon them because they can't take care of them. Happens all the time. So the INS won't grant a visa unless it's clear the child meets the definition of an eligible orphan. I'm sorry, I know it sounds ridiculous, but you need death certificates."

  "You've been to Afghanistan," I said. "You know how improbable that is."

  "I know," he said. "But let's suppose it's clear that the child has no surviving parent. Even then, the INS thinks it's good adoption practice to place the child with someone in his own country so his heritage can be preserved."

  "What heritage?" I said. "The Taliban have destroyed what heritage Afghans had. You saw what they did to the giant Buddhas in Bamiyan."

  "I'm sorry, I'm telling you how the INS works, Amir," Omar said, touching my arm. He glanced at Sohrab and smiled. Turned back to me. "Now, a child has to be legally adopted according to the laws and regulations of his own country. But when you have a country in turmoil, say a country like Afghanistan, government offices are busy with emergencies, and processing adoptions won't be a top priority."

  I sighed and rubbed my eyes. A pounding headache was settling in just behind them.

  "But let's suppose that somehow Afghanistan gets its act together," Omar said, crossing his arms on his protruding belly. "It still may not permit this adoption. In fact, even the more moderate Muslim nations are hesitant with adoptions because in many of those countries, Islamic law, Shari'a, doesn't recognize adoption."

  "You're telling me to give it up?" I asked, pressing my palm to my forehead.

  "I grew up in the U.S., Amir. If America taught me anything, it's that quitting is right up there with pissing in the Girl Scouts' lemonade jar. But, as your lawyer, I have to give you the facts," he said. "Finally, adoption agencies routinely send staff members to evaluate the child's milieu, and no reasonable agency is going to send an agent to Afghanistan."

  I looked at Sohrab sitting on the bed, watching TV, watching us. He was sitting the way his father used to, chin resting on one knee.

  "I'm his half uncle, does that count for anything?"

  "It does if you can prove it. I'm sorry, do you have any papers or anyone who can support you?"

  "No papers," I said, in a tired voice. "No one knew about it. Sohrab didn't know unti
l I told him, and I myself didn't find out until recently. The only other person who knows is gone, maybe dead." "Hmm."

  "What are my options, Omar?"

  "I'll be frank. You don't have a lot of them."

  "Well, Jesus, what can I do?"

  Omar breathed in, tapped his chin with the pen, let his breath out. "You could still file an orphan petition, hope for the best. You could do an independent adoption. That means you'd have to live with Sohrab here in Pakistan, day in and day out, for the next two years. You could seek asylum on his behalf. That's a lengthy process and you'd have to prove political persecution. You could request a humanitarian visa. That's at the discretion of the attorney general and it's not easily given." He paused. "There is another option, probably your best shot."

  "What?" I said, leaning forward.

  "You could relinquish him to an orphanage here, then file an orphan petition. Start your I-600 form and your home study while he's in a safe place."

  "What are those?"

  "I'm sorry, the I-600 is an INS formality. The home study is done by the adoption agency you choose," Omar said. "It's, you know, to make sure you and your wife aren't raving lunatics."

  "I don't want to do that," I said, looking again at Sohrab. "I promised him I wouldn't send him back to an orphanage."

  "Like I said, it may be your best shot."

  We talked a while longer. Then I walked him out to his car, an old VW Bug. The sun was setting on Islamabad by then, a flaming red nimbus in the west. I watched the car tilt under Omar's weight as he somehow managed to slide in behind the wheel. He rolled down the window. "Amir?"

  "Yes."

  "I meant to tell you in there, about what you're trying to do? I think it's pretty great."

  He waved as he pulled away. Standing outside the hotel room and waving back, I wished Soraya could be there with me.

  SOHRAB HAD TURNED OFF THE TV when I went back into the room. I sat on the edge of my bed, asked him to sit next to me. "Mr. Faisal thinks there is a way I can take you to America with me," I said.

  "He does?" Sohrab said, smiling faintly for the first time in days. "When can we go?"

  "Well, that's the thing. It might take a little while. But he said it can be done and he's going to help us." I put my hand on the back of his neck. From outside, the call to prayer blared through the streets.

  "How long?" Sohrab asked.

  "I don't know. A while."

  Sohrab shrugged and smiled, wider this time. "I don't mind. I can wait. It's like the sour apples."

  "Sour apples?"

  "One time, when I was really little, I climbed a tree and ate these green, sour apples. My stomach swelled and became hard like a drum, it hurt a lot. Mother said that if I'd just waited for the apples to ripen, I wouldn't have become sick. So now, whenever I really want something, I try to remember what she said about the apples."

  "Sour apples," I said. "Mashallah, you're just about the smartest little guy I've ever met, Sohrab jan." His ears reddened with a blush.

  "Will you take me to that red bridge? The one with the fog?" he said.

  "Absolutely," I said. "Absolutely."

  "And we'll drive up those streets, the ones where all you see is the hood of the car and the sky?"

  "Every single one of them," I said. My eyes stung with tears and I blinked them away.

  "Is English hard to learn?"

  "I say, within a year, you'll speak it as well as Farsi."

  "Really?"

  "Yes." I placed a finger under his chin, turned his face up to mine. "There is one other thing, Sohrab."

  "What?"

  "Well, Mr. Faisal thinks that it would really help if we could . . . if we could ask you to stay in a home for kids for a while."

  "Home for kids?" he said, his smile fading. "You mean an orphanage?"

  "It would only be for a little while."

  "No," he said. "No, please."

  "Sohrab, it would be for just a little while. I promise."

  "You promised you'd never put me in one of those places, Amir agha," he said. His voice was breaking, tears pooling in his eyes. I felt like a prick.

  "This is different. It would be here, in Islamabad, not in Kabul. And I'd visit you all the time until we can get you out and take you to America."

  "Please! Please, no!" he croaked. "I'm scared of that place. They'll hurt me! I don't want to go."

  "No one is going to hurt you. Not ever again."

  "Yes they will! They always say they won't but they lie. They lie! Please, God!"

  I wiped the tear streaking down his cheek with my thumb. "Sour apples, remember? It's just like the sour apples," I said softly.

  "No it's not. Not that place. God, oh God. Please, no!" He was trembling, snot and tears mixing on his face.

  "Shhh." I pulled him close, wrapped my arms around his shaking little body. "Shhh. It'll be all right. We'll go home together. You'll see, it'll be all right."

  His voice was muffled against my chest, but I heard the panic in it. "Please promise you won't! Oh God, Amir agha! Please promise you won't!"

  How could I promise? I held him against me, held him tightly, and rocked back and forth. He wept into my shirt until his tears dried, until his shaking stopped and his frantic pleas dwindled to indecipherable mumbles. I waited, rocked him until his breathing slowed and his body slackened. I remembered something I had read somewhere a long time ago: That's how children deal with terror. They fall asleep.

  I carried him to his bed, set him down. Then I lay in my own bed, looking out the window at the purple sky over Islamabad.

  THE SKY WAS A DEEP BLACK when the phone jolted me from sleep. I rubbed my eyes and turned on the bedside lamp. It was a little past 10:30 P.M.; I'd been sleeping for almost three hours. I picked up the phone. "Hello?"

  "Call from America." Mr. Fayyaz's bored voice.

  "Thank you," I said. The bathroom light was on; Sohrab was taking his nightly bath. A couple of clicks and then Soraya: "Salaam!" She sounded excited.

  "Hi."

  "How did the meeting go with the lawyer?"

  I told her what Omar Faisal had suggested. "Well, you can forget about it," she said. "We won't have to do that."

  I sat up. "Rawsti? Why, what's up?"

  "I heard back from Kaka Sharif. He said the key was getting Sohrab into the country. Once he's in, there are ways of keeping him here. So he made a few calls to his INS friends. He called me back tonight and said he was almost certain he could get Sohrab a humanitarian visa."

  "No kidding?" I said. "Oh thank God! Good ol' Sharif jan!"

  "I know. Anyway, we'll serve as the sponsors. It should all happen pretty quickly. He said the visa would be good for a year, plenty of time to apply for an adoption petition."

  "It's really going to happen, Soraya, huh?"

  "It looks like it," she said. She sounded happy. I told her I loved her and she said she loved me back. I hung up.

  "Sohrab!" I called, rising from my bed. "I have great news." I knocked on the bathroom door. "Sohrab! Soraya jan just called from California. We won't have to put you in the orphanage, Sohrab. We're going to America, you and I. Did you hear me? We're going to America!"

  I pushed the door open. Stepped into the bathroom.

  Suddenly I was on my knees, screaming. Screaming through my clenched teeth. Screaming until I thought my throat would rip and my chest explode.

  Later, they said I was still screaming when the ambulance arrived.

  TWENTY-FIVE

  They won't let me in.

  I see them wheel him through a set of double doors and I follow. I burst through the doors, the smell of iodine and peroxide hits me, but all I have time to see is two men wearing surgical caps and a woman in green huddling over a gurney. A white sheet spills over the side of the gurney and brushes against grimy checkered tiles. A pair of small, bloody feet poke out from under the sheet and I see that the big toenail on the left foot is chipped. Then a tall, thickset man in blue presses his pa
lm against my chest and he's pushing me back out through the doors, his wedding band cold on my skin. I shove forward and I curse him, but he says you cannot be here, he says it in English, his voice polite but firm. "You must wait," he says, leading me back to the waiting area, and now the double doors swing shut behind him with a sigh and all I see is the top of the men's surgical caps through the doors' narrow rectangular windows.

  He leaves me in a wide, windowless corridor crammed with people sitting on metallic folding chairs set along the walls, others on the thin frayed carpet. I want to scream again, and I remember the last time I felt this way, riding with Baba in the tank of the fuel truck, buried in the dark with the other refugees. I want to tear myself from this place, from this reality, rise up like a cloud and float away, melt into this humid summer night and dissolve somewhere far, over the hills. But I am here, my legs blocks of concrete, my lungs empty of air, my throat burning. There will be no floating away. There will be no other reality tonight. I close my eyes and my nostrils fill with the smells of the corridor, sweat and ammonia, rubbing alcohol and curry. On the ceiling, moths fling themselves at the dull gray light tubes running the length of the corridor and I hear the papery flapping of their wings. I hear chatter, muted sobbing, sniffling, someone moaning, someone else sighing, elevator doors opening with a bing, the operator paging someone in Urdu.

  I open my eyes again and I know what I have to do. I look around, my heart a jackhammer in my chest, blood thudding in my ears. There is a dark little supply room to my left. In it, I find what I need. It will do. I grab a white bedsheet from the pile of folded linens and carry it back to the corridor. I see a nurse talking to a policeman near the restroom. I take the nurse's elbow and pull, I want to know which way is west. She doesn't understand and the lines on her face deepen when she frowns. My throat aches and my eyes sting with sweat, each breath is like inhaling fire, and I think I am weeping. I ask again. I beg. The policeman is the one who points.

  I throw my makeshift jai-namaz, my prayer rug, on the floor and I get on my knees, lower my forehead to the ground, my tears soaking through the sheet. I bow to the west. Then I remember I haven't prayed for over fifteen years. I have long forgotten the words. But it doesn't matter, I will utter those few words I still remember: La illaha il Allah, Muhammad u rasul ullah. There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger. I see now that Baba was wrong, there is a God, there always had been. I see Him here, in the eyes of the people in this corridor of desperation. This is the real house of God, this is where those who have lost God will find Him, not the white masjid with its bright diamond lights and towering minarets. There is a God, there has to be, and now I will pray, I will pray that He forgive that I have neglected Him all of these years, forgive that I have betrayed, lied, and sinned with impunity only to turn to Him now in my hour of need, I pray that He is as merciful, benevolent, and gracious as His book says He is. I bow to the west and kiss the ground and promise that I will do zakat, I will do namaz, I will fast during Ramadan and when Ramadan has passed I will go on fasting, I will commit to memory every last word of His holy book, and I will set on a pilgrimage to that sweltering city in the desert and bow before the Ka'bah too. I will do all of this and I will think of Him every day from this day on if He only grants me this one wish: My hands are stained with Hassan's blood; I pray God doesn't let them get stained with the blood of his boy too.

 
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