Riverhead Books – New York The author makes liberal use of _italics_ and I have missed noting many of them, but the rest of this text file should demonstrate good proofing. Copyright © 2003 by Khaled Hosseini Riverhead trade paperback ISBN: 1-59488-000-1 This book is dedicated to Haris and Farah, both the _noor_ of my eyes, and to the children of Afghanistan. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I am indebted to the following colleagues for their advice, assistance, or support: Dr. Alfred Lerner, Don Vakis, Robin Heck, Dr. Todd Dray, Dr. Robert Tull, and Dr.
Sandy Chun. Thanks also to Lynette Parker of East San Jose Community Law Center for her advice about adoption procedures, and to Mr. Daoud Wahab for sharing his experiences in Afghanistan with me. I am grateful to my dear friend Tamim Ansary for his guidance and support and to the gang at the San Francisco Writers Workshop for their feed back and encouragement. I want to thank my father, my oldest friend and the inspiration for all that is noble in Baba; my mother who prayed for me and did nazr at every stage of this book’s writing; my aunt for buying me books when I was young.
Thanks go out to Ali, Sandy, Daoud, Walid, Raya, Shalla, Zahra, Rob, and Kader for reading my stories. I want to thank Dr. and Mrs. Kayoumy–my other parents–for their warmth and unwavering support. I must thank my agent and friend, Elaine Koster, for her wisdom, patience, and gracious ways, as well as Cindy Spiegel, my keen-eyed and judicious editor who helped me unlock so many doors in this tale. And I would like to thank Susan Petersen Kennedy for taking a chance on this book and the hardworking staff at Riverhead for laboring over it.
Last, I don’t know how to thank my lovely wife, Roya–to whose opinion I am addicted–for her kindness and grace, and for reading, re-reading, and helping me edit every single draft of this novel. For your patience and understanding, I will always love you, Roya jan. ONE _December 2001_ I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it.
Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years. One day last summer, my friend Rahim Khan called from Pakistan. He asked me to come see him. Standing in the kitchen with the receiver to my ear, I knew it wasn’t just Rahim Khan on the line. It was my past of unatoned sins. After I hung up, I went for a walk along Spreckels Lake on the northern edge of Golden Gate Park. The early-afternoon sun sparkled on the water where dozens of miniature boats sailed, propelled by a crisp breeze.
Then I glanced up and saw a pair of kites, red with long blue tails, soaring in the sky. They danced high above the trees on the west end of the park, over the windmills, floating side by side like a pair of eyes looking down on San Francisco, the city I now call home. And suddenly Hassan’s voice whispered in my head: _For you, a thousand times over_. Hassan the harelipped kite runner. I sat on a park bench near a willow tree. I thought about something Rahim Khan said just before he hung up, almost as an after thought. _There is a way to be good again_.
I looked up at those twin kites. I thought about Hassan. Thought about Baba. Ali. Kabul. I thought of the life I had lived until the winter of 1975 came and changed everything. And made me what I am today. TWO When we were children, Hassan and I used to climb the poplar trees in the driveway of my father’s house and annoy our neighbors by reflecting sunlight into their homes with a shard of mirror. We would sit across from each other on a pair of high branches, our naked feet dangling, our trouser pockets filled with dried mulberries and walnuts.
We took turns with the mirror as we ate mulberries, pelted each other with them, giggling, laughing; I can still see Hassan up on that tree, sunlight flickering through the leaves on his almost perfectly round face, a face like a Chinese doll chiseled from hardwood: his flat, broad nose and slanting, narrow eyes like bamboo leaves, eyes that looked, depending on the light, gold, green, even sapphire I can still see his tiny low-set ears and that pointed stub of a chin, a meaty appendage that looked like it was added as a mere afterthought.
And the cleft lip, just left of midline, where the Chinese doll maker’s instrument may have slipped; or perhaps he had simply grown tired and careless. Sometimes, up in those trees, I talked Hassan into firing walnuts with his slingshot at the neighbor’s one-eyed German shepherd. Hassan never wanted to, but if I asked, _really_ asked, he wouldn’t deny me. Hassan never denied me anything. And he was deadly with his slingshot. Hassan’s father, Ali, used to catch us and get mad, or as mad as someone as gentle as Ali could ever get. He would wag his finger and wave us down from the tree.
He would take the mirror and tell us what his mother had told him, that the devil shone mirrors too, shone them to distract Muslims during prayer. “And he laughs while he does it,” he always added, scowling at his son. “Yes, Father,” Hassan would mumble, looking down at his feet. But he never told on me. Never told that the mirror, like shooting walnuts at the neighbor’s dog, was always my idea. The poplar trees lined the redbrick driveway, which led to a pair of wrought-iron gates. They in turn opened into an extension of the driveway into my father’s estate.
The house sat on the left side of the brick path, the backyard at the end of it. Everyone agreed that my father, my Baba, had built the most beautiful house in the Wazir Akbar Khan district, a new and affluent neighborhood in the northern part of Kabul. Some thought it was the prettiest house in all of Kabul. A broad entryway flanked by rosebushes led to the sprawling house of marble floors and wide windows. Intricate mosaic tiles, handpicked by Baba in Isfahan, covered the floors of the four bathrooms. Gold-stitched tapestries, which Baba had bought in Calcutta, lined the walls; a crystal chandelier hung from the vaulted ceiling.
Upstairs was my bedroom, Baba’s room, and his study, also known as “the smoking room,” which perpetually smelled of tobacco and cinnamon. Baba and his friends reclined on black leather chairs there after Ali had served dinner. They stuffed their pipes–except Baba always called it “fattening the pipe”–and discussed their favorite three topics: politics, business, soccer. Sometimes I asked Baba if I could sit with them, but Baba would stand in the doorway. “Go on, now,” he’d say. “This is grown-ups’ time. Why don’t you go read one of those books of yours? He’d close the door, leave me to wonder why it was always grown-ups’ time with him. I’d sit by the door, knees drawn to my chest. Sometimes I sat there for an hour, sometimes two, listening to their laughter, their chatter. The living room downstairs had a curved wall with custombuilt cabinets.
Inside sat framed family pictures: an old, grainy photo of my grandfather and King Nadir Shah taken in 1931, two years before the king’s assassination; they are standing over a dead deer, dressed in knee-high boots, rifles slung over their shoulders. There was a picture of my parents’ edding night, Baba dashing in his black suit and my mother a smiling young princess in white. Here was Baba and his best friend and business partner, Rahim Khan, standing outside our house, neither one smiling–I am a baby in that photograph and Baba is holding me, looking tired and grim. I’m in his arms, but it’s Rahim Khan’s pinky my fingers are curled around. The curved wall led into the dining room, at the center of which was a mahogany table that could easily sit thirty guests– and, given my father’s taste for extravagant parties, it did just that almost every week.
On the other end of the dining room was a tall marble fireplace, always lit by the orange glow of a fire in the wintertime. A large sliding glass door opened into a semicircular terrace that overlooked two acres of backyard and rows of cherry trees. Baba and Ali had planted a small vegetable garden along the eastern wall: tomatoes, mint, peppers, and a row of corn that never really took. Hassan and I used to call it “the Wall of Ailing Corn. ” On the south end of the garden, in the shadows of a loquat tree, was the servants’ home, a modest little mud hut where Hassan lived with his father.
It was there, in that little shack, that Hassan was born in the winter of 1964, just one year after my mother died giving birth to me. In the eighteen years that I lived in that house, I stepped into Hassan and Ali’s quarters only a handful of times. When the sun dropped low behind the hills and we were done playing for the day, Hassan and I parted ways. I went past the rosebushes to Baba’s mansion, Hassan to the mud shack where he had been born, where he’d lived his entire life. I remember it was spare, clean, dimly lit by a pair of kerosene lamps.
There were two mattresses on opposite sides of the room, a worn Herati rug with frayed edges in between, a three-legged stool, and a wooden table in the corner where Hassan did his drawings. The walls stood bare, save for a single tapestry with sewn-in beads forming the words _Allah-u-akbar_. Baba had bought it for Ali on one of his trips to Mashad. It was in that small shack that Hassan’s mother, Sanaubar, gave birth to him one cold winter day in 1964. While my mother hemorrhaged to death during childbirth, Hassan lost his less than a week after he was born.
Lost her to a fate most Afghans considered far worse than death: She ran off with a clan of traveling singers and dancers. Hassan never talked about his mother, as if she’d never existed. I always wondered if he dreamed about her, about what she looked like, where she was. I wondered if he longed to meet her. Did he ache for her, the way I ached for the mother I had never met? One day, we were walking from my father’s house to Cinema Zainab for a new Iranian movie, taking the shortcut through the military barracks near Istiqlal Middle School–Baba had forbidden us to take that shortcut, but he was in
Pakistan with Rahim Khan at the time. We hopped the fence that surrounded the barracks, skipped over a little creek, and broke into the open dirt field where old, abandoned tanks collected dust. A group of soldiers huddled in the shade of one of those tanks, smoking cigarettes and playing cards. One of them saw us, elbowed the guy next to him, and called Hassan. “Hey, you! ” he said. “I know you. ” We had never seen him before. He was a squatly man with a shaved head and black stubble on his face. The way he grinned at us, leered, scared me. “Just keep walking,” I muttered to Hassan. “You!
The Hazara! Look at me when I’m talking to you! ” the soldier barked. He handed his cigarette to the guy next to him, made a circle with the thumb and index finger of one hand. Poked the middle finger of his other hand through the circle. Poked it in and out. In and out. “I knew your mother, did you know that? I knew her real good. I took her from behind by that creek over there. ” The soldiers laughed. One of them made a squealing sound. I told Hassan to keep walking, keep walking. “What a tight little sugary cunt she had! ” the soldier was saying, shaking hands with the others, grinning.
Later, in the dark, after the movie had started, I heard Hassan next to me, croaking. Tears were sliding down his cheeks. I reached across my seat, slung my arm around him, pulled him close. He rested his head on my shoulder. “He took you for someone else,” I whispered. “He took you for someone else. ” I’m told no one was really surprised when Sanaubar eloped. People _had_ raised their eyebrows when Ali, a man who had memorized the Koran, married Sanaubar, a woman nineteen years younger, a beautiful but notoriously unscrupulous woman who lived up to her dishonorable reputation.
Like Ali, she was a Shi’a Muslim and an ethnic Hazara. She was also his first cousin and therefore a natural choice for a spouse. But beyond those similarities, Ali and Sanaubar had little in common, least of all their respective appearances. While Sanaubar’s brilliant green eyes and impish face had, rumor has it, tempted countless men into sin, Ali had a congenital paralysis of his lower facial muscles, a condition that rendered him unable to smile and left him perpetually grimfaced. It was an odd thing to see the stone-faced Ali happy, or sad, because only his slanted brown eyes glinted with a smile or welled with sorrow.
People say that eyes are windows to the soul. Never was that more true than with Ali, who could only reveal himself through his eyes. I have heard that Sanaubar’s suggestive stride and oscillating hips sent men to reveries of infidelity. But polio had left Ali with a twisted, atrophied right leg that was sallow skin over bone with little in between except a paper-thin layer of muscle. I remember one day, when I was eight, Ali was taking me to the bazaar to buy some _naan_. I was walking behind him, humming, trying to imitate his walk.
I watched him swing his scraggy leg in a sweeping arc, watched his whole body tilt impossibly to the right every time he planted that foot. It seemed a minor miracle he didn’t tip over with each step. When I tried it, I almost fell into the gutter. That got me giggling. Ali turned around, caught me aping him. He didn’t say anything. Not then, not ever. He just kept walking. Ali’s face and his walk frightened some of the younger children in the neighborhood. But the real trouble was with the older kids. They chased him on the street, and mocked him when he hobbled by.
Some had taken to calling him _Babalu_, or Boogeyman. “Hey, Babalu, who did you eat today? ” they barked to a chorus of laughter. “Who did you eat, you flat-nosed Babalu? ” They called him “flat-nosed” because of Ali and Hassan’s characteristic Hazara Mongoloid features. For years, that was all I knew about the Hazaras, that they were Mogul descendants, and that they looked a little like Chinese people. School text books barely mentioned them and referred to their ancestry only in passing. Then one day, I was in Baba’s study, looking through his stuff, when I found one of my mother’s old history books.
It was written by an Iranian named Khorami. I blew the dust off it, sneaked it into bed with me that night, and was stunned to find an entire chapter on Hazara history. An entire chapter dedicated to Hassan’s people! In it, I read that my people, the Pashtuns, had persecuted and oppressed the Hazaras. It said the Hazaras had tried to rise against the Pashtuns in the nineteenth century, but the Pashtuns had “quelled them with unspeakable violence. ” The book said that my people had killed the Hazaras, driven them from their lands, burned their homes, and sold their women.
The book said part of the reason Pashtuns had oppressed the Hazaras was that Pashtuns were Sunni Muslims, while Hazaras were Shi’a. The book said a lot of things I didn’t know, things my teachers hadn’t mentioned. Things Baba hadn’t mentioned either. It also said some things I did know, like that people called Hazaras _mice-eating, flat-nosed, load-carrying donkeys_. I had heard some of the kids in the neighborhood yell those names to Hassan. The following week, after class, I showed the book to my teacher and pointed to the chapter on the Hazaras. He skimmed through a couple of pages, snickered, handed the book back. That’s the one thing Shi’a people do well,” he said, picking up his papers, “passing themselves as martyrs. ” He wrinkled his nose when he said the word Shi’a, like it was some kind of disease. But despite sharing ethnic heritage and family blood, Sanaubar joined the neighborhood kids in taunting Ali. I have heard that she made no secret of her disdain for his appearance. “This is a husband? ” she would sneer. “I have seen old donkeys better suited to be a husband. ” In the end, most people suspected the marriage had been an arrangement of sorts between Ali and his uncle, Sanaubar’s father.
They said Ali had married his cousin to help restore some honor to his uncle’s blemished name, even though Ali, who had been orphaned at the age of five, had no worldly possessions or inheritance to speak of. Ali never retaliated against any of his tormentors, I suppose partly because he could never catch them with that twisted leg dragging behind him. But mostly because Ali was immune to the insults of his assailants; he had found his joy, his antidote, the moment Sanaubar had given birth to Hassan. It had been a simple enough affair. No obstetricians, no anesthesiologists, no fancy monitoring devices.
Just Sanaubar lying on a stained, naked mattress with Ali and a midwife helping her. She hadn’t needed much help at all, because, even in birth, Hassan was true to his nature: He was incapable of hurting anyone. A few grunts, a couple of pushes, and out came Hassan. Out he came smiling. As confided to a neighbor’s servant by the garrulous midwife, who had then in turn told anyone who would listen, Sanaubar had taken one glance at the baby in Ali’s arms, seen the cleft lip, and barked a bitter laughter. “There,” she had said. “Now you have your own idiot child to do all your smiling for you! She had refused to even hold Hassan, and just five days later, she was gone. Baba hired the same nursing woman who had fed me to nurse Hassan. Ali told us she was a blue-eyed Hazara woman from Bamiyan, the city of the giant Buddha statues. “What a sweet singing voice she had,” he used to say to us. What did she sing, Hassan and I always asked, though we already knew–Ali had told us countless times. We just wanted to hear Ali sing. He’d clear his throat and begin: _On a high mountain I stood, And cried the name of Ali, Lion of God. O Ali, Lion of God, King of Men, Bring joy to our sorrowful hearts. Then he would remind us that there was a brotherhood between people who had fed from the same breast, a kinship that not even time could break. Hassan and I fed from the same breasts. We took our first steps on the same lawn in the same yard. And, under the same roof, we spoke our first words. Mine was _Baba_. His was _Amir_. My name. Looking back on it now, I think the foundation for what happened in the winter of 1975–and all that followed–was already laid in those first words. THREE Lore has it my father once wrestled a black bear in Baluchistan with his bare hands.
If the story had been about anyone else, it would have been dismissed as _laaf_, that Afghan tendency to exaggerate–sadly, almost a national affliction; if someone bragged that his son was a doctor, chances were the kid had once passed a biology test in high school. But no one ever doubted the veracity of any story about Baba. And if they did, well, Baba did have those three parallel scars coursing a jagged path down his back. I have imagined Baba’s wrestling match countless times, even dreamed about it. And in those dreams, I can never tell Baba from the bear.
It was Rahim Khan who first referred to him as what eventually became Baba’s famous nickname, _Toophan agha_, or “Mr. Hurricane. ” It was an apt enough nickname. My father was a force of nature, a towering Pashtun specimen with a thick beard, a wayward crop of curly brown hair as unruly as the man himself, hands that looked capable of uprooting a willow tree, and a black glare that would “drop the devil to his knees begging for mercy,” as Rahim Khan used to say. At parties, when all six-foot-five of him thundered into the room, attention shifted to him like sunflowers turning to the sun.
Baba was impossible to ignore, even in his sleep. I used to bury cotton wisps in my ears, pull the blanket over my head, and still the sounds of Baba’s snoring–so much like a growling truck engine–penetrated the walls. And my room was across the hall from Baba’s bedroom. How my mother ever managed to sleep in the same room as him is a mystery to me. It’s on the long list of things I would have asked my mother if I had ever met her. In the late 1960s, when I was five or six, Baba decided to build an orphanage. I heard the story through Rahim Khan.
He told me Baba had drawn the blueprints himself despite the fact that he’d had no architectural experience at all. Skeptics had urged him to stop his foolishness and hire an architect. Of course, Baba refused, and everyone shook their heads in dismay at his obstinate ways. Then Baba succeeded and everyone shook their heads in awe at his triumphant ways. Baba paid for the construction of the two-story orphanage, just off the main strip of Jadeh Maywand south of the Kabul River, with his own money. Rahim Khan told me Baba had personally funded the entire project, paying for the engineers, electricians, plumbers, and laborers, not to ention the city officials whose “mustaches needed oiling. ” It took three years to build the orphanage. I was eight by then. I remember the day before the orphanage opened, Baba took me to Ghargha Lake, a few miles north of Kabul. He asked me to fetch Hassan too, but I lied and told him Hassan had the runs. I wanted Baba all to myself. And besides, one time at Ghargha Lake, Hassan and I were skimming stones and Hassan made his stone skip eight times. The most I managed was five. Baba was there, watching, and he patted Hassan on the back. Even put his arm around his shoulder.
We sat at a picnic table on the banks of the lake, just Baba and me, eating boiled eggs with _kofta_ sandwiches–meatballs and pickles wrapped in _naan_. The water was a deep blue and sunlight glittered on its looking glass-clear surface. On Fridays, the lake was bustling with families out for a day in the sun. But it was midweek and there was only Baba and me, us and a couple of longhaired, bearded tourists–“hippies,” I’d heard them called. They were sitting on the dock, feet dangling in the water, fishing poles in hand. I asked Baba why they grew their hair long, but Baba grunted, didn’t answer.
He was preparing his speech for the next day, flipping through a havoc of handwritten pages, making notes here and there with a pencil. I bit into my egg and asked Baba if it was true what a boy in school had told me, that if you ate a piece of eggshell, you’d have to pee it out. Baba grunted again. I took a bite of my sandwich. One of the yellow-haired tourists laughed and slapped the other one on the back. In the distance, across the lake, a truck lumbered around a corner on the hill. Sunlight twinkled in its side-view mirror. “I think I have _saratan_,” I said. Cancer.
Baba lifted his head from the pages flapping in the breeze. Told me I could get the soda myself, all I had to do was look in the trunk of the car. Outside the orphanage, the next day, they ran out of chairs. A lot of people had to stand to watch the opening ceremony. It was a windy day, and I sat behind Baba on the little podium just outside the main entrance of the new building. Baba was wearing a green suit and a caracul hat. Midway through the speech, the wind knocked his hat off and everyone laughed. He motioned to me to hold his hat for him and I was glad to, because then everyone would see that he was my father, my Baba.
He turned back to the microphone and said he hoped the building was sturdier than his hat, and everyone laughed again. When Baba ended his speech, people stood up and cheered. They clapped for a long time. Afterward, people shook his hand. Some of them tousled my hair and shook my hand too. I was so proud of Baba, of us. But despite Baba’s successes, people were always doubting him. They told Baba that running a business wasn’t in his blood and he should study law like his father. So Baba proved them all wrong by not only running his own business but becoming one of the richest merchants in Kabul.
Baba and Rahim Khan built a wildly successful carpet-exporting business, two pharmacies, and a restaurant. When people scoffed that Baba would never marry well–after all, he was not of royal blood–he wedded my mother, Sofia Akrami, a highly educated woman universally regarded as one of Kabul’s most respected, beautiful, and virtuous ladies. And not only did she teach classic Farsi literature at the university she was a descendant of the royal family, a fact that my father playfully rubbed in the skeptics’ faces by referring to her as “my princess. ” With me as the glaring exception, my father molded the world around him to his liking.
The problem, of course, was that Baba saw the world in black and white. And he got to decide what was black and what was white. You can’t love a person who lives that way without fearing him too. Maybe even hating him a little. When I was in fifth grade, we had a mullah who taught us about Islam. His name was Mullah Fatiullah Khan, a short, stubby man with a face full of acne scars and a gruff voice. He lectured us about the virtues of _zakat_ and the duty of _hadj_; he taught us the intricacies of performing the five daily _namaz_ prayers, and made us memorize verses from the Koran–and though he ever translated the words for us, he did stress, sometimes with the help of a stripped willow branch, that we had to pronounce the Arabic words correctly so God would hear us better. He told us one day that Islam considered drinking a terrible sin; those who drank would answer for their sin on the day of _Qiyamat_, Judgment Day. In those days, drinking was fairly common in Kabul. No one gave you a public lashing for it, but those Afghans who did drink did so in private, out of respect. People bought their scotch as “medicine” in brown paper bags from selected “pharmacies. They would leave with the bag tucked out of sight, sometimes drawing furtive, disapproving glances from those who knew about the store’s reputation for such transactions. We were upstairs in Baba’s study, the smoking room, when I told him what Mullah Fatiullah Khan had taught us in class. Baba was pouring himself a whiskey from the bar he had built in the corner of the room. He listened, nodded, took a sip from his drink. Then he lowered himself into the leather sofa, put down his drink, and propped me up on his lap. I felt as if I were sitting on a pair of tree trunks.
He took a deep breath and exhaled through his nose, the air hissing through his mustache for what seemed an eternity I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to hug him or leap from his lap in mortal fear. “I see you’ve confused what you’re learning in school with actual education,” he said in his thick voice. “But if what he said is true then does it make you a sinner, Baba? ” “Hmm. ” Baba crushed an ice cube between his teeth. “Do you want to know what your father thinks about sin? ” “Yes. ” “Then I’ll tell you,” Baba said, “but first understand this and understand it now, Amir: You’ll never learn anything of value from those bearded idiots. “You mean Mullah Fatiullah Khan? ” Baba gestured with his glass. The ice clinked. “I mean all of them. Piss on the beards of all those self-righteous monkeys. ” I began to giggle. The image of Baba pissing on the beard of any monkey, self-righteous or otherwise, was too much. “They do nothing but thumb their prayer beads and recite a book written in a tongue they don’t even understand. ” He took a sip. “God help us all if Afghanistan ever falls into their hands. ” “But Mullah Fatiullah Khan seems nice,” I managed between bursts of tittering. “So did Genghis Khan,” Baba said. “But enough about that.
You asked about sin and I want to tell you. Are you listening? ” “Yes,” I said, pressing my lips together. But a chortle escaped through my nose and made a snorting sound. That got me giggling again. Baba’s stony eyes bore into mine and, just like that, I wasn’t laughing anymore. “I mean to speak to you man to man. Do you think you can handle that for once? ” “Yes, Baba jan,” I muttered, marveling, not for the first time, at how badly Baba could sting me with so few words. We’d had a fleeting good moment–it wasn’t often Baba talked to me, let alone on his lap–and I’d been a fool to waste it. “Good,” Baba said, but his eyes wondered. Now, no matter what the mullah teaches, there is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft. Do you understand that? ” “No, Baba jan,” I said, desperately wishing I did. I didn’t want to disappoint him again. Baba heaved a sigh of impatience. That stung too, because he was not an impatient man. I remembered all the times he didn’t come home until after dark, all the times I ate dinner alone. I’d ask Ali where Baba was, when he was coming home, though I knew full well he was at the construction site, overlooking this, supervising that. Didn’t that take patience?
I already hated all the kids he was building the orphanage for; sometimes I wished they’d all died along with their parents. “When you kill a man, you steal a life,” Baba said. “You steal his wife’s right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness. Do you see? ” I did. When Baba was six, a thief walked into my grandfather’s house in the middle of the night. My grandfather, a respected judge, confronted him, but the thief stabbed him in the throat, killing him instantly–and robbing Baba of a father.
The townspeople caught the killer just before noon the next day; he turned out to be a wanderer from the Kunduz region. They hanged him from the branch of an oak tree with still two hours to go before afternoon prayer. It was Rahim Khan, not Baba, who had told me that story. I was always learning things about Baba from other people. “There is no act more wretched than stealing, Amir,” Baba said. “A man who takes what’s not his to take, be it a life or a loaf of _naan_… I spit on such a man. And if I ever cross paths with him, God help him. Do you understand? ”
I found the idea of Baba clobbering a thief both exhilarating and terribly frightening. “Yes, Baba. ” “If there’s a God out there, then I would hope he has more important things to attend to than my drinking scotch or eating pork. Now, hop down. All this talk about sin has made me thirsty again. ” I watched him fill his glass at the bar and wondered how much time would pass before we talked again the way we just had. Because the truth of it was, I always felt like Baba hated me a little. And why not? After all, I _had_ killed his beloved wife, his beautiful princess, hadn’t I?
The least I could have done was to have had the decency to have turned out a little more like him. But I hadn’t turned out like him. Not at all. IN SCHOOL, we used to play a game called _Sherjangi_, or “Battle of the Poems. ” The Farsi teacher moderated it and it went something like this: You recited a verse from a poem and your opponent had sixty seconds to reply with a verse that began with the same letter that ended yours. Everyone in my class wanted me on their team, because by the time I was eleven, I could recite dozens of verses from Khayyam, Hafez, or Rumi’s famous _Masnawi_.
One time, I took on the whole class and won. I told Baba about it later that night, but he just nodded, muttered, “Good. ” That was how I escaped my father’s aloofness, in my dead mother’s books. That and Hassan, of course. I read everything, Rumi, Hafez, Saadi, Victor Hugo, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Ian Fleming. When I had finished my mother’s books–not the boring history ones, I was never much into those, but the novels, the epics–I started spending my allowance on books. I bought one a week from the bookstore near Cinema Park, and stored them in cardboard boxes when I ran out of shelf room.
Of course, marrying a poet was one thing, but fathering a son who preferred burying his face in poetry books to hunting… well, that wasn’t how Baba had envisioned it, I suppose. Real men didn’t read poetry–and God forbid they should ever write it! Real men–real boys–played soccer just as Baba had when he had been young. Now _that_ was something to be passionate about. In 1970, Baba took a break from the construction of the orphanage and flew to Tehran for a month to watch the World Cup games on television, since at the time Afghanistan didn’t have TVs yet.
He signed me up for soccer teams to stir the same passion in me. But I was pathetic, a blundering liability to my own team, always in the way of an opportune pass or unwittingly blocking an open lane. I shambled about the field on scraggy legs, squalled for passes that never came my way. And the harder I tried, waving my arms over my head frantically and screeching, “I’m open! I’m open! ” the more I went ignored. But Baba wouldn’t give up. When it became abundantly clear that I hadn’t inherited a shred of his athletic talents, he settled for trying to turn me into a passionate spectator.
Certainly I could manage that, couldn’t I? I faked interest for as long as possible. I cheered with him when Kabul’s team scored against Kandahar and yelped insults at the referee when he called a penalty against our team. But Baba sensed my lack of genuine interest and resigned himself to the bleak fact that his son was never going to either play or watch soccer. I remember one time Baba took me to the yearly _Buzkashi_ tournament that took place on the first day of spring, New Year’s Day. Buzkashi was, and still is, Afghanistan’s national passion.
A _chapandaz_, a highly skilled horseman usually patronized by rich aficionados, has to snatch a goat or cattle carcass from the midst of a melee, carry that carcass with him around the stadium at full gallop, and drop it in a scoring circle while a team of other _chapandaz_ chases him and does everything in its power–kick, claw, whip, punch–to snatch the carcass from him. That day, the crowd roared with excitement as the horsemen on the field bellowed their battle cries and jostled for the carcass in a cloud of dust. The earth trembled with the clatter of hooves.
We watched from the upper bleachers as riders pounded past us at full gallop, yipping and yelling, foam flying from their horses’ mouths. At one point Baba pointed to someone. “Amir, do you see that man sitting up there with those other men around him? ” I did. “That’s Henry Kissinger. ” “Oh,” I said. I didn’t know who Henry Kissinger was, and I might have asked. But at the moment, I watched with horror as one of the _chapandaz_ fell off his saddle and was trampled under a score of hooves. His body was tossed and hurled in the stampede like a rag doll, finally rolling to a stop when the melee moved on.
He twitched once and lay motionless, his legs bent at unnatural angles, a pool of his blood soaking through the sand. I began to cry. I cried all the way back home. I remember how Baba’s hands clenched around the steering wheel. Clenched and unclenched. Mostly, I will never forget Baba’s valiant efforts to conceal the disgusted look on his face as he drove in silence. Later that night, I was passing by my father’s study when I overheard him speaking to Rahim Khan. I pressed my ear to the closed door. “–grateful that he’s healthy,” Rahim Khan was saying. “I know, I know.
But he’s always buried in those books or shuffling around the house like he’s lost in some dream. ” “And? ” “I wasn’t like that. ” Baba sounded frustrated, almost angry. Rahim Khan laughed. “Children aren’t coloring books. You don’t get to fill them with your favorite colors. ” “I’m telling you,” Baba said, “I wasn’t like that at all, and neither were any of the kids I grew up with. ” “You know, sometimes you are the most self-centered man I know,” Rahim Khan said. He was the only person I knew who could get away with saying something like that to Baba. “It has nothing to do with that. ” “Nay? ” Nay. ” “Then what? ” I heard the leather of Baba’s seat creaking as he shifted on it. I closed my eyes, pressed my ear even harder against the door, wanting to hear, not wanting to hear. “Sometimes I look out this window and I see him playing on the street with the neighborhood boys. I see how they push him around, take his toys from him, give him a shove here, a whack there. And, you know, he never fights back. Never. He just… drops his head and… ” “So he’s not violent,” Rahim Khan said. “That’s not what I mean, Rahim, and you know it,” Baba shot back. “There is something missing in that boy. “Yes, a mean streak. ” “Self-defense has nothing to do with meanness. You know what always happens when the neighborhood boys tease him? Hassan steps in and fends them off. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. And when they come home, I say to him, ‘How did Hassan get that scrape on his face? ’ And he says, ‘He fell down. ’ I’m telling you, Rahim, there is something missing in that boy. ” “You just need to let him find his way,” Rahim Khan said. “And where is he headed? ” Baba said. “A boy who won’t stand up for himself becomes a man who can’t stand up to anything. ” “As usual you’re oversimplifying. ” I don’t think so. ” “You’re angry because you’re afraid he’ll never take over the business for you. ” “Now who’s oversimplifying? ” Baba said. “Look, I know there’s a fondness between you and him and I’m happy about that. Envious, but happy. I mean that. He needs someone who… understands him, because God knows I don’t. But something about Amir troubles me in a way that I can’t express. It’s like… ” I could see him searching, reaching for the right words. He lowered his voice, but I heard him anyway. “If I hadn’t seen the doctor pull him out of my wife with my own eyes, I’d never believe he’s my son. THE NEXT MORNING, as he was preparing my breakfast, Hassan asked if something was bothering me. I snapped at him, told him to mind his own business. Rahim Khan had been wrong about the mean streak thing. FOUR In 1933, the year Baba was born and the year Zahir Shah began his forty-year reign of Afghanistan, two brothers, young men from a wealthy and reputable family in Kabul, got behind the wheel of their father’s Ford roadster. High on hashish and _mast_ on French wine, they struck and killed a Hazara husband and wife on the road to Paghman.
The police brought the somewhat contrite young men and the dead couple’s five-year-old orphan boy before my grandfather, who was a highly regarded judge and a man of impeccable reputation. After hearing the brothers’ account and their father’s plea for mercy, my grandfather ordered the two young men to go to Kandahar at once and enlist in the army for one year–this despite the fact that their family had somehow managed to obtain them exemptions from the draft. Their father argued, but not too vehemently, and in the end, everyone agreed that the punishment had been perhaps harsh but fair.
As for the orphan, my grandfather adopted him into his own household, and told the other servants to tutor him, but to be kind to him. That boy was Ali. Ali and Baba grew up together as childhood playmates–at least until polio crippled Ali’s leg–just like Hassan and I grew up a generation later. Baba was always telling us about the mischief he and Ali used to cause, and Ali would shake his head and say, “But, Agha sahib, tell them who was the architect of the mischief and who the poor laborer? ” Baba would laugh and throw his arm around Ali.
But in none of his stories did Baba ever refer to Ali as his friend. The curious thing was, I never thought of Hassan and me as friends either. Not in the usual sense, anyhow. Never mind that we taught each other to ride a bicycle with no hands, or to build a fully functional homemade camera out of a cardboard box. Never mind that we spent entire winters flying kites, running kites. Never mind that to me, the face of Afghanistan is that of a boy with a thin-boned frame, a shaved head, and low-set ears, a boy with a Chinese doll face perpetually lit by a harelipped smile.
Never mind any of those things. Because history isn’t easy to overcome. Neither is religion. In the end, I was a Pashtun and he was a Hazara, I was Sunni and he was Shi’a, and nothing was ever going to change that. Nothing. But we were kids who had learned to crawl together, and no history, ethnicity, society, or religion was going to change that either. I spent most of the first twelve years of my life playing with Hassan. Sometimes, my entire childhood seems like one long lazy summer day with Hassan, chasing each ther between tangles of trees in my father’s yard, playing hide-and-seek, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, insect torture–with our crowning achievement undeniably the time we plucked the stinger off a bee and tied a string around the poor thing to yank it back every time it took flight. We chased the _Kochi_, the nomads who passed through Kabul on their way to the mountains of the north. We would hear their caravans approaching our neighborhood, the mewling of their sheep, the _baa_ing of their goats, the jingle of bells around their camels’ necks.
We’d run outside to watch the caravan plod through our street, men with dusty, weather-beaten faces and women dressed in long, colorful shawls, beads, and silver bracelets around their wrists and ankles. We hurled pebbles at their goats. We squirted water on their mules. I’d make Hassan sit on the Wall of Ailing Corn and fire pebbles with his slingshot at the camels’ rears. We saw our first Western together, _Rio Bravo_ with John Wayne, at the Cinema Park, across the street from my favorite bookstore. I remember begging Baba to take us to Iran so we could meet John Wayne.
Baba burst out in gales of his deepthroated laughter–a sound not unlike a truck engine revving up–and, when he could talk again, explained to us the concept of voice dubbing. Hassan and I were stunned. Dazed. John Wayne didn’t really speak Farsi and he wasn’t Iranian! He was American, just like the friendly, longhaired men and women we always saw hanging around in Kabul, dressed in their tattered, brightly colored shirts. We saw _Rio Bravo_ three times, but we saw our favorite Western, _The Magnificent Seven_, thirteen times.
With each viewing, we cried at the end when the Mexican kids buried Charles Bronson–who, as it turned out, wasn’t Iranian either. We took strolls in the musty-smelling bazaars of the Shar-e-Nau section of Kabul, or the new city, west of the Wazir Akbar Khan district. We talked about whatever film we had just seen and walked amid the bustling crowds of _bazarris_. We snaked our way among the merchants and the beggars, wandered through narrow alleys cramped with rows of tiny, tightly packed stalls. Baba gave us each a weekly allowance of ten Afghanis and we spent it on warm Coca-Cola and rosewater ice cream topped with crushed pistachios.
During the school year, we had a daily routine. By the time I dragged myself out of bed and lumbered to the bathroom, Hassan had already washed up, prayed the morning _namaz_ with Ali, and prepared my breakfast: hot black tea with three sugar cubes and a slice of toasted _naan_ topped with my favorite sour cherry marmalade, all neatly placed on the dining table. While I ate and complained about homework, Hassan made my bed, polished my shoes, ironed my outfit for the day, packed my books and pencils. I’d hear him singing to himself in the foyer as he ironed, singing old Hazara songs in his nasal voice.
Then, Baba and I drove off in his black Ford Mustang–a car that drew envious looks everywhere because it was the same car Steve McQueen had driven in _Bullitt_, a film that played in one theater for six months. Hassan stayed home and helped Ali with the day’s chores: hand-washing dirty clothes and hanging them to dry in the yard, sweeping the floors, buying fresh _naan_ from the bazaar, marinating meat for dinner, watering the lawn. After school, Hassan and I met up, grabbed a book, and trotted up a bowl-shaped hill just north of my father’s property in Wazir Akbar Khan.
There was an old abandoned cemetery atop the hill with rows of unmarked headstones and tangles of brushwood clogging the aisles. Seasons of rain and snow had turned the iron gate rusty and left the cemetery’s low white stone walls in decay. There was a pomegranate tree near the entrance to the cemetery. One summer day, I used one of Ali’s kitchen knives to carve our names on it: “Amir and Hassan, the sultans of Kabul. ” Those words made it formal: the tree was ours. After school, Hassan and I climbed its branches and snatched its bloodred pomegranates. After we’d eaten the fruit and wiped our hands on the grass, I would read to Hassan.
Sitting cross-legged, sunlight and shadows of pomegranate leaves dancing on his face, Hassan absently plucked blades of grass from the ground as I read him stories he couldn’t read for himself. That Hassan would grow up illiterate like Ali and most Hazaras had been decided the minute he had been born, perhaps even the moment he had been conceived in Sanaubar’s unwelcoming womb–after all, what use did a servant have for the written word? But despite his illiteracy, or maybe because of it, Hassan was drawn to the mystery of words, seduced by a secret world forbidden to him.
I read him poems and stories, sometimes riddles–though I stopped reading those when I saw he was far better at solving them than I was. So I read him unchallenging things, like the misadventures of the bumbling Mullah Nasruddin and his donkey. We sat for hours under that tree, sat there until the sun faded in the west, and still Hassan insisted we had enough daylight for one more story, one more chapter. My favorite part of reading to Hassan was when we came across a big word that he didn’t know. I’d tease him, expose his ignorance. One time, I was reading him a Mullah Nasruddin story and he stopped me. What does that word mean? ” “Which one? ” “Imbecile. ” “You don’t know what it means? ” I said, grinning. “Nay, Amir agha. ” “But it’s such a common word! ” “Still, I don’t know it. ” If he felt the sting of my tease, his smiling face didn’t show it. “Well, everyone in my school knows what it means,” I said. “Let’s see. ‘Imbecile. ’ It means smart, intelligent. I’ll use it in a sentence for you. ‘When it comes to words, Hassan is an imbecile. ’” “Aaah,” he said, nodding. I would always feel guilty about it later. So I’d try to make up for it by giving him one of my old shirts or a broken toy.
I would tell myself that was amends enough for a harmless prank. Hassan’s favorite book by far was the _Shahnamah_, the tenth-century epic of ancient Persian heroes. He liked all of the chapters, the shahs of old, Feridoun, Zal, and Rudabeh. But his favorite story, and mine, was “Rostam and Sohrab,” the tale of the great warrior Rostam and his fleet-footed horse, Rakhsh. Rostam mortally wounds his valiant nemesis, Sohrab, in battle, only to discover that Sohrab is his long-lost son. Stricken with grief, Rostam hears his son’s dying words: If thou art indeed my father, then hast thou stained thy sword in the life-blood of thy son.
And thou didst it of thine obstinacy. For I sought to turn thee unto love, and I implored of thee thy name, for I thought to behold in thee the tokens recounted of my mother. But I appealed unto thy heart in vain, and now is the time gone for meeting… “Read it again please, Amir agha,” Hassan would say. Sometimes tears pooled in Hassan’s eyes as I read him this passage, and I always wondered whom he wept for, the grief-stricken Rostam who tears his clothes and covers his head with ashes, or the dying Sohrab who only longed for his father’s love?
Personally, I couldn’t see the tragedy in Rostam’s fate. After all, didn’t all fathers in their secret hearts harbor a desire to kill their sons? One day, in July 1973, I played another little trick on Hassan. I was reading to him, and suddenly I strayed from the written story. I pretended I was reading from the book, flipping pages regularly, but I had abandoned the text altogether, taken over the story, and made up my own. Hassan, of course, was oblivious to this. To him, the words on the page were a scramble of codes, indecipherable, mysterious. Words were secret doorways and I held all the keys.
After, I started to ask him if he’d liked the story, a giggle rising in my throat, when Hassan began to clap. “What are you doing? ” I said. “That was the best story you’ve read me in a long time,” he said, still clapping. I laughed. “Really? ” “Really. ” “That’s fascinating,” I muttered. I meant it too. This was… wholly unexpected. “Are you sure, Hassan? ” He was still clapping. “It was great, Amir agha. Will you read me more of it tomorrow? ” “Fascinating,” I repeated, a little breathless, feeling like a man who discovers a buried treasure in his own backyard.
Walking down the hill, thoughts were exploding in my head like the fireworks at _Chaman_. _Best story you’ve read me in a long time_, he’d said. I had read him a _lot_ of stories. Hassan was asking me something. “What? ” I said. “What does that mean, ‘fascinating’? ” I laughed. Clutched him in a hug and planted a kiss on his cheek. “What was that for? ” he said, startled, blushing. I gave him a friendly shove. Smiled. “You’re a prince, Hassan. You’re a prince and I love you. ” That same night, I wrote my first short story. It took me thirty minutes.
It was a dark little tale about a man who found a magic cup and learned that if he wept into the cup, his tears turned into pearls. But even though he had always been poor, he was a happy man and rarely shed a tear. So he found ways to make himself sad so that his tears could make him rich. As the pearls piled up, so did his greed grow. The story ended with the man sitting on a mountain of pearls, knife in hand, weeping helplessly into the cup with his beloved wife’s slain body in his arms. That evening, I climbed the stairs and walked into Baba’s smoking room, in my hands the two sheets of paper on which I had scribbled the story.
Baba and Rahim Khan were smoking pipes and sipping brandy when I came in. “What is it, Amir? ” Baba said, reclining on the sofa and lacing his hands behind his head. Blue smoke swirled around his face. His glare made my throat feel dry. I cleared it and told him I’d written a story. Baba nodded and gave a thin smile that conveyed little more than feigned interest. “Well, that’s very good, isn’t it? ” he said. Then nothing more. He just looked at me through the cloud of smoke. I probably stood there for under a minute, but, to this day, it was one of the longest minutes of my life.
Seconds plodded by, each separated from the next by an eternity. Air grew heavy damp, almost solid. I was breathing bricks. Baba went on staring me down, and didn’t offer to read. As always, it was Rahim Khan who rescued me. He held out his hand and favored me with a smile that had nothing feigned about it. “May I have it, Amir jan? I would very much like to read it. ” Baba hardly ever used the term of endearment _jan_ when he addressed me. Baba shrugged and stood up. He looked relieved, as if he too had been rescued by Rahim Khan. “Yes, give it to Kaka Rahim. I’m going upstairs to get ready. And with that, he left the room. Most days I worshiped Baba with an intensity approaching the religious. But right then, I wished I could open my veins and drain his cursed blood from my body. An hour later, as the evening sky dimmed, the two of them drove off in my father’s car to attend a party. On his way out, Rahim Khan hunkered before me and handed me my story and another folded piece of paper. He flashed a smile and winked. “For you. Read it later. ” Then he paused and added a single word that did more to encourage me to pursue writing than any compliment any editor has ever paid me. That word was _Bravo_.
When they left, I sat on my bed and wished Rahim Khan had been my father. Then I thought of Baba and his great big chest and how good it felt when he held me against it, how he smelled of Brut in the morning, and how his beard tickled my face. I was overcome with such sudden guilt that I bolted to the bathroom and vomited in the sink. Later that night, curled up in bed, I read Rahim Khan’s note over and over. It read like this: Amir jan, I enjoyed your story very much. _Mashallah_, God has granted you a special talent. It is now your duty to hone that talent, because a person who wastes his God-given talents is a donkey.
You have written your story with sound grammar and interesting style. But the most impressive thing about your story is that it has irony. You may not even know what that word means. But you will someday. It is something that some writers reach for their entire careers and never attain. You have achieved it with your first story. My door is and always will be open to you, Amir jan. I shall hear any story you have to tell. Bravo. Your friend, Rahim Buoyed by Rahim Khan’s note, I grabbed the story and hurried downstairs to the foyer where Ali and Hassan were sleeping on a mattress.
That was the only time they slept in the house, when Baba was away and Ali had to watch over me. I shook Hassan awake and asked him if he wanted to hear a story. He rubbed his sleep-clogged eyes and stretched. “Now? What time is it? ” “Never mind the time. This story’s special. I wrote it myself,” I whispered, hoping not to wake Ali. Hassan’s face brightened. “Then I _have_ to hear it,” he said, already pulling the blanket off him. I read it to him in the living room by the marble fireplace. No playful straying from the words this time; this was about me!
Hassan was the perfect audience in many ways, totally immersed in the tale, his face shifting with the changing tones in the story. When I read the last sentence, he made a muted clapping sound with his hands. “_Mashallah_, Amir agha. Bravo! ” He was beaming. “You liked it? ” I said, getting my second taste–and how sweet it was–of a positive review. “Some day, _Inshallah_, you will be a great writer,” Hassan said. “And people all over the world will read your stories. ” “You exaggerate, Hassan,” I said, loving him for it. “No. You will be great and famous,” he insisted.
Then he paused, as if on the verge of adding something. He weighed his words and cleared his throat. “But will you permit me to ask a question about the story? ” he said shyly. “Of course. ” “Well… ” he started, broke off. “Tell me, Hassan,” I said. I smiled, though suddenly the insecure writer in me wasn’t so sure he wanted to hear it. “Well,” he said, “if I may ask, why did the man kill his wife? In fact, why did he ever have to feel sad to shed tears? Couldn’t he have just smelled an onion? ” I was stunned. That particular point, so obvious it was utterly stupid, hadn’t even occurred to me.
I moved my lips soundlessly. It appeared that on the same night I had learned about one of writing’s objectives, irony, I would also be introduced to one of its pitfalls: the Plot Hole. Taught by Hassan, of all people. Hassan who couldn’t read and had never written a single word in his entire life. A voice, cold and dark, suddenly whispered in my ear, _What does he know, that illiterate Hazara? He’ll never be anything but a cook. How dare he criticize you? _ “Well,” I began. But I never got to finish that sentence. Because suddenly Afghanistan changed forever. FIVE Something roared like thunder.
The earth shook a little and we heard the _rat-a-tat-tat_ of gunfire. “Father! ” Hassan cried. We sprung to our feet and raced out of the living room. We found Ali hobbling frantically across the foyer. “Father! What’s that sound? ” Hassan yelped, his hands outstretched toward Ali. Ali wrapped his arms around us. A white light flashed, lit the sky in silver. It flashed again and was followed by a rapid staccato of gunfire. “They’re hunting ducks,” Ali said in a hoarse voice. “They hunt ducks at night, you know. Don’t be afraid. ” A siren went off in the distance. Somewhere glass shattered and someone shouted.
I heard people on the street, jolted from sleep and probably still in their pajamas, with ruffled hair and puffy eyes. Hassan was crying. Ali pulled him close, clutched him with tenderness. Later, I would tell myself I hadn’t felt envious of Hassan. Not at all. We stayed huddled that way until the early hours of the morning. The shootings and explosions had lasted less than an hour, but they had frightened us badly, because none of us had ever heard gunshots in the streets. They were foreign sounds to us then. The generation of Afghan children whose ears would know nothing but the sounds of bombs and gunfire was not yet born.
Huddled together in the dining room and waiting for the sun to rise, none of us had any notion that a way of life had ended. Our way of life. If not quite yet, then at least it was the beginning of the end. The end, the _official_ end, would come first in April 1978 with the communist coup d’etat, and then in December 1979, when Russian tanks would roll into the very same streets where Hassan and I played, bringing the death of the Afghanistan I knew and marking the start of a still ongoing era of bloodletting. Just before sunrise, Baba’s car peeled into the driveway. His door slammed shut and his running footsteps pounded the stairs.
Then he appeared in the doorway and I saw something on his face. Something I didn’t recognize right away because I’d never seen it before: fear. “Amir! Hassan! ” he exclaimed as he ran to us, opening his arms wide. “They blocked all the roads and the tele phone didn’t work. I was so worried! ” We let him wrap us in his arms and, for a brief insane moment, I was glad about whatever had happened that night. THEY WEREN’T SHOOTING ducks after all. As it turned out, they hadn’t shot much of anything that night of July 17, 1973. Kabul awoke the next morning to find that the monarchy was a thing of the past.
The king, Zahir Shah, was away in Italy. In his absence, his cousin Daoud Khan had ended the king’s forty-year reign with a bloodless coup. I remember Hassan and I crouching that next morning outside my father’s study, as Baba and Rahim Khan sipped black tea and listened to breaking news of the coup on Radio Kabul. “Amir agha? ” Hassan whispered. “What? ” “What’s a ‘republic’? ” I shrugged. “I don’t know. ” On Baba’s radio, they were saying that word, “republic,” over and over again. “Amir agha? ” “What? ” “Does ‘republic’ mean Father and I will have to move away? ” “I don’t think so,” I whispered back.
Hassan considered this. “Amir agha? ” “What? ” “I don’t want them to send me and Father away. ” I smiled. “_Bas_, you donkey. No one’s sending you away. ” “Amir agha? ” “What? ” “Do you want to go climb our tree? ” My smile broadened. That was another thing about Hassan. He always knew when to say the right thing–the news on the radio was getting pretty boring. Hassan went to his shack to get ready and I ran upstairs to grab a book. Then I went to the kitchen, stuffed my pockets with handfuls of pine nuts, and ran outside to find Hassan waiting for me. We burst through the front gates and headed for the hill.
We crossed the residential street and were trekking through a barren patch of rough land that led to the hill when, suddenly, a rock struck Hassan in the back. We whirled around and my heart dropped. Assef and two of his friends, Wali and Kamal, were approaching us. Assef was the son of one of my father’s friends, Mahmood, an airline pilot. His family lived a few streets south of our home, in a posh, high-walled compound with palm trees. If you were a kid living in the Wazir Akbar Khan section of Kabul, you knew about Assef and his famous stainless-steel brass knuckles, hopefully not through personal experience.
Born to a German mother and Afghan father, the blond, blue-eyed Assef towered over the other kids. His well-earned reputation for savagery preceded him on the streets. Flanked by his obeying friends, he walked the neighborhood like a Khan strolling through his land with his eager-to-please entourage. His word was law, and if you needed a little legal education, then those brass knuckles were just the right teaching tool. I saw him use those knuckles once on a kid from the Karteh-Char district.
I will never forget how Assef’s blue eyes glinted with a light not entirely sane and how he grinned, how he _grinned_, as he pummeled that poor kid unconscious. Some of the boys in Wazir Akbar Khan had nicknamed him Assef _Goshkhor_, or Assef “the Ear Eater. ” Of course, none of them dared utter it to his face unless they wished to suffer the same fate as the poor kid who had unwittingly inspired that nickname when he had fought Assef over a kite and ended up fishing his right ear from a muddy gutter. Years later, I learned an English word for the creature that Assef was, a word for which a good Farsi equivalent does not exist: sociopath. ” Of all the neighborhood boys who tortured Ali, Assef was by far the most relentless. He was, in fact, the originator of the Babalu jeer, _Hey, Babalu, who did you eat today? Huh? Come on, Babalu, give us a smile! _ And on days when he felt particularly inspired, he spiced up his badgering a little, _Hey, you flat-nosed Babalu, who did you eat today? Tell us, you slant-eyed donkey! _ Now he was walking toward us, hands on his hips, his sneakers kicking up little puffs of dust. “Good morning, _kunis_! ” Assef exclaimed, waving. “Fag,” that was another of his favorite insults.
Hassan retreated behind me as the three older boys closed in. They stood before us, three tall boys dressed in jeans and T-shirts. Towering over us all, Assef crossed his thick arms on his chest, a savage sort of grin on his lips. Not for the first time, it occurred to me that Assef might not be entirely sane. It also occurred to me how lucky I was to have Baba as my father, the sole reason, I believe, Assef had mostly refrained from harassing me too much. He tipped his chin to Hassan. “Hey, Flat-Nose,” he said. “How is Babalu? ” Hassan said nothing and crept another step behind me. “Have you heard the news, boys? Assef said, his grin never faltering. “The king is gone. Good riddance. Long live the president! My father knows Daoud Khan, did you know that, Amir? ” “So does my father,” I said. In reality, I had no idea if that was true or not. “So does my father,” Assef mimicked me in a whining voice. Kamal and Wali cackled in unison. I wished Baba were there. “Well, Daoud Khan dined at our house last year,” Assef went on. “How do you like that, Amir? ” I wondered if anyone would hear us scream in this remote patch of land. Baba’s house was a good kilometer away. I wished we’d stayed at the house. Do you know what I will tell Daoud Khan the next time he comes to our house for dinner? ” Assef said. “I’m going to have a little chat with him, man to man, _mard_ to _mard_. Tell him what I told my mother. About Hitler. Now, there was a leader. A great leader. A man with vision. I’ll tell Daoud Khan to remember that if they had let Hitler finish what he had started, the world be a better place now” “Baba says Hitler was crazy, that he ordered a lot of innocent people killed,” I heard myself say before I could clamp a hand on my mouth. Assef snickered. “He sounds like my mother, and she’s German; she should know better.
But then they want you to believe that, don’t they? They don’t want you to know the truth. ” I didn’t know who “they” were, or what truth they were hiding, and I didn’t want to find out. I wished I hadn’t said anything. I wished again I’d look up and see Baba coming up the hill. “But you have to read books they don’t give out in school,” Assef said. “I have. And my eyes have been opened. Now I have a vision, and I’m going to share it with our new president. Do you know what it is? ” I shook my head. He’d tell me anyway; Assef always answered his own questions. His blue eyes flicked to Hassan. “Afghanistan is the land of Pashtuns.
It always has been, always will be. We are the true Afghans, the pure Afghans, not this Flat-Nose here. His people pollute our homeland, our watan. They dirty our blood. ” He made a sweeping, grandiose gesture with his hands. “Afghanistan for Pashtuns, I say. That’s my vision. ” Assef shifted his gaze to me again. He looked like someone coming out of a good dream. “Too late for Hitler,” he said. “But not for us. ” He reached for something from the back pocket of his jeans. “I’ll ask the president to do what the king didn’t have the quwat to do. To rid Afghanistan of all the dirty, kasseef Hazaras. “Just let us go, Assef,” I said, hating the way my voice trembled. “We’re not bothering you. ” “Oh, you’re bothering me,” Assef said. And I saw with a sinking heart what he had fished out of his pocket. Of course. His stainless-steel brass knuckles sparkled in the sun. “You’re bothering me very much. In fact, you bother me more than this Hazara here. How can you talk to him, play with him, let him touch you? ” he said, his voice dripping with disgust. Wali and Kamal nodded and grunted in agreement. Assef narrowed his eyes. Shook his head. When he spoke again, he sounded as baffled as he looked. How can you call him your ‘friend’? ” _But he’s not my friend! _ I almost blurted. _He’s my servant! _ Had I really thought that? Of course I hadn’t. I hadn’t. I treated Hassan well, just like a friend, better even, more like a brother. But if so, then why, when Baba’s friends came to visit with their kids, didn’t I ever include Hassan in our games? Why did I play with Hassan only when no one else was around? Assef slipped on the brass knuckles. Gave me an icy look. “You’re part of the problem, Amir. If idiots like you and your father didn’t take these people in, we’d be rid of them by now.
They’d all just go rot in Hazarajat where they belong. You’re a disgrace to Afghanistan. ” I looked in his crazy eyes and saw that he meant it. He _really_ meant to hurt me. Assef raised his fist and came for me. There was a flurry of rapid movement behind me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Hassan bend down and stand up quickly. Assef’s eyes flicked to something behind me and widened with surprise. I saw that same look ol astonishment on Kamal and Wali’s faces as they too saw what had happened behind me. I turned and came face to face with Hassan’s slingshot. Hassan had pulled the wide elastic band all the way back.
In the cup was a rock the size of a walnut. Hassan held the slingshot pointed directly at Assef’s face. His hand trembled with the strain of the pulled elastic band and beads of sweat had erupted on his brow. “Please leave us alone, Agha,” Hassan said in a flat tone. He’d referred to Assef as “Agha,” and I wondered briefly what it must be like to live with such an ingrained sense of one’s place in a hierarchy. Assef gritted his teeth. “Put it down, you motherless Hazara. ” “Please leave us be, Agha,” Hassan said. Assef smiled. “Maybe you didn’t notice, but there are three of us and two of you. ” Hassan shrugged.
To an outsider, he didn’t look scared. But Hassan’s face was my earliest memory and I knew all of its subtle nuances, knew each and every twitch and flicker that ever rippled across it. And I saw that he was scared. He was scared plenty. “You are right, Agha. But perhaps you didn’t notice that I’m the one holding the slingshot. If you make a move, they’ll have to change your nickname from Assef ‘the Ear Eater’ to ‘One-Eyed Assef,’ because I have this rock pointed at your left eye. ” He said this so flatly that even I had to strain to hear the fear that I knew hid under that calm voice. Assef’s mouth twitched.
Wali and Kamal watched this exchange with something akin to fascination. Someone had challenged their god. Humiliated him. And, worst of all, that someone was a skinny Hazara. Assef looked from the rock to Hassan. He searched Hassan’s face intently. What he found in it must have convinced him of the seriousness of Hassan’s intentions, because he lowered his fist. “You should know something about me, Hazara,” Assef said gravely. “I’m a very patient person. This doesn’t end today, believe me. ” He turned to me. “This isn’t the end for you either, Amir. Someday, I’ll make you face me one on one. ” Assef retreated a step.
His disciples followed. “Your Hazara made a big mistake today, Amir,” he said. They then turned around, walked away. I watched them walk down the hill and disappear behind a wall. Hassan was trying to tuck the slingshot in his waist with a pair of trembling hands. His mouth curled up into something that was supposed to be a reassuring smile. It took him five tries to tie the string of his trousers. Neither one of us said much of anything as we walked home in trepidation, certain that Assef and his friends would ambush us every time we turned a corner. They didn’t and that should have comforted us a little. But it didn’t.
Not at all. FOR THE NEXT COUPLE of years, the words _economic development_ and _reform_ danced on a lot of lips in Kabul. The constitutional monarchy had been abolished, replaced by a republic, led by a president of the republic. For a while, a sense of rejuvenation and purpose swept across the land. People spoke of women’s rights and modern technology. And for the most part, even though a new leader lived in _Arg_–the royal palace in Kabul–life went on as before. People went to work Saturday through Thursday and gathered for picnics on Fridays in parks, on the banks of Ghargha Lake, in the gardens of Paghman.
Multicolored buses and lorries filled with passengers rolled through the narrow streets of Kabul, led by the constant shouts of the driver assistants who straddled the vehicles’ rear bumpers and yelped directions to the driver in their thick Kabuli accent. On _Eid_, the three days of celebration after the holy month of Ramadan, Kabulis dressed in their best and newest clothes and visited their families. People hugged and kissed and greeted each other with “_Eid Mubarak_. ” Happy Eid. Children opened gifts and played with dyed hard-boiled eggs.
Early that following winter of 1974, Hassan and I were playing in the yard one day, building a snow fort, when Ali called him in. “Hassan, Agha sahib wants to talk to you! ” He was standing by the front door, dressed in white, hands tucked under his armpits, breath puffing from his mouth. Hassan and I exchanged a smile. We’d been waiting for his call all day: It was Hassan’s birthday. “What is it, Father, do you know? Will you tell us? ” Hassan said. His eyes were gleaming. Ali shrugged. “Agha sahib hasn’t discussed it with me. ” “Come on, Ali, tell us,” I pressed. “Is it a drawing book? Maybe a new pistol? Like Hassan, Ali was incapable of lying. Every year, he pretended not to know what Baba had bought Hassan or me for our birthdays. And every year, his eyes betrayed him and we coaxed the goods out of him. This time, though, it seemed he was telling the truth. Baba never missed Hassan’s birthday. For a while, he used to ask Hassan what he wanted, but he gave up doing that because Hassan was always too modest to actually suggest a present. So every winter Baba picked something out himself. He bought him a Japanese toy truck one year, an electric locomotive and train track set another year.
The previous year, Baba had surprised Hassan with a leather cowboy hat just like the one Clint Eastwood wore in _The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly_–which had unseated _The Magnificent Seven_ as our favorite Western. That whole winter, Hassan and I took turns wearing the hat, and belted out the film’s famous music as we climbed mounds of snow and shot each other dead. We took off our gloves and removed our snow-laden boots at the front door. When we stepped into the foyer, we found Baba sitting by the wood-burning cast-iron stove with a short, balding Indian man dressed in a brown suit and red tie. Hassan,” Baba said, smiling coyly, “meet your birthday present. ” Hassan and I traded blank looks. There was no gift-wrapped box in sight. No bag. No toy. Just Ali standing behind us, and Baba with this slight Indian fellow who looked a little like a mathematics teacher. The Indian man in the brown suit smiled and offered Hassan his hand. “I am Dr. Kumar,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. ” He spoke Farsi with a thick, rolling Hindi accent. “_Salaam alaykum_,” Hassan said uncertainly. He gave a polite tip of the head, but his eyes sought his father behind him. Ali moved closer and set his hand on Hassan’s shoulder.
Baba met Hassan’s wary–and puzzled–eyes. “I have summoned Dr. Kumar from New Delhi. Dr. Kumar is a plastic surgeon. ” “Do you know what that is? ” the Indian man–Dr. Kumar– said. Hassan shook his head. He looked to me for help but I shrugged. All I knew was that you went to a surgeon to fix you when you had appendicitis. I knew this because one of my classmates had died of it the year before and the teacher had told us they had waited too long to take him to a surgeon. We both looked to Ali, but of course with him you could never tell. His face was impassive as ever, though something sober had melted into his eyes. Well,” Dr. Kumar said, “my job is to fix things on people’s bodies. Sometimes their faces. ” “Oh,” Hassan said. He looked from Dr. Kumar to Baba to Ali. His hand touched his upper lip. “Oh,” he said again. “It’s an unusual present, I know,” Baba said. “And probably not what you had in mind, but this present will last you forever. ” “Oh,” Hassan said. He licked his lips. Cleared his throat. “Agha sahib, will it… will it–” “Nothing doing,” Dr. Kumar intervened, smiling kindly. “It will not hurt you one bit. In fact, I will give you a medicine and you will not remember a thing. ” “Oh,” Hassan said.
He smiled back with relief. A little relief anyway. “I wasn’t scared, Agha sahib, I just… ” Hassan might have been fooled, but I wasn’t. I knew that when doctors said it wouldn’t hurt, that’s when you knew you were in trouble. With dread, I remembered my circumcision the year prior. The doctor had given me the same line, reassured me it wouldn’t hurt one bit. But when the numbing medicine wore off later that night, it felt like someone had pressed a red hot coal to my loins. Why Baba waited until I was ten to have me circumcised was beyond me and one of the things I will never forgive him for.
I wished I too had some kind of scar that would beget Baba’s sympathy. It wasn’t fair. Hassan hadn’t done anything to earn Baba’s affections; he’d just been born with that stupid harelip. The surgery went well. We were all a little shocked when they first removed the bandages, but kept our smiles on just as Dr. Kumar had instructed us. It wasn’t easy, because Hassan’s upper lip was a grotesque mesh of swollen, raw tissue. I expected Hassan to cry with horror when the nurse handed him the mirror. Ali held his hand as Hassan took a long, thoughtful look into it. He muttered something I didn’t understand.
I put my ear to his mouth. He whispered it again. “_Tashakor_. ” Thank you. Then his lips twisted, and, that time, I knew just what he was doing. He was smiling. Just as he had, emerging from his mother’s womb. The swelling subsided, and the wound healed with time. Soon, it was just a pink jagged line running up from his lip. By the following winter, it was only a faint scar. Which was ironic. Because that was the winter that Hassan stopped smiling. SIX Winter. Here is what I do on the first day of snowfall every year: I step out of the house early in the morning, still in my pajamas, hugging my arms against the chill.
I find the driveway, my father’s car, the walls, the trees, the rooftops, and the hills buried under a foot of snow. I smile. The sky is seamless and blue, the snow so white my eyes burn. I shovel a handful of the fresh snow into my mouth, lis ten to the muffled stillness broken only by the cawing of crows. I walk down the front steps, barefoot, and call for Hassan to come out and see. Winter was every kid’s favorite season in Kabul, at least those whose fathers could afford to buy a good iron stove. The reason was simple: They shut down school for the icy season.
Winter to me was the end of long division and naming the capital of Bulgaria, and the start of three months of playing cards by the stove with Hassan, free Russian movies on Tuesday mornings at Cinema Park, sweet turnip _qurma_ over rice for lunch after a morning of building snowmen. And kites, of course. Flying kites. And running them. For a few unfortunate kids, winter did not spell the end of the school year. There were the so-called voluntary winter courses. No kid I knew ever volunteered to go to these classes; parents, of course, did the volunteering for them. Fortunately for me, Baba was not one of them.
I remember one kid, Ahmad, who lived across the street from us. His father was some kind of doctor, I think. Ahmad had epilepsy and always wore a wool vest and thick blackrimmed glasses–he was one of Assef’s regular victims. Every morning, I watched from my bedroom window as their Hazara servant shoveled snow from the driveway, cleared the way for the black Opel. I made a point of watching Ahmad and his father get into the car, Ahmad in his wool vest and winter coat, his schoolbag filled with books and pencils. I waited until they pulled away, turned the corner, then I slipped back into bed in my flannel pajamas.
I pulled the blanket to my chin and watched the snowcapped hills in the north through the window. Watched them until I drifted back to sleep. I loved wintertime in Kabul. I loved it for the soft pattering of snow against my window at night, for the way fresh snow crunched under my black rubber boots, for the warmth of the cast-iron stove as the wind screeched through the yards, the streets. But mostly because, as the trees froze and ice sheathed the roads, the chill between Baba and me thawed a little. And the reason for that was the kites. Baba and I lived in the same house, but in different spheres of existence.
Kites were the one paper thin slice of intersection between those spheres. EVERY WINTER, districts in Kabul held a kite-fighting tournament. And if you were a boy living in Kabul, the day of the tournament was undeniably the highlight of the cold season. I never slept the night before the tournament. I’d roll from side to side, make shadow animals on the wall, even sit on the balcony in the dark, a blanket wrapped around me. I felt like a soldier trying to sleep in the trenches the night before a major battle. And that wasn’t so far off. In Kabul, fighting kites was a little like going to war.
As with any war, you had to ready yourself for battle. For a while, Hassan and I used to build our own kites. We saved our weekly allowances in the fall, dropped the money in a little porcelain horse Raba had brought one time from Herat. When the winds of winter began to blow and snow fell in chunks, we undid the snap under the horse’s belly. We went to the bazaar and bought bamboo, glue, string, and paper. We spent hours every day shaving bamboo for the center and cross spars, cutting the thin tissue paper which made for easy dipping and recovery And then, of course, we had to make our own string, or tar.
If the kite was the gun, then _tar_, the glass-coated cutting line, was the bullet in the chamber. We’d go out in the yard and feed up to five hundred feet of string through a mixture of ground glass and glue. We’d then hang the line between the trees, leave it to dry. The next day, we’d wind the battle-ready line around a wooden spool. By the time the snow melted and the rains of spring swept in, every boy in Kabul bore telltale horizontal gashes on his fingers from a whole winter of fighting kites. I remember how my classmates and I used to huddle, compare our battle scars on the first day of school.
The cuts stung and didn’t heal for a couple of weeks, but I didn’t mind. They were reminders of a beloved season that had once again passed too quickly. Then the class captain would blow his whistle and we’d march in a single file to our classrooms, longing for winter already, greeted instead by the specter of yet another long school year. But it quickly became apparent that Hassan and I were better kite fighters than kite makers. Some flaw or other in our design always spelled its doom. So Baba started taking us to Saifo’s to buy our kites. Saifo was a nearly blind old man who was a _moochi_ by profession–a shoe repairman.
But he was also the city’s most famous kite maker, working out of a tiny hovel on Jadeh Maywand, the crowded street south of the muddy banks of the Kabul River. I remember you had to crouch to enter the prison cell-sized store, and then had to lift a trapdoor to creep down a set of wooden steps to the dank basement where Saifo stored his coveted kites. Baba would buy us each three identical kites and spools of glass string. If I changed my mind and asked for a bigger and fancier kite, Baba would buy it for me–but then he’d buy it for Hassan too. Sometimes I wished he wouldn’t do that.
Wished he’d let me be the favorite. The kite-fighting tournament was an old winter tradition in Afghanistan. It started early in the morning on the day of the contest and didn’t end until only the winning kite flew in the sky–I remember one year the tournament outlasted daylight. People gathered on sidewalks and roofs to cheer for their kids. The streets filled with kite fighters, jerking and tugging on their lines, squinting up to the sky, trying to gain position to cut the opponent’s line. Every kite fighter had an assistant–in my case, Hassan–who held the spool and fed the line.
One time, a bratty Hindi kid whose family had recently moved into the neighborhood told us that in his hometown, kite fighting had strict rules and regulations. “You have to play in a boxed area and you have to stand at a right angle to the wind,” he said proudly. “And you can’t use aluminum to make your glass string. ” Hassan and I looked at each other. Cracked up. The Hindi kid would soon learn what the British learned earlier in the century, and what the Russians would eventually learn by the late 1980s: that Afghans are an independent people. Afghans cherish custom but abhor rules.
And so it was with kite fighting. The rules were simple: No rules. Fly your kite. Cut the opponents. Good luck. Except that wasn’t all. The real fun began when a kite was cut. That was where the kite runners came in, those kids who chased the windblown kite drifting through the neighborhoods until it came spiraling down in a field, dropping in someone’s yard, on a tree, or a rooftop. The chase got pretty fierce; hordes of kite runners swarmed the streets, shoved past each other like those people from Spain I’d read about once, the ones who ran from the bulls. One year a neighborhood kid climbed a pine tree for a kite.
A branch snapped under his weight and he fell thirty feet. Broke his back and never walked again. But he fell with the kite still in his hands. And when a kite runner had his hands on a kite, no one could take it from him. That wasn’t a rule. That was custom. For kite runners, the most coveted prize was the last fallen kite of a winter tournament. It was a trophy of honor, something to be displayed on a mantle for guests to admire. When the sky cleared of kites and only the final two remained, every kite runner readied himself for the chance to land this prize.
He positioned himself at a spot that he thought would give him a head start. Tense muscles readied themselves to uncoil. Necks craned. Eyes crinkled. Fights broke out. And when the last kite was cut, all hell broke loose. Over the years, I had seen a lot of guys run kites. But Hassan was by far the greatest kite runner I’d ever seen. It was downright eerie the way he always got to the spot the kite would land before the kite did, as if he had some sort of inner compass. I remember one overcast winter day, Hassan and I were running a kite. I was chasing him through neighborhoods, hopping gutters, weaving through narrow treets. I was a year older than him, but Hassan ran faster than I did, and I was falling behind. “Hassan! Wait! ” I yelled, my breathing hot and ragged. He whirled around, motioned with his hand. “This way! ” he called before dashing around another corner. I looked up, saw that the direction we were running was opposite to the one the kite was drifting. “We’re losing it! We’re going the wrong way! ” I cried out. “Trust me! ” I heard him call up ahead. I reached the corner and saw Hassan bolting along, his head down, not even looking at the sky, sweat soaking through the back of his shirt.
I tripped over a rock and fell–I wasn’t just slower than Hassan but clumsier too; I’d always envied his natural athieticism. When I staggered to my feet, I caught a glimpse of Hassan disappearing around another street corner. I hobbled after him, spikes of pain battering my scraped knees. I saw we had ended up on a rutted dirt road near Isteqial Middle School. There was a field on one side where lettuce grew in the summer, and a row of sour cherry trees on the other. I found Hassan sitting cross-legged at the foot of one of the trees, eating from a fistful of dried mulberries. What are we doing here? ” I panted, my stomach roiling with nausea. He smiled. “Sit with me, Amir agha. ” I dropped next to him, lay on a thin patch of snow, wheezing. “You’re wasting our time. It was going the other way, didn’t you see? ” Hassan popped a mulberry in his mouth. “It’s coming,” he said. I could hardly breathe and he didn’t even sound tired. “How do you know? ” I said. “I know. ” “How can you know? ” He turned to me. A few sweat beads rolled from his bald scalp. “Would I ever lie to you, Amir agha? ” Suddenly I decided to toy with him a little. “I don’t know. Would you? “I’d sooner eat dirt,” he said with a look of indignation. “Really? You’d do that? ” He threw me a puzzled look. “Do what? ” “Eat dirt if I told you to,” I said. I knew I was being cruel, like when I’d taunt him if he didn’t know some big word. But there was something fascinating–albeit in a sick way–about teasing Hassan. Kind of like when we used to play insect torture. Except now, he was the ant and I was holding the magnifying glass. His eyes searched my face for a long time. We sat there, two boys under a sour cherry tree, suddenly looking, really looking, at each other.
That’s when it happened again: Hassan’s face changed. Maybe not _changed_, not really, but suddenly I had the feeling I was looking at two faces, the one I knew, the one that was my first memory, and another, a second face, this one lurking just beneath the surface. I’d seen it happen before–it always shook me up a little. It just appeared, this other face, for a fraction of a moment, long enough to leave me with the unsettling feeling that maybe I’d seen it someplace before. Then Hassan blinked and it was just him again. Just Hassan. “If you asked, I would,” he finally said, looking right at me.
I dropped my eyes. To this day, I find it hard to gaze directly at people like Hassan, people who mean every word they say. “But I wonder,” he added. “Would you ever ask me to do such a thing, Amir agha? ” And, just like that, he had thrown at me his own little test. If I was going to toy with him and challenge his loyalty, then he’d toy with me, test my integrity. I wished I hadn’t started this conversation. I forced a smile. “Don’t be stupid, Hassan. You know I wouldn’t. ” Hassan returned the smile. Except his didn’t look forced. “I know,” he said. And that’s the thing about people who mean everything they say.
They think everyone else does too. “Here it comes,” Hassan said, pointing to the sky. He rose to his feet and walked a few paces to his left. I looked up, saw the kite plummeting toward us. I heard footfalls, shouts, an approaching melee of kite runners. But they were wasting their time. Because Hassan stood with his arms wide open, smiling, waiting for the kite. And may God–if He exists, that is–strike me blind if the kite didn’t just drop into his outstretched arms. IN THE WINTER OF 1975, I saw Hassan run a kite for the last time. Usually, each neighborhood held its own competition.
But that year, the tournament was going to be held in my neighborhood, Wazir Akbar Khan, and several other districts–Karteh-Char, Karteh-Parwan, Mekro-Rayan, and Koteh-Sangi–had been invited. You could hardly go anywhere without hearing talk of the upcoming tournament. Word had it this was going to be the biggest tournament in twenty-five years. One night that winter, with the big contest only four days away, Baba and I sat in his study in overstuffed leather chairs by the glow of the fireplace. We were sipping tea, talking. Ali had served dinner earlier–potatoes and curried cauliflower over rice–and had retired for the night with Hassan.
Baba was fattening his pipe and I was asking him to tell the story about the winter a pack of wolves had descended from the mountains in Herat and forced everyone to stay indoors for a week, when he lit a match and said, casually, “I think maybe you’ll win the tournament this year. What do you think? ” I didn’t know what to think. Or what to say. Was that what it would take? Had he just slipped me a key? I was a good kite fighter. Actually, a very good one. A few times, I’d even come close to winning the winter tournament–once, I’d made it to the final three. But coming close wasn’t the same as winning, was it?
Baba hadn’t _come close_. He had won because winners won and everyone else just went home. Baba was used to winning, winning at everything he set his mind to. Didn’t he have a right to expect the same from his son? And just imagine. If I did win… Baba smoked his pipe and talked. I pretended to listen. But I couldn’t listen, not really, because Baba’s casual little comment had planted a seed in my head: the resolution that I would win that winter’s tournament. I was going to win. There was no other viable option. I was going to win, and I was going to run that last kite.
Then I’d bring it home and show it to Baba. Show him once and for all that his son was worthy. Then maybe my life as a ghost in this house would finally be over. I let myself dream: I imagined conversation and laughter over dinner instead of silence broken only by the clinking of silverware and the occasional grunt. I envisioned us taking a Friday drive in Baba’s car to Paghman, stopping on the way at Ghargha Lake for some fried trout and potatoes. We’d go to the zoo to see Marjan the lion, and maybe Baba wouldn’t yawn and steal looks at his wristwatch all the time.
Maybe Baba would even read one of my stories. I’d write him a hundred if I thought he’d read one. Maybe he’d call me Amir jan like Rahim Khan did. And maybe, just maybe, I would finally be pardoned for killing my mother. Baba was telling me about the time he’d cut fourteen kites on the same day. I smiled, nodded, laughed at all the right places, but I hardly heard a word he said. I had a mission now. And I wasn’t going to fail Baba. Not this time. IT SNOWED HEAVILY the night before the tournament. Hassan and I sat under the kursi and played panjpar as wind-rattled tree branches tapped on the window.