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The Kite Runner
The Kite Runner/16
ad to say about Baba.
". . . helped me build the house in Taimani . . ."
". . . bless him . . ."
". . . no one else to turn to and he lent me . . ."
". . . found me a job . . . barely knew me . . ."
". . . like a brother to me . . ."
Listening to them, I realized how much of who I was, what I was, had been defined by Baba and the marks he had left on people's lives. My whole life, I had been "Baba's son." Now he was gone. Baba couldn't show me the way anymore; I'd have to find it on my own.
The thought of it terrified me.
Earlier, at the gravesite in the small Muslim section of the cemetery, I had watched them lower Baba into the hole. The mullah and another man got into an argument over which was the correct ayat of the Koran to recite at the gravesite. It might have turned ugly had General Taheri not intervened. The mullah chose an ayat and recited it, casting the other fellow nasty glances. I watched them toss the first shovelful of dirt into the grave. Then I left. Walked to the other side of the cemetery. Sat in the shade of a red maple.
Now the last of the mourners had paid their respects and the mosque was empty, save for the mullah unplugging the microphone and wrapping his Koran in green cloth. The general and I stepped out into a late-afternoon sun. We walked down the steps, past men smoking in clusters. I heard snippets of their conversations, a soccer game in Union City next weekend, a new Afghan restaurant in Santa Clara. Life moving on already, leaving Baba behind.
"How are you, bachem?" General Taheri said.
I gritted my teeth. Bit back the tears that had threatened all day.
"I'm going to find Soraya," I said.
I walked to the women's side of the mosque. Soraya was standing on the steps with her mother and a couple of ladies I recognized vaguely from the wedding. I motioned to Soraya. She said something to her mother and came to me.
"Can we walk?" I said.
"Sure." She took my hand.
We walked in silence down a winding gravel path lined by a row of low hedges. We sat on a bench and watched an elderly couple kneeling beside a grave a few rows away and placing a bouquet of daisies by the headstone. "Soraya?"
"I'm going to miss him."
She put her hand on my lap. Baba's chila glinted on her ring finger. Behind her, I could see Baba's mourners driving away on Mission Boulevard. Soon we'd leave too, and for the first time ever, Baba would be all alone.
Soraya pulled me to her and the tears finally came.
BECAUSE SORAYA AND I never had an engagement period, much of what I learned about the Taheris I learned after I married into their family. For example, I learned that, once a month, the general suffered from blinding migraines that lasted almost a week. When the headaches struck, the general went to his room, undressed, turned off the light, locked the door, and didn't come out until the pain subsided. No one was allowed to go in, no one was allowed to knock. Eventually, he would emerge, dressed in his gray suit once more, smelling of sleep and bedsheets, his eyes puffy and bloodshot. I learned from Soraya that he and Khanum Taheri had slept in separate rooms for as long as she could remember. I learned that he could be petty, such as when he'd take a bite of the qurma his wife placed before him, sigh, and push it away. "I'll make you something else," Khanum Taheri would say, but he'd ignore her, sulk, and eat bread and onion. This made Soraya angry and her mother cry. Soraya told me he took antidepressants. I learned that he had kept his family on welfare and had never held a job in the U.S., preferring to cash government-issued checks than degrading himself with work unsuitable for a man of his stature--he saw the flea market only as a hobby, a way to socialize with his fellow Afghans. The general believed that, sooner or later, Afghanistan would be freed, the monarchy restored, and his services would once again be called upon. So every day, he donned his gray suit, wound his pocket watch, and waited.
I learned that Khanum Taheri--whom I called Khala Jamila now--had once been famous in Kabul for her enchanting singing voice. Though she had never sung professionally, she had had the talent to--I learned she could sing folk songs, ghazals, even raga, which was usually a man's domain. But as much as the general appreciated listening to music--he owned, in fact, a considerable collection of classical ghazal tapes by Afghan and Hindi singers--he believed the performing of it best left to those with lesser reputations. That she never sing in public had been one of the general's conditions when they had married. Soraya told me that her mother had wanted to sing at our wedding, only one song, but the general gave her one of his looks and the matter was buried. Khala Jamila played the lotto once a week and watched Johnny Carson every night. She spent her days in the garden, tending to her roses, geraniums, potato vines, and orchids.
When I married Soraya, the flowers and Johnny Carson took a backseat. I was the new delight in Khala Jamila's life. Unlike the general's guarded and diplomatic manners--he didn't correct me when I continued to call him "General Sahib"--Khala Jamila made no secret of how much she adored me. For one thing, I listened to her impressive list of maladies, something the general had long turned a deaf ear to. Soraya told me that, ever since her mother's stroke, every flutter in her chest was a heart attack, every aching joint the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, and every twitch of the eye another stroke. I remember the first time Khala Jamila mentioned a lump in her neck to me. "I'll skip school tomorrow and take you to the doctor," I said, to which the general smiled and said, "Then you might as well turn in your books for good, bachem. Your khala's medical charts are like the works of Rumi: They come in volumes."
But it wasn't just that she'd found an audience for her monologues of illness. I firmly believed that if I had picked up a rifle and gone on a murdering rampage, I would have still had the benefit of her unblinking love. Because I had rid her heart of its gravest malady. I had relieved her of the greatest fear of every Afghan mother: that no honorable khastegar would ask for her daughter's hand. That her daughter would age alone, husbandless, childless. Every woman needed a husband. Even if he did silence the song in her.
And, from Soraya, I learned the details of what had happened in Virginia.
We were at a wedding. Soraya's uncle, Sharif, the one who worked for the INS, was marrying his son to an Afghan girl from Newark. The wedding was at the same hall where, six months prior, Soraya and I had had our awroussi. We were standing in a crowd of guests, watching the bride accept rings from the groom's family, when we overheard two middle-aged women talking, their backs to us.
"What a lovely bride," one of them said, "Just look at her. So maghbool, like the moon."
"Yes," the other said. "And pure too. Virtuous. No boyfriends."
"I know. I tell you that boy did well not to marry his cousin."
Soraya broke down on the way home. I pulled the Ford off to the curb, parked under a streetlight on Fremont Boulevard.
"It's all right," I said, pushing back her hair. "Who cares?"
"It's so fucking unfair," she barked.
"Just forget it."
"Their sons go out to nightclubs looking for meat and get their girlfriends pregnant, they have kids out of wedlock and no one says a goddamn thing. Oh, they're just men having fun! I make one mistake and suddenly everyone is talking nang and namoos, and I have to have my face rubbed in it for the rest of my life."
I wiped a tear from her jawline, just above her birthmark, with the pad of my thumb.
"I didn't tell you," Soraya said, dabbing at her eyes, "but my father showed up with a gun that night. He told . . . him . . . that he had two bullets in the chamber, one for him and one for himself if I didn't come home. I was screaming, calling my father all kinds of names, saying he couldn't keep me locked up forever, that I wished he were dead." Fresh tears squeezed out between her lids. "I actually said that to him, that I wished he were dead.
"When he brought me home, my mother threw her arms around me and she was crying too. She was saying things but I couldn't understand any of it because she was slurring her words so badly. So my father took me up to my bedroom and sat me in front of the dresser mirror. He handed me a pair of scissors and calmly told me to cut off all my hair. He watched while I did it.
"I didn't step out of the house for weeks. And when I did, I heard whispers or imagined them everywhere I went. That was four years ago and three thousand miles away and I'm still hearing them."
"Fuck 'em," I said.
She made a sound that was half sob, half laugh. "When I told you about this on the phone the night of khastegari, I was sure you'd change your mind."
"No chance of that, Soraya."
She smiled and took my hand. "I'm so lucky to have found you. You're so different from every Afghan guy I've met."
"Let's never talk about this again, okay?"
I kissed her cheek and pulled away from the curb. As I drove, I wondered why I was different. Maybe it was because I had been raised by men; I hadn't grown up around women and had never been exposed firsthand to the double standard with which Afghan society sometimes treated them. Maybe it was because Baba had been such an unusual Afghan father, a liberal who had lived by his own rules, a maverick who had disregarded or embraced societal customs as he had seen fit.
But I think a big part of the reason I didn't care about Soraya's past was that I had one of my own. I knew all about regret.
SHORTLY AFTER BABA'S DEATH, Soraya and I moved into a one-bedroom apartment in Fremont, just a few blocks away from the general and Khala Jamila's house. Soraya's parents bought us a brown leather couch and a set of Mikasa dishes as housewarming presents. The general gave me an additional present, a brand-new IBM typewriter. In the box, he had slipped a note written in Farsi:
Amir jan, I hope you discover many tales on these keys.
General Iqbal Taheri
I sold Baba's VW bus and, to this day, I have not gone back to the flea market. I would drive to his gravesite every Friday, and, sometimes, I'd find a fresh bouquet of freesias by the headstone and know Soraya had been there too.
Soraya and I settled into the routines--and minor wonders--of married life. We shared toothbrushes and socks, passed each other the morning paper. She slept on the right side of the bed, I preferred the left. She liked fluffy pillows, I liked the hard ones. She ate her cereal dry, like a snack, and chased it with milk.
I got my acceptance at San Jose State that summer and declared an English major. I took on a security job, swing shift at a furniture warehouse in Sunnyvale. The job was dreadfully boring, but its saving grace was a considerable one: When everyone left at 6 P.M. and shadows began to crawl between aisles of plastic-covered sofas piled to the ceiling, I took out my books and studied. It was in the Pine-Sol-scented office of that furniture warehouse that I began my first novel.
Soraya joined me at San Jose State the following year and enrolled, to her father's chagrin, in the teaching track.
"I don't know why you're wasting your talents like this," the general said one night over dinner. "Did you know, Amir jan, that she earned nothing but A's in high school?" He turned to her. "An intelligent girl like you could become a lawyer, a political scientist. And, Inshallah, when Afghanistan is free, you could help write the new constitution. There would be a need for young talented Afghans like you. They might even offer you a ministry position, given your family name."
I could see Soraya holding back, her face tightening. "I'm not a girl, Padar. I'm a married woman. Besides, they'd need teachers too."
"Anyone can teach."
"Is there any more rice, Madar?" Soraya said.
After the general excused himself to meet some friends in Hayward, Khala Jamila tried to console Soraya. "He means well," she said. "He just wants you to be successful."
"So he can boast about his attorney daughter to his friends. Another medal for the general," Soraya said.
"Such nonsense you speak!"
"Successful," Soraya hissed. "At least I'm not like him, sitting around while other people fight the Shorawi, waiting for when the dust settles so he can move in and reclaim his posh little government position. Teaching may not pay much, but it's what I want to do! It's what I love, and it's a whole lot better than collecting welfare, by the way."
Khala Jamila bit her tongue. "If he ever hears you saying that, he will never speak to you again."
"Don't worry," Soraya snapped, tossing her napkin on the plate. "I won't bruise his precious ego."
IN THE SUMMER of 1988, about six months before the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, I finished my first novel, a father-son story set in Kabul, written mostly with the typewriter the general had given me. I sent query letters to a dozen agencies and was stunned one August day when I opened our mailbox and found a request from a New York agency for the completed manuscript. I mailed it the next day. Soraya kissed the carefully wrapped manuscript and Khala Jamila insisted we pass it under the Koran. She told me that she was going to do nazr for me, a vow to have a sheep slaughtered and the meat given to the poor if my book was accepted.
"Please, no nazr, Khala jan," I said, kissing her face. "Just do zakat, give the money to someone in need, okay? No sheep killing."
Six weeks later, a man named Martin Greenwalt called from New York and offered to represent me. I only told Soraya about it. "But just because I have an agent doesn't mean I'll get published. If Martin sells the novel, then we'll celebrate."
A month later, Martin called and informed me I was going to be a published novelist. When I told Soraya, she screamed.
We had a celebration dinner with Soraya's parents that night. Khala Jamila made kofta--meatballs and white rice--and white ferni. The general, a sheen of moisture in his eyes, said that he was proud of me. After General Taheri and his wife left, Soraya and I celebrated with an expensive bottle of Merlot I had bought on the way home--the general did not approve of women drinking alcohol, and Soraya didn't drink in his presence.
"I am so proud of you," she said, raising her glass to mine. "Kaka would have been proud too."
"I know," I said, thinking of Baba, wishing he could have seen me.
Later that night, after Soraya fell asleep--wine always made her sleepy--I stood on the balcony and breathed in the cool summer air. I thought of Rahim Khan and the little note of support he had written me after he'd read my first story. And I thought of Hassan. Some day, Inshallah, you will be a great writer, he had said once, and people all over the world will read your stories. There was so much goodness in my life. So much happiness. I wondered whether I deserved any of it.
The novel was released in the summer of that following year, 1989, and the publisher sent me on a five-city book tour. I became a minor celebrity in the Afghan community. That was the year that the Shorawi completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan. It should have been a time of glory for Afghans. Instead, the war raged on, this time between Afghans, the Mujahedin, against the Soviet puppet government of Najibullah, and Afghan refugees kept flocking to Pakistan. That was the year that the cold war ended, the year the Berlin Wall came down. It was the year of Tiananmen Square. In the midst of it all, Afghanistan was forgotten. And General Taheri, whose hopes had stirred awake after the Soviets pulled out, went back to winding his pocket watch.
That was also the year that Soraya and I began trying to have a child.
THE IDEA OF FATHERHOOD unleashed a swirl of emotions in me. I found it frightening, invigorating, daunting, and exhilarating all at the same time. What sort of father would I make, I wondered. I wanted to be just like Baba and I wanted to be nothing like him.
But a year passed and nothing happened. With each cycle of blood, Soraya grew more frustrated, more impatient, more irritable. By then, Khala Jamila's initially subtle hints had become overt, as in "Kho dega!" So! "When am I going to sing alahoo for my little nawasa?" The general, ever the Pashtun, never made any queries--doing so meant alluding to a sexual act between his daughter and a man, even if the man in question had been married to her for over four years. But his eyes perked up when Khala Jamila teased us about a baby.
"Sometimes, it takes a while," I told Soraya one night.
"A year isn't a while, Amir!" she said, in a terse voice so unlike her. "Something's wrong, I know it."
"Then let's see a doctor."
DR. ROSEN, a round-bellied man with a plump face and small, even teeth, spoke with a faint Eastern European accent, something remotely Slavic. He had a passion for trains--his office was littered with books about the history of railroads, model locomotives, paintings of trains trundling on tracks through green hills and over bridges. A sign above his desk read, LIFE IS A TRAIN. GET ON BOARD.
He laid out the plan for us. I'd get checked first. "Men are easy," he said, fingers tapping on his mahogany desk. "A man's plumbing is like his mind: simple, very few surprises. You ladies, on the other hand . . . well, God put a lot of thought into making you." I wondered if he fed that bit about the plumbing to all of his couples.
"Lucky us," Soraya said.
Dr. Rosen laughed. It fell a few notches short of genuine. He gave me a lab slip and a plastic jar, handed Soraya a request for some routine blood tests. We shook hands. "Welcome aboard," he said, as he showed us out.
I PASSED WITH FLYING COLORS.
The next few months were a blur of tests on Soraya: Basal body temperatures, blood tests for every conceivable hormone, urine tests, something called a "Cervical Mucus Test," ultrasounds, more blood tests, and more urine tests. Soraya underwent a procedure called a hysteroscopy--Dr. Rosen inserted a telescope into Soraya's uterus and took a look around. He found nothing. "The plumbing's clear," he announced, snapping off his latex gloves. I wished he'd stop calling it that--we weren't bathrooms. When the tests were over, he explained that he couldn't explain why we couldn't have kids. And, apparently, that wasn't so unusual. It was called "Unexplained Infertility."
Then came the treatment phase. We tried a drug called Clomiphene, and hMG, a series of shots which Soraya gave to herself. When these failed, Dr. Rosen advised in vitro fertilization. We received a polite letter from our HMO, wishing us the best of luck, regretting they couldn't cover the cost.
We used the advance I had received for my novel to pay fo