The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner/18

r ties at the Wazir Akbar Khan house and picnics in Paghman would surely return. So he'd given the house to Rahim Khan to keep watch over until that day.

Rahim Khan told me how, when the Northern Alliance took over Kabul between 1992 and 1996, different factions claimed different parts of Kabul. "If you went from the Shar-e-Nau section to Kerteh-Parwan to buy a carpet, you risked getting shot by a sniper or getting blown up by a rocket--if you got past all the checkpoints, that was. You practically needed a visa to go from one neighborhood to the other. So people just stayed put, prayed the next rocket wouldn't hit their home." He told me how people knocked holes in the walls of their homes so they could bypass the dangerous streets and would move down the block from hole to hole. In other parts, people moved about in underground tunnels.

"Why didn't you leave?" I said.

"Kabul was my home. It still is." He snickered. "Remember the street that went from your house to the Qishla, the military barracks next to Istiqlal School?"

"Yes." It was the shortcut to school. I remembered the day Hassan and I crossed it and the soldiers had teased Hassan about his mother. Hassan had cried in the cinema later, and I'd put an arm around him.

"When the Taliban rolled in and kicked the Alliance out of Kabul, I actually danced on that street," Rahim Khan said. "And, believe me, I wasn't alone. People were celebrating at Chaman, at Deh-Mazang, greeting the Taliban in the streets, climbing their tanks and posing for pictures with them. People were so tired of the constant fighting, tired of the rockets, the gunfire, the explosions, tired of watching Gulbuddin and his cohorts firing on anything that moved. The Alliance did more damage to Kabul than the Shorawi. They destroyed your father's orphanage, did you know that?"

"Why?" I said. "Why would they destroy an orphanage?" I remembered sitting behind Baba the day they opened the orphanage. The wind had knocked off his caracul hat and everyone had laughed, then stood and clapped when he'd delivered his speech. And now it was just another pile of rubble. All the money Baba had spent, all those nights he'd sweated over the blueprints, all the visits to the construction site to make sure every brick, every beam, and every block was laid just right . . .

"Collateral damage," Rahim Khan said. "You don't want to know, Amir jan, what it was like sifting through the rubble of that orphanage. There were body parts of children . . . "

"So when the Taliban came . . . "

"They were heroes," Rahim Khan said.

"Peace at last."

"Yes, hope is a strange thing. Peace at last. But at what price?" A violent coughing fit gripped Rahim Khan and rocked his gaunt body back and forth. When he spat into his handkerchief, it immediately stained red. I thought that was as good a time as any to address the elephant sweating with us in the tiny room.

"How are you?" I asked. "I mean really, how are you?"

"Dying, actually," he said in a gurgling voice. Another round of coughing. More blood on the handkerchief. He wiped his mouth, blotted his sweaty brow from one wasted temple to the other with his sleeve, and gave me a quick glance. When he nodded, I knew he had read the next question on my face. "Not long," he breathed.

"How long?"

He shrugged. Coughed again. "I don't think I'll see the end of this summer," he said.

"Let me take you home with me. I can find you a good doctor. They're coming up with new treatments all the time. There are new drugs and experimental treatments, we could enroll you in one . . ." I was rambling and I knew it. But it was better than crying, which I was probably going to do anyway.

He let out a chuff of laughter, revealed missing lower incisors. It was the most tired laughter I'd ever heard. "I see America has infused you with the optimism that has made her so great. That's very good. We're a melancholic people, we Afghans, aren't we? Often, we wallow too much in ghamkhori and self-pity. We give in to loss, to suffering, accept it as a fact of life, even see it as necessary. Zendagi migzara, we say, life goes on. But I am not surrendering to fate here, I am being pragmatic. I have seen several good doctors here and they have given the same answer. I trust them and believe them. There is such a thing as God's will."

"There is only what you do and what you don't do," I said.

Rahim Khan laughed. "You sounded like your father just now. I miss him so much. But it is God's will, Amir jan. It really is." He paused. "Besides, there's another reason I asked you to come here. I wanted to see you before I go, yes, but something else too."


"You know all those years I lived in your father's house after you left?"


"I wasn't alone for all of them. Hassan lived there with me."

"Hassan," I said. When was the last time I had spoken his name? Those thorny old barbs of guilt bore into me once more, as if speaking his name had broken a spell, set them free to torment me anew. Suddenly the air in Rahim Khan's little flat was too thick, too hot, too rich with the smell of the street.

"I thought about writing you and telling you before, but I wasn't sure you wanted to know. Was I wrong?"

The truth was no. The lie was yes. I settled for something in between. "I don't know."

He coughed another patch of blood into the handkerchief. When he bent his head to spit, I saw honey-crusted sores on his scalp. "I brought you here because I am going to ask something of you. I'm going to ask you to do something for me. But before I do, I want to tell you about Hassan. Do you understand?"

"Yes," I murmured.

"I want to tell you about him. I want to tell you everything. You will listen?"

I nodded.

Then Rahim Khan sipped some more tea. Rested his head against the wall and spoke.


There were a lot of reasons why I went to Hazarajat to find Hassan in 1986. The biggest one, Allah forgive me, was that I was lonely. By then, most of my friends and relatives had either been killed or had escaped the country to Pakistan or Iran. I barely knew anyone in Kabul anymore, the city where I had lived my entire life. Everybody had fled. I would take a walk in the Karteh-Parwan section--where the melon vendors used to hang out in the old days, you remember that spot?--and I wouldn't recognize anyone there. No one to greet, no one to sit down with for chai, no one to share stories with, just Roussi soldiers patrolling the streets. So eventually, I stopped going out to the city. I would spend my days in your father's house, up in the study, reading your mother's old books, listening to the news, watching the communist propaganda on television. Then I would pray namaz, cook something, eat, read some more, pray again, and go to bed. I would rise in the morning, pray, do it all over again.

And with my arthritis, it was getting harder for me to maintain the house. My knees and back were always aching--I would get up in the morning and it would take me at least an hour to shake the stiffness from my joints, especially in the wintertime. I did not want to let your father's house go to rot; we had all had many good times in that house, so many memories, Amir jan. It was not right--your father had designed that house himself; it had meant so much to him, and besides, I had promised him I would care for it when he and you left for Pakistan. Now it was just me and the house and . . . I did my best. I tried to water the trees every few days, cut the lawn, tend to the flowers, fix things that needed fixing, but, even then, I was not a young man anymore.

But even so, I might have been able to manage. At least for a while longer. But when news of your father's death reached me . . . for the first time, I felt a terrible loneliness in that house. An unbearable emptiness.

So one day, I fueled up the Buick and drove up to Hazarajat. I remembered that, after Ali dismissed himself from the house, your father told me he and Hassan had moved to a small village just outside Bamiyan. Ali had a cousin there as I recalled. I had no idea if Hassan would still be there, if anyone would even know of him or his whereabouts. After all, it had been ten years since Ali and Hassan had left your father's house. Hassan would have been a grown man in 1986, twenty-two, twenty-three years old. If he was even alive, that is--the Shorawi, may they rot in hell for what they did to our watan, killed so many of our young men. I don't have to tell you that.

But, with the grace of God, I found him there. It took very little searching--all I had to do was ask a few questions in Bamiyan and people pointed me to his village. I do not even recall its name, or whether it even had one. But I remember it was a scorching summer day and I was driving up a rutted dirt road, nothing on either side but sunbaked bushes, gnarled, spiny tree trunks, and dried grass like pale straw. I passed a dead donkey rotting on the side of the road. And then I turned a corner and, right in the middle of that barren land, I saw a cluster of mud houses, beyond them nothing but broad sky and mountains like jagged teeth.

The people in Bamiyan had told me I would find him easily--he lived in the only house in the village that had a walled garden. The mud wall, short and pocked with holes, enclosed the tiny house--which was really not much more than a glorified hut. Barefoot children were playing on the street, kicking a ragged tennis ball with a stick, and they stared when I pulled up and killed the engine. I knocked on the wooden door and stepped through into a yard that had very little in it save for a parched strawberry patch and a bare lemon tree. There was a tandoor in the corner in the shadow of an acacia tree and I saw a man squatting beside it. He was placing dough on a large wooden spatula and slapping it against the walls of the tandoor. He dropped the dough when he saw me. I had to make him stop kissing my hands.

"Let me look at you," I said. He stepped away. He was so tall now--I stood on my toes and still just came up to his chin. The Bamiyan sun had toughened his skin, and turned it several shades darker than I remembered, and he had lost a few of his front teeth. There were sparse strands of hair on his chin. Other than that, he had those same narrow green eyes, that scar on his upper lip, that round face, that affable smile. You would have recognized him, Amir jan. I am sure of it.

We went inside. There was a young light-skinned Hazara woman sewing a shawl in a corner of the room. She was visibly expecting. "This is my wife, Rahim Khan," Hassan said proudly. "Her name is Farzana jan." She was a shy woman, so courteous she spoke in a voice barely higher than a whisper and she would not raise her pretty hazel eyes to meet my gaze. But the way she was looking at Hassan, he might as well have been sitting on the throne at the Arg.

"When is the baby coming?" I said after we all settled around the adobe room. There was nothing in the room, just a frayed rug, a few dishes, a pair of mattresses, and a lantern.

"Inshallah, this winter," Hassan said. "I am praying for a boy to carry on my father's name."

"Speaking of Ali, where is he?"

Hassan dropped his gaze. He told me that Ali and his cousin--who had owned the house--had been killed by a land mine two years before, just outside of Bamiyan. A land mine. Is there a more Afghan way of dying, Amir jan? And for some crazy reason, I became absolutely certain that it had been Ali's right leg--his twisted polio leg--that had finally betrayed him and stepped on that land mine. I was deeply saddened to hear Ali had died. Your father and I grew up together, as you know, and Ali had been with him as long as I could remember. I remember when we were all little, the year Ali got polio and almost died. Your father would walk around the house all day crying.

Farzana made us shorwa with beans, turnips, and potatoes. We washed our hands and dipped fresh naan from the tandoor into the shorwa--it was the best meal I had had in months. It was then that I asked Hassan to move to Kabul with me. I told him about the house, how I could not care for it by myself anymore. I told him I would pay him well, that he and his khanum would be comfortable. They looked to each other and did not say anything. Later, after we had washed our hands and Farzana had served us grapes, Hassan said the village was his home now; he and Farzana had made a life for themselves there.

"And Bamiyan is so close. We know people there. Forgive me, Rahim Khan. I pray you understand."

"Of course," I said. "You have nothing to apologize for. I understand."

It was midway through tea after shorwa that Hassan asked about you. I told him you were in America, but that I did not know much more. Hassan had so many questions about you. Had you married? Did you have children? How tall were you? Did you still fly kites and go to the cinema? Were you happy? He said he had befriended an old Farsi teacher in Bamiyan who had taught him to read and write. If he wrote you a letter, would I pass it on to you? And did I think you would write back? I told him what I knew of you from the few phone conversations I had had with your father, but mostly I did not know how to answer him. Then he asked me about your father. When I told him, Hassan buried his face in his hands and broke into tears. He wept like a child for the rest of that night.

They insisted that I spend the night there. Farzana fixed a cot for me and left me a glass of well water in case I got thirsty. All night, I heard her whispering to Hassan, and heard him sobbing.

In the morning, Hassan told me he and Farzana had decided to move to Kabul with me.

"I should not have come here," I said. "You were right, Hassan jan. You have a zendagi, a life here. It was presumptuous of me to just show up and ask you to drop everything. It is me who needs to be forgiven."

"We don't have that much to drop, Rahim Khan," Hassan said. His eyes were still red and puffy. "We'll go with you. We'll help you take care of the house."

"Are you absolutely sure?"

He nodded and dropped his head. "Agha sahib was like my second father . . . God give him peace."

They piled their things in the center of a few worn rags and tied the corners together. We loaded the bundle into the Buick. Hassan stood in the threshold of the house and held the Koran as we all kissed it and passed under it. Then we left for Kabul. I remember as I was pulling away, Hassan turned to take a last look at their home.

When we got to Kabul, I discovered that Hassan had no intention of moving into the house. "But all these rooms are empty, Hassan jan. No one is going to live in them," I said.

But he would not. He said it was a matter of ihtiram, a matter of respect. He and Farzana moved their things into the hut in the backyard, where he was born. I pleaded for them to move into one of the guest bedrooms upstairs, but Hassan would hear nothing of it. "What will Amir agha think?" he said to me. "What will he think when he comes back to Kabul after the war and finds that I have assumed his place in the house?" Then, in mourning for your father, Hassan wore black for the next forty days.

I did not want them to, but the two of them did all the cooking, all the cleaning. Hassan tended to the flowers in the garden, soaked the roots, picked off yellowing leaves, and planted rosebushes. He painted the walls. In the house, he swept rooms no one had slept in for years, and cleaned bathrooms no one had bathed in. Like he was preparing the house for someone's return. Do you remember the wall behind the row of corn your father had planted, Amir jan? What did you and Hassan call it, "the Wall of Ailing Corn"? A rocket destroyed a whole section of that wall in the middle of the night early that fall. Hassan rebuilt the wall with his own hands, brick by brick, until it stood whole again. I do not know what I would have done if he had not been there.

Then late that fall, Farzana gave birth to a stillborn baby girl. Hassan kissed the baby's lifeless face, and we buried her in the backyard, near the sweetbrier bushes. We covered the little mound with leaves from the poplar trees. I said a prayer for her. Farzana stayed in the hut all day and wailed--it is a heartbreaking sound, Amir jan, the wailing of a mother. I pray to Allah you never hear it.

Outside the walls of that house, there was a war raging. But the three of us, in your father's house, we made our own little haven from it. My vision started going by the late 1980s, so I had Hassan read me your mother's books. We would sit in the foyer, by the stove, and Hassan would read me from Masnawi or Khayyam, as Farzana cooked in the kitchen. And every morning, Hassan placed a flower on the little mound by the sweetbrier bushes.

In early 1990, Farzana became pregnant again. It was that same year, in the middle of the summer, that a woman covered in a sky blue burqa knocked on the front gates one morning. When I walked up to the gates, she was swaying on her feet, like she was too weak to even stand. I asked her what she wanted, but she would not answer.

"Who are you?" I said. But she just collapsed right there in the driveway. I yelled for Hassan and he helped me carry her into the house, to the living room. We lay her on the sofa and took off her burqa. Beneath it, we found a toothless woman with stringy graying hair and sores on her arms. She looked like she had not eaten for days. But the worst of it by far was her face. Someone had taken a knife to it and . . . Amir jan, the slashes cut this way and that way. One of the cuts went from cheekbone to hairline and it had not spared her left eye on the way. It was grotesque. I patted her brow with a wet cloth and she opened her eyes. "Where is Hassan?" she whispered.

"I'm right here," Hassan said. He took her hand and squeezed it.

Her good eye rolled to him. "I have walked long and far to see if you are as beautiful in the flesh as you are in my dreams. And you are. Even more." She pulled his hand to her scarred face. "Smile for me. Please."

Hassan did and the old woman wept. "You smiled coming out of me, did anyone ever tell you? And I wouldn't even hold you. Allah forgive me, I wouldn't even hold you."

None of us had seen Sanaubar since she had eloped with a band of singers and dancers in 1964, just after she had given birth to Hassan. You never saw her, Amir, but in her youth, she was a vision. She had a dimpled smile and a walk that drove men crazy. No one who passed her on the street, be it a man or a woman, could look at her only once.

And now . . .

Hassan dropped her hand and bolted out of the house. I went after him, but he was too fast. I saw him running up the hill where you two used to play, his feet kicking up plumes of dust. I let him go. I sat with Sanaubar all day as the sky went from bright blue to purple. Hassan still had not come back when night fell and moonlight bathed the clouds. Sanaubar cried that coming back had been a mistake, maybe even a worse one than leaving. But I made her stay. Hassan would return, I kn