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The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner: Page 2

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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," 1 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

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 Ah, 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, Ah had a congenital paralysis of his lower facial muscles,
a condition that rendered him unable to smile and left him perpetually grim-
faced. It was an odd thing to see the stone-faced Ah 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 Ah, 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 1
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 0 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.


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.

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