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The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner: Page 26

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The last time I had done that, I had damned myself.

Baba sighed and, this time, tossed a whole handful of cardamom seeds in
his mouth.

SOMETIMES, I GOT BEHIND the wheel of my Ford, rolled down the windows, and
drove for hours, from the East Bay to the South Bay, up the Peninsula and back. I
drove through the grids of cottonwood-lined streets in our Fremont
neighborhood, where people who'd never shaken hands with kings lived in
shabby, flat one-story houses with barred windows, where old cars like mine
dripped oil on blacktop driveways. Pencil gray chain-link fences closed off the
backyards in our neighborhood. Toys, bald tires, and beer bottles with peeling
labels littered unkempt front lawns. I drove past tree-shaded parks that smelled
like bark, past strip malls big enough to hold five simultaneous Buzkashi
tournaments. I drove the Torino up the hills of Los Altos, idling past estates with
picture windows and silver lions guarding the wrought-iron gates, homes with
cherub fountains lining the manicured walkways and no Ford Torinos in the
drive ways. Homes that made Baba's house in Wazir Akbar Khan look like a
servant's hut.

I'd get up early some Saturday mornings and drive south on Highway 17,
push the Ford up the winding road through the mountains to Santa Cruz. I would
park by the old lighthouse and wait for sunrise, sit in my car and watch the fog
rolling in from the sea. In Afghanistan, I had only seen the ocean at the cinema.
Sitting in the dark next to Hassan, I had always wondered if it was true what I'd
read, that sea air smelled like salt. I used to tell Hassan that someday we'd walk
on a strip of seaweed-strewn beach, sink our feet in the sand, and watch the
water recede from our toes. The first time I saw the Pacific, I almost cried. It was
as vast and blue as the oceans on the movie screens of my childhood.

Sometimes in the early evening, I parked the car and walked up a freeway
overpass. My face pressed against the fence, I'd try to count the blinking red
taillights inching along, stretching as far as my eyes could see. BMWs. Saabs.
Porsches. Cars I'd never seen in Kabul, where most people drove Russian Volgas,
old Opels, or Iranian Paikans.

Almost two years had passed since we had arrived in the U.S., and I was
still marveling at the size of this country, its vastness. Beyond every freeway lay
another freeway, beyond every city another city hills beyond mountains and
mountains beyond hills, and, beyond those, more cities and more people.

Long before the Roussi army marched into Afghanistan, long before
villages were burned and schools destroyed, long before mines were planted like
seeds of death and children buried in rock-piled graves, Kabul had become a city
of ghosts for me. A city of harelipped ghosts.

America was different. America was a river, roaring along, unmindful of
the past. I could wade into this river, let my sins drown to the bottom, let the
waters carry me someplace far. Someplace with no ghosts, no memories, and no

If for nothing else, for that, I embraced America.

THE FOLLOWING SUMMER, the summer of 1984-the summer I turned twenty-
one-Baba sold his Buick and bought a dilapidated 71 Volkswagen bus for $550
from an old Afghan acquaintance who'd been a high-school science teacher in
Kabul. The neighbors' heads turned the afternoon the bus sputtered up the street

and farted its way across our lot. Baba killed the engine and let the bus roll
silently into our designated spot. We sank in our seats, laughed until tears rolled
down our cheeks, and, more important, until we were sure the neighbors weren't
watching anymore. The bus was a sad carcass of rusted metal, shattered
windows replaced with black garbage bags, balding tires, and upholstery
shredded down to the springs. But the old teacher had reassured Baba that the
engine and transmission were sound and, on that account, the man hadn't lied.

On Saturdays, Baba woke me up at dawn. As he dressed, I scanned the
classifieds in the local papers and circled the garage sale ads. We mapped our
route--Fremont, Union City, Newark, and Hayward first, then San Jose, Milpitas,
Sunnyvale, and Campbell if time permitted. Baba drove the bus, sipping hot tea
from the thermos, and I navigated. We stopped at garage sales and bought
knickknacks that people no longer wanted. We haggled over old sewing
machines, one-eyed Barbie dolls, wooden tennis rackets, guitars with missing
strings, and old Electrolux vacuum cleaners. By mid-afternoon, we'd filled the
back of the VW bus with used goods. Then early Sunday mornings, we drove to
the San Jose flea market off Berryessa, rented a spot, and sold the junk for a small
profit: a Chicago record that we'd bought for a quarter the day before might go
for $1, or $4 for a set of five; a ramshackle Singer sewing machine purchased for
$10 might, after some bargaining, bring in $25.

By that summer, Afghan families were working an entire section of the
San Jose flea market.
Afghan music played in the aisles of the Used Goods section.
There was an unspoken code of behavior among Afghans at the flea market: You
greeted the guy across the aisle, you invited him for a bite of potato bolani or a
little qabuli, and you chatted. You offered tassali, condolences, for the death of a
parent, congratulated the birth of children, and shook your head mournfully
when the conversation turned to Afghanistan and the Roussis-which it
inevitably did. But you avoided the topic of Saturday. Because it might turn out
that the fellow across the isle was the guy you'd nearly blindsided at the freeway
exit yesterday in order to beat him to a promising garage sale.

The only thing that flowed more than tea in those aisles was Afghan
gossip. The flea market was where you sipped green tea with almond kolchas,
and learned whose daughter had broken off an engagement and run off with her
American boyfriend, who used to be Parchami-a communist-in Kabul, and who
had bought a house with under-the-table money while still on welfare. Tea,
Politics, and Scandal, the ingredients of an Afghan Sunday at the flea market.

I ran the stand sometimes as Baba sauntered down the aisle, hands
respectfully pressed to his chest, greeting people he knew from Kabul:
mechanics and tailors selling hand-me-down wool coats and scraped bicycle

helmets, alongside former ambassadors, out-of-work surgeons, and university

One early Sunday morning in July 1984, while Baba set up, I bought two
cups of coffee from the concession stand and returned to find Baba talking to an
older, distinguished-looking man. I put the cups on the rear bumper of the bus,
next to the REAGAN /BUSH FOR '84 sticker.

"Amir," Baba said, motioning me over, "this is General Sahib, Mr. Iqbal


He was a decorated general in Kabul. He worked for the Ministry of

Taheri. Why did the name sound familiar? The general laughed like a man
used to attending formal parties where he'd laughed on cue at the minor jokes of
important people. He had wispy silver-gray hair combed back from his smooth,
tanned forehead, and tufts of white in his bushy eye brows. He smelled like
cologne and wore an iron-gray three-piece suit, shiny from too many pressings;
the gold chain of a pocket watch dangled from his vest.

"Such a lofty introduction," he said, his voice deep and cultured. "_Salaam,
bachem_." Hello, my child.

"_Salaam, _General Sahib," I said, shaking his hand. His thin hands belied a
firm grip, as if steel hid beneath the moisturized skin.

"Amir is going to be a great writer," Baba said. I did a double take at this.
"He has finished his first year of college and earned A's in all of his courses."

"Junior college," I corrected him.

"_Mashallah_," General Taheri said. "Will you be writing about our
country, history perhaps? Economics?"

"I write fiction," I said, thinking of the dozen or so short stories I had
written in the leather-bound notebook Rahim Khan had given me, wondering
why I was suddenly embarrassed by them in this man's presence.

"Ah, a storyteller," the general said. "Well, people need stories to divert
them at difficult times like this." He put his hand on Baba's shoulder and turned
to me. "Speaking of stories, your father and I hunted pheasant together one
summer day in Jalalabad," he said. "It was a marvelous time. If I recall correctly,
your father's eye proved as keen in the hunt as it had in business."

Baba kicked a wooden tennis racket on our tarpaulin spread with the toe
of his boot. "Some business."

General Taheri managed a simultaneously sad and polite smile, heaved a
sigh, and gently patted Baba's shoulder.

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