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The Kite Runner: Page 27
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"Zendagi migzara," he said. Life goes on.
He turned his eyes to me. "We Afghans are prone to a considerable degree of
exaggeration, bachem, and I have heard many men foolishly labeled great. But
your father has the distinction of belonging to the minority who truly deserves
the label." This little speech sounded to me the way his suit looked: often used
and unnaturally shiny.
"You're flattering me," Baba said.
"I am not," the general said, tilting his head sideways and pressing his
hand to his chest to convey humility. "Boys and girls must know the legacy of
their fathers." He turned to me. "Do you appreciate your father, bachem? Do you
really appreciate him?"
"Balay, General Sahib, I do," I said, wishing he'd not call me "my child."
"Then congratulations, you are already halfway to being a man," he said
with no trace of humor, no irony, the compliment of the casually arrogant.
"Padar jan, you forgot your tea." A young woman's voice. She was
standing behind us, a slim-hipped beauty with velvety coal black hair, an open
thermos and Styrofoam cup in her hand. I blinked, my heart quickening. She had
thick black eyebrows that touched in the middle like the arched wings of a flying
bird, and the gracefully hooked nose of a princess from old Persia-maybe that of
Tahmineh, Rostam's wife and Sohrab's mother from the _Shahnamah_. Her eyes,
walnut brown and shaded by fanned lashes, met mine. Held for a moment. Flew
"You are so kind, my dear," General Taheri said. He took the cup from her.
Before she turned to go, I saw she had a brown, sickle-shaped birthmark on the
smooth skin just above her left jawline. She walked to a dull gray van two aisles
away and put the thermos inside. Her hair spilled to one side when she kneeled
amid boxes of old records and paperbacks.
"My daughter, Soraya jan," General Taheri said. He took a deep breath like
a man eager to change the subject and checked his gold pocket watch. "Well, time
to go and set up." He and Baba kissed on the cheek and he shook my hand with
both of his. "Best of luck with the writing," he said, looking me in the eye. His pale
blue eyes revealed nothing of the thoughts behind them.
For the rest of that day, I fought the urge to look toward the gray van.
IT CAME TO ME on our way home. Taheri, I knew I'd heard that name before.
"Wasn't there some story floating around about Taheri's daughter?" I said
to Baba, trying to sound casual.
"You know me," Baba said, inching the bus along the queue exiting the flea
market. "Talk turns to gossip and I walk away."
"But there was, wasn't there?" 1 said.
"Why do you ask?" He was looking at me coyly.
I shrugged and fought back a smile. "Just curious, Baba.
"Really? Is that all?" he said, his eyes playful, lingering on mine. "Has she
made an impression on you?"
I rolled my eyes. "Please, Baba."
He smiled, and swung the bus out of the flea market. We headed for
Highway 680. We drove in silence for a while. "All I've heard is that there was a
man once and things... didn't go well." He said this gravely, like he'd disclosed to
me that she had breast cancer.
"I hear she is a decent girl, hardworking and kind. But no khastegars, no
suitors, have knocked on the general's door since." Baba sighed. "It may be
unfair, but what happens in a few days, sometimes even a single day, can change
the course of a whole lifetime, Amir," he said.
LYING AWAKE IN BED that night, I thought of Soraya Taheri's sickle-shaped
birthmark, her gently hooked nose, and the way her luminous eyes had fleetingly
held mine. My heart stuttered at the thought of her. Soraya Taheri. My Swap
In Afghanistan, _yelda_ is the first night of the month of _Jadi_, the first night of
winter, and the longest night of the year. As was the tradition, Hassan and I used
to stay up late, our feet tucked under the kursi, while Ali tossed apple skin into
the stove and told us ancient tales of sultans and thieves to pass that longest of
nights. It was from Ali that I learned the lore of _yelda_, that bedeviled moths
flung themselves at candle flames, and wolves climbed mountains looking for the
sun. Ali swore that if you ate water melon the night of _yelda_, you wouldn't get
thirsty the coming summer.
When I was older, I read in my poetry books that _yelda_ was the starless
night tormented lovers kept vigil, enduring the endless dark, waiting for the sun
to rise and bring with it their loved one. After I met Soraya Taheri, every night of
the week became a _yelda_ for me. And when Sunday mornings came, I rose from
bed, Soraya Taheri's brown-eyed face already in my head. In Baba's bus, I
counted the miles until I'd see her sitting barefoot, arranging cardboard boxes of
yellowed encyclopedias, her heels white against the asphalt, silver bracelets
jingling around her slender wrists. I'd think of the shadow her hair cast on the
ground when it slid off her back and hung down like a velvet curtain. Soraya.
Swap Meet Princess. The morning sun to my yelda.
I invented excuses to stroll down the aisle-which Baba acknowledged
with a playful smirk-and pass the Taheris' stand. I would wave at the general,
perpetually dressed in his shiny over-pressed gray suit, and he would wave back.
Sometimes he'd get up from his director's chair and we'd make small talk about
my writing, the war, the day's bargains. And I'd have to will my eyes not to peel
away, not to wander to where Soraya sat reading a paperback. The general and I
would say our good-byes and I'd try not to slouch as I walked away.
Sometimes she sat alone, the general off to some other row to socialize,
and I would walk by, pretending not to know her, but dying to. Sometimes she
was there with a portly middle-aged woman with pale skin and dyed red hair. I
promised myself that I would talk to her before the summer was over, but
schools reopened, the leaves reddened, yellowed, and fell, the rains of winter
swept in and wakened Baba's joints, baby leaves sprouted once more, and I still
hadn't had the heart, the dil, to even look her in the eye.
The spring quarter ended in late May 1985. 1 aced all of my general
education classes, which was a minor miracle given how I'd sit in lectures and
think of the soft hook of Soraya's nose.
Then, one sweltering Sunday that summer, Baba and I were at the flea
market, sitting at our booth, fanning our faces with news papers. Despite the sun
bearing down like a branding iron, the market was crowded that day and sales
had been strong-it was only 12:30 but we'd already made $160. 1 got up,
stretched, and asked Baba if he wanted a Coke. He said he'd love one.
Be careful, Amir," he said as I began to walk. "Of what, Baba?
"I am not an ahmaq, so don't play stupid with me."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Remember this," Baba said, pointing at me, "The man is a Pashtun to the
root. He has nang and namoos." Nang. Namoos. Honor and pride. The tenets of
Pashtun men. Especially when it came to the chastity of a wife. Or a daughter.
"I'm only going to get us drinks."
"Just don't embarrass me, that's all I ask."
"I won't. God, Baba."
Baba lit a cigarette and started fanning himself again.
I walked toward the concession booth initially, then turned left at the T-
shirt stand--where, for $5, you could have the face of Jesus, Elvis, Jim Morrison,
or all three, pressed on a white nylon T-shirt. Mariachi music played overhead,
and I smelled pickles and grilled meat.
I spotted the Taheris' gray van two rows from ours, next to a kiosk selling
mango-on-a-stick. She was alone, reading. White ankle-length summer dress
today. Open-toed sandals. Hair pulled back and crowned with a tulip-shaped bun.
I meant to simply walk by again and I thought I had, except suddenly I was
standing at the edge of the Taheris' white tablecloth, staring at Soraya across
curling irons and old neckties. She looked up.
"Salaam," I said. "I'm sorry to be mozahem, I didn't mean to disturb you."
"Is General Sahib here today?" I said. My ears were burning. I couldn't
bring myself to look her in the eye.
"He went that way," she said. Pointed to her right. The bracelet slipped
down to her elbow, silver against olive.
"Will you tell him I stopped by to pay my respects?" I said.
"Thank you," I said. "Oh, and my name is Amir. In case you need to know.
So you can tell him. That I stopped by. To... pay my respects."
I shifted on my feet, cleared my throat. "I'll go now. Sorry to have
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