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The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner: Page 28

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"Nay, you didn't," she said.

"Oh. Good." I tipped my head and gave her a half smile. "I'll go now."
Hadn't I already said that? "Khoda hafez."

"Khoda hafez."

I began to walk. Stopped and turned. I said it before I had a chance to lose
my nerve: "Can I ask what you're reading?"

She blinked.

I held my breath. Suddenly, I felt the collective eyes of the flea market
Afghans shift to us. I imagined a hush falling. Lips stopping in mid-sentence.
Heads turning. Eyes narrowing with keen interest.

What was this? Up to that point, our encounter could have been
interpreted as a respectful inquiry, one man asking for the whereabouts of
another man. But I'd asked her a question and if she answered, we'd be... well,
we'd be chatting. Me a mojarad, a single young man, and she an unwed young
woman. One with a history, no less. This was teetering dangerously on the verge
of gossip material, and the best kind of it. Poison tongues would flap. And she
would bear the brunt of that poison, not me-I was fully aware of the Afghan
double standard that favored my gender. Not Did you see him chatting with her?
but Wooooy! Did you see how she wouldn't let him go? What a lochak!

By Afghan standards, my question had been bold. With it, I had bared
myself, and left little doubt as to my interest in her. But I was a man, and all I had
risked was a bruised ego. Bruises healed. Reputations did not. Would she take
my dare? She turned the book so the cover faced me. Wuthering Heights. "Have
you read it?" she said.

I nodded. I could feel the pulsating beat of my heart behind my eyes. "It's
a sad story."

"Sad stories make good books," she said.

"They do."

"I heard you write."

How did she know? I wondered if her father had told her, maybe she had
asked him. I immediately dismissed both scenarios as absurd. Fathers and sons
could talk freely about women. But no Afghan girl-no decent and mohtaram
Afghan girl, at least-queried her father about a young man. And no father,
especially a Pashtun with nang and namoos, would discuss a mojarad with his
daughter, not unless the fellow in question was a khastegar, a suitor, who had
done the honorable thing and sent his father to knock on the door.

Incredibly, 1 heard myself say, "Would you like to read one of my stories?

"I would like that," she said. 1 sensed an unease in her now, saw it in the
way her eyes began to flick side to side. Maybe checking for the general. I
wondered what he would say if he found me speaking for such an inappropriate
length of time with his daughter.

"Maybe I'll bring you one someday," I said. I was about to say more when
the woman I'd seen on occasion with Soraya came walking up the aisle. She was
carrying a plastic bag full of fruit. When she saw us, her eyes bounced from
Soraya to me and back. She smiled.

"Amir jan, good to see you," she said, unloading the bag on the tablecloth.
Her brow glistened with a sheen of sweat. Her red hair, coiffed like a helmet,
glittered in the sunlight--I could see bits of her scalp where the hair had thinned.
She had small green eyes buried in a cabbage-round face, capped teeth, and little
fingers like sausages. A golden Allah rested on her chest, the chain burrowed
under the skin tags and folds of her neck. "I am Jamila, Soraya jan's mother."

"Salaam, Khala jan," I said, embarrassed, as I often was around Afghans,
that she knew me and I had no idea who she was.

"How is your father?" she said.

"He's well, thank you."

"You know, your grandfather, Ghazi Sahib, the judge? Now, his uncle and
my grandfather were cousins," she said. "So you see, we're related." She smiled a
cap-toothed smile, and I noticed the right side of her mouth drooping a little. Her
eyes moved between Soraya and me again.

I'd asked Baba once why General Taheri's daughter hadn't married yet.

No suitors, Baba said. No suitable suitors, he amended. But he wouldn't say
more-Baba knew how lethal idle talk could prove to a young woman's prospects
of marrying well. Afghan men, especially those from reputable families, were
fickle creatures. A whisper here, an insinuation there, and they fled like startled
birds. So weddings had come and gone and no one had sung ahesta boro for
Soraya, no one had painted her palms with henna, no one had held a Koran over

her headdress, and it had been General Taheri who'd danced with her at every

And now, this woman, this mother, with her heartbreakingly eager,
crooked smile and the barely veiled hope in her eyes. I cringed a little at the
position of power I'd been granted, and all because I had won at the genetic
lottery that had determined my sex.

I could never read the thoughts in the general's eyes, but I knew this
much about his wife: If I was going to have an adversary in this--whatever this
was--it would not be her.

"Sit down, Amir jan," she said. "Soraya, get him a chair, hachem. And wash
one of those peaches. They're sweet and fresh."

"Nay, thank you," I said. "I should get going. My father's waiting."

"Oh?" Khanum Taheri said, clearly impressed that I'd done the polite
thing and declined the offer. "Then here, at least have this." She threw a handful
of kiwis and a few peaches into a paper bag and insisted I take them. "Carry my
Salaam to your father. And come back to see us again."

"I will. Thank you, Khala jan," I said. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw
Soraya looking away.

"I THOUGHT YOU WERE GETTING COKES," Baba said, taking the bag of peaches
from me. He was looking at me in a simultaneously serious and playful way. I
began to make something up, but he bit into a peach and waved his hand, "Don't
bother, Amir. Just remember what I said."

THAT NIGHT IN BED, I thought of the way dappled sunlight had danced in
Soraya's eyes, and of the delicate hollows above her collarbone. I replayed our
conversation over and over in my head. Had she said I heard you write or I heard
you're a writer? Which was it? I tossed in my sheets and stared at the ceiling,
dismayed at the thought of six laborious, interminable nights of yelda until I saw
her again.

IT WENT ON LIKE THAT for a few weeks. I'd wait until the general went for a
stroll, then I'd walk past the Taheris' stand. If Khanum Taheri was there, she'd
offer me tea and a kolcha and we'd chat about Kabul in the old days, the people
we knew, her arthritis. Undoubtedly, she had noticed that my appearances
always coincided with her husband's absences, but she never let on. "Oh you just
missed your Kaka," she'd say. I actually liked it when Khanum Taheri was there,
and not just because of her amiable ways; Soraya was more relaxed, more
talkative with her mother around. As if her presence legitimized whatever was
happening between us-though certainly not to the same degree that the
general's would have. Khanum Taheri's chaperoning made our meetings, if not
gossip-proof, then less gossip-worthy, even if her borderline fawning on me
clearly embarrassed Soraya.

One day, Soraya and I were alone at their booth, talking.
She was telling
me about school, how she too was working on her general education classes, at
Ohlone Junior College in Fremont.

"What will you major in?"

"I want to be a teacher," she said.

"Really? Why?"

"I've always wanted to. When we lived in Virginia, I became ESL certified
and now I teach at the public library one night a week. My mother was a teacher
too, she taught Farsi and history at Zarghoona High School for girls in Kabul."

A potbellied man in a deerstalker hat offered three dollars for a five-dollar
set of candlesticks and Soraya let him have it. She dropped the money in a little

candy box by her feet. She looked at me shyly. "I want to tell you a story," she
said, "but I'm a little embarrassed about it."

"Tell me."

"It's kind of silly."

"Please tell me."

She laughed. "Well, when I was in fourth grade in Kabul, my father hired a
woman named Ziba to help around the house. She had a sister in Iran, in Mashad,
and, since Ziba was illiterate, she'd ask me to write her sister letters once in a
while. And when the sister replied, I'd read her letter to Ziba. One day, I asked
her if she'd like to learn to read and write. She gave me this big smile, crinkling
her eyes, and said she'd like that very much. So we'd sit at the kitchen table after
I was done with my own schoolwork and I'd teach her Alef-beh. I remember
looking up sometimes in the middle of homework and seeing Ziba in the kitchen,
stirring meat in the pressure cooker, then sitting down with a pencil to do the
alphabet homework I'd assigned to her the night before.

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