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The Kite Runner


The Kite Runner: Page 3


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And in those dreams, I can never tell
Baba from the bear.



It was Rahim Khan who first referred to him as what eventually became
Baba's famous nickname, _Toophan agha_, or "Mr. Hurricane." It was an apt
enough nickname. My father was a force of nature, a towering Pashtun specimen
with a thick beard, a wayward crop of curly brown hair as unruly as the man
himself, hands that looked capable of uprooting a willow tree, and a black glare
that would "drop the devil to his knees begging for mercy," as Rahim Khan used
to say. At parties, when all six-foot-five of him thundered into the room, attention
shifted to him like sunflowers turning to the sun.



Baba was impossible to ignore, even in his sleep. I used to bury cotton
wisps in my ears, pull the blanket over my head, and still the sounds of Baba's
snoring-so much like a growling truck engine-penetrated the walls. And my
room was across the hall from Baba's bedroom. How my mother ever managed
to sleep in the same room as him is a mystery to me. It's on the long list of things
I would have asked my mother if I had ever met her.




In the late 1960s, when I was five or six, Baba decided to build an
orphanage. I heard the story through Rahim Khan. He told me Baba had drawn
the blueprints himself despite the fact that he'd had no architectural experience
at all. Skeptics had urged him to stop his foolishness and hire an architect. Of
course, Baba refused, and everyone shook their heads in dismay at his obstinate
ways. Then Baba succeeded and everyone shook their heads in awe at his
triumphant ways. Baba paid for the construction of the two-story orphanage, just
off the main strip of Jadeh Maywand south of the Kabul River, with his own
money. Rahim Khan told me Baba had personally funded the entire project,
paying for the engineers, electricians, plumbers, and laborers, not to mention the
city officials whose "mustaches needed oiling."



It took three years to build the orphanage.
I was eight by then. I
remember the day before the orphanage opened, Baba took me to Ghargha Lake,
a few miles north of Kabul. He asked me to fetch Hassan too, but 1 lied and told
him Hassan had the runs. I wanted Baba all to myself. And besides, one time at
Ghargha Lake, Hassan and I were skimming stones and Hassan made his stone
skip eight times. The most I managed was five. Baba was there, watching, and he
patted Hassan on the back. Even put his arm around his shoulder.



We sat at a picnic table on the banks of the lake, just Baba and me, eating
boiled eggs with _kofta_ sandwiches-meatballs and pickles wrapped in _naan_.



The water was a deep blue and sunlight glittered on its looking glass-clear
surface. On Fridays, the lake was bustling with families out for a day in the sun.
But it was midweek and there was only Baba and me, us and a couple of
longhaired, bearded tourists-"hippies," I'd heard them called. They were sitting
on the dock, feet dangling in the water, fishing poles in hand. I asked Baba why
they grew their hair long, but Baba grunted, didn't answer. He was preparing his
speech for the next day, flipping through a havoc of handwritten pages, making
notes here and there with a pencil. I bit into my egg and asked Baba if it was true
what a boy in school had told me, that if you ate a piece of eggshell, you'd have to
pee it out. Baba grunted again.



I took a bite of my sandwich. One of the yellow-haired tourists laughed
and slapped the other one on the back. In the distance, across the lake, a truck
lumbered around a corner on the hill. Sunlight twinkled in its side-view mirror,



"I think 1 have _saratan_," I said. Cancer. Baba lifted his head from the
pages flapping in the breeze. Told me I could get the soda myself, all I had to do
was look in the trunk of the car.




Outside the orphanage, the next day, they ran out of chairs. A lot of people
had to stand to watch the opening ceremony. It was a windy day, and I sat behind
Baba on the little podium just outside the main entrance of the new building.
Baba was wearing a green suit and a caracul hat. Midway through the speech, the
wind knocked his hat off and everyone laughed. He motioned to me to hold his
hat for him and I was glad to, because then everyone would see that he was my
father, my Baba. He turned back to the microphone and said he hoped the
building was sturdier than his hat, and everyone laughed again. When Baba
ended his speech, people stood up and cheered. They clapped for a long time.
Afterward, people shook his hand. Some of them tousled my hair and shook my
hand too. I was so proud of Baba, of us.



But despite Baba's successes, people were always doubting him. They told
Baba that running a business wasn't in his blood and he should study law like his
father. So Baba proved them all wrong by not only running his own business but
becoming one of the richest merchants in Kabul. Baba and Rahim Khan built a
wildly successful carpet-exporting business, two pharmacies, and a restaurant.



When people scoffed that Baba would never marry well-after all, he was
not of royal blood-he wedded my mother, Sofia Akrami, a highly educated
woman universally regarded as one of Kabul's most respected, beautiful, and
virtuous ladies. And not only did she teach classic Farsi literature at the
university she was a descendant of the royal family, a fact that my father
playfully rubbed in the skeptics' faces by referring to her as "my princess."



With me as the glaring exception, my father molded the world around him
to his liking. The problem, of course, was that Baba saw the world in black and
white. And he got to decide what was black and what was white. You can't love a
person who lives that way without fearing him too. Maybe even hating him a
little.



When I was in fifth grade, we had a mullah who taught us about Islam. His
name was Mullah Fatiullah Khan, a short, stubby man with a face full of acne
scars and a gruff voice. He lectured us about the virtues of _zakat_ and the duty of
_hadj_; he taught us the intricacies of performing the five daily _namaz_ prayers,
and made us memorize verses from the Koran-and though he never translated
the words for us, he did stress, sometimes with the help of a stripped willow
branch, that we had to pronounce the Arabic words correctly so God would hear
us better. He told us one day that Islam considered drinking a terrible sin; those
who drank would answer for their sin on the day of _Qiyamat_, Judgment Day. In
those days, drinking was fairly common in Kabul. No one gave you a public
lashing for it, but those Afghans who did drink did so in private, out of respect.




People bought their scotch as "medicine" in brown paper bags from selected
"pharmacies." They would leave with the bag tucked out of sight, sometimes
drawing furtive, disapproving glances from those who knew about the store's
reputation for such transactions.



We were upstairs in Baba's study, the smoking room, when I told him
what Mullah Fatiullah Khan had taught us in class. Baba was pouring himself a
whiskey from the bar he had built in the corner of the room. He listened, nodded,
took a sip from his drink. Then he lowered himself into the leather sofa, put
down his drink, and propped me up on his lap. I felt as if I were sitting on a pair
of tree trunks. He took a deep breath and exhaled through his nose, the air
hissing through his mustache for what seemed an eternity I couldn't decide
whether I wanted to hug him or leap from his lap in mortal fear.



"I see you've confused what you're learning in school with actual
education," he said in his thick voice.



"But if what he said is true then does it make you a sinner, Baba?"



"Hmm." Baba crushed an ice cube between his teeth. "Do you want to
know what your father thinks about sin?"



'Yes.



"Then I'll tell you," Baba said, "but first understand this and understand it
now, Amir: You'll never learn anything of value from those bearded idiots."



"You mean Mullah Fatiullah Khan?"



Baba gestured with his glass. The ice clinked. "I mean all of them. Piss on
the beards of all those self-righteous monkeys."



I began to giggle. The image of Baba pissing on the beard of any monkey,
self-righteous or otherwise, was too much.




"They do nothing but thumb their prayer beads and recite a book written
in a tongue they don't even understand." He took a sip. "God help us all if
Afghanistan ever falls into their hands."



"But Mullah Fatiullah Khan seems nice/' I managed between bursts of
tittering.



"So did Genghis Khan," Baba said. "But enough about that. You asked
about sin and I want to tell you. Are you listening?"



"Yes," I said, pressing my lips together.

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