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The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner: Page 33

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As words from the Koran reverberated through the room, I thought of the
old story of Baba wrestling a black bear in Baluchistan. Baba had wrestled bears
his whole life. Losing his young wife. Raising a son by himself. Leaving his
beloved homeland, his watan. Poverty. Indignity. In the end, a bear had come that
he couldn't best. But even then, he had lost on his own terms.

After each round of prayers, groups of mourners lined up and greeted me
on their way out. Dutifully, I shook their hands. Many of them I barely knew. I
smiled politely, thanked them for their wishes, listened to whatever they had to
say about Baba.

??helped me build the house in Taimani..." bless him...

??no one else to turn to and he lent me...

...found me a job... barely knew me...

" a brother to me..."

Listening to them, I realized how much of who I was, what I was, had been
defined by Baba and the marks he had left on people's lives. My whole life, I had
been "Baba's son." Now he was gone. Baba couldn't show me the way anymore;
I'd have to find it on my own.

The thought of it terrified me.

Earlier, at the gravesite in the small Muslim section of the cemetery, I had
watched them lower Baba into the hole. The mullah and another man got into an
argument over which was the correct ayat of the Koran to recite at the gravesite.
It might have turned ugly had General Taheri not intervened. The mullah chose
an ayat and recited it, casting the other fellow nasty glances. I watched them toss
the first shovelful of dirt into the grave. Then I left. Walked to the other side of
the cemetery. Sat in the shade of a red maple.

Now the last of the mourners had paid their respects and the mosque was
empty, save for the mullah unplugging the microphone and wrapping his Koran
in green cloth. The general and I stepped out into a late-afternoon sun. We
walked down the steps, past men smoking in clusters. I heard snippets of their
conversations, a soccer game in Union City next weekend, a new Afghan
restaurant in Santa Clara. Life moving on already, leaving Baba behind.

"How are you, bachem?" General Taheri said.

I gritted my teeth. Bit back the tears that had threatened all day. "I'm
going to find Soraya," I said.



I walked to the women's side of the mosque. Soraya was standing on the
steps with her mother and a couple of ladies I recognized vaguely from the

wedding. I motioned to Soraya. She said something to her mother and came to

"Can we walk?" I said.

"Sure." She took my hand.

We walked in silence down a winding gravel path lined by a row of low
hedges. We sat on a bench and watched an elderly couple kneeling beside a grave
a few rows away and placing a bouquet of daisies by the headstone. "Soraya?"




"I'm going to miss him."

She put her hand on my lap. Baba's chila glinted on her ring finger. Behind
her, I could see Baba's mourners driving away on Mission Boulevard. Soon we'd
leave too, and for the first time ever, Baba would be all alone.

Soraya pulled me to her and the tears finally came.

BECAUSE SORAYA AND I never had an engagement period, much of what I
learned about the Taheris I learned after I married into their family. For example,
I learned that, once a month, the general suffered from blinding migraines that
lasted almost a week. When the headaches struck, the general went to his room,
undressed, turned off the light, locked the door, and didn't come out until the
pain subsided. No one was allowed to go in, no one was allowed to knock.
Eventually, he would emerge, dressed in his gray suit once more, smelling of
sleep and bed sheets, his eyes puffy and bloodshot. I learned from Soraya that he
and Khanum Taheri had slept in separate rooms for as long as she could
remember. I learned that he could be petty, such as when he'd take a bite of the
_qurma_ his wife placed before him, sigh, and push it away. "I'll make you
something else," Khanum Taheri would say, but he'd ignore her, sulk, and eat
bread and onion. This made Soraya angry and her mother cry. Soraya told me he

took antidepressants. I learned that he had kept his family on welfare and had
never held a job in the U.S., preferring to cash government-issued checks than
degrading himself with work unsuitable for a man of his stature-he saw the flea
market only as a hobby, a way to socialize with his fellow Afghans. The general
believed that, sooner or later, Afghanistan would be freed, the monarchy
restored, and his services would once again be called upon. So every day, he
donned his gray suit, wound his pocket watch, and waited.

1 learned that Khanum Taheri-whom I called Khala Jamila now-had once
been famous in Kabul for her enchanting singing voice. Though she had never
sung professionally, she had had the talent to� I learned she could sing folk
songs, ghazals, even raga, which was usually a man's domain. But as much as the
general appreciated listening to music-he owned, in fact, a considerable
collection of classical ghazal tapes by Afghan and Hindi singers-he believed the
performing of it best left to those with lesser reputations. That she never sing in
public had been one of the general's conditions when they had married. Soraya
told me that her mother had wanted to sing at our wedding, only one song, but
the general gave her one of his looks and the matter was buried. Khala Jamila
played the lotto once a week and watched Johnny Carson every night. She spent
her days in the garden, tending to her roses, geraniums, potato vines, and

When 1 married Soraya, the flowers and Johnny Carson took a backseat. I
was the new delight in Khala Jamila's life. Unlike the general's guarded and
diplomatic manners-he didn't correct me when I continued to call him "General
Sahib"-Khala Jamila made no secret of how much she adored me. For one thing, I
listened to her impressive list of maladies, something the general had long
turned a deaf ear to. Soraya told me that, ever since her mother's stroke, every
flutter in her chest was a heart attack, every aching joint the onset of rheumatoid
arthritis, and every twitch of the eye another stroke. I remember the first time
Khala Jamila mentioned a lump in her neck to me. "I'll skip school tomorrow and
take you to the doctor," I said, to which the general smiled and said, "Then you
might as well turn in your books for good, bachem. Your khala's medical charts
are like the works of Rumi: They come in volumes."

But it wasn't just that she'd found an audience for her monologues of
illness. I firmly believed that if I had picked up a rifle and gone on a murdering
rampage, I would have still had the benefit of her unblinking love. Because I had
rid her heart of its gravest malady. I had relieved her of the greatest fear of every
Afghan mother: that no honorable khastegar would ask for her daughter's hand.
That her daughter would age alone, husbandless, childless. Every woman needed
a husband. Even if he did silence the song in her.

And, from Soraya, I learned the details of what had happened in Virginia.

We were at a wedding. Soraya's uncle, Sharif, the one who worked for the
INS, was marrying his son to an Afghan girl from Newark. The wedding was at
the same hall where, six months prior, Soraya and I had had our awroussi. We
were standing in a crowd of guests, watching the bride accept rings from the
groom's family, when we overheard two middle-aged women talking, their backs
to us.

"What a lovely bride," one of them said, "Just look at her. So maghbool,
like the moon."

"Yes," the other said. "And pure too. Virtuous. No boyfriends."

"I know. I tell you that boy did well not to marry his cousin."

Soraya broke down on the way home. I pulled the Ford off to the curb,
parked under a streetlight on Fremont Boulevard.

"It's all right," I said, pushing back her hair. "Who cares?"

"It's so fucking unfair," she barked.

"Just forget it."

"Their sons go out to nightclubs looking for meat and get their girlfriends
pregnant, they have kids out of wedlock and no one says a goddamn thing. Oh,
they're just men having fun! I make one mistake and suddenly everyone is
talking nang and namoos, and I have to have my face rubbed in it for the rest of
my life."

I wiped a tear from her jawline, just above her birthmark, with the pad of
my thumb.

"I didn't tell you," Soraya said, dabbing at her eyes, "but my father showed
up with a gun that night. He told... him... that he had two bullets in the chamber,
one for him and one for himself if I didn't come home. I was screaming, calling
my father all kinds of names, saying he couldn't keep me locked up forever, that I
wished he were dead."

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