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The Kite Runner


The Kite Runner: Page 37


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I paid the driver, took my lone suitcase, and walked
up to the intricately carved door. The building had wooden balconies with open
shutters-from many of them, laundry was hanging to dry in the sun. I walked up




the creaky stairs to the second floor, down a dim hallway to the last door on the
right. Checked the address on the piece of stationery paper in my palm. Knocked.



Then, a thing made of skin and bones pretending to be Rahim Khan
opened the door.



A CREATIVE WRITING TEACHER at San Jose State used to say about cliches:
"Avoid them like the plague." Then he'd laugh at his own joke. The class laughed
along with him, but I always thought cliches got a bum rap. Because, often,
they're dead-on. But the aptness of the cliched saying is overshadowed by the
nature of the saying as a cliche. For example, the "elephant in the room" saying.
Nothing could more correctly describe the initial moments of my reunion with
Rahim Khan.



We sat on a wispy mattress set along the wall, across the window
overlooking the noisy street below. Sunlight slanted in and cast a triangular
wedge of light onto the Afghan rug on the floor. Two folding chairs rested against
one wall and a small copper samovar sat in the opposite corner. I poured us tea
from it.



"How did you find me?" I asked.



"It's not difficult to find people in America. I bought a map of the U.S., and
called up information for cities in Northern California," he said. "It's wonderfully
strange to see you as a grown man."



I smiled and dropped three sugar cubes in my tea. He liked his black and
bitter, I remembered. "Baba didn't get the chance to tell you but I got married
fifteen years ago." The truth was, by then, the cancer in Baba's brain had made
him forgetful, negligent.



'You are married? To whom?




"Her name is Soraya Taheri." I thought of her back home, worrying about
me. I was glad she wasn't alone.



"Taheri... whose daughter is she?"



I told him. His eyes brightened. "Oh, yes, I remember now. Isn't General
Taheri married to Sharif jan's sister? What was her name..."



"Jamila jan."



"Balay!" he said, smiling. "I knew Sharif jan in Kabul, long time ago, before
he moved to America."



"He's been working for the INS for years, handles a lot of Afghan cases."
"Haiiii," he sighed. "Do you and Soraya jan have children?"

"Nay."

"Oh." He slurped his tea and didn't ask more; Rahim Khan had always
been one of the most instinctive people I'd ever met.



I told him a lot about Baba, his job, the flea market, and how, at the end,
he'd died happy. I told him about my schooling, my books--four published novels
to my credit now. He smiled at this, said he had never had any doubt. I told him 1
had written short stories in the leather-bound notebook he'd given me, but he
didn't remember the notebook.



The conversation inevitably turned to the Taliban.



Is it as bad as I hear?" I said.




"Nay, it's worse. Much worse," he said. "They don't let you be human." He
pointed to a scar above his right eye cutting a crooked path through his bushy
eyebrow. "I was at a soccer game in Ghazi Stadium in 1998. Kabul against Mazar-
i-Sharif, I think, and by the way the players weren't allowed to wear shorts.
Indecent exposure, I guess." He gave a tired laugh. "Anyway, Kabul scored a goal
and the man next to me cheered loudly. Suddenly this young bearded fellow who
was patrolling the aisles, eighteen years old at most by the look of him, he
walked up to me and struck me on the forehead with the butt of his Kalashnikov.
'Do that again and I'll cut out your tongue, you old donkey!' he said." Rahim Khan
rubbed the scar with a gnarled finger. "I was old enough to be his grandfather
and I was sitting there, blood gushing down my face, apologizing to that son of a
dog."



I poured him more tea. Rahim Khan talked some more. Much of it I knew
already, some not. He told me that, as arranged between Baba and him, he had
lived in Baba's house since 1981--this I knew about. Baba had "sold" the house to
Rahim Khan shortly before he and I fled Kabul. The way Baba had seen it those
days, Afghanistan's troubles were only a temporary interruption of our way of
life--the days of parties at the Wazir Akbar Khan house and picnics in Paghman
would surely return. So he'd given the house to Rahim Khan to keep watch over
until that day.



Rahim Khan told me how, when the Northern Alliance took over Kabul
between 1992 and 1996, different factions claimed different parts of Kabul. "If
you went from the Shar-e-Nau section to Kerteh-Parwan to buy a carpet, you
risked getting shot by a sniper or getting blown up by a rocket--if you got past all
the checkpoints, that was. You practically needed a visa to go from one
neighborhood to the other. So people just stayed put, prayed the next rocket
wouldn't hit their home." He told me how people knocked holes in the walls of
their homes so they could bypass the dangerous streets and would move down
the block from hole to hole. In other parts, people moved about in underground
tunnels.



"Why didn't you leave?" 1 said.



"Kabul was my home. It still is." He snickered. "Remember the street that
went from your house to the Qishla, the military barracks next to Istiqial**
School?"



"Yes." It was the shortcut to school. I remembered the day Hassan and I
crossed it and the soldiers had teased Hassan about his mother. Hassan had cried
in the cinema later, and I'd put an arm around him.




"When the Taliban rolled in and kicked the Alliance out of Kabul, I actually
danced on that street," Rahim Khan said. "And, believe me, I wasn't alone. People
were celebrating at_Chaman_, at Deh-Mazang, greeting the Taliban in the streets,
climbing their tanks and posing for pictures with them. People were so tired of
the constant fighting, tired of the rockets, the gunfire, the explosions, tired of
watching Gulbuddin and his cohorts firing on anything that moved. The Alliance
did more damage to Kabul than the Shorawi. They destroyed your father's
orphanage, did you know that?"



"Why?" I said. "Why would they destroy an orphanage?" I remembered
sitting behind Baba the day they opened the orphanage.
The wind had knocked
off his caracul hat and everyone had laughed, then stood and clapped when he'd
delivered his speech. And now it was just another pile of rubble. All the money
Baba had spent, all those nights he'd sweated over the blueprints, all the visits to
the construction site to make sure every brick, every beam, and every block was
laid just right...



"Collateral damage," Rahim Khan said. "You don't want to know, Amir jan,
what it was like sifting through the rubble of that orphanage. There were body
parts of children..."



"So when the Taliban came..."



"They were heroes," Rahim Khan said. "Peace at last."



"Yes, hope is a strange thing. Peace at last. But at what price?" A violent
coughing fit gripped Rahim Khan and rocked his gaunt body back and forth.
When he spat into his handkerchief, it immediately stained red. I thought that
was as good a time as any to address the elephant sweating with us in the tiny
room.



"How are you?" I asked. "I mean really, how are you?"



"Dying, actually," he said in a gurgling voice. Another round of coughing.
More blood on the handkerchief. He wiped his mouth, blotted his sweaty brow
from one wasted temple to the other with his sleeve, and gave me a quick glance.




When he nodded, I knew he had read the next question on my face. "Not long," he
breathed.



"How long?"



He shrugged. Coughed again. "I don't think I'll see the end of this
summer," he said.



"Let me take you home with me. I can find you a good doctor. They're
coming up with new treatments all the time. There are new drugs and
experimental treatments, we could enroll you in one..." I was rambling and 1
knew it. But it was better than crying, which I was probably going to do anyway.



He let out a chuff of laughter, revealed missing lower incisors. It was the
most tired laughter I'd ever heard. "I see America has infused you with the
optimism that has made her so great. That's very good. We're a melancholic
people, we Afghans, aren't we? Often, we wallow too much in ghamkhori and
self-pity. We give in to loss, to suffering, accept it as a fact of life, even see it as
necessary. Zendagi migzara, we say, life goes on. But I am not surrendering to
fate here, I am being pragmatic. I have seen several good doctors here and they
have given the same answer. I trust them and believe them. There is such a thing
as God's will."



"There is only what you do and what you don't do," I said.



Rahim Khan laughed.

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