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The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner: Page 4

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But a chortle escaped through my
nose and made a snorting sound. That got me giggling again.

Baba's stony eyes bore into mine and, just like that, I wasn't laughing

"I mean to speak to you man to man. Do you think you can handle that for


"Yes, Baba jan," I muttered, marveling, not for the first time, at how badly
Baba could sting me with so few words. We'd had a fleeting good moment--it
wasn't often Baba talked to me, let alone on his lap--and I'd been a fool to waste

"Good," Baba said, but his eyes wondered. "Now, no matter what the
mullah teaches, there is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin
is a variation of theft. Do you understand that?"

"No, Baba jan," I said, desperately wishing I did. 1 didn't want to
disappoint him again.

Baba heaved a sigh of impatience. That stung too, because he was not an
impatient man. I remembered all the times he didn't come home until after dark,
all the times I ate dinner alone. I'd ask Ali where Baba was, when he was coming
home, though I knew full well he was at the construction site, overlooking this,
supervising that. Didn't that take patience? I already hated all the kids he was

building the orphanage for; sometimes I wished they'd all died along with their

"When you kill a man, you steal a life," Baba said. "You steal his wife's
right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal
someone's right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness. Do
you see?"

I did. When Baba was six, a thief walked into my grandfather's house in
the middle of the night. My grandfather, a respected judge, confronted him, but
the thief stabbed him in the throat, killing him instantly--and robbing Baba of a
father. The townspeople caught the killer just before noon the next day; he
turned out to be a wanderer from the Kunduz region. They hanged him from the
branch of an oak tree with still two hours to go before afternoon prayer. It was
Rahim Khan, not Baba, who had told me that story. I was always learning things
about Baba from other people.

"There is no act more wretched than stealing, Amir," Baba said. "A man
who takes what's not his to take, be it a life or a loaf of _naan_... I spit on such a
man. And if I ever cross paths with him, God help him. Do you understand?"

1 found the idea of Baba clobbering a thief both exhilarating and terribly
frightening. "Yes, Baba."

"If there's a God out there, then I would hope he has more important
things to attend to than my drinking scotch or eating pork. Now, hop down. All
this talk about sin has made me thirsty again."

I watched him fill his glass at the bar and wondered how much time
would pass before we talked again the way we just had. Because the truth of it
was, I always felt like Baba hated me a little. And why not? After all, I _had_ killed
his beloved wife, his beautiful princess, hadn't I? The least I could have done was
to have had the decency to have turned out a little more like him.
But I hadn't
turned out like him. Not at all.

IN SCHOOL, we used to play a game called _Sherjangi_, or "Battle of the Poems."
The Farsi teacher moderated it and it went something like this: You recited a
verse from a poem and your opponent had sixty seconds to reply with a verse
that began with the same letter that ended yours. Everyone in my class wanted
me on their team, because by the time I was eleven, I could recite dozens of
verses from Khayyam, Hafez, or Rumi's famous _Masnawi_. One time, I took on
the whole class and won. I told Baba about it later that night, but he just nodded,
muttered, "Good."

That was how I escaped my father's aloofness, in my dead mother's
books. That and Hassan, of course. I read everything, Rumi, Hafez, Saadi, Victor
Hugo, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Ian Fleming. When I had finished my mother's
books--not the boring history ones, I was never much into those, but the novels,
the epics--I started spending my allowance on books. I bought one a week from
the bookstore near Cinema Park, and stored them in cardboard boxes when I ran
out of shelf room.

Of course, marrying a poet was one thing, but fathering a son who
preferred burying his face in poetry books to hunting... well, that wasn't how
Baba had envisioned it, I suppose. Real men didn't read poetry--and God forbid
they should ever write it! Real men--real boys--played soccer just as Baba had
when he had been young. Now _that_ was something to be passionate about. In
1970, Baba took a break from the construction of the orphanage and flew to
Tehran for a month to watch the World Cup games on television, since at the
time Afghanistan didn't have TVs yet. He signed me up for soccer teams to stir
the same passion in me. But I was pathetic, a blundering liability to my own
team, always in the way of an opportune pass or unwittingly blocking an open
lane. I shambled about the field on scraggy legs, squalled for passes that never
came my way. And the harder I tried, waving my arms over my head frantically
and screeching, "I'm open! I'm open!" the more I went ignored. But Baba
wouldn't give up. When it became abundantly clear that I hadn't inherited a
shred of his athletic talents, he settled for trying to turn me into a passionate
spectator. Certainly I could manage that, couldn't I? I faked interest for as long as
possible. I cheered with him when Kabul's team scored against Kandahar and
yelped insults at the referee when he called a penalty against our team. But Baba
sensed my lack of genuine interest and resigned himself to the bleak fact that his
son was never going to either play or watch soccer.

I remember one time Baba took me to the yearly _Buzkashi_ tournament
that took place on the first day of spring, New Year's Day. Buzkashi was, and still
is, Afghanistan's national passion. A _chapandaz_, a highly skilled horseman
usually patronized by rich aficionados, has to snatch a goat or cattle carcass from
the midst of a melee, carry that carcass with him around the stadium at full
gallop, and drop it in a scoring circle while a team of other _chapandaz_ chases
him and does everything in its power-kick, claw, whip, punch-to snatch the

carcass from him. That day, the crowd roared with excitement as the horsemen
on the field bellowed their battle cries and jostled for the carcass in a cloud of
dust. The earth trembled with the clatter of hooves. We watched from the upper
bleachers as riders pounded past us at full gallop, yipping and yelling, foam flying
from their horses' mouths.

At one point Baba pointed to someone. "Amir, do you see that man sitting
up there with those other men around him?"

I did.

"That's Henry Kissinger."

"Oh," I said. I didn't know who Henry Kissinger was, and I might have
asked. But at the moment, I watched with horror as one of the _chapandaz_ fell
off his saddle and was trampled under a score of hooves. His body was tossed
and hurled in the stampede like a rag doll, finally rolling to a stop when the
melee moved on. He twitched once and lay motionless, his legs bent at unnatural
angles, a pool of his blood soaking through the sand.

I began to cry.

I cried all the way back home. I remember how Baba's hands clenched
around the steering wheel. Clenched and unclenched. Mostly, I will never forget
Baba's valiant efforts to conceal the disgusted look on his face as he drove in

Later that night, I was passing by my father's study when I overheard him
speaking to Rahim Khan. I pressed my ear to the closed door.

"--grateful that he's healthy," Rahim Khan was saying.

"I know, I know. But he's always buried in those books or shuffling
around the house like he's lost in some dream."


"I wasn't like that." Baba sounded frustrated, almost angry.

Rahim Khan laughed. "Children aren't coloring books. You don't get to fill
them with your favorite colors."

"I'm telling you," Baba said, "I wasn't like that at all, and neither were any
of the kids I grew up with."

"You know, sometimes you are the most self-centered man I know,"

Rahim Khan said. He was the only person I knew who could get away with saying
something like that to Baba.

"It has nothing to do with that."



"Then what?"

I heard the leather of Baba's seat creaking as he shifted on it. I closed my
eyes, pressed my ear even harder against the door, wanting to hear, not wanting
to hear. "Sometimes I look out this window and I see him playing on the street
with the neighborhood boys. I see how they push him around, take his toys from
him, give him a shove here, a whack there.

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