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The Kite Runner


The Kite Runner: Page 43


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He told
me Farid was twenty-nine, though he had the wary, lined face of a man
twenty years older. He was born in Mazar-i-Sharif and lived there until his father moved
the family to Jalalabad when Farid was ten. At fourteen, he and his father had
joined the jihad against the Shorawi. They had fought in the Panjsher Valley for
two years until helicopter gunfire had torn the older man to pieces. Farid had
two wives and five children. "He used to have seven," Rahim Khan said with a
rueful look, but he'd lost his two youngest girls a few years earlier in a land mine
blast just outside Jalalabad, the same explosion that had severed toes from his
feet and three fingers from his left hand. After that, he had moved his wives and
children to Peshawar.



"Checkpoint," Farid grumbled. I slumped a little in my seat, arms folded
across my chest, forgetting for a moment about the nausea. But I needn't have
worried. Two Pakistani militia approached our dilapidated Land Cruiser, took a
cursory glance inside, and waved us on.




Farid was first on the list of preparations Rahim Khan and I made, a list
that included exchanging dollars for Kaldar and Afghani bills, my garment and
pakol--ironically, I'd never worn either when I'd actually lived in Afghanistan-
the Polaroid of Hassan and Sohrab, and, finally, perhaps the most important
item: an artificial beard, black and chest length, Shari'a friendly--or at least the
Taliban version of Shari'a. Rahim Khan knew of a fellow in Peshawar who
specialized in weaving them, sometimes for Western journalists who covered the
war.



Rahim Khan had wanted me to stay with him a few more days, to plan
more thoroughly. But I knew I had to leave as soon as possible. I was afraid I'd
change my mind. I was afraid I'd deliberate, ruminate, agonize, rationalize, and
talk myself into not going. I was afraid the appeal of my life in America would
draw me back, that I would wade back into that great, big river and let myself
forget, let the things I had learned these last few days sink to the bottom. I was
afraid that I'd let the waters carry me away from what I had to do. From Hassan.
From the past that had come calling. And from this one last chance at
redemption. So I left before there was any possibility of that happening. As for
Soraya, telling her I was going back to Afghanistan wasn't an option. If I had, she
would have booked herself on the next flight to Pakistan.




We had crossed the border and the signs of poverty were everywhere. On
either side of the road, I saw chains of little villages sprouting here and there, like
discarded toys among the rocks, broken mud houses and huts consisting of little
more than four wooden poles and a tattered cloth as a roof. I saw children
dressed in rags chasing a soccer ball outside the huts. A few miles later, I spotted
a cluster of men sitting on their haunches, like a row of crows, on the carcass of
an old burned-out Soviet tank, the wind fluttering the edges of the blankets
thrown around them. Behind them, a woman in a brown burqa carried a large
clay pot on her shoulder, down a rutted path toward a string of mud houses.



"Strange," I said.



"What?"



"I feel like a tourist in my own country," I said, taking in a goatherd
leading a half-dozen emaciated goats along the side of the road.



Farid snickered. Tossed his cigarette. "You still think of this place as your
country?"




"I think a part of me always will," I said, more defensively than I had
intended.



"After twenty years of living in America," he said, swerving the truck to
avoid a pothole the size of a beach ball.



I nodded. "I grew up in Afghanistan." Farid snickered again.



"Why do you do that?"



"Never mind," he murmured.



"No, I want to know. Why do you do that?"



In his rearview mirror, I saw something flash in his eyes. "You want to
know?" he sneered. "Let me imagine, Agha sahib. You probably lived in a big two-
or three-story house with a nice back yard that your gardener filled with flowers
and fruit trees. All gated, of course. Your father drove an American car. You had
servants, probably Hazaras. Your parents hired workers to decorate the house
for the fancy mehmanis they threw, so their friends would come over to drink
and boast about their travels to Europe or America. And I would bet my first
son's eyes that this is the first time you've ever worn a pakol." He grinned at me,
revealing a mouthful of prematurely rotting teeth. "Am I close?"



"Why are you saying these things?" I said.



"Because you wanted to know," he spat. He pointed to an old man dressed
in ragged clothes trudging down a dirt path, a large burlap pack filled with scrub
grass tied to his back. "That's the real Afghanistan, Agha sahib. That's the
Afghanistan I know. You? You've always been a tourist here, you just didn't know
it."



Rahim Khan had warned me not to expect a warm welcome in
Afghanistan from those who had stayed behind and fought the wars. "I'm sorry




about your father," I said. "I'm sorry about your daughters, and I'm sorry about
your hand."



"That means nothing to me," he said. He shook his head. "Why are you
coming back here anyway? Sell off your Baba's land? Pocket the money and run
back to your mother in America?"



"My mother died giving birth to me," I said.



He sighed and lit another cigarette. Said nothing.



"Pull over."



"What?"



"Pull over, goddamn it!" I said. "I'm going to be sick." I tumbled out of the
truck as it was coming to a rest on the gravel alongside the road.



BY LATE AFTERNOON, the terrain had changed from one of sun-beaten peaks
and barren cliffs to a greener, more rural landscape. The main pass had
descended from Landi Kotal through Shinwari territory to Landi Khana. We'd
entered Afghanistan at Torkham. Pine trees flanked the road, fewer than I
remembered and many of them bare, but it was good to see trees again after the
arduous drive through the Khyber Pass. We were getting closer to Jalalabad,
where Farid had a brother who would take us in for the night.



The sun hadn't quite set when we drove into Jalalabad, capital of the state
of Nangarhar, a city once renowned for its fruit and warm climate. Farid drove
past the buildings and stone houses of the city's central district. There weren't as
many palm trees there as I remembered, and some of the homes had been
reduced to roofless walls and piles of twisted clay.




Farid turned onto a narrow unpaved road and parked the Land Cruiser
along a dried-up gutter. I slid out of the truck, stretched, and took a deep breath.
In the old days, the winds swept through the irrigated plains around Jalalabad
where farmers grew sugarcane, and impregnated the city's air with a sweet
scent. I closed my eyes and searched for the sweetness. I didn't find it.



"Let's go," Farid said impatiently. We walked up the dirt road past a few
leafless poplars along a row of broken mud walls. Farid led me to a dilapidated
one-story house and knocked on the woodplank door.



A young woman with ocean-green eyes and a white scarf draped around
her face peeked out. She saw me first, flinched, spotted Farid and her eyes lit up.
"Salaam alaykum, Kaka Farid!"



"Salaam, Maryam jan," Farid replied and gave her something he'd denied
me all day: a warm smile. He planted a kiss on the top of her head. The young
woman stepped out of the way, eyeing me a little apprehensively as 1 followed
Farid into the small house.



The adobe ceiling was low, the dirt walls entirely bare, and the only light
came from a pair of lanterns set in a corner. We took off our shoes and stepped
on the straw mat that covered the floor. Along one of the walls sat three young
boys, cross-legged, on a mattress covered with a blanket with shredded borders



A tall bearded man with broad shoulders stood up to greet us. Farid and
he hugged and kissed on the cheek. Farid introduced him to me as Wahid, his
older brother. "He's from America," he said to Wahid, flicking his thumb toward
me. He left us alone and went to greet the boys.



Wahid sat with me against the wall across from the boys, who had
ambushed Farid and climbed his shoulders. Despite my protests, Wahid ordered
one of the boys to fetch another blanket so I'd be more comfortable on the floor,
and asked Maryam to bring me some tea. He asked about the ride from
Peshawar, the drive over the Khyber Pass.



"I hope you didn't come across any dozds," he said. The Khyber Pass was
as famous for its terrain as for the bandits who used that terrain to rob travelers.
Before I could answer, he winked and said in a loud voice, "Of course no dozd
would waste his time on a car as ugly as my brother's."

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