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The Kite Runner: Page 45
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And on this soil, I had fought for my father's love.
I sat against one of the house's clay walls. The kinship I felt suddenly for
the old land... it surprised me. I'd been gone long enough to forget and be
forgotten. I had a home in a land that might as well be in another galaxy to the
people sleeping on the other side of the wall I leaned against. I thought I had
forgotten about this land. But I hadn't. And, under the bony glow of a half-moon, I
sensed Afghanistan humming under my feet. Maybe Afghanistan hadn't forgotten
I looked westward and marveled that, somewhere over those mountains,
Kabul still existed. It really existed, not just as an old memory, or as the heading
of an AP story on page 15 of the San Francisco Chronicle. Somewhere over those
mountains in the west slept the city where my harelipped brother and I had run
kites. Somewhere over there, the blindfolded man from my dream had died a
needless death. Once, over those mountains, I had made a choice. And now, a
quarter of a century later, that choice had landed me right back on this soil.
I was about to go back inside when I heard voices coming from the house.
I recognized one as Wahid's.
"-nothing left for the children."
"We're hungry but we're not savages! He is a guest! What was I supposed
to do?" he said in a strained voice.
"�to find something tomorrow" She sounded near tears. "What do I feed�
" I tiptoed away. I understood now why the boys hadn't shown any interest in
the watch. They hadn't been staring at the watch at all. They'd been staring at my
WE SAID OUR GOOD-BYES early the next morning. Just before I climbed into the
Land Cruiser, I thanked Wahid for his hospitality. He pointed to the little house
behind him. "This is your home," he said. His three sons were standing in the
doorway watching us. The little one was wearing the watch-it dangled around
his twiggy wrist.
I glanced in the side-view mirror as we pulled away. Wahid stood
surrounded by his boys in a cloud of dust whipped up by the truck. It occurred to
me that, in a different world, those boys wouldn't have been too hungry to chase
after the car.
Earlier that morning, when I was certain no one was looking, I did
something I had done twenty-six years earlier: I planted a fistful of crumpled
money under a mattress.
Farid had warned me. He had. But, as it turned out, he had wasted his breath.
We were driving down the cratered road that winds from Jalalabad to
Kabul. The last time I'd traveled that road was in a tarpaulin-covered truck going
the other way. Baba had nearly gotten himself shot by a singing, stoned Roussi
officer-Baba had made me so mad that night, so scared, and, ultimately, so
proud. The trek between Kabul and Jalalabad, a bone-jarring ride down a
teetering pass snaking through the rocks, had become a relic now, a relic of two
wars. Twenty years earlier, I had seen some of the first war with my own eyes.
Grim reminders of it were strewn along the road: burned carcasses of old Soviet
tanks, overturned military trucks gone to rust, a crushed Russian jeep that had
plunged over the mountainside. The second war, I had watched on my TV screen.
And now I was seeing it through Farid's eyes.
Swerving effortlessly around potholes in the middle of the broken road,
Farid was a man in his element. He had become much chattier since our
overnight stay at Wahid's house. He had me sit in the passenger seat and looked
at me when he spoke. He even smiled once or twice. Maneuvering the steering
wheel with his mangled hand, he pointed to mud-hut villages along the way
where he'd known people years before. Most of those people, he said, were
either dead or in refugee camps in Pakistan. "And sometimes the dead are
luckier," he said.
He pointed to the crumbled, charred remains of a tiny village. It was just a
tuft of blackened, roofless walls now. I saw a dog sleeping along one of the walls.
"I had a friend there once," Farid said. "He was a very good bicycle repairman. He
played the tabla well too. The Taliban killed him and his family and burned the
We drove past the burned village, and the dog didn't move.
IN THE OLD DAYS, the drive from Jalalabad to Kabul took two hours, maybe a
little more. It took Farid and me over four hours to reach Kabul.
And when we
did... Farid warned me just after we passed the Mahipar dam.
"Kabul is not the way you remember it," he said.
"So I hear."
Farid gave me a look that said hearing is not the same as seeing. And he
was right. Because when Kabul finally did unroll before us, I was certain,
absolutely certain, that he had taken a wrong turn somewhere. Farid must have
seen my stupefied expression; shuttling people back and forth to Kabul, he would
have become familiar with that expression on the faces of those who hadn't seen
Kabul for a long time.
He patted me on the shoulder. "Welcome back," he said morosely.
RUBBLE AND BEGGARS. Everywhere I looked, that was what I saw. I
remembered beggars in the old days too--Baba always carried an extra handful
of Afghani bills in his pocket just for them; I'd never seen him deny a peddler.
Now, though, they squatted at every street corner, dressed in shredded burlap
rags, mud-caked hands held out for a coin. And the beggars were mostly children
now, thin and grim-faced, some no older than five or six. They sat in the laps of
their burqa-clad mothers alongside gutters at busy street corners and chanted
"Bakhshesh, bakhshesh!" And something else, something I hadn't noticed right
away: Hardly any of them sat with an adult male--the wars had made fathers a
rare commodity in Afghanistan.
We were driving westbound toward the Karteh-Seh district on what I
remembered as a major thoroughfare in the seventies: Jadeh Maywand. Just
north of us was the bone-dry Kabul River. On the hills to the south stood the
broken old city wall. Just east of it was the Bala Hissar Fort-the ancient citadel
that the warlord Dostum had occupied in 1992-on the Shirdarwaza mountain
range, the same mountains from which Mujahedin forces had showered Kabul
with rockets between 1992 and 1996, inflicting much of the damage I was
witnessing now. The Shirdarwaza range stretched all the way west. It was from
those mountains that I remember the firing of the Topeh chasht, the "noon
cannon." It went off every day to announce noontime, and also to signal the end
of daylight fasting during the month of Ramadan. You'd hear the roar of that
cannon all through the city in those days.
"I used to come here to Jadeh Maywand when I was a kid," I mumbled.
"There used to be shops here and hotels. Neon lights and restaurants. I used to
buy kites from an old man named Saifo. He ran a little kite shop by the old police
"The police headquarters is still there," Farid said. "No shortage of police
in this city But you won't find kites or kite shops on Jadeh Maywand or anywhere
else in Kabul. Those days are over."
Jadeh Maywand had turned into a giant sand castle. The buildings that
hadn't entirely collapsed barely stood, with caved in roofs and walls pierced with
rockets shells. Entire blocks had been obliterated to rubble. I saw a bullet-pocked
sign half buried at an angle in a heap of debris. It read DRINK COCA C0-. I saw
children playing in the ruins of a windowless building amid jagged stumps of
brick and stone. Bicycle riders and mule-drawn carts swerved around kids, stray
dogs, and piles of debris. A haze of dust hovered over the city and, across the
river, a single plume of smoke rose to the sky.
"Where are the trees?" I said.
"People cut them down for firewood in the winter," Farid said. "The
Shorawi cut a lot of them down too."
"Snipers used to hide in them."
A sadness came over me. Returning to Kabul was like running into an old,
forgotten friend and seeing that life hadn't been good to him, that he'd become
homeless and destitute.
"My father built an orphanage in Shar-e-Kohna, the old city, south of
here," I said.
"I remember it," Farid said. "It was destroyed a few years ago."
"Can you pull over?" I said. "I want to take a quick walk here."
Farid parked along the curb on a small backstreet next to a ramshackle,
abandoned building with no door. "That used to be a pharmacy," Farid muttered
as we exited the truck. We walked back to Jadeh Maywand and turned right,
heading west. "What's that smell?" I said. Something was making my eyes water.
"Diesel," Farid replied. "The city's generators are always going down, so
electricity is unreliable, and people use diesel fuel."
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