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The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner: Page 46

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"Diesel. Remember what this street smelled like in the old days?"
Farid smiled. "Kabob."

"Lamb kabob," I said.

"Lamb," Farid said, tasting the word in his mouth. "The only people in
Kabul who get to eat lamb now are the Taliban." He pulled on my sleeve.
"Speaking of which..."

A vehicle was approaching us. "Beard Patrol," Farid murmured.

That was the first time I saw the Taliban. I'd seen them on TV on the
Internet, on the cover of magazines, and in newspapers. But here I was now, less
than fifty feet from them, telling myself that the sudden taste in my mouth wasn't
unadulterated, naked fear. Telling myself my flesh hadn't suddenly shrunk
against my bones and my heart wasn't battering. Here they came. In all their

The red Toyota pickup truck idled past us. A handful of stern-faced young
men sat on their haunches in the cab, Kalashnikovs slung on their shoulders.
They all wore beards and black turbans. One of them, a dark-skinned man in his
early twenties with thick, knitted eyebrows twirled a whip in his hand and
rhythmically swatted the side of the truck with it. His roaming eyes fell on me.
Held my gaze. I'd never felt so naked in my entire life. Then the Talib spat
tobacco-stained spittle and looked away. I found I could breathe again. The truck
rolled down Jadeh Maywand, leaving in its trail a cloud of dust.

"What is the matter with you?" Farid hissed.


"Don't ever stare at them! Do you understand me? Never!"

"I didn't mean to," I said.

"Your friend is quite right, Agha. You might as well poke a rabid dog with
a stick," someone said. This new voice belonged to an old beggar sitting barefoot
on the steps of a bullet-scarred building. He wore a threadbare chapan worn to
frayed shreds and a dirt-crusted turban. His left eyelid drooped over an empty
socket. With an arthritic hand, he pointed to the direction the red truck had gone.
"They drive around looking. Looking and hoping that someone will provoke
them. Sooner or later, someone always obliges. Then the dogs feast and the day's
boredom is broken at last and everyone says 'Allah-u-akbar!' And on those days
when no one offends, well, there is always random violence, isn't there?"

Keep your eyes on your feet when the Talibs are near," Farid said.

"Your friend dispenses good advice/' the old beggar chimed in. He barked
a wet cough and spat in a soiled handkerchief. "Forgive me, but could you spare a
few Afghanis?" he breathed.

"Bas. Let's go," Farid said, pulling me by the arm.

I handed the old man a hundred thousand Afghanis, or the equivalent of
about three dollars. When he leaned forward to take the money, his stench--like
sour milk and feet that hadn't been washed in weeks--flooded my nostrils and
made my gorge rise. He hurriedly slipped the money in his waist, his lone eye
darting side to side. "A world of thanks for your benevolence, Agha sahib."

"Do you know where the orphanage is in Karteh-Seh?" I said.

"It's not hard to find, it's just west of Darulaman Boulevard," he said. "The
children were moved from here to Karteh-Seh after the rockets hit the old
orphanage. Which is like saving someone from the lion's cage and throwing them
in the tiger's."

"Thank you, Agha," I said. I turned to go.

"That was your first time, nay?"

"I'm sorry?"

"The first time you saw a Talib."

I said nothing. The old beggar nodded and smiled. Revealed a handful of
remaining teeth, all crooked and yellow. "I remember the first time I saw them
rolling into Kabul. What a joyous day that was!" he said. "An end to the killing!
Wah wah! But like the poet says: 'How seamless seemed love and then came

A smile sprouted on my face. "1 know that ghazal. That's Hafez.

"Yes it is. Indeed," the old man replied. "I should know. I used to teach it at
the university."

"You did?"

The old man coughed. "From 1958 to 1996. 1 taught Hafez, Khayyam,
Rumi, Beydel, Jami, Saadi. Once, I was even a guest lecturer in Tehran, 1971 that
was. I gave a lecture on the mystic Beydel. I remember how they all stood and
clapped. Ha!" He shook his head. "But you saw those young men in the truck.
What value do you think they see in Sufism?"

"My mother taught at the university," I said.

"And what was her name?"

"Sofia Akrami."

His eye managed to twinkle through the veil of cataracts. "The desert
weed lives on, but the flower of spring blooms and wilts.' Such grace, such
dignity, such a tragedy."

"You knew my mother?" I asked, kneeling before the old man.

"Yes indeed," the old beggar said. "We used to sit and talk after class. The
last time was on a rainy day just before final exams when we shared a marvelous
slice of almond cake together. Almond cake with hot tea and honey. She was
rather obviously pregnant by then, and all the more beautiful for it. I will never
forget what she said to me that day."

"What? Please tell me." Baba had always described my mother to me in
broad strokes, like, "She was a great woman." But what I had always thirsted for
were the details: the way her hair glinted in the sunlight, her favorite ice cream
flavor, the songs she liked to hum, did she bite her nails? Baba took his memories

of her to the grave with him.
Maybe speaking her name would have reminded
him of his guilt, of what he had done so soon after she had died. Or maybe his
loss had been so great, his pain so deep, he couldn't bear to talk about her. Maybe

"She said, 'I'm so afraid.' And 1 said, 'Why?,' and she said, 'Because I'm so
profoundly happy, Dr. Rasul. Happiness like this is frightening.' I asked her why
and she said, 'They only let you be this happy if they're preparing to take
something from you,' and I said, 'Hush up, now. Enough of this silliness."

Farid took my arm. "We should go, Amir agha," he said softly. I snatched
my arm away. "What else? What else did she say?"

The old man's features softened. "I wish I remembered for you. But I
don't. Your mother passed away a long time ago and my memory is as shattered
as these buildings. I am sorry."

"But even a small thing, anything at all."

The old man smiled. "I'll try to remember and that's a promise. Come back
and find me."

"Thank you," I said. "Thank you so much." And I meant it. Now I knew my
mother had liked almond cake with honey and hot tea, that she'd once used the
word "profoundly," that she'd fretted about her happiness. I had just learned
more about my mother from this old man on the street than I ever did from Baba.

Walking back to the truck, neither one of us commented about what most
non-Afghans would have seen as an improbable coincidence, that a beggar on the
street would happen to know my mother. Because we both knew that in
Afghanistan, and particularly in Kabul, such absurdity was commonplace. Baba
used to say, "Take two Afghans who've never met, put them in a room for ten
minutes, and they'll figure out how they're related."

We left the old man on the steps of that building. 1 meant to take him up
on his offer, come back and see if he'd unearthed any more stories about my
mother. But I never saw him again.

WE FOUND THE NEW ORPHANAGE in the northern part of Karteh-Seh, along the
banks of the dried-up Kabul River. It was a flat, barracks-style building with
splintered walls and windows boarded with planks of wood. Farid had told me
on the way there that Karteh-Seh had been one of the most war-ravaged
neighborhoods in Kabul, and, as we stepped out of the truck, the evidence was
overwhelming. The cratered streets were flanked by little more than ruins of
shelled buildings and abandoned homes. We passed the rusted skeleton of an
overturned car, a TV set with no screen half-buried in rubble, a wall with the
words ZENDA BAD TAL IRAN! (Long live the Taliban!) sprayed in black.

A short, thin, balding man with a shaggy gray beard opened the door. He
wore a ragged tweed jacket, a skullcap, and a pair of eyeglasses with one chipped
lens resting on the tip of his nose. Behind the glasses, tiny eyes like black peas
flitted from me to Farid. "Salaam alaykum," he said.

"Salaam alaykum," I said. I showed him the Polaroid. "We're searching for
this boy."

He gave the photo a cursory glance. "I am sorry. I have never seen him."

"You barely looked at the picture, my friend," Farid said. "Why not take a
closer look?"

"Lotfan," I added. Please.

The man behind the door took the picture. Studied it. Handed it back to
me. "Nay, sorry. I know just about every single child in this institution and that
one doesn't look familiar.

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