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The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner: Page 49

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Now, by the time I reached the top of the craggy hill, each ragged breath
felt like inhaling fire. Sweat trickled down my face. I stood wheezing for a while,
a stitch in my side. Then I went looking for the abandoned cemetery. It didn't
take me long to find it. It was still there, and so was the old pomegranate tree.

I leaned against the gray stone gateway to the cemetery where Hassan
had buried his mother. The old metal gates hanging off the hinges were gone, and
the headstones were barely visible through the thick tangles of weeds that had
claimed the plot. A pair of crows sat on the low wall that enclosed the cemetery.

Hassan had said in his letter that the pomegranate tree hadn't borne fruit
in years. Looking at the wilted, leafless tree, I doubted it ever would again. I
stood under it, remembered all the times we'd climbed it, straddled its branches,
our legs swinging, dappled sunlight flickering through the leaves and casting on
our faces a mosaic of light and shadow. The tangy taste of pomegranate crept
into my mouth.

I hunkered down on my knees and brushed my hands against the trunk. I
found what I was looking for. The carving had dulled, almost faded altogether,
but it was still there: "Amir and Hassan. The Sultans of Kabul." I traced the curve
of each letter with my fingers. Picked small bits of bark from the tiny crevasses.

I sat cross-legged at the foot of the tree and looked south on the city of my
childhood. In those days, treetops poked behind the walls of every house. The
sky stretched wide and blue, and laundry drying on clotheslines glimmered in
the sun. If you listened hard, you might even have heard the call of the fruit seller
passing through Wazir Akbar Khan with his donkey: Cherries! Apricots! Grapes!
In the early evening, you would have heard azan, the mueszzin's** call to prayer
from the mosque in Shar-e-Nau.

I heard a honk and saw Farid waving at me. It was time to go.

WE DROVE SOUTH AGAIN, back toward Pashtunistan Square. We passed several
more red pickup trucks with armed, bearded young men crammed into the cabs.
Farid cursed under his breath every time we passed one.

I paid for a room at a small hotel near Pashtunistan Square. Three little
girls dressed in identical black dresses and white scarves clung to the slight,
bespectacled man behind the counter. He charged me $75, an unthinkable price
given the run-down appearance of the place, but I didn't mind. Exploitation to
finance a beach house in Hawaii was one thing. Doing it to feed your kids was

There was no hot running water and the cracked toilet didn't flush. Just a
single steel-frame bed with a worn mattress, a ragged blanket, and a wooden
chair in the corner. The window overlooking the square had broken, hadn't been
replaced. As I lowered my suitcase, I noticed a dried bloodstain on the wall
behind the bed.

I gave Farid some money and he went out to get food. He returned with
four sizzling skewers of kabob, fresh _naan_, and a bowl of white rice. We sat on
the bed and all but devoured the food. There was one thing that hadn't changed
in Kabul after all: The kabob was as succulent and delicious as I remembered.

That night, I took the bed and Farid lay on the floor, wrapped himself with
an extra blanket for which the hotel owner charged me an additional fee. No light
came into the room except for the moonbeams streaming through the broken
window. Farid said the owner had told him that Kabul had been without
electricity for two days now and his generator needed fixing. We talked for a
while. He told me about growing up in Mazar-i-Sharif, in Jalalabad. He told me
about a time shortly after he and his father joined the jihad and fought the
Shorawi in the Panjsher Valley. They were stranded without food and ate locust
to survive. He told me of the day helicopter gunfire killed his father, of the day
the land mine took his two daughters. He asked me about America. I told him
that in America you could step into a grocery store and buy any of fifteen or
twenty different types of cereal. The lamb was always fresh and the milk cold,
the fruit plentiful and the water clear. Every home had a TV, and every TV a

remote, and you could get a satellite dish if you wanted. Receive over five
hundred channels.

"Five hundred?" Farid exclaimed.

"Five hundred."

We fell silent for a while. Just when I thought he had fallen asleep, Farid
chuckled. "Agha, did you hear what Mullah Nasrud din did when his daughter
came home and complained that her husband had beaten her?" I could feel him
smiling in the dark and a smile of my own formed on my face. There wasn't an
Afghan in the world who didn't know at least a few jokes about the bumbling


"He beat her too, then sent her back to tell the husband that Mullah was
no fool: If the bastard was going to beat his daughter, then Mullah would beat his
wife in return."

I laughed. Partly at the joke, partly at how Afghan humor never changed.
Wars were waged, the Internet was invented, and a robot had rolled on the
surface of Mars, and in Afghanistan we were still telling Mullah Nasruddin jokes.
"Did you hear about the time Mullah had placed a heavy bag on his shoulders and
was riding his donkey?" I said.


"Someone on the street said why don't you put the bag on the donkey?
And he said, "That would be cruel, I'm heavy enough already for the poor thing."

We exchanged Mullah Nasruddin jokes until we ran out of them and we
fell silent again.

Amir agha?" Farid said, startling me from near sleep.


"Why are you here? I mean, why are you really here?"

"I told you."

"For the boy?"

"For the boy."

Farid shifted on the ground. "It's hard to believe."

"Sometimes I myself can hardly believe I'm here."

"No... What I mean to ask is why that boy? You come all the way from
America for... a Shi'a?"

That killed all the laughter in me. And the sleep. "I am tired," I said. "Let's
just get some sleep."

Farid's snoring soon echoed through the empty room. I stayed awake,
hands crossed on my chest, staring into the starlit night through the broken
window, and thinking that maybe what people said about Afghanistan was true.
Maybe it was a hopeless place.

A BUSTLING CROWD was filling Ghazi Stadium when we walked through the
entrance tunnels. Thousands of people milled about the tightly packed concrete
terraces. Children played in the aisles and chased each other up and down the
steps. The scent of garbanzo beans in spicy sauce hung in the air, mixed with the

smell of dung and sweat. Farid and I walked past street peddlers selling
cigarettes, pine nuts, and biscuits.

A scrawny boy in a tweed jacket grabbed my elbow and spoke into my
ear. Asked me if I wanted to buy some "sexy pictures."

"Very sexy, Agha," he said, his alert eyes darting side to side-reminding
me of a girl who, a few years earlier, had tried to sell me crack in the Tenderloin
district in San Francisco. The kid peeled one side of his jacket open and gave me
a fleeting glance of his sexy pictures: postcards of Hindi movies showing doe-
eyed sultry actresses, fully dressed, in the arms of their leading men. "So sexy,"
he repeated.

"Nay, thanks," I said, pushing past him.

"He gets caught, they'll give him a flogging that will waken his father in
the grave," Farid muttered.

There was no assigned seating, of course. No one to show us politely to
our section, aisle, row, and seat. There never had been, even in the old days of
the monarchy. We found a decent spot to sit, just left of midfield, though it took
some shoving and elbowing on Farid's part.

I remembered how green the playing field grass had been in the 70s
when Baba used to bring me to soccer games here. Now the pitch was a mess.
There were holes and craters everywhere, most notably a pair of deep holes in
the ground behind the south end goalposts. And there was no grass at all, just
dirt. When the two teams finally took the field-all wearing long pants despite the
heat-and play began, it became difficult to follow the ball in the clouds of dust
kicked up by the players. Young, whip-toting Talibs roamed the aisles, striking
anyone who cheered too loudly.

They brought them out shortly after the halftime whistle blew. A pair of
dusty red pickup trucks, like the ones I'd seen around town since I'd arrived,
rode into the stadium through the gates. The crowd rose to its feet. A woman
dressed in a green burqa sat in the cab of one truck, a blindfolded man in the
other. The trucks drove around the track, slowly, as if to let the crowd get a long

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