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The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner: Page 5

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And, you know, he never fights back.
Never. He just... drops his head and..."

"So he's not violent," Rahim Khan said.

"That's not what I mean, Rahim, and you know it," Baba shot back. "There
is something missing in that boy."

'Yes, a mean streak.

"Self-defense has nothing to do with meanness. You know what always
happens when the neighborhood boys tease him? Hassan steps in and fends
them off. I've seen it with my own eyes. And when they come home, I say to him,
'How did Hassan get that scrape on his face?' And he says, 'He fell down.' I'm
telling you, Rahim, there is something missing in that boy."

"You just need to let him find his way," Rahim Khan said.

"And where is he headed?" Baba said. "A boy who won't stand up for
himself becomes a man who can't stand up to anything."

"As usual you're oversimplifying."

"I don't think so."

"You're angry because you're afraid he'll never take over the business for


"Now who's oversimplifying?" Baba said. "Look, I know there's a fondness
between you and him and I'm happy about that. Envious, but happy. I mean that.
He needs someone who. ..understands him, because God knows I don't. But
something about Amir troubles me in a way that I can't express. It's like..." I could
see him searching, reaching for the right words. He lowered his voice, but I heard
him anyway. "If I hadn't seen the doctor pull him out of my wife with my own
eyes, I'd never believe he's my son."

THE NEXT MORNING, as he was preparing my breakfast, Hassan asked if
something was bothering me. I snapped at him, told him to mind his own

Rahim Khan had been wrong about the mean streak thing.


In 1933, the year Baba was born and the year Zahir Shah began his forty-year
reign of Afghanistan, two brothers, young men from a wealthy and reputable
family in Kabul, got behind the wheel of their father's Ford roadster. High on
hashish and _mast_ on French wine, they struck and killed a Hazara husband and
wife on the road to Paghman. The police brought the somewhat contrite young
men and the dead couple's five-year-old orphan boy before my grandfather, who
was a highly regarded judge and a man of impeccable reputation. After hearing
the brothers' account and their father's plea for mercy, my grandfather ordered
the two young men to go to Kandahar at once and enlist in the army for one year-
-this despite the fact that their family had somehow managed to obtain them
exemptions from the draft. Their father argued, but not too vehemently, and in
the end, everyone agreed that the punishment had been perhaps harsh but fair.
As for the orphan, my grandfather adopted him into his own household, and told
the other servants to tutor him, but to be kind to him. That boy was Ali.

Ali and Baba grew up together as childhood playmates-at least until polio
crippled Ali's leg-just like Hassan and I grew up a generation later. Baba was
always telling us about the mischief he and Ali used to cause, and Ali would
shake his head and say, "But, Agha sahib, tell them who was the architect of the
mischief and who the poor laborer?" Baba would laugh and throw his arm
around Ali.

But in none of his stories did Baba ever refer to Ah as his friend.

The curious thing was, I never thought of Hassan and me as friends either.
Not in the usual sense, anyhow. Never mind that we taught each other to ride a
bicycle with no hands, or to build a fully functional homemade camera out of a
cardboard box. Never mind that we spent entire winters flying kites, running

kites. Never mind that to me, the face of Afghanistan is that of a boy with a thin-
boned frame, a shaved head, and low-set ears, a boy with a Chinese doll face
perpetually lit by a harelipped smile.

Never mind any of those things. Because history isn't easy to overcome.
Neither is religion. In the end, 1 was a Pashtun and he was a Hazara, I was Sunni
and he was Shi'a, and nothing was ever going to change that.

But we were kids who had learned to crawl together, and no history,
ethnicity, society, or religion was going to change that either. I spent most of the
first twelve years of my life playing with Hassan. Sometimes, my entire childhood
seems like one long lazy summer day with Hassan, chasing each other between
tangles of trees in my father's yard, playing hide-and-seek, cops and robbers,
cowboys and Indians, insect torture-with our crowning achievement undeniably
the time we plucked the stinger off a bee and tied a string around the poor thing
to yank it back every time it took flight.

We chased the _Kochi_, the nomads who passed through Kabul on their
way to the mountains of the north. We would hear their caravans approaching
our neighborhood, the mewling of their sheep, the baaing of their goats, the
jingle of bells around their camels' necks. We'd run outside to watch the caravan
plod through our street, men with dusty, weather-beaten faces and women
dressed in long, colorful shawls, beads, and silver bracelets around their wrists
and ankles. We hurled pebbles at their goats. We squirted water on their mules.
I'd make Hassan sit on the Wall of Ailing Corn and fire pebbles with his slingshot
at the camels' rears.

We saw our first Western together, _Rio Bravo_ with John Wayne, at the
Cinema Park, across the street from my favorite bookstore. I remember begging
Baba to take us to Iran so we could meet John Wayne. Baba burst out in gales of
his deep-throated laughter-a sound not unlike a truck engine revving up-and,
when he could talk again, explained to us the concept of voice dubbing. Hassan
and I were stunned. Dazed. John Wayne didn't really speak Farsi and he wasn't
Iranian! He was American, just like the friendly, longhaired men and women we
always saw hanging around in Kabul, dressed in their tattered, brightly colored
shirts. We saw _Rio Bravo_ three times, but we saw our favorite Western, _The
Magnificent Seven_, thirteen times. With each viewing, we cried at the end when
the Mexican kids buried Charles Bronson-who, as it turned out, wasn't Iranian

We took strolls in the musty-smelling bazaars of the Shar-e-Nau section of
Kabul, or the new city, west of the Wazir Akbar Khan district. We talked about

whatever film we had just seen and walked amid the bustling crowds of
_bazarris_. We snaked our way among the merchants and the beggars, wandered
through narrow alleys cramped with rows of tiny, tightly packed stalls. Baba
gave us each a weekly allowance of ten Afghanis and we spent it on warm Coca-
Cola and rosewater ice cream topped with crushed pistachios.

During the school year, we had a daily routine. By the time I dragged
myself out of bed and lumbered to the bathroom, Hassan had already washed up,
prayed the morning _namaz_ with Ah, and prepared my breakfast: hot black tea
with three sugar cubes and a slice of toasted _naan_ topped with my favorite sour
cherry marmalade, all neatly placed on the dining table. While I ate and
complained about homework, Hassan made my bed, polished my shoes, ironed
my outfit for the day, packed my books and pencils. I'd hear him singing to
himself in the foyer as he ironed, singing old Hazara songs in his nasal voice.
Then, Baba and I drove off in his black Ford Mustang-a car that drew envious
looks everywhere because it was the same car Steve McQueen had driven in
_Bullitt_, a film that played in one theater for six months. Hassan stayed home
and helped Ah with the day's chores: hand-washing dirty clothes and hanging
them to dry in the yard, sweeping the floors, buying fresh _naan_ from the
bazaar, marinating meat for dinner, watering the lawn.

After school, Hassan and I met up, grabbed a book, and trotted up a bowl-
shaped hill just north of my father's property in Wazir Akbar Khan. There was an
old abandoned cemetery atop the hill with rows of unmarked headstones and
tangles of brushwood clogging the aisles. Seasons of rain and snow had turned
the iron gate rusty and left the cemetery's low white stone walls in decay. There
was a pomegranate tree near the entrance to the cemetery. One summer day, I
used one of Ali's kitchen knives to carve our names on it: "Amir and Hassan, the
sultans of Kabul." Those words made it formal: the tree was ours. After school,
Hassan and I climbed its branches and snatched its blood-red pomegranates.
After we'd eaten the fruit and wiped our hands on the grass, I would read to

Sitting cross-legged, sunlight and shadows of pomegranate leaves dancing
on his face, Hassan absently plucked blades of grass from the ground as I read
him stories he couldn't read for himself. That Hassan would grow up illiterate
like Ali and most Hazaras had been decided the minute he had been born,
perhaps even the moment he had been conceived in Sanaubar's un-welcoming
womb-after all, what use did a servant have for the written word? But despite
his illiteracy, or maybe because of it, Hassan was drawn to the mystery of words,
seduced by a secret world forbidden to him.

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