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The Kite Runner: Page 67
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I'd look up from a book and
realize Sohrab had entered the room, had sat across from me, and I hadn't
noticed. He walked like he was afraid to leave behind footprints. He moved as if
not to stir the air around him. Mostly, he slept.
Sohrab's silence was hard on Soraya too. Over that long-distance line to
Pakistan, Soraya had told me about the things she was planning for Sohrab.
Swimming classes. Soccer. Bowling league. Now she'd walk past Sohrab's room
and catch a glimpse of books sitting unopened in the wicker basket, the growth
chart unmarked, the jigsaw puzzle unassembled, each item a reminder of a life
that could have been. A reminder of a dream that was wilting even as it was
budding. But she hadn't been alone. I'd had my own dreams for Sohrab.
While Sohrab was silent, the world was not. One Tuesday morning last
September, the Twin Towers came crumbling down and, overnight, the world
changed. The American flag suddenly appeared everywhere, on the antennae of
yellow cabs weaving around traffic, on the lapels of pedestrians walking the
sidewalks in a steady stream, even on the grimy caps of San Francisco's pan
handlers sitting beneath the awnings of small art galleries and open-fronted
shops. One day I passed Edith, the homeless woman who plays the accordion
every day on the corner of Sutter and Stockton, and spotted an American flag
sticker on the accordion case at her feet.
Soon after the attacks, America bombed Afghanistan, the Northern
Alliance moved in, and the Taliban scurried like rats into the caves. Suddenly,
people were standing in grocery store lines and talking about the cities of my
childhood, Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif. When I was very little, Baba took
Hassan and me to Kunduz. I don't remember much about the trip, except sitting
in the shade of an acacia tree with Baba and Hassan, taking turns sipping fresh
watermelon juice from a clay pot and seeing who could spit the seeds farther.
Now Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and people sipping lattes at Starbucks were
talking about the battle for Kunduz, the Taliban's last stronghold in the north.
That December, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras gathered in Bonn and,
under the watchful eye of the UN, began the process that might someday end
over twenty years of unhappiness in their watan. Hamid Karzai's caracul hat and
green chapan became famous.
Sohrab sleepwalked through it all.
Soraya and I became involved in Afghan projects, as much out of a sense
of civil duty as the need for something--anything--to fill the silence upstairs, the
silence that sucked everything in like a black hole. I had never been the active
type before, but when a man named Kabir, a former Afghan ambassador to Sofia,
called and asked if I wanted to help him with a hospital project, I said yes. The
small hospital had stood near the Afghan-Pakistani border and had a small
surgical unit that treated Afghan refugees with land mine injuries. But it had
closed down due to a lack of funds. I became the project manager, Soraya my co-
manager. I spent most of my days in the study, e-mailing people around the
world, applying for grants, organizing fund-raising events. And telling myself
that bringing Sohrab here had been the right thing to do.
The year ended with Soraya and me on the couch, blanket spread over our
legs, watching Dick Clark on TV. People cheered and kissed when the silver ball
dropped, and confetti whitened the screen. In our house, the new year began
much the same way the last one had ended. In silence.
THEN, FOUR DAYS AGO, on a cool rainy day in March 2002, a small, wondrous
I took Soraya, Khala Jamila, and Sohrab to a gathering of Afghans at Lake
Elizabeth Park in Fremont. The general had finally been summoned to
Afghanistan the month before for a ministry position, and had flown there two
weeks earlier-he had left behind his gray suit and pocket watch. The plan was
for Khala Jamila to join him in a few months once he had settled. She missed him
terribly-and worried about his health there-and we had insisted she stay with
us for a while.
The previous Thursday, the first day of spring, had been the Afghan New
Year's Day-the Sawl-e-Nau-and Afghans in the Bay Area had planned
celebrations throughout the East Bay and the peninsula. Kabir, Soraya, and I had
an additional reason to rejoice: Our little hospital in Rawalpindi had opened the
week before, not the surgical unit, just the pediatric clinic. But it was a good start,
we all agreed.
It had been sunny for days, but Sunday morning, as I swung my legs out of
bed, I heard raindrops pelting the window. Afghan luck, I thought. Snickered. I
prayed morning _namaz_ while Soraya slept--I didn't have to consult the prayer
pamphlet I had obtained from the mosque anymore; the verses came naturally
We arrived around noon and found a handful of people taking cover
under a large rectangular plastic sheet mounted on six poles spiked to the
ground. Someone was already frying bolani; steam rose from teacups and a pot
of cauliflower aush. A scratchy old Ahmad Zahir song was blaring from a cassette
player. I smiled a little as the four of us rushed across the soggy grass field,
Soraya and I in the lead, Khala Jamila in the middle, Sohrab behind us, the hood
of his yellow raincoat bouncing on his back.
"What's so funny?" Soraya said, holding a folded newspaper over her
"You can take Afghans out of Paghman, but you can't take Paghman out of
Afghans," I said.
We stooped under the makeshift tent. Soraya and Khala Jamila drifted
toward an overweight woman frying spinach bolani. Sohrab stayed under the
canopy for a moment, then stepped back out into the rain, hands stuffed in the
pockets of his raincoat, his hair--now brown and straight like Hassan's-
plastered against his scalp. He stopped near a coffee-colored puddle and stared
at it. No one seemed to notice. No one called him back in. With time, the queries
about our adopted-and decidedly eccentric-little boy had mercifully ceased,
and, considering how tactless Afghan queries can be sometimes, that was a
considerable relief. People stopped asking why he never spoke. Why he didn't
play with the other kids. And best of all, they stopped suffocating us with their
exaggerated empathy, their slow head shaking, their tsk tsks, their "Oh gung
bichara." Oh, poor little mute one. The novelty had worn off. Like dull wallpaper,
Sohrab had blended into the background.
I shook hands with Kabir, a small, silver-haired man. He introduced me to
a dozen men, one of them a retired teacher, another an engineer, a former
architect, a surgeon who was now running a hot dog stand in Hayward. They all
said they'd known Baba in Kabul, and they spoke about him respectfully. In one
way or another, he had touched all their lives. The men said I was lucky to have
had such a great man for a father.
We chatted about the difficult and maybe thankless job Karzai had in
front of him, about the upcoming Loya jirga, and the king's imminent return to
his homeland after twenty-eight years of exile. I remembered the night in 1973,
the night Zahir Shah's cousin overthrew him; I remembered gunfire and the sky
lighting up silver-Ali had taken me and Hassan in his arms, told us not to be
afraid, that they were just shooting ducks.
Then someone told a Mullah Nasruddin joke and we were all laughing.
"You know, your father was a funny man too," Kabir said.
"He was, wasn't he?" I said, smiling, remembering how, soon after we
arrived in the U.S., Baba started grumbling about American flies. He'd sit at the
kitchen table with his flyswatter, watch the flies darting from wall to wall,
buzzing here, buzzing there, harried and rushed. "In this country, even flies are
pressed for time," he'd groan. How I had laughed. I smiled at the memory now.
By three o'clock, the rain had stopped and the sky was a curdled gray
burdened with lumps of clouds. A cool breeze blew through the park. More
families turned up. Afghans greeted each other, hugged, kissed, exchanged food.
Someone lighted coal in a barbecue and soon the smell of garlic and morgh
kabob flooded my senses. There was music, some new singer I didn't know, and
the giggling of children. I saw Sohrab, still in his yellow raincoat, leaning against
a garbage pail, staring across the park at the empty batting cage.
A little while later, as I was chatting with the former surgeon, who told me
he and Baba had been classmates in eighth grade, Soraya pulled on my sleeve.
She was pointing to the sky. A half-dozen kites were flying high, speckles
of bright yellow, red, and green against the gray sky.
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