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The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner: Page 7

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When I read the last sentence, he made a muted
clapping sound with his hands.

.Mashallah_, Amir agha. Bravo!" He was beaming.

"You liked it?" I said, getting my second taste--and how sweet it was--of a
positive review.

"Some day, _Inshallah_, you will be a great writer," Hassan said. "And
people all over the world will read your stories."

"You exaggerate, Hassan," I said, loving him for it.

"No. You will be great and famous," he insisted. Then he paused, as if on
the verge of adding something. He weighed his words and cleared his throat.
"But will you permit me to ask a question about the story?" he said shyly.

"Of course."

"Well..." he started, broke off.

"Tell me, Hassan," I said. I smiled, though suddenly the insecure writer in
me wasn't so sure he wanted to hear it.

"Well," he said, "if I may ask, why did the man kill his wife? In fact, why
did he ever have to feel sad to shed tears? Couldn't he have just smelled an

I was stunned. That particular point, so obvious it was utterly stupid,
hadn't even occurred to me. I moved my lips soundlessly. It appeared that on the
same night I had learned about one of writing's objectives, irony, I would also be
introduced to one of its pitfalls: the Plot Hole. Taught by Hassan, of all people.
Hassan who couldn't read and had never written a single word in his entire life.
A voice, cold and dark, suddenly whispered in my ear, _What does he know, that
illiterate Hazara? He'll never be anything but a cook. How dare he criticize you?_
"Well," I began. But I never got to finish that sentence.

Because suddenly Afghanistan changed forever.


Something roared like thunder. The earth shook a little and we heard the _rat-a-
tat-tat_ of gunfire. "Father!" Hassan cried. We sprung to our feet and raced out of
the living room. We found Ali hobbling frantically across the foyer.

"Father! What's that sound?" Hassan yelped, his hands outstretched
toward Ali. Ali wrapped his arms around us. A white light flashed, lit the sky in
silver. It flashed again and was followed by a rapid staccato of gunfire.

"They're hunting ducks," Ali said in a hoarse voice. "They hunt ducks at
night, you know. Don't be afraid."

A siren went off in the distance. Somewhere glass shattered and someone
shouted. I heard people on the street, jolted from sleep and probably still in their
pajamas, with ruffled hair and puffy eyes. Hassan was crying. Ah pulled him
close, clutched him with tenderness. Later, I would tell myself I hadn't felt
envious of Hassan. N ot at all.

We stayed huddled that way until the early hours of the morning. The
shootings and explosions had lasted less than an hour, but they had frightened us
badly, because none of us had ever heard gunshots in the streets. They were
foreign sounds to us then. The generation of Afghan children whose ears would
know nothing but the sounds of bombs and gunfire was not yet born. Huddled
together in the dining room and waiting for the sun to rise, none of us had any
notion that a way of life had ended. Our way of life. If not quite yet, then at least it
was the beginning of the end. The end, the _official_ end, would come first in
April 1978 with the communist coup d'etat, and then in December 1979, when

Russian tanks would roll into the very same streets where Hassan and I played,
bringing the death of the Afghanistan I knew and marking the start of a still
ongoing era of bloodletting.

Just before sunrise, Baba's car peeled into the driveway. His door
slammed shut and his running footsteps pounded the stairs. Then he appeared in
the doorway and I saw something on his face. Something I didn't recognize right
away because I'd never seen it before: fear. "Amir! Hassan!" he exclaimed as he
ran to us, opening his arms wide. "They blocked all the roads and the telephone
didn't work. I was so worried!"

We let him wrap us in his arms and, for a brief insane moment, I was glad
about whatever had happened that night.

THEY WEREN'T SHOOTING ducks after all. As it turned out, they hadn't shot
much of anything that night of July 17, 1973. Kabul awoke the next morning to
find that the monarchy was a thing of the past. The king, Zahir Shah, was away in
Italy. In his absence, his cousin Daoud Khan had ended the king's forty-year reign
with a bloodless coup.

I remember Hassan and I crouching that next morning outside my father's
study, as Baba and Rahim Khan sipped black tea and listened to breaking news of
the coup on Radio Kabul.

"Amir agha?" Hassan whispered.


"What's a 'republic'?"

I shrugged. "I don't know." On Baba's radio, they were saying that word,
republic," over and over again.

'Amir agha?


"Does 'republic' mean Father and I will have to move away?"
"I don't think so," I whispered back.

Hassan considered this. "Amir agha?"


"I don't want them to send me and Father away."

I smiled. "_Bas_, you donkey. No one's sending you away."
"Amir agha?"


"Do you want to go climb our tree?"

My smile broadened. That was another thing about Hassan. He always
knew when to say the right thing--the news on the radio was getting pretty
boring. Hassan went to his shack to get ready and I ran upstairs to grab a book.
Then I went to the kitchen, stuffed my pockets with handfuls of pine nuts, and
ran outside to find Hassan waiting for me. We burst through the front gates and
headed for the hill.

We crossed the residential street and were trekking through a barren
patch of rough land that led to the hill when, suddenly, a rock struck Hassan in

the back.
We whirled around and my heart dropped. Assef and two of his friends,
Wali and Kamal, were approaching us.

Assef was the son of one of my father's friends, Mahmood, an airline pilot.
His family lived a few streets south of our home, in a posh, high-walled
compound with palm trees. If you were a kid living in the Wazir Akbar Khan
section of Kabul, you knew about Assef and his famous stainless-steel brass
knuckles, hopefully not through personal experience. Born to a German mother
and Afghan father, the blond, blue-eyed Assef towered over the other kids. His
well-earned reputation for savagery preceded him on the streets. Flanked by his
obeying friends, he walked the neighborhood like a Khan strolling through his
land with his eager-to-please entourage. His word was law, and if you needed a
little legal education, then those brass knuckles were just the right teaching tool.

I saw him use those knuckles once on a kid from the Karteh-Char district. I will
never forget how Assef's blue eyes glinted with a light not entirely sane and how
he grinned, how he _grinned_, as he pummeled that poor kid unconscious. Some
of the boys in Wazir Akbar Khan had nicknamed him Assef _Goshkhor_, or Assef
"the Ear Eater." Of course, none of them dared utter it to his face unless they
wished to suffer the same fate as the poor kid who had unwittingly inspired that
nickname when he had fought Assef over a kite and ended up fishing his right ear
from a muddy gutter. Years later, I learned an English word for the creature that
Assef was, a word for which a good Farsi equivalent does not exist: "sociopath."

Of all the neighborhood boys who tortured Ali, Assef was by far the most
relentless. He was, in fact, the originator of the Babalu jeer, _Hey, Babalu, who did
you eat today? Huh? Come on, Babalu, give us a smile! _ And on days when he felt
particularly inspired, he spiced up his badgering a little, _Hey, you flat-nosed
Babalu, who did you eat today? Tell us, you slant-eyed donkeyL Now he was
walking toward us, hands on his hips, his sneakers kicking up little puffs of dust.

"Good morning, _kunis_!" Assef exclaimed, waving. "Fag," that was
another of his favorite insults. Hassan retreated behind me as the three older
boys closed in. They stood before us, three tall boys dressed in jeans and T-
shirts. Towering over us all, Assef crossed his thick arms on his chest, a savage
sort of grin on his lips. N ot for the first time, it occurred to me that Assef might
not be entirely sane. It also occurred to me how lucky I was to have Baba as my
father, the sole reason, I believe, Assef had mostly refrained from harassing me
too much.

He tipped his chin to Hassan. "Hey, Flat-Nose," he said. "How is Babalu?"

Hassan said nothing and crept another step behind me.

"Have you heard the news, boys?" Assef said, his grin never faltering. "The
king is gone. Good riddance. Long live the president! My father knows Daoud
Khan, did you know that, Amir?"

"So does my father," I said.

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