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The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner: Page 1

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Published 2003

-December 2001_

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the
winter of 1975. 1 remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling
mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago,
but it's wrong what they say about the past, I've learned, about how you can bury
it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been
peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.

One day last summer, my friend Rahim Khan called from Pakistan. He
asked me to come see him. Standing in the kitchen with the receiver to my ear, I
knew it wasn't just Rahim Khan on the line. It was my past of unatoned** sins.
After I hung up, I went for a walk along Spreckels Lake on the northern edge of
Golden Gate Park. The early-afternoon sun sparkled on the water where dozens
of miniature boats sailed, propelled by a crisp breeze. Then I glanced up and saw
a pair of kites, red with long blue tails, soaring in the sky. They danced high
above the trees on the west end of the park, over the windmills, floating side by
side like a pair of eyes looking down on San Francisco, the city I now call home.
And suddenly Hassan's voice whispered in my head: _For you, a thousand times
over._ Hassan the harelipped kite runner.

I sat on a park bench near a willow tree. I thought about something Rahim
Khan said just before he hung up, almost as an after thought. -There is a way to
be good again.- 1 looked up at those twin kites. I thought about Hassan. Thought
about Baba. Ali. Kabul. I thought of the life I had lived until the winter of 1975
came and changed everything. And made me what I am today.


When we were children, Hassan and I used to climb the poplar trees in the
driveway of my father's house and annoy our neighbors by reflecting sunlight
into their homes with a shard of mirror. We would sit across from each other on
a pair of high branches, our naked feet dangling, our trouser pockets filled with

dried mulberries and walnuts. We took turns with the mirror as we ate
mulberries, pelted each other with them, giggling, laughing; I can still see Hassan
up on that tree, sunlight flickering through the leaves on his almost perfectly
round face, a face like a Chinese doll chiseled from hardwood: his flat, broad nose
and slanting, narrow eyes like bamboo leaves, eyes that looked, depending on
the light, gold, green, even sapphire I can still see his tiny low-set ears and that
pointed stub of a chin, a meaty appendage that looked like it was added as a
mere afterthought. And the cleft lip, just left of midline, where the Chinese doll
maker's instrument may have slipped; or perhaps he had simply grown tired and

Sometimes, up in those trees, I talked Hassan into firing walnuts with his
slingshot at the neighbor's one-eyed German shepherd. Hassan never wanted to,
but if I asked, _really_ asked, he wouldn't deny me. Hassan never denied me
anything. And he was deadly with his slingshot. Hassan's father, Ali, used to catch
us and get mad, or as mad as someone as gentle as Ali could ever get. He would
wag his finger and wave us down from the tree. He would take the mirror and
tell us what his mother had told him, that the devil shone mirrors too, shone
them to distract Muslims during prayer. "And he laughs while he does it," he
always added, scowling at his son.

"Yes, Father," Hassan would mumble, looking down at his feet. But he
never told on me. Never told that the mirror, like shooting walnuts at the
neighbor's dog, was always my idea.

The poplar trees lined the redbrick driveway, which led to a pair of
wrought-iron gates. They in turn opened into an extension of the driveway into
my father's estate. The house sat on the left side of the brick path, the backyard
at the end of it.

Everyone agreed that my father, my Baba, had built the most beautiful
house in the Wazir Akbar Khan district, a new and affluent neighborhood in the
northern part of Kabul. Some thought it was the prettiest house in all of Kabul. A
broad entryway flanked by rosebushes led to the sprawling house of marble
floors and wide windows. Intricate mosaic tiles, handpicked by Baba in Isfahan,
covered the floors of the four bathrooms. Gold-stitched tapestries, which Baba
had bought in Calcutta, lined the walls; a crystal chandelier hung from the
vaulted ceiling.

Upstairs was my bedroom, Baba's room, and his study, also known as "the
smoking room," which perpetually smelled of tobacco and cinnamon. Baba and
his friends reclined on black leather chairs there after Ali had served dinner.

They stuffed their pipes--except Baba always called it "fattening the pipe"--and
discussed their favorite three topics: politics, business, soccer. Sometimes I
asked Baba if I could sit with them, but Baba would stand in the doorway. "Go on,
now," he'd say. "This is grown-ups' time. Why don't you go read one of those
books of yours?" He'd close the door, leave me to wonder why it was always
grown-ups' time with him. I'd sit by the door, knees drawn to my chest.
Sometimes I sat there for an hour, sometimes two, listening to their laughter,
their chatter.

The living room downstairs had a curved wall with custom built cabinets.
Inside sat framed family pictures: an old, grainy photo of my grandfather and
King Nadir Shah taken in 1931, two years before the king's assassination; they
are standing over a dead deer, dressed in knee-high boots, rifles slung over their
shoulders. There was a picture of my parents' wedding night, Baba dashing in his
black suit and my mother a smiling young princess in white. Here was Baba and
his best friend and business partner, Rahim Khan, standing outside our house,
neither one smiling-I am a baby in that photograph and Baba is holding me,
looking tired and grim. I'm in his arms, but it's Rahim Khan's pinky my fingers
are curled around.

The curved wall led into the dining room, at the center of which was a
mahogany table that could easily sit thirty guests-and, given my father's taste
for extravagant parties, it did just that almost every week. On the other end of
the dining room was a tall marble fireplace, always lit by the orange glow of a fire
in the wintertime.

A large sliding glass door opened into a semicircular terrace that
overlooked two acres of backyard and rows of cherry trees. Baba and Ali had
planted a small vegetable garden along the eastern wall: tomatoes, mint,
peppers, and a row of corn that never really took. Hassan and I used to call it "the
Wall of Ailing Corn."

On the south end of the garden, in the shadows of a loquat tree, was the
servants' home, a modest little mud hut where Hassan lived with his father.

It was there, in that little shack, that Hassan was born in the winter of
1964, just one year after my mother died giving birth to me.

In the eighteen years that I lived in that house, I stepped into Hassan and
Ali's quarters only a handful of times. When the sun dropped low behind the hills
and we were done playing for the day, Hassan and I parted ways. I went past the

rosebushes to Baba's mansion, Hassan to the mud shack where he had been
born, where he'd lived his entire life. I remember it was spare, clean, dimly lit by
a pair of kerosene lamps. There were two mattresses on opposite sides of the
room, a worn Herati rug with frayed edges in between, a three-legged stool, and
a wooden table in the corner where Hassan did his drawings. The walls stood
bare, save for a single tapestry with sewn-in beads forming the words _Allah-u-
akbar_. Baba had bought it for Ali on one of his trips to Mashad.

It was in that small shack that Hassan's mother, Sanaubar, gave birth to
him one cold winter day in 1964. While my mother hemorrhaged to death during
childbirth, Hassan lost his less than a week after he was born. Lost her to a fate
most Afghans considered far worse than death: She ran off with a clan of
traveling singers and dancers.

Hassan never talked about his mother, as if she'd never existed. I always
wondered if he dreamed about her, about what she looked like, where she was. I
wondered if he longed to meet her. Did he ache for her, the way I ached for the
mother I had never met? One day, we were walking from my father's house to
Cinema Zainab for a new Iranian movie, taking the shortcut through the military
barracks near Istiqlal Middle School-Baba had forbidden us to take that
shortcut, but he was in Pakistan with Rahim Khan at the time. We hopped the
fence that surrounded the barracks, skipped over a little creek, and broke into
the open dirt field where old, abandoned tanks collected dust.

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