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Chapter 18

The sun had almost set and left the sky swathed in smothers of purple and red. I walked down the busy, narrow street that led away from Rahim Khan's building. The street was a noisy lane in a maze of alleyways choked with pedestrians, bicycles, and rickshaws. Billboards hung at its corners, advertising Coca-Cola and cigarettes; Hollywood movie posters displayed sultry actresses dancing with handsome, brown-skinned men in fields of marigolds.

I walked into a smoky little samovar house and ordered a cup of tea. I tilted back on the folding chair's rear legs and rubbed my face. That feeling of sliding toward a fall was fading. But in its stead, I felt like a man who awakens in his own house and finds all the furniture rearranged, so that every familiar nook and cranny looks foreign now. Disoriented, he has to reevaluate his surroundings, reorient himself.

How could I have been so blind? The signs had been there for me to see all along; they came flying back at me now: Baba hiring Dr. Kumar to fix Hassan's harelip. Baba never missing Hassan's birthday. I remembered the day we were planting tulips, when I had asked Baba if he'd ever consider getting new servants. Hassan's not going anywhere, he'd barked. He's staying right here with us, where he belongs. This is his Home and we're his family. He had wept, wept, when Ali announced he and Hassan were leaving us.

The waiter placed a teacup on the table before me. Where the table's legs crossed like an X, there was a ring of brass balls, each walnut-sized. One of the balls had come unscrewed. I stooped and tightened it. I wished I could fix my own life as easily. I took a gulp of the blackest tea I'd had in years and tried to think of Soraya, of the general and Khala Jamila, of the novel that needed finishing. I tried to watch the traffic bolting by on the street, the people milling in and out of the little sweetshops. Tried to listen to the Qawali music playing on the transistor radio at the next table. Anything. But I kept seeing Baba on the night of my graduation, sitting in the Ford he'd just given me, smelling of beer and saying, I wish Hassan had been with us today.

How could he have lied to me all those years? To Hassan? He had sat me on his lap when I was little, looked me straight in the eyes, and said, There is only one sin. And that is theft... When you tell a lie, you steal someone's right to the truth. Hadn't he said those words to me? And now, fifteen years after I'd buried him, I was learning that Baba had been a thief. And a thief of the worst kind, because the things he'd stolen had been sacred: from me the right to know I had a brother, from Hassan his identity, and from Ali his honor. His nang. His namoos.

The questions kept coming at me: How had Baba brought himself to look Ali in the eye? How had Ali lived in that house, clay in and day out, knowing he had been dishonored by his master in the single worst way an Afghan man can be dishonored?


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