Search      Hot    Newest Novel
HOME > Classical Novels > The Kite Runner > Chapter 20
Font Size:【Large】【Middle】【Small】 Add Bookmark  
Chapter 20

Farid had warned me. He had. But, as it turned out, he had wasted his breath.

We were driving down the cratered road that winds from Jalalabad to Kabul. The last time I'd traveled that road was in a tarpaulin-covered truck going the other way. Baba had nearly gotten himself shot by a singing, stoned Roussi officer--Baba had made me so mad that night, so scared, and, ultimately, so proud. The trek between Kabul and Jalalabad, a bone-jarring ride down a teetering pass snaking through the rocks, had become a relic now, a relic of two wars. Twenty years earlier, I had seen some of the first war with my own eyes. Grim reminders of it were strewn along the road: burned carcasses of old Soviet tanks, overturned military trucks gone to rust, a crushed Russian jeep that had plunged over the mountainside. The second war, I had watched on my TV screen. And now I was seeing it through Farid's eyes.

Swerving effortlessly around potholes in the middle of the broken road, Farid was a man in his element. He had become much chattier since our overnight stay at Wahid's house. He had me sit in the passenger seat and looked at me when he spoke. He even smiled once or twice. Maneuvering the steering wheel with his mangled hand, he pointed to mud-hut villages along the way where he'd known people years before. Most of those people, he said, were either dead or in refugee camps in Pakistan. "And sometimes the dead are luckier,?he said.

He pointed to the crumbled, charred remains of a tiny village. It was just a tuft of blackened, roofless walls now. I saw a dog sleeping along one of the walls. "I had a friend there once,?Farid said. "He was a very good bicycle repairman. He played the tabla well too. The Taliban killed him and his family and burned the village.?

We drove past the burned village, and the dog didn't move.

IN THE OLD DAYS, the drive from Jalalabad to Kabul took two hours, maybe a little more. It took Farid and me over four hours to reach Kabul. And when we did... Farid warned me just after we passed the Mahipar dam.

"Kabul is not the way you remember it,?he said.

"So I hear.?

Farid gave me a look that said hearing is not the same as seeing. And he was right. Because when Kabul finally did unroll before us, I was certain, absolutely certain, that he had taken a wrong turn somewhere. Farid must have seen my stupefied expression; shuttling people back and forth to Kabul, he would have become familiar with that expression on the faces of those who hadn't seen Kabul for a long time.

He patted me on the shoulder. "Welcome back,?he said morosely.

RUBBLE AND BEGGARS. Everywhere I looked, that was what I saw. I remembered beggars in the old days too--Baba always carried an extra handful of Afghani bills in his pocket just for them; I'd never seen him deny a peddler. Now, though, they squatted at every street corner, dressed in shredded burlap rags, mud-caked hands held out for a coin. And the beggars were mostly children now, thin and grim-faced, some no older than five or six. They sat in the laps of their burqa-clad mothers alongside gutters at busy street corners and chanted "Bakhshesh, bakhshesh!?And something else, something I hadn't noticed right away: Hardly any of them sat with an adult male--the wars had made fathers a rare commodity in Afghanistan.

We were driving westbound toward the Karteh-Seh district on what I remembered as a major thoroughfare in the seventies:

Jadeh Maywand. Just north of us was the bone-dry Kabul River. On the hills to the south stood the broken old city wall. Just east of it was the Bala Hissar Fort--the ancient citadel that the warlord Dostum had occupied in 1992--on the Shirdarwaza mountain range, the same mountains from which Mujahedin forces had showered Kabul with rockets between 1992 and 1996, inflicting much of the damage I was witnessing now. The Shirdarwaza range stretched all the way west. It was from those mountains that I remember the firing of the Topeh chasht, the "noon cannon.?It went off every day to announce noontime, and also to signal the end of daylight fasting during the month of Ramadan. You'd hear the roar of that cannon all through the city in those days.

"I used to come here to Jadeh Maywand when I was a kid,?I mumbled. "There used to be shops here and hotels. Neon lights
and restaurants. I used to buy kites from an old man named Saifo. He ran a little kite shop by the old police headquarters.?

"The police headquarters is still there,?Farid said. "No shortage of police in this city But you won't find kites or kite shops on Jadeh Maywand or anywhere else in Kabul. Those days are over.?

Jadeh Maywand had turned into a giant sand castle. The buildings that hadn't entirely collapsed barely stood, with caved in roofs and walls pierced with rockets shells. Entire blocks had been obliterated to rubble. I saw a bullet-pocked sign half buried at an angle in a heap of debris. It read DRINK COCA CO--. I saw children playing in the ruins of a windowless building amid jagged stumps of brick and stone. Bicycle riders and mule-drawn carts swerved around kids, stray dogs, and piles of debris. A haze of dust hovered over the city and, across the river, a single plume of smoke rose to the sky.

"Where are the trees??I said.

"People cut them down for firewood in the winter,?Farid said. "The Shorawi cut a lot of them down too.?


"Snipers used to hide in them.?

A sadness came over me. Returning to Kabul was like running into an old, forgotten friend and seeing that life hadn't been good to him, that he'd become Homeless and destitute.

"My father built an orphanage in Shar-e-Kohna, the old city, south of here,?I said.

"I remember it,?Farid said. "It was destroyed a few years ago.?

"Can you pull over??I said. "I want to take a quick walk here.?

Farid parked along the curb on a small backstreet next to a ramshackle, abandoned building with no door. "That used to be a pharmacy,?Farid muttered as we exited the truck. We walked back to Jadeh Maywand and turned right, heading west. "What's that smell??I said. Something was making my eyes water.

"Diesel,?Farid replied. "The city's generators are always going down, so electricity is unreliable, and people use diesel fuel.?

"Diesel. Remember what this street smelled like in the old days??

Farid smiled. "Kabob.?

"Lamb kabob,?I said.

"Lamb,?Farid said, tasting the word in his mouth. "The only people in Kabul who get to eat lamb now are the Taliban.?He pulled on my sleeve. "Speaking of which...?

A vehicle was approaching us. "Beard Patrol,?Farid murmured.

That was the first time I saw the Taliban. I'd seen them on TV on the Internet, on the cover of magazines, and in newspapers. But here I was now, less than fifty feet from them, telling myself that the sudden taste in my mouth wasn't unadulterated, naked fear. Telling myself my flesh hadn't suddenly shrunk against my bones and my heart wasn't battering. Here they came. In all their glory.

The red Toyota pickup truck idled past us. A handful of sternfaced young men sat on their haunches in the cab, Kalashnikovs slung on their shoulders. They all wore beards and black turbans. One of them, a dark-skinned man in his early twenties with thick, knitted eyebrows twirled a whip in his hand and rhythmically swatted the side of the truck with it. His roaming eyes fell on me. Held my gaze. I'd never felt so naked in my entire life. Then the Talib spat tobacco-stained spittle and looked away. I found I could breathe again. The truck rolled down Jadeh Maywand, leaving in its trail a cloud of dust.

"What is the matter with you??Farid hissed.


"Don't ever stare at them! Do you understand me? Never!?

"I didn't mean to,?I said.

"Your friend is quite right, Agha. You might as well poke a rabid dog with a stick,?someone said. This new voice belonged to an old beggar sitting barefoot on the steps of a bullet-scarred building. He wore a threadbare chapan worn to frayed shreds and a dirt-crusted turban. His left eyelid drooped over an empty socket. With an arthritic hand, he pointed to the direction the red truck had gone. "They drive around looking. Looking and hoping that someone will provoke them. Sooner or later, someone always obliges. Then the dogs feast and the day's boredom is broken at last and everyone says ‘Allah-u-akbar!?And on those days when no one offends, well, there is always random violence, isn't there??

"Keep your eyes on your feet when the Talibs are near,?Farid said.

"Your friend dispenses good advice,?the old beggar chimed in. He barked a wet cough and spat in a soiled handkerchief. "Forgive me, but could you spare a few Afghanis??he breathed.

"Bas. Let's go,?Farid said, pulling me by the arm.

I handed the old man a hundred thousand Afghanis, or the equivalent of about three dollars. When he leaned forward to take the money, his stench--like sour milk and feet that hadn't been washed in weeks--flooded my nostrils and made my gorge rise. He hurriedly slipped the money in his waist, his lone eye darting side to side. "A world of thanks for your benevolence, Agha sahib.?

"Do you know where the orphanage is in Karteh-Seh??I said.

"It's not hard to find, it's just west of Darulaman Boulevard,?he said. "The children were moved from here to Karteh-Seh after the rockets hit the old orphanage. Which is like saving someone from the lion's cage and throwing them in the tiger's.?

"Thank you, Agha,?I said. I turned to go.

"That was your first time, nay??

"I'm sorry??

"The first time you saw a Talib.?

I said nothing. The old beggar nodded and smiled. Revealed a handful of remaining teeth, all crooked and yellow. "I remember the first time I saw them rolling into Kabul. What a joyous day that was!?he said. "An end to the killing! Wah wah! But like the poet says: ‘How seamless seemed love and then came trouble!?

A smile sprouted on my face. "I know that ghazal. That's H?fez.?

"Yes it is. Indeed,?the old man replied. "I should know. I used to teach it at the university.?

"You did??

The old man coughed. "From 1958 to 1996. I taught H?fez, Khayyám, Rumi, Beydel, Jami, Saadi. Once, I was even a guest lecturer in Tehran, 1971 that was. I gave a lecture on the mystic Beydel. I remember how they all stood and clapped. Ha!?He shook his head. "But you saw those young men in the truck. What value do you think they see in Sufism??

"My mother taught at the university,?I said.

"And what was her name??

"Sofia Akrami.?

His eye managed to twinkle through the veil of cataracts. "The desert weed lives on, but the flower of spring blooms and wilts.?Such grace, such dignity, such a tragedy.?

"You knew my mother??I asked, kneeling before the old man.

"Yes indeed,?the old beggar said. "We used to sit and talk after class. The last time was on a rainy day just before final exams when we shared a marvelous slice of almond cake together. Almond cake with hot tea and honey. She was rather obviously pregnant by then, and all the more beautiful for it. I will never forget what she said to me that day.?

"What? Please tell me.?Baba had always described my mother to me in broad strokes, like, "She was a great woman.?But what I had always thirsted for were the details: the way her hair glinted in the sunlight, her favorite ice cream flavor, the songs she liked to hum, did she bite her nails? Baba took his memories of her to the grave with him. Maybe speaking her name would have reminded him of his guilt, of what he had done so soon after she had died. Or maybe his loss had been so great, his pain so deep, he couldn't bear to talk about her. Maybe both.

"She said, ‘I'm so afraid.?And I said, ‘Why?,?and she said, ‘Because I'm so profoundly happy, Dr. Rasul. Happiness like this is frightening.?I asked her why and she said, ‘They only let you be this happy if they're preparing to take something from you,?and I said, ‘Hush up, now. Enough of this silliness.?

Farid took my arm. "We sh............

Join or Log In! You need to log in to continue reading

Login into Your Account

  Remember me on this computer.

All The Data From The Network AND User Upload, If Infringement, Please Contact Us To Delete! Contact Us
About Us | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Tag List | Recent Search  
©2010-2018, All Rights Reserved