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Chapter 21

We crossed the river and drove north through the crowded Pashtunistan Square. Baba used to take me to Khyber Restaurant there for kabob. The building was still standing, but its doors were padlocked, the windows shattered, and the letters K and R missing from its name.

I saw a dead body near the restaurant. There had been a hanging. A young man dangled from the end of a rope tied to a beam, his face puffy and blue, the clothes he'd worn on the last day of his life shredded, bloody. Hardly anyone seemed to notice him.

We rode silently through the square and headed toward the WazirAkbar Khan district. Everywhere I looked, a haze of dust covered the city and its sun-dried brick buildings. A few blocks north of Pashtunistan Square, Farid pointed to two men talking animatedly at a busy street corner. One of them was hobbling on one leg, his other leg amputated below the knee. He cradled an artificial leg in his arms. "You know what they're doing? Haggling over the leg.?

"He's selling his leg??

Farid nodded. "You can get good money for it on the black market. Feed your kids for a couple of weeks.?

To MY SURPRISE, most of the houses in the WazirAkbar Khan district still had roofs and standing walls. In fact, they were in pretty good shape. Trees still peeked over the walls, and the streets weren't nearly as rubble-strewn as the ones in Karteh-Seh. Faded streets signs, some twisted and bullet-pocked, still pointed the way.

"This isn't so bad,?I remarked.

"No surprise. Most of the important people live here now.?


"Them too,?Farid said.

"Who else??

He drove us into a wide street with fairly clean sidewalks and walled Homes on either side. "The people behind the Taliban. The real brains of this government, if you can call it that: Arabs, Chechens, Pakistanis,?Farid said. He pointed northwest. "Street 15, that way, is called Sarak-e-Mehmana.?Street of the Guests. "That's what they call them here, guests. I think someday these guests are going to pee all over the carpet.?

"I think that's it!?I said. "Over there!?I pointed to the landmark that used to serve as a guide for me when I was a kid. If you ever get lost, Baba used to say, remember that our street is the one with the pink house at the end of it. The pink house with the steeply pitched roof had been the neighborhood's only house of that color in the old days. It still was.

Farid turned onto the street. I saw Baba's house right away.

WE FIND THE LITTLE TURTLE behind tangles of sweetbrier in the yard. We don't know how it got there and we're too excited to care. We paint its shell a bright red, Hassan's idea, and a good one:

This way, we'll never lose it in the bushes. We pretend we're a pair of daredevil explorers who've discovered a giant prehistoric monster in some distant jungle and we've brought it back for the world to see. We set it down in the wooden wagon Ali built Hassan last winter for his birthday, pretend it's a giant steel cage. Behold the firebreathing monstrosity! We march on the grass and pull the wagon behind us, around apple and cherry trees, which become skyscrap ers soaring into clouds, heads poking out of thousands of windows to watch the spectacle passing below. We walk over the little semi lunar bridge Baba has built near a cluster of fig trees; it becomes a great suspension bridge joining cities, and the little pond below, a foamy sea. Fireworks explode above the bridge's massive pylons and armed soldiers salute us on both sides as gigantic steel cables shoot to the sky. The little turtle bouncing around in the cab, we drag the wagon around the circular red brick driveway outside the wroughtiron gates and return the salutes of the world's leaders as they stand and applaud. We are Hassan and Amir, famed adventurers and the world's greatest explorers, about to receive a medal of honor for our courageous feat...

GINGERLY, I WALKED up the driveway where tufts of weed now grew between the sun-faded bricks. I stood outside the gates of my father's house, feeling like a stranger. I set my hands on the rusty bars, remembering how I'd run through these same gates thousands of times as a child, for things that mattered not at all now and yet had seemed so important then. I peered in.

The driveway extension that led from the gates to the yard, where Hassan and I took turns falling the summer we learned to ride a bike, didn't look as wide or as long as I remembered it. The asphalt had split in a lightning-streak pattern, and more tangles of weed sprouted through the fissures. Most of the poplar trees had been chopped down--the trees Hassan and I used to climb to shine our mirrors into the neighbors?Homes. The ones still standing were nearly leafless. The Wall of Ailing Corn was still there, though I saw no corn, ailing or otherwise, along that wall now. The paint had begun to peel and sections of it had sloughed off altogether. The lawn had turned the same brown as the haze of dust hovering over the city, dotted by bald patches of dirt where nothing grew at all.

A jeep was parked in the driveway and that looked all wrong:

Baba's black Mustang belonged there. For years, the Mustang's eight cylinders roared to life every morning, rousing me from sleep. I saw that oil had spilled under the jeep and stained the driveway like a big Rorschach inkblot. Beyond the jeep, an empty wheelbarrow lay on its side. I saw no sign of the rosebushes that Baba and Ali had planted on the left side of the driveway, only dirt that spilled onto the asphalt. And weeds.

Farid honked twice behind me. "We should go, Agha. We'll draw attention,?he called.

"Just give me one more minute,?I said.

The house itself was far from the sprawling white mansion I remembered from my childhood. It looked smaller. The roof sagged and the plaster was cracked. The windows to the living room, the foyer, and the upstairs guest bathroom were broken, patched haphazardly with sheets of clear plastic or wooden boards nailed across the frames. The paint, once sparkling white, had faded to ghostly gray and eroded in parts, revealing the layered bricks beneath. The front steps had crumbled. Like so much else in Kabul, my father's house was the picture of fallen splendor.

I found the window to my old bedroom, second floor, third window sOuth of the main steps to the house. I stood on tiptoes, saw nothing behind the window but shadows. Twenty-five years earlier, I had stood behind that same window, thick rain dripping down the panes and my breath fogging up the glass. I had watched Hassan and Ali load their belongings into the trunk of my father's car.

"Amir agha,?Farid called again.

"I'm coming,?I shot back.

Insanely, I wanted to go in. Wanted to walk up the front steps where Ali used to make Hassan and me take off our snow boots. I wanted to step into the foyer, smell the orange peel Ali always tossed into the stove to burn with sawdust. Sit at the kitchen table, have tea with a slice of _naan_, listen to Hassan sing old Hazara songs.

Another honk. I walked back to the Land Cruiser parked along the sidewalk. Farid sat smoking behind the wheel.

"I have to look at one more thing,?I told him.

"Can you hurry??

"Give me ten minutes.?

"Go, then.?Then, just as I was turning to go: "Just forget it all. Makes it easier.?

"To what??

"To go on,?Farid said. He flicked his cigarette out of the window. "How much more do you need to see? Let me save you the trouble: Nothing that you remember has survived. Best to forget.?

"I don't want to forget anymore,?I said. "Give me ten minutes.?

WE HARDLY BROKE A SWEAT, Hassan and I, when we hiked

up the hill just north of Baba's house. We scampered about the hilltop chasing each other or sat on a sloped ridge where there was a good view of the airport in the distance. We'd watch airplanes take off and land. Go running again.

Now, by the time I reached the top of the craggy hill, each ragged breath felt like inhaling fire. Sweat trickled down my face. I stood wheezing for a while, a stitch in my side. Then I went looking for the abandoned cemetery. It didn't take me long to find it. It was still there, and so was the old pomegranate tree.

I leaned against the gray stone gateway to the cemetery where Hassan had buried his mother. The old metal gates hanging off the hinges were gone, and the headstones were barely visible through the thick tangles of weeds that had claimed the plot. A pair of crows sat on the low wall that enclosed the cemetery.

Hassan had said in his letter that the pomegranate tree hadn't borne fruit in years. Looking at the wilted, leafless tree, I doubted it ever would again. I stood under it, remembered all the times we'd climbed it, straddled its branches, our legs swinging, dappled sunlight flickering through the leaves and casting on our faces a mosaic of light and shadow. The tangy taste of pomegranate crept into my mouth.

I hunkered down on my knees and brushed my hands against the trunk. I found what I was looking for. The carving had dulled, almost faded altogether, but it was still there: "Amir and Hassan. The Sultans of Kabul.?I traced the curve of each letter with my fingers. Picked small bits of bark from the tiny crevasses.

I sat cross-legged at the foot of the tree and looked south on the city of my childhood. In those days, treetops poked behind the walls of every house. The sky stretched wide and blue, and laundry drying on clotheslines glimmered in the sun. If you listened hard, you might even have heard the call of the fruit seller passing through Wazir Akbar Khan with his donkey: Cherries! Apricots! Grapes! In the early evening, you would have heard azan, the mueszzin's call to prayer from the mosque in Shar-e-Nau.

I heard a honk and saw Farid waving at me. It was time to go.

WE DROVE SOUTH AGAIN, back toward Pashtunistan Square. We passed several more red pickup trucks with armed, bearded young men crammed into the cabs. Farid cursed under his breath every time we passed one.

I paid for a room at a small hotel near Pashtunistan Square. Three little girls dressed in identical black dresses and white scarves clung to the slight, bespectacled man behind the counter. He charged me $75, an unthinkable price given the run-down appearance of the place, but I didn't mind. Exploitation to finance a beach house in Hawaii was one thing. Doing it to feed your kids was another.

There was no hot running water and the cracked toilet didn't flush. Just a single steel-frame bed with a worn mattress, a ragged blanket, and a wooden chair in the corner. The window overlooking the square had broken, hadn't been replaced. As I lowered my suitcase, I noticed a dried bloodstain on the wall behind the bed.

I gave Farid some money and he went out to get food. He returned with four sizzling skewers of kabob, fresh _naan_, and a bowl of white rice. We sat on the bed and all but devoured the food. There was one thing that hadn't changed in Kabul after all:

The kabob was as succulent and delicious as I remembered.

That night, I took the bed and Farid lay on the floor, wrapped himself with an extra blanket for which the hotel owner charged me an additional fee. No light came into the room except for the moonbeams streaming through the broken window. Farid said the owner had told him that Kabul had been without electricity for two days now and his generator needed fixing. We talked for a while. He told me about growing up in Mazar-i-Sharif, in Jalalabad. He told me about a time shortly after he and his father joined the jihad and............

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