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Kite Runner: Chapter 2

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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
careless.


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. A group of soldiers
huddled in the shade of one of those tanks, smoking cigarettes and playing cards.
One of them saw us, elbowed the guy next to him, and called Hassan.


"Hey, you!" he said. "I know you."


We had never seen him before. He was a squatly man with a shaved head
and black stubble on his face. The way he grinned at us, leered, scared me. "Just
keep walking," 1 muttered to Hassan.

"You! The Hazara! Look at me when I'm talking to you!" the soldier
barked. He handed his cigarette to the guy next to him, made a circle with the
thumb and index finger of one hand. Poked the middle finger of his other hand
through the circle. Poked it in and out. In and out. "I knew your mother, did you
know that? I knew her real good. I took her from behind by that creek over
there."

The soldiers laughed. One of them made a squealing sound. I told Hassan
to keep walking, keep walking.

"What a tight little sugary **** she had!" the soldier was saying, shaking
hands with the others, grinning. Later, in the dark, after the movie had started, I
heard Hassan next to me, croaking. Tears were sliding down his cheeks. I
reached across my seat, slung my arm around him, pulled him close. He rested
his head on my shoulder. "He took you for someone else," I whispered. "He took
you for someone else."

I'm told no one was really surprised when Sanaubar eloped. People _had_
raised their eyebrows when Ah, a man who had memorized the Koran, married
Sanaubar, a woman nineteen years younger, a beautiful but notoriously
unscrupulous woman who lived up to her dishonorable reputation. Like Ali, she
was a Shi'a Muslim and an ethnic Hazara. She was also his first cousin and
therefore a natural choice for a spouse. But beyond those similarities, Ali and
Sanaubar had little in common, least of all their respective appearances. While
Sanaubar's brilliant green eyes and impish face had, rumor has it, tempted
countless men into sin, Ah had a congenital paralysis of his lower facial muscles,
a condition that rendered him unable to smile and left him perpetually grim-
faced. It was an odd thing to see the stone-faced Ah happy, or sad, because only
his slanted brown eyes glinted with a smile or welled with sorrow. People say
that eyes are windows to the soul. Never was that more true than with Ah, who
could only reveal himself through his eyes.

I have heard that Sanaubar's suggestive stride and oscillating hips sent
men to reveries of infidelity. But polio had left Ali with a twisted, atrophied right
leg that was sallow skin over bone with little in between except a paper-thin
layer of muscle. I remember one day, when I was eight, Ali was taking me to the
bazaar to buy some _naan_. I was walking behind him, humming, trying to
imitate his walk. I watched him swing his scraggy leg in a sweeping arc, watched
his whole body tilt impossibly to the right every time he planted that foot. It
seemed a minor miracle he didn't tip over with each step. When I tried it, I
almost fell into the gutter. That got me giggling. Ali turned around, caught me
aping him. He didn't say anything. Not then, not ever. He just kept walking.

Ali's face and his walk frightened some of the younger children in the
neighborhood. But the real trouble was with the older kids. They chased him on
the street, and mocked him when he hobbled by. Some had taken to calling him
_Babalu_, or Boogeyman.

"Hey, Babalu, who did you eat today?" they barked to a chorus of laughter.
"Who did you eat, you flat-nosed Babalu?"

They called him "flat-nosed" because of Ali and Hassan's characteristic
Hazara Mongoloid features. For years, that was all I knew about the Hazaras, that
they were Mogul descendants, and that they looked a little like Chinese people.
School text books barely mentioned them and referred to their ancestry only in
passing. Then one day, I was in Baba's study, looking through his stuff, when 1
found one of my mother's old history books. It was written by an Iranian named
Khorami. I blew the dust off it, sneaked it into bed with me that night, and was
stunned to find an entire chapter on Hazara history. An entire chapter dedicated
to Hassan's people! In it, I read that my people, the Pashtuns, had persecuted and
oppressed the Hazaras. It said the Hazaras had tried to rise against the Pashtuns
in the nineteenth century, but the Pashtuns had "quelled them with unspeakable
violence." The book said that my people had killed the Hazaras, driven them from
their lands, burned their homes, and sold their women. The book said part of the
reason Pashtuns had oppressed the Hazaras was that Pashtuns were Sunni
Muslims, while Hazaras were Shi'a. The book said a lot of things I didn't know,
things my teachers hadn't mentioned. Things Baba hadn't mentioned either. It
also said some things I did know, like that people called Hazaras _mice-eating,
flat-nosed, load-carrying donkeys_. I had heard some of the kids in the
neighborhood yell those names to Hassan.

The following week, after class, I showed the book to my teacher and
pointed to the chapter on the Hazaras. He skimmed through a couple of pages,
snickered, handed the book back. "That's the one thing Shi'a people do well," he
said, picking up his papers, "passing themselves as martyrs." He wrinkled his
nose when he said the word Shi'a, like it was some kind of disease.

But despite sharing ethnic heritage and family blood, Sanaubar joined the
neighborhood kids in taunting Ali. I have heard that she made no secret of her
disdain for his appearance.

"This is a husband?" she would sneer. "I have seen old donkeys better
suited to be a husband."

In the end, most people suspected the marriage had been an arrangement
of sorts between Ali and his uncle, Sanaubar's father. They said Ali had married
his cousin to help restore some honor to his uncle's blemished name, even
though Ali, who had been orphaned at the age of five, had no worldly possessions
or inheritance to speak of.

Ali never retaliated against any of his tormentors, I suppose partly
because he could never catch them with that twisted leg dragging behind him.
But mostly because Ali was immune to the insults of his assailants; he had found

his joy, his antidote, the moment Sanaubar had given birth to Hassan. It had been
a simple enough affair. No obstetricians, no anesthesiologists, no fancy
monitoring devices. Just Sanaubar lying on a stained, naked mattress with Ali
and a midwife helping her. She hadn't needed much help at all, because, even in
birth, Hassan was true to his nature: He was incapable of hurting anyone. A few
grunts, a couple of pushes, and out came Hassan. Out he came smiling.

As confided to a neighbor's servant by the garrulous midwife, who had
then in turn told anyone who would listen, Sanaubar had taken one glance at the
baby in Ali's arms, seen the cleft lip, and barked a bitter laughter.

"There," she had said. "Now you have your own idiot child to do all your
smiling for you!" She had refused to even hold Hassan, and just five days later,
she was gone.

Baba hired the same nursing woman who had fed me to nurse Hassan. Ali
told us she was a blue-eyed Hazara woman from Bamiyan, the city of the giant
Buddha statues. "What a sweet singing voice she had," he used to say to us.

What did she sing, Hassan and I always asked, though we already knew-
Ali had told us countless times. We just wanted to hear Ali sing.

He'd clear his throat and begin: _On a high mountain I stood, And cried
the name of Ali, Lion of God 0 Ali, Lion of God, King of Men, Bring joy to our
sorrowful hearts._ Then he would remind us that there was a brotherhood
between people who had fed from the same breast, a kinship that not even time
could break.

Hassan and I fed from the same breasts. We took our first steps on the
same lawn in the same yard. And, under the same roof, we spoke our first words.

Mine was _Baba_.

His was _Amir_. My name.

Looking back on it now, I think the foundation for what happened in the
winter of 1975--and all that followed--was already laid in those first words.
The protagonist remembers sitting in trees with Hassan when they were boys and annoying the neighbors. Any mischief they perpetrated was the protagonist's idea, but even when Hassan's father, Ali, scolded Hassan, he never told on the protagonist. Hassan's father was a servant to the protagonist's father, Baba and lived in a small servant's house on his property. Baba's house was widely considered the most beautiful one in Kabul. There Baba held large dinner parties and entertained friends, including Rahim Khan, in his smoking room. Though the protagonist was often surrounded by adults, he never knew his mother because she died in childbirth. Hassan never knew his mother, either, because she eloped with a performance troupe a few days after his birth. The protagonist always felt a special affinity with Hassan because he too was motherless. It was not a surprise that Hassan's mother, Sanaubar, left Ali. The only things these first cousins had in common were being of the Hazara ethnicity and the Shi'a religion. Otherwise, Sanaubar was nineteen years younger than Ali, gorgeous, and reportedly promiscuous. Meanwhile Ali was a pious man afflicted by paralysis of the lower face muscles and a crippled leg. Rumor had it that Sanaubar taunted Ali for his disabilities just as cruelly as strangers and refused to even hold the infant Hassan because of his cleft lip.

One night, after hearing so many insults thrown at Hassan because he was Hazara, the protagonist secretly read a summary of Hazara history. He found out that the Hazara people were descended from Moguls, owing to their flattened, "Chinese-like" facial features. The Hazaras were brutally oppressed throughout their history for being Shi'a instead of Sunni Muslim. His own people, the Pashtun, oppressed the Hazaras. The protagonist wondered why Baba had never told him any of this. He pitied Hassan for being a hated minority because he was an unusually gentle and kind person, "incapable of hurting anyone." In lieu of the boys' mothers, a kindly woman nursed and sang to both of them. Ali used to remind the boys that they were bound together because they had "fed from the same breasts." The boys were indeed like brothers. The protagonist explains that his first word was "Baba" while Hassan's was his name, "Amir." He says that the event that transpired in 1975, to which he alluded in Chapter One, was "already laid in those first words."