Kite Runner: Chapter 3

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Lore has it my father once wrestled a black bear in Baluchistan with his bare
hands. If the story had been about anyone else, it would have been dismissed as
_laaf_, that Afghan tendency to exaggerate--sadly, almost a national affliction; if
someone bragged that his son was a doctor, chances were the kid had once
passed a biology test in high school. But no one ever doubted the veracity of any
story about Baba. And if they did, well, Baba did have those three parallel scars
coursing a jagged path down his back. I have imagined Baba's wrestling match
countless times, even dreamed about it. And in those dreams, I can never tell
Baba from the bear.


It was Rahim Khan who first referred to him as what eventually became
Baba's famous nickname, _Toophan agha_, or "Mr. Hurricane." It was an apt
enough nickname. My father was a force of nature, a towering Pashtun specimen
with a thick beard, a wayward crop of curly brown hair as unruly as the man
himself, hands that looked capable of uprooting a willow tree, and a black glare
that would "drop the devil to his knees begging for mercy," as Rahim Khan used
to say. At parties, when all six-foot-five of him thundered into the room, attention
shifted to him like sunflowers turning to the sun.


Baba was impossible to ignore, even in his sleep. I used to bury cotton
wisps in my ears, pull the blanket over my head, and still the sounds of Baba's
snoring-so much like a growling truck engine-penetrated the walls. And my
room was across the hall from Baba's bedroom. How my mother ever managed
to sleep in the same room as him is a mystery to me. It's on the long list of things
I would have asked my mother if I had ever met her.


In the late 1960s, when I was five or six, Baba decided to build an
orphanage. I heard the story through Rahim Khan. He told me Baba had drawn
the blueprints himself despite the fact that he'd had no architectural experience
at all. Skeptics had urged him to stop his foolishness and hire an architect. Of
course, Baba refused, and everyone shook their heads in dismay at his obstinate
ways. Then Baba succeeded and everyone shook their heads in awe at his
triumphant ways. Baba paid for the construction of the two-story orphanage, just
off the main strip of Jadeh Maywand south of the Kabul River, with his own
money. Rahim Khan told me Baba had personally funded the entire project,
paying for the engineers, electricians, plumbers, and laborers, not to mention the
city officials whose "mustaches needed oiling."


It took three years to build the orphanage. I was eight by then. I
remember the day before the orphanage opened, Baba took me to Ghargha Lake,
a few miles north of Kabul. He asked me to fetch Hassan too, but 1 lied and told
him Hassan had the runs. I wanted Baba all to myself. And besides, one time at
Ghargha Lake, Hassan and I were skimming stones and Hassan made his stone
skip eight times. The most I managed was five. Baba was there, watching, and he
patted Hassan on the back. Even put his arm around his shoulder.


We sat at a picnic table on the banks of the lake, just Baba and me, eating
boiled eggs with _kofta_ sandwiches-meatballs and pickles wrapped in _naan_.


The water was a deep blue and sunlight glittered on its looking glass-clear
surface. On Fridays, the lake was bustling with families out for a day in the sun.
But it was midweek and there was only Baba and me, us and a couple of
longhaired, bearded tourists-"hippies," I'd heard them called. They were sitting
on the dock, feet dangling in the water, fishing poles in hand. I asked Baba why
they grew their hair long, but Baba grunted, didn't answer. He was preparing his
speech for the next day, flipping through a havoc of handwritten pages, making
notes here and there with a pencil. I bit into my egg and asked Baba if it was true
what a boy in school had told me, that if you ate a piece of eggshell, you'd have to
pee it out. Baba grunted again.


I took a bite of my sandwich. One of the yellow-haired tourists laughed
and slapped the other one on the back. In the distance, across the lake, a truck
lumbered around a corner on the hill. Sunlight twinkled in its side-view mirror,


"I think 1 have _saratan_," I said. Cancer. Baba lifted his head from the
pages flapping in the breeze. Told me I could get the soda myself, all I had to do
was look in the trunk of the car.



Outside the orphanage, the next day, they ran out of chairs. A lot of people
had to stand to watch the opening ceremony. It was a windy day, and I sat behind
Baba on the little podium just outside the main entrance of the new building.
Baba was wearing a green suit and a caracul hat. Midway through the speech, the
wind knocked his hat off and everyone laughed. He motioned to me to hold his
hat for him and I was glad to, because then everyone would see that he was my
father, my Baba. He turned back to the microphone and said he hoped the
building was sturdier than his hat, and everyone laughed again. When Baba
ended his speech, people stood up and cheered. They clapped for a long time.
Afterward, people shook his hand. Some of them tousled my hair and shook my
hand too. I was so proud of Baba, of us.


But despite Baba's successes, people were always doubting him. They told
Baba that running a business wasn't in his blood and he should study law like his
father. So Baba proved them all wrong by not only running his own business but
becoming one of the richest merchants in Kabul. Baba and Rahim Khan built a
wildly successful carpet-exporting business, two pharmacies, and a restaurant.


When people scoffed that Baba would never marry well-after all, he was
not of royal blood-he wedded my mother, Sofia Akrami, a highly educated
woman universally regarded as one of Kabul's most respected, beautiful, and
virtuous ladies. And not only did she teach classic Farsi literature at the
university she was a descendant of the royal family, a fact that my father
playfully rubbed in the skeptics' faces by referring to her as "my princess."


With me as the glaring exception, my father molded the world around him
to his liking. The problem, of course, was that Baba saw the world in black and
white. And he got to decide what was black and what was white. You can't love a
person who lives that way without fearing him too. Maybe even hating him a
little.


When I was in fifth grade, we had a mullah who taught us about Islam. His
name was Mullah Fatiullah Khan, a short, stubby man with a face full of acne
scars and a gruff voice. He lectured us about the virtues of _zakat_ and the duty of
_hadj_; he taught us the intricacies of performing the five daily _namaz_ prayers,
and made us memorize verses from the Koran-and though he never translated
the words for us, he did stress, sometimes with the help of a stripped willow
branch, that we had to pronounce the Arabic words correctly so God would hear
us better. He told us one day that Islam considered drinking a terrible sin; those
who drank would answer for their sin on the day of _Qiyamat_, Judgment Day. In
those days, drinking was fairly common in Kabul. No one gave you a public
lashing for it, but those Afghans who did drink did so in private, out of respect.



People bought their scotch as "medicine" in brown paper bags from selected
"pharmacies." They would leave with the bag tucked out of sight, sometimes
drawing furtive, disapproving glances from those who knew about the store's
reputation for such transactions.


We were upstairs in Baba's study, the smoking room, when I told him
what Mullah Fatiullah Khan had taught us in class. Baba was pouring himself a
whiskey from the bar he had built in the corner of the room. He listened, nodded,
took a sip from his drink. Then he lowered himself into the leather sofa, put
down his drink, and propped me up on his lap. I felt as if I were sitting on a pair
of tree trunks. He took a deep breath and exhaled through his nose, the air
hissing through his mustache for what seemed an eternity I couldn't decide
whether I wanted to hug him or leap from his lap in mortal fear.


"I see you've confused what you're learning in school with actual
education," he said in his thick voice.


"But if what he said is true then does it make you a sinner, Baba?"


"Hmm." Baba crushed an ice cube between his teeth. "Do you want to
know what your father thinks about sin?"


'Yes.


"Then I'll tell you," Baba said, "but first understand this and understand it
now, Amir: You'll never learn anything of value from those bearded idiots."


"You mean Mullah Fatiullah Khan?"


Baba gestured with his glass. The ice clinked. "I mean all of them. Piss on
the beards of all those self-righteous monkeys."


I began to giggle. The image of Baba pissing on the beard of any monkey,
self-righteous or otherwise, was too much.



"They do nothing but thumb their prayer beads and recite a book written
in a tongue they don't even understand." He took a sip. "God help us all if
Afghanistan ever falls into their hands."


"But Mullah Fatiullah Khan seems nice/' I managed between bursts of
tittering.


"So did Genghis Khan," Baba said. "But enough about that. You asked
about sin and I want to tell you. Are you listening?"


"Yes," I said, pressing my lips together. But a chortle escaped through my
nose and made a snorting sound. That got me giggling again.


Baba's stony eyes bore into mine and, just like that, I wasn't laughing
anymore.


"I mean to speak to you man to man. Do you think you can handle that for

once?"


"Yes, Baba jan," I muttered, marveling, not for the first time, at how badly
Baba could sting me with so few words. We'd had a fleeting good moment--it
wasn't often Baba talked to me, let alone on his lap--and I'd been a fool to waste
it.


"Good," Baba said, but his eyes wondered. "Now, no matter what the
mullah teaches, there is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin
is a variation of theft. Do you understand that?"


"No, Baba jan," I said, desperately wishing I did. 1 didn't want to
disappoint him again.


Baba heaved a sigh of impatience. That stung too, because he was not an
impatient man. I remembered all the times he didn't come home until after dark,
all the times I ate dinner alone. I'd ask Ali where Baba was, when he was coming
home, though I knew full well he was at the construction site, overlooking this,
supervising that. Didn't that take patience? I already hated all the kids he was



building the orphanage for; sometimes I wished they'd all died along with their
parents.


"When you kill a man, you steal a life," Baba said. "You steal his wife's
right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal
someone's right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness. Do
you see?"


I did. When Baba was six, a thief walked into my grandfather's house in
the middle of the night. My grandfather, a respected judge, confronted him, but
the thief stabbed him in the throat, killing him instantly--and robbing Baba of a
father. The townspeople caught the killer just before noon the next day; he
turned out to be a wanderer from the Kunduz region. They hanged him from the
branch of an oak tree with still two hours to go before afternoon prayer. It was
Rahim Khan, not Baba, who had told me that story. I was always learning things
about Baba from other people.


"There is no act more wretched than stealing, Amir," Baba said. "A man
who takes what's not his to take, be it a life or a loaf of _naan_... I spit on such a
man. And if I ever cross paths with him, God help him. Do you understand?"


1 found the idea of Baba clobbering a thief both exhilarating and terribly
frightening. "Yes, Baba."


"If there's a God out there, then I would hope he has more important
things to attend to than my drinking scotch or eating pork. Now, hop down. All
this talk about sin has made me thirsty again."


I watched him fill his glass at the bar and wondered how much time
would pass before we talked again the way we just had. Because the truth of it
was, I always felt like Baba hated me a little. And why not? After all, I _had_ killed
his beloved wife, his beautiful princess, hadn't I? The least I could have done was
to have had the decency to have turned out a little more like him. But I hadn't
turned out like him. Not at all.



IN SCHOOL, we used to play a game called _Sherjangi_, or "Battle of the Poems."
The Farsi teacher moderated it and it went something like this: You recited a
verse from a poem and your opponent had sixty seconds to reply with a verse
that began with the same letter that ended yours. Everyone in my class wanted
me on their team, because by the time I was eleven, I could recite dozens of
verses from Khayyam, Hafez, or Rumi's famous _Masnawi_. One time, I took on
the whole class and won. I told Baba about it later that night, but he just nodded,
muttered, "Good."


That was how I escaped my father's aloofness, in my dead mother's
books. That and Hassan, of course. I read everything, Rumi, Hafez, Saadi, Victor
Hugo, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Ian Fleming. When I had finished my mother's
books--not the boring history ones, I was never much into those, but the novels,
the epics--I started spending my allowance on books. I bought one a week from
the bookstore near Cinema Park, and stored them in cardboard boxes when I ran
out of shelf room.


Of course, marrying a poet was one thing, but fathering a son who
preferred burying his face in poetry books to hunting... well, that wasn't how
Baba had envisioned it, I suppose. Real men didn't read poetry--and God forbid
they should ever write it! Real men--real boys--played soccer just as Baba had
when he had been young. Now _that_ was something to be passionate about. In
1970, Baba took a break from the construction of the orphanage and flew to
Tehran for a month to watch the World Cup games on television, since at the
time Afghanistan didn't have TVs yet. He signed me up for soccer teams to stir
the same passion in me. But I was pathetic, a blundering liability to my own
team, always in the way of an opportune pass or unwittingly blocking an open
lane. I shambled about the field on scraggy legs, squalled for passes that never
came my way. And the harder I tried, waving my arms over my head frantically
and screeching, "I'm open! I'm open!" the more I went ignored. But Baba
wouldn't give up. When it became abundantly clear that I hadn't inherited a
shred of his athletic talents, he settled for trying to turn me into a passionate
spectator. Certainly I could manage that, couldn't I? I faked interest for as long as
possible. I cheered with him when Kabul's team scored against Kandahar and
yelped insults at the referee when he called a penalty against our team. But Baba
sensed my lack of genuine interest and resigned himself to the bleak fact that his
son was never going to either play or watch soccer.


I remember one time Baba took me to the yearly _Buzkashi_ tournament
that took place on the first day of spring, New Year's Day. Buzkashi was, and still
is, Afghanistan's national passion. A _chapandaz_, a highly skilled horseman
usually patronized by rich aficionados, has to snatch a goat or cattle carcass from
the midst of a melee, carry that carcass with him around the stadium at full
gallop, and drop it in a scoring circle while a team of other _chapandaz_ chases
him and does everything in its power-kick, claw, whip, punch-to snatch the



carcass from him. That day, the crowd roared with excitement as the horsemen
on the field bellowed their battle cries and jostled for the carcass in a cloud of
dust. The earth trembled with the clatter of hooves. We watched from the upper
bleachers as riders pounded past us at full gallop, yipping and yelling, foam flying
from their horses' mouths.


At one point Baba pointed to someone. "Amir, do you see that man sitting
up there with those other men around him?"


I did.


"That's Henry Kissinger."


"Oh," I said. I didn't know who Henry Kissinger was, and I might have
asked. But at the moment, I watched with horror as one of the _chapandaz_ fell
off his saddle and was trampled under a score of hooves. His body was tossed
and hurled in the stampede like a rag doll, finally rolling to a stop when the
melee moved on. He twitched once and lay motionless, his legs bent at unnatural
angles, a pool of his blood soaking through the sand.


I began to cry.


I cried all the way back home. I remember how Baba's hands clenched
around the steering wheel. Clenched and unclenched. Mostly, I will never forget
Baba's valiant efforts to conceal the disgusted look on his face as he drove in
silence.


Later that night, I was passing by my father's study when I overheard him
speaking to Rahim Khan. I pressed my ear to the closed door.


"--grateful that he's healthy," Rahim Khan was saying.


"I know, I know. But he's always buried in those books or shuffling
around the house like he's lost in some dream."



'And?


"I wasn't like that." Baba sounded frustrated, almost angry.


Rahim Khan laughed. "Children aren't coloring books. You don't get to fill
them with your favorite colors."


"I'm telling you," Baba said, "I wasn't like that at all, and neither were any
of the kids I grew up with."


"You know, sometimes you are the most self-centered man I know,"

Rahim Khan said. He was the only person I knew who could get away with saying
something like that to Baba.


"It has nothing to do with that."


"Nay?"


"Nay."


"Then what?"


I heard the leather of Baba's seat creaking as he shifted on it. I closed my
eyes, pressed my ear even harder against the door, wanting to hear, not wanting
to hear. "Sometimes I look out this window and I see him playing on the street
with the neighborhood boys. I see how they push him around, take his toys from
him, give him a shove here, a whack there. And, you know, he never fights back.
Never. He just... drops his head and..."


"So he's not violent," Rahim Khan said.


"That's not what I mean, Rahim, and you know it," Baba shot back. "There
is something missing in that boy."



'Yes, a mean streak.


"Self-defense has nothing to do with meanness. You know what always
happens when the neighborhood boys tease him? Hassan steps in and fends
them off. I've seen it with my own eyes. And when they come home, I say to him,
'How did Hassan get that scrape on his face?' And he says, 'He fell down.' I'm
telling you, Rahim, there is something missing in that boy."


"You just need to let him find his way," Rahim Khan said.


"And where is he headed?" Baba said. "A boy who won't stand up for
himself becomes a man who can't stand up to anything."


"As usual you're oversimplifying."


"I don't think so."


"You're angry because you're afraid he'll never take over the business for

you."


"Now who's oversimplifying?" Baba said. "Look, I know there's a fondness
between you and him and I'm happy about that. Envious, but happy. I mean that.
He needs someone who. ..understands him, because God knows I don't. But
something about Amir troubles me in a way that I can't express. It's like..." I could
see him searching, reaching for the right words. He lowered his voice, but I heard
him anyway. "If I hadn't seen the doctor pull him out of my wife with my own
eyes, I'd never believe he's my son."


THE NEXT MORNING, as he was preparing my breakfast, Hassan asked if
something was bothering me. I snapped at him, told him to mind his own
business.

Rahim Khan had been wrong about the mean streak thing.

FOUR
Chapter Three

Amir describes Baba as being a huge and intimidating man who stood six feet, five inches tall and was purported to have wrestled a bear because of the long scars on his back. Despite his huge size, Baba was softhearted. He even devoted three years to funding and building an orphanage. Amir was proud to have such a successful father. Together with Rahim Khan, Baba owned several successful businesses and he had also married well; Amir's mother, Sofia Akrami, was a highly respected and educated poetry professor of royal descent. However, Baba's successes took him away from home and from Amir most of the time. When he was present, he was usually aloof.

One day in school, a Mullah or Muslim teacher told Amir and his classmates that drinking was a sin. When he got home, Amir asked Baba, a frequent drinker, about what the teacher had said. Baba told Amir that ultra religious people were not only wrong in their convictions but dangerous. He said, prophetically, "God help us all if Afghanistan ever falls into their hands." Then he explained to Amir that the only sin is stealing, whether a piece of property or a life. Baba knew about having things stolen firsthand; his father's life was stolen by a thief who stabbed him to death while robbing his house. Amir was grateful that Baba spoke to him so personally, but felt a simultaneous guilt for not being more like his father. He always felt that Baba hated him a little for 'killing' his mother as he was born.

Because Baba was aloof and often absent, Amir turned his attention to books. By the age of eleven, he could recite more poetry than anyone in his class at school. Baba wanted Amir to be an athlete like him, but Amir was not talented at soccer and did not have an interest in Baba's choice sport. Once, Baba took Amir to the yearly Buzkashi tournament. Buzkashi is a traditional Afghani sport in which a "highly skilled horseman" called a chapandaz from one team must retrieve an animal carcass from inside the other team's stampede and drop it in a special scoring circle while being chased by chapandaz from the other team who try to steal the carcass from him. As they sat watching the tournament, Baba pointed out Henry Kissinger, who was sitting in the bleachers, to Amir. Before Amir had a chance to ask Baba who Henry Kissinger was, one chapandaz fell off his horse and was trampled to death. Amir cried all the way home while Baba tried unsuccessfully to hide his disgust at his son's weak disposition. Back at home, Amir overheard Baba complaining to Rahim Khan about how Amir was always lost in his books and did not stand up for himself. Rahim Khan told Baba that he was self-centered, but Baba maintained that Amir was "missing something." Amir heard him say, "If I hadn't seen the doctor pull him out of my wife with my own eyes, I'd never believe he's my son."
I remember one time Baba took me to the yearly _Buzkashi_ tournament that took place on the first day of spring, New Year's Day. Buzkashi was, and still is, Afghanistan's national passion. A _chapandaz_, a highly skilled horseman
usually patronized by rich aficionados, has to snatch a goat or cattle carcass from
the midst of a melee, carry that carcass with him around the stadium at full gallop, and drop it in a scoring circle while a team of other _chapandaz_ chases him and does everything in its power-kick, claw, whip, punch-to snatch the

carcass from him. That day, the crowd roared with excitement as the horsemen on the field bellowed their battle cries and jostled for the carcass in a cloud of dust. The earth trembled with the clatter of hooves. We watched from the upper bleachers as riders pounded past us at full gallop, yipping and yelling, foam flying from their horses' mouths.

At one point Baba pointed to someone. "Amir, do you see that man sitting up there with those other men around him?"

I did.

"That's Henry Kissinger."

"Oh," I said. I didn't know who Henry Kissinger was, and I might have asked. But at the moment, I watched with horror as one of the _chapandaz_ fell
off his saddle and was trampled under a score of hooves. His body was tossed and hurled in the stampede like a rag doll, finally rolling to a stop when the melee moved on. He twitched once and lay motionless, his legs bent at unnatural angles, a pool of his blood soaking through the sand.

I began to cry.

I cried all the way back home. I remember how Baba's hands clenched around the steering wheel. Clenched and unclenched. Mostly, I will never forget Baba's valiant efforts to conceal the disgusted look on his face as he drove in
silence.
;