Kite Runner: Chapter 5

Terms in this set (28)

Something roared like thunder. The earth shook a little and we heard the _rat-a-
tat-tat_ of gunfire. "Father!" Hassan cried. We sprung to our feet and raced out of
the living room. We found Ali hobbling frantically across the foyer.


"Father! What's that sound?" Hassan yelped, his hands outstretched
toward Ali. Ali wrapped his arms around us. A white light flashed, lit the sky in
silver. It flashed again and was followed by a rapid staccato of gunfire.


"They're hunting ducks," Ali said in a hoarse voice. "They hunt ducks at
night, you know. Don't be afraid."


A siren went off in the distance. Somewhere glass shattered and someone
shouted. I heard people on the street, jolted from sleep and probably still in their
pajamas, with ruffled hair and puffy eyes. Hassan was crying. Ah pulled him
close, clutched him with tenderness. Later, I would tell myself I hadn't felt
envious of Hassan. N ot at all.


We stayed huddled that way until the early hours of the morning. The
shootings and explosions had lasted less than an hour, but they had frightened us
badly, because none of us had ever heard gunshots in the streets. They were
foreign sounds to us then. The generation of Afghan children whose ears would
know nothing but the sounds of bombs and gunfire was not yet born. Huddled
together in the dining room and waiting for the sun to rise, none of us had any
notion that a way of life had ended. Our way of life. If not quite yet, then at least it
was the beginning of the end. The end, the _official_ end, would come first in
April 1978 with the communist coup d'etat, and then in December 1979, when



Russian tanks would roll into the very same streets where Hassan and I played,
bringing the death of the Afghanistan I knew and marking the start of a still
ongoing era of bloodletting.


Just before sunrise, Baba's car peeled into the driveway. His door
slammed shut and his running footsteps pounded the stairs. Then he appeared in
the doorway and I saw something on his face. Something I didn't recognize right
away because I'd never seen it before: fear. "Amir! Hassan!" he exclaimed as he
ran to us, opening his arms wide. "They blocked all the roads and the telephone
didn't work. I was so worried!"


We let him wrap us in his arms and, for a brief insane moment, I was glad
about whatever had happened that night.


THEY WEREN'T SHOOTING ducks after all. As it turned out, they hadn't shot
much of anything that night of July 17, 1973. Kabul awoke the next morning to
find that the monarchy was a thing of the past. The king, Zahir Shah, was away in
Italy. In his absence, his cousin Daoud Khan had ended the king's forty-year reign
with a bloodless coup.


I remember Hassan and I crouching that next morning outside my father's
study, as Baba and Rahim Khan sipped black tea and listened to breaking news of
the coup on Radio Kabul.


"Amir agha?" Hassan whispered.


"What?"


"What's a 'republic'?"


I shrugged. "I don't know." On Baba's radio, they were saying that word,
republic," over and over again.



'Amir agha?


"What?"

"Does 'republic' mean Father and I will have to move away?"

"I don't think so," I whispered back.

Hassan considered this. "Amir agha?"

"What?"

"I don't want them to send me and Father away."

I smiled. "_Bas_, you donkey. No one's sending you away."

"Amir agha?"

"What?"


"Do you want to go climb our tree?"


My smile broadened. That was another thing about Hassan. He always
knew when to say the right thing--the news on the radio was getting pretty
boring. Hassan went to his shack to get ready and I ran upstairs to grab a book.
Then I went to the kitchen, stuffed my pockets with handfuls of pine nuts, and
ran outside to find Hassan waiting for me. We burst through the front gates and
headed for the hill.


We crossed the residential street and were trekking through a barren
patch of rough land that led to the hill when, suddenly, a rock struck Hassan in



the back. We whirled around and my heart dropped. Assef and two of his friends,
Wali and Kamal, were approaching us.


Assef was the son of one of my father's friends, Mahmood, an airline pilot.
His family lived a few streets south of our home, in a posh, high-walled
compound with palm trees. If you were a kid living in the Wazir Akbar Khan
section of Kabul, you knew about Assef and his famous stainless-steel brass
knuckles, hopefully not through personal experience. Born to a German mother
and Afghan father, the blond, blue-eyed Assef towered over the other kids. His
well-earned reputation for savagery preceded him on the streets. Flanked by his
obeying friends, he walked the neighborhood like a Khan strolling through his
land with his eager-to-please entourage. His word was law, and if you needed a
little legal education, then those brass knuckles were just the right teaching tool.

I saw him use those knuckles once on a kid from the Karteh-Char district. I will
never forget how Assef's blue eyes glinted with a light not entirely sane and how
he grinned, how he _grinned_, as he pummeled that poor kid unconscious. Some
of the boys in Wazir Akbar Khan had nicknamed him Assef _Goshkhor_, or Assef
"the Ear Eater." Of course, none of them dared utter it to his face unless they
wished to suffer the same fate as the poor kid who had unwittingly inspired that
nickname when he had fought Assef over a kite and ended up fishing his right ear
from a muddy gutter. Years later, I learned an English word for the creature that
Assef was, a word for which a good Farsi equivalent does not exist: "sociopath."


Of all the neighborhood boys who tortured Ali, Assef was by far the most
relentless. He was, in fact, the originator of the Babalu jeer, _Hey, Babalu, who did
you eat today? Huh? Come on, Babalu, give us a smile! _ And on days when he felt
particularly inspired, he spiced up his badgering a little, _Hey, you flat-nosed
Babalu, who did you eat today? Tell us, you slant-eyed donkeyL Now he was
walking toward us, hands on his hips, his sneakers kicking up little puffs of dust.


"Good morning, _kunis_!" Assef exclaimed, waving. "Fag," that was
another of his favorite insults. Hassan retreated behind me as the three older
boys closed in. They stood before us, three tall boys dressed in jeans and T-
shirts. Towering over us all, Assef crossed his thick arms on his chest, a savage
sort of grin on his lips. N ot for the first time, it occurred to me that Assef might
not be entirely sane. It also occurred to me how lucky I was to have Baba as my
father, the sole reason, I believe, Assef had mostly refrained from harassing me
too much.


He tipped his chin to Hassan. "Hey, Flat-Nose," he said. "How is Babalu?"


Hassan said nothing and crept another step behind me.



"Have you heard the news, boys?" Assef said, his grin never faltering. "The
king is gone. Good riddance. Long live the president! My father knows Daoud
Khan, did you know that, Amir?"


"So does my father," I said. In reality, I had no idea if that was true or not.


"So does my father," Assef mimicked me in a whining voice. Kamal and
Wali cackled in unison. I wished Baba were there.


"Well, Daoud Khan dined at our house last year," Assef went on. "How do
you like that, Amir?"


I wondered if anyone would hear us scream in this remote patch of land.
Baba's house was a good kilometer away. I wished we'd stayed at the house.


"Do you know what I will tell Daoud Khan the next time he comes to our
house for dinner?" Assef said. "I'm going to have a little chat with him, man to
man, _mard_ to _mard_. Tell him what I told my mother. About Hitler. Now, there
was a leader. A great leader. A man with vision. I'll tell Daoud Khan to remember
that if they had let Hitler finish what he had started, the world be a better place
now"


"Baba says Hitler was crazy, that he ordered a lot of innocent people
killed," I heard myself say before I could clamp a hand on my mouth.


Assef snickered. "He sounds like my mother, and she's German; she
should know better. But then they want you to believe that, don't they? They
don't want you to know the truth."


I didn't know who "they" were, or what truth they were hiding, and I
didn't want to find out. I wished I hadn't said anything. I wished again I'd look up
and see Baba coming up the hill.



"But you have to read books they don't give out in school," Assef said. "I
have. And my eyes have been opened. Now I have a vision, and I'm going to share
it with our new president. Do you know what it is?"


I shook my head. He'd tell me anyway; Assef always answered his own
questions.


His blue eyes flicked to Hassan. "Afghanistan is the land of Pashtuns. It
always has been, always will be. We are the true Afghans, the pure Afghans, not
this Flat-Nose here. His people pollute our homeland, our watan. They dirty our
blood." He made a sweeping, grandiose gesture with his hands. "Afghanistan for
Pashtuns, I say. That's my vision."


Assef shifted his gaze to me again. He looked like someone coming out of a
good dream. "Too late for Hitler," he said. "But not for us."


He reached for something from the back pocket of his jeans. "I'll ask the
president to do what the king didn't have the quwat to do. T o rid Afghanistan of
all the dirty, Kasseef Hazaras."


"Just let us go, Assef," I said, hating the way my voice trembled. "We're not
bothering you."


"Oh, you're bothering me," Assef said. And I saw with a sinking heart what
he had fished out of his pocket. Of course. His stainless-steel brass knuckles
sparkled in the sun. "You're bothering me very much. In fact, you bother me
more than this Hazara here. How can you talk to him, play with him, let him
touch you?" he said, his voice dripping with disgust. Wali and Kamal nodded and
grunted in agreement. Assef narrowed his eyes. Shook his head. When he spoke
again, he sounded as baffled as he looked. "How can you call him your 'friend'?"


_But he's not my friend!_ I almost blurted. _He's my servant!. Had I really
thought that? Of course I hadn't. I hadn't. I treated Hassan well, just like a friend,
better even, more like a brother. But if so, then why, when Baba's friends came to
visit with their kids, didn't I ever include Hassan in our games? Why did I play
with Hassan only when no one else was around? Assef slipped on the brass
knuckles. Gave me an icy look. "You're part of the problem, Amir. If idiots like
you and your father didn't take these people in, we'd be rid of them by now.



They'd all just go rot in Hazarajat where they belong. You're a disgrace to
Afghanistan."


I looked in his crazy eyes and saw that he meant it. He _really_ meant to
hurt me. Assef raised his fist and came for me.


There was a flurry of rapid movement behind me. Out of the corner of my
eye, I saw Hassan bend down and stand up quickly. Assef's eyes flicked to
something behind me and widened with surprise. I saw that same look of
astonishment on Kamal and Wali's faces as they too saw what had happened
behind me.


I turned and came face to face with Hassan's slingshot. Hassan had pulled
the wide elastic band all the way back. In the cup was a rock the size of a walnut.
Hassan held the slingshot pointed directly at Assef's face. His hand trembled with
the strain of the pulled elastic band and beads of sweat had erupted on his brow.


"Please leave us alone, Agha," Hassan said in a flat tone. He'd referred to
Assef as "Agha," and I wondered briefly what it must be like to live with such an
ingrained sense of one's place in a hierarchy.


Assef gritted his teeth. "Put it down, you motherless Hazara."


"Please leave us be, Agha," Hassan said.


Assef smiled. "Maybe you didn't notice, but there are three of us and two
of you."


Hassan shrugged. To an outsider, he didn't look scared. But Hassan's face
was my earliest memory and I knew all of its subtle nuances, knew each and
every twitch and flicker that ever rippled across it. And I saw that he was scared.
He was scared plenty.


"You are right, Agha. But perhaps you didn't notice that I'm the one
holding the slingshot. If you make a move, they'll have to change your nickname
from Assef 'the Ear Eater' to 'One-Eyed Assef,' because I have this rock pointed at



your left eye." He said this so flatly that even I had to strain to hear the fear that 1
knew hid under that calm voice.


Assef's mouth twitched. Wali and Kamal watched this exchange with
something akin to fascination. Someone had challenged their god. Humiliated
him. And, worst of all, that someone was a skinny Hazara. Assef looked from the
rock to Hassan. He searched Hassan's face intently. What he found in it must
have convinced him of the seriousness of Hassan's intentions, because he
lowered his fist.


"You should know something about me, Hazara," Assef said gravely. "I'm a
very patient person. This doesn't end today, believe me." He turned to me. "This
isn't the end for you either, Amir. Someday, I'll make you face me one on one."
Assef retreated a step. His disciples followed.


"Your Hazara made a big mistake today, Amir," he said. They then turned
around, walked away. I watched them walk down the hill and disappear behind a
wall.


Hassan was trying to tuck the slingshot in his waist with a pair of
trembling hands. His mouth curled up into something that was supposed to be a
reassuring smile. It took him five tries to tie the string of his trousers. Neither
one of us said much of anything as we walked home in trepidation, certain that
Assef and his friends would ambush us every time we turned a corner. They
didn't and that should have comforted us a little. But it didn't. Not at all.


FOR THE NEXT COUPLE of years, the words _economic development, and
_reform_ danced on a lot of lips in Kabul. The constitutional monarchy had been
abolished, replaced by a republic, led by a president of the republic. For a while,
a sense of rejuvenation and purpose swept across the land. People spoke of
women's rights and modern technology.


And for the most part, even though a new leader lived in _Arg_--the royal
palace in Kabul--life went on as before. People went to work Saturday through
Thursday and gathered for picnics on Fridays in parks, on the banks of Ghargha
Lake, in the gardens of Paghman. Multicolored buses and lorries filled with
passengers rolled through the narrow streets of Kabul, led by the constant



shouts of the driver assistants who straddled the vehicles' rear bumpers and
yelped directions to the driver in their thick Kabuli accent. On _Eid_, the three
days of celebration after the holy month of Ramadan, Kabulis dressed in their
best and newest clothes and visited their families. People hugged and kissed and
greeted each other with "_Eid Mubarak_." Happy Eid. Children opened gifts and
played with dyed hard-boiled eggs.


Early that following winter of 1974, Hassan and I were playing in the yard
one day, building a snow fort, when Ah called him in. "Hassan, Agha sahib wants
to talk to you!" He was standing by the front door, dressed in white, hands
tucked under his armpits, breath puffing from his mouth.


Hassan and I exchanged a smile. We'd been waiting for his call all day: It
was Hassan's birthday. "What is it, Father, do you know? Will you tell us?"
Hassan said. His eyes were gleaming.


Ali shrugged. "Agha sahib hasn't discussed it with me."


"Come on, Ali, tell us," I pressed. "Is it a drawing book? Maybe a new
pistol?"


Like Hassan, Ali was incapable of lying. Every year, he pretended not to
know what Baba had bought Hassan or me for our birthdays. And every year, his
eyes betrayed him and we coaxed the goods out of him. This time, though, it
seemed he was telling the truth.


Baba never missed Hassan's birthday. For a while, he used to ask Hassan
what he wanted, but he gave up doing that because Hassan was always too
modest to actually suggest a present. So every winter Baba picked something out
himself. He bought him a Japanese toy truck one year, an electric locomotive and
train track set another year. The previous year, Baba had surprised Hassan with
a leather cowboy hat just like the one Clint Eastwood wore in _The Good, the
Bad, and the Ugly_-which had unseated _The Magnificent Seven_ as our favorite
Western. That whole winter, Hassan and I took turns wearing the hat, and belted
out the film's famous music as we climbed mounds of snow and shot each other
dead.


We took off our gloves and removed our snow-laden boots at the front
door. When we stepped into the foyer, we found Baba sitting by the wood-



burning cast-iron stove with a short, balding Indian man dressed in a brown suit
and red tie.


"Hassan," Baba said, smiling coyly, "meet your birthday present."


Hassan and I traded blank looks. There was no gift-wrapped box in sight.
No bag. No toy. Just Ali standing behind us, and Baba with this slight Indian
fellow who looked a little like a mathematics teacher.


The Indian man in the brown suit smiled and offered Hassan his hand. "I
am Dr. Kumar," he said. "It's a pleasure to meet you." He spoke Farsi with a thick,
rolling Hindi accent.


"_Salaam alaykum_," Hassan said uncertainly. He gave a polite tip of the
head, but his eyes sought his father behind him. Ali moved closer and set his
hand on Hassan's shoulder.


Baba met Hassan's wary-and puzzled-eyes. "I have summoned Dr.
Kumar from New Delhi. Dr. Kumar is a plastic surgeon."


"Do you know what that is?" the Indian man-Dr. Kumar-said.


Hassan shook his head. He looked to me for help but I shrugged. All I
knew was that you went to a surgeon to fix you when you had appendicitis. I
knew this because one of my classmates had died of it the year before and the
teacher had told us they had waited too long to take him to a surgeon. We both
looked to Ah, but of course with him you could never tell. His face was impassive
as ever, though something sober had melted into his eyes.


"Well," Dr. Kumar said, "my job is to fix things on people's bodies.
Sometimes their faces."


"Oh," Hassan said. He looked from Dr. Kumar to Baba to Ali. His hand
touched his upper lip. "Oh," he said again.



"It's an unusual present, I know," Baba said. "And probably not what you
had in mind, but this present will last you forever."


"Oh," Hassan said. He licked his lips. Cleared his throat. "Agha sahib, will
it... will it--"


"Nothing doing," Dr. Kumar intervened, smiling kindly. "It will not hurt
you one bit. In fact, I will give you a medicine and you will not remember a
thing."


"Oh," Hassan said. He smiled back with relief. A little relief anyway. "I
wasn't scared, Agha sahib, I just..." Hassan might have been fooled, but I wasn't. I
knew that when doctors said it wouldn't hurt, that's when you knew you were in
trouble. With dread, I remembered my circumcision the year prior. The doctor
had given me the same line, reassured me it wouldn't hurt one bit. But when the
numbing medicine wore off later that night, it felt like someone had pressed a
red hot coal to my loins. Why Baba waited until I was ten to have me circumcised
was beyond me and one of the things I will never forgive him for.


I wished I too had some kind of scar that would beget Baba's sympathy. It
wasn't fair. Hassan hadn't done anything to earn Baba's affections; he'd just been
born with that stupid harelip.


The surgery went well. We were all a little shocked when they first
removed the bandages, but kept our smiles on just as Dr. Kumar had instructed
us. It wasn't easy, because Hassan's upper lip was a grotesque mesh of swollen,
raw tissue. I expected Hassan to cry with horror when the nurse handed him the
mirror. Ah held his hand as Hassan took a long, thoughtful look into it. He
muttered something I didn't understand. I put my ear to his mouth. He
whispered it again.


"_Tashakor_." Thank you.


Then his lips twisted, and, that time, I knew just what he was doing. He
was smiling. Just as he had, emerging from his mother's womb.


The swelling subsided, and the wound healed with time. Soon, it was just
a pink jagged line running up from his lip. By the following winter, it was only a



faint scar. Which was ironic. Because that was the winter that Hassan stopped
smiling.
Before Amir could respond to Hassan's criticism of his story, gunfire erupted outside. The boys huddled together with Ali until Baba came home. For the first time, Amir saw fear on his father's face. He was even glad for the violence for a moment, because Baba held him and Hassan close. The events of that night, July 17, 1973, were a precursor to the end of life as Afghanis knew it. What would follow was the Communist coup d'etat of 1978, followed by the Russian occupation beginning in December of 1979. On that July night, the king's brother, Daoud Khan, had seized Zahir Shah's kingdom while he was away. Afghanistan had gone overnight from a monarchy to a republic. Tired of listening to the radio news, Amir and Hassan went to climb their favorite tree. On the way, a young "sociopath" named Assef and his friends confronted them. He taunted Hassan for being a Hazara; Assef also had a habit of taunting Ali, whom he called Babalu. He praised Hitler and then said that he wanted to finish what Hitler started and rid Afghanistan of Hazaras. He called Amir and Baba "a disgrace to Afghanistan" for taking in Hazaras. Just as Assef threatened to punch Amir with his brass knuckles, Hassan pointed his slingshot at the bully and threatened to take out his eye. Assef and his friends retreated, but promised to come back for Amir and Hassan later.

On Hassan's birthday, Baba summoned him to the house as usual to collect his present. To Hassan, Amir, and Ali's shock, Baba had hired a plastic surgeon to correct Hassan's harelip. Amir was jealous that Baba was giving Hassan such special attention. The surgery went well and Hassan could finally smile an unbroken smile. Ironically, Amir explains, it was soon after that Hassan stopped smiling for good.
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