I step out of the house early in the morning, still in my pajamas, hugging my arms against the chill. I find the driveway, my father's car, the walls, the trees, the rooftops, and the hills buried under a foot of snow. I smile. The sky is seamless and blue, the snow so white my eyes burn. I shovel a handful of the fresh snow into my mouth, listen to the muffled stillness broken only by the cawing of crows. I walk down the front steps, barefoot, and call for Hassan to come out and see. bamboo, glue, string, and paper. We spent hours every day shaving bamboo for the center and cross spars, cutting the thin tissue paper which made for easy dipping and recovery And then, of course, we had to make our own string, or tar.
If the kite was the gun, then _tar_, the glass-coated cutting line, was the bullet in the chamber. We'd go out in the yard and feed up to five hundred feet of string through a mixture of ground glass and glue. We'd then hang the line between the trees, leave it to dry. The next day, we'd wind the battle-ready line around a wooden spool. By the time the snow melted and the rains of spring swept in, every boy in Kabul bore telltale horizontal gashes on his fingers from a whole
Chapter six opens in winter. Amir loved the icy season because the school was shut down for its duration. But he loved winter even more because then he flew kites with Baba, the only activity that consistently brought them closer. The pinnacle of winter for every boy in Kabul was the yearly kite-fighting tournament. Every year, Amir and Hassan saved their allowances to buy materials to make their kites, but they were not very good craftsmen. When Baba realized this, he started taking them to Saifo's to buy their kites, always buying the boys equally good kites. In the tournament, contestants used their kites' glass strings to cut others' kite strings until only one triumphant kite remained in the sky. Hassan was Amir's assistant. When kites fell out of the sky, especially the last kite to fall, those not flying their own kites would chase them and try to catch them-they were called "kite runners." Hassan was an exceptionally good kite runner. Once, Hassan convinced Amir to run the opposite way that a fallen kite was floating and sit under a tree with him to wait. While they sat, Amir taunted Hassan a little. Amir was unsettled to see Hassan's face change the way it sometimes did, as though there was an unfamiliar, sinister, hidden face behind his usual expression. After that uncomfortable moment, however, Hassan's face changed back to normal and the coveted kite came floating into his open arms.
In the winter of 1975, Amir watched Hassan run his last kite. That year, there was to be the biggest kite tournament the boys had ever seen. Boys from several neighborhoods would be competing in Amir and Hassan's neighborhood, Wazir Akhbar Khan. One evening, Baba suggested that Amir would win the tournament this year. After that, Amir became determined to win so that he could finally prove to Baba that he was a winner and a worthy son. The night before the tournament, Hassan and Amir huddled under blankets playing cards while Baba, Rahim Khan, and Assef's father met in the next room. Upon hearing that Afghanistan might get television under president Daoud Khan, Amir promised to buy Hassan a television set one day. Hassan responded that he would put it on the table in his and Ali's hut. Amir was dismayed than Hassan had accepted his fate of always living in the hut and being a servant. As though he read Amir's mind, Hassan told him, "I like where I live."
Maybe not changed, not really, but
suddenly I had the feeling I was looking at two faces, the one I knew, the one that was my first memory, and another, a second face, this one lurking just beneath the surface. I'd seen it happen before--it always shook me up a little. It just
appeared, this other face, for a fraction of a moment, long enough to leave me with the unsettling feeling that maybe I'd seen it someplace before. Then Hassan blinked and it was just him again. Just Hassan.
panjpar as wind-rattled tree branches tapped on the window. Earlier that day, I'd asked Ali to set up the kursi for us-which was basically an electric heater under a low table covered with a thick, quilted blanket.
round the table, he arranged mattresses and cushions, so as many as twenty people could sit and slip their legs under. Hassan and I used to spend entire snowy days snug under the kursi, playing chess, cards-mostly panjpar.
I killed Hassan's ten of diamonds, played him two jacks and a six. Next door, in Baba's study, Baba and Rahim Khan were discussing business with a couple of other men-one of them I recognized as Assef's father. Through the wall, I could hear the scratchy sound of Radio Kabul News.
Hassan killed the six and picked up the jacks. On the radio, Daoud Khan was announcing something about foreign investments
Here is what I do on the first day of snowfall every year: I step out of the
house early in the morning, still in my pajamas, hugging my arms against the
chill. I find the driveway, my father's car, the walls, the trees, the rooftops, and
the hills buried under a foot of snow. I smile. The sky is seamless and blue, the
snow so white my eyes burn. I shovel a handful of the fresh snow into my mouth,
listen to the muffled stillness broken only by the cawing of crows. I walk down
the front steps, barefoot, and call for Hassan to come out and see.
Winter was every kid's favorite season in Kabul, at least those whose
fathers could afford to buy a good iron stove. The reason was simple: They shut
down school for the icy season. Winter to me was the end of long division and
naming the capital of Bulgaria, and the start of three months of playing cards by
the stove with Hassan, free Russian movies on Tuesday mornings at Cinema
Park, sweet turnip _qurma_ over rice for lunch after a morning of building
And kites, of course. Flying kites. And running them.
For a few unfortunate kids, winter did not spell the end of the school year.
There were the so-called voluntary winter courses. No kid I knew ever
volunteered to go to these classes; parents, of course, did the volunteering for
them. Fortunately for me, Baba was not one of them. I remember one kid,
Ahmad, who lived across the street from us. His father was some kind of doctor, I
think. Ahmad had epilepsy and always wore a wool vest and thick black-rimmed
glasses-he was one of Assef's regular victims. Every morning, I watched from my
bedroom window as their Hazara servant shoveled snow from the driveway,
cleared the way for the black Opel. I made a point of watching Ahmad and his
father get into the car, Ahmad in his wool vest and winter coat, his schoolbag
filled with books and pencils. I waited until they pulled away, turned the corner,
then I slipped back into bed in my flannel pajamas. I pulled the blanket to my
chin and watched the snowcapped hills in the north through the window.
Watched them until 1 drifted back to sleep.
I loved wintertime in Kabul. I loved it for the soft pattering of snow
against my window at night, for the way fresh snow crunched under my black
rubber boots, for the warmth of the cast-iron stove as the wind screeched
through the yards, the streets. But mostly because, as the trees froze and ice
sheathed the roads, the chill between Baba and me thawed a little. And the
reason for that was the kites. Baba and I lived in the same house, but in different
spheres of existence. Kites were the one paper thin slice of intersection between
EVERY WINTER, districts in Kabul held a kite-fighting tournament. And if you
were a boy living in Kabul, the day of the tournament was undeniably the
highlight of the cold season. I never slept the night before the tournament. I'd roll
from side to side, make shadow animals on the wall, even sit on the balcony in
the dark, a blanket wrapped around me. I felt like a soldier trying to sleep in the
trenches the night before a major battle. And that wasn't so far off. In Kabul,
fighting kites was a little like going to war.
As with any war, you had to ready yourself for battle. For a while, Hassan
and I used to build our own kites. We saved our weekly allowances in the fall,
dropped the money in a little porcelain horse Baba had brought one time from
Herat. When the winds of winter began to blow and snow fell in chunks, we
undid the snap under the horse's belly. We went to the bazaar and bought
bamboo, glue, string, and paper. We spent hours every day shaving bamboo for
the center and cross spars, cutting the thin tissue paper which made for easy
dipping and recovery And then, of course, we had to make our own string, or tar.
If the kite was the gun, then _tar_, the glass-coated cutting line, was the bullet in
the chamber. We'd go out in the yard and feed up to five hundred feet of string
through a mixture of ground glass and glue. We'd then hang the line between the
trees, leave it to dry. The next day, we'd wind the battle-ready line around a
wooden spool. By the time the snow melted and the rains of spring swept in,
every boy in Kabul bore telltale horizontal gashes on his fingers from a whole
winter of fighting kites. I remember how my classmates and I used to huddle,
compare our battle scars on the first day of school. The cuts stung and didn't heal
for a couple of weeks, but I didn't mind. They were reminders of a beloved
season that had once again passed too quickly. Then the class captain would
blow his whistle and we'd march in a single file to our classrooms, longing for
winter already, greeted instead by the specter of yet another long school year.
But it quickly became apparent that Hassan and I were better kite fighters
than kite makers. Some flaw or other in our design always spelled its doom. So
Baba started taking us to Saifo's to buy our kites. Saifo was a nearly blind old
man who was a _moochi_ by profession--a shoe repairman. But he was also the
city's most famous kite maker, working out of a tiny hovel on Jadeh Maywand,
the crowded street south of the muddy banks of the Kabul River. I remember you
had to crouch to enter the prison cell-sized store, and then had to lift a trapdoor
to creep down a set of wooden steps to the dank basement where Saifo stored
his coveted kites. Baba would buy us each three identical kites and spools of
glass string. If I changed my mind and asked for a bigger and fancier kite, Baba
would buy it for me-but then he'd buy it for Hassan too. Sometimes I wished he
wouldn't do that. Wished he'd let me be the favorite.
The kite-fighting tournament was an old winter tradition in Afghanistan.
It started early in the morning on the day of the contest and didn't end until only
the winning kite flew in the sky-I remember one year the tournament outlasted
daylight. People gathered on sidewalks and roofs to cheer for their kids. The
streets filled with kite fighters, jerking and tugging on their lines, squinting up to
the sky, trying to gain position to cut the opponent's line. Every kite fighter had
an assistant-in my case, Hassan-who held the spool and fed the line.
One time, a bratty Hindi kid whose family had recently moved into the
neighborhood told us that in his hometown, kite fighting had strict rules and
regulations. "You have to play in a boxed area and you have to stand at a right
angle to the wind," he said proudly. "And you can't use aluminum to make your
glass string." Hassan and I looked at each other. Cracked up. The Hindi kid would
soon learn what the British learned earlier in the century, and what the Russians
would eventually learn by the late 1980s: that Afghans are an independent
people. Afghans cherish custom but abhor rules. And so it was with kite fighting.
The rules were simple: No rules. Fly your kite. Cut the opponents. Good luck.
Except that wasn't all. The real fun began when a kite was cut. That was
where the kite runners came in, those kids who chased the windblown kite
drifting through the neighborhoods until it came spiraling down in a field,
dropping in someone's yard, on a tree, or a rooftop. The chase got pretty fierce;
hordes of kite runners swarmed the streets, shoved past each other like those
people from Spain I'd read about once, the ones who ran from the bulls. One year
a neighborhood kid climbed a pine tree for a kite. A branch snapped under his
weight and he fell thirty feet. Broke his back and never walked again. But he fell
with the kite still in his hands. And when a kite runner had his hands on a kite, no
one could take it from him. That wasn't a rule. That was custom.
For kite runners, the most coveted prize was the last fallen kite of a
winter tournament. It was a trophy of honor, something to be displayed on a
mantle for guests to admire. When the sky cleared of kites and only the final two
remained, every kite runner readied himself for the chance to land this prize. He
positioned himself at a spot that he thought would give him a head start. Tense
muscles readied themselves to uncoil. Necks craned. Eyes crinkled. Fights broke
out. And when the last kite was cut, all hell broke loose.
Over the years, I had seen a lot of guys run kites. But Hassan was by far
the greatest kite runner I'd ever seen. It was downright eerie the way he always
got to the spot the kite would land before the kite did, as if he had some sort of
I remember one overcast winter day, Hassan and I were running a kite. I
was chasing him through neighborhoods, hopping gutters, weaving through
narrow streets. I was a year older than him, but Hassan ran faster than I did, and
I was falling behind.
"Hassan! Wait!" I yelled, my breathing hot and ragged.
He whirled around, motioned with his hand. "This way!" he called before
dashing around another corner. I looked up, saw that the direction we were
running was opposite to the one the kite was drifting.
"We're losing it! We're going the wrong way!" I cried out.
"Trust me!" I heard him call up ahead. I reached the corner and saw
Hassan bolting along, his head down, not even looking at the sky, sweat soaking
through the back of his shirt. I tripped over a rock and fell--I wasn't just slower
than Hassan but clumsier too; I'd always envied his natural athieticism. When I
staggered to my feet, I caught a glimpse of Hassan disappearing around another
street corner. I hobbled after him, spikes of pain battering my scraped knees.
I saw we had ended up on a rutted dirt road near Isteqial Middle School.
There was a field on one side where lettuce grew in the summer, and a row of
sour cherry trees on the other. I found Hassan sitting cross-legged at the foot of
one of the trees, eating from a fistful of dried mulberries.
"What are we doing here?" I panted, my stomach roiling with nausea.
He smiled. "Sit with me, Amir agha."
I dropped next to him, lay on a thin patch of snow, wheezing. "You're
wasting our time. It was going the other way, didn't you see?"
Hassan popped a mulberry in his mouth. "It's coming," he said. I could
hardly breathe and he didn't even sound tired.
"How do you know?" I said.
"How can you know?"
He turned to me. A few sweat beads rolled from his bald scalp. "Would I
ever lie to you, Amir agha?"
Suddenly I decided to toy with him a little. "I don't know. Would you?"
"I'd sooner eat dirt," he said with a look of indignation.
Really? You'd do that?
He threw me a puzzled look. "Do what?
"Eat dirt if I told you to," I said. I knew I was being cruel, like when I'd
taunt him if he didn't know some big word. But there was something fascinating-
-albeit in a sick way--about teasing Hassan. Kind of like when we used to play
insect torture. Except now, he was the ant and I was holding the magnifying
His eyes searched my face for a long time. We sat there, two boys under a
sour cherry tree, suddenly looking, really looking, at each other. That's when it
happened again: Hassan's face changed. Maybe not_changed_, not really, but
suddenly I had the feeling I was looking at two faces, the one I knew, the one that
was my first memory, and another, a second face, this one lurking just beneath
the surface. I'd seen it happen before--it always shook me up a little. It just
appeared, this other face, for a fraction of a moment, long enough to leave me
with the unsettling feeling that maybe I'd seen it someplace before. Then Hassan
blinked and it was just him again. Just Hassan.
"If you asked, I would," he finally said, looking right at me. I dropped my
eyes. To this day, I find it hard to gaze directly at people like Hassan, people who
mean every word they say.
"But I wonder," he added. "Would you ever ask me to do such a thing,
Amir agha?" And, just like that, he had thrown at me his own little test. If I was
going to toy with him and challenge his loyalty, then he'd toy with me, test my
I wished I hadn't started this conversation. I forced a smile. "Don't be
stupid, Hassan. You know I wouldn't."
Hassan returned the smile. Except his didn't look forced. "I know," he said.
And that's the thing about people who mean everything they say. They think
everyone else does too.
"Here it comes," Hassan said, pointing to the sky. He rose to his feet and
walked a few paces to his left. I looked up, saw the kite plummeting toward us.
I heard footfalls, shouts, an approaching melee of kite runners. But they
were wasting their time. Because Hassan stood with his arms wide open, smiling,
waiting for the kite. And may God--if He exists, that is--strike me blind if the kite
didn't just drop into his outstretched arms.
IN THE WINTER OF 1975, 1 saw Hassan run a kite for the last time.
Usually, each neighborhood held its own competition. But that year, the
tournament was going to be held in my neighborhood, Wazir Akbar Khan, and
several other districts--Karteh-Char, Karteh-Parwan, Mekro-Rayan, and Koteh-
Sangi-had been invited. You could hardly go anywhere without hearing talk of
the upcoming tournament. Word had it this was going to be the biggest
tournament in twenty-five years.
One night that winter, with the big contest only four days away, Baba and
I sat in his study in overstuffed leather chairs by the glow of the fireplace. We
were sipping tea, talking. Ali had served dinner earlier-potatoes and curried
cauliflower over rice-and had retired for the night with Hassan. Baba was
fattening his pipe and I was asking him to tell the story about the winter a pack
of wolves had descended from the mountains in Herat and forced everyone to
stay indoors for a week, when he lit a match and said, casually, "I think maybe
you'll win the tournament this year. What do you think?"
I didn't know what to think. Or what to say. Was that what it would take?
Had he just slipped me a key? I was a good kite fighter. Actually, a very good one.
A few times, I'd even come close to winning the winter tournament-once, I'd
made it to the final three. But coming close wasn't the same as winning, was it?
Baba hadn't _come close_. He had won because winners won and everyone else
just went home. Baba was used to winning, winning at everything he set his mind
to. Didn't he have a right to expect the same from his son? And just imagine. If I
Baba smoked his pipe and talked. I pretended to listen. But I couldn't
listen, not really, because Baba's casual little comment had planted a seed in my
head: the resolution that I would win that winter's tournament. I was going to
win. There was no other viable option. I was going to win, and I was going to run
that last kite. Then I'd bring it home and show it to Baba. Show him once and for
all that his son was worthy. Then maybe my life as a ghost in this house would
finally be over. I let myself dream: I imagined conversation and laughter over
dinner instead of silence broken only by the clinking of silverware and the
occasional grunt. I envisioned us taking a Friday drive in Baba's car to Paghman,
stopping on the way at Ghargha Lake for some fried trout and potatoes. We'd go
to the zoo to see Marjan the lion, and maybe Baba wouldn't yawn and steal looks
at his wristwatch all the time. Maybe Baba would even read one of my stories. I'd
write him a hundred if I thought he'd read one. Maybe he'd call me Amir jan like
Rahim Khan did. And maybe, just maybe, I would finally be pardoned for killing
Baba was telling me about the time he'd cut fourteen kites on the same
day. I smiled, nodded, laughed at all the right places, but I hardly heard a word he
said. I had a mission now. And I wasn't going to fail Baba. Not this time.
IT SNOWED HEAVILY the night before the tournament. Hassan and I sat under
the kursi and played panjpar as wind-rattled tree branches tapped on the
window. Earlier that day, I'd asked Ali to set up the kursi for us-which was
basically an electric heater under a low table covered with a thick, quilted
Around the table, he arranged mattresses and cushions, so as many as
twenty people could sit and slip their legs under. Hassan and I used to spend
entire snowy days snug under the kursi, playing chess, cards-mostly panjpar.
I killed Hassan's ten of diamonds, played him two jacks and a six. Next
door, in Baba's study, Baba and Rahim Khan were discussing business with a
couple of other men-one of them I recognized as Assef's father. Through the wall,
I could hear the scratchy sound of Radio Kabul News.
Hassan killed the six and picked up the jacks. On the radio, Daoud Khan
was announcing something about foreign investments.
"He says someday we'll have television in Kabul," I said.
Daoud Khan, you ass, the president
Hassan giggled. "I heard they already have it in Iran," he said. I sighed.
"Those Iranians..." For a lot of Hazaras, Iran represented a sanctuary of sorts--I
guess because, like Hazaras, most Iranians were Shi'a Muslims. But I
remembered something my teacher had said that summer about Iranians, that
they were grinning smooth talkers who patted you on the back with one hand
and picked your pocket with the other. I told Baba about that and he said my
teacher was one of those jealous Afghans, jealous because Iran was a rising
power in Asia and most people around the world couldn't even find Afghanistan
on a world map. "It hurts to say that," he said, shrugging. "But better to get hurt
by the truth than comforted with a lie."
"I'll buy you one someday," I said.
Hassan's face brightened. "A television? In truth?"
"Sure. And not the black-and-white kind either. We'll probably be grown-
ups by then, but I'll get us two. One for you and one for me."
"I'll put it on my table, where I keep my drawings," Hassan said.
His saying that made me kind of sad. Sad for who Hassan was, where he
lived. For how he'd accepted the fact that he'd grow old in that mud shack in the
yard, the way his father had. I drew the last card, played him a pair of queens and
Hassan picked up the queens. "You know, I think you're going to make
Agha sahib very proud tomorrow."
"You think so?"
Inshallah_," he said.
"_Inshallah_," I echoed, though the "God willing" qualifier didn't sound as
sincere coming from my lips. That was the thing with Hassan. He was so
******* pure, you always felt like a phony around him.
I killed his king and played him my final card, the ace of spades. He had to
pick it up. I'd won, but as I shuffled for a new game, I had the distinct suspicion
that Hassan had let me win.
"You know... I _like_ where I live." He was always doing that, reading my
"It's my home."
"Whatever," I said. "Get ready to lose again."