An Excerpt of The Kite Runner (Chapter 3)
By Khaled Hossenini
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 Pahtun specimen with a thick beard, a wayward crop of curly brown hair as unruly as the man him myself, 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 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 ago 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 I 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 a mid-week and there was only Baba and me, us and a couple of long haired, 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 I have saratan,” I said. Cancer. Baba lifted his head form 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 merchangs 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 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 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 that Mullah Fatiullah Khan had taught us in class. Baba was pouring his whiskey from the bar he had built in the corner of the room. He listened, nodded, took a sip from 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 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?”
“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 witht 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 Fatiulla 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, 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. I 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 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 that 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?”
I 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 hope 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 jus 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 Dhayyam, 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 Hgo, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, Ian Fleming. When I had finished my mother’s books—not boring history ones, I was never much into those, but the novels the epices—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 Dup games on television, since at the time Afghanistan didn’t have TV 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 reigned 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, clow, whip, punch—to snatch the carcass from him. The 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 horse’ mouths.
At one point Baba pointed to someone. “Amir, do you see that man stiting up there with those other men around him?”
“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 of shuffling around the house like he’s lost in some dream.”
“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.”
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 the 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 your’s 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.