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I see them wheel him through a set of double doors and I follow. I burst through the doors, the smell of iodine and peroxide hits me, but all I have time to see is two men wearing surgical caps and a woman in green huddling over a gurney. A white sheet spills over the side of the gurney and brushes against grimy checkered tiles. A pair of small, bloody feet poke out from under the sheet and I see that the big toenail on the left foot is chipped. Then a tall, thickset man in blue presses his palm against my chest and he's pushing me back out through the doors, his wedding band cold on my skin. I shove forward and I curse him, but he says you cannot be here, he says it in English, his voice polite but firm. "You must wait,?he says, leading me back to the waiting area, and now the double doors swing shut behind him with a sigh and all I see is the top of the men's surgical caps through the doors?narrow rectangular windows.
He leaves me in a wide, windowless corridor crammed with people sitting on metallic folding chairs set along the walls, others on the thin frayed carpet. I want to scream again, and I remember the last time I felt this way, riding with Baba in the tank of the fuel truck, buried in the dark with the other refugees. I want to tear myself from this place, from this reality rise up like a cloud and float away, melt into this humid summer night and dissolve somewhere far, over the hills. But I am here, my legs blocks of concrete, my lungs empty of air, my throat burning. There will be no floating away. There will be no other reality tonight. I close my eyes and my nostrils fill with the smells of the corridor, sweat and ammonia, rubbing alcohol and curry. On the ceiling, moths fling themselves at the dull gray light tubes running the length of the corridor and I hear the papery flapping of their wings. I hear chatter, muted sobbing, sniffling, someone moaning, someone else sighing, elevator doors opening with a bing, the operator paging someone in Urdu.
I open my eyes again and I know what I have to do. I look around, my heart a jackhammer in my chest, blood thudding in my ears. There is a dark little supply room to my left. In it, I find what I need. It will do. I grab a white bedsheet from the pile of folded linens and carry it back to the corridor. I see a nurse talking to a policeman near the restroom. I take the nurse's elbow and pull, I want to know which way is west. She doesn't understand and the lines on her face deepen when she frowns. My throat aches and my eyes sting with sweat, each breath is like inhaling fire, and I think I am weeping. I ask again. I beg. The policeman is the one who points.
I throw my makeshift jai-namaz, my prayer rug, on the floor and I get on my knees, lower my forehead to the ground, my tears soaking through the sheet. I bow to the west. Then I remember I haven't prayed for over fifteen years. I have long forgotten the words. But it doesn't matter, I will utter those few words I still remember: ??La iflaha ii Allah, Muhammad u rasul ullah. There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger. I see now that Baba was wrong, there is a God, there always had been. I see Him here, in the eyes of the people in this corridor of desperation. This is the real house of God, this is where those who have lost God will find Him, not the white masjid with its bright diamond lights and towering minarets. There is a God, there has to be, and now I will pray, I will pray that He forgive that I have neglected Him all of these years, forgive that I have betrayed, lied, and sinned with impunity only to turn to Him now in my hour of need, I pray that He is as merciful, benevolent, and gracious as His book says He is. I bow to the west and kiss the ground and promise that I will do zakat, I will do namaz, I will fast during Ramadan and when Ramadan has passed I will go on fasting, I will commit to memory every last word of His holy book, and I will set on a pilgrimage to that sweltering city in the desert and bow before the Ka'bah too. I will do all of this and I will think of Him every day from this day on if He only grants me this one wish: My hands are stained with Hassan's blood; I pray God doesn't let them get stained with the blood of his boy too.
I hear a whimpering and realize it is mine, my lips are salty with the tears trickling down my face. I feel the eyes of everyone in this corridor on me and still I bow to the west. I pray. I pray that my sins have not caught up with me the way I'd always feared they would.
A STARLESS, BLACK NIGHT falls over Islamabad. It's a few hours later and I am sitting now on the floor of a tiny lounge off the corridor that leads to the emergency ward. Before me is a dull brown coffee table cluttered with newspapers and dog-eared magazines--an April 1996 issue of Time; a Pakistani newspaper showing the face of a young boy who was hit and killed by a train the week before; an entertainment magazine with smiling Hollywood actors on its glossy cover. There is an old woman wearing a jade green shalwar-kameez and a crocheted shawl nodding off in a wheelchair across from me. Every once in a while, she stirs awake and mutters a prayer in Arabic. I wonder tiredly whose prayers will be heard tonight, hers or mine. I picture Sohrab's face, the pointed meaty chin, his small seashell ears, his slanting bambooleaf eyes so much like his father's. A sorrow as black as the night outside invades me, and I feel my throat clamping.
I need air.
I get up and open the windows. The air coming through the screen is musty and hot--it smells of overripe dates and dung. I force it into my lungs in big heaps, but it doesn't clear the clamping feeling in my chest. I drop back on the floor. I pick up the Time magazine and flip through the pages. But I can't read, can't focus on anything. So I toss it on the table and go back to staring at the zigzagging pattern of the cracks on the cement floor, at the cobwebs on the ceiling where the walls meet, at the dead flies littering the windowsill. Mostly, I stare at the clock on the wall. It's just past 4 A.M. and I have been shut out of the room with the swinging double doors for over five hours now. I still haven't heard any news.
The floor beneath me begins to feel like part of my body, and my breathing is growing heavier, slower. I want to sleep, shut my eyes and lie my head down on this cold, dusty floor. Drift off. When I wake up, maybe I will discover that everything I saw in the hotel bathroom was part of a dream: the water drops dripping from the faucet and landing with a plink into the bloody bathwater; the left arm dangling over the side of the tub, the blood-soaked razor sitting on the toilet tank--the same razor I had shaved with the day before--and his eyes, still half open but light less. That more than anything. I want to forget the eyes.
Soon, sleep comes and I let it take me. I dream of things I can't remember later.
SOMEONE IS TAPPING ME on the shoulder. I open my eyes. There is a man kneeling beside me. He is wearing a cap like the men behind the swinging double doors and a paper surgical mask over his mouth--my heart sinks when I see a drop of blood on the mask. He has taped a picture of a doe-eyed little girl to his beeper. He unsnaps his mask and I'm glad I don't have to look at Sohrab's blood anymore. His skin is dark like the imported Swiss chocolate Hassan and I used to buy from the bazaar in Shar-e-Nau; he has thinning hair and hazel eyes topped with curved eyelashes. In a British accent, he tells me his name is Dr. Nawaz, and suddenly I want to be away from this man, because I don't think I can bear to hear what he has come to tell me. He says the boy had cut himself deeply and had lost a great deal of blood and my mouth begins to mutter that prayer again:
La illaha il Allah, Muhammad u rasul ullah.
They had to transfuse several units of red cells-- How will I tell Soraya?
Twice, they had to revive him--I will do namaz, I will do zakat.
They would have lost him if his heart hadn't been young and strong--
I will fast.
He is alive.
Dr. Nawaz smiles. It takes me a moment to register what he has just said. Then he says more but I don't hear him. Because I have taken his hands and I have brought them up to my face. I weep my relief into this stranger's small, meaty hands and he says nothing now. He waits.
THE INTENSIVE CARE UNIT is L-shaped and dim, a jumble of bleeping monitors and whirring machines. Dr. Nawaz leads me between two rows of beds separated by white plastic curtains. Sohrab's bed is the last one around the corner, the one nearest the nurses?station where two nurses in green surgical scrubs are jotting notes on clipboards, chatting in low voices. On the silent ride up the elevator with Dr. Nawaz, I had thought I'd weep again when I saw Sohrab. But when I sit on the chair at the foot of his bed, looking at his white face through the tangle of gleaming plastic tubes and IV lines, I am dry-eyed. Watching his chest rise and fall to the rhythm of the hissing ventilator, a curious numbness washes over me, the same numbness a man might feel seconds after he has swerved his car and barely avoided a head-on collision.
I doze off, and, when I wake up, I see the sun rising in a buttermilk sky through the window next to the nurses?station. The light slants into the room, aims my shadow toward Sohrab. He hasn't moved.
"You'd do well to get some sleep,?a nurse says to me. I don't recognize her--there must have been a shift change while I'd napped. She takes me to another lounge, this one just outside the ICU. It's empty. She hands me a pillow and a hospital-issue blanket. I thank her and lie on the vinyl sofa in the corner of the lounge. I fall asleep almost immediately.
I dream I am back in the lounge downstairs. Dr. Nawaz walks in and I rise to meet him. He takes off his paper mask, his hands suddenly whiter than I remembered, his nails manicured, he has
neatly parted hair, and I see he is not Dr. Nawaz at all but Raymond Andrews, the little embassy man with the potted tomatoes. Andrews cocks his head. Narrows his eyes.
IN THE DAYTIME, the hospital was a maze of teeming, angled hallways, a blur of blazing-white overhead fluorescence. I came to know its layout, came to know that the fourth-floor button in the east wing elevator didn't light up, that the door to the men's room on that same floor was jammed and you had to ram your shoulder into it to open it. I came to know that hospital life has a rhythm, the flurry of activity just before the morning shift change, the midday hustle, the stillness and quiet of the late-night hours interrupted occasionally by a blur of doctors and nurses rushing to revive someone. I kept vigil at Sohrab's bedside in the daytime and wandered through the hospital's serpentine corridors at night, listening to my shoe heels clicking on the tiles, thinking of what I would say to Sohrab when he woke up. I'd end up back in the ICU, by the whooshing ventilator beside his bed, and I'd be no closer to knowing.
After three days in the ICU, they withdrew the breathing tube and transferred him to a ground-level bed. I wasn't there when they moved him. I had gone back to the hotel that night to get some sleep and ended up tossing around in bed all night. In the morning, I tried to not look at the bathtub. It was clean now, someone had wiped off the blood, spread new floor mats on the floor, and scrubbed the walls. But I couldn't stop myself from sitting on its cool, porcelain edge. I pictured Sohrab filling it with warm water. Saw him undressing. Saw him twisting the razor handle and opening the twin safety latches on the head, sliding the blade out, holding it between his thumb and forefinger. I pictured him lowering himself into the water, lying there for a while, his eyes closed. I wondered what his last thought had been as he had raised the blade and brought it down.
I was exiting the lobby when the hotel manager, Mr. Fayyaz, caught up with me. "I am very sorry for you,?he said, "but I am asking for you to leave my hotel, please. This is bad for my business, very bad.?
I told him I understood and I checked out. He didn't charge me for the three days I'd spent at the hospital. Waiting for a cab outside the hotel lobby, I thought about what Mr. Fayyaz had said to me that night we'd gone looking for Sohrab: The thing about you Afghanis is that... well, you people are a little reckless. I had laughed at him, but now I wondered. Had I actually gone to sleep after I had given Sohrab the news he feared most?
When I got in the cab, I asked the driver if he knew any Persian bookstores. He said there was one a couple of kilometers south. We stopped there on the way to the hospital.
SOHRAB'S NEW ROOM had cream-colored walls, chipped, dark gray moldings, and glazed tiles that might have once been white. He shared the room with a teenaged Punjabi boy who, I later learned from one of the nurses, had broken his leg when he had slipped off the roof of a moving bus. His leg was in a cast, raised and held bytongs strapped to several weights.
Sohrab's bed was next to the window, the lower half lit by the late-morning sunlight streaming through the rectangular panes. A uniformed security guard was standing at the window, munching on cooked watermelon seeds--Sohrab was under twenty-four hours-a-day suicide watch. Hospital protocol, Dr. Nawaz had informed me. The guard tipped his hat when he saw me and left the room.
Sohrab was wearing short-sleeved hospital pajamas and lying on his back, blanket pulled to his chest, face turned to the window. I thought he was sleeping, but when I scooted a chair up to his bed his eyelids fluttered and opened. He looked at me, then looked away. He was so pale, even with all the blood they had given him, and there was a large purple bruise in the crease of his right arm.
"How are you??I said.
He didn't answer. He was looking through the window at a fenced-in sandbox and swing set in the hospital garden. There was an arch-shaped trellis near the playground, in the shadow of a row of hibiscus trees, a few green vines climbing up the timber lattice. A handful of kids were playing with buckets and pails in the sand box. The sky was a cloudless blue that day, and I saw a tiny jet leaving behind twin white trails. I turned back to Sohrab. "I spoke to Dr. Nawaz a few minutes ago and he thinks you'll be discharged in a couple of days. That's good news, nay??
Again I was met by silence. The Punjabi boy at the other end of the room stirred in his sleep and moaned something. "I like your room,?I said, trying not to look at Sohrab's bandaged wrists. "It's bright, and you have a view.?Silence. A few more awkward minutes passed, and a light sweat formed on my brow, my upper lip. I pointed to the untouched bowl of green pea aush on his nightstand, the unused plastic spoon. "You should try to eat some thing. Gain your quwat back, your strength. Do you want me to help you??
He held my glance, then looked away, his face set like stone. His eyes were still lightless, I saw, vacant, the way I had found them when I had pulled him out of the bathtub. I reached into the paper bag between my feet and took out the used copy of the Shah namah I had bought at the Persian bookstore. I turned the cover so it faced Sohrab. "I used to read this to your father when we were children. We'd go up the hill by our house and sit beneath the pomegranate...?I trailed off. Sohrab was looking through the window again. I forced a smile. "Your father's favorite was the story of Rostam and Sohrab and that's how you got your name, I know you know that.?I paused, feeling a bit like an idiot. "Any way, he said in his letter that it was your favorite too, so I thought I'd read you some of it. Would you like that??
Sohrab closed his eyes. Covered them with his arm, the one with the bruise.
I flipped to the page I had bent in the taxicab. "Here we go,?I said, wondering for the first time what thoughts had passed through Hassan's head when he had finally read the Shahnamah for himself and discovered that I had deceived him all those times. I cleared my throat and read. "Give ear unto the combat of Sohrab against Rostam, though it be a tale replete with tears,?I began. "It came about that on a certain day Rostam rose from his couch and his mind was filled with forebodings. He bethought him...?I read him most of chapter 1, up to the part where the young warrior Sohrab comes to his mother, Tahmineh, the princess of Samen gan, and demands to know the identity of his father. I closed the book. "Do you want me to go on? There are battles coming up, remember? Sohrab leading his army to the White Castle in Iran? Should I read on??
He shook his head slowly. I dropped the book back in the paper bag. "That's fine,?I said, encouraged that he had responded at all. "Maybe we can continue tomorrow. How do you feel??
Sohrab's mouth opened and a hoarse sound came out. Dr. Nawaz had told me that would happen, on account of the breathing tube they had slid through his vocal cords. He licked his lips and tried again. "Tired.?
"I know. Dr. Nawaz said that was to be expected--?He was shaking his head.
He winced when he spoke again in that husky voice, barely above a whisper. "Tired of everything.?
I sighed and slumped in my chair. There was a band of sunlight on the bed between us, and, for just a moment, the ashen gray face looking at me from the other side of it was a dead ringer for Hassan's, not the Hassan I played marbles with until the mullah belted out the evening azan and Ali called us home, not the Hassan I chased down our hill as the sun dipped behind clay rooftops in the west, but the Hassan I saw alive for the last time, dragging his belongings behind Ali in a warm summer downpour, stuffing them in the trunk of Baba's car while I watched through the rain-soaked window of my room.
He gave a slow shake of his head. "Tired of everything,?he repeated.
"What can I do, Sohrab? Please tell me.?
"I want--?he began. He winced again and brought his hand to his throat as if to clear whatever was blocking his voice. My eyes were drawn again to his wrist wrapped tightly with white gauze bandages. "I want my old life back,?he breathed.
"I want Father and Mother jan. I want Sasa. I want to play with Rahim Khan sahib in the garden. I want to live in our house again.?He dragged his forearm across his eyes. "I want my old life back.?
I didn't know what to say, where to look, so I gazed down at my hands. Your old life, I thought. My old life too. I played in the same yard, Sohrab. I lived in the same house. But the grass is dead and a stranger's jeep is parked in the driveway of our house, pissing oil all over the asphalt. Our old life is gone, Sohrab, and everyone in it is either dead or dying. It's just you and me now. Just you and me.
"I can't give you that,?I said. "I wish you hadn't--?
"Please don't say that.?
?-wish you hadn't... I wish you had left me in the water.?
"Don't ever say that, Sohrab,?I said, leaning forward. "I can't bear to hear you talk like that.?I touched his shoulder and he flinched. Drew away. I dropped my hand, remembering ruefully how in the last days before I'd broken my promise to him he had finally become at ease with my touch. "Sohrab, I can't give you your old life back, I wish to God I could. But I can take you with me. That was what I was coming in the bathroom to tell you. You have a visa to go to America, to live with me and my wife. It's true. I promise.?
He sighed through his nose and closed his eyes. I wished I hadn't said those last two words. "You know, I've done a lot of things I regret in my life,?I said, "and maybe none more than going back on the promise I made you. But that will never happen again, and I am so very profoundly sorry. I ask for your bakhshesh, your forgiveness. Can you do that? Can you forgive me? Can you believe me??I dropped my voice. "Will you come with me??
As I waited for his reply, my mind flashed back to a winter day from long ago, Hassan and I sitting on the snow beneath a leafless sour cherry tree. I had played a cruel game with Hassan that day, toyed with him, asked him if he would chew dirt to prove his loyalty to me. Now I was the one under the microscope, the one who had to prove my worthiness. I deserved this.
Sohrab rolled to his side, his back to me. He didn't say anything for a long time. And then, just as I thought he might have drifted to sleep, he said with a croak, "I am so khasta.?So very tired. I sat by his bed until he fell asleep. Something was lost between Sohrab and me. Until my meeting with the lawyer, Omar Faisal, a light of hope had begun to enter Sohrab's eyes like a timid guest. Now the light was gone, the guest had fled, and I wondered when it would dare return. I wondered how long before Sohrab smiled again. How long before he trusted me. If ever.
So I left the room and went looking for another hotel, unaware that almost a year would pass before I would hear Sohrab speak another word.
IN THE END, Sohrab never accepted my offer. Nor did he decline it. But he knew that when the bandages were removed and the hospital garments returned, he was just another homeless Hazara orphan. What choice did he have? Where could he go? So what I took as a yes from him was in actuality more of a quiet surrender, not so much an acceptance as an act of relinquishment by one too weary to decide, and far too tired to believe. What he yearned for was his old life. What he got was me and America. Not that it was such a bad fate, everything considered, but I couldn't tell him that. Perspective was a luxury when your head was constantly buzzing with a swarm of demons.
And so it was that, about a week later, we crossed a strip of warm, black tarmac and I brought Hassan's son from Afghanistan to America, lifting him from the certainty of turmoil and dropping him in a turmoil of uncertainty.
ONE DAY, maybe around 1983 or 1984, I was at a video store in Fremont. I was standing in the Westerns section when a guy next to me, sipping Coke from a 7-Eleven cup, pointed to The Magnificent Seven and asked me if I had seen it. "Yes, thirteen times,?I said. "Charles Bronson dies in it, so do James Coburn and Robert Vaughn.?He gave me a pinch-faced look, as if I had just spat in his soda. "Thanks a lot, man,?he said, shaking his head and muttering something as he walked away. That was when I learned that, in America, you don't reveal the ending of the movie, and if you do, you will be scorned and made to apologize profusely for having committed the sin of Spoiling the End.
In Afghanistan, the ending was all that mattered. When Hassan and I came home after watching a Hindi film at Cinema Zainab, what Ali, Rahim Khan, Baba, or the myriad of Baba's friends--second and third cousins milling in and out of the house--wanted to know was this: Did the Girl in the film find happiness? Did the bacheh film, the Guy in the film, become katnyab and fulfill his dreams, or was he nah-kam, doomed to wallow in failure?
Was there happiness at the end, they wanted to know.
If someone were to ask me today whether the story of Hassan, Sohrab, and me ends with happiness, I wouldn't know what to say.
After all, life is not a Hindi movie. Zendagi migzara, Afghans like to say: Life goes on, unmindful of beginning, end, kamyab, nah-kam, crisis or catharsis, moving forward like a slow, dusty caravan of kochis.
I wouldn't know how to answer that question. Despite the matter of last Sunday's tiny miracle.
WE ARRIVED HOME about seven months ago, on a warm day in August 2001. Soraya picked us up at the airport. I had never been away from Soraya for so long, and when she locked her arms around my neck, when I smelled apples in her hair, I realized how much I had missed her. "You're still the morning sun to my yelda,?I whispered.
"Never mind.?I kissed her ear.
After, she knelt to eye level with Sohrab. She took his hand and smiled at him. "Sataam, Sohrab jan, I'm your Khala Soraya. We've all been waiting for you.?
Looking at her smiling at Sohrab, her eyes tearing over a little, I had a glimpse of the mother she might have been, had her own womb not betrayed her.
Sohrab shifted on his feet and looked away.
SORAYA HAD TURNED THE STUDY upstairs into a bedroom for Sohrab. She led him in and he sat on the edge of the bed. The sheets showed brightly colored kites flying in indigo blue skies. She had made inscriptions on the wall by the closet, feet and inches to measure a child's growing height. At the foot of the bed, I saw a wicker basket stuffed with books, a locomotive, a water color set.
Sohrab was wearing the plain white T-shirt and new denims I had bought him in Islamabad just before we'd left--the shirt hung loosely over his bony, slumping shoulders. The color still hadn't seeped back into his face, save for the halo of dark circles around his eyes. He was looking at us now in the impassive way he looked at the plates of boiled rice the hospital orderly placed before him.
Soraya asked if he liked his room and I noticed that she was trying to avoid looking at his wrists and that her eyes kept swaying back to those jagged pink lines. Sohrab lowered his head. Hid his hands under his thighs and said nothing. Then he simply lay his head on the pillow. Less than five minutes later, Soraya and I watching from the doorway, he was snoring.
We went to bed, and Soraya fell asleep with her head on my chest. In the darkness of our room, I lay awake, an insomniac once more. Awake. And alone with demons of my own. Sometime in the middle of the night, I slid out of bed and went to Sohrab's room. I stood over him, looking down, and saw some thing protruding from under his pillow. I picked it up. Saw it was Rahim Khan's Polaroid, the one I had given to Sohrab the night we had sat by the Shah Faisal Mosque. The one of Hassan and Sohrab standing side by side, squinting in the light of the sun, and smiling like the world was a good and just place. I wondered how long Sohrab had lain in bed staring at the photo, turning it in his hands.
I looked at the photo. Your father was a man torn between two halves, Rahim Khan had said in his letter. I had been the entitled half, the society-approved, legitimate half, the unwitting embodiment of Baba's guilt. I looked at Hassan, showing those two missing front teeth, sunlight slanting on his face. Baba's other half. The unentitled, unprivileged half. The half who had inherited what had been pure and noble in Baba. The half that, maybe, in the most secret recesses of his heart, Baba had thought of as his true son.
I slipped the picture back where I had found it. Then I realized something: That last thought had brought no sting with it. Closing Sohrab's door, I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded, not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.
THE GENERAL AND KHALA JAMILA came over for dinner the following night. Khala Jamila, her hair cut short and a darker shade of red than usual, handed Soraya the plate of almondtopped maghout she had brought for dessert. She saw Sohrab and beamed. "Mashallah! Soraya jan told us how khoshteep you were, but you are even more handsome in person, Sohrab jan.?She handed him a blue turtleneck sweater. "I knitted this for you,?she said. "For next winter. Inshallah, it will fit you.?
Sohrab took the sweater from her.
"Hello, young man,?was all the general said, leaning with both hands on his cane, looking at Sohrab the way one might study a bizarre decorative item at someone's house.
I answered, and answered again, Khala Jamila's questions about my injuries--I'd asked Soraya to tell them I had been mugged--reassuring her that I had no permanent damage, that the wires would come out in a few weeks so I'd be able to eat her cooking again, that, yes, I would try rubbing rhubarb juice and sugar on my scars to make them fade faster.
The general and I sat in the living room and sipped wine while Soraya and her mother set the table. I told him about Kabul and the Taliban. He listened and nodded, his cane on his lap, and tsk'ed when I told him of the man I had spotted selling his artificial leg. I made no mention of the executions at Ghazi Stadium and Assef. He asked about Rahim Khan, whom he said he had met in Kabul a few times, and shook his head solemnly when I told him of Rahim Khan's illness. But as we spoke, I caught his eyes drifting again and again to Sohrab sleeping on the couch. As if we were skirting around the edge of what he really wanted to know.
The skirting finally came to an end over dinner when the general put down his fork and said, "So, Amir jan, you're going to tell us why you have brought back this boy with you??
"Iqbal jan! What sort of question is that??Khala Jamila said.
"While you're busy knitting sweaters, my dear, I have to deal with the community's perception of our family. People will ask. They will want to know why there is a Hazara boy living with our daughter. What do I tell them??
Soraya dropped her spoon. Turned on her father. "You can tell them--?
"It's okay, Soraya,?I said, taking her hand. "It's okay. General Sahib is quite right. People will ask.?
"It's all right.?I turned to the general. "You see, General Sahib, my father slept with his servant's wife. She bore him a son named Hassan. Hassan is dead now. That boy sleeping on the couch is Hassan's son. He's my nephew. That's what you tell people when they ask.?
They were all staring at me.
"And one more thing, General Sahib,?I said. "You will never again refer to him as ‘Hazara boy?in my presence. He has a name and it's Sohrab.?
No one said anything for the remainder of the meal.
IT WOULD BE ERRONEOUS to say Sohrab was quiet. Quiet is peace. Tranquillity. Quiet is turning down the VOLUME knob on life.
Silence is pushing the OFF button. Shutting it down. All of it.
Sohrab's silence wasn't the self-imposed silence of those with convictions, of protesters who seek to speak their cause by not speaking at all. It was the silence of one who has taken cover in a dark place, curled up all the edges and tucked them under.
He didn't so much live with us as occupy space. And precious little of it. Sometimes, at the market, or in the park, I'd notice how other people hardly seemed to even see him, like he wasn't there at all. I'd look up from a book and realize Sohrab had entered the room, had sat across from me, and I hadn't noticed. He walked like he was afraid to leave behind footprints. He moved as if not to stir the air around him. Mostly, he slept.
Sohrab's silence was hard on Soraya too. Over that long-distance line to Pakistan, Soraya had told me about the things she was planning for Sohrab. Swimming classes. Soccer. Bowling league. Now she'd walk past Sohrab's room and catch a glimpse of books sitting unopened in the wicker basket, the growth chart unmarked, the jigsaw puzzle unassembled, each item a reminder of a life that could have been. A reminder of a dream that was wilting even as it was budding. But she hadn't been alone. I'd had my own dreams for Sohrab.
While Sohrab was silent, the world was not. One Tuesday morning last September, the Twin Towers came crumbling down and, overnight, the world changed. The American flag suddenly appeared everywhere, on the antennae of yellow cabs weaving around traffic, on the lapels of pedestrians walking the sidewalks in a steady stream, even on the grimy caps of San Francisco's pan handlers sitting beneath the awnings of small art galleries and open-fronted shops. One day I passed Edith, the homeless woman who plays the accordion every day on the corner of Sutter and Stockton, and spotted an American flag sticker on the accordion case at her feet.
Soon after the attacks, America bombed Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance moved in, and the Taliban scurried like rats into the caves. Suddenly, people were standing in grocery store lines and talking about the cities of my childhood, Kandahar, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif. When I was very little, Baba took Hassan and me to Kunduz. I don't remember much about the trip, except sitting in the shade of an acacia tree with Baba and Hassan, taking turns sipping fresh watermelon juice from a clay pot and seeing who could spit the seeds farther. Now Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and people sipping lattes at Starbucks were talking about the battle for Kunduz, the Taliban's last stronghold in the north. That December, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras gathered in Bonn and, under the watchful eye of the UN, began the process that might someday end over twenty years of unhappiness in their watan. Hamid Karzai's caracul hat and green chapan became famous.
Sohrab sleepwalked through it all.
Soraya and I became involved in Afghan projects, as much out of a sense of civil duty as the need for something--anything--to fill the silence upstairs, the silence that sucked everything in like a black hole. I had never been the active type before, but when a man named Kabir, a former Afghan ambassador to Sofia, called and asked if I wanted to help him with a hospital project, I said yes. The small hospital had stood near the Afghan-Pakistani border and had a small surgical unit that treated Afghan refugees with land mine injuries. But it had closed down due to a lack of funds. I became the project manager, Soraya my comanager. I spent most of my days in the study, e-mailing people around the world, applying for grants, organizing fund-raising events. And telling myself that bringing Sohrab here had been the right thing to do.
The year ended with Soraya and me on the couch, blanket spread over our legs, watching Dick Clark on TV. People cheered and kissed when the silver ball dropped, and confetti whitened the screen. In our house, the new year began much the same way the last one had ended. In silence.
THEN, FOUR DAYS AGO, on a cool rainy day in March 2002, a small, wondrous thing happened.
I took Soraya, Khala Jamila, and Sohrab to a gathering of Afghans at Lake Elizabeth Park in Fremont. The general had finally been summoned to Afghanistan the month before for a ministry position, and had flown there two weeks earlier--he had left behind his gray suit and pocket watch. The plan was for Khala Jamila to join him in a few months once he had settled. She missed him terribly--and worried about his health there--and we had insisted she stay with us for a while.
The previous Thursday, the first day of spring, had been the Afghan New Year's Day--the Sawl-e-Nau--and Afghans in the Bay Area had planned celebrations throughout the East Bay and the peninsula. Kabir, Soraya, and I had an additional reason to rejoice: Our little hospital in Rawalpindi had opened the week before, not the surgical unit, just the pediatric clinic. But it was a good start, we all agreed.
It had been sunny for days, but Sunday morning, as I swung my legs out of bed, I heard raindrops pelting the window. Afghan luck, I thought. Snickered. I prayed morning namaz while Soraya slept--I didn't have to consult the prayer pamphlet I had obtained from the mosque anymore; the verses came naturally now, effortlessly.
We arrived around noon and found a handful of people taking cover under a large rectangular plastic sheet mounted on six poles spiked to the ground. Someone was already frying bolani; steam rose from teacups and a pot of cauliflower aush. A scratchy old Ahmad Zahir song was blaring from a cassette player. I smiled a little as the four of us rushed across the soggy grass field, Soraya and I in the lead, Khala Jamila in the middle, Sohrab behind us, the hood of his yellow raincoat bouncing on his back.
"What's so funny??Soraya said, holding a folded newspaper over her head.
"You can take Afghans out of Paghman, but you can't take Paghman out of Afghans,?I said.
We stooped under the makeshift tent. Soraya and Khala Jamila drifted toward an overweight woman frying spinach bolani. Sohrab stayed under the canopy for a moment, then stepped back out into the rain, hands stuffed in the pockets of his raincoat, his hair--now brown and straight like Hassan's--plastered against his scalp. He stopped near a coffee-colored puddle and stared at it. No one seemed to notice. No one called him back in. With time, the queries about our adopted--and decidedly eccentric--little boy had mercifully ceased, and, considering how tactless Afghan queries can be sometimes, that was a considerable relief. People stopped asking why he never spoke. Why he didn't play with the other kids. And best of all, they stopped suffocating us with their exaggerated empathy, their slow head shaking, their tsk tsks, their "Oh gung bichara.?Oh, poor little mute one. The novelty had worn off. Like dull wallpaper, Sohrab had blended into the background.
I shook hands with Kabir, a small, silver-haired man. He introduced me to a dozen men, one of them a retired teacher, another an engineer, a former architect, a surgeon who was now running a hot dog stand in Hayward. They all said they'd known Baba in Kabul, and they spoke about him respectfully. In one way or another, he had touched all their lives. The men said I was lucky to have had such a great man for a father.
We chatted about the difficult and maybe thankless job Karzai had in front of him, about the upcoming Loya jirga, and the king's imminent return to his homeland after twenty-eights years of exile. I remembered the night in 1973, the night Zahir Shah's cousin overthrew him; I remembered gunfire and the sky lighting up silver--Ali had taken me and Hassan in his arms, told us not to be afraid, that they were just shooting ducks.
Then someone told a Mullah Nasruddin joke and we were all laughing. "You know, your father was a funny man too,?Kabir said.
"He was, wasn't he??I said, smiling, remembering how, soon after we arrived in the U.S., Baba started grumbling about American flies. He'd sit at the kitchen table with his flyswatter, watch the flies darting from wall to wall, buzzing here, buzzing there, harried and rushed. "In this country, even flies are pressed for time,?he'd groan. How I had laughed. I smiled at the memory now.
By three o'clock, the rain had stopped and the sky was a curdled gray burdened with lumps of clouds. A cool breeze blew through the park. More families turned up. Afghans greeted each other, hugged, kissed, exchanged food. Someone lighted coal in a barbecue and soon the smell of garlic and morgh kabob flooded my senses. There was music, some new singer I didn't know, and the giggling of children. I saw Sohrab, still in his yellow raincoat, leaning against a garbage pail, staring across the park at the empty batting cage.
A little while later, as I was chatting with the former surgeon, who told me he and Baba had been classmates in eighth grade, Soraya pulled on my sleeve. "Amir, look!?
She was pointing to the sky. A half-dozen kites were flying high, speckles of bright yellow, red, and green against the gray sky.
"Check it out,?Soraya said, and this time she was pointing to a guy selling kites from a stand nearby.
"Hold this,?I said. I gave my cup of tea to Soraya. I excused myself and walked over to the kite stand, my shoes squishing on the wet grass. I pointed to a yellow seh-parcha. "Sawl-e-nau mubabrak,?the kite seller said, taking the twenty and handing me the kite and a wooden spool of glass tar. I thanked him and wished him a Happy New Year too. I tested the string the way Hassan and I used to, by holding it between my thumb and forefinger and pulling it. It reddened with blood and the kite seller smiled. I smiled back.
I took the kite to where Sohrab was standing, still leaning against the garbage pail, arms crossed on his chest. He was looking up at the sky.
"Do you like the seh-parcha??I said, holding up the kite by the ends of the cross bars. His eyes shifted from the sky to me, to the kite, then back. A few rivulets of rain trickled from his hair, down his face.
"I read once that, in Malaysia, they use kites to catch fish,?I said. "I'll bet you didn't know that. They tie a fishing line to it and fly it beyond the shallow waters, so it doesn't cast a shadow and scare the fish. And in ancient China, generals used to fly kites over battlefields to send messages to their men. It's true. I'm not slipping you a trick.?I showed him my bloody thumb. "Nothing wrong with the tar either.?
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Soraya watching us from the tent. Hands tensely dug in her armpits. Unlike me, she'd gradually abandoned her attempts at engaging him. The unanswered questions, the blank stares, the silence, it was all too painful. She had shifted to "Holding Pattern,?waiting for a green light from Sohrab. Waiting.
I wet my index finger and held it up. "I remember the way your father checked the wind was to kick up dust with his sandal, see which way the wind blew it. He knew a lot of little tricks like that,?I said. Lowered my finger. "West, I think.?
Sohrab wiped a raindrop from his earlobe and shifted on his feet. Said nothing. I thought of Soraya asking me a few months ago what his voice sounded like. I'd told her I didn't remember anymore.
"Did I ever tell you your father was the best kite runner in Wazir Akbar Khan? Maybe all of Kabul??I said, knotting the loose end of the spool tar to the string loop tied to the center spar. "How jealous he made the neighborhood kids. He'd run kites and never look up at the sky, and people used to say he was chasing the kite's shadow. But they didn't know him like I did. Your father wasn't chasing any shadows. He just... knew?
Another half-dozen kites had taken flight. People had started to gather in clumps, teacups in hand, eyes glued to the sky.
"Do you want to help me fly this??I said.
Sohrab's gaze bounced from the kite to me. Back to the sky.
"Okay.?I shrugged. "Looks like I'll have to fly it tanhaii.?Solo.
I balanced the spool in my left hand and fed about three feet of tar. The yellow kite dangled at the end of it, just above the wet grass. "Last chance,?I said. But Sohrab was looking at a pair of kites tangling high above the trees.
"All right. Here I go.?I took off running, my sneakers splashing rainwater from puddles, the hand clutching the kite end of the string held high above my head. It had been so long, so many years since I'd done this, and I wondered if I'd make a spectacle of myself. I let the spool roll in my left hand as I ran, felt the string cut my right hand again as it fed through. The kite was lifting behind my shoulder now, lifting, wheeling, and I ran harder. The spool spun faster and the glass string tore another gash in my right palm. I stopped and turned. Looked up. Smiled. High above, my kite was tilting side to side like a pendulum, making that old paper-bird-flapping-its-wings sound I always associated with winter mornings in Kabul. I hadn't flown a kite in a quarter of a century, but suddenly I was twelve again and all the old instincts came rushing back.
I felt a presence next to me and looked down. It was Sohrab. Hands dug deep in the pockets of his raincoat. He had followed me.
"Do you want to try??I asked. He said nothing. But when I held the string out for him, his hand lifted from his pocket. Hesitated. Took the string. My heart quickened as I spun the spool to gather the loose string. We stood quietly side by side. Necks bent up.
Around us, kids chased each other, slid on the grass. Someone was playing an old Hindi movie soundtrack now. A line of elderly men were praying afternoon namaz on a plastic sheet spread on the ground. The air smelled of wet grass, smoke, and grilled meat. I wished time would stand still.
Then I saw we had company. A green kite was closing in. I traced the string to a kid standing about thirty yards from us. He had a crew cut and a T-shirt that read THE ROCK RULES in bold block letters. He saw me looking at him and smiled. Waved. I waved back.
Sohrab was handing the string back to me.
"Are you sure??I said, taking it.
He took the spool from me.
"Okay,?I said. "Let's give him a sabagh, teach him a lesson, nay??I glanced over at him. The glassy, vacant look in his eyes was gone. His gaze flitted between our kite and the green one. His face was a little flushed, his eyes suddenly alert. Awake. Alive. I wondered when I had forgotten that, despite everything, he was still just a child.
The green kite was making its move. "Let's wait,?I said. "We'll let him get a little closer.?It dipped twice and crept toward us. "Come on. Come to me,?I said.
The green kite drew closer yet, now rising a little above us, unaware of the trap I'd set for it. "Watch, Sohrab. I'm going to show you one of your father's favorite tricks, the old lift-and-dive.?
Next to me, Sohrab was breathing rapidly through his nose. The spool rolled in his palms, the tendons in his scarred wrists like rubab strings. Then I blinked and, for just a moment, the hands holding the spool were the chipped-nailed, calloused hands of a harelipped boy. I heard a crow cawing somewhere and I looked up. The park shimmered with snow so fresh, so dazzling white, it burned my eyes. It sprinkled soundlessly from the branches of white-clad trees. I smelled turnip qurina now. Dried mulberries. Sour oranges. Sawdust and walnuts. The muffled quiet, snow-quiet, was deafening. Then far away, across the stillness, a voice calling us home, the voice of a man who dragged his right leg.
The green kite hovered directly above us now. "He's going for it. Anytime now,?I said, my eyes flicking from Sohrab to our kite.
The green kite hesitated. Held position. Then shot down. "Here he comes!?I said.
I did it perfectly. After all these years. The old lift-and-dive trap. I loosened my grip and tugged on the string, dipping and dodging the green kite. A series of quick sidearm jerks and our kite shot up counterclockwise, in a half circle. Suddenly I was on top. The green kite was scrambling now, panic-stricken. But it was too late. I'd already slipped him Hassan's trick. I pulled hard and our kite plummeted. I could almost feel our string sawing his. Almost heard the snap.
Then, just like that, the green kite was spinning and wheeling out of control.
Behind us, people cheered. Whistles and applause broke out. I was panting. The last time I had felt a rush like this was that day in the winter of 1975, just after I had cut the last kite, when I spotted Baba on our rooftop, clapping, beaming.
I looked down at Sohrab. One corner of his mouth had curled up just so.
Behind us, kids were scampering, and a melee of screaming kite runners was chasing the loose kite drifting high above the trees. I blinked and the smile was gone. But it had been there. I had seen it.
"Do you want me to run that kite for you??
His Adam's apple rose and fell as he swallowed. The wind lifted his hair. I thought I saw him nod.
"For you, a thousand times over,?I heard myself say.
Then I turned and ran.
It was only a smile, nothing more. It didn't make everything all right. It didn't make anything all right. Only a smile. A tiny thing. A leaf in the woods, shaking in the wake of a startled bird's flight.
But I'll take it. With open arms. Because when spring comes, it melts the snow one flake at a time, and maybe I just witnessed the first flake melting.
I ran. A grown man running with a swarm of screaming children. But I didn't care. I ran with the wind blowing in my face, and a smile as wide as the Valley of Panjsher on my lips.