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Chapter 4

In 1933, the year Baba was born and the year Zahir Shah began his forty-year reign of Afghanistan, two brothers, young men from a wealthy and reputable family in Kabul, got behind the wheel of their father's Ford roadster. High on hashish and _mast_ on French wine, they struck and killed a Hazara husband and wife on the road to Paghman. The police brought the somewhat contrite young men and the dead couple's five-year-old orphan boy before my grandfather, who was a highly regarded judge and a man of impeccable reputation. After hearing the brothers?account and their father's plea for mercy, my grandfather ordered the two young men to go to Kandahar at once and enlist in the army for one year--this despite the fact that their family had somehow managed to obtain them exemptions from the draft. Their father argued, but not too vehemently, and in the end, everyone agreed that the punishment had been perhaps harsh but fair. As for the orphan, my grandfather adopted him into his own household, and told the other servants to tutor him, but to be kind to him. That boy was Ali.

Ali and Baba grew up together as childhood playmates--at least until polio crippled Ali's leg--just like Hassan and I grew up a generation later. Baba was always telling us about the mischief he and Ali used to cause, and Ali would shake his head and say, "But, Agha sahib, tell them who was the architect of the mischief and who the poor laborer??Baba would laugh and throw his arm around Ali.

But in none of his stories did Baba ever refer to Ali as his friend.

The curious thing was, I never thought of Hassan and me as friends either. Not in the usual sense, anyhow. Never mind that we taught each other to ride a bicycle with no hands, or to build a fully functional Homemade camera out of a cardboard box. Never mind that we spent entire winters flying kites, running kites. Never mind that to me, the face of Afghanistan is that of a boy with a thin-boned frame, a shaved head, and low-set ears, a boy with a Chinese doll face perpetually lit by a harelipped smile.

Never mind any of those things. Because history isn't easy to overcome. Neither is religion. In the end, I was a Pashtun and he was a Hazara, I was Sunni and he was Shi'a, and nothing was ever going to change that. Nothing.

But we were kids who had learned to crawl together, and no history, ethnicity, society, or religion was going to change that either. I spent most of the first twelve years of my life playing with Hassan. Sometimes, my entire childhood seems like one long lazy summer day with Hassan, chasing each other between tangles of trees in my father's yard, playing hide-and-seek, cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, insect torture--with our crowning achievement undeniably the time we plucked the stinger off a bee and tied a string around the poor thing to yank it back every time it took flight.

We chased the _Kochi_, the nomads who passed through Kabul on their way to the mountains of the north. We would hear their caravans approaching our neighborhood, the mewling of their sheep, the _baa_ing of their goats, the jingle of bells around their camels?necks. We'd run outside to watch the caravan plod through our street, men with dusty, weather-beaten faces and women dressed in long, colorful shawls, beads, and silver bracelets around their wrists and ankles. We hurled pebbles at their goats. We squirted water on their mules. I'd make Hassan sit on the Wall of Ailing Corn and fire pebbles with his slingshot at the camels?rears.

We saw our first Western together, _Rio Bravo_ with John Wayne, at the Cinema Park, across the street from my favorite bookstore. I remember begging Baba to take us to Iran so we could meet John Wayne. Baba burst out in gales of his deepthroated laughter--a sound not unlike a truck engine revving up--and, when he could talk again, explained to us the concept of voice dubbing. Hassan and I were stunned. Dazed. John Wayne didn't really speak Farsi and he wasn't Iranian! He was American, just like the friendly, longhaired men and women we always saw hanging around in Kabul, dressed in their tattered, brightly colored shirts. We saw _Rio Bravo_ three times, but we saw our favorite Western, _The Magnificent Seven_, thirteen times. With each viewing, we cried at the end when the Mexican kids buried Charles Bronson--who, as it turned out, wasn't Iranian either.

We took strolls in the musty-smelling bazaars of the Shar-e-Nau section of Kabul, or the new city, west of the Wazir Akbar Khan district. We talked about whatever film we had just seen and walked amid the bustling crowds of _bazarris_. We snaked our way among the merchants and the beggars, wandered through narrow alleys cramped with rows of tiny, tightly packed stalls. Baba gave us each a weekly allowance of ten Afghanis and we spent it on warm Coca-Cola and rosewater ice cream topped with crushed pistachios.

During the school year, we had a daily routine. By the time I dragged myself out of bed and lumbered to the bathroom, Hassan had already washed up, prayed the morning _namaz_ with Ali, and prepared my breakfast: hot black tea with three sugar cubes and a slice of toasted _naan_ topped with my favorite sour cherry marmalade, all neatly placed on the dining table. While I ate and complained about homework, Hassan made my bed, polished my shoes, ironed my outfit for the day, packed my books and pencils. I'd hear him singing to himself in the foyer as he ironed, singing old Hazara songs in his nasal voice. Then, Baba and I drove off in his black Ford Mustang--a car that drew envious looks everywhere because it was the same car Steve McQueen had driven in _Bullitt_, a film that played in one theater for six months. Hassan stayed Home and helped Ali with the day's chores: hand-washing dirty clothes and hanging them to dry in the yard, sweeping the floors, buying fresh _naan_ from the bazaar, marinating meat for dinner, watering the lawn.

After school, Hassan and I met up, grabbed a book, and trotted up a bowl-shaped hill just north of my father's property in Wazir Akbar Khan. There was an old abandoned cemetery atop the hill with rows of unmarked headstones and tangles of brushwood clogging the aisles. Seasons of rain and snow had turned the iron gate rusty and left the cemetery's low white stone walls in decay. There was a pomegranate tree near the entrance to the cemetery. One summer day, I used one of Ali's kitchen knives to carve our names on it: "Amir and Hassan, the sultans of Kabul.?Those words made it formal: the tree was ours. After school, Hassan and I climbed its branches and snatched its bloodred pomegranates. After we'd eaten the fruit and wiped our hands on the grass, I would read to Hassan.

Sitting cross-legged, sunlight and shadows of pomegranate leaves dancing on his face, Hassan absently plucked blades of grass from the ground as I read him stories he couldn't read for himself. That Hassan would grow up illiterate like Ali and most Hazaras had been decided the minute he had been born, perhaps even the moment he had been conceived in Sanaubar's unwelcoming womb--after all, what use did a servant have for the written word? But despite his illiteracy, or maybe because of it, Hassan was drawn to the mystery of words, seduced by a secret world forbidden to him. I read him poems and stories, sometimes riddles--though I stopped reading those when I saw he was far better at solving them than I was. So I read him unchallenging things, like the misadventures of the bumbling Mullah Nasruddin and his donkey. We sat for hours under that tree, sat there until the sun faded in the west, and still Hassan insisted we had enough daylight for one more story, one more chapter.

My favorite part of reading to Hassan was when we came across a big word that he didn't know. I'd tease him, expose his ignorance. One time, I was reading him a Mullah Nasruddin story and he stopped me. "What does that word mean??

"Which one??

"Imbecile.?

"You don't know what it means??I said, grinning.

"Nay, Amir agha.?

"But it's such a common word!?

"Still, I don't know it.?If he felt the sting of my tease, his smiling face didn't show it.

"Well, everyone in my school knows what it means,?I said. "Let's see. ‘Imbecile.?It means smart, intelligent. I'll use it in a sentence for you. ‘When it comes to words, Hassan is an imbecile.'"

"Aaah,?he said, nodding.

I would always feel guilty about it later. So I'd try to make up for it by giving him one of my old shirts or a broken toy. I would tell myself that was amends enough for a harmless prank.

Hassan's favorite book by far was the _Shahnamah_, the tenth-century epic of ancient Persian heroes. He liked all of the chapters, the shahs of old, Feridoun, Zal, and Rudabeh. But his favorite story, and mine, was "Rostam and Sohrab,?the tale of the great warrior Rostam and his fleet-footed horse, Rakhsh. Rostam mortally wounds his valiant nemesis, Sohrab, in battle, only to discover that Sohrab is his long-lost son. Stricken with grief, Rostam hears his son's dying words:

If thou art indeed my father, then hast thou stained thy sword in the life-blood of thy son. And thou didst it of thine obstinacy. For I sought to turn thee unto love, and I implored of thee thy name, for I thought to behold in thee the tokens recounted of my mother. But I appealed unto thy heart in vain, and now is the time gone for meeting...

"Read it again please, Amir agha,?Hassan would say. Sometimes tears pooled in Hassan's eyes as I read him this passage, and I always wondered whom he wept for, the grief-stricken Rostam who tears his clothes and covers his head with ashes, or the dying Sohrab who only longed for his father's love? Personally, I couldn't see the tragedy in Rostam's fate. After all, didn't all fathers in their secret hearts harbor a desire to kill their sons?

One day, in July 1973, I played another little trick on Hassan. I was reading to him, and suddenly I strayed from the written story. I pretended I was reading from the book, flipping pages regularly, but I had abandoned the text altogether, taken over the story, and made up my own. Hassan, of course, was oblivious to this. To him, the words on the page were a scramble of codes, indecipherable, mysterious. Words were secret doorways and I held all the keys. After, I started to ask him if he'd liked the story, a giggle rising in my throat, when Hassan began to clap.

"What are you doing??I said.

"That was the best story you've read me in a long time,?he said, still clapping.

I laughed. "Really??

"Really.?

"That's fascinating,?I muttered. I meant it too. This was... wholly unexpected. "Are you sure, Hassan??

He was still clapping. "It was great, Amir agha. Will you read me more of it tomorrow??

"Fascinating,?I repeated, a little breathless, feeling like a man who discovers a buried treasure in his own backyard. Walking down the hill, thoughts were exploding in my head like the fireworks at _Chaman_. _Best story you've read me in a long time_, he'd said. I had read him a _lot_ of stories. Hassan was asking me something.

"What??I said.

"What does that mean, ‘fascinating??

I laughed. Clutched him in a hug and planted a kiss on his cheek.

"What was that for??he said, startled, blushing.

I gave him a friendly shove. Smiled. "You're a prince, Hassan. You're a prince and I love you.?

That same night, I wrote my first short story. It took me thirty minutes. It was a dark little tale about a man who found a magic cup and learned that if he wept into the cup, his tears turned into pearls. But even though he had always been poor, he was a happy man and rarely shed a tear. So he found ways to make himself sad so that his tears could make him rich. As the pearls piled up, so did his greed grow. The story ended with the man sitting on a mountain of pearls, knife in hand, weeping helplessly into the cup with his beloved wife's slain body in his arms.

That evening, I climbed the stairs and walked into Baba's smoking room, in my hands the two sheets of paper on which I had scribbled the story. Baba and Rahim Khan were smoking pipes and sipping brandy when I came in.

"What is it, Amir??Baba said, reclining on the sofa and lacing his hands behind his head. Blue smoke swirled around his face. His glare made my throat feel dry. I cleared it and told him I'd written a story.

Baba nodded and gave a thin smile that conveyed little more than feigned interest. "Well, that's very good, isn't it??he said. Then nothing more. He just looked at me through the cloud of smoke.

I probably stood there for under a minute, but, to this day, it was one of the longest minutes of my life. Seconds plodded by, each separated from the next by an eternity. Air grew heavy damp, almost solid. I was breathing bricks. Baba went on staring me down, and didn't offer to read.

As always, it was Rahim Khan who rescued me. He held out his hand and favored me with a smile that had nothing feigned about it. "May I have it, Amir jan? I would very much like to read it.?Baba hardly ever used the term of endearment _jan_ when he addressed me.

Baba shrugged and stood up. He looked relieved, as if he too had been rescued by Rahim Khan. "Yes, give it to Kaka Rahim. I'm going upstairs to get ready.?And with that, he left the room. Most days I worshiped Baba with an intensity approaching the religious. But right then, I wished I could open my veins and drain his cursed blood from my body.

An hour later, as the evening sky dimmed, the two of them drove off in my father's car to attend a party. On his way out, Rahim Khan hunkered before me and handed me my story and another folded piece of paper. He flashed a smile and winked. "For you. Read it later.?Then he paused and added a single word that did more to encourage me to pursue writing than any compliment any editor has ever paid me. That word was _Bravo_.

When they left, I sat on my bed and wished Rahim Khan had been my father. Then I thought of Baba and his great big chest and how good it felt when he held me against it, how he smelled of Brut in the morning, and how his beard tickled my face. I was overcome with such sudden guilt that I bolted to the bathroom and vomited in the sink.

Later that night, curled up in bed, I read Rahim Khan's note over and over. It read like this:

Amir jan,

I enjoyed your story very much. _Mashallah_, God has granted you a special talent. It is now your duty to hone that talent, because a person who wastes his God-given talents is a donkey. You have written your story with sound grammar and interesting style. But the most impressive thing about your story is that it has irony. You may not even know what that word means. But you will someday. It is something that some writers reach for their entire careers and never attain. You have achieved it with your first story.

My door is and always will be open to you, Amir jan. I shall hear any story you have to tell. Bravo.

Your friend,
Rahim

Buoyed by Rahim Khan's note, I grabbed the story and hurried downstairs to the foyer where Ali and Hassan were sleeping on a mattress. That was the only time they slept in the house, when Baba was away and Ali had to watch over me. I shook Hassan awake and asked him if he wanted to hear a story.

He rubbed his sleep-clogged eyes and stretched. "Now? What time is it??

"Never mind the time. This story's special. I wrote it myself,?I whispered, hoping not to wake Ali. Hassan's face brightened.

"Then I _have_ to hear it,?he said, already pulling the blanket off him.

I read it to him in the living room by the marble fireplace. No playful straying from the words this time; this was about me! Hassan was the perfect audience in many ways, totally immersed in the tale, his face shifting with the changing tones in the story. When I read the last sentence, he made a muted clapping sound with his hands.

"_Mashallah_, Amir agha. Bravo!?He was beaming.

"You liked it??I said, getting my second taste--and how sweet it was--of a positive review.

"Some day, _Inshallah_, you will be a great writer,?Hassan said. "And people all over the world will read your stories.?

"You exaggerate, Hassan,?I said, loving him for it.

"No. You will be great and famous,?he insisted. Then he paused, as if on the verge of adding something. He weighed his words and cleared his throat. "But will you permit me to ask a question about the story??he said shyly.

"Of course.?

"Well...?he started, broke off.

"Tell me, Hassan,?I said. I smiled, though suddenly the insecure writer in me wasn't so sure he wanted to hear it.

"Well,?he said, "if I may ask, why did the man kill his wife? In fact, why did he ever have to feel sad to shed tears? Couldn't he have just smelled an onion??

I was stunned. That particular point, so obvious it was utterly stupid, hadn't even occurred to me. I moved my lips soundlessly. It appeared that on the same night I had learned about one of writing's objectives, irony, I would also be introduced to one of its pitfalls: the Plot Hole. Taught by Hassan, of all people. Hassan who couldn't read and had never written a single word in his entire life. A voice, cold and dark, suddenly whispered in my ear, _What does he know, that illiterate Hazara? He'll never be anything but a cook. How dare he criticize you?_

"Well,?I began. But I never got to finish that sentence.

Because suddenly Afghanistan changed forever.



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