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Chapter 15

Three hours after my flight landed in Peshawar, I was sitting on shredded upholstery in the backseat of a smoke-filled taxicab. My driver, a chain-smoking, sweaty little man who introduced himself as Gholam, drove nonchalantly and recklessly, averting collisions by the thinnest of margins, all without so much as a pause in the incessant stream of words spewing from his mouth:

??terrible what is happening in your country, yar. Afghani people and Pakistani people they are like brothers, I tell you. Muslims have to help Muslims so...?

I tuned him out, switched to a polite nodding mode. I remembered Peshawar pretty well from the few months Baba and I had spent there in 1981. We were heading west now on Jamrud road, past the Cantonment and its lavish, high-walled Homes. The bustle of the city blurring past me reminded me of a busier, more crowded version of the Kabul I knew, particularly of the KochehMorgha, or Chicken Bazaar, where Hassan and I used to buy chutney-dipped potatoes and cherry water. The streets were clogged with bicycle riders, milling pedestrians, and rickshaws popping blue smoke, all weaving through a maze of narrow lanes and alleys. Bearded vendors draped in thin blankets sold animalskin lampshades, carpets, embroidered shawls, and copper goods from rows of small, tightly jammed stalls. The city was bursting with sounds; the shouts of vendors rang in my ears mingled with the blare of Hindi music, the sputtering of rickshaws, and the jingling bells of horse-drawn carts. Rich scents, both pleasant and not so pleasant, drifted to me through the passenger window, the spicy aroma of pakora and the nihari Baba had loved so much blended with the sting of diesel fumes, the stench of rot, garbage, and feces.

A little past the redbrick buildings of Peshawar University, we entered an area my garrulous driver referred to as "Afghan Town.?I saw sweetshops and carpet vendors, kabob stalls, kids with dirtcaked hands selling cigarettes, tiny restaurants--maps of Afghanistan painted on their windows--all interlaced with backstreet aid agencies. "Many of your brothers in this area, yar. They are opening Businesses, but most of them are very poor.?He tsk'ed his tongue and sighed. "Anyway, we're getting close now.?

I thought about the last time I had seen Rahim Khan, in 1981. He had come to say good-bye the night Baba and I had fled Kabul. I remember Baba and him embracing in the foyer, crying softly. When Baba and I arrived in the U.S., he and Rahim Khan kept in touch. They would speak four or five times a year and, sometimes, Baba would pass me the receiver. The last time I had spoken to Rahim Khan had been shortly after Baba's death. The news had reached Kabul and he had called. We'd only spoken for a few minutes and lost the connection.

The driver pulled up to a narrow building at a busy corner where two winding streets intersected. I paid the driver, took my lone suitcase, and walked up to the intricately carved door. The building had wooden balconies with open shutters--from many of them, laundry was hanging to dry in the sun. I walked up the creaky stairs to the second floor, down a dim hallway to the last door on the right. Checked the address on the piece of stationery paper in my palm. Knocked.

Then, a thing made of skin and bones pretending to be Rahim Khan opened the door.


A CREATIVE writing TEACHER at San Jose State used to say about clichés: "Avoid them like the plague.?Then he'd laugh at his own joke. The class laughed along with him, but I always thought clichés got a bum rap. Because, often, they're dead-on. But the aptness of the clichéd saying is overshadowed by the nature of the saying as a clich? For example, the "elephant in the room?saying. Nothing could more correctly describe the initial moments of my reunion with Rahim Khan.

We sat on a wispy mattress set along the wall, across the window overlooking the noisy street below. Sunlight slanted in and cast a triangular wedge of light onto the Afghan rug on the floor. Two folding chairs rested against one wall and a small copper samovar sat in the opposite corner. I poured us tea from it.

"How did you find me??I asked.

"It's not difficult to find people in America. I bought a map of the U.S., and called up information for cities in Northern California,?he said. "It's wonderfully strange to see you as a grown man.?

I smiled and dropped three sugar cubes in my tea. He liked his black and bitter, I remembered. "Baba didn't get the chance to tell you but I got married fifteen years ago.?The truth was, by then, the cancer in Baba's brain had made him forgetful, negligent.

"You are married? To whom??

"Her name is Soraya Taheri.?I thought of her back Home, worrying about me. I was glad she wasn't alone.

"Taheri... whose daughter is she??

I told him. His eyes brightened. "Oh, yes, I remember now. Isn't General Taheri married to Sharif jan's sister? What was her name...?

"Jamila jan.?

"Balay!?he said, smiling. "I knew Sharif jan in Kabul, long time ago, before he moved to America.?

"He's been working for the INS for years, handles a lot of Afghan cases.?

"Haiiii,?he sighed. "Do you and Soraya jan have children??

"Nay.?

"Oh.?He slurped his tea and didn't ask more; Rahim Khan had always been one of the most instinctive people I'd ever met.

I told him a lot about Baba, his job, the flea market, and how, at the end, he'd died happy. I told him about my schooling, my books--four published novels to my credit now. He smiled at this, said he had never had any doubt. I told him I had written short stories in the leather-bound notebook he'd given me, but he didn't remember the notebook.

The conversation inevitably turned to the Taliban.

"Is it as bad as I hear??I said.

"Nay, it's worse. Much worse,?he said. "They don't let you be human.?He pointed to a scar above his right eye cutting a crooked path through his bushy eyebrow. "I was at a soccer game in Ghazi Stadium in 1998. Kabul against Mazar-i-Sharif, I think, and by the way the players weren't allowed to wear shorts. Indecent exposure, I guess.?He gave a tired laugh. "Anyway, Kabul scored a goal and the man next to me cheered loudly. Suddenly this young bearded fellow who was patrolling the aisles, eighteen years old at most by the look of him, he walked up to me and struck me on the forehead with the butt of his Kalashnikov. ‘Do that again and I'll cut out your tongue, you old donkey!?he said.?Rahim Khan rubbed the scar with a gnarled finger. "I was old enough to be his grandfather and I was sitting there, blood gushing down my face, apologizing to that son of a dog.?

I poured him more tea. Rahim Khan talked some more. Much of it I knew already, some not. He told me that, as arranged between Baba and him, he had lived in Baba's house since 1981--this I knew about. Baba had "sold?the house to Rahim Khan shortly before he and I fled Kabul. The way Baba had seen it those days, Afghanistan's troubles were only a temporary interruption of our way of life--the days of parties at the Wazir Akbar Khan house and picnics in Paghman would surely return. So he'd given the house to Rahim Khan to keep watch over until that day.

Rahim Khan told me how, when the Northern Alliance took over Kabul between 1992 and 1996, different factions claimed different parts of Kabul. "If you went from the Shar-e-Nau section to Kerteh-Parwan to buy a carpet, you risked getting shot by a sniper or getting blown up by a rocket--if you got past all the checkpoints, that was. You practically needed a visa to go from one neighborhood to the other. So people just stayed put, prayed the next rocket wouldn't hit their home.?He told me how people knocked holes in the walls of their Homes so they could bypass the dangerous streets and would move down the block from hole to hole. In other parts, people moved about in underground tunnels.

"Why didn't you leave??I said.

"Kabul was my Home. It still is.?He snickered. "Remember the street that went from your house to the Qishla, the military bar racks next to Istiqial School??

"Yes.?It was the shortcut to school. I remembered the day Hassan and I crossed it and the soldiers had teased Hassan about his mother. Hassan had cried in the cinema later, and I'd put an arm around him.

"When the Taliban rolled in and kicked the Alliance out of Kabul, I actually danced on that street,?Rahim Khan said. "And, believe me, I wasn't alone. People were celebrating at _Chaman_, at Deh-Mazang, greeting the Taliban in the streets, climbing their tanks and posing for pictures with them. People were so tired of the constant fighting, tired of the rockets, the gunfire, the explosions, tired of watching Gulbuddin and his cohorts firing on any thing that moved. The Alliance did more damage to Kabul than the Shorawi. They destroyed your father's orphanage, did you know that??

"Why??I said. "Why would they destroy an orphanage??I remembered sitting behind Baba the day they opened the orphanage. The wind had knocked off his caracul hat and everyone had laughed, then stood and clapped when he'd delivered his speech. And now it was just another pile of rubble. All the money Baba had spent, all those nights he'd sweated over the blueprints, all the visits to the construction site to make sure every brick, every beam, and every block was laid just right...

"Collateral damage,?Rahim Khan said. "You don't want to know, Amir jan, what it was like sifting through the rubble of that orphanage. There were body parts of children...?

"So when the Taliban came...?

"They were heroes,?Rahim Khan said. "Peace at last.?

"Yes, hope is a strange thing. Peace at last. But at what price??A violent coughing fit gripped Rahim Khan and rocked his gaunt body back and forth. When he spat into his handkerchief, it immediately stained red. I thought that was as good a time as any to address the elephant sweating with us in the tiny room.

"How are you??I asked. "I mean really, how are you??

"Dying, actually,?he said in a gurgling voice. Another round of coughing. More blood on the handkerchief. He wiped his mouth, blotted his sweaty brow from one wasted temple to the other with his sleeve, and gave me a quick glance. When he nodded, I knew he had read the next question on my face. "Not long,?he breathed.

"How long??

He shrugged. Coughed again. "I don't think I'll see the end of this summer,?he said.

"Let me take you Home with me. I can find you a good doctor. They're coming up with new treatments all the time. There are new drugs and experimental treatments, we could enroll you in one...?I was rambling and I knew it. But it was better than crying, which I was probably going to do anyway.

He let out a chuff of laughter, revealed missing lower incisors. It was the most tired laughter I'd ever heard. "I see America has infused you with the optimism that has made her so great. That's very good. We're a melancholic people, we Afghans, aren't we? Often, we wallow too much in ghamkhori and self-pity. We give in to loss, to suffering, accept it as a fact of life, even see it as necessary. Zendagi migzara, we say, life goes on. But I am not surrendering to fate here, I am being pragmatic. I have seen several good doctors here and they have given the same answer. I trust them and believe them. There is such a thing as God's will.?

"There is only what you do and what you don't do,?I said.

Rahim Khan laughed. "You sounded like your father just now. I miss him so much. But it is God's will, Amir jan. It really is.?He paused. "Besides, there's another reason I asked you to come here. I wanted to see you before I go, yes, but something else too.?

"Anything.?

"You know all those years I lived in your father's house after you left??

"Yes.?

"I wasn't alone for all of them. Hassan lived there with me.?

"Hassan,?I said. When was the last time I had spoken his name? Those thorny old barbs of guilt bore into me once more, as if speaking his name had broken a spell, set them free to torment me anew. Suddenly the air in Rahim Khan's little flat was too thick, too hot, too rich with the smell of the street.

"I thought about writing you and telling you before, but I wasn't sure you wanted to know. Was I wrong??

The truth was no. The lie was yes. I settled for something