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Chapter 19

Again, the car sickness. By the time we drove past the bulletriddled sign that read THE KHYBER PASS WELCOMES YOU, my mouth had begun to water. Something inside my stomach churned and twisted. Farid, my driver, threw me a cold glance. There was no empathy in his eyes.

"Can we roll down the window??I asked.

He lit a cigarette and tucked it between the remaining two fingers of his left hand, the one resting on the steering wheel. Keeping his black eyes on the road, he stooped forward, picked up the screwdriver lying between his feet, and handed it to me. I stuck it in the small hole in the door where the handle belonged and turned it to roll down my window.

Farid gave me another dismissive look, this one with a hint of barely suppressed animosity, and went back to smoking his cigarette. He hadn't said more than a dozen words since we'd departed from Jamrud Fort.

"Tashakor,?I muttered. I leaned my head out of the window and let the cold midafternoon air rush past my face. The drive through the tribal lands of the Khyber Pass, winding between cliffs of shale and limestone, was just as I remembered it--Baba and I had driven through the broken terrain back in 1974. The arid, imposing mountains sat along deep gorges and soared to jagged peaks. Old fortresses, adobe-walled and crumbling, topped the crags. I tried to keep my eyes glued to the snowcapped Hindu Kush on the north side, but each time my stomach settled even a bit, the truck skidded around yet another turn, rousing a fresh wave of nausea.

"Try a lemon.?

"What??

"Lemon. Good for the sickness,?Farid said. "I always bring one for this drive.?

"Nay, thank you,?I said. The mere thought of adding acidity to my stomach stirred more nausea. Farid snickered. "It's not fancy like American Medicine, I know, just an old remedy my mother taught me.?

I regretted blowing my chance to warm up to him. "In that case, maybe you should give me some.?

He grabbed a paper bag from the backseat and plucked a half lemon out of it. I bit down on it, waited a few minutes. "You were right. I feel better,?I lied. As an Afghan, I knew it was better to be miserable than rude. I forced a weak smile.

"Old watani trick, no need for fancy Medicine,?he said. His tone bordered on the surly. He flicked the ash off his cigarette and gave himself a self-satisfied look in the rearview mirror. He was a Tajik, a lanky, dark man with a weather-beaten face, narrow shoulders, and a long neck punctuated by a protruding Adam's apple that only peeked from behind his beard when he turned his head. He was dressed much as I was, though I suppose it was really the other way around: a rough-woven wool blanket wrapped over a gray pirhan-tumban and a vest. On his head, he wore a brown pakol, tilted slightly to one side, like the Tajik hero Ahmad Shah Massoud--referred to by Tajiks as "the Lion of Panjsher.?

It was Rahim Khan who had introduced me to Farid in Peshawar. He told me Farid was twenty-nine, though he had the wary, lined face of a man twenty years older. He was born in Mazar-i-Sharif and lived there until his father moved the family to Jalalabad when Farid was ten. At fourteen, he and his father had joined the jihad against the Shorawi. They had fought in the Panjsher Valley for two years until helicopter gunfire had torn the older man to pieces. Farid had two wives and five children. "He used to have seven,?Rahim Khan said with a rueful look, but he'd lost his two youngest girls a few years earlier in a land mine blast just outside Jalalabad, the same explosion that had severed toes from his feet and three fingers from his left hand. After that, he had moved his wives and children to Peshawar.

"Checkpoint,?Farid grumbled. I slumped a little in my seat, arms folded across my chest, forgetting for a moment about the nausea. But I needn't have worried. Two Pakistani militia approached our dilapidated Land Cruiser, took a cursory glance inside, and waved us on.

Farid was first on- the list of preparations Rahim Khan and I made, a list that included exchanging dollars for Kaldar and Afghani bills, my garment and pakol--ironically, I'd never worn either when I'd actually lived in Afghanistan--the Polaroid of Hassan and Sohrab, and, finally, perhaps the most important item: an artificial beard, black and chest length, Shari'a friendly--or at least the Taliban version of Shari'a. Rahim Khan knew of a fellow in Peshawar who specialized in weaving them, sometimes for Western journalists who covered the war.

Rahim Khan had wanted me to stay with him a few more days, to plan more thoroughly. But I knew I had to leave as soon as possible. I was afraid I'd change my mind. I was afraid I'd deliberate, ruminate, agonize, rationalize, and talk myself into not going. I was afraid the appeal of my life in America would draw me back, that I would wade back into that great, big river and let myself forget, let the things I had learned these last few days sink to the bottom. I was afraid that I'd let the waters carry me away from what I had to do. From Hassan. From the past that had come calling. And from this one last chance at redemption. So I left before there was any possibility of that happening. As for Soraya, telling her I was going back to Afghanistan wasn't an option. If I had, she would have booked herself on the next flight to Pakistan.

We had crossed the border and the signs of poverty were every where. On either side of the road, I saw chains of little villages sprouting here and there, like discarded toys among the rocks, broken mud houses and huts consisting of little more than four wooden poles and a tattered cloth as a roof. I saw children dressed in rags chasing a soccer ball outside the huts. A few miles later, I spotted a cluster of men sitting on their haunches, like a row of crows, on the carcass of an old burned-out Soviet tank, the wind fluttering the edges of the blankets thrown around them. Behind them, a woman in a brown burqa carried a large clay pot on her shoulder, down a rutted path toward a string of mud houses.

"Strange,?I said.

"What??

"I feel like a tourist in my own country,?I said, taking in a goatherd leading a half-dozen emaciated goats along the side of the road.

Farid snickered. Tossed his cigarette. "You still think of this place as your country??

"I think a part of me always will,?I said, more defensively than I had intended.

"After twenty years of living in America,?he said, swerving the truck to avoid a pothole the size of a beach ball.

I nodded. "I grew up in Afghanistan.?Farid snickered again.

"Why do you do that??

"Never mind,?he murmured.

"No, I want to know. Why do you do that??

In his rearview mirror, I saw something flash in his eyes. "You want to know??he sneered. "Let me imagine, Agha sahib. You probably lived in a big two- or three-story house with a nice back yard that your gardener filled with flowers and fruit trees. All gated, of course. Your father drove an American car. You had servants, probably Hazaras. Your parents hired workers to decorate the house for the fancy mehmanis they threw, so their friends would come over to drink and boast about their travels to Europe or America. And I would bet my first son's eyes that this is the first time you've ever worn a pakol.?He grinned at me, revealing a mouthful of prematurely rotting teeth. "Am I close??

"Why are you saying these things??I said.

"Because you wanted to know,?he spat. He pointed to an old man dressed in ragged clothes trudging down a dirt path, a large burlap pack filled with scrub grass tied to his back. "That's the real Afghanistan, Agha sahib. That's the Afghanistan I know. You? You've always been a tourist here, you just didn't know it.?

Rahim Khan had warned me not to expect a warm welcome in Afghanistan from those who had stayed behind and fought the wars. "I'm sorry about your father,?I said. "I'm sorry about your daughters, and I'm sorry about your hand.?

"That means nothing to me,?he said. He shook his head. "Why are you coming back here anyway? Sell off your Baba's land? Pocket the money and run back to your mother in America??

"My mother died giving birth to me,?I said.

He sighed and lit another cigarette. Said nothing.

"Pull over.?

"What??

"Pull over, goddamn it!?I said. "I'm going to be sick.?I tumbled out of the truck as it was coming to a rest on the gravel alongside the road.


BY LATE AFTERNOON, the terrain had changed from one of sun-beaten peaks and barren cliffs to a greener, more rural land scape. The main pass had descended from Landi Kotal through Shinwari territory to Landi Khana. We'd entered Afghanistan at Torkham. Pine trees flanked the road, fewer than I remembered and many of them bare, but it was good to see trees again after the arduous drive through the Khyber Pass. We were getting closer to Jalalabad, where Farid had a brother who would take us in for the night.

The sun hadn't quite set when we drove into Jalalabad, capital of the state of Nangarhar, a city once renowned for its fruit and warm climate. Farid drove past the buildings and stone houses of the city's central district. There weren't as many palm trees there as I remembered, and some of the Homes had been reduced to roofless walls and piles of twisted clay.

Farid turned onto a narrow unpaved road and parked the Land Cruiser along a dried-up gutter. I slid out of the truck, stretched, and took a deep breath. In the old days, the winds swept through the irrigated plains around Jalalabad where farmers grew sugarcane, and impregnated the city's air with a sweet scent. I closed my eyes and searched for the sweetness. I didn't find it.

"Let's go,?Farid said impatiently. We walked up the dirt road past a few leafless poplars along a row of broken mud walls. Farid led me to a dilapidated one-story house and knocked on the woodplank door.

A young woman with ocean-green eyes and a white scarf draped around her face peeked out. She saw me first, flinched, spotted Farid and her eyes lit up. "Salaam alaykum, Kaka Farid!?

"Salaam, Maryam jan,?Farid replied and gave her something he'd denied me all day: a warm smile. He planted a kiss on the top of her head. The young woman stepped out of the way, eyeing me a little apprehensively as I followed Farid into the small house.

The adobe ceiling was low, the dirt walls entirely bare, and the only light came from a pair of lanterns set in a corner. We took off our shoes and stepped on the straw mat that covered the floor. Along one of the walls sat three young boys, cross-legged, on a mattress covered with a blanket with shredded borders. A tall bearded man with broad shoulders stood up to greet us. Farid and he hugged and kissed on the cheek. Farid introduced him to me as Wahid, his older brother. "He's from America,?he said to Wahid, flicking his thumb toward me. He left us alone and went to greet the boys.

Wahid sat with me against the wall across from the boys, who had ambushed Farid and climbed his shoulders. Despite my protests, Wahid ordered one of the boys to fetch another blanket so I'd be more comfortable on the floor, and asked Maryam to bring me some tea. He asked about the ride from Peshawar, the drive over the Khyber Pass.

"I hope you didn't come across any dozds,?he said. The Khyber Pass was as famous for its terrain as for the bandits who used that terrain to rob travelers. Before I could answer, he winked and said in a loud voice, "Of course no dozd would waste his time on a car as ugly as my brother's.?

Farid wrestled the smallest of the three boys to the floor and tickled him on the ribs with his good hand. The kid giggled and kicked. "At least I have a car,?Farid panted. "How is your donkey these days??

"My donkey is a better ride than your car.?

"Khar khara mishnassah,?Farid shot back. Takes a donkey to know a donkey. They all laughed and I joined in. I heard female voices from the adjoining room. I could see half of the room from where I sat. Maryam and an older woman wearing a brown hijab--presumably her mother--were speaking in low voices and pouring tea from a kettle into a pot.

"So what do you do in America, Amir agha??Wahid asked.

"I'm a writer,?I said. I thought I heard Farid chuckle at that.

"A writer??Wahid said, clearly impressed. "Do you write about Afghanistan??

"Well, I have. But not currently,?I said. My last novel, A Season for Ashes, had been about a university professor who joins a clan of gypsies after he finds his wife in bed with one of his stu dents. It wasn't a bad book. Some reviewers had called it a "good?book, and one had even used the word "riveting.?But suddenly I was embarrassed by it. I hoped Wahid wouldn't ask what it was about.

"Maybe you should write about Afghanistan again,?Wahid said. "Tell the rest of the world what the Taliban are doing to our country.?

"Well, I'm not... I'm not quite that kind of writer.?

"Oh,?Wahid said, nodding and blushing a bit. "You know best, of course. It's not for me to suggest...

Just then, Maryam and the other woman came into the room with a pair of cups and a teapot on a small platter. I stood up in respect, pressed my hand to my chest, and bowed my head. "Salaam alaykum,?I said.

The woman, who had now wrapped her hijab to conceal her lower face, bowed her head too. "Sataam,?she replied in a barely audible voice. We never made eye contact. She poured the tea while I stood.

The woman placed the steaming cup of tea before me and exited the room, her bare feet making no sound at all as she disappeared. I sat down and sipped the strong black tea. Wahid finally broke the uneasy silence that followed.

"So what brings you back to Afghanistan??

"What brings them all back to Afghanistan, dear brother??Farid said, speaking to Wahid but fixing me with a contemptuous gaze.

"Bas!?Wahid snapped.

"It's always the same thing,?Farid said. "Sell this land, sell that house, collect the money, and run away like a mouse. Go back to America, spend the money on a family vacation to Mexico.?

"Farid!?Wahid roared. His children, and even Farid, flinched. "Have you forgotten your-manners? This is my house! Amir agha is my guest tonight and I will not allow you to dishonor me like this!?

Farid opened his mouth, almost said something, reconsidered and said nothing. He slumped against the wall, muttered some thing under his breath, and crossed his mutilated foot over the good one. His accusing eyes never left me.

"Forgive us, Amir agha,?Wahid said. "Since childhood, my brother's mouth has been two steps ahead of his head.?

"It's my fault, really,?I said, trying to smile under Farid's intense gaze. "I am not offended. I should have explained to him my Business here in Afghanistan. I am not here to sell property. I'm going to Kabul to find a boy.?

"A boy,?Wahid repeated.

"Yes.?I fished the Polaroid from the pocket of my shirt. Seeing Hassan's picture again tore the fresh scab off his death. I had to turn my eyes away from it. I handed it to Wahid. He studied the photo. Looked from me to the photo and back again. "This boy??

I nodded.

"This Hazara boy.?

"Yes.?

"What does he mean to you??

"His father meant a lot to me. He is the man in the photo. He's dead now.?

Wahid blinked. "He was a friend of yours??

My instinct was to say yes, as if, on some deep level, I too wanted to protect Baba's secret. But there had been enough lies already. "He was my half-brother.?I swallowed. Added, "My illegitimate half brother.?I turned the teacup. Toyed with the handle.

"I didn't mean to pry.?

"You're not prying,?I said.

"What will you do with him??

"Take him back to Peshawar. There are people there who will take care of him.?

Wahid handed the photo back and rested his thick hand on my shoulder. "You are an honorable man, Amir agha. A true Afghan.?

I cringed inside.

"I am proud to have you in our Home tonight,?Wahid said. I thanked him and chanced a glance over to Farid. He was looking down now, playing with the frayed edges of the straw mat.


A SHORT WHILE LATER, Maryam and her mother brought two steaming bowls of vegetable shorwa and two loaves of bread. "I'm sorry we can't offer you meat,?Wahid said. "Only the Taliban can afford meat now.?

"This looks wonderful,?I said. It did too. I offered some to him, to the kids, but Wahid said the family had eaten before we arrived. Farid and I rolled up our sleeves, dipped our bread in the shorwa, and ate with our hands.

As I ate, I noticed Wahid's boys, all three thin with dirtcaked faces and short-cropped brown hair under their skullcaps, stealing furtive glances at my digital wristwatch. The youngest whispered something in his brother's ear. The brother nodded, didn't take his eyes off my watch. The oldest of the boys--I guessed his age at about twelve--rocked back and forth, his gaze glued to my wrist. After dinner, after I'd washed my hands with the water Maryam poured from a clay pot, I asked for Wahid's permission to give his boys a hadia, a gift. He said no, but, when I insisted, he reluctantly agreed. I unsnapped the wristwatch and gave it to the youngest of the three boys. He muttered a sheepish "Tashakor.?

"It tells you the time in any city in the world,?I told him. The boys nodded politely, passing the watch between them, taking
turns trying it on. But they lost interest and, soon, the watch sat abandoned on the straw mat.


"You COULD HAVE TOLD ME,?Farid saidlater. The two ofus were lying next to each other on the straw mats Wahid's wife had spread for us.

"Told you what??

"Why you've come to Afghanistan.?His voice had lost the rough edge I'd heard in it since the moment I had met him.

"You didn't ask,?I said.

"You should have told me.?

"You didn't ask.?

He rolled to face me. Curled his arm under his head. "Maybe I will help you find this boy.?

"Thank you, Farid,?I said.

"It was wrong of me to assume.?

I sighed. "Don't worry. You were more right than you know.?


HIS HANDS ARE TIED BEHIND HIM with roughly woven rope cutting through the flesh of his wrists. He is blindfolded with black cloth. He is kneeling on the street, on the edge of a gutter filled with still water, his head drooping between his shoulders. His knees roll on the hard ground and bleed through his pants as he rocks in prayer. It is late afternoon and his long shadow sways back and forth on the gravel. He is muttering something under his breath. I step closer. A thousand times over, he mutters. For you a thousand times over. Back and forth he rocks. He lifts his face. I see a faint scar above his upper lip.

We are not alone.

I see the barrel first. Then the man standing behind him. He is tall, dressed in a herringbone vest and a black turban. He looks down at the blindfolded man before him with eyes that show nothing but a vast, cavernous emptiness. He takes a step back and raises the barrel. Places it on the back of the kneeling man's head. For a moment, fading sunlight catches in the metal and twinkles.

The rifle roars with a deafening crack.

I follow the barrel on its upward arc. I see the face behind the plume of smoke swirling from the muzzle. I am the man in the herringbone vest.

I woke up with a scream trapped in my throat.


I STEPPED OUTSIDE. Stood in the silver tarnish of a half-moon and glanced up to a sky riddled with stars. Crickets chirped in the shuttered darkness and a wind wafted through the trees. The ground was cool under my bare feet and suddenly, for the first time since we had crossed the border, I felt like I was back. After all these years, I was Home again, standing on the soil of my ancestors. This was the soil on which my great-grandfather had married his third wife a year before dying in the cholera epidemic that hit Kabul in 1915. She'd borne him what his first two wives had failed to, a son at last. It was on this soil that my grandfather had gone on a hunting trip with King Nadir Shah and shot a deer. My mother had died on this soil. And on this soil, I had fought for my father's love.

I sat against one of the house's clay walls. The kinship I felt suddenly for the old land... it surprised me. I'd been gone long enough to forget and be forgotten. I had a Home in a land that might as well be in another galaxy to the people sleeping on the other side of the wall I leaned against. I thought I had forgotten about this land. But I hadn't. And, under the bony glow of a halfmoon, I sensed Afghanistan humming under my feet. Maybe Afghanistan hadn't forgotten me either.

I looked westward and marveled that, somewhere over those mountains, Kabul still existed. It really existed, not just as an old memory, or as the heading of an AP story on page 15 of the San Francisco Chronicle. Somewhere over those mountains in the west slept the city where my harelipped brother and I had run kites. Somewhere over there, the blindfolded man from my dream had died a needless death. Once, over those mountains, I had made a choice. And now, a quarter of a century later, that choice had landed me right back on this soil.

I was about to go back inside when I heard voices coming from the house. I recognized one as Wahid's.

?-nothing left for the children.?

"We're hungry but we're not savages! He is a guest! What was I supposed to do??he said in a strained voice.

?-to find something tomorrow?She sounded near tears. "What do I feed--?

I tiptoed away. I understood now why the boys hadn't shown any interest in the watch. They hadn't been staring at the watch at all. They'd been staring at my food.


WE SAID OUR GOOD - BYE S early the next morning. Just before I climbed into the Land Cruiser, I thanked Wahid for his hospitality. He pointed to the little house behind him. "This is your Home,?he said. His three sons were standing in the doorway watching us. The little one was wearing the watch--it dangled around his twiggy wrist.

I glanced in the side-view mirror as we pulled away. Wahid stood surrounded by his boys in a cloud of dust whipped up by the truck. It occurred to me that, in a different world, those boys wouldn't have been too hungry to chase after the car.

Earlier that morning, when I was certain no one was looking, I did something I had done twenty-six years earlier: I planted a fistful of crumpled money under a mattress.



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