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Chapter 20

Farid had warned me. He had. But, as it turned out, he had wasted his breath.

We were driving down the cratered road that winds from Jalalabad to Kabul. The last time I'd traveled that road was in a tarpaulin-covered truck going the other way. Baba had nearly gotten himself shot by a singing, stoned Roussi officer--Baba had made me so mad that night, so scared, and, ultimately, so proud. The trek between Kabul and Jalalabad, a bone-jarring ride down a teetering pass snaking through the rocks, had become a relic now, a relic of two wars. Twenty years earlier, I had seen some of the first war with my own eyes. Grim reminders of it were strewn along the road: burned carcasses of old Soviet tanks, overturned military trucks gone to rust, a crushed Russian jeep that had plunged over the mountainside. The second war, I had watched on my TV screen. And now I was seeing it through Farid's eyes.

Swerving effortlessly around potholes in the middle of the broken road, Farid was a man in his element. He had become much chattier since our overnight stay at Wahid's house. He had me sit in the passenger seat and looked at me when he spoke. He even smiled once or twice. Maneuvering the steering wheel with his mangled hand, he pointed to mud-hut villages along the way where he'd known people years before. Most of those people, he said, were either dead or in refugee camps in Pakistan. "And sometimes the dead are luckier,?he said.

He pointed to the crumbled, charred remains of a tiny village. It was just a tuft of blackened, roofless walls now. I saw a dog sleeping along one of the walls. "I had a friend there once,?Farid said. "He was a very good bicycle repairman. He played the tabla well too. The Taliban killed him and his family and burned the village.?

We drove past the burned village, and the dog didn't move.


IN THE OLD DAYS, the drive from Jalalabad to Kabul took two hours, maybe a little more. It took Farid and me over four hours to reach Kabul. And when we did... Farid warned me just after we passed the Mahipar dam.

"Kabul is not the way you remember it,?he said.

"So I hear.?

Farid gave me a look that said hearing is not the same as seeing. And he was right. Because when Kabul finally did unroll before us, I was certain, absolutely certain, that he had taken a wrong turn somewhere. Farid must have seen my stupefied expression; shuttling people back and forth to Kabul, he would have become familiar with that expression on the faces of those who hadn't seen Kabul for a long time.

He patted me on the shoulder. "Welcome back,?he said morosely.

RUBBLE AND BEGGARS. Everywhere I looked, that was what I saw. I remembered beggars in the old days too--Baba always carried an extra handful of Afghani bills in his pocket just for them; I'd never seen him deny a peddler. Now, though, they squatted at every street corner, dressed in shredded burlap rags, mud-caked hands held out for a coin. And the beggars were mostly children now, thin and grim-faced, some no older than five or six. They sat in the laps of their burqa-clad mothers alongside gutters at busy street corners and chanted "Bakhshesh, bakhshesh!?And something else, something I hadn't noticed right away: Hardly any of them sat with an adult male--the wars had made fathers a rare commodity in Afghanistan.

We were driving westbound toward the Karteh-Seh district on what I remembered as a major thoroughfare in the seventies:

Jadeh Maywand. Just north of us was the bone-dry Kabul River. On the hills to the south stood the broken old city wall. Just east of it was the Bala Hissar Fort--the ancient citadel that the warlord Dostum had occupied in 1992--on the Shirdarwaza mountain range, the same mountains from which Mujahedin forces had showered Kabul with rockets between 1992 and 1996, inflicting much of the damage I was witnessing now. The Shirdarwaza range stretched all the way west. It was from those mountains that I remember the firing of the Topeh chasht, the "noon cannon.?It went off every day to announce noontime, and also to signal the end of daylight fasting during the month of Ramadan. You'd hear the roar of that cannon all through the city in those days.

"I used to come here to Jadeh Maywand when I was a kid,?I mumbled. "There used to be shops here and hotels. Neon lights
and restaurants. I used to buy kites from an old man named Saifo. He ran a little kite shop by the old police headquarters.?

"The police headquarters is still there,?Farid said. "No shortage of police in this city But you won't find kites or kite shops on Jadeh Maywand or anywhere else in Kabul. Those days are over.?

Jadeh Maywand had turned into a giant sand castle. The buildings that hadn't entirely collapsed barely stood, with caved in roofs and walls pierced with rockets shells. Entire blocks had been obliterated to rubble. I saw a bullet-pocked sign half buried at an angle in a heap of debris. It read DRINK COCA CO--. I saw children playing in the ruins of a windowless building amid jagged stumps of brick and stone. Bicycle riders and mule-drawn carts swerved around kids, stray dogs, and piles of debris. A haze of dust hovered over the city and, across the river, a single plume of smoke rose to the sky.

"Where are the trees??I said.

"People cut them down for firewood in the winter,?Farid said. "The Shorawi cut a lot of them down too.?

"Why??

"Snipers used to hide in them.?

A sadness came over me. Returning to Kabul was like running into an old, forgotten friend and seeing that life hadn't been good to him, that he'd become Homeless and destitute.

"My father built an orphanage in Shar-e-Kohna, the old city, south of here,?I said.

"I remember it,?Farid said. "It was destroyed a few years ago.?

"Can you pull over??I said. "I want to take a quick walk here.?

Farid parked along the curb on a small backstreet next to a ramshackle, abandoned building with no door. "That used to be a pharmacy,?Farid muttered as we exited the truck. We walked back to Jadeh Maywand and turned right, heading west. "What's that smell??I said. Something was making my eyes water.

"Diesel,?Farid replied. "The city's generators are always going down, so electricity is unreliable, and people use diesel fuel.?

"Diesel. Remember what this street smelled like in the old days??

Farid smiled. "Kabob.?

"Lamb kabob,?I said.

"Lamb,?Farid said, tasting the word in his mouth. "The only people in Kabul who get to eat lamb now are the Taliban.?He pulled on my sleeve. "Speaking of which...?

A vehicle was approaching us. "Beard Patrol,?Farid murmured.

That was the first time I saw the Taliban. I'd seen them on TV on the Internet, on the cover of magazines, and in newspapers. But here I was now, less than fifty feet from them, telling myself that the sudden taste in my mouth wasn't unadulterated, naked fear. Telling myself my flesh hadn't suddenly shrunk against my bones and my heart wasn't battering. Here they came. In all their glory.

The red Toyota pickup truck idled past us. A handful of sternfaced young men sat on their haunches in the cab, Kalashnikovs slung on their shoulders. They all wore beards and black turbans. One of them, a dark-skinned man in his early twenties with thick, knitted eyebrows twirled a whip in his hand and rhythmically swatted the side of the truck with it. His roaming eyes fell on me. Held my gaze. I'd never felt so naked in my entire life. Then the Talib spat tobacco-stained spittle and looked away. I found I could breathe again. The truck rolled down Jadeh Maywand, leaving in its trail a cloud of dust.

"What is the matter with you??Farid hissed.

"What??

"Don't ever stare at them! Do you understand me? Never!?

"I didn't mean to,?I said.

"Your friend is quite right, Agha. You might as well poke a rabid dog with a stick,?someone said. This new voice belonged to an old beggar sitting barefoot on the steps of a bullet-scarred building. He wore a threadbare chapan worn to frayed shreds and a dirt-crusted turban. His left eyelid drooped over an empty socket. With an arthritic hand, he pointed to the direction the red truck had gone. "They drive around looking. Looking and hoping that someone will provoke them. Sooner or later, someone always obliges. Then the dogs feast and the day's boredom is broken at last and everyone says ‘Allah-u-akbar!?And on those days when no one offends, well, there is always random violence, isn't there??

"Keep your eyes on your feet when the Talibs are near,?Farid said.

"Your friend dispenses good advice,?the old beggar chimed in. He barked a wet cough and spat in a soiled handkerchief. "Forgive me, but could you spare a few Afghanis??he breathed.

"Bas. Let's go,?Farid said, pulling me by the arm.

I handed the old man a hundred thousand Afghanis, or the equivalent of about three dollars. When he leaned forward to take the money, his stench--like sour milk and feet that hadn't been washed in weeks--flooded my nostrils and made my gorge rise. He hurriedly slipped the money in his waist, his lone eye darting side to side. "A world of thanks for your benevolence, Agha sahib.?

"Do you know where the orphanage is in Karteh-Seh??I said.

"It's not hard to find, it's just west of Darulaman Boulevard,?he said. "The children were moved from here to Karteh-Seh after the rockets hit the old orphanage. Which is like saving someone from the lion's cage and throwing them in the tiger's.?

"Thank you, Agha,?I said. I turned to go.

"That was your first time, nay??

"I'm sorry??

"The first time you saw a Talib.?

I said nothing. The old beggar nodded and smiled. Revealed a handful of remaining teeth, all crooked and yellow. "I remember the first time I saw them rolling into Kabul. What a joyous day that was!?he said. "An end to the killing! Wah wah! But like the poet says: ‘How seamless seemed love and then came trouble!?

A smile sprouted on my face. "I know that ghazal. That's H?fez.?

"Yes it is. Indeed,?the old man replied. "I should know. I used to teach it at the university.?

"You did??

The old man coughed. "From 1958 to 1996. I taught H?fez, Khayyám, Rumi, Beydel, Jami, Saadi. Once, I was even a guest lecturer in Tehran, 1971 that was. I gave a lecture on the mystic Beydel. I remember how they all stood and clapped. Ha!?He shook his head. "But you saw those young men in the truck. What value do you think they see in Sufism??

"My mother taught at the university,?I said.

"And what was her name??

"Sofia Akrami.?

His eye managed to twinkle through the veil of cataracts. "The desert weed lives on, but the flower of spring blooms and wilts.?Such grace, such dignity, such a tragedy.?

"You knew my mother??I asked, kneeling before the old man.

"Yes indeed,?the old beggar said. "We used to sit and talk after class. The last time was on a rainy day just before final exams when we shared a marvelous slice of almond cake together. Almond cake with hot tea and honey. She was rather obviously pregnant by then, and all the more beautiful for it. I will never forget what she said to me that day.?

"What? Please tell me.?Baba had always described my mother to me in broad strokes, like, "She was a great woman.?But what I had always thirsted for were the details: the way her hair glinted in the sunlight, her favorite ice cream flavor, the songs she liked to hum, did she bite her nails? Baba took his memories of her to the grave with him. Maybe speaking her name would have reminded him of his guilt, of what he had done so soon after she had died. Or maybe his loss had been so great, his pain so deep, he couldn't bear to talk about her. Maybe both.

"She said, ‘I'm so afraid.?And I said, ‘Why?,?and she said, ‘Because I'm so profoundly happy, Dr. Rasul. Happiness like this is frightening.?I asked her why and she said, ‘They only let you be this happy if they're preparing to take something from you,?and I said, ‘Hush up, now. Enough of this silliness.?

Farid took my arm. "We should go, Amir agha,?he said softly. I snatched my arm away. "What else? What else did she say??

The old man's features softened. "I wish I remembered for you. But I don't. Your mother passed away a long time ago and my memory is as shattered as these buildings. I am sorry.?

"But even a small thing, anything at all.?

The old man smiled. "I'll try to remember and that's a promise. Come back and find me.?

"Thank you,?I said. "Thank you so much.?And I meant it. Now I knew my mother had liked almond cake with honey and hot tea, that she'd once used the word "profoundly,?that she'd fretted
about her Happiness. I had just learned more about my mother from this old man on the street than I ever did from Baba.

Walking back to the truck, neither one of us commented about what most non-Afghans would have seen as an improbable coincidence, that a beggar on the street would happen to know my mother. Because we both knew that in Afghanistan, and particularly in Kabul, such absurdity was commonplace. Baba used to say, "Take two Afghans who've never met, put them in a room for ten minutes, and they'll figure out how they're related.?

We left the old man on the steps of that building. I meant to take him up on his offer, come back and see if he'd unearthed any more stories about my mother. But I never saw him again.


WE FOUND THE NEW ORPHANAGE in the northern part of Karteh-Seh, along the banks of the dried-up Kabul River. It was a flat, barracks-style building with splintered walls and windows boarded with planks of wood. Farid had told me on the way there that Karteh-Seh had been one of the most war-ravaged neighborhoods in Kabul, and, as we stepped out of the truck, the evidence was overwhelming. The cratered streets were flanked by little more than ruins of shelled buildings and abandoned Homes. We passed the rusted skeleton of an overturned car, a TV set with no screen half-buried in rubble, a wall with the words ZENDA BAD TAL IRAN! (Long live the Taliban!) sprayed in black.

A short, thin, balding man with a shaggy gray beard opened the door. He wore a ragged tweed jacket, a skullcap, and a pair of eyeglasses with one chipped lens resting on the tip of his nose. Behind the glasses, tiny eyes like black peas flitted from me to Farid. "Salaam alaykum,?he said.

"Salaam alaykum,?I said. I showed him the Polaroid. "We're searching for this boy.?

He gave the photo a cursory glance. "I am sorry. I have never seen him.?

"You barely looked at the picture, my friend,?Farid said. "Why not take a closer look??

"Lotfan,?I added. Please.

The man behind the door took the picture. Studied it. Handed it back to me. "Nay, sorry. I know just about every single child in this institution and that one doesn't look familiar. Now, if you'll permit me, I have work to do.?He closed the door. Locked the bolt.

I rapped on the door with my knuckles. "Agha! Agha, please open the door. We don't mean him any harm.?

"I told you. He's not here,?his voice came from the other side. "Now, please go away.?

Farid stepped up to the door, rested his forehead on it. "Friend, we are not with the Taliban,?he said in a low, cautious voice. "The man who is with me wants to take this boy to a safe place.?

"I come from Peshawar,?I said. "A good friend of mine knows an American couple there who run a charity Home for children.?I felt the man's presence on the other side of the door. Sensed him standing there, listening, hesitating, caught between suspicion and hope. "Look, I knew Sohrab's father,?I said. "His name was Hassan. His mother's name was Farzana. He called his grand mother Sasa. He knows how to read and write. And he's good with the slingshot. There's hope for this boy, Agha, a way out. Please open the door.?

From the other side, only silence.

"I'm his half uncle,?I said.

A moment passed. Then a key rattled in the lock. The man's
narrow face reappeared in the crack. He looked from me to Farid and back. "You were wrong about one thing.?

"What??

"He's great with the slingshot.?

I smiled.

"He's inseparable from that thing. He tucks it in the waist of his pants everywhere he goes.?


THE MAN WHO LET US IN introduced himself as Zaman, the director of the orphanage. "I'll take you to my office,?he said.

We followed him through dim, grimy hallways where barefoot children dressed in frayed sweaters ambled around. We walked past rooms with no floor covering but matted carpets and windows shuttered with sheets of plastic. Skeleton frames of steel beds, most with no mattress, filled the rooms.

"How many orphans live here??Farid asked.

"More than we have room for. About two hundred and fifty,?Zaman said over his shoulder. "But they're not all yateem. Many of them have lost their fathers in the war, and their mothers can't feed them because the Taliban don't allow them to work. So they bring their children here.?He made a sweeping gesture with his hand and added ruefully, "This place is better than the street, but not that much better. This building was never meant to be lived in--it used to be a storage warehouse for a carpet manufacturer. So there's no water heater and they've let the well go dry.?He dropped his voice. "I've asked the Taliban for money to dig a new well more times than I remember and they just twirl their rosaries and tell me there is no money. No money.?He snickered.

He pointed to a row of beds along the wall. "We don't have enough beds, and not enough mattresses for the beds we do have. Worse, we don't have enough blankets.?He showed us a lit tle girl skipping rope with two other kids. "You see that girl? This past winter, the children had to share blankets. Her brother died of exposure.?He walked on. "The last time I checked, we have less than a month's supply of rice left in the warehouse, and, when that runs out, the children will have to eat bread and tea for breakfast and dinner.?I noticed he made no mention of lunch.

He stopped and turned to me. "There is very little shelter here, almost no food, no clothes, no clean water. What I have in ample supply here is children who've lost their childhood. But the tragedy is that these are the lucky ones. We're filled beyond capacity and every day I turn away mothers who bring their children.?He took a step toward me. "You say there is hope for Sohrab? I pray you don't lie, Agha. But... you may well be too late.?

"What do you mean??

Zaman's eyes shifted. "Follow me.?


WHAT PASSED FOR THE DIRECTOR'S OFFICE was four bare, cracked walls, a mat on the floor, a table, and two folding chairs. As Zaman and I sat down, I saw a gray rat poke its head from a burrow in the wall and flit across the room. I cringed when it sniffed at my shoes, then Zaman's, and scurried through the open door.

"What did you mean it may be too late??I said.

"Would you like some chai? I could make some.?

"Nay, thank you. I'd rather we talk.?

Zaman tilted back in his chair and crossed his arms on his chest. "What I have to tell you is not pleasant. Not to mention that it may be very dangerous.?

"For whom??

"You. Me. And, of course, for Sohrab, if it's not too late already.?

"I need to know,?I said.

He nodded. "So you say. But first I want to ask you a question:

How badly do you want to find your nephew??

I thought of the street fights we'd get into when we were kids, all the times Hassan used to take them on for me, two against one, sometimes three against one. I'd wince and watch, tempted to step in, but always stopping short, always held back by something.

I looked at the hallway, saw a group of kids dancing in a circle. A little girl, her left leg amputated below the knee, sat on a ratty mattress and watched, smiling and clapping along with the other children. I saw Farid watching the children too, his own mangled hand hanging at his side. I remembered Wahid's boys and... I realized something: I would not leave Afghanistan without finding Sohrab. "Tell me where he is,?I said.

Zaman's gaze lingered on me. Then he nodded, picked up a pencil, and twirled it between his fingers. "Keep my name out of it.?

"I promise.?

He tapped the table with the pencil. "Despite your promise, I think I'll live to regret this, but perhaps it's just as well. I'm damned anyway. But if something can be done for Sohrab... I'll tell you because I believe you. You have the look of a desperate man.?He was quiet for a long time. "There is a Talib official,?he muttered. "He visits once every month or two. He brings cash with him, not a lot, but better than nothing at all.?His shifty eyes fell on me, rolled away. "Usually he'll take a girl. But not always.?

"And you allow this??Farid said behind me. He was going around the table, closing in on Zaman.

"What choice do I have??Zaman shot back. He pushed himself away from the desk.

"You're the director here,?Farid said. "Your job is watch over these children.?

"There's nothing I can do to stop it.?

"You're selling children!?Farid barked.

"Farid, sit down! Let it go!?I said. But I was too late. Because suddenly Farid was leaping over the table. Zaman's chair went flying as Farid fell on him and pinned him to the floor. The director thrashed beneath Farid and made muffled screaming sounds. His legs kicked a desk drawer free and sheets of paper spilled to the floor.

I ran around the desk and saw why Zaman's screaming was muffled: Farid was strangling him. I grasped Farid's shoulders with both hands and pulled hard. He snatched away from me. "That's enough!?I barked. But Farid's face had flushed red, his lips pulled back in a snarl. "I'm killing him! You can't stop me! I'm killing him,?he sneered.

"Get off him!?

"I'm killing him!?Something in his voice told me that if I didn't do something quickly I'd witness my first murder.

"The children are watching, Farid. They're watching,?I said. His shoulder muscles tightened under my grip and, for a moment, I thought he'd keep squeezing Zaman's neck anyway. Then he turned around, saw the children. They were standing silently by the door, holding hands, some of them crying. I felt Farid's muscles slacken. He dropped his hands, rose to his feet. He looked down on Zaman and dropped a mouthful of spit on his face. Then he walked to the door and closed it.

Zaman struggled to his feet, blotted his bloody lips with his sleeve, wiped the spit off his cheek. Coughing and wheezing, he put on his skullcap, his glasses, saw both lenses had cracked, and took them off. He buried his face in his hands. None of us said anything for a long time.

"He took Sohrab a month ago,?Zaman finally croaked, hands still shielding his face.

"You call yourself a director??Farid said.

Zaman dropped his hands. "I haven't been paid in over six months. I'm broke because I've spent my life's savings on this orphanage. Everything I ever owned or inherited I sold to run this godforsaken place. You think I don't have family in Pakistan and Iran? I could have run like everyone else. But I didn't. I stayed. I stayed because of them.?He pointed to the door. "If I deny him one child, he takes ten. So I let him take one and leave the judging to Allah. I swallow my pride and take his goddamn filthy... dirty money. Then I go to the bazaar and buy food for the children.?

Farid dropped his eyes.

"What happens to the children he takes??I asked.

Zaman rubbed his eyes with his forefinger and thumb. "Some times they come back.?

"Who is he? How do we find him??I said.

"Go to Ghazi Stadium tomorrow. You'll see him at halftime. He'll be the one wearing black sunglasses.?He picked up his broken glasses and turned them in his hands. "I want you to go now. The children are frightened.?

He escorted us out.

As the truck pulled away, I saw Zaman in the side-view mirror, standing in the doorway. A group of children surrounded him, clutching the hem of his loose shirt. I saw he had put on his broken glasses.



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