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Chapter 21

We crossed the river and drove north through the crowded Pashtunistan Square. Baba used to take me to Khyber Restaurant there for kabob. The building was still standing, but its doors were padlocked, the windows shattered, and the letters K and R missing from its name.

I saw a dead body near the restaurant. There had been a hanging. A young man dangled from the end of a rope tied to a beam, his face puffy and blue, the clothes he'd worn on the last day of his life shredded, bloody. Hardly anyone seemed to notice him.

We rode silently through the square and headed toward the WazirAkbar Khan district. Everywhere I looked, a haze of dust covered the city and its sun-dried brick buildings. A few blocks north of Pashtunistan Square, Farid pointed to two men talking animatedly at a busy street corner. One of them was hobbling on one leg, his other leg amputated below the knee. He cradled an artificial leg in his arms. "You know what they're doing? Haggling over the leg.?

"He's selling his leg??

Farid nodded. "You can get good money for it on the black market. Feed your kids for a couple of weeks.?


To MY SURPRISE, most of the houses in the WazirAkbar Khan district still had roofs and standing walls. In fact, they were in pretty good shape. Trees still peeked over the walls, and the streets weren't nearly as rubble-strewn as the ones in Karteh-Seh. Faded streets signs, some twisted and bullet-pocked, still pointed the way.

"This isn't so bad,?I remarked.

"No surprise. Most of the important people live here now.?

"Taliban??

"Them too,?Farid said.

"Who else??

He drove us into a wide street with fairly clean sidewalks and walled Homes on either side. "The people behind the Taliban. The real brains of this government, if you can call it that: Arabs, Chechens, Pakistanis,?Farid said. He pointed northwest. "Street 15, that way, is called Sarak-e-Mehmana.?Street of the Guests. "That's what they call them here, guests. I think someday these guests are going to pee all over the carpet.?

"I think that's it!?I said. "Over there!?I pointed to the landmark that used to serve as a guide for me when I was a kid. If you ever get lost, Baba used to say, remember that our street is the one with the pink house at the end of it. The pink house with the steeply pitched roof had been the neighborhood's only house of that color in the old days. It still was.

Farid turned onto the street. I saw Baba's house right away.

WE FIND THE LITTLE TURTLE behind tangles of sweetbrier in the yard. We don't know how it got there and we're too excited to care. We paint its shell a bright red, Hassan's idea, and a good one:

This way, we'll never lose it in the bushes. We pretend we're a pair of daredevil explorers who've discovered a giant prehistoric monster in some distant jungle and we've brought it back for the world to see. We set it down in the wooden wagon Ali built Hassan last winter for his birthday, pretend it's a giant steel cage. Behold the firebreathing monstrosity! We march on the grass and pull the wagon behind us, around apple and cherry trees, which become skyscrap ers soaring into clouds, heads poking out of thousands of windows to watch the spectacle passing below. We walk over the little semi lunar bridge Baba has built near a cluster of fig trees; it becomes a great suspension bridge joining cities, and the little pond below, a foamy sea. Fireworks explode above the bridge's massive pylons and armed soldiers salute us on both sides as gigantic steel cables shoot to the sky. The little turtle bouncing around in the cab, we drag the wagon around the circular red brick driveway outside the wroughtiron gates and return the salutes of the world's leaders as they stand and applaud. We are Hassan and Amir, famed adventurers and the world's greatest explorers, about to receive a medal of honor for our courageous feat...


GINGERLY, I WALKED up the driveway where tufts of weed now grew between the sun-faded bricks. I stood outside the gates of my father's house, feeling like a stranger. I set my hands on the rusty bars, remembering how I'd run through these same gates thousands of times as a child, for things that mattered not at all now and yet had seemed so important then. I peered in.

The driveway extension that led from the gates to the yard, where Hassan and I took turns falling the summer we learned to ride a bike, didn't look as wide or as long as I remembered it. The asphalt had split in a lightning-streak pattern, and more tangles of weed sprouted through the fissures. Most of the poplar trees had been chopped down--the trees Hassan and I used to climb to shine our mirrors into the neighbors?Homes. The ones still standing were nearly leafless. The Wall of Ailing Corn was still there, though I saw no corn, ailing or otherwise, along that wall now. The paint had begun to peel and sections of it had sloughed off altogether. The lawn had turned the same brown as the haze of dust hovering over the city, dotted by bald patches of dirt where nothing grew at all.

A jeep was parked in the driveway and that looked all wrong:

Baba's black Mustang belonged there. For years, the Mustang's eight cylinders roared to life every morning, rousing me from sleep. I saw that oil had spilled under the jeep and stained the driveway like a big Rorschach inkblot. Beyond the jeep, an empty wheelbarrow lay on its side. I saw no sign of the rosebushes that Baba and Ali had planted on the left side of the driveway, only dirt that spilled onto the asphalt. And weeds.

Farid honked twice behind me. "We should go, Agha. We'll draw attention,?he called.

"Just give me one more minute,?I said.

The house itself was far from the sprawling white mansion I remembered from my childhood. It looked smaller. The roof sagged and the plaster was cracked. The windows to the living room, the foyer, and the upstairs guest bathroom were broken, patched haphazardly with sheets of clear plastic or wooden boards nailed across the frames. The paint, once sparkling white, had faded to ghostly gray and eroded in parts, revealing the layered bricks beneath. The front steps had crumbled. Like so much else in Kabul, my father's house was the picture of fallen splendor.

I found the window to my old bedroom, second floor, third window sOuth of the main steps to the house. I stood on tiptoes, saw nothing behind the window but shadows. Twenty-five years earlier, I had stood behind that same window, thick rain dripping down the panes and my breath fogging up the glass. I had watched Hassan and Ali load their belongings into the trunk of my father's car.

"Amir agha,?Farid called again.

"I'm coming,?I shot back.

Insanely, I wanted to go in. Wanted to walk up the front steps where Ali used to make Hassan and me take off our snow boots. I wanted to step into the foyer, smell the orange peel Ali always tossed into the stove to burn with sawdust. Sit at the kitchen table, have tea with a slice of _naan_, listen to Hassan sing old Hazara songs.

Another honk. I walked back to the Land Cruiser parked along the sidewalk. Farid sat smoking behind the wheel.

"I have to look at one more thing,?I told him.

"Can you hurry??

"Give me ten minutes.?

"Go, then.?Then, just as I was turning to go: "Just forget it all. Makes it easier.?

"To what??

"To go on,?Farid said. He flicked his cigarette out of the window. "How much more do you need to see? Let me save you the trouble: Nothing that you remember has survived. Best to forget.?

"I don't want to forget anymore,?I said. "Give me ten minutes.?


WE HARDLY BROKE A SWEAT, Hassan and I, when we hiked

up the hill just north of Baba's house. We scampered about the hilltop chasing each other or sat on a sloped ridge where there was a good view of the airport in the distance. We'd watch airplanes take off and land. Go running again.

Now, by the time I reached the top of the craggy hill, each ragged breath felt like inhaling fire. Sweat trickled down my face. I stood wheezing for a while, a stitch in my side. Then I went looking for the abandoned cemetery. It didn't take me long to find it. It was still there, and so was the old pomegranate tree.

I leaned against the gray stone gateway to the cemetery where Hassan had buried his mother. The old metal gates hanging off the hinges were gone, and the headstones were barely visible through the thick tangles of weeds that had claimed the plot. A pair of crows sat on the low wall that enclosed the cemetery.

Hassan had said in his letter that the pomegranate tree hadn't borne fruit in years. Looking at the wilted, leafless tree, I doubted it ever would again. I stood under it, remembered all the times we'd climbed it, straddled its branches, our legs swinging, dappled sunlight flickering through the leaves and casting on our faces a mosaic of light and shadow. The tangy taste of pomegranate crept into my mouth.

I hunkered down on my knees and brushed my hands against the trunk. I found what I was looking for. The carving had dulled, almost faded altogether, but it was still there: "Amir and Hassan. The Sultans of Kabul.?I traced the curve of each letter with my fingers. Picked small bits of bark from the tiny crevasses.

I sat cross-legged at the foot of the tree and looked south on the city of my childhood. In those days, treetops poked behind the walls of every house. The sky stretched wide and blue, and laundry drying on clotheslines glimmered in the sun. If you listened hard, you might even have heard the call of the fruit seller passing through Wazir Akbar Khan with his donkey: Cherries! Apricots! Grapes! In the early evening, you would have heard azan, the mueszzin's call to prayer from the mosque in Shar-e-Nau.

I heard a honk and saw Farid waving at me. It was time to go.


WE DROVE SOUTH AGAIN, back toward Pashtunistan Square. We passed several more red pickup trucks with armed, bearded young men crammed into the cabs. Farid cursed under his breath every time we passed one.

I paid for a room at a small hotel near Pashtunistan Square. Three little girls dressed in identical black dresses and white scarves clung to the slight, bespectacled man behind the counter. He charged me $75, an unthinkable price given the run-down appearance of the place, but I didn't mind. Exploitation to finance a beach house in Hawaii was one thing. Doing it to feed your kids was another.

There was no hot running water and the cracked toilet didn't flush. Just a single steel-frame bed with a worn mattress, a ragged blanket, and a wooden chair in the corner. The window overlooking the square had broken, hadn't been replaced. As I lowered my suitcase, I noticed a dried bloodstain on the wall behind the bed.

I gave Farid some money and he went out to get food. He returned with four sizzling skewers of kabob, fresh _naan_, and a bowl of white rice. We sat on the bed and all but devoured the food. There was one thing that hadn't changed in Kabul after all:

The kabob was as succulent and delicious as I remembered.

That night, I took the bed and Farid lay on the floor, wrapped himself with an extra blanket for which the hotel owner charged me an additional fee. No light came into the room except for the moonbeams streaming through the broken window. Farid said the owner had told him that Kabul had been without electricity for two days now and his generator needed fixing. We talked for a while. He told me about growing up in Mazar-i-Sharif, in Jalalabad. He told me about a time shortly after he and his father joined the jihad and fought the Shorawi in the Panjsher Valley. They were stranded without food and ate locust to survive. He told me of the day helicopter gunfire killed his father, of the day the land mine took his two daughters. He asked me about America. I told him that in America you could step into a grocery store and buy any of fifteen or twenty different types of cereal. The lamb was always fresh and the milk cold, the fruit plentiful and the water clear. Every Home had a TV, and every TV a remote, and you could get a satellite dish if you wanted. Receive over five hundred channels.

"Five hundred??Farid exclaimed.

"Five hundred.?

We fell silent for a while. Just when I thought he had fallen asleep, Farid chuckled. "Agha, did you hear what Mullah Nasrud din did when his daughter came Home and complained that her husband had beaten her??I could feel him smiling in the dark and a smile of my own formed on my face. There wasn't an Afghan in the world who didn't know at least a few jokes about the bumbling mullah.

"What??

"He beat her too, then sent her back to tell the husband that Mullah was no fool: If the bastard was going to beat his daughter, then Mullah would beat his wife in return.?

I laughed. Partly at the joke, partly at how Afghan humor never changed. Wars were waged, the Internet was invented, and a robot had rolled on the surface of Mars, and in Afghanistan we were still telling Mullah Nasruddin jokes. "Did you hear about the time Mullah had placed a heavy bag on his shoulders and was riding his donkey??I said.

"No.?

"Someone on the street said why don't you put the bag on the donkey? And he said, "That would be cruel, I'm heavy enough already for the poor thing.?

We exchanged Mullah Nasruddin jokes until we ran out of them and we fell silent again.

"Amir agha??Farid said, startling me from near sleep.

"Yes??

"Why are you here? I mean, why are you really here??

"I told you.?

"For the boy??

"For the boy.?

Farid shifted on the ground. "It's hard to believe.?

"Sometimes I myself can hardly believe I'm here.?

"No... What I mean to ask is why that boy? You come all the way from America for... a Shi'a??

That killed all the laughter in me. And the sleep. "I am tired,?I said. "Let's just get some sleep.?

Farid's snoring soon echoed through the empty room. I stayed awake, hands crossed on my chest, staring into the starlit night through the broken window, and thinking that maybe what people said about Afghanistan was true. Maybe it was a hopeless place.


A BUSTLING CROWD was filling Ghazi Stadium when we walked through the entrance tunnels. Thousands of people milled about the tightly packed concrete terraces. Children played in the aisles and chased each other up and down the steps. The scent of garbanzo beans in spicy sauce hung in the air, mixed with the smell of dung and sweat. Farid and I walked past street peddlers selling cigarettes, pine nuts, and biscuits.

A scrawny boy in a tweed jacket grabbed my elbow and spoke into my ear. Asked me if I wanted to buy some "sexy pictures.?

"Very sexy, Agha,?he said, his alert eyes darting side to side-- reminding me of a girl who, a few years earlier, had tried to sell me crack in the Tenderloin district in San Francisco. The kid peeled one side of his jacket open and gave me a fleeting glance of his sexy pictures: postcards of Hindi movies showing doe-eyed sultry actresses, fully dressed, in the arms of their leading men. "So sexy,?he repeated.

"Nay, thanks,?I said, pushing past him.

"He gets caught, they'll give him a flogging that will waken his father in the grave,?Farid muttered.

There was no assigned seating, of course. No one to show us politely to our section, aisle, row, and seat. There never had been, even in the old days of the monarchy. We found a decent spot to sit, just left of midfield, though it took some shoving and elbowing on Farid's part.

I remembered how green the playing field grass had been in the ?0s when Baba used to bring me to soccer games here. Now the pitch was a mess. There were holes and craters everywhere, most notably a pair of deep holes in the ground behind the southend goalposts. And there was no grass at all, just dirt. When the two teams finally took the field--all wearing long pants despite the heat--and play began, it became difficult to follow the ball in the clouds of dust kicked up by the players. Young, whip-toting Talibs roamed the aisles, striking anyone who cheered too loudly.

They brought them out shortly after the halftime whistle blew. A pair of dusty red pickup trucks, like the ones I'd seen around town since I'd arrived, rode into the stadium through the gates. The crowd rose to its feet. A woman dressed in a green burqa sat in the cab of one truck, a blindfolded man in the other. The trucks drove around the track, slowly, as if to let the crowd get a long look. It had the desired effect: People craned their necks, pointed, stood on tiptoes. Next to me, Farid's Adam's apple bobbed up and down as he mumbled a prayer under his breath.

The red trucks entered the playing field, rode toward one end in twin clouds of dust, sunlight reflecting off their hubcaps. A third truck met them at the end of the field. This one's cab was filled with something and I suddenly understood the purpose of those two holes behind the goalposts. They unloaded the third truck. The crowd murmured in anticipation.

"Do you want to stay??Farid said gravely.

"No,?I said. I had never in my life wanted to be away from a place as badly as I did now. "But we have to stay.?

Two Talibs with Kalashnikovs slung across their shoulders helped the blindfolded man from the first truck and two others helped the burqa-clad woman. The woman's knees buckled under her and she slumped to the ground. The soldiers pulled her up and she slumped again. When they tried to lift her again, she screamed and kicked. I will never, as long as I draw breath, forget the sound of that scream. It was the cry of a wild animal trying to pry its mangled leg free from the bear trap. Two more Talibs joined in and helped force her into one of the chest-deep holes. The blindfolded man, on the other hand, quietly allowed them to lower him into the hole dug for him. Now only the accused pair's torsos protruded from the ground.

A chubby, white-bearded cleric dressed in gray garments stood near the goalposts and cleared his throat into a handheld microphone. Behind him the woman in the hole was still screaming. He recited a lengthy prayer from the Koran, his nasal voice undulating through the sudden hush of the stadium's crowd. I remem bered something Baba had said to me a long time ago: Piss on the beards of all those self-righteous monkeys. They do nothing but thumb their rosaries and recite a book written in a tongue they don't even understand. God help us all if Afghanistan ever falls into their hands.

When the prayer was done, the cleric cleared his throat. "Brothers and sisters!?he called, speaking in Farsi, his voice booming through the stadium. "We are here today to carry out Shari'a. We are here today to carry out justice. We are here today because the will of Allah and the word of the Prophet Muham mad, peace be upon him, are alive and well here in Afghanistan, our beloved Homeland. We listen to what God says and we obey because we are nothing but humble, powerless creatures before God's greatness. And what does God say? I ask you! WHAT DOES GOD SAY? God says that every sinner must be punished in a manner befitting his sin. Those are not my words, nor the words of my brothers. Those are the words of GOD!?He pointed with his free hand to the sky. My head was pounding and the sun felt much too hot.

"Every sinner must be punished in a manner befitting his sin!?the cleric repeated into the mike, lowering his voice, enunciating each word slowly, dramatically. "And what manner of punishment, brothers and sisters, befits the adulterer? How shall we punish those who dishonor the sanctity of marriage? How shall we deal with those who spit in the face of God? How shall we answer those who throw stones at the windows of God's house? WE SHALL THROW THE STONES BACK!?He shut off the microphone. A low-pitched murmur spread through the crowd.

Next to me, Farid was shaking his head. "And they call themselves Muslims,?he whispered.

Then a tall, broad-shouldered man stepped out of the pickup truck. The sight of him drew cheers from a few spectators. This time, no one was struck with a whip for cheering too loudly. The tall man's sparkling white garment glimmered in the afternoon sun. The hem of his loose shirt fluttered in the breeze, his arms spread like those of Jesus on the cross. He greeted the crowd by turning slowly in a full circle. When he faced our section, I saw he was wearing dark round sunglasses like the ones John Lennon wore.

"That must be our man,?Farid said.

The tall Talib with the black sunglasses walked to the pile of stones they had unloaded from the third truck. He picked up a rock and showed it to the crowd. The noise fell, replaced by a buzzing sound that rippled through the stadium. I looked around me and saw that everyone was tsk'ing. The Talib, looking absurdly like a baseball pitcher on the mound, hurled the stone at the blindfolded man in the hole. It struck the side of his head. The woman screamed again. The crowd made a startled "OH!?sound. I closed my eyes and covered my face with my hands. The spectators?"OH!?rhymed with each flinging of the stone, and that went on for a while. When they stopped, I asked Farid if it was over. He said no. I guessed the people's throats had tired. I don't know how much longer I sat with my face in my hands. I know that I reopened my eyes when I heard people around me asking, "Mord? Mord? Is he dead??

The man in the hole was now a mangled mess of blood and shredded rags. His head slumped forward, chin on chest. The Talib in the John Lennon sunglasses was looking down at another man squatting next to the hole, tossing a rock up and down in his
hand. The squatting man had one end of a stethoscope to his ears and the other pressed on the chest of the man in the hole. He removed the stethoscope from his ears and shook his head no at the Talib in the sunglasses. The crowd moaned.

John Lennon walked back to the mound.

When it was all over, when the bloodied corpses had been unceremoniously tossed into the backs of red pickup trucks--separate ones--a few men with shovels hurriedly filled the holes. One of them made a passing attempt at covering up the large blood stains by kicking dirt over them. A few minutes later, the teams took the field. Second half was under way.

Our meeting was arranged for three o'clock that afternoon. The swiftness with which the appointment was set surprised me. I'd expected delays, a round of questioning at least, perhaps a check of our papers. But I was reminded of how unofficial even official matters still were in Afghanistan: all Farid had to do was tell one of the whip-carrying Talibs that we had personal Business to discuss with the man in white. Farid and he exchanged words. The guy with the whip then nodded and shouted something in Pashtu to a young man on the field, who ran to the south-end goalposts where the Talib in the sunglasses was chatting with the plump cleric who'd given the sermon. The three spoke. I saw the guy in the sunglasses look up. He nodded. Said something in the messenger's ear. The young man relayed the message back to us.

It was set, then. Three o'clock.



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