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Chapter 24

If Peshawar was the city that reminded me of what Kabul used to be, then Islamabad was the city Kabul could have become someday. The streets were wider than Peshawar's, cleaner, and lined with rows of hibiscus and flame trees. The bazaars were more organized and not nearly as clogged with rickshaws and pedestrians. The architecture was more elegant too, more modern, and I saw parks where roses and jasmine bloomed in the shadows of trees.

Farid found a small hotel on a side street running along the foot of the Margalla Hills. We passed the famous Shah Faisal Mosque on the way there, reputedly the biggest mosque in the world, with its giant concrete girders and soaring minarets. Sohrab perked up at the sight of the mosque, leaned out of the window and looked at it until Farid turned a corner.


THE HOTEL ROOM was a vast improvement over the one in Kabul where Farid and I had stayed. The sheets were clean, the carpet vacuumed, and the bathroom spotless. There was shampoo, soap, razors for shaving, a bathtub, and towels that smelled like lemon. And no bloodstains on the walls. One other thing: a television set sat on the dresser across from the two single beds.

"Look!?I said to Sohrab. I turned it on manually--no remote--and turned the dial. I found a children's show with two fluffy sheep puppets singing in Urdu. Sohrab sat on one of the beds and drew his knees to his chest. Images from the TV reflected in his green eyes as he watched, stone-faced, rocking back and forth. I remembered the time I'd promised Hassan I'd buy his family a color TV when we both grew up.

"I'll get going, Amir agha,?Farid said.

"Stay the night,?I said. "It's a long drive. Leave tomorrow.?

"Tashakor,?he said. "But I want to get back tonight. I miss my children.?On his way out of the room, he paused in the doorway. "Good-bye, Sohrab jan,?he said. He waited for a reply, but Sohrab paid him no attention. Just rocked back and forth, his face lit by the silver glow of the images flickering across the screen.

Outside, I gave him an envelope. When he tore it, his mouth opened.

"I didn't know how to thank you,?I said. "You've done so much for me.?

"How much is in here??Farid said, slightly dazed.

"A little over two thousand dollars.?

"Two thou--?he began. His lower lip was quivering a little. Later, when he pulled away from the curb, he honked twice and waved. I waved back. I never saw him again.

I returned to the hotel room and found Sohrab lying on the bed, curled up in a big C. His eyes were closed but I couldn't tell if he was sleeping. He had shut off the television. I sat on my bed and grimaced with pain, wiped the cool sweat off my brow. I wondered how much longer it would hurt to get up, sit down, roll over in bed. I wondered when I'd be able to eat solid food. I wondered what I'd do with the wounded little boy lying on the bed, though a part of me already knew.

There was a carafe of water on the dresser. I poured a glass and took two of Armand's pain pills. The water was warm and bitter. I pulled the curtains, eased myself back on the bed, and lay down. I thought my chest would rip open. When the pain dropped a notch and I could breathe again, I pulled the blanket to my chest and waited for Armand's pills to work.


WHEN I WOKE UP, the room was darker. The slice of sky peeking between the curtains was the purple of twilight turning into night. The sheets were soaked and my head pounded. I'd been dreaming again, but I couldn't remember what it had been about.

My heart gave a sick lurch when I looked to Sohrab's bed and found it empty I called his name. The sound of my voice startled me. It was disorienting, sitting in a dark hotel room, thousands of miles from Home, my body broken, calling the name of a boy I'd only met a few days ago. I called his name again and heard nothing. I struggled out of bed, checked the bathroom, looked in the narrow hallway outside the room. He was gone.

I locked the door and hobbled to the manager's office in the lobby, one hand clutching the rail along the walkway for support. There was a fake, dusty palm tree in the corner of the lobby and flying pink flamingos on the wallpaper. I found the hotel manager reading a newspaper behind the Formica-topped check-in counter. I described Sohrab to him, asked if he'd seen him. He put down his paper and took off his reading glasses. He had greasy hair and a square-shaped little mustache speckled with gray. He smelled vaguely of some tropical fruit I couldn't quite recognize.

"Boys, they like to run around,?he said, sighing. "I have three of them. All day they are running around, troubling their mother.?He fanned his face with the newspaper, staring at my jaws.

"I don't think he's out running around,?I said. "And we're not from here. I'm afraid he might get lost.?

He bobbed his head from side to side. "Then you should have kept an eye on the boy, mister.?

"I know,?I said. "But I fell asleep and when I woke up, he was gone.?

"Boys must be tended to, you know.?

"Yes,?I said, my pulse quickening. How could he be so oblivious to my apprehension? He shifted the newspaper to his other hand, resumed the fanning. "They want bicycles now?

"Who??

"My boys,?he said. "They're saying, ‘Daddy, Daddy, please buy us bicycles and we'll not trouble you. Please, Daddy!?He gave a short laugh through his nose. "Bicycles. Their mother will kill me, I swear to you.?

I imagined Sohrab lying in a ditch. Or in the trunk of some car, bound and gagged. I didn't want his blood on my hands. Not his too. "Please...?I said. I squinted. Read his name tag on the lapel of his short-sleeve blue cotton shirt. "Mr. Fayyaz, have you seen him??

"The boy??

I bit down. "Yes, the boy! The boy who came with me. Have you seen him or not, for God's sake??

The fanning stopped. His eyes narrowed. "No getting smart with me, my friend. I am not the one who lost him.?

That he had a point did not stop the blood from rushing to my face. "You're right. I'm wrong. My fault. Now, have you seen him??

"Sorry,?he said curtly. He put his glasses back on. Snapped his newspaper open. "I have seen no such boy.?

I stood at the counter for a minute, trying not to scream. As I was exiting the lobby, he said, "Any idea where he might have wandered to??

"No,?I said. I felt tired. Tired and scared.

"Does he have any interests??he said. I saw he had folded the paper. "My boys, for example, they will do anything for American action films, especially with that Arnold ??WThatsanegger--?

"The mosque!?I said. "The big mosque.?I remembered the way the mosque had jolted Sohrab from his stupor when we'd driven by it, how he'd leaned out of the window looking at it.

"Shah Faisal??

"Yes. Can you take me there??

"Did you know it's the biggest mosque in the world??he asked.

"No, but--?

"The courtyard alone can fit forty thousand people.?

"Can you take me there??

"It's only a kilometer from here,?he said. But he was already pushing away from the counter.

"I'll pay you for the ride,?I said.

He sighed and shook his head. "Wait here.?He disappeared into the back room, returned wearing another pair of eyeglasses, a set of keys in hand, and with a short, chubby woman in an orange sari trailing him. She took his seat behind the counter. "I don't take your money,?he said, blowing by me. "I will drive you because I am a father like you.?


I THOUGHT WE'D END UP DRIVING around the city until night fell. I saw myself calling the police, describing Sohrab to them under Fayyaz's reproachful glare. I heard the officer, his voice tired and uninterested, asking his obligatory questions. And beneath the official questions, an unofficial one: Who the hell cared about another dead Afghan kid?

But we found him about a hundred yards from the mosque, sitting in the half-full parking lot, on an island of grass. Fayyaz pulled up to the island and let me out. "I have to get back,?he said.

"That's fine. We'll walk back,?I said. "Thank you, Mr. Fayyaz. Really.?

He leaned across the front seat when I got out. "Can I say something to you??

"Sure.?

In the dark of twilight, his face was just a pair of eyeglasses reflecting the fading light. "The thing about you Afghanis is that... well, you people are a little reckless.?

I was tired and in pain. My jaws throbbed. And those damn wounds on my chest and stomach felt like barbed wire under my skin. But I started to laugh anyway.

"What... what did I...?Fayyaz was saying, but I was cackling by then, full-throated bursts of laughter spilling through my wired mouth.

"Crazy people,?he said. His tires screeched when he peeled away, his tail-lights blinking red in the dimming light.

"You GAVE ME A GOOD SCARE,?I said. I sat beside him, wincing with pain as I bent.

He was looking at the mosque. Shah Faisal Mosque was shaped like a giant tent. Cars came and went; worshipers dressed in white streamed in and out. We sat in silence, me leaning against the tree, Sohrab next to me, knees to his chest. We listened to the call to prayer, watched the building's hundreds of lights come on as daylight faded. The mosque sparkled like a diamond in the dark. It lit up the sky, Sohrab's face.

"Have you ever been to Mazar-i-Sharif??Sohrab said, his chin resting on his kneecaps.

"A long time ago. I don't remember it much.?

"Father took me there when I was little. Mother and Sasa came along too. Father bought me a monkey from the bazaar. Not a real one but the kind you have to blow up. It was brown and had a bow tie.?

"I might have had one of those when I was a kid.?

"Father took me to the Blue Mosque,?Sohrab said. "I remember there were so many pigeons outside the masjid, and they weren't afraid of people. They came right up to us. Sasa gave me little pieces of _naan_ and I fed the birds. Soon, there were pigeons cooing all around me. That was fun.?

"You must miss your parents very much,?I said. I wondered if he'd seen the Taliban drag his parents out into the street. I hoped he hadn't.

"Do you miss your parents??he aked, resting his cheek on his knees, looking up at me.

"Do I miss my parents? Well, I never met my mother. My father died a few years ago, and, yes, I do miss him. Sometimes a lot.?

"Do you remember what he looked like??

I thought of Baba's thick neck, his black eyes, his unruly brown hair. Sitting on his lap had been like sitting on a pair of tree trunks. "I remember what he looked like,?I said. "What he smelled like too.?

"I'm starting to forget their faces,?Sohrab said. "Is that bad??

"No,?I said. "Time does that.?I thought of something. I looked in the front pocket of my coat. Found the Polaroid snap shot of Hassan and Sohrab. "Here,?I said.

He brought the photo to within an inch of his face, turned it so the light from the mosque fell on it. He looked at it for a long time. I thought he might cry, but he didn't. He just held it in both hands, traced his thumb over its surface. I thought of a line I'd read somewhere, or maybe I'd heard someone say it: There are a lot of children in Afghanistan, but little childhood. He stretched his hand to give it back to me.

"Keep it,?I said. "It's yours.?

"Thank you.?He looked at the photo again and stowed it in the pocket of his vest. A horse-drawn cart clip-clopped by in the parking lot. Little bells dangled from the horse's neck and jingled with each step.

"I've been thinking a lot about mosques lately,?Sohrab said.

"You have? What about them??

He shrugged. "Just thinking about them.?He lifted his face, looked straight at me. Now he was crying, softly, silently. "Can I ask you something, Amir agha??

"Of course.?

"Will God...?he began, and choked a little. "Will God put me in hell for what I did to that man??

I reached for him and he flinched. I pulled back. "Nay. Of course not,?I said. I wanted to pull him close, hold him, tell him the world had been unkind to him, not the other way around.

His face twisted and strained to stay composed. "Father used to say it's wrong to hurt even bad people. Because they don't know any better, and because bad people sometimes become good.?

"Not always, Sohrab.?

He looked at me questioningly.

"The man who hurt you, I knew him from many years ago,?I said. "I guess you figured that out that from the conversation he and I had. He... he tried to hurt me once when I was your age, but your father saved me. Your father was very brave and he was always rescuing me from trouble, standing up for me. So one day the bad man hurt your father instead. He hurt him in a very bad way, and I... I couldn't save your father the way he had saved me.?

"Why did people want to hurt my father??Sohrab said in a wheezy little voice. "He was never mean to anyone.?

"You're right. Your father was a good man. But that's what I'm trying to tell you, Sohrab jan. That there are bad people in this world, and sometimes bad people stay bad. Sometimes you have to stand up to them. What you did to that man is what I should have done to him all those years ago. You gave him what he deserved, and he deserved even more.?

"Do you think Father is disappointed in me??

"I know he's not,?I said. "You saved my life in Kabul. I know he is very proud of you for that.?

He wiped his face with the sleeve of his shirt. It burst a bubble of spittle that had formed on his lips. He buried his face in his hands and wept a long time before he spoke again. "I miss Father, and Mother too,?he croaked. "And I miss Sasa and Rahim Khan sahib. But sometimes I'm glad they're not ... they're not here anymore.?

"Why??I touched his arm. He drew back.

"Because--?he said, gasping and hitching between sobs, "because I don't want them to see me... I'm so dirty.?He sucked in his breath and let it out in a long, wheezy cry. "I'm so dirty and full of sin.?

"You're not dirty, Sohrab,?I said.

"Those men--?

"You're not dirty at all.?

?-they did things... the bad man and the other two... they did things... did things to me.?

"You're not dirty, and you're not full of sin.?I touched his arm again and he drew away. I reached again, gently, and pulled him to me. "I won't hurt you,?I whispered. "I promise.?He resisted a lit tle. Slackened. He let me draw him to me and rested his head on my chest. His little body convulsed in my arms with each sob.

A kinship exists between people who've fed from the same breast. Now, as the boy's pain soaked through my shirt, I saw that a kinship had taken root between us too. What had happened in that room with Assef had irrevocably bound us.

I'd been looking for the right time, the right moment, to ask the question that had been buzzing around in my head and keep ing me up at night. I decided the moment was now, right here, right now, with the bright lights of the house of God shining on us.

"Would you like to come live in America with me and my wife??

He didn't answer. He sobbed into my shirt and I let him.


FOR A WEEK, neither one of us mentioned what I had asked him, as if the question hadn't been posed at all. Then one day, Sohrab and I took a taxicab to the Daman-e-Koh Viewpoint--or "the hem of the mountain.?Perched midway up the Margalla Hills, it gives a panoramic view of Islamabad, its rows of clean, tree-lined avenues and white houses. The driver told us we could see the presidential palace from up there. "If it has rained and the air is clear, you can even see past Rawalpindi,?he said. I saw his eyes in his rearview mirror, skipping from Sohrab to me, back and forth, back and forth. I saw my own face too. It wasn't as swollen as before, but it had taken on a yellow tint from my assortment of fading bruises.

We sat on a bench in one of the picnic areas, in the shade of a gum tree. It was a warm day, the sun perched high in a topaz blue sky. On benches nearby, families snacked on samosas and pakoras. Somewhere, a radio played a Hindi song I thought I remembered from an old movie, maybe Pakeeza. Kids, many of them Sohrab's age, chased soccer balls, giggling, yelling. I thought about the orphanage in Karteh-Seh, thought about the rat that had scurried between my feet in Zaman's office. My chest tightened with a surge of unexpected anger at the way my countrymen were destroying their own land.

"What??Sohrab asked. I forced a smile and told him it wasn't important.

We unrolled one of the hotel's bathroom towels on the picnic table and played panjpar on it. It felt good being there, with my half brother's son, playing cards, the warmth of the sun patting the back of my neck. The song ended and another one started, one I didn't recognize.

"Look,?Sohrab said. He was pointing to the sky with his cards. I looked up, saw a hawk circling in the broad seamless sky. "Didn't know there were hawks in Islamabad,?I said.

"Me neither,?he said, his eyes tracing the bird's circular flight. "Do they have them where you live??

"San Francisco? I guess so. I can't say I've seen too many, though.?

"Oh,?he said. I was hoping he'd ask more, but he dealt another hand and asked if we could eat. I opened the paper bag and gave him his meatball sandwich. My lunch consisted of yet another cup of blended bananas and oranges--I'd rented Mrs. Fayyaz's blender for the week. I sucked through the straw and my mouth filled with the sweet, blended fruit. Some of it dripped from the corner of my lips. Sohrab handed me a napkin and watched me dab at my lips. I smiled and he smiled back.

"Your father and I were brothers,?I said. It just came out. I had wanted to tell him the night we had sat by the mosque, but I hadn't. But he had a right to know; I didn't want to hide anything anymore. "Half brothers, really. We had the same father.?

Sohrab stopped chewing. Put the sandwich down. "Father never said he had a brother.?

"That's because he didn't know.?

"Why didn't he know??

"No one told him,?I said. "No one told me either. I just found out recently.?

Sohrab blinked. Like he was looking at me, really looking at me, for the very first time. "But why did people hide it from Father and you??

"You know, I asked myself that same question the other day. And there's an answer, but not a good one. Let's just say they didn't tell us because your father and I... we weren't supposed to be brothers.?

"Because he was a Hazara??

I willed my eyes to stay on him. "Yes.?

"Did your father,?he began, eyeing his food, "did your father love you and my father equally??

I thought of a long ago day at Ghargha Lake, when Baba had allowed himself to pat Hassan on the back when Hassan's stone had outskipped mine. I pictured Baba in the hospital room, beaming as they removed the bandages from Hassan's lips. "I think he loved us equally but differently.?

"Was he ashamed of my father??

"No,?I said. "I think he was ashamed of himself.?

He picked up his sandwich and nibbled at it silently.


WE LEFT LATE THAT AFTERNOON, tired from the heat, but tired in a pleasant way. All the way back, I felt Sohrab watching me. I had the driver pull over at a store that sold calling cards. I gave him the money and a tip for running in and buying me one.

That night, we were lying on our beds, watching a talk show on TV. Two clerics with pepper gray long beards and white turbans were taking calls from the faithful all over the world. One caller from Finland, a guy named Ayub, asked if his teenaged son could go to hell for wearing his baggy pants so low the seam of his underwear showed.

"I saw a picture of San Francisco once,?Sohrab said.

"Really??

"There was a red bridge and a building with a pointy top.?

"You should see the streets,?I said.

"What about them??He was looking at me now. On the TV screen, the two mullahs were consulting each other.

"They're so steep, when you drive up all you see is the hood of your car and the sky,?I said.

"It sounds scary,?he said. He rolled to his side, facing me, his back to the TV.

"It is the first few times,?I said. "But you get used to it.?

"Does it snow there??

"No, but we get a lot of fog. You know that red bridge you saw??

"Yes.?

"Sometimes the fog is so thick in the morning, all you see is the tip of the two towers poking through.?

There was wonder in his smile. "Oh.?

"Sohrab??

"Yes.?

"Have you given any thought to what I asked you before??

His smiled faded. He rolled to his back. Laced his hands under his head. The mullahs decided that Ayub's son would go to hell after all for wearing his pants the way he did. They claimed it was in the Haddith. "I've thought about it,?Sohrab said.

"And??

"It scares me.?

"I know it's a little scary,?I said, grabbing onto that loose thread of hope. "But you'll learn English so fast and you'll get used to--?

"That's not what I mean. That scares me too, but...

"But what??

He rolled toward me again. Drew his knees up. "What if you get tired of me? What if your wife doesn't like me??

I struggled out of bed and crossed the space between us. I sat beside him. "I won't ever get tired of you, Sohrab,?I said. "Not ever. That's a promise. You're my nephew, remember? And Soraya jan, she's a very kind woman. Trust me, she's going to love you. I promise that too.?I chanced something. Reached down and took his hand. He tightened up a little but let me hold it.

"I don't want to go to another orphanage,?he said.

"I won't ever let that happen. I promise you that.?I cupped his hand in both of mine. "Come Home with me.?

His tears were soaking the pillow. He didn't say anything for a long time. Then his hand squeezed mine back. And he nodded. He nodded.


THE CONNECTION WENT THROUGH on the fourth try. The phone rang three times before she picked it up. "Hello??It was 7:30 in the evening in Islamabad, roughly about the same time in the morning in California. That meant Soraya had been up for an hour, getting ready for school.

"It's me,?I said. I was sitting on my bed, watching Sohrab sleep.

"Amir!?she almost screamed. "Are you okay? Where are you??

"I'm in Pakistan.?

"Why didn't you call earlier? I've been sick with tashweesh! My mother's praying and doing nazr every day.?

"I'm sorry I didn't call. I'm fine now.?I had told her I'd be away a week, two at the most. I'd been gone for nearly a month. I smiled. "And tell Khala Jamila to stop killing sheep.?

"What do you mean ‘fine now? And what's wrong with your voice??

"Don't worry about that for now. I'm fine. Really. Soraya, I have a story to tell you, a story I should have told you a long time ago, but first I need to tell you one thing.?

"What is it??she said, her voice lower now, more cautious.

"I'm not coming Home alone. I'm bringing a little boy with me.?I paused. "I want us to adopt him.?

"What??

I checked my watch. "I have fifty-seven minutes left on this stupid calling card and I have so much to tell you. Sit some where.?I heard the legs of a chair dragged hurriedly across the wooden floor.

"Go ahead,?she said.

Then I did what I hadn't done in fifteen years of marriage: I told my wife everything. Everything. I had pictured this moment so many times, dreaded it, but, as I spoke, I felt something lifting off my chest. I imagined Soraya had experienced something very similar the night of our khastegari, when she'd told me about her past.

By the time I was done with my story, she was weeping.

"What do you think??I said.

"I don't know what to think, Amir. You've told me so much all at once.?

"I realize that.?

I heard her blowing her nose. "But I know this much: You have to bring him Home. I want you to.?

"Are you sure??I said, closing my eyes and smiling.

"Am I sure??she said. "Amir, he's your qaom, your family, so he's my qaom too. Of course I'm sure. You can't leave him to the streets.?There was a short pause. "What's he like??

I looked over at Sohrab sleeping on the bed. "He's sweet, in a solemn kind of way.?

"Who can blame him??she said. "I want to see him, Amir. I really do.?

"Soraya??

"Yeah.?

"Dostet darum.?I love you.

"I love you back,?she said. I could hear the smile in her words. "And be careful.?

"I will. And one more thing. Don't tell your parents who he is. If they need to know, it should come from me.?

"Okay.?

We hung up.


THE LAWN OUTSIDE the American embassy in Islamabad was neatly mowed, dotted with circular clusters of flowers, bordered by razor-straight hedges. The building itself was like a lot of buildings in Islamabad: flat and white. We passed through several road blocks to get there and three different security officials conducted a body search on me after the wires in my jaws set off the metal detectors. When we finally stepped in from the heat, the airconditioning hit my face like a splash of ice water. The secretary in the lobby, a fifty-something, lean-faced blond woman, smiled when I gave her my name. She wore a beige blouse and black slacks--the first woman I'd seen in weeks dressed in something other than a burqa or a shalwar-kameez. She looked me up on the appointment list, tapping the eraser end of her pencil on the desk. She found my name and asked me to take a seat.

"Would you like some lemonade??she asked.

"None for me, thanks,?I said.

"How about your son??

"Excuse me??

"The handsome young gentleman,?she said, smiling at Sohrab.

"Oh. That'd be nice, thank you.?

Sohrab and I sat on the black leather sofa across the reception desk, next to a tall American flag. Sohrab picked up a magazine from the glass-top Coffee table. He flipped the pages, not really looking at the pictures.

"What??Sohrab said.

"Sorry??

"You're smiling.?

"I was thinking about you,?I said.

He gave a nervous smile. Picked up another magazine and flipped through it in under thirty seconds.

"Don't be afraid,?I said, touching his arm. "These people are friendly. Relax.?I could have used my own advice. I kept shifting in my seat, untying and retying my shoelaces. The secretary placed a tall glass of lemonade with ice on the Coffee table. "There you go.?
Sohrab smiled shyly. "Thank you very much,?he said in English. It came out as "Tank you wery match.?It was the only English he knew, he'd told me, that and "Have a nice day.?

She laughed. "You're most welcome.?She walked back to her desk, high heels clicking on the floor.

"Have a nice day,?Sohrab said.


RAYMOND ANDREWS was a short fellow with small hands, nails perfectly trimmed, wedding band on the ring finger. He gave me a curt little shake; it felt like squeezing a sparrow. Those are the hands that hold our fates, I thought as Sohrab and I seated our selves across from his desk. A _Les Misérables_ poster was nailed to the wall behind Andrews next to a topographical map of the U.S. A pot of tomato plants basked in the sun on the windowsill.

"Smoke??he asked, his voice a deep baritone that was at odds with his slight stature.

"No thanks,?I said, not caring at all for the way Andrews's eyes barely gave Sohrab a glance, or the way he didn't look at me when he spoke. He pulled open a desk drawer and lit a cigarette from a half-empty pack. He also produced a bottle of lotion from the same drawer. He looked at his tomato plants as he rubbed lotion into his hands, cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. Then he closed the drawer, put his elbows on the desktop, and exhaled. "So,?he said, crinkling his gray eyes against the smoke, "tell me your story.?

I felt like Jean Valjean sitting across from Javert. I reminded myself that I was on American soil now, that this guy was on my side, that he got paid for helping people like me. "I want to adopt this boy, take him back to the States with me,?I said.

"Tell me your story,?he repeated, crushing a flake of ash on the neatly arranged desk with his index finger, flicking it into the trash can.

I gave him the version I had worked out in my head since I'd hung up with Soraya. I had gone into Afghanistan to bring back my half brother's son. I had found the boy in squalid conditions, wasting away in an orphanage. I had paid the orphanage director a sum of money and withdrawn the boy. Then I had brought him to Pakistan.

"You are the boy's half uncle??

"Yes.?

He checked his watch. Leaned and turned the tomato plants on the sill. "Know anyone who can attest to that??

"Yes, but I don't know where he is now.?

He turned to me and nodded. I tried to read his face and couldn't. I wondered if he'd ever tried those little hands of his at poker.

"I assume getting your jaws wired isn't the latest fashion statement,?he said. We were in trouble, Sohrab and I, and I knew it then. I told him I'd gotten mugged in Peshawar.

"Of course,?he said. Cleared his throat. "Are you Muslim??

"Yes.?

"Practicing??

"Yes.?In truth, I didn't remember the last time I had laid my forehead to the ground in prayer. Then I did remember: the day Dr. Amani gave Baba his prognosis. I had kneeled on the prayer rug, remembering only fragments of verses I had learned in school.

"Helps your case some, but not much,?he said, scratching a spot on the flawless part in his sandy hair.

"What do you mean??I asked. I reached for Sohrab's hand, intertwined my fingers with his. Sohrab looked uncertainly from me to Andrews.

"There's a long answer and I'm sure I'll end up giving it to you. You want the short one first??

"I guess,?I said.

Andrews crushed his cigarette, his lips pursed. "Give it up.?

"I'm sorry??

"Your petition to adopt this young fellow. Give it up. That's my advice to you.?

"Duly noted,?I said. "Now, perhaps you'll tell me why.?

"That means you want the long answer,?he said, his voice impassive, not reacting at all to my curt tone. He pressed his hands palm to palm, as if he were kneeling before the Virgin Mary. "Let's assume the story you gave me is true, though I'd bet my pension a good deal of it is either fabricated or omitted. Not that I care, mind you. You're here, he's here, that's all that matters. Even so, your petition faces significant obstacles, not the least of which is that this child is not an orphan.?

"Of course he is.?

"Not legally he isn't.?

"His parents were executed in the street. The neighbors saw it,?I said, glad we were speaking in English.

"You have death certificates??

"Death certificates? This is Afghanistan we're talking about. Most people there don't have birth certificates.?

His glassy eyes didn't so much as blink. "I don't make the laws, sir. Your outrage notwithstanding, you still need to prove the parents are deceased. The boy has to be declared a legal orphan.?

"But--?

"You wanted the long answer and I'm giving it to you. Your next problem is that you need the cooperation of the child's country of origin. Now, that's difficult under the best of circumstances, and, to quote you, this is Afghanistan we're talking about. We don't have an American embassy in Kabul. That makes things extremely complicated. Just about impossible.?

"What are you saying, that I should throw him back on the streets??I said.

"I didn't say that.?

"He was sexually abused,?I said, thinking of the bells around Sohrab's ankles, the mascara on his eyes.

"I'm sorry to hear that,?Andrews's mouth said. The way he was looking at me, though, we might as well have been talking about the weather. "But that is not going to make the INS issue this young fellow a visa.?

"What are you saying??

"I'm saying that if you want to help, send money to a reputable relief organization. Volunteer at a refugee camp. But at this point in time, we strongly discourage U.S. citizens from attempting to adopt Afghan children.?

I got up. "Come on, Sohrab,?I said in Farsi. Sohrab slid next to me, rested his head on my hip. I remembered the Polaroid of him and Hassan standing that same way. "Can I ask you some thing, Mr. Andrews??

"Yes.?

"Do you have children??

For the first time, he blinked.

"Well, do you? It's a simple question.?

He was silent.

"I thought so,?I said, taking Sohrab's hand. "They ought to put someone in your chair who knows what it's like to want a child.?I turned to go, Sohrab trailing me.

"Can I ask you a question??Andrews called.

"Go ahead.?

"Have you promised this child you'll take him with you??

"What if I have??

He shook his head. "It's a dangerous Business, making promises to kids.?He sighed and opened his desk drawer again. "You mean to pursue this??he said, rummaging through papers.

"I mean to pursue this.?

He produced a Business card. "Then I advise you to get a good immigration lawyer. Omar Faisal works here in Islamabad. You can tell him I sent you.?

I took the card from him. "Thanks,?I muttered.

"Good luck,?he said. As we exited the room, I glanced over my shoulder. Andrews was standing in a rectangle of sunlight, absently staring out the window, his hands turning the potted tomato plants toward the sun, petting them lovingly.

"TAKE CARE,?the secretary said as we passed her desk.

"Your boss could use some manners,?I said. I expected her to roll her eyes, maybe nod in that "I know, everybody says that,?kind of way. Instead, she lowered her voice. "Poor Ray. He hasn't been the same since his daughter died.?

I raised an eyebrow.

"Suicide,?she whispered.


ON THE TAXI RIDE back to the hotel, Sohrab rested his head on the window, kept staring at the passing buildings, the rows of gum trees. His breath fogged the glass, cleared, fogged it again. I waited for him to ask me about the meeting but he didn't.


ON THE OTHER SIDE of the closed bathroom door the water was running. Since the day we'd checked into the hotel, Sohrab took a long bath every night before bed. In Kabul, hot running water had been like fathers, a rare commodity. Now Sohrab spent almost an hour a night in the bath, soaking in the soapy water, scrubbing. Sitting on the edge of the bed, I called Soraya. I glanced at the thin line of light under the bathroom door. Do you feel clean yet, Sohrab?

I passed on to Soraya what Raymond Andrews had told me. "So what do you think??I said.

"We have to think he's wrong.?She told me she had called a few adoption agencies that arranged international adoptions. She hadn't yet found one that would consider doing an Afghan adoption, but she was still looking.

"How are your parents taking the news??

"Madar is happy for us. You know how she feels about you, Amir, you can do no wrong in her eyes. Padar... well, as always, he's a little harder to read. He's not saying much.?

"And you? Are you happy??

I heard her shifting the receiver to her other hand. "I think we'll be good for your nephew, but maybe that little boy will be good for us too.?

"I was thinking the same thing.?

"I know it sounds crazy, but I find myself wondering what his favorite _qurma_ will be, or his favorite subject in school. I picture myself helping him with Homework...?She laughed. In the bathroom, the water had stopped running. I could hear Sohrab in there, shifting in the tub, spilling water over the sides.

"You're going to be great,?I said.

"Oh, I almost forgot! I called Kaka Sharif.?

I remembered him reciting a poem at our nika from a scrap of hotel stationery paper. His son had held the Koran over our heads as Soraya and I had walked toward the stage, smiling at the flashing cameras. "What did he say??

"Well, he's going to stir the pot for us. He'll call some of his INS buddies,?she said.

"That's really great news,?I said. "I can't wait for you to see Sohrab.?

"I can't wait to see you,?she said.

I hung up smiling.

Sohrab emerged from the bathroom a few minutes later. He had barely said a dozen words since the meeting with Raymond Andrews and my attempts at conversation had only met with a nod or a monosyllabic reply. He climbed into bed, pulled the blanket to his chin. Within minutes, he was snoring.

I wiped a circle on the fogged-up mirror and shaved with one of the hotel's old-fashioned razors, the type that opened and you slid the blade in. Then I took my own bath, lay there until the steaming hot water turned cold and my skin shriveled up. I lay there drifting, wondering, imagining...


OMAR FAISAL WAS CHUBBY, dark, had dimpled cheeks, black button eyes, and an affable, gap-toothed smile. His thinning gray hair was tied back in a ponytail. He wore a brown corduroy suit with leather elbow patches and carried a worn, overstuffed briefcase. The handle was missing, so he clutched the briefcase to his chest. He was the sort of fellow who started a lot of sentences with a laugh and an unnecessary apology, like I'm sorry, I'll be there at five. Laugh. When I had called him, he had insisted on coming out to meet us. "I'm sorry, the cabbies in this town are sharks,?he said in perfect English, without a trace of an accent. "They smell a foreigner, they triple their fares.?

He pushed through the door, all smiles and apologies, wheezing a little and sweating. He wiped his brow with a handkerchief and opened his briefcase, rummaged in it for a notepad and apologized for the sheets of paper that spilled on the bed. Sitting crosslegged on his bed, Sohrab kept one eye on the muted television, the other on the harried lawyer. I had told him in the morning that Faisal would be coming and he had nodded, almost asked some thing, and had just gone on watching a show with talking animals.

"Here we are,?Faisal said, flipping open a yellow legal notepad. "I hope my children take after their mother when it comes to organization. I'm sorry, probably not the sort of thing you want to hear from your prospective lawyer, heh??He laughed.

"Well, Raymond Andrews thinks highly of you.?

"Mr. Andrews. Yes, yes. Decent fellow. Actually, he rang me and told me about you.?

"He did??

"Oh yes.?

"So you're familiar with my situation.?

Faisal dabbed at the sweat beads above his lips. "I'm familiar with the version of the situation you gave Mr. Andrews,?he said. His cheeks dimpled with a coy smile. He turned to Sohrab. "This must be the young man who's causing all the trouble,?he said in Farsi.

"This is Sohrab,?I said. "Sohrab, this is Mr. Faisal, the lawyer I told you about.?

Sohrab slid down the side of his bed and shook hands with Omar Faisal. "Salaam alaykum,?he said in a low voice.

"Alaykum salaam, Sohrab,?Faisal said. "Did you know you are named after a great warrior??

Sohrab nodded. Climbed back onto his bed and lay on his side to watch TV.

"I didn't know you spoke Farsi so well,?I said in English. "Did you grow up in Kabul??

"No, I was born in Karachi. But I did live in Kabul for a number of years. Shar-e-Nau, near the Haji Yaghoub Mosque,?Faisal said. "I grew up in Berkeley, actually. My father opened a music store there in the late sixties. Free love, headbands, tiedyed shirts, you name it.?He leaned forward. "I was at Woodstock.?

"Groovy,?I said, and Faisal laughed so hard he started sweating all over again. "Anyway,?I continued, "what I told Mr. Andrews was pretty much it, save for a thing or two. Or maybe three. I'll give you the uncensored version.?

He licked a finger and flipped to a blank page, uncapped his pen. "I'd appreciate that, Amir. And why don't we just keep it in English from here on out??

"Fine.?

I told him everything that had happened. Told him about my meeting with Rahim Khan, the trek to Kabul, the orphanage, the stoning at Ghazi Stadium.

"God,?he whispered. "I'm sorry, I have such fond memories of Kabul. Hard to believe it's the same place you're telling me about.?

"Have you been there lately??

"God no.?

"It's not Berkeley, I'll tell you that,?I said.

"Go on.?

I told him the rest, the meeting with Assef, the fight, Sohrab and his slingshot, our escape back to Pakistan. When I was done, he scribbled a few notes, breathed in deeply, and gave me a sober look. "Well, Amir, you've got a tough battle ahead of you.?

"One I can win??

He capped his pen. "At the risk of sounding like Raymond Andrews, it's not likely. Not impossible, but hardly likely.?Gone was the affable smile, the playful look in his eyes.

"But it's kids like Sohrab who need a Home the most,?I said. "These rules and regulations don't make any sense to me.?

"You're preaching to the choir, Amir,?he said. "But the fact is, take current immigration laws, adoption agency policies, and the political situation in Afghanistan, and the deck is stacked against you.?

"I don't get it,?I said. I wanted to hit something. "I mean, I get it but I don't get it.?

Omar nodded, his brow furrowed. "Well, it's like this. In the aftermath of a disaster, whether it be natural or man-made--and the Taliban are a disaster, Amir, believe me--it's always difficult to ascertain that a child is an orphan. Kids get displaced in refugee camps, or parents just abandon them because they can't take care of them. Happens all the time. So the INS won't grant a visa unless it's clear the child meets the definition of an eligible orphan. I'm sorry, I know it sounds ridiculous, but you need death certificates.?

"You've been to Afghanistan,?I said. "You know how improbable that is.?

"I know,?he said. "But let's suppose it's clear that the child has no surviving parent. Even then, the INS thinks it's good adoption practice to place the child with someone in his own country so his heritage can be preserved.?

"What heritage??I said. "The Taliban have destroyed what heritage Afghans had. You saw what they did to the giant Buddhas in Bamiyan.?

"I'm sorry, I'm telling you how the INS works, Amir,?Omar said, touching my arm. He glanced at Sohrab and smiled. Turned back to me. "Now, a child has to be legally adopted according to the laws and regulations of his own country. But when you have a country in turmoil, say a country like Afghanistan, government offices are busy with emergencies, and processing adoptions won't be a top priority.?

I sighed and rubbed my eyes. A pounding headache was settling in just behind them.

"But let's suppose that somehow Afghanistan gets its act together,?Omar said, crossing his arms on his protruding belly. "It still may not permit this adoption. In fact, even the more moderate Muslim nations are hesitant with adoptions because in many of those countries, Islamic law, Shari'a, doesn't recognize adoption.?

"You're telling me to give it up??I asked, pressing my palm to my forehead.

"I grew up in the U.S., Amir. If America taught me anything, it's that quitting is right up there with pissing in the Girl Scouts?lemonade jar. But, as your lawyer, I have to give you the facts,?he said. "Finally, adoption agencies routinely send staff members to evaluate the child's milieu, and no reasonable agency is going to send an agent to Afghanistan.?

I looked at Sohrab sitting on the bed, watching TV, watching us. He was sitting the way his father used to, chin resting on one knee.

"I'm his half uncle, does that count for anything??

"It does if you can prove it. I'm sorry, do you have any papers or anyone who can support you??

"No papers,?I said, in a tired voice. "No one knew about it. Sohrab didn't know until I told him, and I myself didn't find out until recently. The only other person who knows is gone, maybe dead.?

"What are my options, Omar??

"I'll be frank. You don't have a lot of them.?

"Well, Jesus, what can I do??

Omar breathed in, tapped his chin with the pen, let his breath out. "You could still file an orphan petition, hope for the best. You could do an independent adoption. That means you'd have to live with Sohrab here in Pakistan, day in and day out, for the next two years. You could seek asylum on his behalf. That's a lengthy process and you'd have to prove political persecution. You could request a humanitarian visa. That's at the discretion of the attorney general and it's not easily given.?He paused. "There is another option, probably your best shot.?

"What??I said, leaning forward.

"You could relinquish him to an orphanage here, then file an orphan petition. Start your I-600 form and your Home study while he's in a safe place.?

"What are those??

"I'm sorry, the 1-600 is an INS formality. The Home study is done by the adoption agency you choose,?Omar said. "It's, you know, to make sure you and your wife aren't raving lunatics.?

"I don't want to do that,?I said, looking again at Sohrab. "I promised him I wouldn't send him back to an orphanage.?

"Like I said, it may be your best shot.?

We talked a while longer. Then I walked him out to his car, an old VW Bug. The sun was setting on Islamabad by then, a flaming red nimbus in the west. I watched the car tilt under Omar's weight as he somehow managed to slide in behind the wheel. He rolled down the window. "Amir??

"Yes.?

"I meant to tell you in there, about what you're trying to do? I think it's pretty great.?
He waved as he pulled away. Standing outside the hotel room and waving back, I wished Soraya could be there with me.


SOHRAB HAD TURNED OFF THE TV when l went back into the room. I sat on the edge of my bed, asked him to sit next to me. "Mr. Faisal thinks there is a way I can take you to America with me,?I said.

"He does??Sohrab said, smiling faintly for the first time in days. "When can we go??

"Well, that's the thing. It might take a little while. But he said it can be done and he's going to help us.?I put my hand on the back of his neck. From outside, the call to prayer blared through the streets.

"How long??Sohrab asked.

"I don't know. A while.?

Sohrab shrugged and smiled, wider this time. "I don't mind. I can wait. It's like the sour apples.?

"Sour apples??

"One time, when I was really little, I climbed a tree and ate these green, sour apples. My stomach swelled and became hard like a drum, it hurt a lot. Mother said that if I'd just waited for the apples to ripen, I wouldn't have become sick. So now, whenever I really want something, I try to remember what she said about the apples.?

"Sour apples,?I said. "_Mashallah_, you're just about the smartest little guy I've ever met, Sohrab jan.?His ears reddened with a blush.

"Will you take me to that red bridge? The one with the fog??he said.

"Absolutely,?I said. "Absolutely.?

"And we'll drive up those streets, the ones where all you see is the hood of the car and the sky??

"Every single one of them,?I said. My eyes stung with tears and I blinked them away.

"Is English hard to learn??

"I say, within a year, you'll speak it as well as Farsi.?

"Really??

"Yes.?I placed a finger under his chin, turned his face up to mine. "There is one other thing, Sohrab.?

"What??

"Well, Mr. Faisal thinks that it would really help if we could... if we could ask you to stay in a Home for kids for a while.?

"Home for kids??he said, his smile fading. "You mean an orphanage??

"It would only be for a little while.?

"No,?he said. "No, please.?

"Sohrab, it would be for just a little while. I promise.?

"You promised you'd never put me in one of those places, Amir agha,?he said. His voice was breaking, tears pooling in his eyes. I felt like a prick.

"This is different. It would be here, in Islamabad, not in Kabul. And I'd visit you all the time until we can get you out and take you to America.?

"Please! Please, no!?he croaked. "I'm scared of that place. They'll hurt me! I don't want to go.?

"No one is going to hurt you. Not ever again.?

"Yes they will! They always say they won't but they lie. They lie! Please, God!?

I wiped the tear streaking down his cheek with my thumb. "Sour apples, remember? It's just like the sour apples,?I said softly.

"No it's not. Not that place. God, oh God. Please, no!?He was trembling, snot and tears mixing on his face.

"Shhh.?I pulled him close, wrapped my arms around his shaking little body. "Shhh. It'll be all right. We'll go Home together. You'll see, it'll be all right.?

His voice was muffled against my chest, but I heard the panic in it. "Please promise you won't! Oh God, Amir agha! Please promise you won't!?

How could I promise? I held him against me, held him tightly, and rocked badk and forth. He wept into my shirt until his tears dried, until his shaking stopped and his frantic pleas dwindled to indecipherable mumbles. I waited, rocked him until his breathing slowed and his body slackened. I remembered something I had read somewhere a long time ago: That's how children deal with terror. They fall asleep.

I carried him to his bed, set him down. Then I lay in my own bed, looking out the window at the purple sky over Islamabad.


THE SKY WAS A DEEP BLACK when the phone jolted me from sleep. I rubbed my eyes and turned on the bedside lamp. It was a little past 10:30 P.M.; I'd been sleeping for almost three hours. I picked up the phone. "Hello??

"Call from America.?Mr. Fayyaz's bored voice.

"Thank you,?I said. The bathroom light was on; Sohrab was taking his nightly bath. A couple of clicks and then Soraya:

"Salaam!?She sounded excited.

"How did the meeting go with the lawyer??

I told her what Omar Faisal had suggested. "Well, you can forget about it,?she said. "We won't have to do that.?

I sat up. "Rawsti? Why, what's up??

"I heard back from Kaka Sharif. He said the key was getting Sohrab into the country. Once he's in, there are ways of keeping him here. So he made a few calls to his INS friends. He called me back tonight and said he was almost certain he could get Sohrab a humanitarian visa.?

"No kidding??I said. "Oh thank God! Good ol?Sharifjan!?

"I know. Anyway, we'll serve as the sponsors. It should all happen pretty quickly. He said the visa would be good for a year, plenty of time to apply for an adoption petition.?

"It's really going to happen, Soraya, huh??

"It looks like it,?she said. She sounded happy. I told her I loved her and she said she loved me back. I hung up.

"Sohrab!?I called, rising from my bed. "I have great news.?I knocked on the bathroom door. "Sohrab! Soraya jan just called from California. We won't have to put you in the orphanage, Sohrab. We're going to America, you and I. Did you hear me? We're going to America!?

I pushed the door open. Stepped into the bathroom.

Suddenly I was on my knees, screaming. Screaming through my clenched teeth. Screaming until I thought my throat would rip and my chest explode.

Later, they said I was still screaming when the ambulance arrived.



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