Even in birth, Hassan was true to his nature: He was incapable of hurting anyone. A few grunts, a couple of pushes, and out Hassan came. Out he came smiling.
..though he never translated the words for us, he did stress, sometimes with the help of a stripped willow branch, that we had to pronounce the Arabic words correctly so God would hear us better.
“…there is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft…when you kill a man, you steal a life…you steal his wife’s right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness…there is no act more wretched than stealing…a man who takes what’s not his to take, be it a life or a loaf of naan…I spit on such a man. And if I ever cross paths with him, God help him…”
“Real men didn’t read poetry—and God forbid they should ever write it! Real men—real boys—played soccer just as Baba had done when he had been young…”
“Children aren’t coloring books. You don’t get to fill them in with your favorite colors…”
“A boy who won’t stand up for himself becomes a man who can’t stand up for anything.”
The shootings and explosions had lasted less than an hour, but they had frightened us badly, because none of us had ever heard gunshots in the streets. They were foreign sounds to us then. The generation of Afghan children whose ears would know nothing but the sounds of bombs and gunfire was not yet born.
The Hindi kid would soon learn what the British learned earlier in the century, and what the Russians would eventually learn by the late 1980’s: that Afghans are an independent people. Afghans cherish custom but abhor rules.
To this day, I find it hard to gaze directly at people like Hassan, people who mean every word they say….And that’s the thing about people who mean everything they say. They think everyone else does too.
“It hurts to say that..but better to get hurt by the truth than comforted with a lie.”
Hassan couldn’t read a first-grade textbook but he’d read me plenty.
You couldn’t trust anyone in Kabul anymore–for a fee or under threat, people told on each other, neighbor on neighbor, child on parent, brother on brother, servant on master, friend on friend…The rafiqs, the comrades…split Kabul into two groups: those who eavesdropped and those who didn’t. The tricky part was that no one knew who belonged to which.
“He says this is war. There is no shame in war.”
“Tell him he’s wrong. War doesn’t negate decency. It demands it, even more than in times of peace.”
Not a word passes between us, not because we have nothing to say, but because we don’t have to say anything–that’s how it is between people who are each other’s first memories..
Baba loved the idea of America. It was living in America that gave him an ulcer.
“He’s not fit to run this country. It’s like putting a boy who can’t ride a bike behind the wheel of a brand new Cadillac.”
..in Kabul, we snapped a tree branch and used it as a credit card. He’d carve notches..one notch for each loaf of naan..At the end of the month, my father paid him for the number of notches on the stick. That was it. No questions. No ID.
America was different. America was a river, roaring along, unmindful of the past…If for nothing else, for that, I embraced America.
The only thing that flowed more than tea in those aisles was Afghan gossip.
Sometimes I think the only thing he loved as much as his late wife was Afghanistan, his late country.
Khala Jamila made no secret of how much she adored me. For one thing, I listened to her impressive list of maladies..ever since her mother’s stroke, every flutter in her chest was a heart attack, every aching joint of the eye another stroke…
“Your khala’s medical charts are like works of Rumi: They come in volumes.”
I had relieved her of the greatest fear of every Afghan mother: that no honorable khastegar would ask for her daughter’s hand. That her daughter would age alone, husbandless, childless. Every woman needed a husband. Even if he did silence the song in her.
“..time can be a greedy thing—sometimes it steals all the details for itself.”
“The streets are full enough already of hungry orphans and every day I thank Allah that I am alive, not because I fear death, but because my wife has a husband and my son is not an orphan.”
“Children are fragile, Amir jan. Kabul is already full of broken children and I don’t want Sohrab to become another.”
“All that a man had back then, all that he was, was his honor, his name, and if people talked…”
“Khar khara mishnassah..takes a donkey to know a donkey”
“Forgive us, Amir agha…since childhood, my brother’s mouth has been two steps ahead of his head.”
After all these years, I was home again, standing on the soil of my ancestors. This was the soil on which my great-grandfather had married his third wife a year before dying in the cholera epidemic that hit Kabul in 1915…it was on this soil that my grandfather had gone on a hunting trip with King Nadir Shah and shot a deer. My mother had died on this soil. And on this soil, I had fought for my father’s love…The kinship I felt suddenly for the old land…it surprised me. I’d been gone long enough to forget and be forgotten. I had a home in a land that might as well be in another galaxy to the people sleeping on the other side of the wall I leaned against. I thought I had forgotten about this land. But I hadn’t. And, under the bony glow of a half-moon, I sensed Afghanistan humming under my feet. Maybe Afghanistan hadn’t forgotten me either.
And something else 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.
A sadness came over me. Returning to Kabul was like running into an old, forgotten friend and seeing that life hadn’t been too good for him, that he’s become homeless and destitute.
This 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.
“Don’t ever stare at them! Do you understand me? Never!….you might as well poke a rabid dog with a stick…..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 Taliban are near….”
“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.”
But like the poet says: ‘How seamless seemed love and then came trouble!’
‘The desert weed lives on, but the flower of spring blooms and wilts.’ Such grace, such dignity, such a tragedy.”
“I’m so afraid…Because I’m profoundly happy…Happiness like this is frightening…They only let you be this happy if they’re preparing to take something from you…”
Walking back from the truck, neither 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.”
“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…”
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.
“Agha, did you hear what Mullah Nasruddin did when his daughter came home and complained that her husband had beaten her?…He beat her too, then sent her back to tell the husband that the Mullah was no fool: if the bastard was going to beat his daughter, then Mullah would beat his wife in return.”
“Did you hear about the time Mullah had placed a heavy bag on his shoulders and was riding his donkey?…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 for the poor thing.’”
“Piss on the beards of all those self-righteous monkeys. They do nothing but thumb their rosaries and recite a book written in a language they don’t even understand. God help us all if Afghanistan ever falls in their hands.”
“Public justice is the greatest kind of show, my brother. Drama. Suspense. And, best of all, education en masse.”
“You don’t know the meaning of the word ‘liberating’ until you’ve done that, stood in a roomful of targets, let the bullets fly, free of guilt and remorse, knowing you are virtuous, good, and decent. Knowing you’re doing God’s work. It’s breathtaking.” He kissed his prayer beads…
One of the guards pressed a button and Pashtu music filled the room. Tabla, harmonium, the whine of a dil-roba. I guessed music wasn’t sinful as long as it played to Taliban ears. The three men began to clap.
There are a lot of children in Afghanistan, but little childhood.
A kinship exists between people who’ve fed from the same breast.
“I grew up in the US, Amir. If America taught me anything, it’s that quitting is right up there with pissing in the Girl Scout’s lemonade jar.”
Then I realized something: That last thought had brought no sting with it…I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded, not with fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.
It would be erroneous to say Sohrab was quiet. Quiet is peace. Tranquility. Quiet is turning down the VOLUME knob on life. Silence is pushing the OFF button. Shutting it down. All of it. Sohrab’s silence wasn’t self-imposed silence of those with convictions, of protesters who seek to speak their cause by not speaking at all. It was the silence of one who has taken cover in a dark place, curled up all the edges and tucked them under. He didn’t so much live with us as occupy space. And precious little of it…he walked like he was afraid to leave behind footprints. He moved as if not to stir the air around him…
…soon after we arrived in the US, Baba started grumbling about American flies. He’d sit at the kitchen table with his fly-swatter, watch the flies darting from wall to wall, buzzing here, buzzing there, harried and rushed. “In this country, even flies are pressed for time,” he’d groan.
It was only a smile, nothing more. It didn’t make everything all right. It didn’t make anything all right. Only a smile. A tiny thing. A leaf in the woods, shaking in the wake of a startled bird’s flight. But I’ll take it. With open arms. Because when spring comes, it melts the snow one flake at a time, and maybe I just witnessed the first flake melting.