On the drive to Kabul Amir is horrified by the results of two wars – old burned-out Soviet tanks, overturned Russian jeeps, destroyed villages. When they reach Kabul, Amir does not even recognize it as his old home. Rubble and orphaned beggars are everywhere, and the trees have all been cut down. The Soviets cut them down because they could hide snipers, and then the Afghans cut them down for firewood. There are no more kites, and the streets smell like diesel instead of lamb kabob.
Kabul is like a post-apocalyptic landscape, and totally transformed from the place Amir grew up. Anything that might signal normalcy – even trees – have been destroyed, so the place seems even more nightmarishly barren. The wars have taken the lives of many men, so there are lots of orphans without fathers – Sohrab is one of these.
A Taliban patrol approaches in a red pickup truck, with a few bearded men in the back with AK-47s. Amir can’t help staring at them in terror. Once they pass, Farid angrily warns Amir not to stare at them again, as the Taliban will use even the slightest provocation as an excuse for violence.
The Taliban are the latest “rapists” of Afghanistan with their brutal regime. They are all bearded and checking Amir for his (fake) beard, as under their interpretation of Islam, a man without a beard is breaking the law.
An old beggar agrees with Farid’s warning, and Amir starts to speak to him. The beggar talks about how the Taliban were first welcomed as heroes, and he quotes the poet Hafez. Amir recognizes the line, and the beggar explains that he used to teach literature at the university. He knew Amir’s mother (who was also a teacher), Sofia Akrami, and Amir begs him for details about her, as Baba rarely spoke of her. The beggar cannot remember much, however, and soon Farid and Amir have to go. Amir muses on how the coincidence of meeting such a man should seem unlikely, but Afghans all know at least someone in common.
The beggar who was once a professor highlights the tragic decline of Afghanistan. The fact that he knew Amir’s mother is another painful reminder that this broken city is the place of Amir’s idyllic childhood – this was once a beautiful, peaceful place, and now it is home only to violence and poverty. The beggar’s memories are the most we learn about Amir’s mother, and apparently the most Amir learns too, as Baba told him very little about her.
Amir and Farid find the new orphanage (which replaced Baba’s, which was destroyed) where Sohrab is supposed to be. The director, Zaman, is very wary of their questions and at first pretends he has never seen Sohrab. Only after Amir explains that he is Sohrab’s half-uncle and reveals some defining details about Sohrab does Zaman let them in.
Zaman’s wariness is an ominous sign, implying that grown men come to orphanage for more nefarious reasons. Baba’s orphanage has been destroyed, which is another personal blow to Amir’s memory.
Zaman says that many of the children there are not true orphans, but this place is better than what their widowed mothers could provide for them, as the Taliban forbid women to work. The building was once a warehouse for a carpet manufacturer, and there are not enough beds or blankets for the hundreds of children. A girl had frozen to death there last winter.
More examples of how the Taliban’s strict religious laws bring real suffering to many citizens. Widowed mothers are forbidden from working, and so they must send their children away to the unequipped orphanage or else watch them starve.
Zaman takes Amir and Farid to his office and says he has bad news – Sohrab is no longer there, and it may be too late for him. He is hesitant to say more because the information he has is secret and dangerous, but Amir presses him. Zaman explains that there is a Taliban official who comes to the orphanage occasionally and pays to take a child away with him. Farid accuses Zaman of selling the children, and he attacks Zaman. He almost strangles Zaman to death until Amir points out that the children are watching.
Though the Taliban justifies its violence with religious dogma, it is clear from Zaman’s horrible revelation that the Muslim language is a thin cover for corruption and sin. Once again the powerful are taking advantage of the weak, and this is the most extreme example yet – an adult government official abusing an orphaned child.
Zaman gets up, choking, and says that the official took Sohrab a month ago. Zaman explains that he has no power against the Taliban, and the money helps him feed the children – he has already spent all his life savings on the orphanage. Amir asks how to find the official, and Zaman says he will be at the soccer game at Ghazi Stadium the next day, wearing black sunglasses. Amir and Farid leave as the children gather around Zaman.
Just like Hassan was helpless against Assef, so Zaman is helpless against the Taliban. He can only choose the lesser of two evils, as he has no way to feed the children on his own. Once again, Hosseini shows that there is no easy answer to achieve redemption and make things better, as the violence and corruption in Afghanistan are complex and multi-layered.