That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realize I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years.
Because the truth of it was, I always felt like Baba hated me a little. And why not? After all, I had killed his beloved wife, his beautiful princess, hadn’t I? The least I could have done was to have had the decency to have turned out a little more like him. But I hadn’t turned out like him.
“And where is he headed?” Baba said. “A boy who won’t stand up for himself becomes a man who can’t stand up to anything.”
The curious thing was, I never thought of Hassan and me as friends either… Never mind that we spent entire winters flying kites, running kites. Never mind that to me, the face of Afghanistan is that of a boy with a thin-boned frame… a boy with Chinese doll face perpetually lit by a harelipped smile. Never mind any of these things. Because history isn’t easy to overcome. Neither is religion. In the end, I was a Pashtun and he was a Hazara, I was Sunni and he was Shi’a, and nothing was ever going to change that.
I was going to win, and I was going to run that last kite. Then I’d bring it home and show it to Baba. Show him once and for all that his son was worthy.
He stopped, turned. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “For you a thousand times over!” he said. Then he smiled his Hassan smile and disappeared around the corner. The next time I saw him smile unabashedly like that was twenty-six years later, in a faded Polaroid photograph.
“But before you sacrifice yourself for him, think about this: Would he do the same for you? Have you ever wondered why he never includes you in games when he has guests? Why he only plays with you when no one else is around? I’ll tell you why, Hazara. Because to him, you’re nothing but an ugly pet…”
“Amir agha and I are friends,” Hassan said.
In the end, I ran.
I ran because I was a coward. I was afraid of Assef and what he would do to me… I actually aspired to cowardice, because the alternative, the real reason I was running, was that Assef was right: Nothing was free in this world. Maybe Hassan was the price I had to pay, the lamb I had to slay, to win Baba. Was it a fair price? The answer floated to my conscious mind before I could thwart it: He was just a Hazara, wasn’t he?
I thought about Hassan’s dream, the one about us swimming in the lake. There is no monster, he’d said, just water. Except he’d been wrong about that. There was a monster in the lake… I was that monster.
I flinched, like I’d been slapped… Then I understood: This was Hassan’s final sacrifice for me… And that led to another understanding: Hassan knew. He knew I’d seen everything in that alley, that I’d stood there and done nothing. He knew I had betrayed him and yet he was rescuing me once again, maybe for the last time.
In the morning, Jalaluddin… would probably think we’d gone out for a stroll or a drive. We hadn’t told him. 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.
Long before the Roussi army marched into Afghanistan, long before villages were burned and schools destroyed… Kabul had become a city of ghosts for me. A city of harelipped ghosts.
America was different. America was a river, roaring along, unmindful of the past. I could wade into this river, let my sins drown to the bottom, let the waters carry me someplace far. Someplace with no ghosts, no memories, and no sins.
I envied her. Her secret was out. Spoken. Dealt with. I opened my mouth and almost told her how I’d betrayed Hassan, lied, driven him out, and destroyed a forty-year relationship between Baba and Ali. But I didn’t.
Listening to them, I realized how much of who I was, what I was, had been defined by Baba and the marks he had left on people’s lives… Now he was gone. Baba couldn’t show me the way anymore; I’d have to find it on my own.
As I drove, I wondered why I was different. Maybe it was because I had been raised by men; I hadn’t grown up around women and had never been exposed firsthand to the double standard with which Afghan society sometimes treated them… But I think a big part of the reason I didn’t care about Soraya’s past was that I had one of my own. I knew all about regret.
My suspicions had been right all those years. He knew about Assef, the kite, the money, the watch with the lightning bolt hands. He had always known.
Come. There is a way to be good again, Rahim Khan had said on the phone just before hanging up.
“The war is over, Hassan,” I said. “There’s going to be peace, Inshallah, and happiness and calm. No more rockets, no more killing, no more funerals!” But he just turned off the radio and asked if he could get me anything before he went to bed.
A few weeks later, the Taliban banned kite fighting. And two years later, in 1998, they massacred the Hazaras in Mazar-i-Sharif.
“You know, Rahim Khan said, “one time, when you weren’t around, your father and I were talking… I remember he said to me, ‘Rahim, a boy who won’t stand up for himself becomes a man who can’t stand up to anything.’ I wonder, is that what you’ve become?”
As it turned out, Baba and I were more alike than I’d ever known. We had both betrayed the people who would have given their lives for us. And with that came this realization: that Rahim Khan had summoned me here to atone not just for my sins but for Baba’s too.
He pointed to an old man dressed in ragged clothes trudging down a dirt path, a large burlap sack filled with scrub grass tied to his back. “That’s the real Afghanistan, Agha sahib. That’s the Afghanistan I know. You? You’ve always been a tourist here, you just didn’t know it.”
“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.
What was the old saying about the bad penny? My past was like that, always turning up. His name rose from the deep and I didn’t want to say it, as if uttering it might conjure him. But he was already here, in the flesh, sitting less than ten feet from me, after all these years. His name escaped my lips: “Assef.”
Another rib snapped, this time lower. What was so funny was that, for the first time since the winter of 1975, I felt at peace. I laughed because I saw that, in some hidden nook in the corner of my mind, I’d even been looking forward to this… My body was broken – just how badly I wouldn’t find out until later – but I felt healed.
I loved him because he was my friend, but also because he was a good man, maybe even a great man. And this is what I want you to understand, that good, real good, was born out of your father’s remorse. Sometimes, I think everything he did, feeding the poor on the streets, building the orphanage, giving money to friends in need, it was all his way of redeeming himself. And that, I believe, is what true redemption is, Amir jan, when guilt leads to good.
Your father, like you, was a tortured soul, Rahim Khan had written. Maybe so. We had both sinned and betrayed. But Baba had found a way to create good out of his remorse. What had I done, other than take my guilt out on the very same people I had betrayed, and then try to forget it all?
“Sohrab, I can’t give you your old life back, I wish to God I could. But I can take you with me. That was what I was coming in the bathroom to tell you. You have a visa to go to America, to live with me and my wife. It’s true. I promise.”
If someone were to ask me today whether the story of Hassan, Sohrab, and me ends with happiness, I wouldn’t know what to say.
I looked at Hassan, showing those two missing teeth, sunlight slanting on his face. Baba’s other half. The unentitled, unprivileged half. The half who had inherited what had been pure and noble in Baba. The half that, maybe, in the most secret recesses of his heart, Baba had thought of as his true son… Then I realized something: That last thought had brought no sting with it… I wondered if that was how forgiveness budded, not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night.
“Do you want me to run that kite for you?”
His Adam’s apple rose and fell as he swallowed… I thought I saw him nod.
“For you, a thousand times over,” I heard myself say.
Then I turned and ran.
It was only a smile, nothing more… A tiny thing… 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.