Something roared like thunder. The earth shook a little and we heard the
of gunfire. “Father!” Hassan cried. We sprung to our feet and raced out of the living room. We found Ali hobbling frantically across the foyer.
“Father! What’s that sound?” Hassan yelped, his hands outstretched toward Ali. Ali wrapped his arms around us. A white light flashed, lit the sky in silver. It flashed again and was followed by a rapid staccato of gunfire. “They’re hunting ducks,” Ali said in a hoarse voice. “They hunt ducks at night, you know.
Don’t be afraid.”
A siren went off in the distance. Somewhere glass shattered and someone shouted. I heard people on the street, jolted from sleep and probably still in their pajamas, with ruffled hair and puffy eyes. Hassan was crying. Ali pulled him close, clutched him with tenderness. Later, I would tell myself I hadn’t felt envious of Hassan. Not at all.
We stayed huddled that way until the early hours of the morning. 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. Huddled together in the dining room and waiting for the sun to rise, none of us had any notion that a way of life had ended. Our way of life. If not quite yet, then at least it was the beginning of the end. The end, the official
end, would come first in April 1978 with the communist coup d’état, and then in December 1979, when Russian tanks would roll into the very same streets where
Hassan and I played, bringing the death of the Afghanistan I knew and marking the start of a still ongoing era of bloodletting.
Just before sunrise, Baba’s car peeled into the driveway. His door slammed shut and his running footsteps pounded the stairs. Then he appeared in the doorway and I saw something on his face. Something I didn’t recognize right away because I’d never seen it before: fear. “Amir! Hassan!” he exclaimed as he ran to us, opening his arms wide.
“They blocked all the roads and the tele phone didn’t work. I was so worried!”
We let him wrap us in his arms and, for a brief insane moment, I was glad about whatever had happened that night.
THEY WEREN’T SHOOTING ducks after all. As it turned out, they hadn’t shot much of anything that night of July 17, 1973. Kabul awoke the next morning to find that the monarchy was a thing of the past. The king, Zahir Shah, was away in Italy. In his absence, his cousin Daoud Khan had ended the king’s forty-year reign with a bloodless coup.
I remember Hassan and I crouching that next morning outside my father’s study, as Baba and Rahim Khan sipped black tea and listened to breaking news of the coup on Radio Kabul.
“Amir agha?” Hassan whispered.
“What’s a ‘republic’?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know.” On Baba’s radio, they were saying that word, “republic,” over and over again.
“Does ‘republic’ mean Father and I will have to move away?”
“I don’t think so,” I whispered back.
“Amir agha?” “What?”
“I don’t want them to send me and Father away.”
I smiled. “Bas, you donkey. No one’s sending you away.”
“Do you want to go climb our tree?”
My smile broadened. That was another thing about Hassan. He always knew when to say the right thing–the news on the radio was getting pretty boring. Hassan went to his shack to get ready and I ran upstairs to grab a book. Then I went to the kitchen, stuffed my pockets with handfuls of pine nuts, and ran outside to find Hassan waiting for me.
We burst through the front gates and headed for the hill.
We crossed the residential street and were trekking through a barren patch of rough land that led to the hill when, suddenly, a rock struck Hassan in the back. We whirled around and my heart dropped. Assef and two of his friends, Wali and Kamal, were approaching us.
Assef was the son of one of my father’s friends, Mahmood, an airline pilot. His family lived a few streets south of our home, in a posh, high-walled compound with palm trees.
If you were a kid living in the Wazir Akbar Khan section of Kabul, you knew about Assef and his famous stainless-steel brass knuckles, hopefully not through personal experience. Born to a German mother and Afghan father, the blond, blue-eyed Assef towered over the other kids. His wellearned reputation for savagery preceded him on the streets. Flanked by his obeying friends, he walked the neighborhood like a Khan strolling through his land with his eager-to-please entourage. His word was law, and if you needed a little legal education, then those brass knuckles were just the right teaching tool. I saw him use those knuckles once on a kid from the KartehChar district.
I will never forget how Assef’s blue eyes glinted with a light not entirely sane and how he grinned, how he grinned, as he pummeled that poor kid unconscious. Some of the boys in Wazir Akbar Khan had nicknamed him Assef Goshkhor, or Assef “the Ear Eater.” Of course, none of them dared utter it to his face unless they wished to suffer the same fate as the poor kid who had unwittingly inspired that nickname when he had fought Assef over a kite and ended up fishing his right ear from a muddy gutter. Years later, I learned an English word for the creature that Assef was, a word for which a good Farsi equivalent does not exist:
Of all the neighborhood boys who tortured Ali, Assef was by far the most relentless. He was, in fact, the originator of the Babalu jeer, _Hey, Babalu, who did you eat today?
Huh? Come on, Babalu, give us a smile!_ And on days when he felt particularly inspired, he spiced up his badgering a little, Hey, you flatnosed Babalu, who did you eat today? Tell us, you slant-eyed donkey!
Now he was walking toward us, hands on his hips, his sneakers kicking up little puffs of dust.
“Good morning, kunis!” Assef exclaimed, waving. “Fag,” that was another of his favorite insults. Hassan retreated behind me as the three older boys closed in. They stood before us, three tall boys dressed in jeans and Tshirts. Towering over us all, Assef crossed his thick arms on his chest, a savage sort of grin on his lips. Not for the first time, it occurred to me that Assef might not be entirely sane. It also occurred to me how lucky I was to have Baba as my father, the sole reason, I believe, Assef had mostly refrained from harassing me too much.
He tipped his chin to Hassan. “Hey, Flat-Nose,” he said. “How is Babalu?” Hassan said nothing and crept another step behind me.
“Have you heard the news, boys?” Assef said, his grin never faltering. “The king is gone. Good riddance. Long live the president! My father knows Daoud Khan, did you know that, Amir?”
“So does my father,” I said. In reality, I had no idea if that was true or not.
“So does my father,” Assef mimicked me in a whining voice. Kamal and Wali cackled in unison. I wished Baba were there.
“Well, Daoud Khan dined at our house last year,” Assef went on. “How do you like that, Amir?”
I wondered if anyone would hear us scream in this remote patch of land. Baba’s house was a good kilometer away. I wished we’d stayed at the house.
“Do you know what I will tell Daoud Khan the next time he comes to our house for dinner?” Assef said. “I’m going to have a little chat with him, man to man, mard to
mard. Tell him what I told my mother. About Hitler. Now, there was a leader. A great leader.
A man with vision. I’ll tell Daoud Khan to remember that if they had let Hitler finish what he had started, the world be a better place now”
“Baba says Hitler was crazy, that he ordered a lot of innocent people killed,” I heard myself say before I could clamp a hand on my mouth.
Assef snickered. “He sounds like my mother, and she’s German; she should know better. But then they want you to believe that, don’t they? They don’t want you to know the truth.”
I didn’t know who “they” were, or what truth they were hiding, and I didn’t want to find out. I wished I hadn’t said anything. I wished again I’d look up and see Baba coming up the hill.
“But you have to read books they don’t give out in school,” Assef said. “I have. And my eyes have been opened. Now I have a vision, and I’m going to share it with our new president. Do you know what it is?”
I shook my head. He’d tell me anyway; Assef always answered his own questions.
His blue eyes flicked to Hassan. “Afghanistan is the land of Pashtuns. It always has been, always will be. We are the true Afghans, the pure Afghans, not this Flat-Nose here. His people pollute our homeland, our watan. They dirty our blood.” He made a sweeping, grandiose gesture with his hands. “Afghanistan for Pashtuns, I say. That’s my vision.”
Assef shifted his gaze to me again. He looked like someone coming out of a good dream. “Too late for Hitler,” he said. “But not for us.”
He reached for something from the back pocket of his jeans. “I’ll ask the president to do what the king didn’t have the quwat to do. To rid Afghanistan of all the dirty, kasseef Hazaras.”
“Just let us go, Assef,” I said, hating the way my voice trembled. “We’re not bothering you.”
“Oh, you’re bothering me,” Assef said. And I saw with a sinking heart what he had fished out of his pocket. Of course. His stainless-steel brass knuckles sparkled in the
sun. “You’re bothering me very much. In fact, you bother me more than this Hazara here. How can you talk to him, play with him, let him touch you?” he said, his voice dripping with disgust. Wali and Kamal nodded and grunted in agreement. Assef narrowed his eyes. Shook his head. When he spoke again, he sounded as baffled as he looked. “How can you call him your ‘friend’?”
But he’s not my friend! I almost blurted. He’s my servant! Had I really thought that?
Of course I hadn’t. I hadn’t. I treated Hassan well, just like a friend, better even, more like a brother. But if so, then why, when Baba’s friends came to visit with their kids, didn’t I ever include Hassan in our games? Why did I play with Hassan only when no one else was around?
Assef slipped on the brass knuckles. Gave me an icy look. “You’re part of the problem, Amir. If idiots like you and your father didn’t take these people in, we’d be rid of them by now. They’d all just go rot in Hazarajat where they belong. You’re a disgrace to Afghanistan.”
I looked in his crazy eyes and saw that he meant it. He really meant to hurt me. Assef raised his fist and came for me.
There was a flurry of rapid movement behind me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Hassan bend down and stand up quickly. Assef’s eyes flicked to something behind me and widened with surprise. I saw that same look ol astonishment on Kamal and Wali’s faces as they too saw what had happened behind me.
I turned and came face to face with Hassan’s slingshot. Hassan had pulled the wide elastic band all the way back. In the cup was a rock the size of a walnut. Hassan held the slingshot pointed directly at Assef’s face. His hand trembled with the strain of the pulled elastic band and beads of sweat had erupted on his brow.
“Please leave us alone, Agha,” Hassan said in a flat tone. He’d referred to Assef as
“Agha,” and I wondered briefly what it must be like to live with such an ingrained sense of one’s place in a hierarchy.
Assef gritted his teeth. “Put it down, you motherless Hazara.”
“Please leave us be, Agha,” Hassan said.
Assef smiled. “Maybe you didn’t notice, but there are three of us and two of you.”
Hassan shrugged. To an outsider, he didn’t look scared. But Hassan’s face was my earliest memory and I knew all of its subtle nuances, knew each and every twitch and flicker that ever rippled across it. And I saw that he was scared. He was scared plenty.
“You are right, Agha. But perhaps you didn’t notice that I’m the one holding the slingshot. If you make a move, they’ll have to change your nickname from Assef ‘the Ear Eater’ to ‘One-Eyed Assef,’ because I have this rock pointed at your left eye.” He said this so flatly that even I had to strain to hear the fear that I knew hid under that calm voice.
Assef’s mouth twitched. Wali and Kamal watched this exchange with something akin to fascination. Someone had challenged their god.
Humiliated him. And, worst of all, that someone was a skinny Hazara.
Assef looked from the rock to Hassan. He searched Hassan’s face intently. What he found in it must have convinced him of the seriousness of Hassan’s intentions, because he lowered his fist.
“You should know something about me, Hazara,” Assef said gravely. “I’m a very patient person. This doesn’t end today, believe me.” He turned to me. “This isn’t the end for you either, Amir. Someday, I’ll make you face me one on one.” Assef retreated a step. His disciples followed.
“Your Hazara made a big mistake today, Amir,” he said. They then turned around, walked away. I watched them walk down the hill and disappear behind a wall.
Hassan was trying to tuck the slingshot in his waist with a pair of trembling hands. His mouth curled up into something that was supposed to be a reassuring smile. It took him five tries to tie the string of his trousers. Neither one of us said much of anything as we walked home in trepidation, certain that Assef and his friends would ambush us every time we turned a corner. They didn’t and that should have comforted us a little. But it didn’t. Not at all.
FOR THE NEXT COUPLE of years, the words economic development and reform
danced on a lot of lips in Kabul. The constitutional monarchy had been abolished, replaced by a republic, led by a president of the republic. For a while, a sense of rejuvenation and purpose swept across the land. People spoke of women’s rights and modern technology.
And for the most part, even though a new leader lived in Arg–the royal palace in Kabul–life went on as before. People went to work Saturday through Thursday and gathered for picnics on Fridays in parks, on the banks of Ghargha Lake, in the gardens of Paghman. Multicolored buses and lorries filled with passengers rolled through the narrow streets of Kabul, led by the constant shouts of the driver assistants who straddled the vehicles’ rear bumpers and yelped directions to the driver in their thick Kabuli accent. On Eid, the three days of celebration after the holy month
of Ramadan, Kabulis dressed in their best and newest clothes and visited their families.
People hugged and kissed and greeted each other with “Eid Mubarak.” Happy Eid.
Children opened gifts and played with dyed hard-boiled eggs.
Early that following winter of 1974, Hassan and I were playing in the yard one day, building a snow fort, when Ali called him in. “Hassan, Agha sahib wants to talk to you!”
He was standing by the front door, dressed in white, hands tucked under his armpits, breath puffing from his mouth.
Hassan and I exchanged a smile. We’d been waiting for his call all day: It was Hassan’s birthday. “What is it, Father, do you know? Will you tell us?” Hassan said. His eyes were gleaming.
Ali shrugged. “Agha sahib hasn’t discussed it with me.”
“Come on, Ali, tell us,” I pressed. “Is it a drawing book? Maybe a new pistol?”
Like Hassan, Ali was incapable of lying. Every year, he pretended not to know what Baba had bought Hassan or me for our birthdays. And every year, his eyes betrayed him and we coaxed the goods out of him. This time, though, it seemed he was telling the truth.
Baba never missed Hassan’s birthday. For a while, he used to ask Hassan what he wanted, but he gave up doing that because Hassan was always too modest to actually suggest a present. So every winter Baba picked something out himself. He bought him a Japanese toy truck one year, an electric locomotive and train track set another year.
The previous year, Baba had surprised Hassan with a leather cowboy hat just like the one Clint Eastwood wore in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly–which had unseated The Magnificent Seven as our favorite Western. That whole winter, Hassan and I took turns wearing the hat, and belted out the film’s famous music as we climbed mounds of snow and shot each other dead.
We took off our gloves and removed our snow-laden boots at the front door. When we stepped into the foyer, we found Baba sitting by the woodburning cast-iron stove with a short, balding Indian man dressed in a brown suit and red tie.
“Hassan,” Baba said, smiling coyly, “meet your birthday present.”
Hassan and I traded blank looks. There was no gift-wrapped box in sight. No bag. No toy. Just Ali standing behind us, and Baba with this slight Indian fellow who looked a little like a mathematics teacher.
The Indian man in the brown suit smiled and offered Hassan his hand. “I am Dr.
Kumar,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He spoke Farsi with a thick, rolling Hindi accent.
“Salaam alaykum,” Hassan said uncertainly. He gave a polite tip of the head, but his eyes sought his father behind him. Ali moved closer and set his hand on Hassan’s shoulder.
Baba met Hassan’s wary–and puzzled–eyes. “I have summoned Dr. Kumar from New Delhi. Dr. Kumar is a plastic surgeon.”
“Do you know what that is?” the Indian man–Dr. Kumar– said.
Hassan shook his head. He looked to me for help but I shrugged. All I knew was that you went to a surgeon to fix you when you had appendicitis. I knew this because one of my classmates had died of it the year before and the teacher had told us they had waited too long to take him to a surgeon. We both looked to Ali, but of course with him you could never tell. His face was impassive as ever, though something sober had melted into his eyes.
“Well,” Dr. Kumar said, “my job is to fix things on people’s bodies. Sometimes their faces.”
“Oh,” Hassan said. He looked from Dr. Kumar to Baba to Ali. His hand touched his upper lip. “Oh,” he said again.
“It’s an unusual present, I know,” Baba said. “And probably not what you had in mind, but this present will last you forever.”
“Oh,” Hassan said. He licked his lips. Cleared his throat. “Agha sahib, will it… will it–“
“Nothing doing,” Dr. Kumar intervened, smiling kindly. “It will not hurt you one bit. In fact, I will give you a medicine and you will not remember a thing.”
“Oh,” Hassan said. He smiled back with relief. A little relief anyway. “I wasn’t scared, Agha sahib, I just…” Hassan might have been fooled, but I wasn’t. I knew that when doctors said it wouldn’t hurt, that’s when you knew you were in trouble. With dread, I remembered my circumcision the year prior. The doctor had given me the same line, reassured me it wouldn’t hurt one bit. But when the numbing medicine wore off later that night, it felt like someone had pressed a red hot coal to my loins. Why Baba waited until I was ten to have me circumcised was beyond me and one of the things I will never forgive him for.
I wished I too had some kind of scar that would beget Baba’s sympathy. It wasn’t fair.
Hassan hadn’t done anything to earn Baba’s affections; he’d just been born with that stupid harelip.
The surgery went well. We were all a little shocked when they first removed the bandages, but kept our smiles on just as Dr. Kumar had instructed us. It wasn’t easy, because Hassan’s upper lip was a grotesque mesh of swollen, raw tissue. I expected Hassan to cry with horror when the nurse handed him the mirror. Ali held his hand as Hassan took a long, thoughtful look into it. He muttered something I didn’t understand. I put my ear to his mouth. He whispered it again.
“Tashakor.” Thank you.
Then his lips twisted, and, that time, I knew just what he was doing. He was smiling.
Just as he had, emerging from his mother’s womb.
The swelling subsided, and the wound healed with time. Soon, it was just a pink jagged line running up from his lip. By the following winter, it was only a faint scar. Which was ironic. Because that was the winter that Hassan stopped smiling.