Summary: Chapter 20
On the way to Kabul, Amir sees signs of the wars, such as broken-down Soviet tanks and destroyed villages. When Amir and Farid reach Kabul, Amir does not recognize it. What used to be buildings are now dusty piles of rubble, and beggars are everywhere. The trees are all gone. The Soviets cut them down because snipers would hide in them, and Afghans cut them down to use for firewood. A Taliban patrol of bearded men with guns in the back of a red pickup passes by, and Amir stares at them. Farid rebukes Amir, saying the Taliban will use any excuse for violence, and an old beggar speaks up in agreement with Farid. The beggar, it turns out, was a literature professor and once knew Sofia Akram, Amir’s mother. Amir asks him several questions about her, but soon has to leave.
Amir and Farid find the orphanage where they think Sohrab is. The director, Zaman, is cautious and doesn’t admit that he has seen Sohrab until Amir says he is Sohrab’s half-uncle. The orphanage itself was once a storage warehouse for a carpet manufacturer. There are hundreds of children and not enough beds, mattresses, or blankets. That past winter, one child froze to death. Zaman says Sohrab is not there, but he knows where he may be. It might already be too late, however. Amir asks what he means, and Zaman tells him there is a Taliban official who comes every month or two. The official brings cash, and will sometimes take a child with him. Farid attacks Zaman for letting this occur, but stops when he notices children in view. Zaman says he can do nothing against the Taliban, and it is the only way to get money to feed the children. He tells Amir and Farid that the official took Sohrab a month ago. If they want to find him, he will be at Ghazi Stadium the next day.
Summary: Chapter 21
Farid drives Amir to Baba’s house. It is falling apart, but recognizable. Amir finds his bedroom window and remembers looking out of it to watch Ali and Hassan the morning they left. He goes up the hill to the pomegranate tree where he and Hassan used to play, but Farid tells him they should leave. That night they stay at a dilapidated hotel. The following day they go to the soccer game at Ghazi Stadium. The field is just dirt, and the crowd is careful not to cheer too loudly. At halftime, Taliban in red pickups drive into the stadium. They unload a blindfolded man from one truck and a blindfolded woman from the other and bury each up to the chest in a hole on the field. The woman is screaming uncontrollably.
A cleric on the field recites a prayer from the Koran and announces that they are there to carry out God’s law. When adulterers throw stones at the house of God, he shouts, they must answer by throwing stones back. Another man steps out of a pickup, and Farid and Amir see it is the official they are looking for. He is wearing black sunglasses, as Zaman said. The official throws stones at the head of the man in the hole until his head is a bloody pulp and his chin hangs to his chest. Then he does the same to the woman. They pile the bodies into the back of a truck, and the second half of the soccer game begins. Farid tells one of the Taliban nearby that he has personal business with the official, and the official agrees to see them that afternoon.
As Amir and Farid look for Sohrab, the reader sees through Amir’s eyes more of the devastation of Kabul. The city is now completely unfamiliar to Amir, and he looks at it almost as a tourist, as Farid called Amir in the previous section. His description sounds at times like science fiction. Littered with rubble, populated by beggars, the city has become a post-apocalyptic nightmare. In a scene that vividly represents Afghanistan’s desperation, Farid points out to Amir one man trying to sell his prosthetic leg to another man, who haggles with him over the price. There are few real signs of life left, made clear by the fact that not even trees remain, rendering the landscape oddly desolate. When Amir finds the pomegranate tree where he and Hassan used to play, he discovers it no longer bears fruit. The barren tree serves as a powerful symbol that the Kabul Amir knew is dead, at least figuratively if not yet literally. The city appears even stranger and more sad by the many reminders that this is, in fact, the place where Amir grew up. Amir happens upon the old beggar who knew his mother, for instance, and later finds Baba’s house, which has fallen into severe disrepair. As Amir describes his homecoming, it is like bumping into an old friend who you learn has become destitute.
Amir also has his first encounter with the Taliban, the group of Islamic radicals that now control Afghanistan. Farid calls them the “Beard Patrol” as they approach in their red pickup truck. His meaning is double: the term describes the Taliban men, who are all bearded, but it also describes what they are doing, which among other things is to literally make sure that all men have beards. In Islam’s holy texts, men are instructed to let their beards grow to distinguish them from followers of other religions. According to the Taliban, a man who shaves his beard is committing a sin, and they make it their job to punish any person caught sinning. Shaving was one of many illegal acts under the Taliban, which is why Amir bought a fake beard before entering the country. The Taliban also prohibited women from working, which the director of the orphanage, Zaman, says is part of the reason there were so many children there. When Afghan men died during the wars, their wives were left to care for their children. But since the women could not work, they had no way to feed the kids. Rather than watch them starve, they would leave them with orphanages.
The public stoning that Farid and Amir witness at the stadium is another example of Taliban law. The Taliban claim to enforce Sharia, the law that all Muslims are supposed to follow. Because Islam makes no distinction between religious and non-religious matters, Sharia governs everything from business ethics to criminal justice, which is why a cleric rather than a judge or some other secular official comes out to speak to the crowd before the stoning begins. Many Muslims, however, believe the Taliban used Sharia as a way to oppress women and justify their violent behavior. The book raises this viewpoint as the crowd prepares to watch the stoning. Farid whispers to Amir, “And they call themselves Muslims” (p. 271). In fact, most of the Muslims Amir speaks with, including Zaman and Rahim Khan, deplore the society the Taliban has created, underscoring the point that the Islamic state the Taliban established is not supported with all Muslims.
The book hints at the corruption of the Taliban by having a Taliban official taking girls and boys from the orphanage. We do not know at this point why the official is taking the children, but the unspoken implication is that the official is sexually abusing them. Whatever the case, the official is clearly misusing his position of power. As Zaman, the orphanage director, tells Farid after Farid strangles him, he has not been paid in six months and has already spent his life savings on the orphanage. Without the official’s money, he is unable to feed the children in his care. Furthermore, if he protests, the official takes ten children instead of one. Much as Hassan was powerless to do anything against Assef, Zaman is now powerless against the Taliban official, and it is Sohrab, Hassan’s orphaned son, who is the victim. Again, it is a case of the powerful in Afghanistan taking advantage of the powerless.