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.
Hassan considered this. "Amir agha?"
"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 well-earned 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 Karteh-Char 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:"sociopath."
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 flat-nosed 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.