The devastation in Kabul took Amir's breath away. The buildings and streets had turned into rubble, and fatherless children begged on every street corner. When a red truck full of Talibs drove by, Amir was mesmerized by them for a minute. Farid warned him never to stand at the Talibs again, because they welcomed any chance to start a conflict. An old beggar overheard them, asked for change, and started a conversation; while chatting, he quoted a line from a poem Amir recognized. It turned out that the man was a professor who used to teach at the university alongside Amir's mother. It was now Amir who was begging the old man-for any details about his mother. He gave Amir just a few small details about her, which amounted to more than he had ever learned from Baba. Amir was deeply grateful. The old man directed him and Farid to the orphanage in Karteh-Seh.
A skinny man answered the door at the orphanage. He pretended not to know who Sohrab was until Amir begged, "I'm his half uncle." Once he trusted the men enough to let them in, he told them Sohrab was fantastic with his slingshot, from which he was inseparable. In the man's makeshift office, he explained that they had no heat or hot water and very little food or supplies. The Taliban refused to pay for renovations or improvements. The man did not seem to want to talk about Sohrab. When Amir insisted, he revealed that a Talib official had taken Sohrab a month earlier. This official came every few months and paid to take a child with him; the man had no choice but to consent, or he knew he and all his children would be shot. This news so enraged Farid that he tackled the man and tried to strangle him to death until Amir intervened. The man told Amir that he could find the Talib official at Ghazi stadium, where the national team played soccer.
After Amir visited the orphanage in Karteh-Seh, the horrifying truth about Afghanistan fell upon him more and more rapidly. As he and Farid drove away, he saw a forgotten corpse hanging in front of a restaurant. He saw a man selling his artificial leg, no doubt to buy food for his children. When they reached the Wazir Akhbar Khan district where Amir grew up, he was relieved to see that it had weathered somewhat better than the other neighborhoods.
The chapter is interrupted by Amir's memory of finding a turtle in the backyard with Hassan. They painted its shell red and marched it around as though they were discoverers of a wondrous new species. Even though they were children, they felt as though they were world-renowned explorers.
Amir walked up the driveway to Baba's house and saw that it had fallen into disrepair. He longed for it to be as it once was. Despite Farid's protestations, he insisted on staying for as long as possible. Amir climbed the hill with the pomegranate tree as he had with Hassan so many times. Although the tree was now decrepit, he could still make out the carving from their childhood: "Amir and Hassan. The Sultans of Kabul." After he sat for a while in contemplation, he and Farid drove off and checked into a nearby hotel.
The hotel was just as run-down as the rest of Kabul and there was even a bloodstain on the wall near the bed. Before going to bed, Farid told him stories about fighting the Soviets. In return, Amir told Farid about American conveniences, such as being able to receive over five hundred television channels; Farid explained that Kabul had not even had electricity for days. Finally, the men bonded over jokes about the bumbling cleric, "Mullah Nasruddin." Before he fell asleep, Amir thought that perhaps Kabul was as "hopeless" as people said.
The next day, the men attended a soccer match at Ghazi Stadium. It was nothing like Amir remembered, the lush green playing field now turned to dry dirt with two deep holes behind the goalpost. Talibs walked up and down the aisles, whipping anyone who made too much noise. During halftime, Amir discovered the horrifying reason for the two deep holes in the ground; they were to be the graves of two accused adulterers, who would be stoned in front of the thousands of attendees. A cleric announced to the crowd that the "will of Allah and the word of the Prophet Muhammad" said death by stoning was a just punishment for adulterers. As he listened to this distortion of Islam, Amir e what Baba had said years before: "God help us all if Afghanistan ever falls into their hands."
The Talib official they had been waiting for appeared on the field. He personally stoned both of the accused to death, after which other Talibs buried them. Afterwards, Farid told a Talib that they wanted to arrange a meeting with the Talib official; it was very easy for them to get an appointment for the same day.
Farid and Amir parked in front of a large house in Wazir Akhbar Khan where the meeting would take place. Farid waited in the car while a terrified Amir went into the house. After being frisked by armed Talibs, he was ushered into an empty room. The Talib official entered the room and sat down opposite Amir, who noticed he had blood on his sleeve from the executions. He ordered one of his men to rip off Amir's false beard, then described with relish his role in the mass execution of the Hazaras. He derided Amir for leaving Afghanistan, saying he should have him shot for treason. Then he ordered Sohrab to come into the room. Sohrab's resemblance to Hassan shocked Amir, who saw that the boy wore bells around his ankles and makeup on his face. The Talib officer put on music, banned to everyone but the Taliban, and made him dance. Then he said to Amir, "Whatever happened to the old Babalu, anyway?" Horror filled Amir as he realized that the Talib official was Assef.
When Amir offered to pay for Sohrab, Assef explained that he did not need money; his wealthy parents lived on an Australian beachfront. Besides, he joined the Taliban not for money but because he felt it was his divine task. When he was in prison in the 1980s, there was a guard who beat one prisoner each night in order to terrorize the others. One night, when Assef had a terrible kidney stone, the guard decided to beat him. He was wailing in pain as the guard beat him until one kick to his side dislodged the kidney stone and made it pass so that he laughed through the rest of his beating. Assef believed it to be "a message from God." Years later, he found the same man injured on the battlefield and shot him in the genitals. Ever since, he had been "on a mission" to get rid of those he considered unworthy of living in Afghanistan.
Assef said Amir could have Sohrab, but he would have to kill Assef in order to leave the house. He told his guards to wait outside the room and not enter no matter what they heard. If Amir killed him, he would be able to go free. Then Assef told Sohrab to stay as a "lesson."
The chapter is interrupted briefly by Amir's memory of the doctor who helped nurse him back to health.
Amir describes the fight with Assef. Assef had used brass knuckles, his favorite weapon from childhood, to beat Amir and knock out his teeth. He remembers his ribs, a bone in his face, and his nose breaking. He remembers that at one point, he began to laugh uncontrollably; even though Amir's body was broken, his spirit finally felt healed. It was Sohrab who saved him in the end. Amir was lying on the ground with Assef on top of him, preparing for another blow, when Sohrab begged him to stop. He was aiming his slingshot at Assef's eye, just as his father had done half a century before. Assef tried to jump on Sohrab, who shot him and in doing so, gouged out his eyeball. As Assef rolled on the floor in pain, Sohrab helped Amir to the car. Farid drove away as fast as he could as Amir lost consciousness.
Chapters Twenty through Twenty-Two showcase the devastation that reigns in Kabul under the Taliban. The theme of violence has been central to the novel all along in the context of Hassan's rape. However, in Taliban-controlled Kabul, Amir's personal nightmare erupts into a public reality. We already know that a single rape has influenced Amir's life immeasurably. When Amir and Baba were fleeing to Pakistan, they found out about a second rape, Kamal's. Now, we discover that under the Taliban, even government officials are raping children. The government's appetite for violence is insatiable; they not only jump on any existing chance to enact violence, but provoke people so they can beat them. As Farid explains, merely staring at a Talib is reason enough for him to injure someone. Both Hassan and Rahim Khan have described beatings by the Taliban merely for talking too loud. The Taliban have created a culture not only of violence but of humiliation.
Baba, General Taheri, and many other Aghan immigrants to America suffer humiliation because they are in an unfamiliar environment. Their job status is taken away from them because they are unfamiliar with American ways and the English language. He describes how "former ambassadors, out-of-work surgeons, and university professors" who had obviously worked hard to gain their status and wealth in Afghanistan reduced to selling at the flea market. As Baba's incident with the Nguyens shows, even small differences in custom can cause humiliation for an immigrant. Yet once Amir returns to Kabul, we see how much better the difficult lives of American immigrants are compared to those who stayed. Baba may have to sell other people's junk for money, but he is far luckier than the amputee in Kabul who is trying to sell his artificial leg. Above all, those who emigrated to America are alive, whereas most of the men in Kabul are dead, as evidenced by the countless fatherless children begging on street corners there. Once Amir sees how devastated Afghanistan has become, he understands what Farid said about him being a foreigner in his own homeland. It is as unfamiliar to him as "an old, forgotten friend [whom] life hadn't been good to ... Homeless and destitute."
In incorporating the stonings at Ghazi Stadium into his story, Hosseini brings to life something about which most non-Afghans have only heard. The event is all the more significant because we experience it through Amir's eyes-American eyes-eyes that are unaccustomed to this type of unchecked violence and injustice. Beyond their sheer violence, the deaths of the accused adulterers in Ghazi Stadium embody what is happening to the Afghan people under the Taliban. The victims are accused of being adulterers, but from what we know about the Taliban from Rahim Khan, Hassan, and Farid's accounts, they may just have looked at a Talib the wrong way. They are killed in public, supposedly to make an example for others; in truth, their public murders are meant to intimidate the masses and bring them under even closer control. Not just the two victims in Ghazi Stadium, but the Afghan people as a whole, are being dragged into a pit of hopelessness from which there is no escape, degraded, and killed cruelly and unjustly.
From the moment Amir makes a commitment to return to Afghanistan, things in the story begin to come full circle at an accelerated pace. In the moment when he hides money under Wahid's mattress, he is atoning for doing so fifteen years earlier. This time, instead of plotting to ruin one child's life, he is trying to make sure that three other children do not starve. Amir acknowledges the circularity of his journey when he ponders, "Once, over those mountains, I had made a choice. And now, a quarter of a century later, that choice had landed me right back on this soil." Once Amir finds out that the Talib official is Assef, the story's sense of circularity crosses over into the near impossible or even slightly magical. Amir himself cannot believe it. As he remembers, "The moment felt surreal-not, not surreal, absurd-it had knocked the breath out of me, brought the world around me to a standstill ...What was the old saying about the bad penny? My past was like that, always turning up."
Just like Amir's and Hassan's, Assef's childhood tendencies were a good predictor of how he would turn out as an adult. Amir seemed harsh when he called Assef a "sociopath" early in the story, but now we understand that he was not exaggerating. Assef has become like his idol, Adolf Hitler. He takes joy in massacring innocent people in the name of his own supremacy. Just as Assef raped Hassan so many years before, he is now raping and humiliating Hassan's son. The fight between Amir and Assef is surreal not just because Amir does not remember everything clearly, but because it is an echo of his confrontation with Assef when they were children. Years before, Hassan saved him with his slingshot and now, Sohrab saves him with his. Even the way Sohrab defeats Assef is eerily similar to the way Hassan threatened him-Hassan had aimed the slingshot at Assef's eye once before, and now Sohrab finishes what his father began.
When Amir feels his blood running down his face and his bones breaking, he feels gleeful. Throughout the story, Amir has done everything in his power to avoid violence. As a child, he let Hassan do his fighting for him and refused to stand up for himself, much less someone else. Despite Assef's taunting and promises of violence, Amir stands up for Sohrab and in doing so, for Hassan as well. When Assef rains violence down on Amir, it is as though every blame and injury that Hassan took for him is being returned to him all at once. When Amir demanded that Hassan throw a pomegranate at him, he had refused. Now, Assef is the one who gives Amir not only "what [he] deserve[s]" but what he longs for. Finally, he is being punished for what he did to Hassan. Even though Amir is aware that he could die, he feels "healed" of his decades-long affliction.