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Book/film review: The Kite Runner

23 June 2008. A World to Win News Service. The Kite Runner, a novel by the Afghan-American Khaled Hosseini, has proved to be one of the world’s most popular works of fiction since it was first published in 2003. It was a bestseller in the U.S for several years, reaching many millions of people, and later was published in about 50 other countries in most major languages. Readers from Iceland to Brazil and from China to Iran, and of course many Afghans, have written to the author to describe their heart-wrenching experience in reading the book and the effect it has had on their perceptions of the world (see  A film made from the book was released in 2007, the same year as the publication of the author’s second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, also slated to become a film. The following review is by a reader from Afghanistan.

The story

A young boy grows up without a mother (Amir). His father is busy being a man among men (Baba). Unknown to Amir, his servant and best friend (Hassan), is also his half brother. The three live in an affluent neighbourhood of Kabul (Wazir Akbar Khan) in the 1970s, during the last years of King Zahir’s reign, a period of calm before the storm. But this well-off, seemingly perfect household is deeply scarred.

Amir’s mother died while giving birth to him. Growing up in a culture full of guilt trips, in his subconscious Amir feels guilty about his mother’s death. Baba, suffering from the loss of his beloved wife, a university professor, lives a lonely life. He is caught in the grips of his social role as a man and patriarch. He struggles to keep his image as a successful businessman. But it is Hassan who bears the brunt of all.

Hassan was born to the family maid whom Baba slept with after his wife died. His mother, who fled the household soon after he was born, belonged to an oppressed nationality, the Hazara, historically discriminated against. Hassan is considered harami (a “bastard”) according to Islamic law. He lives in the property’s servant quarters with his stepfather, who, like him, serves Baba and Amir. To top it all, Hassan is born with a cleft lip that adds further burdens to his childhood. 

Perhaps it is the load he carries that tempers Hassan to stand tall against all odds. He dares to challenge a psychopathic rich kid, the neighbourhood bully Assef, who wants to inflict harm on Amir and especially Hassan because he is Hazara. Amir is more fearful, sometimes passive, and bewildered by his father’s apparently inexplicable presents for Hassan, guilt-driven substitutes for the affection the father dares not show the servant – and that he withholds from Amir, too, for that matter. Above all, Amir is eaten up by the fact that his father seems to consider Hassan the more manly of the two boys.

Without totally abandoning his childhood ways, Hassan dearly befriends Amir – even though he, like Amir, is kept in the dark about their biological relationship. He serves Amir his meals and helps him get organised to go to school. Because Hassan carries the stigma of being Hazara, he is never given an opportunity to go to school. As a friend he tries to shield Amir from the harshness of life.  In their leisure time Hassan and Amir climb trees, fly kites, play cards and always have fun together. 
One day this harmony shatters when Assef and his gang grab Hassan. They rape him in retaliation for an earlier fight when Hassan, in support of Amir, had subdued Assef with his slingshot. Amir, witnessing the rape, is afraid and hides. Afterwards, Amir is overwhelmed by guilt for his failure to interfere and withdraws his friendship from Hassan.

To forget his unforgettable past, Amir wants Baba to dismiss Hassan as his servant. He insists that Hassan and his stepfather be removed from his father’s household compound.  Amir even plots to sabotage Baba’s relationship with Hassan’s stepfather. Finally, Amir succeeds in his endeavour. Hassan’s stepfather decides that he and the boy will move out. They leave for a distant village.

The bigger picture

As a backdrop to this complex microcosm of family life and friendship – full of deceits, betrayals and violations accentuated by the unjust social relations – an even more complex scenario is taking shape. The two rival superpowers are contending for world supremacy, and Afghanistan becomes trapped between them. Before Amir comes of age to redeem his failure for not defending Hassan, before Baba comes to terms with what he has done and can face his betrayals, and before Hassan gets a chance to use his slingshot against Assef (a future Taleban leader) to reclaim his dignity, the Soviet Union violates Afghanistan.

The Russian invasion took place in December 1979. It burst asunder the fabric of social and family life of all Afghans. Russian tanks rolled over the country’s social norms and traditions – the good and bad alike.

A new chapter, far more tragic even than Hassan’s life, opened in the history of the country. Tens of thousands lost their lives. Some resisted and survived the invasion without any reward at the end. Some – like the novelist’s family – took refuge in other countries. Islamic factions benefited from the situation. In the midst of the carnage the Islamists kept their eyes on the prize – political power. They betrayed the people’s struggles, settling in to enjoy the occupation of president, cabinet member and parliamentarian, or simply the profession of holy worrier in the pay of the Western superpower against the no less imperialist Soviet Union.

The Islamists’ dream came true, and the suffering was worse than anyone could have imagined. First there was an Islamic warlord regime and a horrible civil war in which Kabul was devastated, and then the Taleban, brought to power by the West. The U.S. invasion brought a new Islamic warlord regime, although this was not enough for many of them, and the long-standing civil war between them continued.  This opened yet another chapter, no more and no less tragic than the Soviet era in Afghanistan. Who will finish writing this chapter and how it will end is yet to be seen.
Faces of opposition

In the wake of the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan in October 2001, before The Kite Runner was written, Tamim Ansari categorically criticized the U.S. In his book West of Kabul, East of New York, he wrote:

“I have been hearing a lot of talk about ‘bombing Afghanistan to Stone Age.’ ‘We are at war, we have to accept collateral damage.’ And we ‘have the belly to do what must be done.’ ‘What else can we do?’

“Bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age[?] Trouble is, that’s been done. The Soviets took care of it already. Make the Afghans suffer? They are already suffering. Level their houses? Done. Turn their schools into piles of rubble? Done. Eradicate their hospitals? Done. Destroy their infrastructure? Cut them off from medicine and health care? Too late. Someone already did all that.

“New bombs would only stir the rubble of earlier bombs. Would they at least get the Taleban? Not likely. In today’s Afghanistan, only the Taleban eat, only they have the means to move around. They slip away and hide.

“Maybe the bombs would get some of those disabled orphans – they don’t move too fast, they don’t even have wheelchairs. But flying over Kabul and dropping bombs wouldn’t really be a strike against the criminals who did this horrific thing. Actually, it would only be making common cause with the Taleban –by raping once again the people they’ve raped all this time.”  

Hundreds of other books and films that never captured the interest of mega-media corporations have been published and produced about Afghanistan. The common thread weaving these books and films together is the story of a small country heroically fighting superpowers one after the other – at least to this day. Afghan authors and writers are part of this.

The situation has been and continues to be very hard for writers in Afghanistan. The last two decades have been seen one book-burning regime succeed another. During the 1980s, in the aftermath of the Russian invasion, those possessing Maoist and other suspect books faced arrest and death at the hands of both the occupiers and the Islamists who fought the invaders. In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the victorious Islamists banned schools altogether and burned all books, except the Quran.  Today, Hosseini has taken up the cause of saving a young student sentenced to death under the U.S.-installed Hamid Karzai regime for downloading “blasphemous” materials on women from the Internet.  Amid all this, the appearance and international success of The Kite Runner is a welcome event.

Isabel Allende called it,  “One of those unforgettable stories that stays with you for years. All the great themes of literature and of life are the fabric of this extraordinary novel.”

A critic for The New York Times Book Review described The Kite Runner as “A story of fierce cruelty and fierce yet redeeming love. Both transform the life of Amir, Khaled Hosseini’s privileged young narrator, who comes of age during the last peaceful days of the monarchy, just before the country’s revolution and its invasion by Russian forces. But, political events, even as dramatic as the ones that are presented in The Kite Runner, are only a part of this story. In The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini gives us a vivid and engaging story that reminds us how long his people have been struggling to triumph over the forces of violence. Forces that continue to threaten them even today.”

Although the Times reviewer didn’t say so, the biggest “force of violence” facing Afghanistan’s people today is the U.S., whose heartless occupation and partnership with much of the country’s most reactionary warlords, including some of the same criminals who figure in Hosseini’s new book, has managed to revive the all but spent fortunes of other, equally widely hated anti-U.S. jihadi Islamic forces, including the Taleban. The Afghan people are still struggling against the same kind of beasts, the intertwined reactionary social and economic systems that make life hell for the characters in Hosseini’s books – imperialist capitalism and traditional semi-feudalism.

A word for some critics and a criticism

Like any other work of art and literature, people from various quarters approach The Kite Runner with different feelings. Aside from book burners who believe that there is no God but Allah and that there should be no book but the Quran, some critics argue that Hosseini has put his finger on issues that are too culturally sensitive for Afghans to discuss in public. Some accuse him of revealing secrets to outsiders for his own publicity and gain. 

However, it is a good thing, not a bad one, to write a novel that illustrates and exposes national oppression such as the chauvinism that Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s dominant nationality, have historically practiced against Hazaras and other nationalities. This basic truth about Afghan society should not remain a sacred domain out of the reach of artists who can make everyone understand and hate this oppression.

Similarly, the male supremacist sexual violation of women, children and other men – the common modus operandi of the jihadis – should not be hidden in the wardrobe of “culturally sensitive issues for Afghans”.  

The suffering inflict by traditional male roles and patriarchy is an important component of The Kite Runner. After it was published, Hosseini wrote that he was aware of the limitations that came from the fact that the main characters were all male. His latest book, A Thousand Splendid Suns, was written from the point of view of two women, one a free spirit brought up in an intellectual family and the other the downtrodden illegitimate daughter of a maid impregnated by her wealthy employer. Their fates become meshed when they end up married to the same abusive husband, who takes out the humiliations he suffers at the hands of the more powerful on “his” women. This novel, too, is often unsparing in the harsh light it throws on the traditional relationships that enslave Afghan society.

Maybe that’s one reason so many readers in many very different countries, in the third world and the West, love Hosseini’s books so much: readers recognize their own lives in the dirty social secrets and the dignity, integrity and in the end strength of his characters. In one way or another, they’ve been there themselves, and are moved sometimes to tears by this recognition and what Hosseini has done with his world.
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