|A Review byRebecca James|
|The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini (2003)
In December of 2001, I peered out a partially-iced over window and out at the newly naked New York skyline for the first time. Still shivering, I joined a short queue waiting for tickets to Tony Kushner's new play, Homebody/Kabul, an opportunity granted me by my Pennsylvania theater class who waited with me at the curb. We were eventually ushered in and proceeded to become spellbound for the next few hours as Kushner's eerily timely characters explored the capital of Afghanistan ravaged by the Taliban, words that had only recently violently rocketed to the forefront of the American vernacular. The play, written in the four years preceding the attacks on the World Trade Center, offered audiences unfamiliar with the country and its conflicting cultures a more human experience than that delivered by the news media. Now, several years later, Khaled Hosseini offers readers a similarly personal (and even more historically-thorough) introduction to Afghani culture.
To be perfectly honest, I do not have a very thorough understanding of Middle East politics and history. After the shock of September 2001, I picked up the same loose framework of information that the rest of mainstream America did. Like many people I know, I'm a little embarrassed that I don't know more. I am not willing to view the situation as many people seem to, that the terrorist attacks were a sudden, unforeseen event completely removed from the mistakes and decisions of our own leaders. However, the intricacies of a decades-long relationship with various political sects seem so overwhelming. My subscriptions to Newsweek and Time were an attempt to educate myself about the individual experiences of soldiers, suicide bombers, and Afghan children along with political news. Nothing gave me the insight and education that I gained from reading The Kite Runner.
What makes Hosseini's first novel so different from what I have seen spouted in the news and in the glossy photos of my magazines is that the story stretches from the early 1970s, when the narrator was a child, to December 2001, the same month I witnessed Kushner's play. The Afghanistan he first describes is nothing like that I've witnessed in recent years.
Amir is privileged, the only child of a wealthy and powerfully benevolent man and his beautiful royal wife who died during childbirth. He inhabits a sprawling, tree-lined estate in the city of Kabul. Despite his wealth and his father's popularity, however, Amir has grown up unsettled. Perhaps as a result of his insecurities about disappointing his father with his athletic shortcomings and burgeoning intellectualism, he has the slightly cruel nature of those who are weak when they encounter someone weaker than themselves. In Amir's case, the person subjected to his cruelty most often is Hassan, the hare-lipped son of his father's head servant and Amir's only real friend. Amir frequently constructs ways to test the limits of Hassan's loyalty to him:
"He turned to me. A few sweat beads rolled from his bald scalp. 'Would I ever lie to you, Amir agha?' Suddenly I decided to toy with him a little. 'I don't know. Would you?' 'I'd sooner eat dirt,' he said with a look of indignation. 'Really? You'd do that?'[...] there was something fascinating-albeit in a sick way-about teasing Hassan. Kind of like when we used to play insect torture. Except now, he was the ant and I was holding the magnifying glass [...] 'If you asked, I would,' he finally said, looking right at me. I dropped my eyes. To this day I find it hard to gaze directly at people like Hassan, people who mean every word they say. 'But I wonder,' he added. 'Would you ever ask me to do such a thing, Amir agha?'"
Through their interactions, readers learn the basics of the class and social system of 1970s Afghanistan. Like Americans, Amir is so immersed in his own privilege that he can't see the plight of Hassan's culture. His people are the Hazaras, a formerly enslaved ethnic group in Afghanistan that would later (mid 1990s) be butchered by the Tajiks and other forces. But in the 1970s, Hassan's loyalty is the product of generations of service. He does not question his duty to Amir, just as his father does not question his service to Amir's father. The line between servant and friend is blurred, however, a fact not lost on Hassan, but not recognized by Amir until much later. Amir's own loyalty to Hassan-a boy who, having also lost his mother, was breast-fed by the same woman as Amir-is tested during the one event that makes Amir most proud. That event, which came in 1975, is kite-fighting.
Kite-fighting tournaments are popular in the pre-Soviet era of Afghanistan, and Amir is one of the best. Hassan, who must feed the glass-coated string to Amir during the fight, must also run to capture the cut and downed opponents' kites; Hassan is the best kite-runner in the city. During this particular tournament, however, Hassan and Amir's long-standing battle with a rival group of boys catches up with them. Hassan is cornered with his prize and beaten and raped by the merciless leader boy, Assef. Hidden behind a wall, Amir cowers and then runs rather than facing his own fears and helping his friend.
"I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek."
Amir carries the secret of his betrayal into his adult life, long after he and his father part ways with Hassan's family, long after they escape the Communist takeover of their city, long after their emigration to the United States. It isn't until June 2001, when Amir hears the voice of his father's best friend fifteen years after his father's death, that he returns to face the secret that has eaten away at him ever since. He travels to war-pocked Kabul, witnessing first-hand the shocking changes his beautiful city has suffered at the hands of the Taliban. His atonement for his adolescent actions comes with a steep price, and his two-week visit becomes a bloody and prolonged tour.
The interlacing of history, current events, social power, and love make a spell-binding novel that is at once simple to read and difficult to turn from. Khaled Hosseini's novel, the first Afghan novel written in English, is the perfect anecdote for readers of any political affiliation who have distanced themselves from all that is personal in Afghanistan.
Rebecca James, a high school English teacher in Allentown, Pennsylvania, divides her time between Allentown and Rehoboth.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 12 August 26, 2005