The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is an excellent story of human relations influenced by restrictive social and religious norms, of betrayal caused by personal weakness, of years of suffering from guilt and attempts to escape from it, and eventual redemption through confronting the cause of guilt and doing something right to, if not make it right, then at least balance the evil of the past. Following in the background of the private stories of the main characters is the story of Afghanistan as a country, and the suffering of this land provides a strong emotional undertone for the rest of the story.
The two main characters of the story are Amir and Hassan who, as boys, were growing up together in the 1970s Afghanistan. Even though the boys belonged to the same household, their status was not the same: Amir was Pashtun, and the son of an influential businessman in Kabul; Hassan was a Hazara, part of Afghanistan’s much persecuted ethnic minority, with no social prospects aside from being a servant to a Pashtun family. Nevertheless, Baba, Amir’s father, treats both Hassan and his father, Ali, well, and the boys are inseparable while growing up, even though the social disparity between them is noticeable through such aspects like Hassan’s illiteracy and his subservient behavior during play.
The defining event of the story takes place during a kite-fighting tournament that takes place in Kabul in winter of 1975. Amir wins the tournament, with Hassan serving all the while as his kite runner – the person who goes after the opponent’s downed kite to secure it for the winner as a trophy. When Hassan does not return after going after the last defeated kite, Amir goes looking for him and walks on the scene of Hassan being confronted by Assef and his two friends – the Pashtun boys who often picked on Amir for being bookish and for liking Hazaras. While Amir watches, unseen, Amir rapes Hassan. Amir does nothing to help his friend and then pretends like nothing happened.
From this moment on, Amir is constantly racked by guilt, and his way of dealing with it is try to drive Hassan away so he does not have to face his friend every day and remember his betrayal. His attempts are unsuccessful, as Hassan proves his devotion to Amir over and over again, until Amir’s thirteenth birthday, when he frames Hassan as a thief for stealing his birthday presents. Even through Baba immediately forgives Hassan, Ali sees this as too much of a disgrace and leaves the household together with Hassan.
When the Soviets invade Afghanistan in 1979, Amir and Baba are forced to flee. They go to Pakistan first and from there manage to emigrate to the U.S. They live in Fremont, California, and eventually become immersed back into the Afghan immigrant community through the local flea market. There, Amir falls in love with a daughter of another immigrant, Soraya Taheri, and they rush through the traditional engagement process because Baba is very sick with cancer and does not have long to live. Baba dies soon after Amir and Soraya get married. All this time, Amir continues to live with his secret and his guilt.
Almost ten years after fleeing Afghanistan, Amir receives a call from Rahim Khan, one of his father’s friends, who has been living in their house in Kabul ever since they left. Rahim tells Amir that Hassan is dead, killed by the Taliban, but Hassan’s little son, Sohrab, is still alive and in an orphanage. He also tells Amir his family secret, that Baba is actually Hassan’s father. For Amir, rescuing Sohrab from Taliban-dominated Afghanistan becomes a way to “be good again.”
Amir goes through a terrible ordeal in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan to find Sohrab and take him to safety of America. In the process, he comes face to face with his old nemesis, Assef – now a Taliban official – and almost dies in the encounter. Their ordeal leaves Sohrab with emotional scars that make him refuse to speak. The story ends on a hopeful note, however, with the boy acting as a kite runner to Amir during a picnic and finally speaking to his uncle – speaking the same words that his father once said to Amir, more than a quarter-century ago.
I liked the book very much, for many reasons, and would readily recommend it to my friends. First, it gives the reader – especially the reader from a Western culture – a new look at Afghanistan. Few people realize that, until the revolution that ended the monarchy and the Soviet invasion that followed, Afghanistan was a vibrant country, with well-developed business community and rich cultural life. The only Afghanistan most people – myself included – know is a backward, destitute ruin of a nation, practically lawless, mired in religious fundamentalism, and poppy growing the only viable industry.
Another reason I liked the book is that it gives the reader a new look at Afghanis. It shows that, in essence, they are people that encounter the same problems and experience the same emotions than any one of us. It makes the readers relate more closely to the characters and, as a result, hopefully reduce the negative bias that so many people feel toward Arabs in the post-9/11 world. Descriptions of Muslim rituals in the book does not take away from their strangeness, but it is, in a way, the same strangeness that can be felt toward similar rituals in Christian and Judaic cultures, for example.