Published in 2003 and set mainly in 1970s Kabul, The Kite Runner is a major international bestseller which has been translated into 47 languages. [At the time of writing, the novel has been bought by over 15,000,000 people (BBC ‘World Book Club’, May 2008).] The novel’s critical reception provides clues on the many factors, both political and literary, that underscore the novel’s commercial success. Careful attention to novel’s social and political contexts, too, is an essential pre-requisite for understanding its cultural nuances and subtle plot details, including the historically resonant cemetery and the symbolically loaded pomegranate tree.
The story opens in San Francisco, where the Afghan-born protagonist, Amir, is happily married yet consumed by guilt. We learn, in chapters devoted to his childhood and early teenage years in Afghanistan, that Amir is the only son of a Pashtun Sunni businessman, described in the novel as “one of the richest merchants in Kabul” (and referred to as ‘Baba’ throughout) (15). Amir is far from happy, however. His mother’s death in childbirth leads him to believe that his father hates him. He is also aware that his father is disappointed at his son’s preference for reading and writing stories over playing sports. Prone to bitterness and nervousness, his only true friend is Hassan, the son of the Hazara Shia servant of Amir’s father. Hassan is loyal and self-sacrificing, whereas the moral ground beneath Amir’s feet is somewhat unstable (BBC ‘World Book Club’, May 2008). This is suggested in the very opening lines of the novel, which allude to Amir’s burden of guilt: “I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years” (1). The episode will be fully revealed later on in the novel. Due to Hassan’s skill, the boys have won a kite-fighting contest, providing Amir with a sense of relief that he can finally gain his father’s respect. Immediately after their win, Hassan goes to run the last cut kite for his friend, which is a great trophy. Unfortunately, he runs into the sadistic Assef, who hates Hazaras and who demands the cut kite from him. When Hassan refuses, Assef rapes him in an alleyway. Amir witnesses this event but does nothing to help, and this betrayal haunts him thereafter. In the intervening period, the Soviet Occupation comes and goes, leaving a bloody civil war in its aftermath and eventually leading to Taliban rule in 1996.
When the Russians invade Afghanistan, Amir and Baba had manage to escape the country. Travelling in appalling conditions with other Afghan refugees, they reach Pakistan and then Fremont in California. In California, the father and son live in a squalid flat near a gas station, where Baba finds work. To make extra money, they sell goods at a flea market, where Amir meets and falls in love with another refugee called Soraya Taheri. Eventually they marry, but soon discover that they cannot have children of their own.
Fifteen years later, Amir receives a phone call from his former childhood mentor, Rahim Khan, who is an old friend of Baba’s. Rahim informs him that Hassan has been killed by the Taliban after being sent to guard Amir’s old Kabul home and refusing to leave the house unguarded. Hassan’s son, Sohrab, has been placed in an orphanage. Rahim wants Amir to return to Afghanistan to rescue the boy, who Amir subsequently discovers is being sexually abused in the house of a Taliban official. The official turns out to be the sadistic Assef, who raped his father all those years ago. Assef allows Amir to rescue the boy on condition that he lets himself be beaten. Sohrab resues Amir from serious injury by hitting Assef in the eye with his slingshot, thereby fulfilling his father’s threat to Assef before the rape in the alleyway many years before. Following his struggle to acquire the paperwork demanded by US immigration authorities, and following the disturbed Sohrab’s attempted suicide, Amir finally manages to bring the boy back to California. By performing these belated acts of self-sacrifice for his old friend Hassan, Amir begins to come to terms with his own guilty past. The novel ends with a kite-flying scene, where Amir runs to get a kite for Sohrab, echoing Hassan’s words when they were young: “For you, a thousand times over” (371).
The relationship between Hassan and Amir is central both to the novel’s plot and to its symbolic universe. The dimensions, and limitations, of their boyhood friendship are perhaps most intensely explored in a graveyard, the description of which is profoundly expressive of the novel’s social and historical context:
There was an old abandoned cemetery atop the hill with rows of unmarked headstones and tangles of brushwood clogging the aisles. Seasons of rain and snow had turned the iron gate rusty and left the cemetery’s low white stone walls in decay. There was a pomegranate tree near the entrance to cemetery. (27)
In many ways the cemetery alludes to Afghanistan’s misfortune of having lain at “the crossroads of empire” (Tanner 2009: 3), a poignant mark of the colonial wars that have plagued the country for centuries. Afghanistan’s very borders reflect a series of subsequent colonial incursions and impositions during the nineteenth century (see Saikal Amin and Stephen Tanner), when Afghanistan was used as a buffer zone between the major competing powers of Russia and British India during the Great Game (note 1). Thus, the “unmarked headstones” and “rusty” iron gate serve as a reminder of the First, Second and Third Anglo-Afghan Wars, while the “tangles of brushwood clo[g] the aisles” indicate that considerable time has elapsed since then. They also pose a symbolic challenge to the boys’ misconception that such conflicts are safely located in the distant past. At this stage in the novel, Baba has already alluded to Afghanistan’s conflict-ridden history: thus, when Amir mentions his classes with Mullah Fatiullah Khan, Baba immediately mentions the brutal Mongol invasions of the thirteenth-century. In this pivotal exchange between father and son, Baba represents the mullah as a pre-Taliban figure imbued with the savagery of Genghis Khan himself: “God help us all if Afghanistan ever falls into their hands” (17). The force of the exchange obviously relies on the reader’s retrospective knowledge that his fear will be realised. The cemetery, then, encapsulates all the war-related deaths and separations to come during the ten-year Soviet-Afghan war (1979-1989), the Afghan Civil War and the onset of Operation Enduring Freedom (2001-present).
The other symbolic element of the setting described above, the pomegranate tree, has a special significance in Afghanistan. As many commentators have observed, decades of warfare during the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have robbed Afghanistan of its architectural riches and have destroyed its reputation of being the “bread basket of Asia”. In the period in which the novel is set Afghanistan was famous for its fruit orchards, especially for the pomegranate trees around the city of Kandahar. During the Soviet Occupation, however, these orchards were heavily mined by both Afghan militia and Soviet soldiers, who also cut down many of the trees. Unable to tend their orchards, thousands of refugees were forced to leave the area. When they returned, they found that the pomegranate orchards had dried up or been chopped down. In response to the economic deprivation that followed, some returnees began growing that most notorious of cash crops: poppies (Ahmed 2000: 20). The pomegranate tree, with its jewel-like pink seeds, is a powerful symbol of hope associated with a bygone era of peace and prosperity.
This makes the post-rape confrontation between the two boys all the more poignant. In the cemetery once again, the boys pick pomegranates together, and Amir hurls them at Hassan, bullying his friend to throw them back at him by way of punishment for his cowardice. In an almost parodic replay of all the wars fought on Afghan soil, Amir hurls a pomegranate at his friend:
“Hit me back!” I snapped. Hassan looked from the stain on his chest to me.
“Get up! Hit me!” I said. Hassan did get up, but he just stood there, looking dazed […] I hit him with another pomegranate, in the shoulder this time. The juice splattered his face […] When I finally stopped, exhausted and panting, Hassan was smeared in red like he’d been shot by a firing squad. (92)
The pomegranate fruit thus functions as a metaphor, not merely of externalized guilt and wounding, but of the nation’s lost riches and its deeply-buried virtues. These virtues, which Hassan embodies, are in one sense Hazara, having been persistently undermined by class divisions and micro-social discord. In a broader sense, however, they are also potentially Afghan.
For all its tragic dimensions, then, the scene – like the novel – is driven by a powerful ethical, even utopian, imperative. It is central both to the symbolic significance of the boys’ friendship and to Amir’s relationship with his own conscience. It intensifies Amir’s secret guilt at his own moral and ethical failings. For all the boys’ shared experiences and meaningful exchanges, the incident confirms that Hassan’s loyalty to Amir is a one way street. When in public, Amir constantly caves in to wider social pressures to draw a class line between himself and Hassan. In this scene, the limited terms of his friendship are exposed in private. At the moment of their exposure, even the loyal Hassan walks away in disgust. Amir’s growing knowledge of his friend’s spiritual greatness only exacerbates his own sense of worthlessness. Rather than bringing about Amir’s repentance, however, the pomegranate-throwing scene prefigures one final offence against Hassan in the shape of a malicious and false accusation that the Hazara boy had stolen his watch (p.104). In framing Hassan, and relying on his friend’s loyalty not to expose his own malevolence, Amir’s friendship with Hassan perpetuates, rather than puts an end to, the wider persecution of the Hazara people. This persecution is, ultimately, symbolised by the rape of Hassan and his subsequent humiliation at having to serve his assailants drinks “from a silver platter” (p.100). More broadly, Hassan’s humiliation mirrors the degradation of his nation as a whole. Long framed by the colonial powers as brutal and unruly, Afghanistan has for centuries had to serve other nations against its own best interests.
Given that the boys turn out to be blood relations, Amir’s repeated act of drawing a class distinction turns out to be both ironic and futile. Their literal kinship serves as a reminder of the potential spiritual kinship among all Afghans, regardless of their identification as Hazara, Pashtun, Tajik and so on. Inexorably, the novel’s moral impetus leads in this direction, gradually drawing Amir into the realisation that he is, or ought to be, his brother’s keeper.
The Kite Runner was a major international bestseller, with reviews highlighting various aspects of the novel’s success. On one hand, it was widely praised for its delicate handling of universal themes. A reviewer for the Denver Post called it “a beautiful novel” about “fathers and sons, humans and their gods, men and their countries” (in Hosseini 2003: x), while another critic believed it to be “a profound work of literature with a rare healing power” (The Buffalo News, in Hosseini 2003: xi). On the other hand, The Kite Runner was deemed to be a “timely political chronicle” with “ramifications […for] both America and the Middle East” (Publishers’ Weekly, Hosseini 2003 x). Hosseini’s novel was thus appealing in two regards: it was both “timeless” and “timely”. This twin attribute is summarized most poignantly in the following excerpt which appears in a review in Kirkus: “[ra]ther than settling for a coming-of-age or travails-of-immigrant story, Hosseini has folded them both into this searing spectacle of hard-won personal salvation. All this, and a rich slice of Afghan culture too: irresistible” (Hosseini 2003: xiii). Here, as in other similar pieces, the celebration of its “timeless” quality speaks of the novel’s universal dimension, its transcendence of the “parochial” or “transitory”. The novel’s commercial success was nonetheless also very much a function of its perceived “timeliness”. Published in 2003, at a critical juncture in US-Afghan relations, The Kite Runner was perceived as offering insights, literary and even ethnographic, into a nation that had become the focus of international media attention since the declaration of the War on Terror and the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan on October 7th, 2001. In this context, the novel had an almost instant appeal as a humanizing supplement to Afghanistan’s news coverage depiction as a war battleground, providing “an extraordinary perspective on the struggles of a country that, until that doleful September day, had been too long ignored or misunderstood” (in Hosseini 2003: pxii).
As a potential source of historical and cultural knowledge to provide context and depth to brief journalistic despatches, The Kite Runner was often seen less as a piece of fiction than as “a lesson” on Hosseini’s “culture and the history of his beloved homeland” (The Buffalo News, in Hosseini 2003: xi), offering a much needed “sympathetic portrayal of Afghans and Afghan culture” (The Chicago Tribune in Hosseini 2003: xii). The novel provided a “view from inside” or “from below”, the much-sought perspective of the “native informant”; hence Hosseini often implicitly figured in critics’ reviews as a kind of ethnographer cum anthropologist (Ansari, 2008: 49; Shaw, 1995: 66). The novel’s implied alignment with a form of ethnographic knowledge produced by a perceived cultural insider means that The Kite Runner tends to accrue legitimating authority and assume a representative function. In other words, the novel is unofficially charged with the role of speaking for, and on behalf of, Afghans, and thus responding to a popular desire for knowledge and understanding of the ‘Other’.
The Kite Runner is indeed faithful to certain historical and cultural details of Afghanistan’s recent past. Nevertheless, there are larger ethical and political issues at stake in recommending the novel as a source of knowledge. Reviewers had very little reason to quarrel with the novel’s depiction of the Taliban, which tended to reinforce generalized myths of them as fundamentally pre-modern, morally bankrupt and sexually perverted without any sustained reference to the organisation’s cultural or geo-political origins. This may explain the lack of critical engagement with the novel’s conceptualisation of Afghanistan’s recent past. There are other, more pressing reasons why it is problematic to confer on Hosseini the role of “native informant”. Not only does it promote a mimetic reading of a literary text, but it is slightly disingenuous to bestow the role of Afghan spokesperson on a best-selling author and son of a Kabul diplomat who currently resides in California. More generally, however, the act of conferring on any person the power to speak for, and on behalf of, the Afghan people, overlooks two important principles which Stuart Hall had highlighted. First, that (s)he who represents and (s)he who is represented are rarely one and the same (Hall 1990: 225). Second, that Afghan identity is not an ‘already accomplished fact’, which simply has to be represented in novels such as The Kite Runner. Rather it is actively ‘produced’ by all writing about Afghanistan, whether journalistic, novelistic, ethnographic or explicitly informational (note 2). Reviewers may have coveted cultural knowledge about Afghanistan, but in seeking this knowledge in The Kite Runner, the unstated goal was that of an essentialized Afghan subject or the chimeric notion of an ‘Afghan culture’.
To return to the issue of the novel’s commercial success, there are two further factors, other than its much-praised literary qualities, underlying its popularity. One such element is the metaphorical appeal of its title, which was likely to have had a particular resonance for news audiences in the United States and Europe at the time of its first publication. Around the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, kite-flying was a salient reporting theme and a highly potent symbol of Taliban oppression. Shortly after the Taliban came to power, the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice issued an edict forbidding kite-flying, a ban that became a strong focus of interest for the media. Kite-flying has powerful cultural connotations of freedom and childhood innocence, encapsulated in the joy of “watc[h]ing them soar and dive”, as correspondent Christina Lamb puts it (in Fowler 2007: 107). During the early phase of Operation Enduring Freedom, kite-flying became synonymous with the Taliban’s moral depravity; at best they were spoil-sports, at worst destructive opponents of playful innocence. As Hosseini himself explained when discussing the origins of his first novel in a BBC interview: “I had learned […] in Spring 1999 about the banning of kite-flying in Kabul […] and it struck me as such a uniquely cruel thing to do, to deny those kids who already had nothing this small pleasure” (“World Book Club”, 2nd May, 2008). More generally, however, kite-flying came to metonymically stand for Taliban malevolence, thus subliminally contributing to the humanitarian argument on behalf of Operation Enduring Freedom. The extent to which Hosseini’s first novel is complicit with this process is difficult to determine.
Despite the title’s political currency, however, The Kite Runner very likely acted as a corrective to an entrenched tendency among western reporters to equate Afghan “fighter-kites” with a perceived cultural predilection for warfare. This view has its roots in the disastrous First and Second Anglo-Afghan Wars, which generated many Anglophone historical, poetic and fictional accounts of Afghanistan. The most influential of these colonial writings have been Rudyard Kipling’s poem entitled “The Young British Soldier”, which was much-cited by western news feature-writers between 2001 and 2002, and Sir Alfred Lyall’s 1881 poem “The Amir’s Soliloquy”. Lyall’s poem contains a line describing “the unruly Afghan”, a notion that the poet inherited from old Persian prejudices about Afghanistan [interestingly, ‘unruly’ is a term also deployed by the novel in relation to Baba’s character (p. 12)] and yet which has been widely quoted, notably in an ethnography about a horseback game from Afghanistan called buzkashi (note 3). Indeed, reporters who have also written travel accounts of Afghanistan, such as Christina Lamb and Christopher Kremmer, have tended to pathologize games such as kite-fighting, seeing them as symptomatic of cultural ill-health. Thus Lamb writes:
Kite-flying was [an…] unexpectedly martial sport […] I had wondered why the kites had no tails and why so many ended up in trees and powerlines. Then it was explained to me that the point of kites was not to watch them soar and dive in the sky but to use them to fight other children’s kites. Warrior kites. (in Fowler 2007: 107).
This tendency, in turn, reflects the influential work of Afghan ethnographer Louis Dupree, who saw Afghan games as indicative of a perceived cultural preference for “brute strength” over “skill” and “violent contact” over mental exertion” (Fowler 2007: 106).
It is important to end with one further key factor that boosted sales of The Kite Runner. In 2008, the film of the same name was released in cinemas throughout the world. Directed by Marc Forster, it was screened in mainstream cinemas and was generally regarded as a critical success in its own right, fetching $73,276,969 in box offices worldwide.
1. This phrase was originally coined by Kipling and widely used
ever since. As Lord Curzon wrote in the nineteenth century,
“Afghanistan [...had become] the pieces on a chessboard upon which
[...was] being played out a game for the domination of the world”
(in Saikal, Amin, 2006, Modern Afghanistan, London: I.B.
Tauris, p. 26). The Great Game concept has subsequently been
adapted to talk of a New Great Game, a term commonly applied to the
military operations in Afghanistan since 2001.
2. This point is also informed by Stuart Hall’s discussion of representation in his essay ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’, published in 1990.
3. Whitney Azoy, 2003, Buzkashi, Game and Power in Afghanistan, Illinois: Waveland Press. For a more detailed description of the Persian-Afghan relationship, see Tanner, S., 2009, Afghanistan. A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War Against the Taliban, Da Capro Press. For further information about buzkashi, see Corinne Fowler, 2007, Chasing Tales: travel writing, journalism and the history of British ideas about Afghanistan.
Ansari, Usamah, 2008, ““Should I Go and Pull Her Burqa Off?”:
Feminist Compulsions, Insider Consent, and a Return to
Kandahar” Critical Studies in Media Communication,
Azoy, Whitney, 2003, Buzkashi, Game and Power in Afghanistan, Illinois: Waveland Press.
BookPage, 2004, book review, June 7.
Buffalo News, The, 2004, book review, January 16.
Chicago Tribune, 2004, book review April 9.
Denver Post, The, 2003, book review, October 21.
Fowler, Corinne, 2007, Chasing Tales: travel writing, journalism and the history of British ideas about Afghanistan, Rodopi: Amsterdam and New York.
Hall, Stuart, 1990, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora”, in Identity, ed. by J. Rutherford, 222-237.
Hosseini, Khaled, 2004, The Kite Runner, Riverhead trade paperback edition.
Kirkus Reviews, 2003, book review, December 1.
Publishers Weekly, 2003, book review, September 1.
Rashid, Ahmed, 2000, Taliban. Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia, London: IB Tauris.
Saikal, Amin, 2006, Modern Afghanistan, London: I.B.Tauris.
San Antonio Express-News, 2003, Book review, December 14.
Shaw, Rosalind, 1995, “Feminist Anthropology and the Gendering of Religious Studies” in Ursula King, ed., Religion and Gender, London: Blackwell.
Tanner, Stephen, 2009, Afghanistan. A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War Against the Taliban, Da Capro Press.
http://boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=KiteRunner.htm, accessed 10th December, 2009.
Citation: Fowler, Corinne. "The Kite Runner". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 18 December 2009 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/sworks.php?rec=true&UID=23019, accessed 04 October 2023.]