There has been generally positive feedback and acceptance of The Kite Runner book of Khaled Hosseini published in 2003. It was made into a movie three years later and released in 2008. It garnered the South African Boeke Prize and other citations while Nielsen BookScan declared it the United States first best seller for 2005 (Lea, 2006).
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Afghanistan has not produced a lot of books in the past and it was an achievement for Khlaed Hosseini to be able to come up with a best seller in a western setting.
The Kite Runner is the story of Amir, his childhood friend Hassan who was poor, his indomitable father Baba, and how Amir went through his life with them and others. Despite the loyalty of Hassan by sacrificing for the sake of Amir, Amir felt jealous of Hassan as he noticed Baba giving Hassan more attention than him. Baba, on the other hand found Amir as a weakling, and this was aggravated further when while serving Amir, Hassan was raped by a bully Assef. Amir felt guilty and in fact started to distance himself from Hassan, until he made a scheme accusing Hassan as theft. Hassan and his father Ali left from the place of Baba until chaos reigned in Afghanistan.
Amir and Baba fled to Peshawar, Pakistan and then later to the United States at Fremont, California. While they lived in abundance in Afghanistan, in the US, they were forced to stay at an old and dilapidated apartment. Baba worked as a gas station attendant. In their Sundays, they sold used clothes in flea market where Amir met Soraya Taheri who soon became his wife prior to the death of Baba. However, the couple could not bear a child.
He soon received a call from Baba’s best friend and business partner in Afghanistan – Rahim Khan. Rahim Khan told Amir about Hassan’s fate, Hassan’s true father who is also Baba, and Hassan’s son Sohrab taken by Assef who already became a Taliban member. Amir worked through the adaptation of Sohrab, and after a decade-long of difficulty, finally able to bring Sohrab with him in the U.S.
The Kite Runner depicts both social and political scenario in Afghanistan in a time frame that includes pre-Russian invasion when there was relative peace in the area. Enterprising individuals such as depicted by Baba were able to put up livelihood and commerce. During this time, however, as any other society, classes of peoples were already at place: the poor as helpers or servants, and those who are moneyed as master. This was depicted in the story of Amir, who, despite befriending Hassan, maintained his distance as the master. Amir went to school and Hassan did not.
The socio-political scenario is further depicted clearly in a passage about the thoughts of Amir during winter, which it was written:
I smile. The sky is seamless and blue, the snow so white my eyes burn. I shovel a handful of the fresh snow into my mouth, listen to the mufﬂed stillness broken only by the cawing of crows. I walk down the front steps, barefoot, and call for Hassan to come out and see.
Winter was every kid’s favorite season in Kabul, at least those whose fathers could afford to buy a good iron stove…”
Afghanistan, however, had been mired with civil wars, the large gap between those who have and those who have-nots, the majority of those afflicted with poverty, land mines victims, war victims, and other man-made calamities and depravities (CIA, 2009) which were briefly depicted in the book where Amir and Baba fled together with other migrants to neighboring Pakistan, and later to the United States. The book used the dire situation of Afghanistan as a background for personal challenges and travails that were affecting a large Asian nation in general.
Hosseini’s book, as Miller noted, captivated readers with its “enthralling tale of family, forgiveness, and friendship.” Aside from this, it has also been noted for Rahim Khan’s words that “there is a way to be good again,” (Miller, 2008, P 1). There is the innocent depiction of a young boy and his friend, the conflict about Amir’s trying to win the affection of his father Baba, the stereotype of Baba as wishing for his son to be as strong as himself, Amir’s own personal conflicts such as having watched his childhood friend Hassan raped in front of him and yet not being able to lift a finger, the need to frame up his friend in order to send him away, and his continuing battle to win his father’s affection.
Hosseini was able to provide a chronological narrative that interpolates socio-political and personal conflicts despite a life of relative comfort. Through Hosseini’s effective depiction of the socio-political situation in Afghanistan in that certain period, readers were treated of a word outside what may be familiar. We have often read about the war torn Afghanistan, of land mines killing or crippling children, malnutrition and poverty death toll, lack of food and water supply, the dire poverty, and lots of it. Accompanied with photos, it was not difficult to perceive Afghanistan as a location that should be avoided, at all cost, we often ask ourselves how people could exist in such a place.
The idea I find intriguing is Hosseini’s use of the John Lennon t-shirt worn by antagonist Assef. While this portion may be a passing idea of using popular culture to depict that Afghanistan caught up with western civilization if only for featuring a popular rock icon print shirt, it may mean a lot of other more things that critic Miller may have missed. Miller quoted a wide portion of Iranian literature specialist Dr. Fatemeh Keshavarz from Washington University in St. Louis to argue that, “The Kite Runner is perhaps less obvious in its demonization of the Muslim world and glorification of the Western world,” (Miller, 2008, P 4), I would want to argue otherwise.
Hosseini, through The Kite Runner had been labeled as “new orientalist” by Miller and Keshavarz whom Miller quoted extensively, for depicting anti-Muslim sentiments as well as advancing “western” practices as the good, and Muslim as the evil.
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Far from their understanding, I would like to point out the positive thoughts that Hosseini cultivated about Afghanistan through its main characters. First of all, through Baba. Baba embodied the hardworking, ambitious, kind-hearted, and generous Afghan. In the book, it had never been mentioned that Baba was a Christian, or he espoused Western beliefs. But he definitely was as good as any religion or pagan may perceive as good, as compared to indifferent or really evil characters.
Second is that Assef, the Taliban antagonist, idolized Hitler, the one true western depiction of evil imperialism. While Assef may have been identified as a Taliban, his preference for a hero such as Hitler is something that cannot be swept easily under the rag. It was not clear why there should be opposing ideals with Miller’s statement that “Baba loves America, while Assef is an admirer of Hitler,” (Miller, 2008, P 5).
To flee from war and land in an open country like the United States is not so much a preference as a choice. It was not clear in the book that Baba preferred or worked his way to get to the United States. The US at the time was using Afghanistan to neutralize the cold war against the communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR). It was not so much to offer Afghans a refuge. It was a stage, a show that the US needs more than Baba needs to migrate.
Then, lastly, as I mentioned earlier, is Assef’s John Lennon t-shirt. John Lennon is a popular culture icon that although voiced his dissent against the war in Vietnam, have chosen to migrate to New York and leave Liverpool England, his town. John Lennon both loved the United States’ way of life and hated its foreign policy during the period, although John Lennon was a expatriate himself. Why Hosseini had to picture Assef wearing a John Lennon t-shirt is a statement in itself. I would not insist that it meant Assef supported John Lennon’s anti-Vietnam war sentiments, but I would not also discount that John Lennon is a Western icon of commercialism and even imperialism.
For me, the main theme of the book is that there is time to show what real strength is and that perseverance must go with it. I am pointing this out as Amir was himself never the focus character that was Baba. Baba was the hero.
However, through Amir’s story, the book is “humanized”, reduced to depicting real-life struggles of less perfect, less strong and often mistaken beings. This despite the many failures that seem to have mounted up against Amir in Hassan’s case alone. Amir seemed to be a reluctant participant in his own doings: indifference while Hassan was being raped, framing up Hassan as a thief, letting Hassan leave despite the consequences of the political situation of Afghanistan at that time. In the end, Amir was given a shot to recall and make amends all the evil things he has done against his childhood friend Hassan through Sohrab.
This theme pervaded throughout the story. It has seemed too slow as well as anti-climactic when Amir had to experience the negative consequences of Hassan’s faithfulness and loyalty to him. Hassan has sacrificed his own good for the sake of Amir and even claiming to provide more than Hassan could, but what he got was abandonment and indifference.
As mentioned earlier, my real question is why Hosseini made Assef the antagonist wear a John Lennon t-shirt. Miller has suggested the West has been glorified in the book, but I would rather say it was not. Miller’s concluding note was: “For anyone who has been to, or studies the Middle East, it is obvious that these accounts are gross distortions of the full reality on the ground there. It is not wrong to identify and write about the flaws of a particular country, religion, or ideology, but it is wrong and dishonest when an author’s writings systematically dehumanizes and reduces an entire culture and religion to the actions of its extremists. Especially, when these are the same people and countries that our leaders tell us need to be attacked and occupied by our military.”
There may be certain romantization on the part of Hosseini for depicting a glamorous Afghanistan, and Miller’s observation must be partly true. This does not make Miller correct at all points. While Amir did migrate and raised his family in the US, the book did not indicated that he converted to any western religion or belief. He did his part which he believe was to atone some of his faults to Sohrab’s father not to atone “Christian” sins or exemplify western values of family, forgiveness and friendship, but because family, forgiveness and friendship are a long term Asian tradition long before its shores were shown how to use cannons and guns.
I would like to compare Baba, the strong father and Amir, the weak, book-loving narrator. Baba was seen as the bigger hero in the book for showing virtues through and through even when challenged as someone who was not capable. His shadow is cast on Amir, the weakling, helpless youth who relied on his servant to fight for him. Baba did what he had to do like a real leader, committed and dedicated. Amir, on the other hand was told of what to do, without his own motivation, but just his guilt, and the people around him as guide.
Baba is enterprising, who built an orphanage, established a business, married an educated woman, and himself a philanthropist. Amir was focused on reading and writing, never going beyond himself to work out what has made him guilty of. Instead, he was capable of harming one friend who had done him all the favor including dedicating a life for his own good. Amir seem to be a selfish, self-centered person while Baba gave himself for others. As it was written:
Baba heaved a sigh of impatience. That stung too, because he was not an impatient man. I remembered all the times he didn’t come home until after dark, all the times I ate dinner alone. I’d ask Ali where Baba was, when he was coming home, though I knew full well he was at the construction site, overlooking this, supervising that. Didn’t that take patience? I already hated all the kids he was building the orphanage for; sometimes I wished they’d all died along with their parents.
The book was written with a seemingly detached, innocence of a young Amir, who was nestled safe and un-touched under his father’s care and influence, or affluence. While friendship may have been explored to show better reciprocal actions on the part of Amir for Hassan, the book failed to explore further than adopting a friend’s son as if a consolation as Amir and Soraya cannot have a child of their own. There seem to be consequences quite shallow amidst the difficult life of the poor depicted in the book through Hazaran servants. It also failed to show how deep poverty has afflicted a nation.
Application on how ideas and themes in the book relate to life
For me, I learned from the book other forms of torture that may be given to other children in other parts of the world. Pedophilia is also pictured differently as a pure infliction of pain and not lust. It will influence my own understanding of migration, power play between imperialists, as well as about the word equality, if there is such a thing.
I believe that the success of The Kite Runner is its use of the universal “triumph of good over evil” and that the “new orientalist” labeling is a misreading of “anti-imperialism” sentiments. I strongly disagree with Miller when he proposed that the book depicts western as good and the Muslim as bad but it tried to depict as neutrally as possible what Hosseini might have observed, seen or experienced of Afghanistan. This, as I said earlier, may have been romanticized, but it still presented other details that could have easily been overlooked when the book was not published at all.
New Orientalism is a strong discriminatory view about Asians and Muslims in general having to compare always an English written text against popular literary norms based on western tradition. This may not be avoided at all, as I said, if a book is written in English. However, the same cannot be said of books written in “other” tongues or languages aside from western. This should not be an overarching obsession of critics. Merit should be provided on virtue of depicting truths as may have been experienced by the characters of a story such as The Kite Runner and not dismissed it as generalized western shadowing of norms.
Central Intelligence Agency. (2009). “Afghanistan.” The World Factbook. Web.
Hosseini, Khaled. (2003). The Kite Runner. Riverhead Books.
Lea, Richard. (2006). “Word-of-mouth success gets reading group vote.” The Guardian.
Miller, Matthew Thomas. (2008). “The Kite Runner Critiqued: New Orientalism Goes to the Big Screen.” Common Dreams. Web.