When we Americans think of Afghanistan, we think of terrorist training camps, Al Qaida, Osama bin Laden, war, women in drab burkas, repression of women, bazaars, deserts, and more lately of Hamid Karzai in his green robes.
The Kite Runner introduces us to an Afghanistan we don’t know about. Until the mid 1970ies, the country was a monarchy. The monarchy was overthrown by a relative of the king. Some years later, the Russians invaded, starting decades of war, terror, turmoil and gradual degradation of all services, institutions, law and order, as well as laying the foundation for the eventual rise of the Taliban. The Taliban, originally seen as liberators from oppression and war, soon started dismantling human rights, intellectualism, any modernism that was left after the ravages of war, rights of women in all forms, all in the name of God – under Islam.
In Afghanistan, flying kites is an ancient pastime or sport for children as well as adults. The strings are coated with a type of glass that makes them sharp. Kids flying the kites will invariably get their hands and arms cut bloody, and this is seen as a “battle scar” and it earns honor. In festivals or tournaments, dozens of kites enter. The object is to cut the stings of the other kites by executing deft maneuvers of one kite with relation to another. The last remaining kite is the winner. When a kite is cut, it obviously starts tumbling down. Boys then run for the kites, trying to catch them. Depending on the wind and the altitude and attitude of the kite when it was cut, this could involve many city blocks or other terrain, so catching a kite is not trivial. He who catches a kite is respected and also earns honor, let alone keeping the kite. The kids running for the kites are called the “Kite Runners.”
Incidentally, I remember reading some years ago in a magazine about kites being banned in, I think, Pakistan, because the strings stretching across entire neighborhoods were too dangerous and many children were severely cut by accident. Obviously, if a string is sharp enough to cut another kite, and bloody the hands of the flyer, it is certainly able to cut the throat of an innocent child, if the child were to run into a stretched string, or perhaps ride a bike into it.
I suspect the story is quite autobiographical, to a degree. The protagonist is Amir, a boy whose life we follow from about age 10 to middle age. He grows up in a well-to-do household, raised by a single father, Baba, who is a successful merchant. Baba takes care of relatives, neighbors and strangers, anyone with honor who needs help. He even builds an orphanage in Kabul. He is one of the most prominent citizens of Kabul. There are photographs of Baba’s father, Amir’s grandfather, with the king.
Over a period of years, starting with the Russians, and ending with the Taliban, any respected citizen and successful person is either killed or driven away. Baba and Amir end up in America, living in Fremont, California. Baba starts working day and night as a laborer in a gas station, eventually becoming the gas station manager. He also works the swap meet every Sunday, selling junk he buys from garage sales on Saturday, driving routes with Amir in an old VW Bus. We watch a prominent citizen become a laborer in a foreign country. We find there are doctors, lawyers, judges and generals, all working the swap meet in Hayward.
I now have a different appreciation for the taxi drivers, has station attendants, convenience store clerks from obvious Middle Eastern descent we routinely come into contact with in California. I want to ask them for their stories. The mechanic fixing your tire could be an orthopedic surgeon in his home country.
This book is about honor and depravity. We witness a stoning of two people at halftime at a soccer game, done by a high-ranking Taliban member, in the name of God, in front of thousands of spectators. We witness the class society of the old Afghanistan. We understand why Shia and Sunnis don’t want to cooperate in Iraq.
If George Bush had read the Kite Runner, he might have thought twice about invading Iraq, as he would have known that dismantling the country and toppling the regime would be the easy part, but putting the society back together on the ancient sentiments of discrimination, racism, disrespect and hate would be almost impossible.
The Kite Runner is also an epic story, one of honor and loyalty, passed through the generations, one of lies and deceit fueled by that very honor, resulting in a frightening mosaic of deception and untruth. Honor is valued above truth, above freedom and above the right of an individual.
This book gives us a window into a society we know very little about, and after reading it, we have a chance to better understand what happened to Afghanistan and what is going on there now. It stops being an obscure desert nation in the Middle East, and it starts becoming a place with a rich heritage, a beautiful people and an ancient culture.