In the last half century, Afghanistan has endured war after war, first externally with the Soviet Union (1979-1989), then internally among political factions vying for power in the post-Soviet nation. In the 1990s, the Taliban had already organized in Northern Pakistan and after years of turmoil under foreign rule, Afghans wanted nothing but restoration of the security and culture of their nation. The Taliban, who rose to prominence in the autumn of 1994, offered a solution: strict adherence and enforcement of Islamic Sharia laws. In 2001, a U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban, and, with support from the United Nations, Hamid Karzai formed a new government.
This is the historical picture of Afghanistan from the last forty years. The trials met and survived speak to the resilience of the Afghan people, and it is this experience that Afghan-born Khaled Hosseini reflects in his novels, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.
The Kite Runner, Hosseini’s debut novel published in 2004, focuses on the friendship between two boys: the wealthy Amir and his servant Hassan. Class alone does not make their friendship inappropriate; ethnicity and religion, too, have a hand. Amir hails from Pashtun roots and worships as a Sunni Muslim, while Hassan is a Hazara and a Shi’a Muslim. By these differences alone, Hosseini sets the stage for a major conflict of the story, when the Taliban takes control of the government in Afghanistan, for the Taliban traces its root to a Pashtun- and Sunni-dominant militant sect from Pakistan.
Amir lives with his father Baba in a fine house in Kabul, with Hassan’s father and Baba’s childhood friend Rahim Khan and Hassan living in a small structure in the yard. The title alludes to the kite-fighting skills of the boys, who compete in the winter tournament with other boys. In this competition, Amir launches the kite, and Hassan chases after kites that others have severed. He is the “kite runner.”
One kite run that ends in a brutal atrocity against Hassan, which Amir witnesses but does not stop, changes their friendship forever.
The chapters jump through time, following Amir as he and his father run from the increasing tension in Afghanistan, moving from Kabul to Pakistan to Fremont, California. The events in Afghanistan serve as a stormy backdrop, not the main focus, of Amir’s true conflict – guilt for abandoning Hassan, a feeling of disloyalty towards one who only ever acted loyally towards him.
Through Amir’s story, Hosseini narrates about the Afghani experience as refuges in Pakistan and then America, running from war and, in Amir’s case, the past.
A Thousand Splendid Suns tells a different story, though still set primarily in Kabul. It follows the lives of two girls from vastly different circumstances – Mariam, the illegitimate daughter of wealthy businessman Jalil, and Laila, the only daughter of a more progressive family in Kabul – who nevertheless come together as friends to face the adversities that attack them and savor what joys they can catch.
Ashamed of her, Jalil moved Mariam and her mother, his former servant, to a small cottage on the outskirts of the city Herat, visiting Mariam once a week with gifts, stories, and a facade of goodwill. When her mother dies, Jalil marries Mariam to a successful shoemaker in Kabul, Rasheed, whose first impression of compassion and care dissolve in little time, replaced by scorn and abuse.
Laila was born not long after Rasheed and Mariam’s marriage, and the night that the Soviet Union began occupation of Afghanistan. Rivaling factions fought over government control after the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989, erupting in even more war, especially in Kabul. Bombs flew daily, forcing Afghans, including Laila’s best friend and love Tariq, to flee to Pakistan and overseas.
A bomb at her house orphans Laila, and she finds shelter with Rasheed, who seeks another wife, and Mariam, who over a decade of marriage has beaten. Rasheed courts and weds Laila, and the same charade of niceties as he used with Mariam unfolds. It ends the same way: with blows.
A decade of conflict wages in Afghanistan, acting, as in The Kite Runner, as a backdrop for the personal battles of Mariam and Laila against an abusive husband and increasingly restrictive Sharia law enforcement by the new government authorities, the Taliban.
Through Mariam’s and Laila’s perspectives and unlikely friendship, Hosseini narrates about the Afghani experience living in the midst of the tensions and bloodshed in Kabul, and the pursuit of hope and love despite all circumstances.
I recommend these books for anyone seeking greater understanding of this land, its people, and its history. Hosseini’s masterful pen ties culture, history, and story in a tapestry that war has torn and marred and that the Afghan people have patched with bittersweet memories and dreams for a better future. It tells of war through the eyes of the victims, and the lives lived in it and around it and in spite of it.
Note: In 2013 Hosseini also published another book on Afghanistan called And the Mountains Echoes, which I have not read. See the author’s website for more details.