A few years ago, I read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. To say that the book changed my life sounds too much like a cliche, so I’ll say this: that book is in my top 20 list of books I’ve ever read. I’ve read a lot of books. But I stumbled upon A Thousand Splendid Suns at precisely the right time; I was still in my hometown, my small high school of mostly white kids, my parents and friends’ parents who weren’t necessarily racists but who had some opinions that definitely were discriminatory. It was a small, happy life. That book shook me out of it.
Few things have made me angrier in the last couple of years than people I know associating the word ‘terrorist’ to ‘Muslim.’ I remember carrying A Thousand Splendid Suns around and someone in my art class asking why I’d want to read a book about filthy terrorists- and that day something snapped in me, the last thread that bound me to the ignorant and lazy ideals of my childhood. I felt ashamed. I’d learn later that this was good, that I was recognizing my white privilege, that I’d be a better human being for it eventually. But at the moment I felt sure no one had grown up with the same beliefs I did, that I was some kind of racist for being born and growing up in an area that supported slightly racist ideals. Shame was a stage of my white racial identity, a stage I stayed in for quite some time.
Since then, I’ve become friends with Muslims from all over the world, even falling in love with a Muslim who I could’ve spent my forever with. I’ve seen and touched prayer rugs, covered myself to enter mosques, eaten Halal chicken. Islam is a beautiful religion, something that cannot be polluted with incorrect associations made by ignorant white Americans. Khaled Hosseini’s books are blessings: they give these ignorant white Americans the chance to understand, to let go of their prejudices despite the comfort those prejudices might bring, and to enter into the real world struggles and beauties of Afghanistan.
The Kite Runner is a shocking book. It’s heavy. It’s a story of a haunting, of the past permeating the present and the future. It’s the story of a secret, and how a sinful secret can be a talisman of your entire life.
Amir, the main character and first-person narrator of the story, is a privileged child. His father, Baba, boasts a great house, garden, and servants: Ali and his son Hassan. While Amir and Baba represent Pashtuns (Sunni Muslims) who are widely accepted in Afghanistan, Ali and Hassan represent Hazaras (Sh’ia Muslims) who are extremely oppressed in the country. Despite this difference, Baba treats Ali and Hassan like family, and Amir is best friends with Hassan.
Despite this obvious love, however, Amir feels a resentment towards Hassan. Amir’s father seems to relate more to Hassan, an athletic boy, while appearing confused at Amir’s fascination with poems. Because of this resentment, Amir begins exercising a malice towards Hassan, a malice that a child cannot possibly comprehend the heaviness of. ‘Would you eat dirt if I told you to?’ Amir asks Hassan, mocking his undying loyalty. Hassan responds: ‘If you asked, I would. But I wonder, would you ever ask me to do such a thing, Amir agha?’ Hassan is a conundrum for Amir: he represents the eternal love Amir has in his heart, but also the bitter hatred Amir has for the acute absence of a relationship with his father. Hassan is simply too good for the world of a Hazara, too loyal to someone who couldn’t possibly understand loyalty and who therefore couldn’t reciprocate it. ‘For you, a thousand times over.’ My favorite line of the novel, one repeated by Hassan to Amir constantly, even when Amir proves to be malicious and unloving.
The horror I felt at reading Hassan’s rape was astounding. I felt uncomfortable, desperate for the moment to stop. I, like Amir, felt frozen, unable to help or to retaliate or to move. Amir wins a kite tournament, a huge accomplishment in Kabul, which wins over some respect from his father. Hassan, happy to help, runs after the kite for Amir. And because it’s for Amir, he refuses to give the kite up when Assef, the worst bully I’ve ever met in literature, demands him to. In punishment, Assef and his gang rape Hassan, claiming Hazaras deserve it. And for a horrifying moment, Amir thinks the same: ”Was it fair? He was just a Hazara, wasn’t he?’ Amir runs, proving to us that he does not know loyalty, that he does not value Hassan the same way Hassan values him. Amir exercises his privilege because it saves him. It makes for an easier life. But this decision haunts him. This decision ruins him.
Years later, Amir is happy and successful in America. He’s married, a published writer, and an adjusted Afghani transplant. At times he wonders where Hassan is, if he’s married, if he knows that Amir saw what happened to him, if he knows that it was because of Amir that he and Ali were sent away from them. But it isn’t until after Baba’s death, after Rahim Khan (Baba’s best friend) calls Amir explaining that he too is dying that Amir accepts that Hassan and the secret he’s kept is an unflinching part of his reality. Rahim Khan urges Amir to come to Pakistan saying: ‘Come. There is a way to be good again.’ A beautiful sentence, hinting at the fact that someone else knows the dark secret Amir has tried to smother. I doubt Amir believed there was a way to be good again. I doubt he felt that he could atone for what he’d done. But the slight possibility of atonement, the short sentence, the brisk hope, it felt like a sunrise to me. And to Amir it most likely felt like a sunrise that wouldn’t stop peeking in through his window. At this point in the novel, I couldn’t stop reading. I felt propelled by hope, by terror, by anguish.
‘And I dream that someday you will return to Kabul to revisit the land of our childhood. If you do, you will find an old faithful friend waiting for you.’ The last words Hassan wrote to Amir before his execution. Before he was murdered in cold blood, shot in the back of the head, followed by his wife. Even after the pain Amir inflicted, the pomegranates he flung at Hassan, trying to get Hassan to fight back, even after the formation of the secret (which Hassan most likely knew), Hassan loves and gives. Rahim Khan reveals the deaths of Hassan and his wife, begs Amir to help Sohrab, the child left behind, sent to an orphanage. Rahim Khan urges Amir to go to Kabul, to the orphanage, and to take Sohrab to a safer place, an orphanage run by Americans in Pakistan. ‘I can’t go to Kabul,’ Amir says, terrified of the dangers in the capitol, the terrorism that has gripped his childhood home. ‘I think we both know why it has to be you.’ Rahim Khan speaks of redemption, something that terrifies Amir. Amir’s sadness is trumped by anger when Rahim Khan reveals something further: Hassan’s father was not Ali, but Baba. Amir and Hassan are half-brothers, neither of them knowing, Baba knowing all along. Amir has lost his brother. Amir let his brother be raped. Amir had a brother.
‘I looked at the round face in the Polaroid again, the way the sun fell on it. My brother’s face. Hassan had loved me once, loved me in a way that no one ever had or ever would again. He was gone now, but a little part of him lived on. It was in Kabul. Waiting.’ Amir’s soul knows it has to go to Kabul, has to rescue Sohrab, before his mind can make a decision. He goes.
My one issue I have with this story is that there are way too many BIG shocks and coincidences. The fact that Baba is Hassan’s father is a big moment. It makes the story larger, makes Amir’s shame larger. This is the first shock. The second comes in Kabul, after Amir finds out that the Taliban has purchased Sohrab from the orphanage, after Amir attends a disgusting public execution, after Amir arranges a meeting with the agha Sahib, leader of the Talib in the region. The first time the reader meets Sohrab we see him dressed in bells, done up in make-up, being mocked by the Talib leader who touches Sohrab and bends him over on command. And then the Talib leader reveals his identity: Assef, the nightmare bully from Amir and Hassan’s childhood (the second big shock of the story). Amir and Assef fight nearly to the death, Amir only surviving because of Sohrab, who shoots out Assef’s eye with a slingshot. It’s a huge coincidence that Assef comes back as another nightmare, at once both predictable and shocking. It made me gasp but it also made me sigh.
Afterwards, Amir and Sohrab flee to Pakistan and attempt to find the orphanage for Sohrab, the one Rahim Khan claimed to exist but which never actually did. I’m not sure if the reader was meant to feel this way, but I definitely guessed the entire time that there was no orphanage. That Amir was meant to take Sohrab home. Perhaps this was meant to bet yet another shock, but I didn’t feel it to be that way.
‘I’m so dirty and full of sin,’ Sohrab cries, flinching from Amir’s touch. Is there anything worse than a child losing his childhood? I felt an unbelievable sadness for Sohrab, a disgust at humanity and it’s evilness. I also felt an extreme confusion- how would Amir gain this child’s trust? How would he be okay with going somewhere new with a stranger, a man, at that? But Hosseini does a great job of explaining that Sohrab does not enthusiastically agree; rather, he goes along with it, unsure of how else to get by. He nods. Nothing else.
Then comes yet another shock, and this is the one that drew me away from the plot line. After meeting with the American Embassy, Amir decides to put Sohrab in an orphange (Sohrab’s worst fear) for a few years until Sohrab is granted a visa. Amir, who promised Sohrab not to put him back in an orphanage only pages ago, tells Sohrab he’s going back to an orphanage without first speaking to his wife who has a solution herself (why wouldn’t you wait until the last possible option was exhausted?). And Sohrab tries to commit suicide. Amir walks into the bathroom where the child’s wrists are bleeding out. It’s a third shock, another tragedy, and in my opinion, it wasn’t necessary. I already felt the supreme anguish and depression existing in Sohrab- I needed nothing else to understand his future prolonged silence. In my opinion, the suicide attempt took away from the already established plot line and gave us another shock that was simply too much to comprehend in the confines of 350 pages.
The ending of the book, however, leaves me breathless and crying.
Sohrab lives with Amir and Soraya, silent and unflinching in his refusal to speak. The book ends with Amir flying a kite, with him cutting down other kites, and offering to run the kite for Sohrab. ‘I looked down at Sohrab. One corner of his mouth had curled up just so. A smile. Lopsided. Hardly there. But there.’ ‘Do you want me to run that kite for you?’ ‘His adam’s apple rose and fell as he swallowed. The wind lifted his hair. I thought I saw him nod.’ Amir has become Hassan. He’s learned how to love, how to be loyal in the midst of impossibility and cruelty. And then the best line of the novel, repeated here in the best instance: ‘For you, a thousand times over.’
Ultimately, this is a book about redemption. About learning to forgive yourself and to give yourself permission to love despite your mistakes. But there are other important lessons to take away from Hosseini’s works, especially this: the culture of Afghanistan and the tension between citizens throughout war-torn Middle East and the Taliban. Read this book if you’re not familiar with Islam. Read this book if you want to know more about cultural values/customs of the Middle East (this is only a small country in the Middle East, I know, but it’s a place to begin). Read this book if you want information on the Taliban. Read this book if you’re confused about how the Taliban came into power, how the country has responded to them. Hosseini has gifted us with an opportunity NOT to be ignorant about these things anymore- take advantage of it.
Culture is huge and beautiful and important. It is not your fault if you are born into a world of ignorance and smallness, but it is your fault if you choose to stay in it. Open yourself up to new people, new religions, new values: be amazed at what you learn about the world, about yourself. Fall in love with culture, with new people, ‘a thousand times over.’