Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, set in Afghanistan and eventually in America, depicts the struggle of two half brothers whose relationship is defined by class and ethnic gender. Amir enjoys a life of privilege as a Pashtun, whereas Hassan is doomed to a life of suffering and servitude because he is a Hazara.
The political turmoil in Afghanistan provides the background for Amir’s life. He grows up in a period of relative peace during the reign of King Zahir Shah, who was deposed in 1973. He and Baba fled Kabul during the Soviet invasion to take refuge in the United States in 1989. When Amir returns, Afghanistan has been taken over by the Taliban — a group espousing fundamentalist Islamic principles (1995-2001). Hosseini is critical of the ethnic rivalry and, in particular, of the fact that the Hazaras, who are predominantly Shi’a Muslims, are brutally, and shamefully, persecuted. Typically, they are servants to the wealthy Pashtuns, (the Sunni Muslims). In more ways than one, the Pashtuns win the “genetic lottery”; most are prepared to exploit the “lottery” to their advantage and reap the rewards: status, reputation and the right to control the terms of the ethnic divide.
As a Hazara, Hassan is particularly vulnerable during the rise of the Taliban in 1995. Although they expelled the Russians, they are intolerant of ethnic difference; they discriminate against the Hazaras, “infidels” and women. Ethnic cleansing reached a climax during the massacre of Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998 during which 8,000 Hazaras were shot, including Hassan. It is during this time that Amir eventually returns to Afghanistan from the United States to rescue Hassan’s son, Sohrab.
Initially, as close friends, Amir and Hassan are unaware of their sibling ties, but they are acutely aware of a gap in status and are certainly ignorant of Baba’s sin that fuels the rivalry. Prompted by Rahim Kahn, Amir finally seeks to make amends for the family’s sins.
“He was just a Hazara.”
Amir feels guilty that Hassan is raped by Assef while flying his kite during the kite festival. He is desperate to return the kite to his father and gain his respect. As Amir avers, “the rest of my life might have turned out differently if I had (opened my mouth)”. He runs away as if he “aspires to cowardice” and rationalizes the fact that Hassan is fair game. “He was just a Hazara.”
On the one hand, Amir’s flight has everything to do with power, control and a fate that as a child he does not fully grasp. Amir realizes that the “the real reason” he is running is because “Assef was right”. “Nothing was free in this world”. That nothing is “free” suggests that he expediently exploits Hassan’s goodness in order to achieve his childhood dream of gaining Baba’s affection, but in doing so he is also guilty of perpetuating the discriminatory caste system that privileges the Pashtuns over the Hazaras. (As he later realises, in Baba’s case, it is possible to commit “sin with impunity” by rationalising one’s actions according to cast privileges.)
On the other hand, it has everything to do with his shame and his disloyalty. Amir is scared that he does not have the strength or courage to defend his friendship with Hassan. He lacks Hassan’s good nature and his strength.
Amir feels forever guilty owing to a host of conflicting emotions:
- he sees himself as a coward and believes he is not worthy of his father’s respect and affection.
- he betrays his views and values of respect, loyalty, friendship and dignity.
- he feels worthless. He is not as good as Hassan, who suffered the humiliation of rape while protecting his friend. He would not do the same for Hassan. Is he guilty of dismissing him as just an “ugly pet”?
- he perpetuated injustice towards the Hazaras through his tacit compliance. He did not prevent Assef from raping his friend and thereby betrays his views and values.
- he is personally deceitful and feels diminished. He did not save the kite and yet enjoys Baba’s smile.
“the sacrificial lamb”
Contrastingly, as the “perfect” servant, Hassan appears as the caricature of loyalty. This is because, as Hosseini suggests, Hassan has been conditioned to accept his servile place in society and suffers quietly. He refuses to give the bully, Assef, the kite, but it leads to the utmost degradation. Hassan never tells Amir that he was raped owing to his “guileless devotion”. Amir notices that during the rape, Hassan’s face reveals “resignation”. “It was the look of the lamb” – the sacrificial lamb. Silently, Hassan suffers indignity, which only serves to compound Amir’s guilt.
Soon after, Amir spitefully pelts Hassan with pomegranates trying to provoke a reaction in Hassan. Amir realizes that he would probably feel better if he had a reason to hate Hassan, but Hassan denies him this satisfaction. He refuses to retaliate. Instead, Hassan crushes the pomegranate against his own forehead and confronts Amir, challenging his friend as to whether he has satisfied his desire to offend and humiliate him (as Assef also did). The tree, a potent symbol of friendship, becomes in this case a symbol of betrayal. Amir hides the watch under his mattress which eventually prompts their departure. Did this lead indirectly and eventually to Hassan’s death?
Later, Hassan also shows generosity of spirit – not just towards Amir. Hassan does nurse a grudge against Sanaubar who left the family after his birth, possibly as we find out, because of her own shame. Hassan offers Sanaubar a chance to atone for her failings when she returns to the family fold, and helps Hassan and Farzana raise their son, Sohrab. It is the chance to experience the joy of motherhood that she has been denied, through bad luck, circumstances and lust.
“And that, I believe, is what true redemption is Amir jan, when guilt leads to good.”
Amir’s confrontation with Assef is a pivotal moment in the text whereby he not only confronts his personal demons but also faces up to his role of complicity as a Pashtun in the denigration of the supposed inferior Hazara caste. The confrontation with Assef and his own personal violation reflects Hassan’s by the same bully more than 20 years earlier.
Returning to Kabul at the height of Taliban power, to rescue Sohrab, Hassan’s son, Amir confronts his childhood nemesis, Assef. Now a Taliban, with a German background and Nazi-like qualities, Assef brutally bashes Amir and with each assault, Amir feels a sense of the abject suffering that Hassan experienced. Hosseini shows just how far Amir has come in his quest towards atonement. It is almost as if he has changed places with Hassan and become the “sacrificial lamb”.
Reversing roles, Amir now suffers the punishment that he should have received during the rape scene if he had protected his friend. Assef’s brass knuckles inflict cruel damage but for once Amir does not flinch. In fact he laughs: “The harder I laughed, the harder he kicked me, punched me, scratched me.” Assef is infuriated at the fact that he appears to be ridiculing him, “What’s so funny?”
Amidst the pain, Amir feels a sense of peace. He feels “healed” — morally and spiritually — at the fact that, as a former “gutless” person, he has summoned the courage to defend his friend, his values and his pride. Although, ironically it is Sohrab’s “deadly slingshot”, (Hassan’s trademark) that saves him, Amir experiences this moment as an important milestone in his journey towards redemption.
“Baba and I were more alike than I’d ever known.”
Although Baba is a reputable businessman and enjoys a high status in Afghan society, he is not without his blemishes. He had an illicit affair with Ali’s wife, Sanaubar and this results in Hassan’s birth. Not only is Baba guilty of humiliating his long-standing and devoted servant, but he is also complicit in the theft of Hassan’s identity, for Hassan is never told the circumstances of his birth. As Amir remarks when he learns the truth from Rahim Kahn, “there is only one sin – to tell a lie.”
As it also turns out, Baba has stolen Hassan’s identity and “that is theft”. He also stole Ali’s honour, “His nang. His namoos,” and Amir’s “right to know”. Inadvertently, this sin fuels the sibling rivalry between the two brothers and places Amir in an unwinnable situation that leads to betrayal. In a way that Amir could never understand, Baba favours Hassan and overcompensates for his sin. In contrast, Baba is shamed by Amir, who will always struggle for Baba’s admiration and affection in Hassan’s presence. Just as Amir is constantly reminded of his guilt when he confronts Hassan, Baba is ashamed of Amir. He is the “socially legitimate half” and the “sin-with-impunity privileges” that came with it. As Rahim Kahn states, “when he saw you, he saw himself. And his guilt”. For this reason Amir recognizes that they both share the guilt of unjust deeds perpetrated against both Ali and Hassan.
Kahn suggests, he was “maybe even a great man” and that “real good” was born out of father’s remorse. Just as Amir will seek to make amends, Baba, too attempted to rectify his misdeeds. He treats Hassan almost as a son and is disheartened when they are forced by Amir to leave the family property. Baba also establishes orphanages to help the underprivileged in Afghanistan, pays for Hassan’s medical bills, and seeks to repair his own fragile relationship with Amir when they migrate to America.
However, on another level Hosseini suggests that as a Pashtun both Amir and his father before him have indirectly perpetuated the system of injustice by being willing bystanders. The father has not taken a stand, and whilst he does some good works, he does not reveal the source of his shame. Amir implicates himself in the system; and by rescuing Sohrab suggests that the Pashtuns must confront the brutality that has enabled the Taliban and people like Assef to brutally degrade the Hazaras.
“You were too hard on yourself them, and you still are – I saw it in your eyes in Peshawar.”
Significantly, Rahim Kahn is the only other character to narrate a part of the story which endows him with authority and wisdom as he offers moral counsel to Amir. However, he, too, is connected with Baba and Amir through a sense of guilt. He was the one who asked Hassan and his wife, Farzana to return to Kabul because he was lonely and too old to look after the house on his own. He protests, “I was not a young man anymore..”. “It is me who needs to be forgiven.”
Rahim Kahn becomes a vital link to the past, especially as he had the keys to the house, but he also becomes the link between father and son and reveals the secret. Structurally, too, he provides the excuse for Amir’s return to Afghanistan, which offers him the chance to redress his sins.
In a sense, it is Rahim Kahn who nurtures the story of atonement, “Come” he tells Amir. “There is a way to be good again.” He reveals the details of Baba’s sin and his personal struggle for redemption. Omnipotently, he is aware of Hassan’s mother, Sanaubar’s, return to the family fold and her care for Sohrab. He was the only one who understood the reasons for Amir’s vindictive nature and the circumstances of Hassan’s departure. “What you did was wrong.” But you were a “troubled little boy”. “A man who has no conscience, no goodness, does not suffer.”
However, Rahim Kahn also rationalizes Baba’s behavior and his failure to reveal Hassan’s identity. He says, that “in Kabul we lived in in those days was a strange world, one in which some things mattered more than the truth”. He implies that protecting one’s privileged status is more important than the truth and perhaps, in Baba’s case, enables him to continue his good deeds. However, as Amir shows, rather, that the truth is paramount; although he lives with the consequences in America — a country that is not stained by the deep-ingrained injustice of cultural rivalry.
Exposing the family’s sins
Amir attempts to make amends for the family’s sin through a new-found sense of respect and honesty towards Sohrab. He reveals to General Taheri the circumstances of Sohrab’s birth and his father’s shame. He tells the General not to address Sohrab as a Hazara. “He has a name and it’s Sohrab.” Accordingly, Hosseini suggests that true reconciliation and redemption can only come about through courage. The author suggests that it takes courage to be honest and to recognize one’s own flaws and complicity. Most importantly, it takes courage to resist relying on a shameful caste system that enables one to discriminate “with impunity”. In this case, Amir relies rather on his intuitive sense of justice and fairness.
That Assef, the epitome of brutality, has a German background forges a link between the Nazi’s discrimination of the Jews and the Pashtun’s discrimination towards the Hazaras. Accordingly, when Amir confronts General Taheri about the need to show tolerance and understanding, Hosseni also offers a word of caution for all nations that seek to institutionalize discrimination.
Sohrab eventually gives a smile when they are flying the kite, which Amir interprets as a positive start. However, he knows it is a long journey — a journey that started when Hassan was raped by the enemy, and, worse still, forsaken by a friend. It is a journey that demands honesty and integrity. Sohrab and Amir run together, as the young friends had during their childhood, blissfully and joyfully. It was just a smile, “but I’ll take it. With open arms. . . maybe I just witnessed the first flake melting,” says Amir.
Dr Jennifer Minter: The Kite Runner: “He was just a Hazara” (VCE Study guides: English Works)
© English Works (2014). Please attribute quotes. Disclaimer: These notes are designed as teaching aids only to be used in conjunction with workshops conducted by English Works.