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 ethnicity. 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 1983. 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.
In the history book, Amir reads that a confrontation between the Hazaras and the Pashtuns occurred in the 19th century. The Pashtuns “had quelled (the uprising) with unspeakable violence”. The Pashtuns who were Sunni Muslims, “killed the Hazaras (the shi’as) , “driven them from their lands, burned their homes and sold their women”. They were racially abused and called “mice-eating, flat-nosed, load-carrying donkeys”.
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.
Ali and Hassan and the Hazaras
Hassan is born with a “cleft lip” and his mother, Sanaubur, a “beautiful but notoriously unscrupulous woman, left five days after the birth. Hassan is fed by the same “nursing woman” as Amir, which suggests a symbolic bond between the two half-brothers. Ali reinforces this silent bond by suggesting that “there was a brotherhood between people who had fed from the same breast, a kinship that not even time could break”.
And likewise, in a parallel fashion, Baba and Ali are also playmates. Baba was born in 1993, during Zahir Shah’s rule in Afghanistan. His grandfather was a judge, and he had to preside over the case of two brothers who killed a Hazara husband and wife on the road to Paghman. The young orphan was brought home and he grew up with Baba. Ali and Baba were childhood playmates just like Hassan and Amir.
Whilst these playmates all grow up together in a supportive environment, both boys learn that they are ethnically different and throughout their lives they will be treated as such. As Amir notes, “I was a Pashtun and he was a Hazara” and nothing “was ever going to change that”. Nothing”. Despite their similarities, Amir is often cruel to Hassan as a reflection of his “ethnic” superiority. He taunts him and treats him as a fool when Hassan does not know the meaning of the word “imbecile”. He knows that Hassan will “never be anything but a cook”.
This reflects a pattern of abusive behaviour between the two children. Amir is often mean, and them he tries to make amends, and gives his friend “old shirts or a broken toy”. “I would tell myself that was amends enough for a harmless prank”. Contrastingly, even in birth, Hassan was “true to his nature” “He was incapable of hurting anyone”.
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.
Assef: symbol of ethnic cleansing
A typical Pashtun bully, who persecutes Hazaras with impunity, Assef is a convenient blend of both German and Afghan. His mother is German and his father is an Afghan pilot. They live in the “posh, high walled compound with palm trees in the Wazir Akbar Khan section of Kabul”. This deliberate link with a German heritage enables Hosseini to draw links between the Pashtun’s actions towards the Hazaras and the Nazi’s towards the Jews. Both are guilty of ethnic cleansing. Assef has a “well-earned reputation for savagery” and he is surrounded by a group of sycophants, always intimidating others with his “brass knuckles”. He is depicted as a “sociopath” who enjoys inflicting pain upon his victim. During one fight, Hosseini suggests, he “grinned, as he pummeled that poor kind unconscious”. Amir realises that he “might not be entirely sane”.
Assef boasts that their family has close ties with Daoud Khan who instigated a coup against Zahir Shah in 1973. Amir makes a clear link between Khan’s and Hitler’s values. He describes Hitler as a “man of vision” and Amir praises the leader’s ethnic cleansing agenda. “I’ll tell Daoud Khan to remember that if they had let Hitler finish what he had started, the world be a better place.”
“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.
Hosseini juxtaposes this rape scene with the slaughter of a lamb during the Muslim festival of Eid-e-Qorban, which is to celebrate Ibrahim’s near-loss of his son for God. When the mullah grabs the knife to kill the sheep, Amir also sees “the sheep’s eyes”. He is haunted by this look of sacrifice and of pain because he imagines that the “animal understands” his plight. Although Amir often watches the yearly ritual, he has nightmares afterwards. “I always watch. I watch because of that look of acceptance in the animal’s eyes”.
This look will continue to haunt him as it merges with the look in Hassan’s eyes, who also becomes that lamb that is sacrificed for Amir’s own relationship with Baba. He is very quick to return to his father and forget his friend’s sacrifice. Walking into his father’s “thick hairy arms” he forgets what he has done, “and that was good”.
As Hosseini suggests, it is too easy for the Pashtuns to forget the harm they inflict on others. It is easily washed away in the comfort of Baba’s arms. However, it will continue to haunt Amir.
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. Hassan’s face becomes smeared with the red juice. When he stops he looks like “he’d been shot by a firing squad” and still he does not retaliate. “I wished he’d give me the punishment I craved, so maybe I’d finally sleep at night”. Maybe then things could return to how they used to be between us”. The ultimate insult occurs when Hassan crushes the pomegranate on 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?
Just before their departure, Ali gives Amir a birthday present thathas considerable historical and emotional significance. The book is Shahnaman, a “hardback with glossy coloured illustrations” about historical events and Afghan warriors such as the warrior Sohrab, the eventual name of Hassan’s son. (Neither Ali nor Hassan can read the book because they are illiterate as socially-disadvantaged Harazas.)
Once again, like the pomegranate incident, it is Amir who feels unworthy of the present because (“it was not the book, but I who was unworthy”). He feels unworthy because of a string of shameful actions towards his “inferior” friend. He buried the book at the bottom of the gifts which is to symbolically conceal his shame that he has been given such an expensive and treasured gift from a friend who is much more generous in spirit than he is.
The ultimate deception
Amir plants the watch and the Afghani bills under Hassan’s mattress hoping finally to get rid of his friend and of his shame. He hoped this would be “the last in a long line of shameful lies”. By hiding the watch, Amir reduces both Hassan and Ali to tears as a reminder of the terrible pain that Amir has inflicted upon them.
When Hassan admits that he has stolen the watch and the money, Amir understands the extent of his sacrifice. (“This was Hassan’s final sacrifice for me.”) He admits the lie, because everyone knows that he does not lie and so he seeks to protect Amir from Baba’s wrath and from his eternal distrust. (They both know that Baba “would never, ever forgive me.”)
Amir is taken aback, that Baba is so quick to forgive Hassan. Does Baba know the truth? It is evident that Ali certainly does as his “protective” gesture and as his “unforgiving” look show. As Amir notes, “I was glad that someone knew me for who I really was: I was tired of pretending”.
In that moment, Amir understands more clearly than ever, that Hassan knows that Amir has betrayed him in the most shameful way possible – starting in the alley and not with the money under the mattress.
In that moment, Amir is aware of his tremendous love for Hasson but also he is more aware than ever of his unworthiness. (“I wasn’t worthy of this sacrifice. I was a liar, a cheat and a thief.”
At that moment, Amir believes that it is possible to “start with a clean slate” which does not turn out for him in America.
The language of sacrifice and of unworthiness and of shame is the language of the Hazara – Pashtun divide. Hosseini suggests that both are separated by these ethnic differences and these differences prevent their friendship, particularly because Amir is unable to come to terms with his friend’s loyalty.
Amidst the teeming rain that symbolises the sadness of their departure, Amir becomes aware that the “life I had known since I’d been born was over”.
Later, Hassan also shows generosity of spirit – not just towards Amir. Hassan overcomes his pain towards his mother, 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.
“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.
Changing social and political worlds: America in the 1980s
In contrast to their privileged life in Kabul, Baba and Amir have to get used to living among the more socially and economically disadvantaged, typically democratic supporters, in Fremont, California. Baba is one of the few in this area who support Reganomics (the Republicans led to Ronald Regan) because he welcomes a tougher foreign policy-stance. Baba and Amir live amongst the “bus drivers, policemen, gas station attendants” and gradually Baba becomes the “day manager at the gas station” and then an assistant “at a gas station owned by an Afghan acquaintaince”.
For the first time, Baba reflects upon what it means to be among the less privileged members of society and he is unable to adjust. For this reason, America becomes the place for Baba to “mourn” his memories, whilst Amir seeks to “bury” his. It is Baba’s last “gift” to Amir – the chance for a new life in America.
If the system of economic barter in Kabul was very much based on trust, especially towards those held in high regard, (one would etch a notch in the tree branch used as a “credit card”), Baba soon erupts as Mr Nguyen, the local grocer, asks him for ID. Mortified, he lashes out and finds himself surrounded by “an overturned magazine rack, a broken jar of beef jerky and shards of glass”. His pride wounded, Baba is not used to this lack of trust.
In America, Amir gradually comes of age. (But not quite.) He resists Baba’s offer to pay for his education at law or medical school. What he really resists, is the impulse to become what Baba wants him to become. “I would stand my ground, I decided. I didn’t want to sacrifice for Baba anymore. The last time I had done that, I had damned myself”.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.