Betrayal is a universal human experience that we don’t typically think about, but that permeates the book The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. Although we are all likely to experience betrayal at some point in our lives, Hosseini also provides us with a means of defeating it through loyalty and love. This is what quality literature is supposed to do as it explores universal truths of the human experience by focusing on a particular character or set of characters that are placed in a setting conducive to relating the author’s ideas. In other words, by telling the story of a particular character, the author is able to pull out elements of the story that are experienced by many people around the world. In helping his character find peace and direction, the author allows the reader to make their own personal identification with the character so, as the main character finally reaches the happy conclusion, the reader may be able to also find pathways to the kind of peace and direction they have been seeking. In realizing some of the mistakes and foolish thinking found in the character, the reader is able to identify some of these same traits in themselves and thus be more able to make positive changes. Whether the author does this intentionally or not, this tends to be the case if the human condition of the character is fully explored as it is in Housseini’s book. In many ways, the culture and heritage of the author are also reflected as the important issues to the culture become the important issues to the author because they have an effect on how the author, and the other people who share his world, experience life.
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When this literature makes it into the hands of people who do not share this same culture, either because the passage of time has served to shift people’s perspectives or the crossing of borders has introduced new thoughts, the reader is able to gain a closer understanding of how others might see the world differently. As a result of this seemingly contradictory combination of foreign importance and shared experience, a new understanding seems to blossom in which the terrifying aspects of the foreign melt away into the common experience of being simply human. Just like the reader, the character and others of his or her culture are seen to be attempting to discover clear definition in a world that is constantly changing and in which there are no clear lines. This is the impression received when one reads a book such as this one. A summary of the story and a quick investigation of the history of the region reveal that betrayal played a significant role in the national and personal lives of Afghanistan. At the same time, a more in-depth look at the betrayal found within the story demonstrates how love and loyalty can defeat the pain betrayal leaves behind. The experience of the story on the typical English-speaking reader, as they are first introduced to a mostly foreign culture in the pages of the book, also serves to demonstrate the way in which love and persistence can bridge the gap of many misunderstandings. The Kite Runner explores the culture and history of Afghanistan through the eyes of its central character, showing how the pain of betrayal has long arms but the love of loyalty can save.
The story begins when the narrator, Amir, is supposedly 38 years old and the tale he tells is essentially a flashback over the events of his life that have brought him to this point. Amir reveals the affluent lifestyle he lived as a child in a sprawling mansion with just his father who was served by a Hazara servant named Ali. Amir’s mother had died giving birth to him and he always felt his father held that somewhat against him although it was never explicitly stated. The infant nursed on the breast of a servant woman who was also hired a year later to nurse Ali’s son Hassan and the two boys, who had fed from the same breast, grew up together on Baba’s property. Although life was sweet, it had its darker elements, such as the near-slave status of the Hazara people, including Hassan, and the cruelty that lurked in the hearts of schoolmates of Amir’s such as Assef. It is Assef who brings about the life-changing event just as Amir is about to win his father’s approval for winning the kite fight. Hassan, as the kite runner, goes to collect the winning kite but is detained by Assef and his friends. Amir finds his friend cornered in an alley just before Assef decides to rape him. Although Hassan had once stood up for Amir in this type of situation, Amir hides behind the wall and then pretends he was unaware of what happened. Because of his guilt and shame, Amir contrives to get rid of Hassan by framing him for robbery. Although this doesn’t cause Baba to send Hassan away, Ali takes Hassan away anyway and Amir is left alone with his guilt.
After setting up these important foundational elements of his life, Amir relates how his life was turned upside down again when the Russians invade Afghanistan. Baba and Amir manage to escape the country by traveling to Pakistan and then on to America. They settle in a run-down apartment in California and take up a subsistence style lifestyle. Amir attends junior college while Baba works at a convenience store. They haunt garage sales on Saturdays and attempt to sell trash things on Sundays at a swap meet. This is where Amir meets Soraya, the daughter of another prominent Afghan citizen made poor by the war. As Amir begins his writing career, his father is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. His last significant act before he dies is he asks Soraya’s father for her hand in marriage to Amir. The newlyweds care for the ailing father until he dies and then they spend many happy years together as Amir’s career grows and Soraya works as a schoolteacher. Their one regret is that they are unable to have children. This idyllic existence is brought to a close when Amir receives a phone call from his father’s old friend Rahim Khan. Amir must travel back to Pakistan to learn what the dying Rahim wishes to tell him.
When he arrives, Amir learns that Ali had been killed long ago by a land mine and Hassan had married a woman and moved back to the servant’s hut he lived in as a boy. The couple had a stillborn daughter followed by a healthy son, but Hassan and his wife were killed when they refused to give up Amir’s house to the Taliban. The son, Sohrab, was taken to an orphanage. Rahim charges Amir with the task of recovering Hassan’s son. In the process, Rahim reveals that Hassan was Amir’s half-brother and hints that he knows what happened when the boys were 12. Amir enters Taliban-controlled territory and undergoes a number of trials including being beaten nearly to death to recover the unhappy Sohrab who has been sold into child prostitution to Assef. Eventually Amir succeeds in adopting Sohrab and bringing him back to California. Although Sohrab hasn’t talked for a year, since his last suicide attempt, Amir has finally managed to make a connection with him through the simple process of flying a kite together and is rewarded with a lopsided smile that reminds Amir of Hassan.
History Reveals Core of Betrayal
For a reader unfamiliar with Afghan history, the timeline of what is happening in the greater political realm is difficult to follow as it takes place largely in the background of the main character’s awareness. However, it exists as a macrocosm of the sense of betrayal and need for recovery discovered in the personal story of the two boys. In other words, when the betrayal found in the life of this single family is expanded to incorporate the entire country, the issues found within Afghani history are suggested to be the result. When men betray each other, entire nations are torn apart. This connection would be obvious if the story were to take place in Victorian England, for instance, a period that most readers recognize as being a time of tremendous change and transition into the machine-age. Understanding how these concepts play into the action of a story such as Charles Dickens’ novel Dombey and Son is thus no special trick. However, when these kinds of historical influences are largely unfamiliar to the reader, it is easy to lose track of the fact that Amir’s story occurs in the very recent past instead of centuries ago and that it also reflects the socio-political environment from which it came.
Discovering the history of Afghanistan in the past half century in a concise presentation of facts, though, emphasizes the degree of confusion that impacted the country during Amir’s childhood and the degree to which betrayal played a central role in tearing the country apart. According to the BBC News, “Afghanistan’s descent into conflict and instability in recent times began with the overthrow of the king in 1973” (Afghanistan, 2000). This occurred when Mohammad Daoud deposed his cousin, Zahir Shah, and declared himself president of Afghanistan in 1973. This is mentioned specifically in the novel as being a moment of irrevocable change much like that experienced on the personal level when Amir betrays Hassan by not defending him in the alley at age 12. During his presidency, Daoud was busy putting down the Islamists, but he truly began losing his power when he attempted to reduce the Soviet influence in his country. There is another parallel here as Hosseini presents various failed attempts by Amir to remove Hassan from his life. Things were already tense between the various political factions when the Parchamite leader Mir Akbar Khaiber was murdered on April 17, 1978. It was this murder that sparked the fires that had been threatening. “Whoever killed him, Khaiber’s martyrdom touched off an unprecedented popular upheaval. More than fifteen thousand angry, slogan-shouting mourners turned out for his funeral procession two days later, an extraordinarily large crowd by Afghan standards” (Cordovez & Harrison 24). Hassan’s eventual departure was quiet, but not any less upsetting and is also marked by a form of martyrdom. Daoud’s reaction only served to enflame the situation and the communist party managed to take control in what is called the April Revolution. Infighting in the party led to instability at the top, though, and the Soviet Army took control in 1979. “The Soviet occupation, which lasted until the final withdrawal of the Red Army in 1989, was a disaster for Afghanistan. About a million Afghans lost their lives as the Red Army tried to impose control for its puppet Afghan government. Millions more fled abroad as refugees” (Afghanistan, 2000). It was as part of this great flight that Amir and his father leave Afghanistan.
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Betrayal of the Father
The crime of betrayal, as well as the degree to which it infects the culture and the personal lives of the characters is made clear as Baba tries to instruct his son on the single most important rule to remember when dealing with people or considering religious position. Baba tells Amir, “There is only one sin, only one. And that is theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft … When you kill a man, you steal a life. You steal his wife’s right to a husband, rob his children of a father. When you tell a lie, you steal someone’s right to the truth. When you cheat, you steal the right to fairness” (Hosseini, 2009). With this statement, Baba reveals to some degree the depth of guilt he must have felt as a result of his own betrayal of his lifelong friend, Ali. Within the story, the character Ali has been raised side by side with Baba even though he was Hazara in much the same way that Amir and Hassan are raised together. Although Baba is given modern living quarters and a decent education, Ali has suffered from the effects of oppression and a lack of education, yet he serves Baba like a brother. In spite of their close relationship, though, Baba obviously had no problem stealing Ali’s wife’s affections soon after his own wife died in childbirth as Hassan was born approximately one year after Amir. Although it was well within his power to do so, Baba perpetuates the values of his society by never teaching Ali how to read and never providing him with a more comfortable home than the small shack he shares with Hassan on Baba’s property. There is no evidence that he made any attempt to take Ali and Hassan with them to America or otherwise ever made any effort to make their lives better once they left the house. While they were raised like brothers, Baba ensures that there remains a clear distinction made between himself and the Hazara that is passed down to the next generation.
Baba may not have always been true in his adult relationships with others, but that does not mean he was not understood and loved in spite of his faults. His relationship with Rahim Khan reveals this aspect of the older man’s character as it is often Rahim Khan that smoothes understanding between Amir and his father. As Rahim Khan is dying and sending Amir on his way to rescue Hassan’s son, he gives Amir some insight into his father’s character when he tells him, “I think that everything he did, feeding the poor, giving money to friends in need, it was all a way of redeeming himself. And that, I believe, is what true redemption is, Amir jan, when guilt leads to good” (Hosseini, 2003). Baba stands in high esteem among his contemporaries in Afghanistan, enough that he is able to retain some of his honor upon transferring himself and Amir to America. It is largely based on Baba’s reputation that Amir is able to win the general’s approval in seeking his wife’s hand in marriage.
Perhaps the most betrayed character in the story is Hassan, who is not only betrayed by Amir, but has first suffered an equally great betrayal by the one man most obligated to protect him. While Hassan’s behavior may seem unrealistic in the western world, the extreme racism and persecution carried throughout the book reveals that only at Baba’s house is Hassan able to experience anything like what we would consider a ‘normal’ childhood. Amir himself points out how his first word was Baba to reflect his adoration of his father, but Hassan’s first word was Amir. While this would seem to indicate that Hassan was the recipient of his father’s protection and love, Baba was careful to keep his true identity hidden from everyone, especially the two boys. This robbed them both of a brother and Hassan of the proper rights and benefits of being his father’s son. However, the guilt of this knowledge drives a wedge between Baba and Amir that Amir is never quite able to understand until Hassan’s lineage is finally made clear.
Betrayal of the Son
Amir as a boy is not seen to work through his internal battles too much as his major conflict through most of his young life is his presumption that his father is disappointed in him – as discussed, the result of Baba’s guilt in having to raise his boys so differently. Despite having a strong desire to discover a connection between himself and his father, there are several ways in which Amir betrays his father. This begins with Amir’s birth in which Baba’s prized Afghan princess is killed in the birthing process, but continues with Amir’s failure to live up to his father’s expectations for a boy. Amir has little interest in the sports his father loves and demonstrates very little in the way of Baba’s ‘machismo’ persona.
Although Baba dreams of his son becoming a powerful man someday, perhaps in business or as a doctor in America, Amir remains true to his desire to become a writer. It is a dream he develops as a child in Afghanistan that he refuses to relinquish just because it is an uncertain career or a risky pursuit. This is not to say that he has a weak or noncompetitive character, however. He proves this as he seemingly seamlessly adjusts to the deprivations of America as compared to his former lifestyle and devotes all his time and effort to helping his father eke out an existence with no complaint yet remains firmly devoted to his goal of becoming a writer.
Betrayal Between Brothers
Hassan is always humble, always loyal and always grateful for what he has, for example. “Young Hassan, I agree, is an idealized figure, but that seems understandable given that the narrator is Amir. Amir’s guilt, and his discovery of a deeper connection to the boy than he had imagined, seems to call for that approach to the character. It is ironic, too, given that Hassan looked up to Amir in a way that went beyond the master/servant relationship” (Champ, 2008).
“There is nothing that haunts Amir more than the betrayal of Hassan after the kite running competition, as can be seen in Amir’s valiant defense of Hassan’s son in his journey to Kabul” (Wood, 2009).
Framing for robbery
“Amir, instead of facing the cowardice of his decision, simply treats Hassan as the Hazara Afghan history says he is instead of reminding himself of how many times Hassan has defended him” (Wood, 2009).
Amir’s growing ability to hold firm to his convictions is seen as a result of the lingering guilt he still feels regarding his old friend, Hassan. In the last segment of the book, when he is asked to place himself in great danger to rescue Hassan’s son, Amir does not fail to do what’s right, which is now fully in character as a result of his earlier development. “Astoundingly, we read that Amir is also able to transcend his father’s sins that created dysfunctional childhood familial relationships. Amir’s marriage to a beautiful Afghan mirrors that of his father’s marriage, but in that sense only. His refusal to appease his wife’s father, the former Afghan general, by perpetuating an ethnic superiority complex, illustrates a sincere commitment to repent past transgressions” (Wood, 2009).
A surface reading of this book may make many people determine that it has little or no direct application to a modern American life. After all, there is little likelihood that our country will soon undergo the tremendous shifts in power base that was seen in Afghanistan during the time period of this book. However, the underlying themes of development, betrayal and survival are applicable to anyone anywhere. The Kite Runner is a book that offers its readers a great deal of insight into elements of life that we may otherwise be unaware of. This is true in the degree to which the author is able to introduce us into the culture and history of his birth country. Rather than battling with our natural suspicion and avoidance of the subject, Hosseini eases us into the subject by involving us in the intimate lives of two young boys born on opposite sides of a racial divide – something most Americans are still sorely conscious of having occurred in our own south not so long ago. More than just introducing us to his people and the issues they’ve faced as a nation, Hosseini makes this personal to us and begins to introduce us to ourselves in the process. His lengthy digressions into his own impressions serve to show us how it’s done and remind us that it’s something that should be done once in a while as a means of staying true to one’s heart. While his character had a constant guilty reminder to keep him aware of his actions and their consequences, most of us don’t need to think about it so consistently and often let it slip. When we suddenly find ourselves drifting far from our intended course or lost in unfamiliar waters, we have a difficult time adjusting because we are not grounded within ourselves. Ultimately, the book teaches us how to know ourselves through learning about others.
“Afghanistan’s Turbulent History.” BBC News. (2000). Web.
Champ, Bob. “Review: The Kite Runner.” Derkeiler. (2008). Web.
Cordovez, Diego & Selig S. Harrison. Out of Afghanistan: The Inside Story of the Soviet Withdrawal. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Hosseini, Khaled. The Kite Runner. New York: Riverhead Books, 2003.
Wood, Michael A. “The Kite Runner: Khaled Hosseini’s Tale of Betrayal, Trial and Redemption.” Associated Content. (2009). Web.
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