How high could a kite fly?: a cultural criticism of Kite Runner by Khaled Hoesseini
There is a saying that cultural contacts sometimes bring the worst of two cultures. It could be true but it also an illusion because of unchanging thinking on the relationship between people. And culture is all about relationship of people. What happens when people from different ethnic background and religions are caught up in cascading events in a changing world? What if the culture which binds or more accurate divides people is essentially ancient and has remain unchanged through the years, generation after, generation.
And what happens if the “now’s” world politics suddenly has suddenly broken the spell and subjected people to reality. This is the basic motif or thematic thread of the Kite Runner.
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A novel set in Afghanistan, an ancient land, of ancient culture in the the 1960s up the 1980s when the Taliban came into power in Afghanistan, the Kite Runner chronicles a strange friendship between two people from different ethnicity, religion and socio-economic status.
It is a study of contrasts as told by the main character Amir.
To understand Amir and the characters set in a mosaic of contrasting and sometimes sharp contrast is to understand the cultural milieu of the ancient culture of Afghanistan based on Islam. This is no easy thing to do because of the matter of point of view. In the case of the Kite Runner or perhaps in any narrative, there are two point of views.
The point of view of the author and the point of “culture” as to the events and characters being described by the author.
In the Kite Runner, the point of view is definitely modern – the narrative is excellent as shown by the superb weaving of the textual logic and the plot contemporary.
The plot and characters
As told by Amir, the story revolves around his friendship with Hassan the son of Amir’s father’s servant. It tells a story of betrayal, redemption and finally escape to freedom.
Amir is Pashtoon and Hassan is Hazara. Pashtoon and Hazara are two of the ethnic groups in Afghanistan. From the novel, it appeared that the Hazara is discriminated upon or looked down on as revealed in the the following passage when Amir and Hassan are growing up:
One day, we were walking from my father’s house to Cinema Zainab for a new Iranian movie, taking the shortcut through the military barracks near Istiqlal Middle School-Baba had forbidden us to take that shortcut, but he was in Pakistan with Rahim Khan at the time. We hopped the fence that surrounded the barracks, skipped over a little creek, and broke into the open dirt field where old, abandoned tanks collected dust.
A group of soldiers huddled in the shade of one of those tanks, smoking cigarettes and playing cards. One of them saw us, elbowed the guy next to him, and called Hassan. “Hey, you!” he said. “I know you.” We had never seen him before. He was a squatty man with a shaved head and black stubble on his face. The way he grinned at us, leered, scared me. “Just keep walking,” I muttered to Hassan. (Kite Runner, p 6-7)
“You! The Hazara! Look at me when I’m talking to you!” the soldier barked He handed his cigarette to the guy next to him, made a circle with the thumb and index finger of one hand. Poked the middle finger of his other hand through the circle. Poked it in and out. In and out. “I knew your mother, did you know that? I knew her real good. I took her from behind by that creek over there.” The soldiers laughed. One of them made a squealing sound. I told Hassan to keep walking, keep walking. “What a tight little sugary cunt she had!” (Kite Runner, p 6-7)
This passage revealed a lot on the circumstances surrounding the two friends. Hassan was called by a soldier, “Hazara” and specifically pointed at Hassan just to taunt him, telling him that his mother is prostitute. From this passage, the two lads are simply out to watch an Iranian movie partaking of what little leisure their culture has to offer when they are confronted by the soldiers. It is understandable that Amir could not defend his friend and hence he took evasive action. It also showed the meek character of Hassan.
The characterization of Amir and Hassan is set early in the novel. The circumstances of their births are telling of the subjugation and desperation of an ethnic group. The contrast is revealed in this passage:
It was in that small shack that Hassan’s mother, Sanaubar, gave birth to him one cold winter day in 1964. While his mother hemorrhaged to death during childbirth, Hassan lost his less than a week after he was born. Lost her to a fate most Afghans considered far worse than death. She ran off with a clan of traveling singers and dancer. (Kite Runner, p 6-7)
Both Amir and Hassan lost their mothers upon birth with Amir’s mother dying of hemorrhage giving birth while Hassan was born with not much problem as implied by the quick recovery of his mother. But she ran away apparently not wanting the responsibility of raising a child. This passage is revealing of the harsh reality of Hazara woman and how harsh her reaction could be as depicted in the novel.
“the moment Sanaubar had given birth to Hassan. It had been a simple enough affair. No obstetricians, no anesthesiologists, no fancy monitoring devices. Just Sanaubar lying on a stained, naked mattress with Ali and a midwife helping her. She hadn’t needed much help at all, because, even in birth, Hassan was true to his nature: He was incapable of hurting anyone. A few grunts, a couple of pushes, and out came Hassan. Out he came smiling. As confided to a neighbor’s servant by the garrulous midwife, who had then in turn told anyone who would listen, Sanaubar had taken one glance at the baby in Ali’s arms, seen the cleft lip, and barked a bitter laughter. “There,” she had said. “Now you have your own idiot child to do all your smiling for you!” She had refused to even hold Hassan, and just five days later, she was gone.” (Kite Runner, p 9-10)
This early in the novel, how the characters would develop has already been foretold. The novel’s author, included the phrase “true his nature, incapable of hurting anyone” in referring to Hassan. A gentle soul, helpless and innocent amid the torrid racial, economic and political cauldron that is Afghanistan.
Ethnic intolerance is a pervading theme in Kite Runner and there are many scenes showing this. In another passage, Hassan was taunted and called him “flat-nosed” referring to the physical features of Hassan.
It is interesting to point out, that this tale is in the point of view of Amir, a Pashtoon, an ethnic group which Amir found out later that his people have subjugated the Hazaras. This is the turning point of Amir’s understanding of Hassan and critical to the development of the novel and Amir’s actions much later in the book. The passage reflects the contrast between Amir and Hassan.
Then one day, I was in Baba’s study, looking through his stuff, when I found one of my mother’s old history books. It was written by an Iranian named Khorami. I blew the dust off it, sneaked it into bed with me that night, and was stunned to find an entire chapter on Hazara history. An entire chapter dedicated to Hassan’s people! In it, I read that my people, the Pashtoons, had persecuted and oppressed the Hazaras. It said the Hazaras had tried to rise against the Pashtoons in the nineteenth century, but the Pashtoons had “quelled them with unspeakable violence. (Kite Runner, p 9)
This is no easy revelation to a child. Difficult to grasp the extent of racial tension and subjugation, of a horrendous history separating him from a childhood friend, almost a bond brother if not a loyal servant. This as mentioned earlier is the difficult part. Is Amir, undergoing a change as a benevolent master or into egalitarian person? The climactic culmination of the this relationship is portrayed in the kite contest wherein Hassan is the kite runner of Amir. Take note that the relationship of master-servant did not change so are the dreams of children. Winning contests or making a name to make someone happy. In this case, Amir wants to impress his father so he joined the contest.
In one part of the novel is this passage showing that the relationship is still is master and servant. This is important in the understanding the construct of the Kite Runner.
Finally, I had my kite in hand. I wrapped the loose string that had collected at my feet around the spool, shook a few more hands, and trotted home. When I reached the wroughtiron gates, Ali was waiting on the other side. He stuck his hand through the bars. “Congratulations,” he said. 1 gave him my kite and spool, shook his hand. “Tashakor, Ali jan.” “I was praying for you the whole time.” “Then keep praying. We’re not done yet.” (Kite Runner, p 67)
Ali, here is the father of Hassan, note Amir’s dialogue: “I gave him my kite and spool, shook his hand.” It is plainly, a lad in confidence talking to a servant, as if saying, here take care of this will you? Like what Batman would have done with Alfred after a caper. “Here Alfred, take care of my boomerang will you?” The following passage shows the blissful innocence in triumph.
I hurried back to the street. I didn’t ask Ali about Baba. I didn’t want to see him yet. In my head, I had it all planned: I’d make a grand entrance, a hero, prized trophy in my bloodied hands. Heads would turn and eyes would lock… Then the old warrior would walk to the young one, embrace him, acknowledge his Worthiness. (Kite Runner, p 67)
The prize trophy being referred here is a blue kit which Amir won. Hassan is tasked to recover the prize in a kite war. But succeeding events in an otherwise happy occasion of winning which Amir wanted to share with Hassan is not allowed by the author and the illusion of a champion in kiting as clashed with reality is painted squarely by Hosseini when Hassan was violated by Assef, the nemesis of Amir who would figure as the dark symbol of the grim world of Afghanistan at the rise of the Talibans in the 80’s. The sexual violation or rape of Hassan, perhaps symbolizes the subjugation by use of powerful force over another. In one scene, perhaps to zero in on a contradiction in Afghan culture, Hosseini weaved this passage describing Amir as he looks for Hassan shortly after the kite contest and shortly before witnessing the violation of Hassan.
By the time I reached the marketplace a few blocks away, from the Haji Yaghoub Mosque, the mullahbellowed azan, calling for the faithful to unroll their rugs and bow their heads west in prayer. Hassan never missed any of the five daily prayers. Even when we were out playing, he’d excuse himself, draw water from the well in the yard, wash up, and disappear into the hut. He’d come out a few minutes later, smiling, find me sitting against the wall or perched on a tree. He was going to miss prayer tonight, though, because of me. (Kite Runner, p 68)
Here in this passage, Hassan is picture as a devotee of Haj Yaghoub Mosque, religious, true to his faith innocent. A simple child devoted to a friend performing for him the task of a kite runner. He performed his task and recovered the blue kite of Amir but was intercepted by Assef.
Amir saw the whole episode but did nothing. Here is a symbolic twist in the novel. The incapacity of Amir to act to protect not only Hassan but himself. As we noted earlier, Amir is both a master and a friend of Hassan in terms of relationships, cultural and personal. As a master, he backed down to the superior force of Assef and friends, he knows he could not win so he whimpers just watching. As a friend, he suffered internally at the sight of the violation. The illusion of triumph in the kite contest shattered.
When kites are let loose
The resolution of the tale of ethnic strife Kite Runner is framed by the author in the succeeding generation. It would be the redemption of Amir, when he rescued Hassan’s child who was taken captive by Assef who became a Taliban official. Amir was able to escape to California with his wife and Hassan’s child. Hassan was revealed to have been killed by the Taliban.
As far as handling the themes of conflict and its resolution, the Kite Runner showed us symbolically, how change is almost impossible in an ancient setting. It would take perhaps generation after generation to a society more tolerant of each other’s differences. The novel is rich in symbols. The kite is highly symbolic, there is a thread that keeps it afloat, there is the wind. Cutting loose has significant meaning as when Amir decides to escape to California. The kite of Amir has crossed the continents, from the ancient to the modern or post modern California.
We are then left with one question, authenticity. It is not the objective of this paper to analyze what is Afghan culture and conflicts which tearing the country apart in flare ups of violence, we could only view the novel as woven by the author. Though in many ways, ethnic or racial discrimination has been a plague of mankind, and even stable techno-scientific economies has their share of racial disharmony and bigotry. Apartheid was just recently abolished in South Africa and there are racial and ethnic strifes in Eastern Europe. What Kite Runner did is to open our eyes to such problems and maybe in the future, youthful dreams would come true.
Hosseini, Khaled, Kite Runner
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RAHA PEN: A quick glance on Novel” The Kite Runnner”
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