Afghan Culture and The Kite Runner
Afghanistan translates to “Land of the Afghans” and is a nation with a strong culture, including diverse subcultures and Islamic traditions. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is the story of a young boy, Amir. He lives in an affluent neighborhood in Kabul with his father, Baba. His best friend, Hassan, is their servant. The book follows Amir’s life, showing the problems that arise due to guilt over his turbulent past. The Kite Runner takes place predominantly in Afghanistan, but scenes in America highlight the Afghan-American community. The book explores many aspects of Afghan culture, a strong part of Hosseini’s background, which influences his writing. This includes Arabic dialogue, but also the actual storyline and character development. Afghan culture is the driving force behind the plot and character’s decisions in The Kite Runner. Kite fighting is a characteristic of Afghan culture that affects relationships in the novel. Honor, another centerpiece of Afghan culture, influences the decisions of the book’s characters. Finally, ethnic tensions and discrimination within the Afghan culture against Hazara people cause problems for Hassan and Ali but also Baba’s internal strife over his Hazara son.
Kite fighting is a key cultural element of The Kite Runner that temporarily yet drastically improves the relationship between Amir and his father, Baba. In Kabul, schools close in the winter and the boys fly kites in their spare time. Using strings coated in glass, kites fly high trying to cut each other. The highlight of this cultural tradition is the kite fighting tournament, and the last kite captured is an honorary trophy. Amir seeks to win this tournament in hopes of earning the respect of his father, who views him as overly passive and defenseless. Before the tournament, Baba says in private that Amir “needs someone who understands him, because god knows I don’t. But something about Amir troubles me in a way I can’t express. It’s like… If I hadn’t seen the doctor pull him out of my wife with my own eyes, I’d never believe he was my son” (Hosseini 23). This tense father-son relationship is an ongoing plight of Amir’s, but it sees a temporary yet drastic improvement after Amir wins the tournament. Kite fighting is aggressive, merciless, and the winners gain a triumphant, honorable reputation; thus, this important cultural event helps Amir win Baba’s favor. Amir says that winning the competition was “the single greatest moment of my twelve years of life, seeing Baba on that roof, proud of me at last” (66). The next part of the tournament, running for the kites, is also important. Hassan runs the final blue kite for Amir, which Amir describes as his “key to Baba’s heart” (71). For a brief period of time following Amir’s triumphant win, Baba starts spending more time with Amir. As result of this cultural event, Amir’s relationship with his father has a temporary improvement.
Kite fighting ends up destroying the friendship between Hassan and Amir. Amir asks Hassan to run for the blue kite to keep as a trophy. Hassan smiles as departs, saying, “For you, a thousand times over!” (67). Amir foreshadows that the next time he will ever see “him smile unabashedly like that was twenty six years later, in a faded polaroid photograph” (67). Only a short while later, Amir finds Hassan cornered by Assef and two others, who demand the kite. Hassan stands his ground, but Assef then beats him and rapes him for refusing to give up the kite. Amir watches from an alleyway, debating his options, saying he had “One final opportunity to decide who I was going to be” (77). Amir chooses to run away instead of helping Hassan, a decision that will haunt him for his entire life and sparks a chain of events that completely disrupts all the characters’ way of life. Amir knows the real reason wasn’t fear, admitting, “Maybe Hassan was the price I had to pay, the lamb I had to slaughter, to win Baba” (77). This again reverts back to the cultural importance of kite fighting and kite running as honorable, aggressive activities that Amir can use to win Baba’s approval. Winning the tournament was only half the battle, so Amir chose to get his opponent’s kite and winning Baba over rather than saving his best friend from a horrific rape. Amir is unable to live with the guilt, so he loses his friendship with Hassan and ultimately frames Hassan for stealing, forcing Ali, Hassan’s father, and Hassan to leave and never be seen again by Amir. This tension with Hassan, in turn, ruins Amir’s relationship with Baba once again. Kite fighting is an important cultural aspect of the book that Amir uses to win Baba’s favor but ultimately ruins all of his relationships.
The importance of honor in Afghan culture influences the decisions of Amir and Baba. Honor is a fundamental value among Afghans that has transcended generations, including that of the characters in The Kite Runner. Baba shows a devotion to his honor, which comes hand-in-hand with his dignity and public perception. He does this in small ways, such as returning government-issued food stamps once in America, which Amir says “alleviated one of his greatest fears, that an Afghan would see him buying food with charity money” (131). The book clearly shows that Afghan-Americans don’t stray far from their cultural roots, including a sense of honor. Honor plays a much more significant role in the plot; Amir inflicted injury upon Hassan, and subsequently his own livelihood, without the knowledge that Hassan was his half-brother. Baba had to shield the fact that he fathered Hassan because having an extramarital affair is considered dishonorable in Afghan culture, as well as a violation of Islamic principles. Even Baba says theft is the only sin, including stealing a man’s wife, yet he does just that. Years later, Rahim Khan reflects on this by saying “It was a shameful situation. People would talk. All that a man had back then, all that he was, was his honor, his name…” (223). Baba did not want to ruin his family name, nor lose his honored status in Kabul, by admitting he had an affair or illegitimate son.
The importance of honor in Afghan culture is also emphasized in the entire process of Amir courting Soraya, the daughter of General Taheri. Honor manifests particularly in relationships between families. Soraya’s background story involves her running away to be with a man. She believes it is unfair that she makes a single mistake and “everyone is talking nang [honor] and namoos [pride]” (164). Soraya feels she has dishonored her family, and she even asks Amir if he wants to go through with the marriage after hearing her story. He admits that his pride, his “iftikhar” (165), was hurt by this. Amir, just like his father, holds honor in high esteem. Baba warns Amir to be careful when courting Soraya because General Taheri “is a Pashtun to the root. He has nang and namoos” (145). General Taheri obviously finds honor tremendously important as well, and he demonstrates this by warning Amir not to speak to Soraya in public. Eventually, when Amir wants to marry, he asks Baba to “go khastegari… ask General Taheri for his daughter’s hand” (161) which he stated earlier was the “honorable thing” (147). Until the wedding, Soraya and Amir never even went out alone, and the only reason they skipped the engagement period was because of Baba’s declining health. Their marriage was also a traditional Afghan wedding with rituals like the Ayena Masshaf, when the bride and groom admire each other in the mirror. Honor, a centerpiece of Afghan culture, evidently guides the decisions of all the Afghan characters in The Kite Runner.
Discrimination against Hazara people by the Pashtuns causes difficulties for Ali and Hassan. Hazaras are a large ethnic minority in Afghanistan, and they are said to be descendants of the Mongol Genghis Khan. There are Asiatic features differentiate them from the Pashtun majority, and Hazaras are Shi’a Muslims, while Pashtuns are Sunni. Amir discusses Hassan’s ethnic differences right away, but he admits he knows little about the Hazara people except that people call them “mice-eating, flatnosed, load-carrying donkeys” (9). Assef, the antagonist of the novel, tells Hassan that “Afghanistan is the land of the Pashtuns… the true Afghans, the pure Afghans, not this Flat-Nose here” (40). And even after his blatant insult, Hassan still refers to Assef as ‘Agha,’ a title of superiority. Amir notices this and asks himself what it must be like to live with “an ingrained sense of one’s place in a hierarchy” (40). Amir, despite being friends and living with Hassan, still has his own biases. He calls Hassan an “illiterate Hazara” (34) after Hassan identifies a plot hole in Amir’s story. Hassan and Ali are both tormented, degraded, and demeaned because of their ethnicity not only by strangers but by Amir. They are seen as inferior, and this complex attitude plays a major role in the most pivotal scene in the plot: Hassan’s rape and Amir’s inaction. Moments before raping Hassan, Assef tries to exploit Amir’s ethnic bias and the awkwardness of the arrangement between Amir and Hassan by asking, “Would he [Amir] do the same for you [Hassan]? Have you ever wondered why he never includes you in games when he has guests? Why he only plays with you when no one else is around? I’ll tell you why, Hazara. Because to him, you’re nothing but an ugly pet” (72). Later, after Amir fails to stop the rape, Amir says to himself, “He was just a Hazara, wasn’t he?” (77). Amir justifies failing to intervene or prevent Hassan’s rape with several things. As discussed earlier, he says he was scared but admits his ulterior motive: winning Baba’s approval. In thinking deeper, though, he rationalizes his inaction by calling his best friend “just a Hazara,” something inherently inferior and therefore expendable. In the end, Hassan is Amir’s servant, but he’s also Baba’s. Moreover, and unbeknownst to the children, he is Baba’s other son.
Baba’s internal strife over his illegitimate son is partly caused by the Pashtun-Hazara ethnic divide. Amir and Hassan can’t show their friendship in public. After winning the tournament, Amir and Hassan embrace one another but stop when they notice Baba motioning them to let go. Amir describes this, saying, “But he was doing something now, motioning with his hands in an urgent way. Then I understood. ‘Hassan we–‘ ‘I know,’ he said, breaking our embrace” (66). Amir and Hassan are not supposed to publicly to show affection, friendliness, or brotherhood because, in their culture, it would be inappropriate for a Hazara servant to have such a close relationship with his Pashtun master. For the same reason, Baba cannot show affection to Hassan, a Hazara, either. Nevertheless, he does so in subtle ways, such as through gestures of kindness, buying Hassan gifts, or even paying for a hair-lip surgery. The relationship between Ali and Baba also demonstrates Baba’s inability to openly accept his Hazara son. Baba describes his childhood with Ali in a warm way but never refers to Ali as a friend. Ali points out that he was the “poor laborer” to Baba’s “mischief” (25). Baba is not supposed to befriend a Hazara, let alone have a Hazara son. Baba believed the cultural and social stigma associated with having a Hazara son would ruin his reputation. Despite all this, he snaps at Amir for suggesting they get new servants, saying Hassan is their “family” and with them is “where he belongs” (90). Baba’s internal conflict, unbeknownst to Amir, is balancing fatherhood with the social stigmas of having an illegitimate, Hazara son.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini revolves around the strong Afghan culture. Social customs, religious tenants, family tradition, personal honor, and even negative elements like racism and ethnic tension are elements of Afghan culture presented in the novel. Afghan culture is the driving force behind the plot and character’s decisions in The Kite Runner, as elements of Afghan culture like kite fighting, honor, and an ethnic divide affect the relationships between characters, character’s decisions, and the entire storyline. Afghan culture is deeply rooted in the Afghani people, and, as the book demonstrates, neither political turmoil nor human exodus can strip the people of their beliefs, their culture, or their values.
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