A CONVERSATION WITH KHALED HOSSEINI
Where did the idea for this story come from?
That’s not an easy question to answer because it developed over time. During the past couple of years I had been mulling over the notion of writing a story set in Afghanistan but I couldn’t decide on the right story or the right time period. At first I considered writing about the Taliban but I felt that particular story had already been told -- it’s an issue that has been well covered and by people far more qualified than myself. I knew if I was going to tell an Afghan story I’d have to tell one that had something new to offer. So I decided the story would have to take place, at least partially, in an Afghanistan that seemingly no one remembered anymore: the pre-Soviet War Afghanistan.
Why do you say it’s a time no one seems to remember any more?
For most people in west Afghanistan had become synonymous with the war against the Soviets, the Taliban and repression. I wanted to remind people that it wasn’t always like that. I wanted to remind them that there was an Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion of 1979, and that Afghanistan had enjoyed decades of peace without anyone firing so much as a rocket. The old adage in writing is to write what you know. Having lived through that time period in Kabul -- the final years of the monarchy, the birth of the Republic, and the first years of Daoud Khan’s leadership -- I felt comfortable writing about it.
What was the other incident that inspired your novel?
It involved a kid named Moussa, who was also an ethnic Hazara. Moussa lived with his mother across the street from us in a partially constructed home. The neighborhood where we lived, and that I used in the book, was called Wazir Akbar Khan. It was a district in northern Kabul, a fairly affluent and new neighborhood that was still being developed. And sometimes people hired folks to keep watch over their homes as they were being built. So this kid and his mother were living across the street from us. From time to time we’d play soccer with him or fly kites. One day, I was maybe ten years old, my brother and I were sitting on our garden wall when we noticed Moussa across the street in the yard of his place. We all had these little mirrors and we were playing around with them -- using them to shine the reflected sun in each other’s eyes from one side of the street to the other. The guy who was a cook for my family at the time walked out, saw us playing, and said, ‘Oh, is that Moussa over there?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ He nodded and said, kind of casually -- and forgive me for saying this -- ‘You know I’ve been fucking him for the last month.’ My brother and I didn’t know what that meant. We asked around and eventually found out. We never told anybody. I guess we were scared of the cook. And even back then I think we realized if we had told it was quite possible no one would have cared. The character that ended up being Hassan was a fusion of these two people: Hussein Khan and Moussa. Once he came to life, so did his alter ego, Amir, who then turned out to be the protagonist and the voice of the novel -- the person to whom the story’s moral dilemmas present themselves.
How much of The Kite Runner is autobiographical?
Inevitably there will be bits and pieces of yourself, either consciously or subconsciously, that end up in your protagonist. Fortunately there aren’t that many autobiographical things in the book. I don’t have that much in common with Amir. I say ‘fortunately’ because for a good portion of the story he’s not exactly the most savory of characters. But there certainly are things about him that come from my own life. Perhaps the most prominent is that, like Amir, I grew up admiring my father greatly and had a very intense desire to please him. Thankfully it was not with quite the same fervor that Amir had. I think his brand of admiration borders on the pathological. Fatherhood in Afghanistan is a greatly revered institution. When people identify someone they say, ‘He's the son of so-and-so...’ and they always mention the father. Tribal identity also comes from the father. Even if your mother is a Pashtun you can’t inherit Pashtun status unless your father is one as well. So like a lot of Afghan kids I grew up revering my dad [to a certain extent]. Fortunately for me he reciprocated the affection and to this day we maintain a warm and wonderful relationship. And there are a couple of other things that might be worth mentioning. Amir and I also developed a love for reading and writing at an early age. And just like Amir, when I was a kid I used to love going to the theater to see Hindi and American films. They decided to move to America -- I think in large part because of the opportunities they felt this country would offer for their children.
You’re planning a return trip to Afghanistan with your brother-in-law in March or April of this year. Where do you plan to go?
The places I really want to go back and see are the places where I have personal memories. I’m dying to see my father’s old house in Wazir Akbar Khan where I grew up and the hill north of the house with its abandoned graveyard where my brother and I used to play. I want to see the various bazaars in Kabul where we used to hang out and my old school. I’d also like to see the foreign ministry where my father used to work. I remember him taking us there when we were kids and how incredibly huge it looked to me then. I’d love to revisit the mosques my dad would sometimes take us to on Fridays and the kababi house in Shar-e-nau (the New City), which I recently learned is still standing and which is still owned and operated by the same guy who owned it when I was a kid. Then there are some places of general interest I’d like to visit: Bala Hissar in Southeast Kabul, the old city fortress and walls, a site of infighting between mujaheddin factions; Baghi Babur, the garden of the tomb of the 16th-century Mogul emperor Babu; Bagh-I-Bala, the home of a 19th-century king, now a posh restaurant, located high on a hill with a view of the city; and Darulaman, the old royal palace -- once a beautiful building surrounding by trees and lawns. We used to go there for family picnics when I was a kid. I understand it has been pretty badly damaged.
Some news organizations have expressed interest in sending a reporter or camera crew with you to Afghanistan when you return. But there has already been plenty of reporting from Afghanistan. Why should they be interested in accompanying you there?
Much of the reporting that we’ve seen about Afghanistan, and the stories we’ve heard, has been through the eyes of westerners. I’d be able to bring present day Afghanistan back with me, with my own take, and with the eyes of someone who has had the benefit of having seen the country in better days and who would be able to provide some perspective.
This will be the first time you’re returning to Afghanistan in 27 years. What do you hope to accomplish?
Beyond wanting to go for purely nostalgic reasons I want to go back and talk to the people on the street. I want to get a sense of what life is like now in Kabul and a sense of where people think their country is headed. I want to see if I can put a finger on the emotional pulse of the city. I also hope to come back with a sense of optimism. I want to see the signs of reconstruction -- concrete evidence that there may be hope for Afghanistan after all because for so long the only thing we ever heard from there were reports of killings, genocide, repression, natural disasters, poverty and hunger.
Do you have any reservations or fears about returning to Afghanistan and to Kabul?
My main concern is one of safety. I have a two-year-old son and a ten-day-old daughter. Although I understand Kabul is pretty well guarded that can’t be said about areas off the beaten path. And I’m dreading a little bit seeing some of the destruction and ruin. I imagine going back will be like going back and seeing an old friend you haven’t seen in a long time and finding him destitute, sick, poor and homeless. I do fear that a bit. Initially I think it will be emotionally difficult. Everyone who goes back says the first couple of days leave you in a state of shock. Dust covers the entire city; the smell of diesel fumes is pervasive no matter where you go; there are ruins and debris everywhere you look; and the trees are all destroyed (either cut down for fuel or by the Soviets years earlier to thwart snipers who used them for cover). I think it will take some getting used to but I also think once the initial shock wears off I’ll be fine.
Are you going knowing full well what to expect or are you not sure what you’ll find?
I’m not sure what I’m going to find. Depending on who you listen to the situation is either really optimistic or totally hopeless. A good friend of mine named Tamim Ansary, an Afghan writer from San Francisco who wrote that very famous e-mail about 9/11 that ended up circulating around the world, went back to Afghanistan last June. When he returned to the U.S. he brought back with him a real sense of hope. He said the people he saw in the street, and the people he spoke with, were very optimistic about their future and where the country was headed and were ready to put behind them all the atrocities of the Taliban and the war.
Tamim said it was very safe and he had no trouble at all getting around Kabul. On the other hand, another gentleman I recently spoke with, who was back in Afghanistan a couple of months ago, said the situation was hopeless; that no progress is being made; that there’s rampant corruption; and that people’s outlook is very bleak. The bottom line is that I don’t know what I’m going to find. I’m very much looking forward to seeing the situation for myself and making my own judgments.
One of the most pervasive images of Afghanistan in your novel is the depth to which its culture is all about family. How much family do you still have there?
Virtually everybody I know has been out of the country for a long time. I have no immediate family, or even extended family, left in Kabul but there are people I know who never left and there are people who have now moved back. In fact my brother-in-law’s father is there. I also have a first cousin who still lives in Herat. I hope I’ll be able to get there at some point during the trip and see her. We exchanged letters just before 9/11 but then we lost contact.
What are your thoughts on what’s happened in the last couple of years in Afghanistan?
During the Taliban era you couldn’t read about Afghanistan without reading about hunger, war, landmines, refugees, and so on. The Taliban did nothing to alleviate those problems. What they did do was add a sense of the absurd on a grand scale. When they ordered the Buddha statues destroyed and prohibited art and sports and all the things that people take enjoyment in, we were all in a state of disbelief. We shook our heads and wondered how it had come to this. Then September 11th happened and I dreaded what was sure to come next. With the impending bombing campaign I truly feared for the people. On the other hand one friend of mine, who had come back to the U.S. from Afghanistan after living there during the Taliban era, said there was a cancer there and you had to give it chemotherapy. It’s not pleasant but maybe that’s what it takes. I don’t know if he was right or wrong but I do know there’s relative peace in Afghanistan now and a cautious sense of optimism for the first time in a long long time. I think Afghanistan is currently enjoying a window of opportunity. My fear is that with the passing of time, and with public attention shifting to other issues -- the impending war with Iraq, the struggling economy -- Afghanistan might once again be forgotten by America. And when I say that I echo the sentiment of a lot of Afghans, especially those who still live there. If this book accomplishes anything, on a broader level, I hope it helps to keep Afghanistan alive in the collective mind of the public. If it accomplishes that I feel it will have been a very worthwhile thing to do.
How do people in Afghanistan feel about those who fled the country in the late 1970s or early ’80s. What sort of reaction do you expect when you return?
I think there could be several different reactions depending on who we’re talking about and who we’re asking. When I asked Tamim the same question he said he felt people weren’t bitter at all; that they were just happy to have people back to help with the reconstruction process. And certainly President Karzai has made it abundantly clear that he wants Afghan intellectuals and professionals to come back and help the country rebuild.
Simultaneously, I have heard reports of embitterment towards those Afghans who fled and who are now returning. And I can see how there could be some resentment. Now that investors’ money is flowing it seems to them as if people are suddenly appearing out of the woodwork. In my heart I hope I get the former reaction although if it were the latter I would certainly understand.
What are your views on some of the women’s issues in Afghanistan and the way women are treated there?
The way women were treated in Afghanistan during the Taliban era was unacceptable. But things were very different when I was growing up. Back then women were very active in contributing to society, at least in urban areas. My mother, for example, was a teacher at a girl’s high school. The Taliban did Afghanistan a great, great disservice by shutting women out of the workplace. So the damage they inflicted is going to take years to repair: rebuilding the schools, getting girls to pick up books again, re-acclimating women into the workplace, and so forth. I think it’s very tragic. In the novel I didn’t touch much on the subject because I felt it was something that had been pretty well covered. Perhaps the most well known aspect of the Taliban regime was its mistreatment of women. It’s still a work very much in progress for women, but my understanding is that in the post-Taliban era things are much better. Girls are going back to school and learning again. Women are returning to the workplace. They wear the Burqa if they want to but they don’t have to. Once again they can move about without the presence of a male adult companion, wear makeup, listen to music and so on. So my understanding, based on what I’ve read and heard, is that the situation is much better, although there is still room for improvement, especially in more rural areas. Nevertheless, that's one of the things that intrigues me and that I want to see for myself.
What is the greatest misconception Americans have about Afghanistan?
I am not sure there are many now. In the wake of 9/11, the public was extensively exposed to and educated about Afghanistan. But if there was one, it was that we are all like the Taliban and that women never had a say in Afghan society. In fact purdah, the Muslim practice of keeping women hidden from men outside their own family -- either via a curtain, veil, or the like -- was first made optional in 1959. It was a time when women began to enroll in the University and to enter the workforce and the government. In the mid-1970s a new constitution was presented that confirmed women’s rights. Most people don’t know that.
They think Afghanistan was more like Saudi Arabia, a place where women had been repressed for centuries and where those same practices were continuing. I was in an Internet chat room once in which a woman logged in and started going off about how Afghans treat their women. I told her not all Afghans are that way and what she was seeing was the practices of the then-current regime -- the Taliban. That took her by surprise.
Many aid workers and diplomats have been unwilling to spend time in cities other than Kabul because of fears of terrorism, assault, banditry and rape. This has greatly slowed reconstruction projects in the countryside. What will it take to change the situation there?
It’s difficult to say because Afghanistan has to develop a national army and that’s going to take time. But there’s a transitional period between now and then where security will remain a vital issue. Unfortunately it seems like you can’t have reconstruction without security and you can’t have security without reconstruction. The big debate right now is whether ISAF forces should be allowed to expand to cover larger regions of the country and bridge the security gap until a functional national army can be properly trained, groomed and equipped. As to be expected you can find plenty of opinions on both sides of the issue. There are conservative Afghans who feel that would be a step toward the country’s becoming a pawn for western colonialism and there are others who feel it’s a necessary step for reconstruction.
Tell me a bit about your parents’ background.
My dad came from a small village just a few kilometers from Herat, which is a large town in western Afghanistan. He was an only child raised by his mother (his father died when he was two years old). My mom was brought up in Herat itself. We’re talking about the 1940s and ‘50s here so there was very little infrastructure where they lived -- no electricity, no running water and so on. Eventually they moved to Kabul. If I were to relate that event to a similar experience here I’d have to say it would be like moving from a small town in rural Alabama to New York City. The streets of Kabul were paved. People drove cars. Everyone had electricity. It was a bold and drastic move for them. Eventually they both managed to attend university. My mom became a teacher and my dad a diplomat.
You’ve already told the story of your dad’s posting to Tehran. Take us now to the mid-1970s. You’re ten or eleven years old and your family is living in Kabul once again. What happened next?
My father received another overseas posting -- this time as a second secretary at the embassy in Paris. We moved there in October of 1976 for what we thought was going to be a four-year stint. Two years later, while we were still in France, the Communists staged a bloody coup at home and Daoud Khan, Afghanistan’s President, was killed. At that point everybody was very scared. People were still traveling back and forth to Afghanistan, and given my father’s position in the embassy we had a line of communication available to us, so we were able to hear reports of what was going on. We were hearing stories of executions and imprisonments. We learned of friends and distant relatives who were shot and killed. We learned about one of my distant cousins who tried to escape into Pakistan hidden in a fuel truck and who suffocated while en route. (That also became the basis for a scene in the book.) So we knew there was trouble. Then, in December of 1979, the Soviets invaded. That sealed our fate because at that point my father decided he wasn’t going back. The question was whether to stay in France, where my parents at least felt fairly comfortable and where they’d learned the language and made friends, or move to America.
What is your strongest memory of that time in Paris after the Communists took over?
I remember it felt a little like I was living in a spy novel. Whenever we’d travel anywhere my father would insist we all wait by the elevator in the garage while he went clear across the parking lot to get the car and bring it to us. People were getting killed and he was afraid that someone may have planted a bomb in the car. And you had to be careful about what you said, and to whom, because the new regime sent its own diplomats to Paris. There was one man in particular who brought his family with him including a pair of boys my age. I remember meeting them for the first time and noticing they were wearing their Khalq party buttons on their Levis jackets. (The Khalq party was one of Afghanistan’s socialist factions.) They began referring to me as ‘comrade’. It was pretty shocking and it gave me an idea of the sort of brainwashing that was going on in Kabul during that era. It was a time of great uncertainty and fear for us. We wondered if we’d ever see Afghanistan again.
Was the move to the US something you’re family talked about? Or did your father just gather the family together one day and say, ‘We’re moving to America!’?
I don’t remember any family meetings, but I knew my father was mulling over moving us to the States. I think he never mentioned it for security reasons. Kids talk. In any event we moved to San Jose, California, in September of 1980. I was delighted. My parents still live there by the way. In fact almost my entire family still lives there with the exception of two of my four siblings, who live in San Diego.
How difficult was the transition to the US?
That first couple of years in America was a difficult time for all of us. For my siblings and me, in addition to the anxiety of learning a new language, there were the usual fears of adolescence and pre- adolescence: Will I fit in? Will I make friends? Am I ever going to learn English? And will other kids make fun of me? Starting essentially from scratch was much harder on my parents. They’d had established lives and careers and identities.
They’d had homes and land that they’d given up. And now they had to assimilate into a brand new culture at a stage in their lives when assimilation was not particularly easy. I think the hardest adjustment for my parents, especially my dad, was the notion of being on welfare.
I clearly remember our first Christmas here in the States. We were home entertaining some Afghan friends -- it was the middle of the afternoon -- when we heard a knock on the door. When we opened the door a procession of Boy Scouts walked into the house with boxes of canned food, old clothes, a Christmas tree and used toys. We were appreciative but for my parents it was a mortifying experience. They’d always been proud, self-sufficient people. For them to lose everything they’d owned and suddenly find themselves on the receiving end of charity was a tough pill to swallow. Soon after that my dad got a job as a driving instructor. He then drove down to the welfare office and said, ‘No more!’ He volunteered us off of welfare.
What do you remember most about the US when you first arrived?
My clearest impression was one of amazement at the size of everything: the wideness of the streets, the size of the homes, the manicured lawns, the sheer number of cars and people and freeways. It was a little overwhelming and very exciting too. I remember feeling this very dizzying sense of hope that anything could and would happen in this place if you wanted it bad enough. It was an amazingly powerful feeling that few people experience who aren’t immigrants. Because of that sense of hope and mystery I’ll always look back fondly on those early years here.
Are your parents still alive? And, if so, what are they doing now?
My mother is not working; my father is an eligibility officer -- he dispenses welfare. And most of his clients are Afghans.
That’s pretty ironic considering his position on welfare when he first came to this country.
It’s one of those things that would make a great piece of fiction. When we first came to the States he worked as a driving instructor but it was a very stressful job. When he developed diabetes and heart disease he started looking for alternatives and eventually found his current position. He feels it’s an honorable job and he feels he’s truly helping people in need. As I said, most of his clients are Afghans. His experiences, and the difficulties he had in accepting welfare, have allowed him to identify with his clients and given him a sense of empathy that others might not have.
What are your parents’ feelings now on the current state of affairs in Afghanistan? Do they have any desire to go back?
They miss Afghanistan and Kabul but they’re very concerned about the security issue. There are also health issues for my father. He’s got diabetes and coronary heart disease, pulmonary problems, and he’s already had one bout with cancer. Nevertheless he, too, has expressed some interest in going back, at least for a visit. Currently I think my parents are hopeful about the situation there but, like everyone else, they’re concerned about the various warlords and tribal chiefs who are all vying for their own interests.
Everybody’s afraid that that may lead to the undoing of this incredible opportunity for the country. And depending on whom you ask, and what their particular backgrounds are, Mr. Karzai is either doing a wonderful job or failing miserably. Personally I think he’s doing an admirable job. I think he must have one of the roughest tasks of any world leader.
How did the story itself come together?
It came together for me when the character of Hassan began to emerge. He came to life as a result of two separate incidents in my own life, one of which was pleasant and the other decidedly unpleasant. The first occurred in the early 1970s when my father, who worked for the Afghan foreign ministry, was posted to the embassy in Tehran. I was about six at the time. Dad had hired a cook in Kabul, a man named Hussein Khan, and brought him with us. Khan was an ethnic Hazara -- a minority that had, at best, been neglected by Afghanistan’s Pashtun government, and, at worst, persecuted, for more than 200 years. Khan was about thirty years old -- a short, stocky man with black hair. He was very soft-spoken, very gentle. He and I became fairly friendly. I don’t know if he had a family, or whether he’d been married, but I do remember he never wrote any letters to, or received any letters from, home. I asked him why that was. He said it was because he couldn’t read or write. When I asked why not he said it was because no one had ever taught him. Naturally I said, I’ll teach you. I guess I was in the third grade at the time. Within a year he could read and write, albeit with a childlike handwriting. (I used that incident in the novel for the character Soraya.) I was pretty proud of him and myself. He called me ‘Professor Khaled’. I don’t remember the exact circumstances of how it happened but Kahn ended up moving away. I don’t know what became of him. It wasn’t until much later that I fully appreciated that my time with Hussein Khan had been my first personal exposure to the unfairness and injustices that permeate society. Here was a man who grew up illiterate, and who was denied the opportunities I was offered as a third grader, simply because of his race.
Some of the images you write about, particularly when Amir goes back Afghanistan, are incredibly painful: the trek to Kabul, the stoning at Ghazi stadium and the stories of casual Taliban cruelty. If you haven’t been back in more than twenty years where did those images come from? What allowed you to create such vivid scenes and draw such vivid pictures?
Those scenes were a combination of things I’ve read and news footage I’ve seen. For example, there was that famous footage shot by a woman, which showed a Taliban soldier publicly executing another woman at a soccer stadium. He put a shotgun to the back of her head and pulled the trigger. There was also footage of the Taliban bringing a convicted murderer onto the soccer field. I believe it was the brother of the victim who was then handed a knife and asked to slit the murderer’s throat, which he then proceeded to do.
Much of the rest is based purely on my imagination: what it must feel like to be in a situation like that, what a Mullah might say, what the crowd's reaction might be, and so on. I also drew heavily on the eyewitness accounts of people who had visited Afghanistan under the Taliban. I used to sit around and hear them tell incredible horror stories of conditions at home. Once I started writing that part of the novel I went back and contacted some of those people to learn more details.
What do you want readers to get out of this book?
I want them to see that the Afghan people existed before there was a war with the Soviets and before there was a Taliban. I want them to understand that the things we’re seeing now in Afghanistan -- the tribal chiefs vying for their own interests and the various ethnicities colliding with each other -- have roots that go back several centuries. I try to illuminate some of those things through the experiences of Amir and his Hazara servant, Hassan. I want readers to have a really good time reading this story. I want them to be touched by it because to me novel writing, first and foremost, is storytelling. And I was brought up on a tradition of storytelling. I want people to get involved with the characters and care for them. And I want people to simply remember Afghanistan. If the book is successful at all in sparking some dialogue on Afghanistan, and keeping it in the public consciousness, then I think it will have achieved a lot.
From the Hardcover edition.