When I picked up The Kite Runner, upon seeing it was written by someone whose name I couldn’t pronounce, I was intrigued. Kahli-, no, Kahled Ho-, Hosen-, Hosseini? Like Houdini? Ckah-lead ho-see-knee. We’ll stick with that. And upon realizing that it was written by an Afghani, a nation that most Americans fear and hate for the “world-splitting” event of 9/11, my interest was doubly intense. I prepared for controversial material, and I was disappointed.
Despite being written by an Afghani, The Kite Runner has a distinctly western feel. Its descriptions of Afghani life fit our current cultural narrative well – almost too well. Looking up Hosseini on Wikipedia, I found that he was born in 1965 and moved to the US when he was fifteen. He is now 46 and has been living in the US for over 30 years. That being said, it is no surprise he and his novel are wholly infected with American culture.
Throughout the novel a distinct pro-secular sentiment takes hold. Early in the book, before the Soviet invasion of 1979, Amir, the novel’s main character, who was only a boy at the time, asks his father why he is drinking whiskey. Whisky, of course, was and is expressly prohibited by most sects of Islam, which is why Amir found it strange when his father defied his mullah’s instruction. Baba, the father, responds with a quasi-atheist sounding tirade against the Muslim religion, tagging on that “You’ll never learn anything of value from those bearded idiots (Amir’s religious instructors at school)… They do nothing but thumb their prayer beads and recite a book written in a tongue they don’t even understand, and god help us all if Afghanistan ever falls into their hands.” Now, there is nothing wrong with thinking this way, and I would even be inclined to agree, but, from what I know of Afghanistan, this sentiment would be incredibly rare. Surely someone somewhere in Afghanistan thought this, but why show the reader this extreme exception to the rule? As the novel progresses and Amir grows into an adult, we find that he has adopted a similar secular attitude. Why? In all likely hoods, Amir and his father would have been devout Muslims. Again, why give us this extreme exception to the rule? Perhaps Hosseini himself thinks the same way, and he made the characters that way because he identified with that belief. That’s fine, but where does that leave us in evaluation of the novel?
I think it is undeniable that this novel takes a decidedly western view of Islam and middle-eastern society. That makes sense. It was, after all, written by a westerner. But a western view is not a positive view. A western view is one tainted with fear and ignorance: partly justified, partly not. A western view of a Muslim country is almost always a critical one. A westerner will remark about an Islamic country’s brutal treatment of women, repression of basic freedoms, religious fanaticism, and medieval justice before any positive comments emerge. Again, that is fine. The issue is not whether or not westerners are correct or incorrect, the issue is that this is a novel about Afghani life written by someone whose only similarity with Afghani culture is a name and ancestry. Don’t let the Arab-sounding name fool you. In this context Hosseini might as well have been Smith or Jones. And if this novel were actually written by a Smith or Jones, meaning someone with whiter skin and European ancestry, the portrayal of Afghani life seen here would have been at least inflammatory and at most fear-mongering. This novel strays into propaganda territory with its portrayal of the Taliban and its effects on Afghani life, and I often felt that the novel was politically-correct to many American’s current views toward Afghanistan. The political kowtowing to American audiences, however, goes unnoticed because of the author’s name. In our favor to only see the surface, I feel we have neglected to note that this is not an Afghani view of Afghani life, but a western view of Afghani life. And if I wanted a western view of Afghani life, I could just turn on the news.