One Community, One Book – All Johnson County Reads
THE KITE RUNNER
by Khaled Hosseini
SUGGESTED DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
1 The Kite Runner is at its core a story about a boy, Amir, born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1963, and the challenges he faces maturing into manhood—the testing of friendships (especially with Hassan, born a year later of servants in the same household), the bonding of fathers and sons, love and hate, death and devastation, and, above all, the price of personal loyalty and betrayal. Amir's story is set against the backdrop of civil war, the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the later takeover of the country by Afghanistan's mujahideen resistance movement in the form of an Islamist government—the Taliban—that violently displaced the traditional authority and governance structures of the country. It is thus also a story about the collapse of civil society and the violation of fundamental human rights that commonly takes place in such settings—ethnic and racial discrimination, religious intolerance, the oppression of women and children, war crimes, the plight of refugees. Can you spot these and other human rights themes in the book? Does one or more of them dominate the telling of Amir's story? If so, which? And why?
2 Amir is from among Afghanistan's privileged—the Pashtuns, who are Sunni Muslims. Hassan is of a shunned ethnic minority—the Mongoloid Hazaras, who are Shiite Muslims. Do these facts define Amir's and Hassan's friendship? Why is Amir hesitant about his friendship with Hassan? Why does he not go to Hassan's defense when Hassan is gang raped by Assef and his fellow ruffians? Why was Hassan gang raped? Why does Amir constantly test Hassan's loyalty? Why does he resent Hassan? Does ethnic, racial, or religious discrimination have anything to do with all of this? Should it? Is the disregard or mistreatment of others because of their different ethnic, racial, or religious characteristics ever justified? Or because of their color, gender, sexual orientation, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status? If so, when? If not, why not?
3 It could be said that what makes Hassan so endearing to Amir is that Hassan never complains about his "station in life" and that he cheerfully and unconditionally accepts his second-class status. By the end of the story, when his true relation to Amir is revealed, Hassan is rewarded by being posthumously elevated to a status of near-parity with Amir and his family; and in the U.S. Amir finally stands up for Sohrab, Hassan's son, as an individual and not merely an ethnic face. But there is no instance of anyone of the "lower" cast ever rebelling against this taken-for-granted domination. If they did, it is likely that they would not be as friendly and pleasant as Hassan and his father, Ali. Is it possible for there to be changes in social standing in a society that places great value and takes great pride in traditional divisions of caste, ethnicity, or race? Non-violent changes? In what other countries are such divisions a major problem and how, if at all, do they differ from Afghanistan? Is India one of them? The United States? Why? Why not?
4 After Amir wins the kite running tournament, his relationship with his father, Baba, changes significantly. Why? And why is Amir's winning of the tournament so important to him and to his father? Is it that each are driven by the values of courage, honor, and pride? What are the consequences of such a value system? What are its overlaps and its conflicts with an individual-centered value structure that is favored in "the West," particularly in the United States? To be human, it seems, is tantamount to gaining or regaining honor in the eyes of one's community. Amir may see the underside of this worldview, but ultimately he cannot live without joining in it and meeting its requirements. Is this a good or a bad thing? What are the benefits? The drawbacks?
5 Honor in this novel is anchored fundamentally in a patrilinear social system; it is a value passed on from father to son, and to join in it one must become, apparently, a father or father figure to other young men. Where does this leave women? How is the idea of equality between men and women treated in this book, explicitly and implicitly? Does Amir treat women the same way as his father and other elders, such as General Taheri, his wife's father? Is the treatment of women merely a generational issue? An issue such as caste, ethnicity, or race regardless of generation? Is it possible for men's attitudes toward women to be genuinely and enduringly changed in Afghanistan? Elsewhere? How? What conditions must be present or brought into existence?
6 Religion seems to be many things to many people in this book. Baba is celebrated in part for his exceptionally secular ways in a traditional society; it is nearly the civic framework for his California exile community in Hayward. Amir exercises it in an entirely private way, as if his faith were more repentance than conversion. And in Assef's Talibanic rendition, Islam is essentially just a pretext for his pathological cruelty. What role should religion play in society? Does the role differ from one religion to another? Should it? What about theocratic states such as Iran? Afghanistan under the Taliban? What about countries such as Israel, founded in major part in response to religious persecution? Is the separation of church and state desirable? Undesirable? Has there been an erosion of this principle in the United States in recent years? If so, is this a good or bad development? Why? Why not?
7 Never forgetting a face when he shot his former jailer and tormenter "in the balls," Assef claimed he was, as a Taliban, on a "mission" doing God's work. Amir asks him (p. 248): "What mission is that? . . . Stoning adulterers? Raping children? Flogging women for wearing high heels? Massacring Hazaras? All in the name of Islam?" Do you agree with Amir's apparent viewpoint that such cruelties never can be justified on religious grounds? Who is to say? Should not different cultures have the right to determine for themselves how they will treat persons within their jurisdiction? Can the death penalty as practiced in the United States be understood in this light? Or are there universal values that trump all others? Might the provisions of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights embody such values? Or, in a multicultured world, is it compromised for having been heavily influenced by Western culture? If, as is true, the value of respect for others is central to human rights, how can one justify the condemnation of other cultures' values? Is it possible to reconcile universal values with diverse cultural traditions? When are cultural differences to be respected and when are they not?
8 Is Islam alone among the world's great religions to be invoked in defense of cruel and barbarous acts by one person or group against another? What about Christianity? Judaism? What examples does history provide? What examples does the present provide?
9 As a result of Afghanistan's many years of civil strife and inhumane governance, children were prominently victimized. As Zaman, director of the orphanage visited by Amir in search of Sohrab, puts it (p. 222): "Many of [the children] have lost their fathers in the war, and their mothers can't feed them because the Taliban don't allow them to work . . .. There is very little shelter here, almost no food, no clothes, no clean water. What I have in ample supply here is children who've lost their childhood." A similar sentiment is later expressed by Sohrab when he says (p. 277): "There are a lot of children in Afghanistan, but little childhood." Is the situation of children in Afghanistan as thus described typical or atypical of children around the world? Of a majority? A minority? What evidence supports your point of view?
10 Afghan refugees escaping war and Taliban rule are victims of human rights violation in this novel also, among them Baba and Amir living in exile in Hayward, California—for Amir, "a place to bury [his] memories"; for Baba, "a place to mourn his"; (p. 112). In Hayward, however, there are "[h]omes that made Baba's house in Wazir Akbar Khan look like a servant's hut" (p. 118). Is the situation of Amir and Baba typical or atypical of the majority of the world's refugees? Are most of them men, like Baba and Amir, or women and children? Where are they found the most? Why? How big a problem is it worldwide? What do you recommend as a solution to the problem?
11 In 1981, at a checkpoint on their way out of Afghanistan after two years of Soviet occupation, Baba and Amir encountered a Russian soldier who, though already paid bribe money, demanded a further condition of their escape: "a half hour with the lady in the back of the truck" (p. 100). Baba said to the truck driver: "Ask him where his shame is." To which the Russian soldier responded: "There is no shame in war." Angrily, Baba countered: "Tell him he's wrong. War doesn't negate decency. It demands it, even more than in times of peace" (ibid.). As it happens, Baba speaks consistently with international law which, in both treaty and custom, insists upon humane rules of armed conflict in international and civil wars. But isn't it oxymoronic to assert rules of humanity in wartime? How does one enforce such rules? Is it reasonable to expect that warring nations should act as if combatants and non-combatants have internationally protected human rights in wartime? Governments beset by civil war? Why? Why not?
12 A disdain for the Russians resulting from their invasion and occupation of Afghanistan beginning in 1979 is palpable throughout this book. Might a similar disdain have been appropriate in relation to the United States at the time? More out of Cold War rivalry than concern for human rights, it helped to arm and train the mujahideen who later made Taliban governance possible. Was this wise policy? Would your answer differ if it could be demonstrated that the United States evinced concern more for human rights than Cold War rivalry? What have been the consequences?
13 Afghanistan continues to this day to be a land of conflict, divided by religion, caste, class, political ambition, global power politics, and other factors in such a way as to make the realization of human rights for the Afghan people as a whole still a distant dream. It is not alone in this regard. Major and widespread human rights abuse has been all too familiar in Somalia, Bosnia, Haiti, Kosovo, Rwanda, Congo, East Timor, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, among others, in recent years. Presently the Darfur region of Sudan is high on the list of deliberate atrocity and cruelty. As previously in relation to Afghanistan, "genocide" and "ethnic cleansing," commonly in the name of religion or some other privileging doctrine or tradition, are now tragically evident in the daily headlines and newcasts. How should the world respond to such events? How should the United States respond to such events? How should we, as individuals, respond to such events? Does The Kite Runner suggest any answers?
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