Hazel McHaffie

Sharia law

The Kite Runner

The perfect confection of fine writing, moving themes and dramatic storytelling

Shattering … devastating and inspiring

Well, the reviews certainly sang the praises of The Kite Runner by Afghan-American author, Khaled Hosseini, when it came out in 2011. I bought the book years ago, but regrettably it’s only just come to the top of my tbr pile; I missed a real treat. On the other hand, given that I now know people from these countries, it probably has much more personal resonance than it would have done back then.

The official blurb sums up a complex tale succinctly.
Afghanistan, 1975: Twelve-year-old Amir is desperate to win the local kite-fighting tournament and his loyal friend Hassan promises to help him. But neither of the boys can foresee what will happen to Hassan that afternoon, an event that is to shatter their lives. After the Russians invade and the family is forced to flee to America, Amir realises that one day he must return to Afghanistan under Taliban rule to find the one thing that his new world cannot grant him: redemption.

Hassan and Amir are two Afghan motherless boys, whose fathers grew up together (Hassan’s father being adopted by Amir’s grandfather when he was suddenly and violently orphaned). The boys were fed by the same nursing breast, took their first halting steps on the same lawn, said their first words under the same roof. They commit many boyish pranks together, Hassan always ready to fall in with Amir’s wishes, ready too to take the blame when they’re found out. United as playmates they might be, but they’re forever separated by caste and religion. Hassan is a servant boy, a Shia Muslim, a Hazara, with mongoloid features and a hare lip, who lives in a mud shack. Far more naturally athletic than his friend, he’s an ace kite runner. Amir, on the other hand, is a wealthy Sunni Muslim, a Pashtun (oppressors of the Hazaras), a comely lad, living in a mansion, only son of one of the richest merchants in Kabul. But Amir is much less principled than his friend; Hassan is so ‘pure’ and truthful and unfailingly respectful that Amir always feels like a phony in his presence.

Amir attends school, but Hussan is illiterate, a mere servant, kept busy by his duties. However, the two boys share a love of stories, and Amir often reads to his playmate. Indeed, it’s Hussan’s praise that spurs Amir on when he begins to dabble in storytelling himself. In fifth grade, Amir is taught about Islam by a mullah – the evils of worldly pleasures, the importance of memorising the Koran, the intricacies of performing the set prayers. But he’s already aware of the double standards existing in his country, and his father teaches him that, if there is a God out there, he has more important things to do than worry about what men are eating and drinking. As a result, Amir hovers between the two stances about God.

Amir’s father is an aloof man who doesn’t give the boy much attention, resenting the fact that his beloved wife died giving him birth. A natural winner at everything he sets his mind to, he finds his son a constant source of disappointment. Amir hasn’t inherited a shred of his father’s athletic abilities; he’s much more interested in literature than sport. The only common ground is kite flying – a major tradition in Afghanistan.

Baba and I lived in the same house, but in different spheres of existence. Kites were the one paper-thin slice of intersection between those spheres.

But life changes forever when civil war erupts in Afghanistan. It’s July 1973. Suddenly the monarchy is a thing of the past, the 40-year reign of the king has ended with a bloodless coup. For a short time a sense of rejuvenation pervades the land; people even talk of women’s rights and modern technology. And the fortunes of the two Afghan boys seem to be in the ascendancy too. Amir’s father pays for Hussan to have an operation to repair his harelip as a birthday gift. Then when Amir is 12, he wins the annual kite tournament and thereby finally wins his father’s pride.

But that proud day, after successfully bagging the last kite left flying, Hassan is cornered by three thugs and brutally raped. Amir saw it happening but did nothing at all to stop it; an act of cowardice that will haunt him for the rest of his days.

Wracked by the terrible memories and crushing guilt, Amir compounds the injustice by drumming Hassan out of his life. But even then, falsely accused, deserted by his childhood friend, Hassan refuses to betray Amir; he’s the very embodiment of loyalty, kindness and martyrdom. Such forgiveness, such selflessness, serving to deepen Amir’s self-loathing still further.

Six years later life again changes irrevocably in Afghanistan, and the pampered lives of Amir and his father come to an abrupt end.

… the Roussi army marched into Afghanistan … villages were burned and schools destroyed … mines were planted like seeds of death and children buried in rock-piled graves … Kabul had become a city of ghosts for me. A city of hare lipped ghosts.

They eventually flee from the brutality and lawlessness via unscrupulous people traffickers, a rat-infested basement, and smuggled in trucks, to a new life in America.

America was different. America was a river, roaring along, unmindful of the past. I could wade in this river, let my sins drown to the bottom, let the waters carry me someplace far. Someplace with no ghosts, no memories and no sins.

A place for Amir to bury his memories certainly, but a place for his father to mourn his. He cannot reconcile himself to the ways of a people so different from those of his beloved homeland.

When Amir declares his intention to study creative writing his father’s reaction is predictably scornful:
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Wah wah! So, if I understand, you’ll study several years to get a degree, then you’ll get a chatti job like mine, one you could just as easily land today, on the small chance that your degree might someday help you get … discovered.’

When he falls in love with Soraya, an Afghan woman with a past, Amir’s burden of guilt is exacerbated again.  His new wife is more honourable than he – she has the courage to admit her faults – while his secret remains unspoken between them. What’s more, though honour and pride are the watchwords of the Pashtun people, he’s acutely aware that different standards apply to women than to men.

Back in Afghanistan, the warring factions have destroyed properties, opportunities and hopes. By the time Amir next hears news of Hussan, the Taliban have taken over. They ban kite flying; they massacre the Hazaras. Sharia law prevails.
Kindness has gone from the land and you cannot escape the killings … fear is everywhere … the savages who rule our watan don’t care about human decency.
Amir himself witnesses a barbaric stoning to death of a man and woman for adultery during a brief visit to his homeland.

When he hears from his father’s old friend of the murder of Hassan and his wife by the Taliban, Amir’s first thought is for their little boy, Sohrab. But what he learns about Hassan himself, shocks him to the core: their whole lives have been one massive cycle of lies, betrayals and secrets. But worse, this new knowledge means that his childhood betrayal of Hassan and his ongoing guilt are now magnified colossally. So, should he accept the opportunity that presents to end the toxic cycle; this last chance at redemption? The answer comes through a veil of tears.

A moving and profoundly challenging story.

PS. I must just share this gem …
An infertility specialist: ‘A man’s plumbing is like his mind: simple, very few surprises. You ladies, on the other hand … well, God put a lot of thought into making you.’

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Forbidden faces

You probably saw in the news this week that a leading Iranian model, Elham Arab, has been forced to publicly apologise for posting photographs of herself online without a head covering. Seven of the country’s leading models have been arrested, charged with ‘promoting corruption’ and ‘promiscuity’. This crackdown on the fashion industry is part of increased pressure by the new regime to honour ‘Islamic values’, and it leads me nicely to a book I read last week that I found both challenging and fascinating.

Imagine … you’re sixteen (the same age as my eldest granddaughter, so I’m using her as my personal yardstick). The year is 1996. The place is Kabul. To a great extent, the norm of living your whole life in wartime, never experiencing true peace, has numbed you to ‘the overall tragedy’ encompassing your country, to the ‘ultimate threat’ that’s to come. Having said that, until today you’ve enjoyed life, relative freedom, and the security of an enlightened and loving family.

My Forbidden FaceBut now … it’s 27 September. Suddenly everything changes. The Taliban have taken over your city. The president and his brother have been publicly tortured and hanged. Ferocious laws and prohibitions are imposed. Fingers are sliced off for sporting nail polish. Faces and backs are whipped because white shoes peep from beneath an all-enveloping burqa. Innocent young girls are gang raped and genitally mutilated for no reason at all. Women are dying because they are denied medical care. Small children are kidnapped, raped, strangled and thrown onto a rubbish dump for daring to seek clandestine lessons.

And in one fell swoop your whole future has been taken away. Why? Because you are female. You can’t study. You can’t work. You can’t go out without a male escort. You can’t be seen without oppressive clothing and heavy veiling.

Nor are men protected from degradation and horror. Football is replaced by a new atrocity. ‘Now justice takes place in public. They hang the accused from the goal posts, cut off the hands of thieves, execute supposedly adulterous women with a bullet in the back of the neck. This is a monstrous spectacle, intercut with obligatory prayers. Spectators are forced into the stadium with whip lashes.’ Two criminals are butchered to death by the father of their victims, a macabre spectacle watch by an estimated audience of 35,000.

Your brother is summonsed to the university where he sees the aftermath of an appalling massacre, bleeding human remains everywhere,  which he is expected to help clear up. ‘I saw a woman completely undressed … She was … she was nailed to one of those swinging doors at the faculty. They had cut her in two … in two parts. On each panel of the doors, there was half of her. Half of her nailed up body … And the door opened and shut. It was appalling.’

Propaganda attributes the ‘cleansing’ to religious motivation. But as your father explains to you: ‘A Muslim doesn’t kill another Muslim. Nowhere in the Koran is it written that we should take life. This is the final proof that they’re inventing their own Sharia, all the while wanting us to believe that whatever they decide is written in the Koran. Their laws aren’t written in the sacred book. They come out of the heads of a few mullahs who would do better to keep them for themselves.’ I’d guess most fathers in this country would use much stronger language that he does to condemn these atrocities!

If you still find it hard to imagine, I recommend you read My Forbidden Face: Growing up under the Taliban. Even the cover says so much: unseen dark eyes looking from behind a mesh of intricate embroidery onto a hostile unfathomable world, the very size of the mesh proscribed, reduced.

Mesh in burqa for eyes

The author is known only as Latifa – unlikely to be her real name. She modestly hopes that her story will ‘serve as a key for other women, those whose speech has been padlocked and who have buried their testimony in their hearts or their memories.’ She dedicates it to ‘all those Afghani girls and women who have kept their dignity until their last breath; to those women who have been deprived of their rights in their country, and who live in obscurity, despite the fact that we are in the twenty-first century; to all those executed in public, without trial and without pity, and under the eyes of their children and loved ones.’ Read it and weep.

Weeping is seldom allowable for Latifa. Emotions are frowned upon. ‘We each keep our sorrows to ourselves … This is a particularly Afghan way of proceeding.

She perceives the Taliban as dangerous and virulent bacteria propagating by spreading serious diseases, diseases that strike a mortal blow at freedom. She believes the world has forgotten her people. ‘I asked myself what kind of a world this was, so very distant from God.’

When she becomes ill and has to travel to Pakistan for treatment, she can’t help but compare the girls there with her own lot in life; so carefree, blase about their opportunities, not valuing education enough. She says of her friend: ‘She seems more superficial, less concerned than she used to be. Maybe that’s one of the things that freedom does.’ 

So what of my granddaughter’s generation today, in this country, with unlimited choice, enormous freedom? What are the lessons for them? I leave the last word with Latifa’s father: ‘You haven’t done this in vain. Trust me. Women listen to other women. Your testimony will make people here understand.’

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