“[I]t’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out.”
These first lines from The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini resonated too deeply… Running away from one’s past, trying to bury what one is ashamed of, and… afraid of.
If you haven’t read The Kite Runner, read it and then come back to this as what follows are major spoilers.
The Kite Runner follows the story of Amir Khan, whose mother dies whilst giving birth to him, leaving his father without a wife. At the age of eight years, Amir experiences a devastating childhood event that forever alters the course of his life.
Reflecting his childhood innocence, Amir blames himself for his mother’s death.
“I had killed [my father’s] beloved wife, his beautiful princess…”
This guilt belies Amir’s deep shame about being different to his father. To survive, Amir buries himself in his mother’s books, reading “everything” he can get his hands on, not only to entertain himself but to “escape [his] father’s aloofness.”
His father, a successful carpet-exporter, and owner of two pharmacies and one restaurant, confides to his lifelong friend his fears about his son. Watching Amir in the street with neighbourhood boys, he says:
“I see how they push [Amir] around, take his toys from him, give him a shove here, a whack there. And, you know, he never fights back. Never. He just… drops his head and…”
Amir’s father continues,
“A boy who won’t stand up for himself becomes a man who can’t stand up to anything.”
This one phrase, that Amir overhears before going to bed, becomes the demon that Amir fights for many years to come, forever doubting himself. It also creates intense resentment, where his angst leaves him wishing that he “could open [his] veins and drain [his father’s] cursed blood from [his] body.”
As is natural of children seeking forgiveness, Amir hopes to win a local kiterunner event to make his father proud. His one desire is to be “pardoned for killing [his] mother.” He ultimately ends up winning the event, but only to find tragedy awaiting him after a much sought after victory.
When Hassan is raped by local bullies, Amir is forced to watch the ensuing event, powerless to help his friend. However, as is reflective of the intense shame that can arise within an eight-year-old child, Amir rejects Hassan. He ignores him, despite seeing the pain his friend is going through. Wrestling with guilt for not defending Hassan, Amir rejects Hassan’s advances to play. Too afraid to admit his mistake, Amir turns inward, believing that he had let the incident happen.
He laments under the weight of his guilt and shame:
“I understood the nature of my new curse: I was going to get away with it. … That was the night I became an insomniac.”
The theme of shame, and its devastating effects are further explored when revealing the fate of Hassan’s mother, who fled with a “clan of travelling singers and dancers.” Hosseini highlights how the mother’s actions was believed to be “far worse than death.” It is better to die in your station than to escape an intolerable life.
Hosseini also highlights the fear of the unknown, where people are afraid of what they don’t understand. Hassan’s father, Ali, a member of the Hazara tribe, is chased and mocked by children and teenagers who would yell and jeer taunts of “you flat-nosed Babalu,” aka Boogeyman. The Hazaras are a Persian-speaking Shi’a ethnic group, reviled by the Pashtan’s, who are Sunni Muslims (of which Amir and his father are a member).
What The Kite Runner reveals, most profoundly of all, is that by running away from our past, we are running away from ourselves. After the rape of Hassan, Amir loses interest in everyday activities, he no longer enjoys what he loved before. He seems to waver in a depression, declaring his distaste for all that he previously enjoyed.
“I didn’t want any of it – it was all blood money.”
When he and his father are forced to flee to America, he sees the new country as a place to “bury [his] memories.” A place that is like “a river, roaring along, unmindful of the past. …. Someplace with no ghosts, no memories, and no sins.”
When Amir meets the love of his life, Soraya, a woman with secrets of her own, secrets that cause her considerable pain, he admires her bravery. She tells him about an event where she believed she had brought considerable shame to her family. He sees her as a “better person” than himself – a man who lacks courage to tell others how he betrayed his friend, and then lied and drove him out of his father’s house.
In the end, as Hosseini writes, “history isn’t easy to overcome.” There are some facts we can never change, and there is nothing we can do about them. However, we can change what we do in the future.
Amir’s uncle reflects this sentiment most of all when he declares how the Afghani people see suffering as “a fact of life, even… necessary.” However, he cautions, “a person who wastes his God-given talents is a donkey.”
Faced with these hard won truths, Amir comes to one of life’s greatest realisations, the temptation to “deliberate, ruminate, agonise, rationalise, and talk” ourselves into not doing what we must do.
“I was afraid the appeal of my life in America would draw me back, that I would wade back into that great, big river and let myself forget, let the things I had learned these last few days sink to the bottom. I was afraid that I’d let the waters carry me away from what I had to do. And from this one last chance at redemption.”
Ultimately, the reader learns how “guilt leads to good,” or that it can. Amir’s father dealt with his tortured soul by “feeding the poor on the streets, building [an] orphanage, giving money to friends in need” and anything else that would help him redeem himself. Amir, his son, ends up doing the same. He returns to Afghanistan to honour his uncle’s last request: to adopt Hassan’s son.
In the end, Hosseini reveals how we have no choice but to face our fears, or we risk being robbed of our power, and worst of all, become one of those who “can’t stand up to anything.”
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