This novel by Khaled Hosseini is among my all-time favorites, for its engaging story line, heroic characters, failure and redemption, suspense, drama … Beyond that, my experience in the Persian-speaking world (I spent two years teaching English to Afghans in Pakistan in the mid-’90s, and the two of us spent two years in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan in the early ’00s) made this book a given on our reading list.
Much has been said elsewhere about the themes of redemption and race/Afghan culture that appear in Hosseini’s novel, so I won’t dwell on those here. This post is limited to a summary of my research findings on aspects of Persian folklore in The Kite Runner, described in “Heroism and Tale-Telling in The Kite Runner.” Those interested in the in-depth discussion can read the full paper here: Heroism and Tale-Telling in The Kite Runner
The Shahnamah (“Book of Kings”) is the classic mythic history of Iran. It was transcribed by the Persian poet Abu’l-Qasem Ferdowsi in the tenth century but has its roots in ancient Indo-Iranian oral tradition. Its stories revolve around the kings of Persia and the heroes who served them, particularly the warrior-hero Rustam. These heroes must display (among other virtues) magnanimity, capacity for vengeance, loyalty, generosity, valor in battle and truthfulness. One of the most well-known Rostam tales is Rostam and Sohrab. In this father-son story, Rostam goes hunting and is lured into a Turkish city. The king of the city offers him hospitality, and in the night the king’s daughter, Tahmineh, is drawn irresistibly to the room of this renowned warrior. Rostam and Tahmineh appeal to the king for permission to wed, and the ceremony, it seems, is performed on the spot. The next day, however, Rostam’s horse is found, and Rostam is on his way. Nine months later, Tahmineh bears a son, Sohrab, whose stature and strength rival Rostam’s. Knowing himself to be the son of Rostam, Sohrab sets off for Iran with an army in search of his father. When they meet the army of Iran, Sohrab challenges the shah to one-on-one combat. The shah sends Rostam, and before commencing Sohrab demands to know Rostam’s identity. Rostam, however, refuses to disclose his name. On the third day, Rostam deals the death blow to Sohrab; as he expires, Sohrab discloses that he is the son of Rostam. Rostam, of course, is devastated and bitterly mourns his loss. He burns his tent, armor, saddle and all his royal trappings and gives Sohrab a royal burial.
The Kite Runner is narrated in the first person by the protagonist, Amir. His father, Baba, is the very image of the Persian hero. He is vigorous, competitive, valiant, generous and charismatic. He was a champion soccer player in his youth. He loves hunting and cars, and he throws a big party nearly every weekend. It is rumored that he once wrestled a bear with his bare hands. He gives loans and refuses repayment. He builds an orphanage from his own funds, insisting on designing it himself, even though he has no experience as an architect.
Amir, on the other hand, lacks the requisite qualities of a hero. He is a writer, not a warrior, a fact that Baba seems to hold against him. He fails to assert himself against the neighborhood bullies. Most significantly (and this is the crux of the story), although he and Hassan have grown up like brothers, he fails the test of loyalty when Hassan runs into trouble while helping Amir.
As it turns out, Hassan is the real hero and is, in some ways, more like Baba than Amir. In spite of his slight build, he stands up for Amir in street fights, where Amir merely hangs his head. He runs faster, is more coordinated, can shoot a slingshot with deadly accuracy. When he and Amir fly their kite in the yearly kite flying contest, Hassan is always first among the “kite runners” who chase after the kites that have been cut down. He can identify the kite’s point of descent with almost supernatural foreknowledge. Hassan plays the heroic warrior in the service of Amir (whose name means “king). Indeed, we are told that Amir’s mother came from royal lineage; Baba called her his princess.
In “Manliness in Persian Literature,” Arley Loewen asserts that renown—a good name—is the determining quality of Persian heroism in the Shahnameh. One may well possess all the other essential qualities of a hero, but unless the news of them is spread abroad, they are worthless.1 The lust for glory is both a necessity, driving many heroes’ deeds, and a liability, often leading to their downfall. This is where Hassan differs from the champions. He displays enduring humility and refuses to defend himself when to do so would bring dishonor on Amir. He is the very image of self sacrifice, as portrayed graphically in Hosseini’s description of the pivotal scene in the alley, foreshadowed from the beginning of the book.
While Hassan’s continuing loyalty and friendship play a role in Amir’s “restoration,” ultimately it is Amir’s own actions that seem to atone for his fall. The heroic journey he undertakes in the latter part of the book is clearly significant. But in light of the importance of glory and renown for Persian heroes described above, I suggest that Amir works his own redemption by telling Hassan’s story in The Kite Runner (ostensibly his memoirs) and establishing Hassan’s name as a warrior hero. A Persian hero is no hero unless someone tells his story. Ironically, Amir cannot tell Hassan’s story without revealing his own shame, and in so doing, he also frees himself of his past.
The fact that Hosseini is an immigrant to America prompts speculation as to whether his exposure to the West has generated some Christian images and themes in The Kite Runner. For example, the servant hero that combines with the warrior hero in the person of Hassan seems more common in Christianity than in Islam or Persian folklore. (It is important to distuinguish between the latter two because much of the material in the Shahnameh predates Islam, even though the epic was recorded after the religion spread to Iran.) In addition, it is tempting to read Christian imagery of sacrifice into the scene in the alley, but this might be unwarranted in a Muslim context. Muslims do observe an annual holiday that commemorates a story in which Abraham, at God’s command, offers his son Ishmael as a sacrifice, whereupon God provides a lamb to be sacrificed in Ishmael’s place. However, the sacrifice of sheep and other livestock does not seem to carry the subsitutionary significance in Islam that Christ’s sacrifice traditionally represents for Christians. It would be interesting to know whether Persian readers detect Christian or Western imagery in The Kite Runner or whether they consider it to be wholly consistent with Persian tradition.
1) Loewen, Arley. 2001. “The Concept of Manliness in Persian Literature and Society.” Ph.D. diss., University of Toronto, p. 57.
Click here for the online text of the Shahnameh from The Internet Classics Archive: The Epic of Kings
Click here for a July 27, 2003, NPR interview with Khaled Hosseini: NPR interview with Hosseini