TELEGRAPH SATURDAY MAGAZINE
Despair in Kabul
Khaled Hosseini was only 11 when his family left Afghanistan, but his childhood memories inspired him to write The Kite Runner, a bestselling debut novel. His much-awaited follow-up focuses on the darker side of life in Afghanistan – the country’s treatment of women. By Lucie Young.
Khaled Hosseini has that rare thing, a Dickensian knack for story telling. He excels at writing suspenseful epics filled with compelling characters. His first book, The Kite Runner, published in September 2003, sold four million copies, spent 103 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has now been made into a film. It seems that the only people who were not fans of the book were Hosseini’s Afghan compatriots in America. On the internet he was called ‘another Salman Rushdie’, and the Afghan community in northern California attacked him in the press and on the radio. ‘It was quite scathing,’ he says eating sweetmeats and drinking tea in the back garden of his home in San Jose, where he has lived for the past 27 years.
To British eyes, this part of Silicone Valley feels slightly surreal, like a set from The Truman Show. It is the epitome of safe, bourgeois America; steroidally overblown suburban homes with three-car garages and motorboats proudly displayed in the driveways. Geographically and culturally, it is the polar opposite of the people and settings that are at the heart of both The Kite Runner and his new book, A Thousand Splendid Suns. Both books begin in Afghanistan on the brink of the Soviet invasion of 1979, and follow the central characters for several decades. Both books also hinge on how good fortune can slip through your fingers in a second. In The Kite Runner Amir – like Hosseini – is a privileged character who escapes from Kabul to California and rebuilds his life from the ground up as a poor immigrant. Amir’s half-brother Hassan (who is part Hazara, a lower ethnic caste) has a much bleaker fate. He is gang-raped as a child and later murdered by the Taliban.
‘They never say I am speaking about things that are untrue,’ Hosseini says of the animosity The Kite Runner inspired in his fellow Afghans. ‘Their beef is, “Why do you have to talk about these things and embarrass us? Don’t you love your country?’”’ Apparently his Afghan critics dislike the way the book shows up the disparate treatment of Amir, the wealthy Pashtun character and Hassan, the illiterate Hazara. The Pashtuns are the majority in Afghanistan and have essentially run the country since the mid-18th century.
In person, Khaled Hosseini, 42, is like a fusion of rugged Russell Crowe and puppy-eyed Donny Osmond. He has olive-black eyes, a cute mole on his cheek, a shirt unbuttoned like a Bollywood star and with a gold Allah medallion hanging around his neck, it is hard to imagine him inspiring so much hatred. But one can only envisage that Hosseini is bracing himself for another firestorm of complaints over A Thousand Splendid Suns, which touches an even deeper wound for Afghans – that of the country’s deep-seated misogyny.
Hosseini depicts a culture where the majority of women have almost no rights and are treated as property, traded without consideration of their feelings or wishes. Polygamy is the norm, and girls as young as nine are forced into marriages with men 40 and 50 years their senior. Every time you think the two lead female characters, Mariam and Laila (who are both married to the same violent man), have nothing left to lose and their dignity and rights can’t be stripped any further, more privations are forced on them. ‘There was always something, something else they could take away,’ Mariam laments as her life descends further into the ninth circle of hell. Although the characters are fictional, Khaled says his portrait of what Afghan women have endured is realistic.
The idea for A Thousand Splendid Suns came to Hosseini when he returned to Kabul in 2003. It was his first visit to his home country since he left Afghanistan at the age of 11. The initial shock was so great that he wanted to cut his journey short and come home after only a couple of days. ‘I had seen television pictures and videos, but it’s a whole different thing to see all these people brutalized by wars,’ he says, shaking his head. The trip was not originally for research purposes. But in restaurants and people’s homes, Hosseini heard the most awful tales of suffering and despair. Everyone had lost someone and women seemed to have suffered the most. ‘I didn’t have to write the stories down to remember them,’ he says.
An official bodyguard related one particularly gruesome incident that became a two-line anecdote in A Thousand Splendid Suns. ’He had been walking in his neighborhood and heard screaming coming from a house,’ Hosseini says. ‘The door was open, so he went inside and found three girls being raped. One was already dead, her throat slashed. One was in the process of being raped and one was struggling. One of the militia-men had taken the hand of the dead girl and was trying to bite off her rings. Blood was pouring down everywhere.’
A few months after returning to America, Hosseini started writing and realised he was reflecting back on the stories he had heard, especially the sacrifices of the women who stayed on in Afghanistan and the horrors they endured, not just the bombings and military violence, but the resurgence of a trenchantly misogynistic society.
‘The real oppression of women in Afghanistan occurs in deeply tribal, conservative rural areas, as it does in Pakistan, India and Africa,’ Hosseini says. In these societies, women have been oppressed for centuries, used for slave labor and married off even before puberty into polygamous households. ‘There have been multiple attempts to impose a more liberal stance in Afghanistan,’ Hosseini says. ‘Various Afghan kings have tried. The Soviets also tried, but these attempts have always met with a great deal of resistance. You are disturbing a way of life. It is threatening to the men that their women would have a voice.’ Hosseini thinks the only way to effect change is via legislation. ‘It would mean putting moderate people in the judiciary. But at the moment the judiciary are mostly staunch conservative Islamicists,’ he says.
Like his young hero Amir in The Kite Runner, Hosseini grew up in a very privileged and protected segment of Kabul society. His father, Nasser, worked as a diplomat at the Foreign Ministery. At home, although both his parents are Muslim, his father didn’t impose Islamic beliefs on his children; drinking was allowed and, like Amir’s father, Nasser called the religious teachers at his son’s school ‘stupid mullahs’. Consequently, Hosseini says that he is not a devout Muslim. ‘I believe in God. Come Ramadan I fast, and now and again I go to the mosque with my father.’
In the advantaged milieu of Hosseini’s parents, women were treated as equals. His mother studied Farsi and history at university and taught these subjects at a girl’s high school. None of the Hosseini children (four boys and one girl) wanted for anything. They had servants and a rich social life. They attended parties at the embassy and had a constant stream of international visitors – writers, poets, singers and intellectuals – at their house. All five children went to school and were expected to go to university and become professionals.
Hosseini says he doesn’t remember his sister, Raya, suffering any social disadvantage from being a girl. In the 1960s and 1970s, young girls born into educated liberal families in the larger cities were encouraged to attend university and could hope for a more equal marriage. But women’s rights were a major casualty of the war years. Had Hosseini’s family stayed on in Kabul, Raya might have suffered the same fate as his character Laila in A Thousand Splendid Suns. Laila’s parents, although liberal and supportive, are killed in a bombing. Orphaned at 14, Laila’s choices are reduced to becoming a prostitute or marrying her aging opportunist neighbor.
Hosseini’s family moved to France in 1976 when his father was offered a four-year post as a diplomat at the Afghan embassy in Paris. ‘We took nothing with us. We didn’t bring any mementos or family photos because we expected to go home,’ Hosseini says. But after two years, the communists staged a bloody coup in Afghanistan. When one of his father’s colleagues returned to Kabul and was killed. ‘That sent a very clear message.’
The family sought political asylum in America because, ‘my father felt we had greater opportunities in the US.’ The transition was a terrible shock. Their asylum sponsor was based in San Jose – northern California is now home to the biggest Afghan population in America – and on arrival the Hosseini family lived in one house with Nasser’s mother (who moved here at the same time) and three other families. ‘In Afghanistan, my parents had lands, a couple of homes and a couple of businesses,‘ Hosseini says. ‘Here we just had the clothes on our backs.’
Like the father figure in The Kite Runner, Nasser was a very proud man and had a hard time accepting food stamps and being on welfare. ‘It didn’t square with his image of himself,’ says Hosseini. ‘He was usually on the giving end of charity.’ Hosseini, who was 15 and had been brought up on a diet of Westerns at the cinema in Kabul, expected California to be full of tough white guys in cowboy hats. The racial diversity was a big surprise too. ‘We had Filipino, Guatemalan and El Salvadorian neighbors. It totally messed up my whole idea of what it meant to be an American,’ he says.
At the first opportunity, Nasser found the family a separate house and got himself a job as a driving instructor, then he worked as a social worker helping other Afghan immigrants. Hosseini’s mother, Maimoona, did odd jobs and found work as a waitress and a hairdresser. ‘It is admirable how much my parents reinvented themselves and adjusted to the new reality of their lives,’ he says looking back. ‘A lot of people slip into severe depression when part of their identity is lost or taken from them. There are a lot of depressed immigrants who have lived here for 20 years and still cannot cope’.
Even those who adjust well to their new environment are not without problems. Survivor’s guilt has been a major part of Hosseini’s life. ‘‘Whenever I read stories about Afghanistan my reaction was always tinged with guilt. A lot of my childhood friends had a very hard time. Some of our cousins died. One died in a fuel truck trying to escape Afghanistan [an incident that Hosseini fictionalises in The Kite Runner]. Talk about guilt,’ he says arms folded, bent double as he remembers. ‘He was one of the kids I grew up with flying kites. His father was shot’.
Hosseini has channeled his emotion into his novels. ‘It all comes out in my stories,’ he says.’ Guilt and atonement are overarching themes in both books. Each story starts with a young child racked with remorse over something they failed to do – Amir in The Kite Runner fails to rescue Hassan from being gang-raped and Mariam in A Thousand Splendid Suns follows her feckless father and in so doing fails to stop her mother’s suicide. But later, as adults, these characters expiate their guilt through an act of unbridled heroism, which changes someone else’s fate and brings about redemption.
Hosseini has found his own redemption by embarking on some charitable work of his own. He is actively involved in organisations to raise money to rebuild Afghan villages. He is also a spokesperson for the UN refugee agency UNHCR raising money for and awareness of the crisis in Darfur, Sudan. ‘It makes me feel useful,’ he says simply. ‘I’ve this sense of being spared somehow and granted this incredible luck. It would be wasteful not to do something.’
Like many immigrant children, Hosseini was an over achiever at school and felt pressurised to find a secure job and earn a good living. Science came naturally to him, so he pursued medicine at the University of California in San Diego, and on graduation worked as an internist (the American equivalent of a GP) in San Jose. But he never abandoned his childhood dream of becoming a writer. Every day, he got up at 5am and wrote for three hours, then went to work. ‘Medical training gives you a lot of discipline,’ he says of his unrelenting schedule.
When The Kite Runner proved a success, he put his medical career on hold to write full time. Rather than ease up the pace, he became even more dedicated. While working on A Thousand Splendid Suns, he got up at 4am and drove to a space near his home which he calls ‘my little bunker. It was a prison cell with a single chair and desk, which I rented for $300 a month. On weekends I put in five to six hours and then come home and have a full day with my kids’. Nowadays, he still rises early, but writes from home.
Hosseini is a self-taught writer, and until The Kite Runner, he hadn’t had anything published. He believes writing is in his blood. Both his parents are from Herat, where, he explains, ‘The old joke is you can’t stretch a leg without poking a poet in the rear’. On his father’s side, there were a number of accomplished poets known within the town, but never published. His younger brother Daoud is also a poet.
But writing is often a struggle for Hosseini. According to Cindy Spiegel, the co-publisher of Riverhead Books, which paid him a reported $500,00 for The Kite Runner, the last third of the novel had to be extensively rewritten. The new ending still received flack from some critics. Edward Hower of the New York Times sniffed, ‘The book descends into some plot twists better suited to a folk tale.’
Hosseini had a similar problem trying to find the right narrative voice for A Thousand Splendid Suns. He rewrote the entire book five times from different points of view. But in retrospect, he feels that his writing has improved. Now, his wife, Roya, a Silicone Valley investment lawyer, is his most trusted editor. ‘I will give her 10 to 15 pages to read and it will come back and there will be a red line circling a paragraph and it says, “lol [laugh out loud] you can’t be serious!” I’ve people in my family who love me too much to ever say anything negative, they feel like they hurt my feelings.’ But evidently not Roya.
Roya, 38, is lounging at home during the interview, wearing slouchy blue dungarees, a white T-shirt, her feet bare and her long hair loose. She has prepared the tea and sweetmeats, and is on hand to corral their two young children – Haris, six, and Farah, four – as they circle their father trying to eavesdrop on his conversation. Standing over the kettle, Roya says she prefers the second novel. Certainly the writing seems more assured. The heroism is more small-scale and personal and all the more poignant for being so.
Although her parents are Afghans, Roya was raised America. She and Hosseini had a traditional Afghan courtship. ‘It would have been unthinkable for the two of us to go out on dates or live together,’ he says. The couple met at a party at Hosseini’s parents house in San Jose when he was 28 and she was 24, and according to Hosseini it was love at first sight. They chatted for half an hour and four days later he proposed; within six weeks they were married – 700 people turned up to the wedding, 600 had been invited, the rest were gatecrashers.
Hosseini is sanguine about marriage in which both parties know only the barest facts about each other. ‘You never really know someone. Ultimately it is a leap of faith,’ he says. ‘The day after I proposed, I went to work and told a female colleague. She said. “I’ve been living with this guy for 14 years and I still can’t decide if I want to marry him. I feel like I don’t really know him”.’ He says he won’t impose the same dating restrictions on his own children. ‘It would be inhumane’. However, he is keen they retain some aspects of their Afghan heritage. He has taught them Farsi, so they are both bilingual. ‘But since they’ve gone to school they seem reluctant to speak it,’ he sighs. ‘They want to blend in. I packed my son some Afghan food the other day and he was like, “Can’t you just make me a baloney sandwich?” They love the food, but they don’t want to eat it in front of their friends, as if it was a shameful thing.’ They are undergoing what he calls The Namesake effect, referring to Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel about an Indian immigrant in the States rejecting his native culture.
On a tour of his home, Hosseini gives a peak into his large moss-colored study where the brown blinds are permanently closed (to blot out all distractions). A huge portrait of his hero Clint Eastwood hangs on one wall beside some stills from the set of The Kite Runner, and a letter from the film’s director Mark Forster (of Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland fame). Hosseini visited the set in China (which doubled as Afghanistan) and was asked to comment on the translation. It is evidently a source of great pride that the film will be partly in Farsi. ‘It’s going to be great to hear my native language spoken on screen,’ he grins.
Khaled Hosseini would happily talk movies all afternoon, especially if the conversation turns to Quentin Tarantino’s squandering his talent on shlocky B movies and his favorite tough-guy actors from the 1940s, 50s and 60s such as Eastwood and Robert Mitchum – ‘They were real men’ he says. ‘Nowadays the lead actors all have this boyish quality.’ One day he hopes to write his own screenplay. In the meantime, he is working up ideas for a third novel.
He won’t hint at the subject matter. But it is most likely he is writing another fast-paced, suspense-filled drama that ends for some of the characters in tragedy. ‘It is the job of the novelist to get the reader to worry endlessly,’ he says. Even as a child of eight or nine, his stories were always dark. ‘The nicer you were, the more likely you were to die’. Nowadays, not much has changed. ‘If you are going to be a character in my novel, get a lot of life insurance,’ he jokes. ‘It is not going to be good for your health.’