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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2
   

The Kite Runner
by Sue Pondrom

Khaled Hosseini, M.D. '93 squints into the low autumn sun from under the rim of his baseball cap. He is staring at two children tugging a kite along a snow-covered street in Kabul. The time is 1973, before the Soviet invasion, or the destruction of the civil war, before the Taliban or the post 9/11 invasion. But all is not what it seems.

 
     

This is Hollywood’s version of 1970s Kabul. Director Marc Forster shouts “cut,” and the actors and crowd of extras relax, as the film crew turns off the artificial snow machine, checks cameras, and adjusts sound booms and lights. It is no longer 1973, it is the fall of 2006, and this is not Kabul but Kashgar, in the Muslim Uighur region of Western China. A fabled city on the Silk Road, Kashgar, lying close to the Afghan border, was a gateway both to the West and to the riches of ancient China, and now it is the perfect setting for The Kite Runner.

Hosseini, ’93 M.D., was 7 years of age when his family left Kabul for France, in 1976, and 11 when they moved to the United States after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. But 30 years later, the UCSD trained doctor found himself on a movie set of Kabul, during Paramount Vantage’s filming of his best-seller, The Kite Runner. “It was very surreal,” Hosseini told @UCSD magazine in a recent interview. “Suddenly you have all of these people you have never met, scrambling to bring your thoughts onto the screen and making it a visual experience for everybody.”

Prompted by security concerns in Afghanistan, the studio sent scouts to India, Turkey, Pakistan and North Africa to find a place that could pass for Kabul in the 1970s. “It was really a stroke of genius to find this location because it’s not too far from Afghanistan, and it’s largely Muslim,” Hosseini says. “You have a lot of mosques and the architecture, even the ethnic makeup, is strikingly similar to Afghanistan.”
Set in pre-Soviet, pre-Taliban Afghanistan and later in the United States, the novel and movie tell the story of two Afghani boys, one a child of the upper-class Pashtuns, and the other a member of the lower-class Hazara. Threads
of friendship, betrayal and guilt are woven throughout,
layered with insights into Afghani culture and tradition, including descriptive passages about the popular winter sport of competitive kite flying.

Sadly, after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the sport of kite flying, along with almost all other forms of entertainment, was banned.

“The official reason given by the Taliban was that kids were flying kites from rooftops and falling down,” Hosseini says. “Then they said that people were gambling on it and that’s against Islam. The Taliban banned just about every reasonable way that people have of enjoying life rich with entertainment, culture and leisure. They banned almost anything that kept people from staying home to study the Koran.”

* * *

“All novels tend to somewhat reflect the writer’s life,” Hosseini explains. “Like Amir, my protagonist in The Kite Runner, I grew up in Kabul in the ’70s, before the Soviet war. The social life I describe for Amir, the neighborhood and house where he lived, the cadre of friends and relatives, the kite flying, the influence of Western culture through movies, all of that is part of my own growing up in Afghanistan, and I use that to lend the story an authenticity.”

In the ’70s, Hosseini’s father worked for the Afghani Foreign Ministry and had just finished a posting to Paris when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. Unwilling to live in a Soviet-occupied country, the Hosseinis sought and were granted political asylum in the United States. As a result, they lost all their Afghani property and arrived penniless in San Jose, Calif., where they lived on welfare for a short time.
In addition to a job as a driving instructor, Hosseini’s father made extra money with a stall at San Jose’s flea market. Each Saturday, young Hosseini and his father would comb the neighborhoods, purchasing garage-sale items to resell at a higher price the next day at the flea market (a scene that is echoed in The Kite Runner).

KABUL IN CHINA: Khaled Hosseini (center) and Marc Foster (left) the director of The Kite Runner, speak with one of the film crew, while on location in Kashgar, in western China.

 

While his parents toiled to make ends meet, Hosseini planned for his future and a career with financial stability. Medicine seemed like a good idea. Hosseini commuted to Santa Clara University from home, completed his undergraduate degree in biology, and entered the UCSD School of Medicine in the fall of 1989. “I never really had ‘the college experience’ at Santa Clara,” he remembers. “So I finally got it at UCSD.

First and foremost, my best memories are the friends I made. There were a number of students from Iran in my class with whom I connected immediately because of similarity in our culture and language. We’ve stayed friends ever since.”
Hosseini had written short stories and plays from when he was very young, often casting his younger siblings in performances for his parents’ guests. He continued writing all through college, but medical school took its demanding toll and, for the first time in his life, Hosseini had to forego his creative writing. Only after his residency did he return to it. However, he says the discipline learned in medical school was especially helpful in his daily writing routine—filled as his days were with seeing patients, refilling prescriptions, giving referrals, taking meetings and doing laboratory reviews. With a growing family (his wife, Roya, and two children, now ages 4 and 6) and a full-time medical practice as a specialist in internal medicine, Hosseini found the optimal writing time to be early morning when his creative ideas were abundant. He would rise every morning around 4:30 a.m. and work on his novel between 5 and 8 a.m. Then it was off to see patients.

* * *

After Hosseini finished The Kite Runner but before it was published, he traveled back to Afghanistan. That visit was to become the genesis of his second novel. “I went to Kabul and spent two weeks there. I spoke to people in schools, in hospitals, on the streets—from traffic policemen to hotel doormen, all sorts of people, including women,” Hosseini says. “And I got an idea what it was like to be in Kabul in those days when the civil war was wreaking havoc and the Taliban came. I heard stories about how women coped, their mothers, their sisters, their friends. And I felt I wanted to write a story about Afghan women. I thought that what had happened to women was very important. It had a tremendous effect on Afghan society and was an ongoing story, a developing story, even now. . . . But it really wasn’t until a year later that I actually sat down and began writing.”
The result was A Thousand Splendid Suns, published in May 2007 to rave reviews. Almost exclusively set in Afghanistan, the story focuses on the 45-year relationship between two women, from 1956 to post 9/11.

* * *

Recently Hosseini has been doing press tours for the Kite Runner movie. It was originally scheduled for release in October, but word of a scene portraying the homosexual rape of the young Hassan character caused a conservative backlash in Afghanistan. There were warnings that the two young lead actors and their families could face reprisal attacks.

“These are real people, facing real-life danger, so the top priority is the safety and well-being of these young actors and their families,” says Hosseini. “I spoke to the studio a number of times, and I’m very confident that they understand the situation and they’ve taken all of the steps they need to take to make sure that nothing happens to them.”

The studio did in fact postpone the opening until December and moved the children and their families to safety, outside the country. And so the book and film, so deeply steeped in the politics of Afghanistan, became in the end players in the politics. The security concerns that determined where the movie could be shot, finally dictated that the young actors had to move out of Afghanistan.

Hosseini has traveled almost uninterruptedly since the release of A Thousand Splendid Suns, and though he is trying to get back to his writing, it is difficult. “My life has been completely turned upside down by everything that’s happening. I am literally being pulled in a dozen directions,” says Hosseini. “Writing needs that quiet, uninterrupted time. You can’t really be writing if you’re going from one airport to the next.”

In the meantime, the 42-year-old Hosseini has taken on another challenge. In 2006, he began working as a goodwill envoy with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He traveled to Chad and then Darfur, and in September 2007 visited Kabul and various cities in Northern Afghanistan.

“I just sat with people in their huts and in their shacks and shelters, and heard their stories. How they are struggling to restart their lives, having come back to a country that’s been decimated from 30 years of war and chaos,” Hosseini says. “The point is to come back and raise awareness about Afghanistan, particularly about the refugees, and to encourage the international community to continue funding those programs that help them reintegrate.”

And there is probably no better person to do it than Hosseini—an Afghani, a doctor and a writer.

Sue Pondrom is a freelance writer.

RELATED LINKS

Khaled Hosseini, 93 M.D.

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The Kite Runner Movie Website

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“It was really a stroke of genius to find this location because it's not too far from Afghanistan, and it's largely Muslim.”