Khaled Hosseini, Kabul’s Splendid Son

The best-selling novelist on homecomings and Taliban-censored flamingos.

Photo: Kader Sherozoy

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Khaled Hosseini’s fortunes have risen as his native Afghanistan‘s have sunk. His 2003 debut novel, The Kite Runner, an engrossing tale of friendship, betrayal, and redemption, sold more than 6 million copies and was turned into a feature film. His second Afghan-centric best-seller, A Thousand Splendid Suns, is also headed to the silver screen. But the 44-year-old novelist’s greatest stroke of luck came decades ago. When he was 11, he moved to Paris, where his diplomat father had been posted. Two years later, in 1978, communists assassinated Afghanistan’s president, triggering a cycle of war and upheaval that continues today. Hosseini’s family eventually settled in California, where he became a doctor. Now a full-time writer and goodwill envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, he is skeptical that sending more US troops can bring his homeland back from the brink. “We’re not going to win this war with bullets and guns,” he says. “There has to be a broader plan.”

Mother Jones: Can you talk about the impact of 30 years of war on culture and daily life?

Khaled Hosseini: When I went to Afghanistan in 2003, for the first time in 27 years, I walked into a war zone. Entire neighborhoods had been demolished. There were an overwhelming number of widows and orphans and people who had been physically and emotionally damaged; every 10-year-old kid on the street knows how to dismantle a Kalashnikov in under a minute. I would flip through math textbooks intended for third grade, fourth grade, and they would include word problems such as, “If you have 100 grenades and 20 mujahideen, how many grenades per mujahideen do you get?” War has infiltrated every facet of life.

MJ: The arts, for one.

KH: Upon arrival of the warlords, things were basically just as bad, because many of them were as extremist as the Taliban. But the Taliban put a ban on painting, photography, novel writing, virtually any form of artistic expression including film, song, dance, writing music. There were people who would meet in subversive ways to write stories, people who hid their novels inside walls. One glaring example is an Afghan artist who paints in oil, and he painted over all the human faces on his painting with watercolor so that it would be Shariah friendly. When the Taliban left, he just washed the painting and the faces came back.

MJ: You used that in Splendid Suns—the Taliban say that flamingos in a painting have to wear pants.

KH: Yeah, the Muslim flamingos. Not to mention the countless historical artifacts going back to the days of Alexander the Great that were looted during the civil war, sold off in black markets, and destroyed by the Taliban. In 2003, I had a chance to walk through the Kabul museum along with the then minister of culture, basically going from one chamber to the next filled with crates of shards and fragments of ancient vases and artifacts. These acts of cultural vandalism were really egregious and unforgivable.

MJ: What was it like, emotionally, to go back?

KH: Very similar to the experience of my character Amir in The Kite Runner. Which is interesting, because I wrote his return to Kabul months before I actually went back myself. Like him, I was profoundly saddened to see the pervasive destruction, the appalling poverty, the injured people, the orphans and widows. I was shocked to see so many guns on the street, and tanks, and military personnel. The other thing I saw, just like my character, was that there’s this inherent and basic decency, kindness, and dignity among the people there. I was standing on a street corner and this little boy—couldn’t have been more than nine—stood next to me. I simply assumed he was a beggar, so I reached in my pocket to give him a bill, and he said, “No Uncle, I’m not a beggar. I work.” And I said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” And he said, “But if you’d like, you can come over to my place for dinner and tea. We would be honored to have you.” And then he pointed to me where he lived, and it was this hole underneath this building, this collapsed building, and his entire family lived in that hole!

MJ: Did you go?

KH: I didn’t go, because if I had gone, whatever bite that that family had to eat, they would have not eaten and given it to me.

MJ: If the fighting ended right now, how long would it take for the society to flourish again?

KH: I would think a generation or two. Virtually every institution of some meaning was destroyed. The fabric of that society was torn. We have millions of people who became uprooted. You have an entire generation who know nothing but warfare and suffering. So it would take a long time for this to turn around. In The Kite Runner, the first 100 pages or so speak about Afghanistan prior to the Soviet war, which many Afghans now view as the golden era.

MJ: You’ve described how Afghan women could work back then, go out on their own, wear makeup, and so forth. But wasn’t it a very different story in the countryside?

KH: Iraq is basically a middle-class country, an urbanized country. Afghanistan is a rural nation, where 85 percent of people live in the countryside. And out there it’s very, very conservative, very tribal—almost medieval. The way that people saw the Taliban treating women, unfortunately, is the way women have been treated in many parts of the country going back centuries. Kabul has always been sort of a cultural island.

MJ: What kind of obstacle does this cultural divide pose for peace?

KH: The obstacle is enormous. We have put billions of dollars and a lot of effort into building a very strong central government, but Afghanistan has always been sort of a fractured nation, very tribal, where the countryside and the distant provinces have been run by custom, by tribal law and by tribal leaders rather than edicts from the central government in Kabul.

MJ: Some experts think it was a big mistake for America to back the central government model.

KH: We have to continue to pursue better governance, but I think we’re also going to see more focus on working with tribal leaders and a less centralized approach over the next few years.

MJ: Early in this conflict, American officials talked a lot about the rights of Afghan women. You don’t hear it anymore. Should America be part of that battle?

KH: Throughout the last century there were multiple attempts at giving women more autonomy, to change marriage laws, to abolish the practice of bride price and child marriage, and to enforce women to be involved in school. Every time, the reaction from the traditionalists was one of contempt and scorn and at times outright rebellion. At one point they called jihad on one of the Afghan kings. So we do have to be careful. I think the emancipation of women in Afghanistan has to come from inside, through Afghans themselves, gradually, over time. Otherwise, I think we’re back to suffering the same consequences that the communists in Afghanistan did in the ’80s, or the king earlier in the 20th century. The communists were despised for a variety of reasons—the fact that they represented what was believed to be an atheistic regime, their radical land reforms—but quite a lot of it had to do with the issue of women’s rights.

MJ: So this, too, will take generations to resolve.

KH: I see it really as one of the seminal challenges. Without women taking an active role in Afghan society, rebuilding that country is going to be very difficult.

MJ: What was it like watching from the sidelines as the communists took over?

KH: It was astonishing, both from the fact that you suddenly see your country disintegrate before your very eyes on a foreign TV station, and secondly because it’s affected us personally. We had family members and friends who were killed in the communist coup—some were imprisoned, some went missing. It was hard to find someone within our circle of friends who hadn’t lost somebody. My wife’s uncle was a famous songwriter in Afghanistan, and he went missing—he’s never been heard from. We have cousins that were imprisoned, that were tortured. And when the news broke on French TV that Soviet troops had walked into Afghanistan and tanks were rolling, boy it looked pretty final. I think it dawned on my family for the first time that we may never go back.

MJ: Your success as a writer made you a spokesman for a country you left at age 11. What has that transition been like?

KH: Wonderful, actually. For a novelist, it’s kind of an onerous burden to represent an entire culture. That said, I’m in a unique position to speak on behalf of Afghanistan on certain issues that I feel are important, particularly the issue of Afghan refugees. More than 5 million Afghans have returned home since 2002, many with high hopes of living in peace and rebuilding. Many of them end up living homeless, in tents, jobless—without shelter or access to clean water, to education. They face the harrowing prospect of living out the Afghan winter cooped up in holes in the ground, in tents. The situation is really, really dire.

MJ: Misplaced guilt and betrayal are common themes in your novels. Does part of you feel guilty about getting out when you did?

KH: Really it was just a genetic lottery: I was born to a family that happened to be at this time and place and happened to be out of Afghanistan at this particular date and it was just luck—sheer luck. There’s this part of me that does have kind of a survivor’s guilt, but there’s the kind of guilt that gnaws at you and is very negative, and the sort that gets you to do something about the cause. I have found that these books have really given me an opportunity to do something for the people in Afghanistan that is hopefully enduring and meaningful.

MJ: Of course, Afghanistan has suffered a whole series of brain drains as people fled the fighting.

KH: Afghanistan today has an almost 90 percent illiteracy rate among women, almost 70 percent among men. It’s a country that couldn’t afford the brain drain. I remember in 2002 President Karzai gave his famous speech at Georgetown, where he said, “Come back to Afghanistan,” and a lot of people took up that call. But the conditions have changed there now. In 2003, I could walk down the streets of Kabul at 10 at night. I wouldn’t dream of doing that today. Insecurity has really changed things, and it’s much more difficult to lure back those capable, educated people.

MJ: At the time of Karzai’s call, you were writing The Kite Runner.

KH: Right. And working as a physician.

MJ: They desperately needed doctors. Did you consider it?

KH: I have to be honest. I didn’t. I was married and I had a young boy and I could imagine neither detaching myself from them nor taking them to Afghanistan, so for me it just never seemed like an option.

MJ: How was Kabul different when you returned in 2007?

KH: You were a lot more restricted in your ability to move around. In 2003, suicide bombs were virtually unheard of. By 2007, they had become commonplace. They’re even more common today.

MJ: How’d the city look?

KH: Much better. Many neighborhoods have been rebuilt—a lot of new homes, a lot of new businesses. For a post-conflict state, Kabul is a reasonably well-functioning capital.

MJ: Back in 2003, you felt Karzai was doing a good job. Right now, only about half of Afghans think so. Has your opinion changed also?

KH: A lot of Afghans feel that his regime has not provided personal security. The police under Karzai’s watch are underpaid, underequipped, undertrained, and highly corrupt. President Karzai is an incredibly kind and decent man. I had the pleasure of meeting him, and he genuinely cares for his people. But I think he has too much of a tendency to want to rule by listening to all voices at all times. I’m not sure who will be running in this upcoming election, but it’s clear that Afghanistan needs a change in direction, even within the central government—which comes with a limited capacity anyway.

MJ: Only about a third of Afghans now approve of the job the US is doing over there. What do you think America has done right and wrong?

KH: Some 6 million kids have gone back to school, more than a third of them girls, which bodes well for the future. A lot of roads and dams and bridges have been rebuilt, the infrastructure’s improved, half a million Afghans have benefited from microloans, and the mortality of young kids has been cut down by I think 25 percent by just providing basic health services. But the country has enormous problems—not just this violent, spiraling insurgency that is spreading throughout the country, but also the growth of record crops of poppies that accounts for more than half of the country’s GDP and is fueling the insurgency. Look at the rampant corruption, the extreme poverty, homelessness, joblessness, lack of access to clean water to almost half of the country, the failings of the police I mentioned, continued problems with the status of women, and the rising rate of petty criminality. There’s a lot that we haven’t done right.

MJ: You’ve talked in the past about Afghanistan having a window of opportunity. Is that window still open?

KH: I don’t know. I do know that this call for a more robust military presence in Afghanistan comes at a bad time. It may have been a whole lot more palatable a few years ago. The coalition is not perceived as a hostile occupying force, but there’s growing anger thanks to a series of catastrophic military air attacks that have killed civilians, consisting on more than one occasion of mostly women and children. The danger of the military surge is that it will escalate the conflict. If civilian casualties continue to mount, it will create this confrontational dynamic, which only helps the insurgency and their recruiting efforts. The scale of the conflict has changed, and the job has become a whole lot more difficult.

MJ: Another thing you notice in these opinion polls is a great hatred for the Taliban and the warlords.

KH: The warlords took part in atrocities during the civil war. They shelled civilian areas, abducted young girls, forced them into marriage. They’re malicious: They looted, they raped, they killed; they helped destroy almost 70 percent of Kabul in the early to mid-1990s. And now they have become incredibly empowered and entrenched. They live in mansions, they have jobs in the government, they traffic in drugs, and they’re incredibly powerful.

MJ: Right, in Splendid Suns your character Laila resents their newfound status.

KH: Common sentiment in Afghanistan. In Kabul, people don’t want to speak about it too publicly, too loudly, because these people are essentially like Tony Soprano.

MJ: All this serious talk! So what’s the word on the Splendid Suns movie?

KH: Steve Zaillian, who wrote Schindler’s List and is a wonderful screenwriter, has written a first draft of the screenplay. I believe Scott Rudin, the producer, and he are looking for the right director.

MJ: What about you; anything new in the works?

KH: I’m working on another novel. It does have to do with Afghanistan, but I think the take will be very different. It will be a lot more focused on story and on character rather than political events. I’m very wary of retracing my own footsteps.

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Donations have started slow, and we hope that explaining, level-headedly, why your support really is everything for our reporting will make a difference. Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” or in this 2:28 video about our merger (that literally just won an award), and please pitch in if you can right now.

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