Two-thirds of the way into “The Kite Runner,” the popular 2003 novel by Khaled Hosseini about the friendship of two Afghan men through the decades, Amir, the narrator, returns to Kabul after years of exile in California. The experience in Amir’s eyes is “like running into an old, forgotten friend and seeing that life hadn’t been good to him, that he’d become homeless and destitute.” It’s the late 1990s. The Taliban controls most of the country. Kabul’s streets are patrolled by armed bands of Talibs on pickup trucks “looking and hoping that someone will provoke them. Sooner or later, someone always obliges.”
The grimness of Kabul is a more twisted refraction of the grimness of Amir’s task. By then he’s discovered that his loyal friend, Hassan, whom he betrayed more than once, is dead; that Hassan was his half-brother, not just the son of his father’s servant; and that Hassan left a son behind, a young adolescent taken into concubinage by a Taliban warlord called Assef. The novel is too schematically neat: Assef happens to be the Hitler-enamored bully of Amir’s and Hassan’s childhood. (See my full review of "The Kite Runner".) In one of the novel’s several lurid scenes early in the story when the characters are still young (the soccer-stadium stoning of an adulterous couple is another), Assef and his thugs rape Hassan in retribution for an earlier, humiliating challenge. Amir, standing by, does nothing. The act of cowardice eventually hounds him out of his family comforts in California and back into the turbaned vise of Afghanistan.
Afghanistan's Unsavory Realities
“The Kite Runner” should have been nothing more than a great read. But even fiction is subservient to unsavory realities in places like Afghanistan. The book, and the movie just made of it, risk turning into this year’s version of the Muhammad cartoon controversy, or of Afghanistan’s “Satanic Verses.” The rape scene, however fictional and subtle its rendition on film, may inflame the prejudices that have fueled Afghanistan’s deadly dysfunctions for the last generation. Should DVDs of the movie make it into Afghanistan (all movie theaters having been demolished during the Taliban’s reign), the country fears renewed clashes and massacres between Pashtuns and Hazara — Afghanistan’s version of Rwanda’s Tutsis and Hutus, or Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites. Pashtuns are, in fact, Sunni, and Hazara are Shiites.
Paramount Vantage, the studio that had scheduled “The Kite Runner” for an early November release, but delayed the picture until December. The child actors hired in Afghanistan to play the parts of Amir and Hassan, along with their families, may be spirited out of the country for their protection, and for the rest of their lives.
The "Good War" Gone Bad
Afghanistan was supposed to be the “good war,” the American cause unblemished by deceit and hubris, as in Iraq. American intervention in 2001 helped end the Taliban’s hold on power and demolish al-Qaida’s safe haven there (until al-Qaida reconstituted across the border in Pakistan, supposedly an American ally). Many not-so fictional characters who have made it into Kabul spoke with great hope of the country’s mending. Remember Laura Bush’s “ Afghanistan is safe” declaration in 2005, after a five-hour barrack-hopping tour of armored photo-ops? But all along, the Bush-picked government of Hamid Karzai proved incapable of resisting corruption or extending its authority past its compound walls. The country is again a failed state.
It isn’t just Iraq that’s in civil war. Afghanistan, too, where perhaps a third to half the country is again under Taliban control, is at war with itself — a war the presence of American and NATO troops haven’t instigated, but are incapable of stopping.
Islam at War With Itself
Afghanistan isn’t a central front in the war on terror, or on drugs, for that matter. It’s one of several fronts in the war within Islam, the Sunni-Shiite split representing just one of several ongoing collisions. Within Sunni and Shiite groups, moderates and fundamentalists are at war. So are those who think Islam and democracy are compatible, and those who don’t. In that sense, the American attempt to remake Afghanistan is no different from the Russian attempt in the 1980s, the British attempt in the 19 th century, the Greek attempt going back to Alexander the Great: Afghans will have none of it.
The incident over “The Kite Runner” is one reminder of how little Afghanistan has changed between 2001 and today, at least in so far as western projections of saving the country from itself are concerned. For all of Afghanistan’s supposed progress, the movie couldn’t be shot there. It was shot in western China, where it’s safer. Not that changing location proved enough to make a happy ending. Western projectors of victory, like “The Kite Runner”’s producers, always forget to ask what Afghans think of what’s being projected. Afghans will remake the ending every time.