Khaled Hosseini discusses his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, the role of women in Afghan society, how Afghans view the USA and much else in an extensive interview (2007).
In a separate interview that follows, recorded in 2003, he discusses his first novel, The Kite Runner.
The Kite Runner helped alter the worlds perception of
Afghanistan, by giving millions of readers their first real sense of what
the Afghan people and their daily lives are actually like. Your new novel
includes the main events in Afghanistans history over the past three
decades, from the communist revolution to the Soviet invasion to the
U.S.-led war against the Taliban. Do you feel a special responsibility to
inform the world about your native country, especially given the current
situation there and the prominent platform youve gained?
For me as a
writer, the story has always taken precedence over everything else. I have
never sat down to write with broad, sweeping ideas in mind, and certainly
never with a specific agenda. It is quite a burden for a writer to feel a
responsibility to represent his or her own culture and to educate others
about it. For me it always starts from a very personal, intimate place,
about human connections, and then expands from there. What intrigued me
about this new book were the hopes and dreams and disillusions of these two
women, their inner lives, the specific circumstances that bring them
together, their resolve to survive, and the fact that their relationship
evolves into something meaningful and powerful, even as the world around
them unravels and slips into chaos. But as I wrote, I witnessed the story
expanding, becoming more ambitious page after page. I realized that telling
the story of these two women without telling, in part, the story of
Afghanistan from the 1970s to the post-9/11 era simply was not possible. The
intimate and personal was intertwined inextricably with the broad and
historical. And so the turmoil in Afghanistan and the countrys tortured
recent past slowly became more than mere backdrop. Gradually, Afghanistan
itselfand more specifically, Kabulbecame a character in this novel, to a
much larger extent, I think, than in The Kite Runner. But it was
simply for the sake of storytelling, not out of a sense of social
responsibility to inform readers about my native country. That said, I will
be gratified if they walk away from A Thousand Splendid Suns with a
satisfying story and with a little more insight and a more personal
sense of what has happened in Afghanistan in the last thirty years.
What kind of response do you hope readers have to A Thousand
Purely as a writer, I hope that readers discover in this novel the same
things that I look for when I read fiction: a story that transports,
characters who engage, and a sense of illumination, of having been
transformed somehow by the experiences of the characters. I hope that
readers respond to the emotions of this story, that despite vast cultural
differences, they identify with Mariam and Laila and their dreams and
ordinary hopes and day-to-day struggle to survive. As an Afghan, I would
like readers to walk away with a sense of empathy for Afghans, and more
specifically for Afghan women, on whom the effects of war and extremism have
been devastating. I hope this novel brings depth, nuance, and emotional
subtext to the familiar image of the burqa-clad woman walking down a dusty
Where does the title of your new book come from?
It comes from a poem about Kabul by Saib-e-Tabrizi, a seventeenth-century
Persian poet, who wrote it after a visit to the city left him deeply
impressed. I was searching for English translations of poems about Kabul,
for use in a scene where a character bemoans leaving his beloved city, when
I found this particular verse. I realized that I had found not only the
right line for the scene, but also an evocative title in the phrase a
thousand splendid suns, which appears in the next-to-last stanza. The poem
was translated from Farsi by Dr. Josephine Davis.
You recently received the Humanitarian Award from the United
Nations Refugee Agency and were named a U.S. goodwill envoy to that agency.
What kind of work have you done with the agency? What will your
responsibilities be in your position as a goodwill envoy?
Its been a tremendous honor for me to be asked to work with UNHCR as a
goodwill envoy. As a native of a country with one of the worlds largest
refugee populations, I hold the issue of refugees close to my heart. I will
be asked to make public appearances on behalf of the refugee cause and to
serve as a public advocate for refugees around the world. It will be my
privilege to try to capture public attention and to use my access to the
media to give voice to victims of humanitarian crises and raise public
awareness about matters relating to refugees.
In January of this year, I had the opportunity of going to Chad with
UNHCR to visit the refugee camps where some 250,000 people from Darfur have
sought haven. I had the chance to speak to refugees, local authorities and
humanitarian staff and to educate myself about the staggering tragedy
unfolding in the region. It was a sobering and heartbreaking experience and
one that I will never forget. Presently I am working with UNHCR on the Aid
Darfur campaign. It is my intention that my future work with the agency take
me to Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan.
You present a portrait of Afghanistan under the Taliban that may be
surprising to many readers. For example, the Talibans ban on music and
movies is well known, but many readers are not familiar with the Titanic
fever that swept through Kabul upon the release of that film, which was
shown in secret on black-market VCRs and TVs. How tight a grip did the
Taliban truly have on the country? And how does pop culture survive under
The Talibans acts of cultural vandalismthe most infamous being the
destruction of the giant Bamiyan Buddhashad a devastating effect on Afghan
culture and the artistic scene. The Taliban burned countless films, VCRs,
music tapes, books, and paintings. They jailed filmmakers, musicians,
painters, and sculptors. These restrictions forced some artists to abandon
their craft, and many to continue practicing in covert fashion. Some built
cellars where they painted or played musical instruments. Others gathered in
the guise of a sewing circle to write fiction, as depicted in Christina
Lambs The Sewing Circles of Heart. And still others found ingenious
ways to trick the Talibanone famous example being a painter who, at the
order of the Taliban, painted over the human faces on his oil paintings,
except he did with it watercolor, which he washed off after the Taliban were
ousted. These were among the desperate ways in which artists tried to escape
the Talibans firm grip on virtually every form of artistic expression.
You earned your medical degree before you began writing fiction.
How does being a doctor compare with being a writer?
I enjoyed practicing medicine and was always honored that patients put
their trust in me to take care of them and their loved ones. But writing had
always been my passion, since childhood, much as with Amir in The Kite
Runner. I feel fortunate and privileged that writing is, at least for
the time being, my livelihood. It is a dream realized.
I have not found many similarities between my two crafts, except that in
both it helps to have at least some insight into human nature. Writers and
doctors alike need to understand the motivation behind the things people say
and do, and their fears, their hopes and aspirations. In both professions,
one needs to appreciate how socioeconomic background, family, culture,
language, religion, and other factors shape a person, whether it is a
patient in an exam room or a character in a story.
In what ways was writing A Thousand Splendid Suns different
from writing The Kite Runner?
Well, when I was writing The Kite Runner, no one was waiting for
it! The difficulty of writing a second novel is directly proportional to how
successful the first novel was, it seems. For me, at the outset, there was a
period of self-doubt and hesitation, as well as a recurring tendency to
question and reassess my own literary capabilities and limitations. This was
especially so when I was aware of the people out there who were eagerly
awaiting the book: booksellers, my publisher, and of course, the reading
public. This is both wonderfulafter all, you want your work to be
anticipatedand dauntingyour work is anticipated!
Though I did experience some of these apprehensionsas my wife will
surely attestI gradually learned to view them as natural and not unique to
me. And as I began to write, as the story picked up pace and I found myself
immersed in the world of Mariam and Laila, these apprehensions vanished on
their own. The developing story captured me and enabled me to tune out the
background noise and get on with the business of inhabiting the world I was
I also think that A Thousand Splendid Suns is, in some ways, a
more ambitious book than my first novel. The story is multigenerational,
unfolding over almost forty-five years, often skipping ahead years. There is
a larger cast of characters, and a dual perspective, and the wars and
political turmoil in Afghanistan are chronicled with more detail than in
The Kite Runner. This means that I was performing a perpetual balancing
act in writing about the intimatethe inner lives of the charactersand
depicting the external world that exerts pressure on the characters and
forces their fate.
Do you see common themes in the two books?
In both novels, characters are caught in a crossfire and overwhelmed by
external forces. Their inner lives are influenced by an often brutal and
unforgiving outside world, and the decisions they make about their own lives
are influenced by things over which they have no control: revolutions, wars,
extremism, and oppression. This, I think, is even more the case with A
Thousand Splendid Suns. In The Kite Runner, Amir spends many
years away from Afghanistan as an immigrant in the United States. The
horrors and hardships that he is spared, Mariam and Laila live through; in
that sense, their lives are shaped more acutely by the events in Afghanistan
than Amirs life is.
Both novels are multigenerational, and so the relationship between parent
and child, with all of its manifest complexities and contradictions, is a
prominent theme. I did not intend this, but I am keenly interested, it
appears, in the way parents and children love, disappoint, and in the end
honor each other. In one way, the two novels are corollaries: The Kite
Runner was a father-son story, and A Thousand Splendid Suns can
be seen as a mother-daughter story.
Ultimately, I think, both novels are love stories. Characters seek and
are saved by love and human connection. In The Kite Runner, it was
mainly the love between men. In A Thousand Splendid Suns, love
manifests itself in even more various shapes, be it romantic love between a
man and a woman, parental love, or love for family, home, country, God. I
think in both novels, it is ultimately love that draws characters out of
their isolation, that gives them the strength to transcend their own
limitations, to expose their vulnerabilities, and to perform devastating
acts of self-sacrifice.
One of the men in your novel dreams of coming to America, as your
family did. He sees America as a kind of golden, generous land. Is that
something many Afghans dream still of?
The way Afghans view America and Americans is complex, I think. On the
one hand, America is seen as a bastion of hope for Afghanistan. The notion
of the American troops packing up and leaving strikes fear into the hearts
of many Afghans, I believe, as they dread the chaos, anarchy, and extremism
that would likely follow. On the other hand, there is also some sense of
disappointment and disillusionment. There is lingering bitterness, I think,
about the way Afghans feel they were abandoned by the Westand America in
particularwhen the Soviets left, a period that was marked by the factional
fighting that destroyed so much of Kabul. In addition, there is a growing
sentiment, rightfully or not, that promises made by America are not being
kept. The average Afghan, I think, had hopes of drastic changes in quality
of life, in security conditions, and economic options, when the Americans
came to Afghanistan after 9/11. Many Afghans feel that these hopes have not
been realized. They feel that the war in Iraq, undertaken so soon after the
campaign in Afghanistan, channeled attention, troops, and resources away
from Afghanistan. Still, I think most Afghans remain hopeful about their
countrys partnership with the U.S. and many echo the sentiment of Babi in
A Thousand Splendid Suns, viewing the United States as a desirable
place to live, and as a land of opportunity and hope.
The women in your story suffer deeply and personally from being
oppressed because of their gender, in their homes and in the broader
society. Is this oppression particularly onerous in the Muslim world? What
can and should be done about it?
This is a complex question with no easy answer. It is undeniable that the
treatment of women in some Muslim countriesincluding my ownhas been
dismal. The evidence is simply overwhelming. In Afghanistan under the
Taliban, women were denied education, the right to work, the right to move
freely, access to adequate healthcare, etc. Yet I want to distance myself
from the notion, popular in some circles, that the West can and should exert
pressure on these countries to grant women equal rights. Though I think this
is a well-intended and even noble idea, I see it as too simplistic and
impractical. This approach either directly or indirectly dismisses the
complexities and nuances of the target society as dictated by its culture,
traditions, customs, political system, social structure, and overriding
I believe change needs to come from within, that is, from a Muslim
societys own fabric. In Afghanistan, I think it is essential for its future
that those more moderate elements who support womens rights be empowered.
Barring that, the prospects for success are grim. I am always revolted when
Islamic leaders, from Afghanistan or elsewhere, deny the very existence of
female oppression, avoid the issue by pointing to examples of what they view
as Western mistreatment of women, or even worse, justify the oppression of
women on the basis of notions derived from Sharia law. I hope that
twenty-first-century Islamic leaders can unshackle themselves from
antiquated ideas about gender roles and open themselves to a more moderate
and progressive approach. I realize that this may sound naive, especially in
a country such as Afghanistan, where staunch Islamists still hold sway and
look to silence moderate voices. Nevertheless, I think it is the only way
that true change can come about, from within Islamic societies themselves.
Are you optimistic about the current situation in Afghanistan?
I am an optimistic person by nature, so yes, I do remain cautiously
optimistic about Afghanistans future. But it must be said that it has been
a difficult year for Afghanistan. Aside from the challenges of poverty, poor
medical care, lack of education and infrastructure, and the flourishing
opium industry, we now have a formidable resurgence by the Taliban and their
Al-Qaeda cohorts in the southern and eastern parts of the country. They have
given NATO and American troops all that they can handle. The ongoing
fighting and the lack of security are chief concerns among Afghans, and have
an erosive effect on the image of the Afghan government. There is the risk
of disillusion with the Afghan government and with the countrys nascent,
fragile democracy, and this makes people susceptible to the influence of the
What is likely to happen in Afghanistan if the current government
I want to state first that I have no expertise in these matters and that
any opinion I offer is that of an ordinary thinking citizen who follows the
news. That said, I think failure in Afghanistan would be catastrophic not
only for Afghanistan but for the West as well. It would fracture the
country, and seriously damage the credibility of the west. It would embolden
the Taliban, and just as important, those who support the Taliban, namely
Al-Qaeda and other extremist Islamic militants. Most ominous of all, it
would turn Afghanistan into a safe haven once more for anti-Western jihadis
who can gather there and plan their military operations against the United
States and its allies.
What should the United States and its allies be doing in
I will re-iterate my lack of true qualification to answer this. But it
seems to me that U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan would have
disastrous results. At this point, it seems to me the west has no viable
choice but to stay committed to the mission in Afghanistan. Simultaneously,
the west has to try to empower the central government and help it gain
credibility among Afghans, while doing what can be done to eradicate the
opium trade and strengthen the countrys economy in an effort to demonstrate
to ordinary Afghans the Wests goodwill and its long-term commitment to
their country. Military effort alone will not bring success in Afghanistan.
This is as much a battle for the trust of the people as it is one against
The Kite Runner was centered on the friendship between two
men, and the story was told from a male point of view. In your new book,
youve focused on the relationship between two women, and the tale is told
from their alternating perspectives. Why did you decide to write from a
female point of view this time? What was it about these particular women and
their relationship that gripped you?
I had been entertaining the idea of writing a story of Afghan women for
some time after Id finished writing The Kite Runner. That first
novel was a male-dominated story. All the major characters, except perhaps
for Amirs wife Soraya, were men. There was a whole facet of Afghan society
which I hadnt touched on in The Kite Runner, an entire landscape
that I felt was fertile with story ideas. After all, so much had happened to
Afghan women in the last thirty years, particularly after the Soviets
withdrew and factional fighting broke out. With the outbreak of civil war,
women in Afghanistan were subjected to gender based human rights abuses,
such as rape and forced marriage. They were used as spoils of war. They were
abducted and sold into prostitution. When the Taliban came, they imposed
inhumane restrictions on women, limiting their freedom of movement,
expression, barring them from work and education, harassing them,
humiliating them, beating them.
In the spring of 2003, I went to Kabul, and I recall seeing these
burqa-clad women sitting at street corners, with four, five, six children,
begging for change. I remember watching them walking in pairs up the street,
trailed by their children in ragged clothes, and wondering how life had
brought them to that point. What were their dreams, hopes, longings? Had
they been in love? Who were their husbands? What had they lost, whom had
they lost, in the wars that plagued Afghanistan for two decades?
I spoke to many of those women in Kabul. Their life stories were truly
heartbreaking. For instance, one woman, a mother of six, told me that her
husband, a traffic policeman, made $40 a month and hadnt been paid in six
months. She had borrowed from friends and relatives to survive, but since
she could not pay them back, they had stopped lending her money. And so,
every day she dispatched her children to different parts of Kabul to beg at
street corners. I spoke to another woman who told me that a widowed neighbor
of hers, faced with the prospect of starvation, had laced bread crumbs with
rat poison and fed it to her kids, then had eaten it herself. I met a little
girl whose father had been paralyzed from the waist down by shrapnel. She
and her mother begged on the streets of Kabul from sunrise to sundown.
When I began writing A Thousand Splendid Suns, I found myself
thinking about those resilient women over and over. Though no one woman that
I met in Kabul inspired either Laila or Mariam, their voices, faces, and
their incredible stories of survival were always with me, and a good part of
my inspiration for this novel came from their collective spirit.
This novel has a few strong female characters. How did you create
them? Are they based on women you know among your own family and friends, on
your reading, on your imagination?
They are not drawn from family members or from people I know. In this
respect, this second novel is far less autobiographical than The Kite
Runner. Largely they are drawn from my imagination and, even more so,
from the women I saw and met in Kabul back in 2003.
The Kite Runner was adopted by many reading groups, and by
cities and communities as part of their public reading programs. Why do you
think that happened? What do you think people take away from your stories?
The Kite Runner is multi-layered, in that it provides readers with
cultural, religious, political, historical, and literary points to discuss.
But I suspect that also part of the reason it is popular with book groups is
that it is a very human story. Because the themes of friendship, betrayal,
guilt, redemption, and the uneasy love between fathers and sons are
universal and not specifically Afghan, the book has reached across cultural,
racial, religious, and gender gaps to resonate with readers of various
backgrounds. I think people respond to the emotions in this book.
There is also, of course, international interest in Afghanistan, given
the events of 9/11 and the war on terror. For many readers, this book is
really the first window into that culture. So there is also a curiosity
about that country, which this book addresses to some extent.
A movie based on The Kite Runner is now being shot in
China. When is it scheduled to be completed? What can you tell us about the
movie and the experience of watching your first novel be transformed for the
The shooting wrapped in December 2006. From what I understand, it will be
released in the fall of this year, possibly in November.
Being on the set was a surreal experience. Writing a novel is an
intensely personal and solitary undertaking. Filmmaking is first and
foremost a collaborative process. So it was strange to see dozens of people
running around, trying to transforming this very internal creation of mine
into a visual experience for everybody else. It was a unique experience to
witness the visual interpretation of my thoughts.
In addition, I learned to divorce myself from the notion that everything
that I had put on the page would end up on the screen. Inevitably there is
going to be a divide between book and film. But to me, the idea is not how
closely the adaptation will measure up to my internal images, but rather how
the filmmaker will combine the written prose with the power of animated
picture to make a visual narrative that can stand on its merits as a work of
art, an entity that is separate from its literary precursor, that can be
admired for its own virtues and artistry, while remaining faithful to the
core emotional experiences that made the book appealing in the first place.
How has life changed for you since the publication of The Kite
I travel a great deal more than I did before. I have seen places that I
might not have otherwisesomething that kept recurring to me when I was on
the movie set in Kashgar, in remote western China. I have a slew of new
friends in the literary and publishing community and have had the honor of
meeting and speaking with writers whose work I had admired for a long time.
Also, I have been on an extended sabbatical from medicine, and have spent
the last two years focusing on my writing, something that had long been a
dream of mine. My days are shaped now around the creation of stories. As I
mentioned before, I am working with UNHCR to raise awareness about refugee
issues. So the publication of The Kite Runner has had a profound
effect on my life and has changed it dramatically. But as far as my wife, my
children, my extended family, and all of my old friends are concerned,
nothing at all has changed.
You have visited Afghanistan since you came to the United States
with your family in 1980. What was it like to go back? Would you like to
return again? Is it possible for you to return now?
There is a line in the book where Amir says to his guide, "I feel like a
tourist in my own country." To a large extent I did as well, when I returned
to Kabul. After all, I had been gone for more than a quarter of a century. I
was not there for the war against the Soviets, for the mujahedeen
infighting, or the Taliban. I did not lose any limbs to landmines and did
not have to live in a refugee camp. There was certainly an element of
survivor's guilt in my return. I felt, on the one hand, that I belonged
there, where everyone spoke my language and shared my culture. On the other
hand, I felt like an outsider, a very fortunate outsider, but an outsider
I found that much of the city was either neglected or basically
destroyed. There was a shocking number of widows, orphans, people who had
lost limbs to landmines and bombs. There was also an abundance of guns and I
detected a gun culture in Kabul, something which I did not recall at all of
course from the 1970s.
But the most striking thing to me was that despite the atrocities, the
unspeakable brutalities, and the hardships Afghans had endured, they had not
lost their humility, their grace, their hospitality, or their sense of hope.
I came away very much humbled by their resilience. I certainly do hope to
return there again but have no concrete plans at the moment.
Khaled Hosseini talks about his first novel, The Kite Runner (2003)
Where did the idea for this story come from?
That's not an easy question to answer because it
developed over time. During the past couple of years I
had been mulling over the notion of writing a story set
in Afghanistan but I couldn't decide on the right story
or the right time period. At first I considered writing
about the Taliban but I felt that particular story had
already been told it's an issue that has been well
covered and by people far more qualified than myself. I
knew if I was going to tell an Afghan story I'd have to
tell one that had something new to offer. So I decided
the story would have to take place, at least partially,
in an Afghanistan that seemingly no one remembered
anymore: the pre-Soviet War Afghanistan.
Why do you say it's a time no one seems to remember
For most people in the west Afghanistan had become
synonymous with the war against the Soviets, the Taliban
and repression. I wanted to remind people that it wasn't
always like that. I wanted to remind them that there was
an Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion of 1979, and
that Afghanistan had enjoyed decades of peace without
anyone firing so much as a rocket. The old adage in
writing is to write what you know. Having lived through
that time period in Kabul the final years of the
monarchy, the birth of the Republic, and the first years
of Daoud Khan's leadership I felt comfortable writing
What was the other incident that inspired your novel?
It involved a kid named Moussa, who was also an ethnic
Hazara. Moussa lived with his mother across the street
from us in a partially constructed home. The
neighborhood where we lived, and that I used in the
book, was called Wazir Akbar Khan. It was a district in
northern Kabul, a fairly affluent and new neighborhood
that was still being developed. And sometimes people
hired folks to keep watch over their homes as they were
being built. So this kid and his mother were living
across the street from us. From time to time we'd play
soccer with him or fly kites. One day, I was maybe ten
years old, my brother and I were sitting on our garden
wall when we noticed Moussa across the street in the
yard of his place. We all had these little mirrors and
we were playing around with them using them to shine
the reflected sun in each other's eyes from one side of
the street to the other. The guy who was a cook for my
family at the time walked out, saw us playing, and said,
'Oh, is that Moussa over there?'
I said, 'Yes.'
nodded and said, kind of casually and forgive me for
saying this 'You know I've been fucking him for the
My brother and I didn't know what that
meant. We asked around and eventually found out. We
never told anybody. I guess we were scared of the cook.
And even back then I think we realized if we had told it
was quite possible no one would have cared. The
character that ended up being Hassan was a fusion of
these two people: Hussein Khan and Moussa. Once he came
to life, so did his alter ego, Amir, who then turned out
to be the protagonist and the voice of the novel the
person to whom the story's moral dilemmas present
How much of The Kite Runner is autobiographical?
Inevitably there will be bits and pieces of yourself,
either consciously or subconsciously, that end up in
your protagonist. Fortunately there aren't that many
autobiographical things in the book. I don't have that
much in common with Amir. I say 'fortunately'
for a good portion of the story he's not exactly the
most savory of characters. But there certainly are
things about him that come from my own life. Perhaps the
most prominent is that, like Amir, I grew up admiring my
father greatly and had a very intense desire to please
him. Thankfully it was not with quite the same fervor
that Amir had. I think his brand of admiration borders
on the pathological. Fatherhood in Afghanistan is a
greatly revered institution. When people identify
someone they say, 'He's the son of so-and-so...'
they always mention the father. Tribal identity also
comes from the father. Even if your mother is a Pashtun
you can't inherit Pashtun status unless your father is
one as well. So like a lot of Afghan kids I grew up
revering my dad [to a certain extent]. Fortunately for
me he reciprocated the affection and to this day we
maintain a warm and wonderful relationship. And there
are a couple of other things that might be worth
mentioning. Amir and I also developed a love for reading
and writing at an early age. And just like Amir, when I
was a kid I used to love going to the theater to see
Hindi and American films. They decided to move to
America I think in large part because of the
opportunities they felt this country would offer for
You're planning a return trip to Afghanistan with
your brother-in-law in March or April of this year.
Where do you plan to go?
The places I really want to go back and see are the
places where I have personal memories. I'm dying to see
my father's old house in Wazir Akbar Khan where I grew
up and the hill north of the house with its abandoned
graveyard where my brother and I used to play. I want to
see the various bazaars in Kabul where we used to hang
out and my old school. I'd also like to see the foreign
ministry where my father used to work. I remember him
taking us there when we were kids and how incredibly
huge it looked to me then. I'd love to revisit the
mosques my dad would sometimes take us to on Fridays and
the kababi house in Shar-e-nau (the New City), which I
recently learned is still standing and which is still
owned and operated by the same guy who owned it when I
was a kid. Then there are some places of general
interest I'd like to visit: Bala Hissar in Southeast
Kabul, the old city fortress and walls, a site of
infighting between mujaheddin factions; Baghi Babur, the
garden of the tomb of the 16th-century Mogul emperor
Babu; Bagh-I-Bala, the home of a 19th-century king, now
a posh restaurant, located high on a hill with a view of
the city; and Darulaman, the old royal palace once a
beautiful building surrounding by trees and lawns. We
used to go there for family picnics when I was a kid. I
understand it has been pretty badly damaged.
Some news organizations have expressed interest in
sending a reporter or camera crew with you to
Afghanistan when you return. But there has already been
plenty of reporting from Afghanistan. Why should they be
interested in accompanying you there?
Much of the reporting that we've seen about Afghanistan,
and the stories we've heard, has been through the eyes
of westerners. I'd be able to bring present day
Afghanistan back with me, with my own take, and with the
eyes of someone who has had the benefit of having seen
the country in better days and who would be able to
provide some perspective.
This will be the first time you're returning to
Afghanistan in 27 years. What do you hope to accomplish?
Beyond wanting to go for purely nostalgic reasons I want
to go back and talk to the people on the street. I want
to get a sense of what life is like now in Kabul and a
sense of where people think their country is headed. I
want to see if I can put a finger on the emotional pulse
of the city. I also hope to come back with a sense of
optimism. I want to see the signs of reconstruction
concrete evidence that there may be hope for Afghanistan
after all because for so long the only thing we ever
heard from there were reports of killings, genocide,
repression, natural disasters, poverty and hunger.
Do you have any reservations or fears about returning
to Afghanistan and to Kabul?
My main concern is one of safety. I have a two-year-old
son and a ten-day-old daughter. Although I understand
Kabul is pretty well guarded that can't be said about
areas off the beaten path. And I'm dreading a little bit
seeing some of the destruction and ruin. I imagine going
back will be like going back and seeing an old friend
you haven't seen in a long time and finding him
destitute, sick, poor and homeless. I do fear that a
bit. Initially I think it will be emotionally difficult.
Everyone who goes back says the first couple of days
leave you in a state of shock. Dust covers the entire
city; the smell of diesel fumes is pervasive no matter
where you go; there are ruins and debris everywhere you
look; and the trees are all destroyed (either cut down
for fuel or by the Soviets years earlier to thwart
snipers who used them for cover). I think it will take
some getting used to but I also think once the initial
shock wears off I'll be fine.
Are you going knowing full well what to expect or are
you not sure what you'll find?
I'm not sure what I'm going to find. Depending on who
you listen to the situation is either really optimistic
or totally hopeless. A good friend of mine named Tamim
Ansary, an Afghan writer from San Francisco who wrote
that very famous e-mail about 9/11 that ended up
circulating around the world, went back to Afghanistan
last June. When he returned to the U.S. he brought back
with him a real sense of hope. He said the people he saw
in the street, and the people he spoke with, were very
optimistic about their future and where the country was
headed and were ready to put behind them all the
atrocities of the Taliban and the war. Tamim said it was
very safe and he had no trouble at all getting around
Kabul. On the other hand, another gentleman I recently
spoke with, who was back in Afghanistan a couple of
months ago, said the situation was hopeless; that no
progress is being made; that there's rampant corruption;
and that people's outlook is very bleak. The bottom line
is that I don't know what I'm going to find. I'm very
much looking forward to seeing the situation for myself
and making my own judgments.
One of the most pervasive images of Afghanistan in
your novel is the depth to which its culture is all
about family. How much family do you still have there?
Virtually everybody I know has been out of the country
for a long time. I have no immediate family, or even
extended family, left in Kabul but there are people I
know who never left and there are people who have now
moved back. In fact my brother-in-law's father is there.
I also have a first cousin who still lives in Herat. I
hope I'll be able to get there at some point during the
trip and see her. We exchanged letters just before 9/11
but then we lost contact.
What are your thoughts on what's happened in the last
couple of years in Afghanistan?
During the Taliban era you couldn't read about
Afghanistan without reading about hunger, war,
landmines, refugees, and so on. The Taliban did nothing
to alleviate those problems. What they did do was add a
sense of the absurd on a grand scale. When they ordered
the Buddha statues destroyed and prohibited art and
sports and all the things that people take enjoyment in,
we were all in a state of disbelief. We shook our heads
and wondered how it had come to this. Then September
11th happened and I dreaded what was sure to come next.
With the impending bombing campaign I truly feared for
the people. On the other hand one friend of mine, who
had come back to the U.S. from Afghanistan after living
there during the Taliban era, said there was a cancer
there and you had to give it chemotherapy. It's not
pleasant but maybe that's what it takes. I don't know if
he was right or wrong but I do know there's relative
peace in Afghanistan now and a cautious sense of
optimism for the first time in a long long time. I think
Afghanistan is currently enjoying a window of
opportunity. My fear is that with the passing of time,
and with public attention shifting to other issues the
impending war with Iraq, the struggling economy
Afghanistan might once again be forgotten by America.
And when I say that I echo the sentiment of a lot of
Afghans, especially those who still live there. If this
book accomplishes anything, on a broader level, I hope
it helps to keep Afghanistan alive in the collective
mind of the public. If it accomplishes that I feel it
will have been a very worthwhile thing to do.
How do people in Afghanistan feel about those who
fled the country in the late 1970s or early '80s. What
sort of reaction do you expect when you return?
I think there could be several different reactions
depending on who we're talking about and who we're
asking. When I asked Tamim the same question he said he
felt people weren't bitter at all; that they were just
happy to have people back to help with the
reconstruction process. And certainly President Karzai
has made it abundantly clear that he wants Afghan
intellectuals and professionals to come back and help
the country rebuild. Simultaneously, I have heard
reports of embitterment towards those Afghans who fled
and who are now returning. And I can see how there could
be some resentment. Now that investors'
money is flowing
it seems to them as if people are suddenly appearing out
of the woodwork. In my heart I hope I get the former
reaction although if it were the latter I would
What are your views on some of the women's issues in
Afghanistan and the way women are treated there?
The way women were treated in Afghanistan during the
Taliban era was unacceptable. But things were very
different when I was growing up. Back then women were
very active in contributing to society, at least in
urban areas. My mother, for example, was a teacher at a
girl's high school. The Taliban did Afghanistan a great,
great disservice by shutting women out of the workplace.
So the damage they inflicted is going to take years to
repair: rebuilding the schools, getting girls to pick up
books again, re-acclimating women into the workplace,
and so forth. I think it's very tragic. In the novel I didn't touch much on the subject because I felt it was
something that had been pretty well covered. Perhaps the
most well known aspect of the Taliban regime was its
mistreatment of women. It's still a work very much in
progress for women, but my understanding is that in the
post-Taliban era things are much better. Girls are going
back to school and learning again. Women are returning
to the workplace. They wear the Burqa if they want to
but they don't have to. Once again they can move about
without the presence of a male adult companion, wear
makeup, listen to music and so on. So my understanding,
based on what I've read and heard, is that the situation
is much better, although there is still room for
improvement, especially in more rural areas.
Nevertheless, that's one of the things that intrigues me
and that I want to see for myself.
What is the greatest misconception Americans have
I am not sure there are many now. In the wake of 9/11,
the public was extensively exposed to and educated about
Afghanistan. But if there was one, it was that we are
all like the Taliban and that women never had a say in
Afghan society. In fact purdah, the Muslim practice of
keeping women hidden from men outside their own family
either via a curtain, veil, or the like was first made
optional in 1959. It was a time when women began to
enroll in the University and to enter the workforce and
the government. In the mid-1970s a new constitution was
presented that confirmed women's rights. Most people
don't know that. They think Afghanistan was more like
Saudi Arabia, a place where women had been repressed for
centuries and where those same practices were
continuing. I was in an Internet chat room once in which
a woman logged in and started going off about how
Afghans treat their women. I told her not all Afghans
are that way and what she was seeing was the practices
of the then-current regime the Taliban. That took her
Many aid workers and diplomats have been unwilling to
spend time in cities other than Kabul because of fears
of terrorism, assault, banditry and rape. This has
greatly slowed reconstruction projects in the
countryside. What will it take to change the situation
It's difficult to say because Afghanistan has to develop
a national army and that's going to take time. But
there's a transitional period between now and then where
security will remain a vital issue. Unfortunately it
seems like you can't have reconstruction without
security and you can't have security without
reconstruction. The big debate right now is whether ISAF
forces should be allowed to expand to cover larger
regions of the country and bridge the security gap until
a functional national army can be properly trained,
groomed and equipped. As to be expected you can find
plenty of opinions on both sides of the issue. There are
conservative Afghans who feel that would be a step
toward the country's becoming a pawn for western
colonialism and there are others who feel it's a
necessary step for reconstruction.
Tell me a bit about your parents'
My dad came from a small village just a few kilometers
from Herat, which is a large town in western
Afghanistan. He was an only child raised by his mother
(his father died when he was two years old). My mom was
brought up in Herat itself. We're talking about the
1940s and '50s here so there was very little
infrastructure where they lived no electricity, no
running water and so on. Eventually they moved to Kabul.
If I were to relate that event to a similar experience
here I'd have to say it would be like moving from a
small town in rural Alabama to New York City. The
streets of Kabul were paved. People drove cars. Everyone
had electricity. It was a bold and drastic move for
them. Eventually they both managed to attend university.
My mom became a teacher and my dad a diplomat.
You've already told the story of your dad's posting
to Tehran. Take us now to the mid-1970s. You're ten or
eleven years old and your family is living in Kabul once
again. What happened next?
My father received another overseas posting this time
as a second secretary at the embassy in Paris. We moved
there in October of 1976 for what we thought was going
to be a four-year stint. Two years later, while we were
still in France, the Communists staged a bloody coup at
home and Daoud Khan, Afghanistan's President, was
killed. At that point everybody was very scared. People
were still traveling back and forth to Afghanistan, and
given my father's position in the embassy we had a line
of communication available to us, so we were able to
hear reports of what was going on. We were hearing
stories of executions and imprisonments. We learned of
friends and distant relatives who were shot and killed.
We learned about one of my distant cousins who tried to
escape into Pakistan hidden in a fuel truck and who
suffocated while en route. (That also became the basis
for a scene in the book.) So we knew there was trouble.
Then, in December of 1979, the Soviets invaded. That
sealed our fate because at that point my father decided
he wasn't going back. The question was whether to stay
in France, where my parents at least felt fairly
comfortable and where they'd learned the language and
made friends, or move to America.
What is your strongest memory of that time in Paris
after the Communists took over?
I remember it felt a little like I was living in a spy
novel. Whenever we'd travel anywhere my father would
insist we all wait by the elevator in the garage while
he went clear across the parking lot to get the car and
bring it to us. People were getting killed and he was
afraid that someone may have planted a bomb in the car.
And you had to be careful about what you said, and to
whom, because the new regime sent its own diplomats to
Paris. There was one man in particular who brought his
family with him including a pair of boys my age. I
remember meeting them for the first time and noticing
they were wearing their Khalq party buttons on their
Levis jackets. (The Khalq party was one of Afghanistan's
socialist factions.) They began referring to me as 'comrade'
. It was pretty shocking and it gave me an idea
of the sort of brainwashing that was going on in Kabul
during that era. It was a time of great uncertainty and
fear for us. We wondered if we'd ever see Afghanistan
Was the move to the US something you're family talked
about? Or did your father just gather the family
together one day and say, 'We're moving to America!'
I don't remember any family meetings, but I knew my
father was mulling over moving us to the States. I think
he never mentioned it for security reasons. Kids talk.
In any event we moved to San Jose, California, in
September of 1980. I was delighted. My parents still
live there by the way. In fact almost my entire family
still lives there with the exception of two of my four
siblings, who live in San Diego.
How difficult was the transition to the US?
That first couple of years in America was a difficult
time for all of us. For my siblings and me, in addition
to the anxiety of learning a new language, there were
the usual fears of adolescence and pre-adolescence:
Will I fit in? Will I make friends? Am I ever going to
learn English? And will other kids make fun of me?
Starting essentially from scratch was much harder on my
parents. They'd had established lives and careers and
identities. They'd had homes and land that they'd given
up. And now they had to assimilate into a brand new
culture at a stage in their lives when assimilation was
not particularly easy. I think the hardest adjustment
for my parents, especially my dad, was the notion of
being on welfare. I clearly remember our first Christmas
here in the States. We were home entertaining some
Afghan friends it was the middle of the afternoon
when we heard a knock on the door. When we opened the
door a procession of Boy Scouts walked into the house
with boxes of canned food, old clothes, a Christmas tree
and used toys. We were appreciative but for my parents
it was a mortifying experience. They'd always been
proud, self-sufficient people. For them to lose
everything they'd owned and suddenly find themselves on
the receiving end of charity was a tough pill to
swallow. Soon after that my dad got a job as a driving
instructor. He then drove down to the welfare office and
said, 'No more!'
He volunteered us off of welfare.
What do you remember most about the US when you first
My clearest impression was one of amazement at the size
of everything: the wideness of the streets, the size of
the homes, the manicured lawns, the sheer number of cars
and people and freeways. It was a little overwhelming
and very exciting too. I remember feeling this very
dizzying sense of hope that anything could and would
happen in this place if you wanted it bad enough. It was
an amazingly powerful feeling that few people experience
who aren't immigrants. Because of that sense of hope and
mystery I'll always look back fondly on those early
Are your parents still alive? And, if so, what are
they doing now?
My mother is not working; my father is an eligibility
officer he dispenses welfare. And most of his clients
That's pretty ironic considering his position on
welfare when he first came to this country.
It's one of those things that would make a great piece
of fiction. When we first came to the States he worked
as a driving instructor but it was a very stressful job.
When he developed diabetes and heart disease he started
looking for alternatives and eventually found his
current position. He feels it's an honorable job and he
feels he's truly helping people in need. As I said, most
of his clients are Afghans. His experiences, and the
difficulties he had in accepting welfare, have allowed
him to identify with his clients and given him a sense
of empathy that others might not have.
What are your parents'
feelings now on the current
state of affairs in Afghanistan? Do they have any desire
to go back?
They miss Afghanistan and Kabul but they're very
concerned about the security issue. There are also
health issues for my father. He's got diabetes and
coronary heart disease, pulmonary problems, and he's
already had one bout with cancer. Nevertheless he, too,
has expressed some interest in going back, at least for
a visit. Currently I think my parents are hopeful about
the situation there but, like everyone else, they're
concerned about the various warlords and tribal chiefs
who are all vying for their own interests. Everybody's
afraid that that may lead to the undoing of this
incredible opportunity for the country. And depending on
whom you ask, and what their particular backgrounds are,
Mr. Karzai is either doing a wonderful job or failing
miserably. Personally I think he's doing an admirable
job. I think he must have one of the roughest tasks of
any world leader.
How did the story itself come together?
It came together for me when the character of Hassan
began to emerge. He came to life as a result of two
separate incidents in my own life, one of which was
pleasant and the other decidedly unpleasant. The first
occurred in the early 1970s when my father, who worked
for the Afghan foreign ministry, was posted to the
embassy in Tehran. I was about six at the time. Dad had
hired a cook in Kabul, a man named Hussein Khan, and
brought him with us. Khan was an ethnic Hazara a
minority that had, at best, been neglected by
Afghanistan's Pashtun government, and, at worst,
persecuted, for more than 200 years. Khan was about
thirty years old a short, stocky man with black hair.
He was very soft-spoken, very gentle. He and I became
fairly friendly. I don't know if he had a family, or
whether he'd been married, but I do remember he never
wrote any letters to, or received any letters from,
home. I asked him why that was. He said it was because
he couldn't read or write. When I asked why not he said
it was because no one had ever taught him. Naturally I
said, I'll teach you. I guess I was in the third grade
at the time. Within a year he could read and write,
albeit with a childlike handwriting. (I used that
incident in the novel for the character Soraya.) I was
pretty proud of him and myself. He called me 'Professor Khaled'
. I don't remember the exact circumstances of how
it happened but Kahn ended up moving away. I don't know
what became of him. It wasn't until much later that I
fully appreciated that my time with Hussein Khan had
been my first personal exposure to the unfairness and
injustices that permeate society. Here was a man who
grew up illiterate, and who was denied the opportunities
I was offered as a third grader, simply because of his
Some of the images you write about, particularly when
Amir goes back Afghanistan, are incredibly painful: the
trek to Kabul, the stoning at Ghazi stadium and the
stories of casual Taliban cruelty. If you haven't been
back in more than twenty years where did those images
come from? What allowed you to create such vivid scenes
and draw such vivid pictures?
Those scenes were a combination of things I've read and
news footage I've seen. For example, there was that
famous footage shot by a woman, which showed a Taliban
soldier publicly executing another woman at a soccer
stadium. He put a shotgun to the back of her head and
pulled the trigger. There was also footage of the
Taliban bringing a convicted murderer onto the soccer
field. I believe it was the brother of the victim who
was then handed a knife and asked to slit the murderer's
throat, which he then proceeded to do. Much of the rest
is based purely on my imagination: what it must feel
like to be in a situation like that, what a Mullah might
say, what the crowd's reaction might be, and so on. I
also drew heavily on the eyewitness accounts of people
who had visited Afghanistan under the Taliban. I used to
sit around and hear them tell incredible horror stories
of conditions at home. Once I started writing that part
of the novel I went back and contacted some of those
people to learn more details.
What do you want readers to get out of this book?
I want them to see that the Afghan people existed before
there was a war with the Soviets and before there was a
Taliban. I want them to understand that the things we're
seeing now in Afghanistan the tribal chiefs vying for
their own interests and the various ethnicities
colliding with each other have roots that go back
several centuries. I try to illuminate some of those
things through the experiences of Amir and his Hazara
servant, Hassan. I want readers to have a really good
time reading this story. I want them to be touched by it
because to me novel writing, first and foremost, is
storytelling. And I was brought up on a tradition of
storytelling. I want people to get involved with the
characters and care for them. And I want people to
simply remember Afghanistan. If the book is successful
at all in sparking some dialogue on Afghanistan, and
keeping it in the public consciousness, then I think it
will have achieved a lot.
Reproduced by permission of Riverhead Books, 2003.