How to pronounce Khaled Hosseini: kHAH-lehd ho-SAY-nee
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 Splendid Suns?
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 street.
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 these traditions?
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 creating.
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 faith.
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 extremists.
What is likely to happen in Afghanistan if the current government fails?
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 Afghanistan now?
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 Taliban.
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 screen?
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 Runner?
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 nevertheless.
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 any more?
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 about it.
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.' He nodded and said, kind of casually and forgive me for saying this 'You know I've been fucking him for the last month.' 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 themselves.
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' because 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...' and 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 their children.
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 certainly understand.
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 about Afghanistan?
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 by surprise.
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 there?
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' background.
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 again.
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 arrived?
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 years here.
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 are Afghans.
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 race.
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.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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