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Published: 4/2/2006

Seeing Afghanistan through the eyes of 'The Kite Runner'

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITE

After years monopolized by study and preparation to become a physician, Khaled Hosseini's free time opened up, and in the late 1990s he decided to learn about the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic group that ruled his native Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001.

The Taliban, he read, had forbidden kite competitions in which kite strings are covered with small shards of glass. The object of the game is to sever each other's kite strings and then run and capture the opponent's fallen kite. He remembered the popular game from his boyhood, held during chilly winters when families would bundle up and come out to watch.

It inspired a short story that he began expanding into his first novel in March, 2001. Tragic world events would eventually propel sales of The Kite Runner to more than 3 million copies.

Hosseini, 41, will speak in Toledo tomorrow night at 7 at the Stranahan Theater as part of the Authors! Authors! series co-sponsored by The Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library.

"By the time Sept. 11 happened, I was two-thirds of the way through writing the book," said Hosseini in a telephone interview from his home in San Jose, Calif. Afghanistan, of course, was where the man behind the 9/11 attacks, Osama bin Laden, was based.

"Part of this is, there's a curiosity of Afghanistan. It's a country a lot of people don't know a lot about," said Hosseini. "The novel is packed with emotions. They're intense; a lot of ups and downs. And the themes are universally human - friendship, guilt, atonement."

Published in 2003, The Kite Runner became a word-of-mouth hit with a wide variety of ages; it was selected by cities as a community read and assigned by teachers.

It's a finely crafted coming-of-age story about Amir, a wealthy boy, and his servant/playmate, Hassan, who was born into a marginalized ethnic group distinguished by Oriental features and a distinct Farsi dialect that was often mocked. Hassan adores Amir, but unwittingly ignites his cruel jealousy.

It is set in Kabul during the 1970s, the last tranquil days of the monarchy before the Soviets invaded. It hops to California, then back, years later, to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Through it all, Amir wrestles with his conscience and ultimately confronts redemption.

Hosseini and his wife, Roya, an attorney, were new parents to their first child when he would rise at 5 a.m. to write for three hours every day before heading to work as an internist. He didn't know what deep reservoir he possessed, but he drew crisply detailed descriptions of smoke-filled kabob houses, vendors selling rosewater ice cream, Kabul's cinema and its bustling streets, and his father's house behind a wrought-iron fence. He didn't need to ask his parents, who also live in Northern California, to trigger his memory.

"It was astonishing to me because I hadn't thought a lot about Afghanistan for a long time," he said. "Writing the book, I reconnected with Afghanistan."

And the book, he said, wrote itself.

His family left Afghanistan in 1976 for Paris, where his father was assigned a diplomatic post. He was 11, the oldest of five children. Before they left Kabul, his mother had taught history and Farsi at a large girls high school.

By 1980, their homeland had experienced a bloody coup and was invaded by the Soviets, and the Hosseinis were granted political asylum in the United States.

"My father always wanted to live in California," he said.

His father became a driving instructor and then a social worker helping immigrant families. His mother did odd jobs, worked as a waitress, and became a hairdresser.

In early 2003, after the book was finished, Hosseini returned to Kabul for the first time in 27 years.

"The old adage in writing is you write about what you've experienced. I was going to experience what I had already written about," he later wrote. "Every day I saw places and things I had already seen with my mind's eye, with Amir's eyes."

The book has been optioned to become a film, and he'd like to see the lead roles played by Afghani actors and a significant portion of the dialogue in Farsi.

In December, 2004, he took an extended sabbatical from doctoring to speak and write.

"I'm busy, far busier than when I was a doctor," he said. His children are 5 and 3, and they all spend lots of time with extended family.

"My wife's family and my family are very close, and so hanging out with family is a big part of it."

He loves movies; his favorite is Lawrence of Arabia.

He's been reading female authors lately: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, On Beauty by Zadie Smith, and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. The novel he's writing is about an unusual friendship between two women in Afghanistan. His wife edits it and adds a woman's perspective. It has a wider arc, a larger cast of characters, and is more ambitious than The Kite Runner, he said.

"I've been immersed in the new book," he said. "I'm really, really enjoying writing it."

Khaled Hosseini will speak tomorrow at 7 p.m. in the Stranahan Theater, 4645 Heatherdowns Blvd. Tickets are $10; $8 for students. Information: 419-259-5381.

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com or 419-724-6075.



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