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The Kite Runner | Study Guide

Khaled Hosseini

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The Kite Runner | Context



Major political events in Afghanistan provide the backdrop for The Kite Runner. The novel spans the time from the early 1970s to about 2002. The Afghanistan Khaled Hosseini describes at the beginning of the novel is a stable and prosperous country. The images of Kabul at that time are pleasant: the smell of lamb kabobs, glasses of tea, games under a pomegranate tree, and kite-flying tournaments. Then Afghanistan changed to a country torn by bloodshed and war.

Before this time, in the 1960s, King Zahir Shah dismissed his cousin Daoud Khan as prime minister and set about liberalizing the press, allowing political parties to form, and slowly moving to a constitutional monarchy with a parliament. This liberalization had the unintended effect of empowering fundamentalists and communists, who started violent protests—including plots to overthrow the monarchy. Afghanistan went through several prime ministers who tried to curb the problem in vain, leading Zahir Shah to end the liberalization movement and reassert control. His move angered fundamentalists and communists alike.

In 1973 King Zahir Shah's monarchy was overthrown in a coup by Daoud Khan and the communist People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). After the coup Daoud Khan attempted to remove the communists from the government over the next five years. The PDPA felt betrayed and launched their coup against Daoud Khan in 1978, killing him and his cabinet.

The PDPA, with Nur Muhammad Taraki in charge, took over Afghanistan's government. They hoisted a red flag over the capital to replace Afghanistan's traditional black, red, and green Islamic banner. The PDPA imposed a regime that imprisoned or killed many Muslim leaders who opposed the government. Thousands of people fled the country for safety in Pakistan while others organized into small groups to fight back. Afghans immediately rebelled against the PDPA's anti-religious government, leading to Taraki's assassination in 1979. In order to stop the resistance to communist rule, Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Various fundamentalist groups who had originally started rebellions against Zahir Shah and Daoud Khan united to form the mujahideen (resistance groups) with the support of the United States and Pakistan.

By 1989 Soviet troops had withdrawn from Afghanistan, leaving rival groups to fight each other in a civil war. In 1994 a group of mujahideen made up of students who had been taught to interpret Islamic law very strictly took over Kandahar Province. This group was called the Taliban, the Arabic word for "students." The Taliban were fierce fighters who began to dominate larger and larger areas of Afghanistan. By 1996 the Taliban had taken Kabul, and two years later about 90 percent of Afghanistan was under their control. At first most Afghans welcomed the Taliban because the they promised an end to the constant fighting between warring groups that had destroyed much of Afghanistan. But once in power the Taliban established extreme restrictions on Afghans, such as stopping education for women, not allowing women to work, requiring women to wear full-body veils, forcing men to wear beards, stopping kite flying, and prohibiting gambling. During the height of the Taliban's power they brutally terrorized and killed Afghan civilians, especially Hazaras, one of the two primary ethnic groups. In The Kite Runner Taliban militants kill Hassan and his wife and enslave his son, mainly because they are Hazaras. The Taliban strictly interpreted sharia (Islamic law), publicly executing people for crimes such as the one that occurs in The Kite Runner when Amir comes to the stadium. In addition the Taliban gave a group of Islamic terrorists called al-Qaeda shelter in Afghanistan. After the September 11 attacks of 2001 on the United States by al-Qaeda, American soldiers and forces from several other countries fought against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban fought back, but by 2002 they were pushed from the cities and their rule over Afghanistan collapsed. Many insurgents, including those from the Taliban, continue their fight to claim parts of Afghanistan for themselves.

Upon visiting Kabul in 2007 Hosseini was troubled by how much it had changed due to years of war. Kabul, which had been a beautiful and peaceful city to Hosseini, was now a city of rubble and beggars. Not only that, now that the Taliban had retreated, millions of refugees were flooding back into Afghanistan. Working with the United Nations refugee organization, the Khaled Hosseini Foundation builds shelters for families and provides economic opportunities, education, and health care for the women and children of Afghanistan.


Afghanistan can be characterized as a kaleidoscope of different ethnic groups, tribes, subtribes, families, and regions. However, almost all Afghans are united in one way—they are believers in Islam. According to Islamic beliefs the Prophet Muhammad (570–632) was about 40 years old when he received revelations from God. These revelations were collected in the Qur'an and form the basis for Islam. The philosophy of Islam is that "There is no god but God (Allah) and Muhammad is His Prophet (Messenger)." Followers of Islam are called Muslims. There are two main divisions of Islam. Sunni Muslims make up the largest group of Muslims. They believe that anyone who has learned the ways of Islam can become a leader in the faith. Shia Islam is the second major division of Islam. Shia believe that only the descendants of Muhammad can be religious leaders. Both groups believe that Allah is omniscient, and they have complex views on destiny and God's involvement in human affairs.


In Afghanistan the ethnic class or tribal group that a person is born into largely determines the person's destiny. The two primary ethnic groups in The Kite Runner are Pashtuns and Hazaras. Amir, Baba, Assef, and many other major characters are Pashtun. Ali and Hassan are Hazaras. In Afghanistan Pashtuns make up about two-fifths of the population and Hazaras about one-tenth; many other ethnic groups make up the remainder, with the Tajiks comprising more than one-fourth of the population. Hazaras are the only majority Shia ethnic group in Afghanistan. Thus Pashtuns and Hazaras differ in their Muslim beliefs. Pashtuns, being the largest population group, usually have employment that provides more wealth than the minority population can attain, which affords Pashtuns more access to educational opportunities. For example, in The Kite Runner Amir's mother had been a teacher at a university. Because of the positions they hold in Afghanistan society, Pashtuns also have more power than the Hazaras. Baba, who is a Pashtun, is a businessman and well known for charitable work in his community.

Pashtuns and other majority ethnic groups often discriminate against minority Hazaras for several reasons:

  1. There are many more Pashtuns than Hazaras. Thus Pashtuns dominate elite official positions in the government and the military. Being in the upper hierarchy of Afghan society often causes bias against the minority group. For example, in The Kite Runner Amir's father-in-law General Taheri is alarmed when Amir and his wife adopt Hassan's son, exclaiming, "Why is a Hazara boy living with you and our daughter?"
  2. Hazaras make up a lower caste in Afghanistan and are generally illiterate, which limits their access to formal education and ensures that their employment in cities is mainly work as low-paying servants, such as the work Ali and Hassan perform for Baba and Amir. In The Kite Runner Amir says, "That Hassan would grow up illiterate like Ali and most Hazaras had been decided the minute he had been born." He thinks, "What use did servant have for the written word?"
  3. Hazaras constitute a minority religious group since they are Shia. Hazaras have characteristic Asian features; their ancestors invaded Afghanistan centuries ago from northwestern China. Amir hears kids ridicule Ali and Hassan as "load-carrying donkeys, mice-eating and flat-nosed." Many Pashtuns, such as Assef in The Kite Runner, do not consider the Hazaras as Afghan because of their appearance. Claiming that Hazaras weren't Afghan or true Muslims, the Taliban's policy was to exterminate the Hazaras.
  4. Pashtuns and Hazaras generally live in different areas of Afghanistan. Pashtuns tend to live in the southern regions, and Hazaras occupy mountainous areas of central Afghanistan.
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