Author and physician
B orn March 4, 1965, in Kabul, Afghanistan; son of a diplomat and a high school teacher; immigrated to United States, 1980; married Roya; children: two. Education: Santa Clara University, B.A., 1988; University of California, San Diego, M.D., 1993.
P racticing physician specializing in internal medicine, 1996-99, with the Permanente Medical Group, 1999-2004; first novel, The Kite Runner, published by Riverhead Books, 2003, and adapted for film, 2007. Active in volunteer work for Paralyzed Veterans of America and Aid the Afghan Children; United Nations Refugee Agency, goodwill ambassador, 2006—.
K haled Hosseini has been called the most famous Afghan in the world thanks to his 2003 novel The Kite Runner. A tale of boyhood friendship and betrayal set in Hosseini’s native Afghanistan during its past three tumultuous decades, the book went on to become a runaway bestseller, with more than eight million copies sold—half of them in the United States, the author’s adopted home. The Kite Runner was also made into a 2007 film, whose premiere in Afghanistan was delayed by threats of violence against its actors. “The controversy reflects that things in Afghanistan have changed to some extent, certainly in the last year or two,” Hosseini said in an interview with Erika Milvy for Salon.com. “Things have become more violent. It’s a more dangerous place than it was. It has slid back and there’s a new element of criminality and violence there.”
The first of five children, Hosseini was born in 1965, in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city. His father was a diplomat with the country’s foreign ministry, and his mother taught at a high school for young women. In 1970, the family moved to Tehran, Iran, when his father was assigned to the Afghan embassy there. They returned to Kabul three years later, the same year that a coup ousted the longtime king of Afghanistan, Mohammed Zahir Shah. In 1976, Hosseini’s father was posted to France, and they remained in Paris when a Communist takeover of Afghanistan’s government occurred in 1978. The family applied for and received political asylum in the United States in 1980.
The Hosseinis brought few possessions or assets with them, and relied on government assistance for a time after their arrival in San Jose, California. Hosseini earned his undergraduate degree in biology from Santa Clara University in 1988, and then went on to the medical school of the University of California at San Diego. After a residency in internal medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, he became a practicing physician in 1999 with the Permanente Medical Group in Mountain View, California. He married and became a father, but found the time to write short stories in which he tried to recapture the fading memories of his childhood in Kabul. After the Communist takeover, Afghanistan had disintegrated into full-scale war that raged for much of the 1980s, with United States-backed anti-communist guerrilla fighters known as the mujahideen fighting the Soviet occupiers. A period of civil war ensued after Soviet troops pulled out in 1989.
A few of Hosseini’s stories had been published in literary journals and one was even nominated for a Pushcart Prize, but it was his father-in-law’s praise for a short story called “The Kite Runner”—accompanied by the wish that it had been a longer tale— that prompted Hosseini to try his hand at writing a novel. “If there is one thing we doctors have been trained for, it’s getting by with less than ideal hours of sleep,” he wrote in the British medical journal Lancet. “So for 15 months, I woke up at [5 a.m.], drank cupfuls of black coffee, and created the world of Amir and Hassan.”
Those two names were the pair of boys whose stories dominate The Kite Runner, which was finished in June of 2002 and published by Riverhead Books exactly one year later. The novel begins in 1975 in the Kabul household of Baba, a wealthy merchant whose wife died in childbirth. Baba’s son is Amir, who longs to be closer to his emotionally distant father, and fears his father blames him for his mother’s death. Yet Baba dotes on Hassan, the little boy who lives in a mud shack on their property with his disabled father, Ali. Ali has been a longtime servant of the family, and is of a different ethnic group, the Hazara. Amir’s family, by contrast, are Pashtun, who held most positions of power in the country during the era. The boys are close friends as youngsters, with Hassan worshipping his more privileged friend and often defending him from the neighborhood bullies, while Amir resents his father’s affection for the servant boy.
The title of The Kite Runner refers to a popular pastime among Afghan children, kite fighting. Participants tie shards of glass and affix glue to their kite strings in an attempt to knock down the competitors’ kites; the kite runner chases down the kites that have been cut down. Hassan is the most talented of the runners, and Amir sends him to retrieve his winning kite, which is the most coveted prize in the annual winter tournament. When Hassan seems to be delayed, Amir goes to look for him, and spies him crouching in an alley as he is taunted by other boys. Amir hides from the group, but witnesses the ringleader—the half-German neighborhood bully who crows that the new, post-monarchy regime in Afghanistan will eliminate the Hazara ethnic minority as Nazi Germany attempted to do with Europe’s Jews—sodomize Hassan.
Amir is traumatized by what he saw, and his silence only deepens the psychic wound. At home, he rebuffs Hassan and begins to resent him, and finally tells his father that Hassan stole his birthday money. It is a lie, but the loyal Hassan admits to the deed to protect his adored friend. Ali, however, is hurt by the accusation against his son, and the two leave Baba’s household forever. Soon after this, Soviet troops invade Afghanistan, and Amir and Baba are forced to flee across the border. They resettle in America, where Amir becomes a successful writer but is still haunted by his act of betrayal against Hassan. To him, the secret is a heavy weight that he has never confessed to anyone, not even hisAfghan-born wife. One day, after Baba has died, he receives a call from his father’s old friend, Rahim, who urges him to come to visit him in Pakistan. There, Rahim reveals some long-buried secrets about Amir’s family, and tells him that Hassan and his wife were killed by the harsh Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime. Rahim asks Amir to go back to Kabul to find Hassan’s son.
Hosseini’s debut novel won effusive praise from critics. Writing in the London Independent, Aamer Hussein called it “a first novel of unusual generosity, honesty and compassion.” The Boston Herald’s Judith Wynn asserted that Hosseini “neatly balances the novel’s two themes of immigrant dislocation and personal redemption. Well-paced suspense, engaging characters, riveting incidents and pungent dialogue make The Kite Runner soar.” Edward Hower of the New York Times Book Review found it a “powerful first novel [that] tells a story of fierce cruelty and fierce yet redeeming love.” Commenting on the third section of the novel in which Amir returns to Afghanistan and encounters the horrors of the Taliban, Hower noted that this part “is full of haunting images: a man, desperate to feed his children, trying to sell his artificial leg in the market; an adulterous couple stoned to death in a stadium during the halftime of a football match; a rouged young boy forced into prostitution, dancing the sort of steps once performed by an organ grinder’s monkey.”
The Kite Runner’s paperback edition appeared in 2004, and propelled the title to the bestseller lists for nearly all of 2005, 2006, and even into 2007. In 2005, Hosseini’s debut novel was the third bestselling book in the United States. It also proved a hit with readers worldwide, and was translated into more than three dozen languages; there was even a bootleg translation into Farsi, which made it an underground bestseller in Iran.
Hosseini’s second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, was published in May of 2007. This time, he weaves a portrait of Afghan culture, politics, and society through the intertwined stories of two women, Mariam and Laila. Mariam comes from a poor family and is married off to a man in Kabul. Rasheed, her abusive husband, expects her to wear the head-to-toe-covering garment known as the burka when out in public. Mariam is unable to carry a pregnancy to term, which further enrages Rasheed. She watches, with interest, the life of her young neighbor, Laila, who comes from a progressive-minded family and even attends school. The story takes place as the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan is giving way to chaotic fighting by warlords, which is finally quelled by the totalitarian Taliban regime. Laila’s family is one of the many casualties of the conflict and, having nowhere else to turn, she is adopted by Rasheed and then becomes his second wife.
Hosseini’s novel again earned high marks from book reviewers. “Where Hosseini’s novel begins to sing is in depicting the slowly growing friendship of the two wives in the face of the horrific abuse from their shared husband,” wrote Natasha Walter in the Guardian. She also noted that “Hosseini does not challenge the usual western view of Afghanistan, but he does enrich it—he adds greater knowledge and understanding to it, and makes the Afghans come alive as loving, feeling individuals.” Comparing it with its predecessor, a Time critic wrote that “A Thousand Splendid Suns probably won’t be as commercially successful as Hosseini’s first novel, but it is, to put it baldly, a better book,” asserted Lev Grossman. “The Kite Runner ran heavily to unredeemable sinners and spotless saints, [while] in Suns the characters are more complex and paradoxical—more human.”
The film version of The Kite Runner was released later in 2007. The story was adapted for the screen by David Benioff, and directed by Marc Forster of Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland fame. Because of Afghanistan’s ongoing troubles, the film was shot in China, but Hosseini and Forster agreed that much of the dialogue would be in Dari, the main language of Afghanistan, with English subtitles added. The film’s December premier in Afghanistan was delayed several weeks when conservative elements in the country learned of the 30second sexual assault scene in the story. The parents of the child actor claimed that they had been unaware of this part of the story, and all three young actors involved in it became the targets of threats. Some demanded that the scene be excised from the movie, which Paramount refused to do.
The debacle did little to counter assertions that Hosseini’s homeland was a repressive country deeply troubled by its own shameful past. Still, Hosseini hoped that its larger message would come through, he told Milvy in the Salon.com interview, referring to the scene in which “Amir, in a moment of distress and personal anguish, goes to a mosque and prays. How many times have we seen Muslim characters in a film pray—in that kind of very spiritual moment, piously? Usually when they do, in the next scene they’re blowing something up.”
The success of The Kite Runner enabled Hosseini to give up his career as a physician in 2004 in order to write full time. In 2006, he became a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Refugee Agency, which works to repatriate the several million Afghans displaced since the 1979 Soviet invasion. Speaking about the success of The Kite Runner, he told Lorraine Ali in Newsweek International that “my story took place in Afghanistan, but this same story is being played out everywhere, all over the world. Iraq is a dramatic example, but I get letters from Africa, and I was just speaking to refugees in Chad. The nature of the conflict may be different, but the end result is so tragically similar. The people who have no control over what’s happening ultimately end up paying the price.”
The Kite Runner, Riverhead Books (New York, NY), 2003.
A Thousand Splendid Suns, Riverhead Books, 2007.
Boston Herald, June 15, 2003, p. A20.
Guardian (London, England), December 18, 2004, p. 31; May 19, 2007, p. 16.
Independent (London, England), September 20, 2003, p. 30.
Lancet, September 20, 2003, p. 1003.
Newsweek International, December 17, 2007.
New York Times Book Review, August 3, 2003, p. 4.
Publishers Weekly, March 19, 2007, p. 34.
Time, May 28, 2007, p. 68.
“The ‘Kite Runner’ Controversy,” Salon.com, http://www.salon.com/ent/movies/feature/2007/12/09/hosseini/ (February 1, 2008).