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Friday, September 24, 2021

‘There’s so much more to Afghanistan’: Khaled Hosseini reflects on his birthplace

He shared his thoughts on the country, what people seeking a stronger understanding of it should read and what he sees as America’s moral obligation to the Afghan people. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

By: New York Times |
Updated: August 20, 2021 5:52:30 pm
The author of “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” was born in Afghanistan, talks about the pain and frustration of watching the country from afar. (Jordi Matas/UNHCR via The New York Times)

Written by Elizabeth A Harris

Like so many people, novelist Khaled Hosseini watched Afghanistan fall to the Taliban over the past few days with horror and sadness.

Though he has lived in the United States since 1980, he was born in Kabul, and his best-known books, like “The Kite Runner” and “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” are deeply rooted in the country’s history and culture. In a phone interview Wednesday, he expressed his frustration that Americans, and the rest of the world, have for so long heard about the country in the context of death and destruction, and rarely from the people who live there.

“If you look up stories about Afghanistan,” he said, “it’s always about violence, it’s about displacement, it’s about the drug trade, it’s about the Taliban, it’s about the U.S. initiatives. There is precious little about the Afghan people themselves.”

Millions of readers have turned to his books for this perspective, though he considers that a mixed blessing, saying that neither he nor his fiction should be considered representative of his homeland. “But I do have a perspective, and I do feel strongly about what’s going on in Afghanistan,” he said.

He shared his thoughts on the country, what people seeking a stronger understanding of it should read and what he sees as America’s moral obligation to the Afghan people. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: How has your sense of Afghanistan’s future changed over the year?

A: I was in Afghanistan early in 2003, and in those days, there was virtually no insurgency. There was this very heady optimism about this semi-Jeffersonian democracy, and about where the country was headed — gender equality, rights for girls and women, people being able to participate in an open and representative political process. All of that was in play.

Over the years we adjusted our expectations, and over time we came to expect that, well, that was all a pipe dream, but at least what we can hope for is a compromised sort of democracy, with corruption and all sorts of issues. But at least Afghans in the cities, for sure, appear to be safe. They know there’s been a lot of progress in the last 20 years in Afghanistan, and that gave me hope. And of course, over the last couple of years, those hopes have declined. And in the last few days, they have been utterly crushed.

Q: What should people be reading to better understand Afghanistan and Afghan people right now?

A: They should be reading history books. They should be reading people who really know Afghanistan and know it well. A lot of people have relied on my books to kind of get a view into what Afghanistan is, and that’s fine, but I have never intended for my books to be representative of what Afghan life is. I hope people dig much deeper than that and read history books and learn more about Afghanistan in that way.

Q: But there has been an uptick in demand for your books. Is there anything you want people to know who are picking up one of them for the first time?

A: These are stories. This is the perspective of someone who has lived in exile, essentially since 1980. Salman Rushdie said that the viewpoint of the person in exile about their homeland is always through a cracked mirror, and that’s very true for me. I’ve always been very careful about making sure that people don’t mistake me for some kind of Afghan ambassador or Afghan representative. I haven’t lived there in a long time.

But I do have a perspective, and I do feel strongly about what’s going on in Afghanistan, and I have a deep affection and a deep emotional connection with the people there, with the land, with the culture, with the history and the heritage. I hope my books provide a little bit of insight on what Afghanistan is, beyond the usual storylines that we see in the media about Afghanistan as a breeding ground for terrorism or the Taliban, the opium trade, the cycles of war.

There’s so much more to Afghanistan. It’s a beautiful country with a beautiful, humble, kind, welcoming, hospitable and charming people. Everyone who’s been to Afghanistan says, “I’ve been to a lot of places in the world, but I’ve never been to a place like Afghanistan.” We call it the Afghan bug — people who go there become infected with the Afghan bug. It’s a very special place. It’s a beautiful place, both physically and the people themselves, and, once you know that, once you’ve had a taste of that, once you’ve been in touch with those people, and broken bread and had tea, the tragedies, the stuff that you see on television, take on a whole other dimension. It becomes personal, and it just becomes very, very painful.

Q: What else do you want people reading this to know?

A: Many, many Afghans bought into what the U.S. was selling. They aligned themselves with American objectives, they bought into American initiatives, fully aware that that would make them targets in the eyes of insurgent groups like the Taliban. They did it anyway in the hope of a better future for the country, in the hope of a better future for the children, in the hope that the country would become more stable and more peaceful, more representative of all sections of Afghan society. I believe they were unbelievably courageous to do it.

So I want people to reach out to their representatives, to their leaders, and say: We have a moral obligation to those people, we have to evacuate those people. We cannot allow our partners — the U.S. has been calling the Afghan people “our partners” for 20 years — we cannot allow our partners to be murdered. To be imprisoned, to be beaten and tortured and persecuted now that we have left. We have a moral obligation to follow through.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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