“Hassan!” I called. “Come back with it!” He was already turning the street corner, his rubber boots kicking up snow. He stopped, turned. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “For you, a thousand times over!” he said.
So opens the pivotal event in The Kite Runner, a novel by Khaled Hosseini. The movie version, which is now in theatres, was nominated for a Golden Globe as best foreign-language film of 2007.
Amir and Hassan, inseparable, fiercely loyal friends, have just won the annual kite-flying tournament in Kabul, Afghanistan in the winter of 1975 by cutting down all other kites in the air. Amir has just dispatched Hassan to retrieve as a trophy the last kite cut down. Hassan’s devotion will shortly be tested to its very limits. He is the best kite runner in the city. He finds the kite, but can he keep it for his friend?
This remarkable story is played out against the backdrop of events occurring in Afghanistan from shortly before the Russian invasion of 1979 up to and including the Taliban takeover.
It is a poignant, bittersweet movie that, in the context of Islamic life, portrays undying friendship, love between father and son and above all, the themes of atonement and redemption.
The foundation of the story is the friendship between Amir jan (the “jan” is always added when expressing affection) and his servant, Hassan. Amir is a rich boy of privilege and prestige, while Hassan is poor and a descendant of the Hazerah people who are despised by the ruling classes in Afghanistan. Yet the boys, both motherless and raised in the same household, share a deep bond of friendship.
Three older toughs trail Hassan and demand the blue trophy kite. But Hassan refuses to surrender his friend’s prize, for he loves Amir. Assef, their sociopathic leader, agrees to let Hassan keep the kite, but he will exact a steep price. Brandishing brass knuckles, Assef then attacks and rapes Hassan, as the boy is restrained by Assef’s accomplices.
Meanwhile, Amir has come looking for Hassan. From behind a wall, he witnesses the grave unfolding events. He has arrived in time; Assef has not yet thrown Hassan to the ground. Amir can intervene. But he makes no cry to save his friend. The reasons are complex and deep, but not as deep as his traitorous silence.
The Kite Runner has two recurring themes. First, there is the deep devotion that Hassan over and over again expresses to his friend Amir, captured in his memorable words as he runs off to bring home the trophy kite.
In the face of such ardent devotion, Amir’s betrayal is of the worst kind and, even in his new life in America, he suffers remorse and inescapable guilt over the next two decades.
The second theme in the story surfaces in an old friend’s cryptic challenge, “There is a way to be good again.” And the author, in magnificent storytelling fashion, weaves a tale of adventurous hope in which Amir seeks forgiveness, redemption and freedom from guilt by doing a good deed that he hopes will erase his evil past.
Psychology has taught us to disregard categories like sin and guilt. Given this framework of thinking, it is surprising that this story of betrayal, consequent guilt and the quest “to be good again” should resonate with so many.
Nevertheless the book is flying off the shelves. Perhaps the intellectual “faith” offered by psychology is not able to meet the real needs of people when they experience their dark
moments of life. Indeed, any intellectual “faith” that rejects moral categories will always fail in the nitty-gritty of real life. It fails us utterly when we sting ourselves and others by stealing, lying, lusting, betraying and on and on and on.
And so the question of how to find “goodness” again is perennial among us. We do wrong, we commit evil, we find ourselves consumed with guilt and remorse – we ask over and over, “How can I be good again?”
The Kite Runner portrays one way of attempting atonement, a way as old as the hills – that of doing good deeds that will cover our past wrongs. But there is a totally different way to understand atonement.
Yet another ancient way reveals that we receive forgiveness and “goodness” from another as a gift.
Ironically this second way might be portrayed in Hassan’s magnificent words of devotion to his friend. What if Amir had been able to hear in his native language these words from the One once nailed to a cross: “Amir jan, for you … covering your betrayals, blotting out your lies, washing away your shame … for you, Amir jan a thousand times over … there IS a way to be good again.”
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 21 Guelph Mercury, for which Royal Hamel is a member of the community editorial board.