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While Afghanistan's King Mohammed Zahir Shah (1914-2007) was in Italy having eye surgery, his first cousin, Mohammed Daoud Khan (1909-1978) successfully initiated a bloodless coup d'etat on July 18, 1973. Rather than risk a civil war, Zahir Shah abdicated his throne, beginning 29 years of exile in a small village just north of Rome. Daoud Khan established himself as President (rather than king, or shah) of the new republic of Afghanistan, serving for five years until he was assassinated as a prelude to the Russian-led communist takeover of his nation. Daoud Khan had previously served his cousin as the Prime Minister of Afghanistan for a decade (1953-1963). Zahir Shah returned to Afghanistan in 2002 following the NATO-led ouster of the Taliban. Still revered by the people of Afghanistan, he was prepared to lead his nation once again, but bowed to the power of the United States, who backed Hamid Karzai for president. Zahir Shah graciously stepped aside, and he was bestowed with the honorary title "Father of the Nation."
In Chapter Five of The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini provides some of the political background against which the events portrayed in his novel occur. Hosseini’s story is heavily informed by the history of the country of his birth, Afghanistan, and the political turbulence initiated with the events described in The Kite Runner set the stage of the misery that characterizes that nation today. The relevant passage in Chapter Five reads as follows:
“THEY WEREN’T SHOOTING ducks after all. As it turned out, they hadn’t shot much of anything that night of July 17, 1973. Kabul awoke the next morning to find that the monarchy was a thing of the past. The king, Zahir Shah, was away in Italy. In his absence, his cousin Daoud Khan had ended the king’s forty-year reign with a bloodless coup.”
Afghanistan’s king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, ruled from 1933 until he was overthrown by his cousin Mohammed Daoud Khan, in July 1973, ending Afghanistan’s monarchy and precipitating the chain of events that led to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, the ten-year war pitting the Soviet Army and its communist Afghani allies against the mujahedeen financed and armed by the United States, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, isolated elements of which would form al Qaeda. Daoud Khan would rule as president until his assassination on April 28, 1978, by the communists. During the period of his rule as Afghanistan’s president, Daoud Khan operated as a cultural and social liberal, advocating for gender equality and for the establishment of a republic. In The Kite Runner, he represents the power to which one of the novel’s main antagonists, Assef, associates himself as a way of elevating his status relative to that of others, as evident in the following exchange:
“Have you heard the news, boys?” Assef said, his grin never faltering. “The king is gone. Good riddance. Long live the president! My father knows Daoud Khan, did you know that, Amir?”
“So does my father,” I said. In reality, I had no idea if that was true or not.
“So does my father,” Assef mimicked me in a whining voice. Kamal and Wali cackled in unison. I wished Baba were there. “Well, Daoud Khan dined at our house last year,” Assef went on. “How do you like that, Amir?”
Whereas Daoud Khan would have likely blanched at the comparison, Assef favorably compares his country’s new leader to Adolf Hitler:
“Do you know what I will tell Daoud Khan the next time he comes to our house for dinner?” Assef said. “I’m going to have a little chat with him, man to man . . .Tell him what I told my mother. About Hitler. Now, there was a leader. A great leader.”
The greatest significance of that early reference to Daoud Khan, however, lies in the coincidence of his rise to power with the tragic event that haunts Amir for the rest of his days, the brutal, ugly assault of his friend Hassan:
“I would never forget the day after Daoud Khan overthrew the king. My entire adult life, whenever I heard Daoud Khan’s name, what I saw was Hassan with his sling shot pointed at Assef’s face, Hassan saying that they’d have to start calling him One-Eyed Assef. instead of Assef Goshkhor. I remember how envious I’d been of Hassan’s bravery. Assef had backed down, promised that in the end he’d get us both. He’d kept that promise with Hassan. Now it was my turn.”
The encounter between Hassan on one side and Assef with his cowardly obsequious “friends” Wali and Kamal on the other shapes Amir’s character and he will forever associate the date of that coup d’etat with that encounter.
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