What is the significance of the distinction between Hazara and Pashtun in Afghanistan--relative to their religious affiliations and societal status--in The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is set, for the most part, in Afghanistan both before and after the Taliban takes power in Kabul. The two main characters are Amir, the narrator of the story and a Pashtun, and Hassan, son of a servant and a Hazara. Though Hassan literally grows up in Amir's back yard and they spend most of their growing-up years together, there is a distinct difference between them. 

Hassan's social position is solely based on his being an Hazara. Like all Hazaras, Hassan looks different than the Pashtuns, so he cannot "hide" as something else. His ethnicity is permanently stamped as his identity. Hassan does not have the opportunity for an education because of his position, and neither Hassan nor Amir question that.

The following quote (divided into several sections below), is a picture of what ethnicity means in Afghanistan.

They called him "flat-nosed" because of Ali and Hassan's characteristic Hazara Mongoloid features. For years, that was all I knew about the Hazaras, that they were Mogul descendants, and that they looked a little like Chinese people. School text books barely mentioned them and referred to their ancestry only in passing.

It is interesting to note that Amir, as a ruling-class Pashtun, did not know the details of his "superiority" over the Hazaras. He did not know his own history and apparently he never cared about it enough to learn. (While I do not know this to be true, it seems likely that Hassan knew exactly why his people were oppressed, though of course there is nothing he can do about it.) Amir continues:

Then one day, I was in Baba's study, looking through his stuff, when I found one of my mother's old history books.... I blew the dust off it, sneaked it into bed with me that night, and was stunned to find an entire chapter on Hazara history. An entire chapter dedicated to Hassan's people! In it, I read that my people, the Pashtuns, had persecuted and oppressed the Hazaras. It said the Hazaras had tried to rise against the Pashtuns in the nineteenth century, but the Pashtuns had "quelled them with unspeakable violence." The book said that my people had killed the Hazaras, driven them from their lands, burned their homes, and sold their women. The book said part of the reason Pashtuns had oppressed the Hazaras was that Pashtuns were Sunni Muslims, while Hazaras were Shi'a. The book said a lot of things I didn't know, things my teachers hadn't mentioned. Things Baba hadn't mentioned either.

It is interesting to note that this is new information to Amir, that the strongest and most violent people are now in charge, and that none of Amir's teachers have never taught Amir anything about any of this. Amir finishes with this:

It also said some things I did know, like that people called Hazaras mice-eating, flat-nosed, load-carrying donkeys. I had heard some of the kids in the neighborhood yell those names to Hassan.

This is the shameful part of the truth. Amir knows very well that Hassan is a decent human being, not an animal or a monster. Despite that, he is allowed by the culture of his country to remain silent when Hassan is abused in these ways.

Unfortunately, in this novel, Amir's mean-spirited, selfish, cowardly, and cruel behavior toward Hassan is based as much on Amir's weak character as it is on either boy's ethnicity. The difference between the two boys are much more significant than ethnicity, but that is the factor which determines their roles in Afghan society.

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