Last Reviewed on May 19, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1244
It is December 2001, and the narrator, Amir, reflects on growing up in Afghanistan during the “frigid winter” of 1975. It was a time that made Amir who he is today. He says that he has realized over time that the past always finds a way of “claw[ing]” its way back to him. The previous summer, Amir received a phone call from an old friend, Rahim Khan, who was living in Afghanistan. Amir goes to take a walk along Spreckels Lake in San Francisco and sees two kites soaring above the skyline. He immediately remembers his childhood friend Hassan, “the harelipped kite runner.”
Amir and Hassan spend their childhood climbing poplar trees and playing together. Amir often talks Hassan into playing tricks, like pelting the neighbor’s one-eyed dog with walnuts, but Hassan always covers for Amir if they are caught. Amir lives with his father, Baba, in “the most beautiful house” in their district of Kabul, while Hassan and his father, Ali, work as their servants and live in a mud hut. Both Amir and Hassan are motherless. Amir’s mother died during childbirth, while Hassan’s mother ran away with travelers, a fate most Afghans consider worse than death.
Hassan’s mother and father were an unlikely match. His mother, Sanaubar, was considered beautiful but dishonorable and was nineteen years Ali’s junior. Ali, on the other hand, suffers from congenital paralysis of his lower face, rendering his expressions emotionless.
Hassan and Ali are Hazaras, members of a persecuted ethnic minority in Afghanistan. In the nineteenth century, Hazaras rose up against the Pashtun majority, and the Pashtuns retaliated with acts of “unspeakable violence.” Amir reveals that his teachers failed to mention many of these historical facts and that derogatory terms are still leveled at Hazaras today. The reason for this century-long persecution, he explains, is that Pashtuns are Sunni Muslims and Hazaras are Shi’a.
Ali and Sanaubar were first cousins, and their marriage may have been arranged to restore Sanaubar’s reputation. After Sanaubar left, Hassan became the center of Ali’s world. Baba later hired the same wet nurse to feed Amir—a blue-eyed Hazara woman with a sweet singing voice. Ali reminds the boys that there is “a brotherhood between people who had fed from the same breast, a kinship that not even time could break.”
Amir describes his father as a larger-than-life character with a thick beard, unruly hair, and a petrifying glare. It is even rumored that he once wrestled a bear. In the 1960s, Baba began building an orphanage. Rahim Khan recalled that people were skeptical of Baba’s vision, as he has no architectural knowledge, but Baba proved them wrong by funding the orphanage himself and becoming one of the most successful businessmen in Kabul.
People believed that Baba would never marry well, but he again proved them wrong by wedding Sofia Akrami. Sofia was a highly educated woman, universally lauded for her virtue and beauty, who descended from a royal bloodline.
When Amir sees Baba drinking a glass of whiskey, he recalls how a teacher called Mullah Fatiullah Khan taught the class that drinking was a “terrible sin.” According to Baba, however, there is only true sin: theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft—murdering a man involves stealing his life, while lying to someone deprives them of the truth. Baba insists that Afghanistan will go to ruin if “bearded idiots” like Mullah Fatiullah Khan are left in charge.
Such intimate moments between father and son are a rarity, and Amir sometimes thinks that his father hates him. He believes Baba blames him for “killing” his beloved wife and that he wishes Amir had turned out more like him.
Baba is a Buzkashi enthusiast and takes Amir to watch the annual tournament, which involves participants trying to place an animal carcass in a scoring circle while other riders chase him in pursuit of the carcass. During the tournament, a man is trampled to death by the melee. Amir cries at the sight of the dead man, but Baba is unsympathetic and ashamed of his son’s sensitivity.
In 1933, Baba was born, and Zahir Shah began his forty-year reign over Afghanistan. That same year, Ali’s parents were killed in a car crash by two drunk drivers. Amir’s grandfather took the orphaned Ali in and educated him. Like Amir and Hassan, Ali and Baba grew up together, but Baba never referred to Ali as a friend.
Amir and Hassan spend much time in each other’s company and watch their first Western, Rio Bravo, together. One day, they climb to the top of a hill near Baba’s house, and Amir carves “Amir and Hassan, the sultans of Kabul” into a tree.
Despite his illiteracy, Hassan is enchanted by stories, and Amir often reads to him. Hassan’s favorite book is the story of Rostam and Sohrab, in which Rostam mortally wounds Sohrab in battle, only to find out that Sohrab is his son. One summer day, Amir makes up his own story for Hassan, who says it is one of the best stories he has ever heard. That night, Amir crafts his first short story. It tells the tale of a man whose tears turn to pearls. To become rich, the man finds different ways to make himself cry, and the story concludes with him sitting atop a mountain as he sobs over his dead wife’s body.
Baba shows no interest in the story, but Rahim Khan offers to read it and later sends Amir a note congratulating him on his talent and encouraging him to write more. Buoyed by Rahim Khan’s enthusiasm, Amir goes downstairs and wakes Hassan so he can share his story with him. Hassan is in awe of the story and predicts that Amir will one day be a famous writer. However, he has just one question—he wonders why the old man could not have just smelled an onion to induce tears. Amir is stunned, as he had not thought of such a simple solution.
That night, something “roar[s] like thunder,” and Ali, Hassan, and Amir shelter in the house from gunfire. It transpires that the monarch has been overthrown, and Afghanistan has changed forever.
While walking outside, Amir and Hassan are approached by Assef, the neighborhood bully, and two of his friends. Assef calls Hassan derogatory names, including “fag” and “Flat-Nose,” in an attempt to provoke him before asking if they have heard about the Republic. He brags about his father knowing Daoud Khan and claims that he is excited to talk to Daoud Khan about Hitler and ethnically cleansing Afghanistan of Hazaras. When they try to leave, Assef draws his brass knuckles. He aims to hit Amir but freezes when he realizes Hassan has his slingshot aimed at him. Hassan threatens to shoot him in the eye, which leads Assef to back down, but he warns that this will not be the end.
After the coup, life largely returns to normal. The following winter marks Hassan’s birthday, and Ali calls Hassan inside. Instead of presents, Hassan finds a man named Dr. Kumar, a plastic surgeon of great repute. Dr. Kumar explains that he fixes people’s faces and has come to repair Hassan’s cleft palate. After healing from the surgery, Hassan smiles. Amir goes on to warn that this was the winter Hassan stopped smiling.