Historical Context

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 714

The Kite Runner, set in Afghanistan and the United States from the 1970s to 2002, presents a story of intertwined personal conflicts and tragedies against a historical background of national and cultural trauma. The early chapters tell much about the richness of Afghan culture as experienced by the young Amir and Hassan in the Afghan capital, Kabul. The novel's account of the culture of Kabul informs the reader about everything from the melon sellers in the bazaar to the cosmopolitan social and intellectual lives of Kabul elite society during the monarchy, to the traditional pastimes of Afghan children. Detailed descriptions treat the reader to such events as a large extended-family outing to a lake and the annual winter kite tournament of Kabul. Subsequent political developments, however, appear to curtail these relative freedoms, as first the Soviet-backed Communist government, then the Northern Alliance, and finally the Taliban progressively repress the activities of Afghan citizens. The reader learns the effects of the first of these developments through first-person narration; the effects of the Northern Alliance and of Taliban rule emerge in Rahim Khan's, Farid's, and Hassan's accounts of Afghan life in the period between the late 1980s and the early 2000s. Starting in the early chapters of the novel, broad political events such as the revolution that overthrows the monarchy come to form not just a background for the action, but to become prime movers of the plot. The sound of gunfire in Chapter 5, for example, initiates a series of political shake-ups that eventually leads to the Communist takeover of Afghanistan and drives Baba and Amir, along with many of the privileged class, into exile. In addition, it marks an end to a period that was—despite being marred by the iniquities of the caste system—relatively idyllic. As Amir observes, "The generation of Afghan children whose ears would know nothing but the sounds of bombs and gunfire was not yet born." This observation foreshadows the traumatized condition of Amir's nephew Sohrab, born in the midst of violence and orphaned and abused by the Taliban.

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The Kite Runner is one of the first works of fiction to include the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States within the span of its narrative. In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, Afghanistan was portrayed in popular media as a country whose government allowed a terrorist organization to operate within its borders and committed human rights abuses against its own people. Through a detailed personal narrative, the novel re-focuses attention on Afghanistan through a different lens, correcting this narrow view of a country which, despite its problems, has a fascinating history.

Another important historical and cultural context of the novel is the diverse and variegated world of contemporary multicultural America, particularly in California. Hosseini, the son of a diplomat and a teacher, left Afghanistan with his family in 1981, much like Amir. Likewise, Amir's experiences in the Afghan immigrant community of Fremont, California, familiarly known in the San Francisco Bay Area as "Little Kabul," may reflect the author's experiences of the area from arrival in San Jose in the 1980s. Amir's life as a young immigrant in the multicultural space of the Bay Area illustrates the increased mixing of diverse ethnicities in the 1980s and 1990s within U.S. popular culture.

The novel also gives a detailed account of how one ethnic group formed a cultural enclave within American culture so that its members could help one another and preserve Afghan cultural traditions. Detailed descriptions in the middle and late chapters give the reader a window on some cultural practices, both formal and informal, that help define the Afghan community in Fremont. Amir's and Soraya's lives are certainly taken up with the broader American culture. Both attend public schools and (we presume) mix with non-Afghan students; Amir takes creative writing classes in which he must read about the experiences of a diverse group of young writers; and Soraya has a career as a writing instructor at a community college. Still their identities as Afghans or Afghan Americans are defined in part by the ceremonies and practices of their families and their community. The Saturday swap meets, for example, exemplify the well-documented strategy of immigrant groups to adapt already existing institutions in the United States as ways to preserve their cultures of origin.

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