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The impact of the historical and cultural context on understanding The Kite Runner


Understanding The Kite Runner requires knowledge of Afghanistan's historical and cultural context. The novel spans the fall of the monarchy, the Soviet invasion, and the rise of the Taliban, which shape the characters' lives and decisions. Cultural elements like Pashtunwali (the Pashtun code of ethics) and ethnic tensions between Pashtuns and Hazaras also play crucial roles in the narrative.

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What is the social context of The Kite Runner?

Khaled Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner is set in Afghanistan during the tumultuous decades of the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. The novel presents the historical and social context of the times through the lives of the characters, and we see how Afghanistan changes over those decades and what life is like for the people who live there. Let's look at some of this context.

In the 1970s, Afghanistan is flourishing and has a rich culture, and it is the backdrop of Amir's childhood. Yet things are far from perfect. Amir and Hassan are terrorized by Assef, a boy of a higher class who eventually rapes Hassan.

As time goes on, though, the situation in Afghanistan changes as the Soviets set up a communist government. Amir and his father must flee the country, and they end up in California, where Amir's father has a difficult time adjusting to a new culture. He misses the old Afghanistan, but the old Afghanistan no longer exists.

Amir settles into life in America, but in June 2001, Amir must return to Afghanistan to rescue Hassan's son, Sohrab. By now the Taliban is in power, and Afghanistan is devastated by the tyranny of the regime. Hassan and his wife have been murdered by the Taliban, who have taken Sohrab captive. When Amir returns to Afghanistan, he see firsthand the suffering of the Afghan people.

While trying to rescue Sohrab, Amir witnesses the stoning of a man and woman who are accused of adultery. Amir himself is badly beaten by Assef, who is now a member of the Taliban, and Sohrab tries to commit suicide. Eventually, they are able to flee Afghanistan and return to America, but Sohrab has been traumatized by his ordeal.

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What is the social context of The Kite Runner?

The political context for The Kite Runner is the upheaval and instability that plagued Afghanistan for the thirty-year span of the novel, starting in the 1970s. In 1973, in a coup, Daoud Khan, the king's cousin, displaced the king as ruler. This was followed by greater upheaval in 1979, when the Soviet Union backed the communist party in Afghanistan and invaded the country to support them. This led privileged people like Amir and his father to face hardship. In the novel, Amir and his father are arrested, along with many other wealthy Afghans, to be made an example of by the Parchami, or communists. As Amir states:

a group of Parchami soldiers marched into our house and ordered my father and me at gun point to follow them.

Because the Soviets want to reeducate bourgeois people and shake up the social order, Amir and his father flee their country for the United States. Their status in the former political system gives them the means to leave, unlike Hassan and his father, who have no alternative but to endure the turmoil. In the US, however, Amir and his father face another difficult situation in having to live at a much lower status than they were used to in Afghanistan.

Class is also part of the political context Amir grows up in. Amir internalizes a sense of superiority to Hassan because of his ethnicity and the branch of Islam he belongs to, stating:

I was a Pashtun and he [Hassan] was a Hazara, I was Sunni and he was Shi’a, and nothing was ever going to change that.

Political turmoil continues in Afghanistan into the twenty-first century, and it is against the backdrop of Taliban rule that Amir returns.

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What is the social context of The Kite Runner?

The initial economic context of The Kite Runner is a semi-feudal, hierarchical society in which there are limited opportunities for social advancement.

In the Afghanistan of Amir's youth, Amir's father, Baba, is an important man. Wealthy and respected, he is very much at the top of the social ladder. All that changes, however, with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which completely upends the existing social, economic, and political order.

When Amir and Baba arrive in the United States as refugees, it's a complete culture shock to both of them, but especially to Baba, who finds that he's no longer as economically privileged as he once was.

In America's free-market economy, he has to stake his claim, make his own way in the world. This means that he has to start all over again, right at the bottom, which Baba inevitably finds a humiliating and thoroughly disorientating experience. For a man who once enjoyed such high social and economic status back in his home country, this is a real comedown, to say the least.

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How does the historical or cultural context of The Kite Runner affect your understanding?

The first time I read The Kite Runner, I knew little about the culture of Afghanistan. I had a rudimentary understanding of the civil war that had been going on there, but I did not understand the differences between the many factions that were fighting. Since my completion of the novel, and Khaled Hosseini's follow-up, A Thousand Splendid Suns, I have read many articles about the history of Afghanistan since the 1970s, and I certainly would have benefited from having done this research before reading the two novels.

Just a few examples of improved clarity:

  • Cultural differences between the Pashtun, Tajik and Hazara ethnic groups.
  • Knowledge of the geographical regions of Afghanistan.
  • Differences between the Sunni and Shi'a Muslims.
  • Causes, outcomes and divisions of the various civil wars that took place during the 1990s.
  • Knowledge of many of the real-life political and military leaders mentioned.
  • Anything Taliban-related.

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