Kite Runner: Crossing a Cultural Minefield

From The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead Books, 2003), pp. 145-147:

“Be careful, Amir,” he said as I began to walk. “Of what, Baba?”

“I am not an ahmaq, so don’t play stupid with me.” “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Remember this,” Baba said, pointing at me, “The man is a Pashtun to the root. He has nang and namoos.” Nang. Namoos. Honor and pride. The tenets of Pashtun men. Especially when it came to the chastity of a wife. Or a daughter.

“I’m only going to get us drinks.”

“Just don’t embarrass me, that’s all I ask.” “I won’t. God, Baba.”

Baba lit a cigarette and started fanning himself again.

I walked toward the concession booth initially, then turned left at the T-shirt stand-where, for $5, you could have the face of Jesus, Elvis, Jim Morrison, or all three, pressed on a white nylon T-shirt. Mariachi music played overhead, and I smelled pickles and grilled meat.

I spotted the Taheris’ gray van two rows from ours, next to a kiosk selling mango-on-a-stick. She was alone, readirig. White ankle-length summer dress today. Open-toed sandals. Hair pulled back and crowned with a tulip-shaped bun. I meant to simply walk by again and I thought I had, except suddenly I was standing at the edge of the Taheris’ white tablecloth, staring at Soraya across curling irons and old neckties. She looked up.

“Salaam,” I said. “I’m sorry to be mozahem, I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“Salaam.”

“Is General Sahib here today?” I said. My ears were burning. I couldn’t bring myself to look her in the eye.

“He went that way,” she said. Pointed to her right. The bracelet slipped down to her elbow, silver against olive.

“Will you tell him I stopped by to pay my respects?” I said. “I will.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Oh, and my name is Amir. In case you need to know. So you can tell him. That I stopped by. To … pay my respects.”

“Yes.”

I shifted on my feet, cleared my throat. “I’ll go now. Sorry to have disturbed you.”

“Nay, you didn’t,” she said.

“Oh. Good.” I tipped my hed and gave her a half smile. “I’ll go now.” Hadn’t I already said that? “Khoda hafez.”

“Khoda hafez.”

I began to walk. Stopped and turned. I said it before I had a chance to lose my nerve. “Can I ask what you’re reading?”

She blinked. I held my breath. Suddenly, I felt the collective eyes of the flea market Afghans shift to us. I imagined a hush falling. Lips stopping in midsentence. Heads turning. Eyes narrowing with keen interest.

What was this? Up to that point, our encounter could have been interpreted as a respectful inquiry, one man asking for the whereabouts of another man. But I’d asked her a question and if she answered, we’d be … well, we’d be chatting. Me a mojarad, a single young man, and she an unwed young woman. One with a history, no less. This was teetering dangerously on the verge of gossip material, and the best kind of it. Poison tongues would flap. And she would bear the brunt of that poison, not me—I was fully aware of the Afghan double standard that favored my gender. Not Did you see him chatting with her? but Wooooy! Did you see how she wouldn’t let him go? What a lochak!

By Afghan standards, my question had been bold. With it, I had bared myself, and left little doubt as to my interest in her. But I was a man, and all I had risked was a bruised ego. Bruises healed. Reputations did not. Would she take my dare?

She turned the book so the cover faced me. Wuthering Heights. “Have you read it?” she said.

I nodded. I could feel the pulsating beat of my heart behind my eyes. “It’s a sad story.”

“Sad stories make good books,” she said.

“They do.”

“I heard you write.”

How did she know? I wondered if her father had told her, maybe she had asked him. I immediately dismissed both scenarios as absurd. Fathers and sons could talk freely about women. But no Afghan girl—no decent and mohtaram Afghan girl, at least, queried her father about a young man. And no father, especially a Pashtun with nang and namoos, would discuss a mojarad with his daughter, not unless the fellow in question was a khastegar, a suitor, who had done the honorable thing and sent his father to knock on the door.

Incredibly, I heard myself say, “Would you like to read one of my stories?”

“I would like that,” she said. I sensed an unease in her now, saw it in the way her eyes began to flick side to side. Maybe checking for the general. I wondered what he would say if he found me speaking for such an inappropriate length of time with his daughter.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Kite Runner: Crossing a Cultural Minefield

  1. Warbucks

    There’s clearly an array of powers at work creating the case right now for a war on the Pashtun tribal regions. These things don’t just happen in a vacuum. Wars seem to start with the careful choreography of the news. The war masters, the maestros, start feeding their lap dogs, the press. The music is then played by the press for the rest of us to hear.

    Notice how all the papers are beginning to play the same thing about the Afghan and Pakistan border? The theme of “lawless frontier” is being played every week. The sound drowns out the reality of a noble 5000 year old culture of some 27-million people.

    We hear instead about the vilified denizens of a “lawless tribal frontier.”

    What you missed it? Well, it’s only been playing for about two weeks. You need to tune in to the inside pages. The maestros have been composing for a while longer…. Their creative juices kicked in about the time Sen. Obama, answering one of those deadly sucker-punch sound bite questions showed us his war face telling us he would take action on “high-value terrorist targets” in Pakistan if President Pervez Musharraf “won’t act.

    That’s the sunshine it took to start the war-sap flowing. War-sap is sticky stuff, its residue has been known to encapsulate the creatures that get too near and preserve them there for posterity.

    There is a legal system in place of course, in this lawless frontier. It’s been there for 5000 years. The Pashtun call the system the jurga. But its not part of the sharia law, it’s unique to the Pashtun and precedes Islam by thousands of years. But we don’t sing about that just now.

    Please, I definitely don’t want the Pashtun to start signing their homeland song either. I don’t want to learn that an 1893 border line drawn with the blessing of Queen Victoria divided a group of mountain dwellers along the Afghan and Pakistan boarder in two.

    I thought mountain ridges where proper borders. Everybody uses them. I just can’t handle the sound of another this-a-stan or that-a-stan popping up. So please, I don’t want to know about a Pashtunistan. And I definitely have no interest in anything 5000 years old, if it means Obama can catch Osama on good intelligence, bring it on! That should be Commander Obama’s war face call: “Bring it on!” Hmmmm, that sounds familiar.

    What is this Pashtuni-whatever, Pashtunwahli, anyway?

    They openly express somewhat defiantly, total cultural independence and have seen conquering armies and powers come and go through the millennia. Probably because of their original geographic high mountain foothold they could stand off vast armies with terrain advantage. Well it’s about time maybe for all that to stop.

    And, how come they sound more like American cowboys than foreigners? Darn it, if we are going to start another little war, can’t we start it with some body that doesn’t live like my great, grandfather?

    Setting aside the Pashtun mostly pray to the same God I do, grandpa did, and great grandpa too, how on earth did they adopt the same code as the old cowboy code of the west?

    According to “lawless frontier” musical score, the first impressions I hear is Pashtun love rifles, chewing green tobacco, and appreciate a good sense of humor. So what’s not to like? I can’t go to war on that.

    If I fell out of the sky and landed in a group of people like that, I’d get along just fine, especially if I were being chased by the law. What they call Nanawateh we call asylum. Nanawateh is extended even to an enemy, just like the Cowboy Code of the Old West. Except if you are granted asylum (called Lokhay Warkawal) by the Pashtun elders as a group you’re in like Flynn! They protect you even if it means forfeiting their own lives. Man that is lawless. Imagine a code of living where a principal was so honored, that it exceeded my duty to the state. Hmmm. Now that is lawless. Isn’t it?

    Better to just seek hospitality, then they’ll treat you like a king, which makes me want to open a 5-Star hotel somewhere in the snowy peaks along the boarder if I can find a few acres for a ski-lift not planted in opium poppies, viewed on Google Earth satellite, not that anyone is actually checking the carefully cultivated fields above 6,000 feet along the borders. I would feel right at home there, not unlike parts of Tennessee or California.

    Look at the forces arrayed here. My little fantasy war is going to happen.

    The Democrats need to show they can be trusted with national defense again, be it Hillary or Obama. And McCain says fight to win.

    The second verse of the song is still being written: Floating the contingency balloon. Up, up, and awa-a-a-ay, in my beautiful ball-o-o-o-on….

    Obama or Hillary, or McCain get sworn in January 20, 2009. By mid June, whoever is President is going to make a push into the boarder regions the so-called “lawless frontier tribal zones” and “on good intelligence,” unless of course my leader does it first before June 20th. The operation will be Pakistan’s (well okay we’ll give them a few billion). It will be a fast coordinated air-ground attack with airborne US intelligence and lots of surrounding US air cover as a safety check to insure the operation stays within operational parameters. Pakistani’s will not go into Afghanistan and vice a versa. Meantime the Pakistan Navy will be backed up (some would say surrounded and outgunned) by the US Navy to keep a lid on the operation seeing to it they don’t launch an attack on India by Pakistan Islamic fundamentalist-leaning ground forces. We’ll hold India’s hand throughout the entire episode and offer security where needed.

    Up, up and awa-a-a-ay in my beautiful …. This thing’s going to happen regardless of who wins.

    You can’t deny the poetic justice in someone with a Muslim name (Obama) catching a renegade terrorist (Osama). Can you imagine the songs that we could write about that? To the tune of “Froggy went a courting.”

    Obama went a hunting and he did hunt, uh-huh
    Obama went a hunting and he did hunt, uh-huh
    Obama went a hunting and he did hunt, he hunt Osama on the Mount
    Obama went a hunting and he did hunt, un-huh. …..

    The best time to wage this little war would be during the Chinese Olympics. China would likely remain quiet with their hands temporarily full with the Olympics.

    So my fantasy, glorious, contingency war needs to be brief, violent, and force the Pashtun jurga to rethink their long term cultural interests. It needs to end with Osama in a holding tank, brought up on charges in the world court.

    If it fails? Well what do you expect from the lawless tribal frontier area in Pakistan with questionable army allegiance? Corruption is everywhere.

    I’d still like to open a 5-star hotel with some good ski-runs. You don’t suppose the opium production their so good at, has anything to do with the foolishness of some of our drug laws? Nah.

    Victor Davis Hanson says you have to look at war with a long term perspective in order to understand its meaning. Long term is real long term. It may well turn out that while many say Bush’s legacy must be a failure, history may have a completely different take on things, long after both you and I and our great grand children have come and gone. It may turn out, that doomed legacy of a Bush Presidency we hear so often this campaign-cycle ends up being written 1000 years from now as the President who started Islamic Reformation and brought freedoms that enabled thinking people to ask questions about religious practices that eventually changed the world and started the east and the west talking again.

    The Ritz, I like that franchise. A 5-star Ritz, mini-conference center and ski resort. A Pashtun bagpiper playing my old favorite, “The Ass in the Graveyard” with double malt scotch, in the bracing night air.

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