“For all the pain and loss that The Kite Runner depicts, it is still a film of exhilarating, redemptive humanity, conveying an enduring sense of hope,” gushed Ann Hornaday in her Washington Post review of the cinematic adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s literary blockbuster. While other movie critics were less enthusiastic, almost all emphasized the “universal” appeal of a story of childhood friendship, betrayal and atonement, set against the backdrop of three decades of recent Afghan history.
The release of The Kite Runner at the height of the holiday movie season no doubt showed a certain amount of chutzpah on the part of Hollywood, given its unfestive subject and cast of unknown Afghan and Iranian actors. Sadly, such marketing brio isn’t matched by the movie itself, which is yet another dismal example of Hollywood’s predilection for historical amnesia and political pandering, especially when it comes to stories about the Muslim world.
Released in 2003, the novel emerged as a literary dark horse that made its way to the top of the New York Times bestseller list based almost entirely on word-of-mouth marketing by enthusiastic readers and book clubs. Critics and commentators widely praised Hosseini for “humanizing” both Afghanistan and its people at a time when, in the wake of 9/11, they were more likely to evoke fear than empathy.
“If The Kite Runner‘s early adopters picked up the book to learn something about Afghanistan, what kept them reading (and recommending it) is the appealingly familiar story at the heart of the novel: a struggle of personal recovery and unconditional love, couched in redemptive language immediately legible to Americans,” wrote Slate critic Meghan O’Rourke in 2005 of its equally successful paperback edition, which currently enjoys fourth place on the Times bestseller list. “It’s clearly such messages of redemption that prompted one Amazon reviewer to observe that The Kite Runner ‘remind[s] us that we are all human alike, fighting similar daily and lifelong battles, just in different circumstances.’ ”
It’s a message Hosseini emphasizes in interviews promoting the movie: “This film is going to bring, in a way, Afghanistan into the living rooms of people around the world. In a positive light, in a human light. This is a story about these Afghan Muslim characters that does not begin with terrorism, does not begin with fanaticism. It’s a story about ordinary human beings.”
The “story,” however, is more than a little suspect. Both the novel and its faithful cinematic adaptation rely on a carefully edited version of political reality that enables Western–or, more specifically, American–empathy with the other by absolving the self of all responsibility.
In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fatemeh Keshavarz, author of Jasmine and Stars: Reading More Than Lolita in Tehran, makes a case for what she describes as the “New Orientalism,” which merely replaces the age-old Orientalist dichotomy of West versus East with that of the good Muslim versus bad Muslim. The updated version views the Islamic world as a universe of victims and villains, where the right kind of Muslims, i.e., standard-bearers of Western values of secularism, democracy and freedom, are pitted against cruel, barbaric, backward oppressors.