Amnesia at the Multiplex

Amnesia at the Multiplex

Two films address US adventures in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with a big dose of historical amnesia, political pandering, moral superiority and outraged innocence.


“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.

Rather than humanizing the other, the narrative allows us to maintain our favored state of moral superiority and outraged innocence. We are free to pretend not only that the problems of the Muslim world and its denizens are entirely of their making but also that our enlightened values offer their best hope for the future.

It isn’t a coincidence that at a time when most Americans feel tremendous anxiety and uncertainty about our relationship with the Muslim world, the publishing industry has witnessed a boom in Islam-themed books that shift the attention away from “us” to “them.” Books like The Kite Runner, The Bookseller of Kabul and Reading Lolita in Tehran painstakingly re-create details of native culture and history, and yet conveniently omit a long history of US involvement and intervention. “Indeed, the way this literature navigates its way through the Middle Eastern mess without running into the US presence there is astounding,” writes Keshavarz.

While haunting scenes of Russian- and Taliban-inflicted violence abound in both the novel and the movie, there is not one mention in The Kite Runner of the US role in arming and promoting the very militants who would go on to enslave an entire nation. On the big screen, America serves instead as a haven of freedom for the narrator, who flees to this country on the heels of the Russian invasion, and again at the very end for a young boy rescued from the Taliban.

Unlike the novel, the movie avoids dealing with the 9/11 attacks and the war against Afghanistan that soon followed–events that Hosseini air-brushes over in the most egregious fashion in the book: “One Tuesday morning last September, the Twin Towers came crumbling down and, overnight, the world changed. The American flag suddenly appeared everywhere…. Soon after the attacks, America bombed Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance moved in, and the Taliban scurried like rats…. That December, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras gathered in Bonn, and under the watchful eye of the UN, began the process that might someday end over twenty years of unhappiness in their watan [homeland].”

There’s nary a word about dead civilians, unsavory alliances with warlords or the escalation of anti-Muslim sentiment–including the desire to bomb their homeland back into the proverbial Stone Age–that surely made life uncomfortable for the average Afghan immigrant in America.

Hosseini’s brand of humanism is carefully tailored to confirm our most self-indulgent preconceptions about ourselves and our role in the world. But at least its sins are merely those of omission, committed perhaps with the best of intentions by an author intent on persuading a largely hostile, or at best indifferent, audience of the value of his people and their culture.

Besides, The Kite Runner‘s crimes against historical integrity pale in comparison to that other movie about Afghanistan to hit theaters this Christmas. Released a mere week later, Charlie Wilson’s War manages to recast shortsighted hubris and rabid anticommunism as patriotic virtue, and this in a movie created by a team of self-identified Hollywood liberals, no less. Written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Mike Nichols, it makes a hero of the flamboyant Texan Congressman who engineered a $1 billion covert CIA operation to arm the mujahedeen resistance to Soviet occupation back in the 1980s. This operation entailed, among other things, secretly funneling arms and money from Israel to Pakistan without Congressional oversight; getting in bed with Pakistani dictator Zia ul-Haq, a man widely credited for transforming Pakistan into an Islamic state and building its nuclear arsenal; and last but not least, nurturing the very jihadis who would later become foot soldiers of Al Qaeda.

Yet six years after the 9/11 attacks, in the midst of a disastrous military intervention stoked by the same kind of patriotic fervor, even as an armed-to-the-teeth Pakistan struggles for political stability, all this self-styled political satire has to offer by way of acknowledging that pesky little thing we call blowback is an ambiguous quote about how we “fucked up the endgame.”

“Is this admirable restraint or cold feet?” asks David Ansen in his Newsweek review. “Are they afraid of spoiling the feel-good uplift of Charlie’s victory with the harsh downdraft of history? It’s as if ‘Titanic’ ended with a celebratory shipboard banquet, followed by a postscript: by the way, it sank.”

Maybe it’s just good old-fashioned denial, both of history and of our role in shaping it. While its big-screen adaptation is unlikely to do as well, the paperback edition of The Kite Runner is still flying high on the New York Times bestseller list. Meanwhile, Charlie Wilson’s War has already snagged itself five Golden Globe nominations, including one for Sorkin’s screenplay. Denial may be bad for the soul, but it’s undeniably good for business.

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