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Khaled Hosseini Interview

Afghanistan's Tumultuous History

July 3, 2008
Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

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  Khaled Hosseini

Tell us about your childhood in Afghanistan. Where did you live?

Khaled Hosseini: I was born and raised in Kabul. We lived in a neighborhood called Wazir Akbar Khan, which was one of the up-and-coming neighborhoods in Kabul. My father was a diplomat. He worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul, and my mother taught Farsi and history at a very large high school for girls. So I grew up in Kabul. I lived in Kabul until I was about five or six, lived in Tehran a couple of years -- kind of the diplomat family moving around. Came back to Kabul and left just before the communist -- a couple of years before the communist coup -- in 1976.

You were one of five?

Khaled Hosseini: Yeah, I was the oldest of five. I have three brothers and a sister and the enumerable cousins and second cousins and whatnot and people that I consider cousins, who are not really actually related to me at all. The whole concept of family in Kabul is very loose, so I just had a very extended rich social life.

One gets that impression from The Kite Runner of a very close-knit community, even in the United States.

Khaled Hosseini: We came to the U.S. in 1980, this was a few months after the Soviets invaded, right around the time that President Reagan was elected, just before. And there was a seed of Afghan communities in the East Coast and the West Coast. We were one of the early families that came to the U.S. in Northern California. We lived in San José, my family still lives there. And there were a number of families there already. Some of them we knew, some we got to know. And then over the ensuing decade or two, we watched that community explode, and more and more families came, you know, people brought their brothers and their sisters and their cousins. And the next thing you knew, you had the genesis of an actual community, both in Virginia, near Fairfax, Arlington, D.C. area, and also in Northern California in the East Bay, around the cities of Fremont, San José. Now that community is about, I would say, maybe 80,000, 90,000 people, maybe more. And there is Afghan businesses and people interacting and Afghan social clubs and organizations and so on and so forth.

Khaled Hosseini Interview Photo
Back to the Kabul of your youth. What were the political circumstances at that time?

Khaled Hosseini: Afghanistan was a monarchy for over 200 years. We had King Zahir Shah who passed away within the last year. King Zahir Shah had been on the throne since 1933. In 1963, a couple of years before I was born, he instituted a constitutional monarchy, and that was in effect for about ten years. My memory of that era, it was very peaceful and quiet. But in retrospect, it was an interesting time politically, a time of polarization, and to some extent, people were disillusioned with sort of the reforms and promises that had been made through the constitutional monarchy that never really panned out. And that was the circumstance under which the king was overthrown in 1973. He was away in Italy getting medical treatment. His first cousin overthrew him in a bloodless coup and took over, and Afghanistan's era of monarchy was over and it became a republic.

I actually remember the night that the king was overthrown. I was in Kabul, my parents were at the hospital where my mother was giving birth to my youngest brother that night, and we heard the gunshots, and we heard the tanks rolling in and all of the rumbling. I was home with my grandmother, and I said, "What is that noise?" And she said, "Oh, they hunt ducks at night. Don't worry about it, they're just hunting ducks." I wake up in the morning, and there's a couple of buildings have been damaged and so on, but otherwise there was not much violence. We woke up to a whole new country. So that was the reality, the political reality at that time. And then again, there were economic reforms and more promises and so on made. I left in 1973 when the president, Daoud Khan, was still in power, and it was from Paris where my father was working for the Afghan Embassy that we watched everything unravel, first with the Soviet, the communist coups of April '78, and subsequently the invasion in December '79 by the Soviet Union.

What a surreal experience that must have been to watch it from afar.

Khaled Hosseini: Yeah, surreal and very difficult in a way, because at that time, people didn't have any real reason to leave Afghanistan. So...

We had a lot of family and friends in Kabul. And the communist coup, as opposed to the coup that happened in '73, was actually very violent. A lot of people rounded up and executed, a lot of people were imprisoned. Virtually anybody that was affiliated or associated with the previous regime or the royal family was persecuted, imprisoned, killed, rounded up, or disappeared. And so we would hear news of friends and acquaintances and occasionally family members to whom that had happened, that were either in prison or worse, had just disappeared and nobody knew where they were, and some of them never turned up. My wife's uncle was a very famous singer and composer in Kabul who had been quite vocal about his dislike for the communists and so on and he disappeared. And to this day, we have no idea what happened to him. So that sort of thing, we began to hear news over in Europe of mass executions and really just horror stories. So it was surreal, and it also really kind of hit home in a very real way.

Going back to your childhood, were you a serious student in school?

Khaled Hosseini: I was a very serious student in school. My parents were both -- they weren't intensely involved with our studies, but they were involved in a very global fashion in the sense that they told us that education is really important, you have to do your homework, you have to study and you have to do well. And those were the principles in the house. That was our job, to study and do well. So I was a good student, all of my siblings were good students. We were all pretty sensible kids. Homework and school always came first. And so I did well when I was in school in Kabul in all of my subjects, and those were kind of a lesson and principles that served me well when I came over to the U.S. in 1980. I had already developed the habits of being a good student and being very diligent, and so I did very well in high school here and through college and so on. So I always was a pretty good student.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

Did you like to read as a kid?

Khaled Hosseini: I loved to read as a kid. In fact, I was raised in a household where classic Persian literature and poetry was revered and prized. Both of my folks were really into it and they got us into it. In fact as a kid, I grew up around the likes of Saadi and Hafez and Omar Khayyam and Rumi and people like that. And I really discovered the novels at a little bookshop in Kabul, because there is not a great tradition of novel writing in Persian literature, certainly not in Afghanistan. There is a great tradition, an ancient tradition of poetry, but not of prose novel. So I discovered Western novels, though translated into Farsi, at a local little bookshop in Kabul, and it was there that I read my first novels. I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and I was in wonderland. I think they had these condensed young adult editions of classics like Don Quixote and Ivanhoe and Treasure Island, and I remember reading all of those and just falling in love with the format. And then they also had serialized novels that they would publish in magazines, and I was really a sucker for those as well. So I really fell in love with prose at that time and I began writing my first short stories at that age. I was probably eight or nine years old when I began writing. I really loved it, and I was really passionate about it. I felt so in my element when I was writing. And pretty much since then, I haven't stopped writing. It is really kind of when my history of writing began.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

You mentioned the Farsi language. Could you explain for us what languages are spoken in Afghanistan and which ones you grew up with?

Khaled Hosseini: Afghanistan is a kaleidoscope of different ethnicities, tribes, sub-tribes, families and so on. Every region has its own dialect and its own local culture. So there are many, many different dialects, but there are two main languages. One is Farsi, or Dari, which is probably the more correct way of saying it. We speak the same language as in Iran -- they call it Persian or Farsi. In Afghanistan it's called Dari. It's a slightly different dialect, closer to the roots of the actual language and has a different accent. Kind of like English being spoken in Texas and maybe in Ireland. Same language, just some words are different and some of the accent. The other main language is Pashtun, which was spoken in various parts of the country. It was spoken in Kabul as well, but I largely grew up in a Dari-speaking environment. Both of my parents were from Herat, which is a Dari-speaking city. So I grew up with Dari. I learned Pashtun in school. It was mandatory to learn Pashtun in school, but I never ever spoke it at home, and I have forgotten all of my Pashtun at this point.

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