The period is December 2001, and our narrator, who tells his story in the first person, recalls an event that occurred in 1975, when he was twelve years old and growing up in Afghanistan. He does not say what happened, but says the event made him who he is. He follows this recollection by telling us about a call he received last summer from a friend in Pakistan named Rahim Khan. Rahim Khan asks our narrator, whose name is Amir, to come to Pakistan to see him. When Amir gets off the phone, he takes a walk through San Francisco, where he lives now. He notices kites flying, and thinks of his past, including his friend Hassan, a boy with a cleft lip whom he calls a kite runner.
Summary: Chapter 2
As children, Amir and Hassan would climb trees and use mirrors to reflect sunlight into a neighbor’s window, or they would shoot walnuts at the neighbor’s dog with a slingshot. These were Amir’s ideas, but Hassan never blamed Amir if they were caught. Amir lived with his father, Baba, in a lavish home in Kabul. Meanwhile, Hassan and his father, Ali, lived in a small mud hut on the grounds of Baba’s estate, and Ali worked as Baba’s servant. Neither Amir nor Hassan had a mother. Amir’s died giving birth to him, and Hassan’s ran away after having him. One day while the boys are walking, a soldier says to Hassan that he once had sex with Hassan’s mother, Sanaubar. Sanaubar and Ali were an unlikely match. Ali was a devout reader of the Koran, the bottom half of his face was paralyzed, and polio destroyed the muscle in his right leg, giving him a severe limp. Sanaubar was nineteen years younger than Ali, beautiful, and reputedly immoral. Most people thought the marriage was arranged by Sanaubar’s father as a way to restore honor to his family. Sanaubar openly detested Ali’s physical appearance. Five days after Hassan was born, she ran away with a group of traveling performers.
The soldier refers to Hassan as a Hazara, which we learn is a persecuted ethnic group in Afghanistan. The Hazaras originally came from further east in Asia, and their features are more Asian than Arabic. Hassan’s parents were Hazara as well. Amir and Baba, on the other hand, are Pashtun. Once, while looking through history books, Amir discovered information on the Hazara. They had an uprising during the nineteenth century, but it was brutally suppressed by the Pashtuns. The book mentions some of the derogatory names they are called, including mice-eating and flat-nosed, and says part of the reason for the animosity is because the Hazara are Shia Muslim while the Pashtuns are Sunni Muslim.
Summary: Chapter 3
Amir mixes his memories of Baba in with this information. Baba was a large man, six feet and five inches tall with a thick beard and wild, curly hair. According to one story, he even wrestled a bear once. Baba did all the things people said he could not do. Though he had no training as an architect, he designed and built an orphanage. Though people said he had no business sense, he became one of the most successful businessmen in the city. Though nobody thought he would marry well because he wasn’t from a prominent family, he married Amir’s mother, Sofia Akrami, a beautiful, intelligent woman who came from a royal bloodline. Baba also has his own strong moral sense. While Baba pours himself a glass of whiskey, Amir tells him that a religious teacher at his school, Mullah Fatiullah Khan, says it is sinful for Muslims to drink alcohol. Baba tells him that there is only one sin: theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft. Murdering a man, for instance, is stealing his life. He calls Mullah Fatiullah Khan and men like him idiots.
Amir tries to please Baba by being more like him but rarely feels he is successful. He also admits to feeling responsible for his mother’s death. Since Baba likes soccer, Amir tries to like it as well, albeit unsuccessfully. What Amir is good at is poetry and reading. But he worries his father does not see these as manly pursuits. When he and Baba went to see a match of buzkashi, a popular game in Afghanistan in which a rider must put an animal carcass in a scoring circle while other riders try to take it from him, a rider was trampled after falling from his horse. Amir cried, and Baba could barely hide his disdain for the boy. Amir later overhears Baba talking to his business associate, Rahim Khan, the man that later calls Amir from Pakistan. Baba says Amir is not like other boys, and he worries that if Amir can’t stand up for himself as a child, he will not be able to do so as an adult.
The first three chapters set out the basic facts of the story, including who the major characters are, their backgrounds, and what their relationships with each other are like. The section also establishes a context for the information: Amir, our narrator, is an adult living in the United States and looking back on his childhood years in Afghanistan. In fact, history is an important theme in the novel, and looking back on the past is a recurring motif. That’s because, for Amir, the past is not over. He believes it to be a fundamental part of who he is, and no matter how far he is in time or location from his childhood in Afghanistan, the events of that period are always with him. Though it remains unclear why, he feels a tremendous sense of guilt about those events, and he believes they shaped him into who he is. This guilt, in fact, informs the entire narrative. Appropriately, he opens the novel in the present then quickly jumps back in time.
The author, Khaled Hosseini, spends much more time on characterization than action in this section. In terms of plot, little happens. Instead, Khaled Hosseini introduces us to the personalities of the characters. We learn that the boy Amir is sensitive, bookish, sometimes selfish, and a little mischievous. He is eager to please Baba, whom he views as a role model he can never live up to. Yet he feels Baba does not love him because he is not like Baba and because it was during his birth that his mother died. Baba, meanwhile, is gruff, hardworking, a little distant from Amir, and very much an independent thinker. Anytime someone said he would fail, he didn’t listen, and he always succeeded. He doesn’t always listen to religious authorities either, evidenced by the fact that he disregarded Mullah Fatiullah Khan saying it is a sin to drink alcohol. Ali, meanwhile, is dutiful, modest, and quiet. Lastly there’s Hassan, who is a loyal and courageous friend. When Amir is threatened, Hassan intervenes. He has his own vulnerabilities, however, particularly regarding his mother.
Significantly, both Hassan and Amir have lost their mothers. They have only their fathers and each other. The relationship between fathers and sons, and between the older generation and the new one, is a major theme of the story. Also, in many ways Amir and Hassan act for each other as a kind of substitute parent, looking out for the other and providing companionship. They are closer than regular friends. They are more like brothers who are on occasion reminded that one is Pashtun and one Hazara. Their relationship plays a central role in the book, and it figures in another theme that is introduced in this section: standing up for what is right. The theme is introduced primarily through Baba, who worries that if Amir can’t stand up for himself as a young boy, he may not be able to stand up for what is right as an adult. He says this because he sees Hassan standing up for Amir in fights while Amir appears to back down.
The section additionally introduces the reader to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan and the location of the events. Khaled Hosseini’s main audience for the book is not Afghan, and he familiarizes his readers with life in Afghanistan by explaining some basic facts. Using the characters of Baba and Amir on one side and Ali and Hassan on the other he lays out all the divisions—economic, ethnic, and religious—present in the country during the late 1970s. Baba and Amir, for instance, are rich and live in a large mansion, while Ali and Hassan are poor and live in a small hut on Baba’s property. Related is the difference in the health of the rich and the poor, who cannot afford proper medicine. Baba and Amir are both healthy, but Ali and Hassan both suffer from problems affecting their faces. Furthermore, Baba and Amir embody the Pashtun population, whereas Ali and Hassan are part of the Hazara minority, a group subjected to relentless racism in Aghanistan. A related divide in religions is also present: like most Pashtuns, Baba and Amir are Sunni Muslim, while Ali and Hassan, like most Hazaras. are Shia Muslim. (The difference between Sunni and Shia is something like the difference between Catholic and Protestant Christians. They share the fundamental beliefs of Islam, that there is only one god and that Muhammad was his prophet for instance, but some of their other beliefs and practices differ.)
One additional divide hinted at in this section is that between Islamic fundamentalists, such as Amir’s teacher, Mullah Fatiullah Khan, and more liberal Afghans like Baba. Baba’s words in Chapter 3 foreshadow the eventual takeover of Afghanistan by the radical Islamic fundamentalists called the Taliban. “God help us all if Afghanistan ever falls into their hands,” he says, after calling Mullah Fatiullah Khan and those like him “self-righteous monkeys” (p. 17). It will be decades before this happens in the novel, but the political events leading up to the rise of the Taliban, beginning in the 1970s and continuing through 2001, will play a major role throughout the book.
Summary: Chapter 4
The story jumps back in time to 1933, the year Baba is born and Zahir Shah becomes king of Afghanistan. Around the same time, two young men who are driving while drunk and high hit and kill Ali’s parents. Amir’s grandfather takes the young Ali in, and Ali and Baba grow up together. Baba, however, never calls Ali his friend. Similarly, because of their ethnic and religious differences, Amir says as a child he never thought of Hassan as a friend. Even so, Amir’s youth seems to him like a long stretch of playing games with Hassan. But while Amir would wake up in the morning and go to school, Hassan would clean the house and get groceries. Amir often read to Hassan, who was illiterate. Their favorite story was “Rostam and Sohrab,” in which Rostam fatally wounds Sohrab in battle and then finds out Sohrab is his lost son.
During one reading session under their favorite pomegranate tree, Amir begins to make up his own story while he is reading to Hassan. Hassan says it is one of the best stories Amir has read. That night, Amir writes his first short story, about a man whose tears turn to pearls. The man finds new ways to make himself sad so he can cry and become richer, until the story ends with him sitting atop a mound of pearls, sobbing over the wife he has stabbed. Amir tries to show Baba the story while Baba is speaking with Rahim Khan, but Baba does not pay much attention. Rahim Khan takes the story instead. When Rahim Khan leaves later than night, he gives Amir a note. In the note, he tells Amir he has a great talent. Amir goes to where Hassan sleeps and wakes him so he can read him the story. When Amir has finished, Hassan tells him the story is terrific. He has only one question: why didn’t the man make himself cry with onions? Amir is annoyed he didn’t think of it himself and has a nasty thought about Hassan being a Hazara, though he says nothing.
Summary: Chapter 5
One night, gunfire erupts in the street. Ali, Hassan, and Amir hide in the house until morning. Amir says that night was the beginning of the end of the Afghanistan they knew. It slipped away further in 1978 with the communist takeover, and it disappeared completely in 1979 when Russia invaded. The gunshots were part of a coup in which Daoud Khan, the king’s cousin, took over the government. Because the roads are closed that night, Baba doesn’t arrive home till dawn. That morning, Amir and Hassan hear talk of what happened on the radio, but they don’t understand what it means that Afghanistan has become a republic. They decide to go climb a tree.
While they’re walking, a rock hits Hassan. Amir and Hassan discover Assef and two other boys from the neighborhood. Assef is a notorious bully. He is one of the children who mocks Ali’s limp and calls him names. He also carries a set of brass knuckles. Assef calls Hassan a flat-nose and asks if they heard about the new republic. He says his father knows Daoud Khan, and that next time Daoud Khan is over for dinner he’s going to talk to him about Hitler. Hitler had the right idea about ethnic purity. Afghanistan is the land of Pashtuns and the Hazaras just pollute the country. Assef takes out his brass knuckles. He says Amir is part of the problem for being friends with a Hazara. For a moment, Amir thinks that Hassan is his servant, not his friend, but he quickly recognizes his thought is wrong. As Assef goes to hit Amir, Assef suddenly freezes because Hassan has his slingshot aimed at him, which allows Amir and Hassan to get away.
After Daoud Khan’s coup, life goes back to normal. The following winter, on Hassan’s birthday, Ali calls Hassan inside. Baba is waiting for him with a man named Dr. Kumar. Dr. Kumar is a plastic surgeon. He is Hassan’s present. Dr. Kumar explains that his job is to fix things on people, sometimes people’s faces. Hassan touches his lip in recognition. The surgery works, and though Hassan’s lip is raw and swollen while he recovers, he smiles all the while. The winter after, all that remains of his cleft lip is a faint scar.
The relationship between ordinary people, such as Hassan and Amir, and political events like Daoud Khan’s coup are a main focus of this section. At the beginning of this section, for instance, Amir says in his narration that Baba was born in 1933, the same year Zahir Shah became king. Why does Hosseini set up this parallel? Because the fates of Zahir Shah and Baba—as well as the fates of those dependent on Baba like Amir, Hassan, and Ali—are all bound together in a sense. When Daoud Khan, in a bloodless coup, takes over in Chapter 5, we know that the lives of our characters are about to change, even if we aren’t sure how. Amir’s and Hassan’s encounter with the racist boy Assef is a hint: the change is not going to be for the better. The rules that govern life in Kabul have been stirred up, and power balances have shifted. Bloodshed and violence may be in store. We witness this from the perspective of Amir, a young boy who does not know what it means that Afghanistan has become a republic. What he does know is this bully, Assef, suddenly has more power because of who his father knows. Amir feels uncertain and threatened, as many Afghans likely did.
Amir also talks about how prevalent American culture was in the country during this time. The movies Amir and Hassan love most are Westerns starring American actors, notably John Wayne and Charles Bronson. The movies are dubbed into Farsi, and the boys spend their money on Coca Cola, one of America’s biggest exports, as well as Afghan snacks like rosewater ice cream and pistachios. Baba even drives a black Ford Mustang, which Amir points out is the same car that the actor Steve McQueen drove in the American movie “Bullitt.” Though Assef, the bully, never speaks of these things specifically, he does talk about Afghanistan’s purity. It is not just ethnic purity that Assef and others like him are after, but also cultural purity. The aim is a pure Pashtun people and culture, and the prevalence of American culture in Afghanistan threatens this goal. As a result, the influence of American culture in Afghanistan will be wiped out almost entirely during the years that Amir calls the end of Afghanistan as they know it.
In fact, the overall theme of the section is change, in politics, in society, and in the personal lives of Amir and Hassan. In Chapter 4, for instance, Amir recognizes his gift for storytelling, first when he strays from the text he is reading to Hassan and then when he writes his own short story. Simply based on the fact that Amir is narrating the story we are reading, the reader can guess that writing this story is a significant moment in Amir’s life, and that Amir will use his talent for a purpose. Hassan also undergoes a change: his cleft lip is repaired. The deformity is something Hassan has known all his life. It is, in a way, a marker of who he is: a poor servant boy. The surgery removes that marker, and again it is as if a balance is upset. We can expect things to change between the boys, though it is unclear at this point how they will change.
The adult Amir, who is telling the story, recognizes several things about his younger self that he evidently didn’t realize while he was still a boy. He sees that he was selfish, for example, that he wanted to be the best at everything, and didn’t want Hassan to be as good. The young Amir genuinely felt that Hassan was beneath him because of Hassan’s poverty, ethnicity, religion, and deformity. Whenever Hassan does something that earns Baba’s love and respect, Amir lashes out at him in his thoughts. If Hassan is better at something than Amir, like solving riddles, Amir stops doing it. If Amir knows something Hassan doesn’t, such as vocabulary words, Amir teases him for his ignorance. In each case, Amir recognizes what he is doing just after the fact and feels guilty. But the reader is led to believe that whatever the event is that changes Amir’s life is something he was not able to take back, and so the guilt has haunted him into adulthood.
The reader also sees how the young Amir continues to struggle with his inability to please Baba. This inability makes Amir jealous of anyone else receiving Baba’s attention, which is why Amir becomes angry anytime Baba praises Hassan, and again when Baba pays for Hassan’s plastic surgery. Amir often finds passive-aggressive ways to take his frustration out on Hassan, such as mocking his ignorance or his inability to read. Reinforcing the theme of the love and tension between fathers and sons that recurs throughout the story is Amir’s and Hassan’s favorite story, “Rostam and Sohrab,” which is about a father that fatally stabs an opponent not knowing until too late that the opponent is his son. For Amir, the story represents his relationship with Baba. Complicating Amir’s feelings toward Baba further is his relationship with Rahim Khan. Rahim Khan read Amir’s story when Baba would not, giving Amir the attention and approval he craved, and Amir even wishes at that point that Rahim Khan were his father. The fact is, Amir desperately wants Baba’s approval, yet he has no idea how to get it.