The Kite Runner

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Dispelling Stereotypes of the Middle East in The Kite Runner


Synopsis / Description: The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini, is a story about the past, and rectifying the mistakes of the past. The protagonist, Amir, grows up in Kabul, Afghanistan, before the Russian invasion of the land. As children, Amir and Hassan play with slingshots and kites, tell stories, make errands to the market. They are not unlike two boys playing in any part of the world. Students will hopefully notice that human nature is the same across borders of time and place. However, they should also notice and appreciate the differences in the customs, beliefs, and habits of Afghanis. In our current political situation, it's extremely important for students to humanize the people of Afghanistan, and see that people are all people; we all make mistakes, and we are not so different after all.

Challenenge #1: Dispelling myths about Muslims, the Taliban, and the people of Afghanistan
After September 11, 2001, the American peoples' anger and lack of knowledge about Islam and the Middle East literally exploded and destroyed a nation. Our television screens were filled with Middle Eastern terrorist faces, men with turbans, suicide missions in the name of Allah. Afghanistan was portrayed as a monster threatening the American way of life, and our president used our fear to wage a war.

Although it is fiction, this book can and will change attitudes about people living in the Middle East and in America. The characters are incredibly likeable. They eat pomegranates instead of apples, allude to the Farsi language, play kites and soccer instead of baseball, but their humanity is recognizable. The first half of the novel plays out the complex relationship between a boy and his father. The boy, Amir, senses his father's disappointment that he is not like him, and will do anything to achieve his father's love and pride. Eventually Amir and his father travel to the United States, and Amir's father works hard to earn his way in California and send his son to school. The reader feels for these two men and begins to understand the plight of people who are not born U.S. citizens and have to sacrifice their way of life and their pride to make it. Again, the book is fiction, and it is important for students to know that they cannot base their entire understanding of Middle Eastern culture on this one novel. However, the novel does help to defeat the terrorist / religious fanatic stereotype that many students hold as a result of our media's portrayal of the country and its people.

How to recognize stereotypes and mis-information: pre-reading activities
Students may not even recognize their own stereotypes (good or bad) about people of Afghanistan, nor will they likely recognize misinformation / lack of information about Afghanistan's people and history. A prereading survey might be a good way to start teaching The Kite Runner. Students can answer strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree to a series of questions. To turn a survey into a discussion, try a 4 corners approach. Each corner of the room has a designated response (strongly agree, agree, disagree, or strongly disagree). After students take the survey, ask them to move to the place in the room that reflects their response. Then, ask students in each of the 4 corners to explain their reasoning.

Tolerance.org has a series of hidden bias tests that are interesting to take. Students need to register on the site using an email address (names and addresses are not required). Tolerance.org also includes pages for teachers, parents, teens, and children. The teacher's page has a lot of useful resources.

Providing students with information about the culture and people they will be reading about is another good start. A KWL (know, want to know, learned) activity is something I often use before beginning a novel. I ask students to fold a sheet of paper into three columns. In one column, students write everything they know (or think they know) about Afghanistan. In the next column, students write things they would like to know or things they would like to clarify. At this point, you may want to stop and share what students have written in the first two columns. If computers are available, I usually ask students to use the Internet to find answers to their "want to know" curiosities. Then they can share interesting points with the class. The third column could also be completed during the reading. The following websites can all provide some background information on Afghanistan. These sites should be useful for prereading or during the reading of the novel.

A research guide for the Kite Runner, published by the Syracuse University Library, contains links to information about the history of Afghanistan, women in Afghanistan, art and culture, the tradition of kites and kiterunners, discrimination and ethnic relations, language, etc.

Afghanistan online is a privately owned site dedicated to providing information about Afghanistan's economy, history, languages, people, women, geography, etc. The general information page is a good source of some brief background information for students. The site also includes some photos taken in 2007 of Afghan people and the city of Kabul.

The timeline published by info-please also provides some good background information beginning with the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1979 and detailing the Taliban's role in the history of Afghanistan, as well as the war with the United States.


Challenges #2: Addressing rape, corporal punishment, and suicide with high school students
One of the main characters in The Kite Runner is raped at the age of 12 by a group of boys his own age, yet of a higher socio-economic status. Amir witnesses this violent act, and it changes his life and the lives of those around him forever. Sexual child abuse, along with corporal punishment, is also present later in the novel when Amir returns to his home country and finds it changed under the Taliban fundamentalist laws. The author describes the stoning of two adulterers as well as the violent scuffle with a member of the Taliban that Amir miraculously survives. A sexually abused child also attempts suicide using a razor blade in a bathtub. These scenes of indecencies and violations of respect for humanity should be addressed within the classroom.

Literature gives us a chance to present violence in a way that encourages student sensitivity. Part of our job as educators is to be an example for students in our own reactions to violence, cruelty, racism, etc. Another part of our job is to help students express their own feelings toward violence in their world. My colleague Jeff Patterson and I both feel that we would be sending students the wrong message by not addressing scenes of disturbing violence. If we ignore them, assuming students will deal with them on their own, or assuming that students are accustomed to it, we're normalizing the presence of violence. Instead, we need to send the message that violence is both upsetting and unacceptable.

One way to help students deal with descriptions of violence and cruelty is to warn them in advance to help students mentally prepare to read text that may affect their emotions. This, again, sends the message that we should, in fact, be disturbed by violence against a human life. Taking the time to write after reading is also a good idea. Writing forces students to purge their emotions on the paper, and also prepares them to share and discuss how cruelty and violence affects them. When students care about the individual or characters who experience violence, reading texts with violent portrayals can be sensitizing rather than dehumanizing. Writing and discussion can help students who are feeling traumatized by what they've seen / read deal with their feelings, and it shows other students that sensitivity is important.

Additional Resources:

Khaled Hosseini's official websiteincludes biographical information about the author and information about his new book, A Thousand Splendid Suns.

by Lindsay Steenbergen