Quiet Goodwill In a Homeland The Writer Knows Too Well

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 20, 2009

KABUL -- A convoy of big white Land Cruisers roared into a dusty lane on the outskirts of Kabul last weekend. Chickens scattered, children gawked. A slight man in jeans stepped out, trailed by a film crew and several policemen with rifles. After hurried consultations, elders were produced and the visitor was ushered into a mud hut.

"Man namaindai shobe audat mohajirin astam," he said, politely but vaguely, in perfect Afghan Dari. "I am a representative from office of refugee assistance."

The elders did not know his name, but they knew an opportunity when they saw it, and they posed obligingly for the cameras as they poured out litanies of fear, frustration and despair.

They were mostly two-time refugees, Afghans who had returned after years of Soviet occupation and civil war only to find their villages ravaged by a new conflict involving Taliban insurgents, foreign troops and predatory ethnic militia bosses. Once more they had left their crops and flocks, this time fleeing to an impoverished capital that offered neither land nor work.

The elders complained to the visitor that American and NATO forces had barged into their homes, insulted their women, even bombed their villages. Yet they also begged him not to let the foreign troops leave. Their worst fear, they said, was that the law would collapse and their country would once more erupt into terrible ethnic conflict.

"Vale, vale, fomidam," the visitor said over and over, frowning sympathetically. "I understand. I understand."

All last weekend, he listened to families living in tents and huts and abandoned schools who expressed similar fears -- not of a foreign enemy, but of the bad blood and stubborn tribal enmities that still divide this multiethnic Muslim nation and could easily tear it apart.

What Khaled Hosseini could not tell the refugees was that he really did understand. He could not tell them that he had written a book called "The Kite Runner" about the historic ethnic tensions in Afghanistan, and had been excoriated for it by some as a sensationalistic slanderer of his native land. He could not tell them that the movie version of his book had been banned by the Kabul government last year as too sensitive to show to Afghan audiences, because it was too close to the truth.

Hosseini, a longtime California resident and best-selling author in the West, was here as the goodwill ambassador to Afghanistan from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. His mission was to raise awareness of the plight of Afghans among donors in Europe and the United States, to many of whom his name is a household word.

But precisely because of that high profile, Hosseini's U.N. hosts and handlers felt he was so vulnerable to attack here that his visit had to be virtually incognito. Each of his stops was unannounced, and he was never introduced by name. All trips outside the capital were nixed, and the Afghan news media was not notified of his visit. There were no literary gatherings, no receptions, no public events. It was not only the Taliban the U.N. group feared, it was public opinion.

If the goodwill envoy chafed at being kept under wraps, if the homecoming novelist winced at the sad irony of his position, Hosseini did not admit it. Instead, he played his anonymous assigned role with obliging graciousness, perhaps even a little relieved to be away from the international whirlwind.

"I have not come here as a writer from the West. I have come here to listen to the stories of voiceless people and to make sure they are not forgotten in the greater narrative of Afghanistan today, the narrative of drugs and elections and insurgency," Hosseini, 44, said during a break in the high-walled compound of the U.N. refugee agency here.

He was not especially eager to talk about "The Kite Runner" or the storm of controversy it aroused among Afghans here and abroad, with its dark theme of ethnic prejudice and its searing, pivotal scene of a boy from the subservient ethnic Hazara minority being raped in a Kabul alley by a group of ethnically Pashtun youths. "My book came out six years ago, and I have been talking about it ad nauseam ever since," Hosseini said a bit wearily. "I have moved beyond that, and I am wearing a different hat now that I hope can be meaningful. I am here to parlay a message to people outside, who read my work and who may want to help. I am not here to preach to the Afghans, and if they think I am an anonymous U.N. worker, that's fine with me."

And yet it seems clear that Hosseini has still not fully come to terms with his Afghan identity. He has lived abroad since he was 11, and he readily acknowledges that he leads a "charmed life" in a very different universe. He keeps coming back, keeps wanting to connect. But he has few friends here, and he compares himself to a character in "The Kite Runner" who says, "I feel like a tourist in my own country."

During his weekend tour, Hosseini grew increasingly depressed by the anguished stories he heard, the squalid conditions he encountered and the knowledge that the people pouring out their woes hoped that somehow, this stranger who had appeared with the Land Cruisers and the video crew could save them.

In one mud hut, a jobless returnee said he wished he could take his family back to Pakistan, but that it too was now overrun with insurgent violence. "We are trapped between two fires," he said helplessly. In a dusty ally, an elderly man told Hosseini that if the NATO forces left, he would have no choice but to pick up his gun and go back to war. In a tent colony, a nomad leader said the displaced families there would not survive the winter.

"He told me, 'If you do not help us and we die, our blood will be on your hands,' " Hosseini said grimly.

He was also taken aback by the marked deterioration in security since his last visit for the U.N. in 2007. At the time, he was able to travel by road to several other cities and stroll in refurbished shrines and parks. Today, with suicide bombers lurking, Kabul has become a maze of roadblocks and blast walls, and sightseeing would be an unthinkable risk for a foreign VIP -- even an émigré who speaks like a native.

The hardest part, though, is that Hosseini -- whose novels have humanized Afghanistan's problems to millions of readers abroad, and have tried to address the historical ethnic hatreds now bubbling up during a tense and fraud-plagued presidential election -- may not be safe among his own countrymen.

Even though DVDs of "The Kite Runner" film sell briskly at a few upscale city markets, the anger that swept through the global Afghan grapevine after its release in 2007 was so fierce that its child actors had to leave the country. If enough Afghans knew the author were in the capital, he could easily be torn apart by a mob.

"The purpose of a novel is precisely to talk about things that people don't want to talk about, to create a debate rather than to sweep unpleasant truths under a rug," Hosseini said. "I wish the Afghanistan of today were an open society where I could walk the streets and talk unhampered. I hope that day will come, but unfortunately it is not yet a reality."

Instead, the organizers of his visit manufactured a secure, controlled substitute for a public event: an invitation-only kite-flying contest on a hill overlooking the capital. U.N. workers handed out blue kites decorated with peace doves, and young boys whooped with glee as they ran them aloft. None knew the identity of the slim man in a U.N.-logo shirt who stood there, talking to a few foreign journalists with their video cameras aimed at the iconic blue objects swooping behind him.

"Khaled, could we have one more shot of you looking up at the kites?" a cameraman asked. Hosseini smiled, let a paper kite fly upward from his hands, and looked up dutifully as it trailed away into space.

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