In 2003, Khaled Hosseini's “The Kite Runner” came out of nowhere as a debut novel and quickly shot to the top of best-seller lists around the globe, where it remained for 130 weeks. Success came almost entirely through word of mouth. 5.5 million paperback copies have been published. It is considered "the darling of the book clubs." Now Hollywood will see if the movie will draw fans of the book to see the film. Here's an excerpt:
Here is what I do on the ﬁrst day of snowfall every year: I step out of the house early in the morning, still in my pajamas, hugging my arms against the chill. I ﬁnd the driveway, my father’s car, the walls, the trees, the rooftops, and the hills buried under a foot of snow. I smile. The sky is seamless and blue, the snow so white my eyes burn. I shovel a handful of the fresh snow into my mouth, listen to the mufﬂed stillness broken only by the cawing of crows. I walk down the front steps, barefoot, and call for Hassan to come out and see.
Winter was every kid’s favorite season in Kabul, at least those whose fathers could afford to buy a good iron stove. The reason was simple: They shut down school for the icy season. Winter to me was the end of long division and naming the capital of Bulgaria, and the start of three months of playing cards by the stove with Hassan, free Russian movies on Tuesday mornings at Cinema Park, sweet turnip qurma over rice for lunch after a morning of building snowmen.
And kites, of course. Flying kites. And running them.
For a few unfortunate kids, winter did not spell the end of the school year. There were the so-called voluntary winter courses. No kid I knew ever volunteered to go to these classes; parents, of course, did the volunteering for them.
Fortunately for me, Baba was not one of them. I remember one kid, Ahmad, who lived across the street from us. His father was some kind of doctor, I think. Ahmad had epilepsy and always wore a wool vest and thick black-rimmed glasses—he was one of Assef’s regular victims. Every morning, I watched from my bedroom window as their Hazara servant shoveled snow from the driveway, cleared the way for the black Opel. I made a point of watching Ahmad and his father get into the car, Ahmad in his wool vest and winter coat, his schoolbag ﬁlled with books and pencils. I waited until they pulled away, turned the corner, then I slipped back into bed in my ﬂannel pajamas. I pulled the blanket to my chin and watched the snowcapped hills in the north through the window. Watched them until I drifted back to sleep.
I loved wintertime in Kabul. I loved it for the soft pattering of snow against my window at night, for the way fresh snow crunched under my black rubber boots, for the warmth of the cast-iron stove as the wind screeched through the yards, the streets. But mostly because, as the trees froze and ice sheathed the roads, the chill between Baba and me thawed a little. And the reason for that was the kites. Baba and I lived in the same house, but in different spheres of existence. Kites were the one paper-thin slice of intersection between those spheres.
Every winter, districts in Kabul held a kite-ﬁghting tournament. And if you were a boy living in Kabul, the day of the tournament was undeniably the highlight of the cold season. I never slept the night before the tournament. I’d roll from side to side, make shadow animals on the wall, even sit on the balcony in the dark, a blanket wrapped around me. I felt like a soldier trying to sleep in the trenches the night before a major battle. And that wasn’t so far off. In Kabul, ﬁghting kites was a little like going to war.
As with any war, you had to ready yourself for battle. For a while, Hassan and I used to build our own kites. We saved our weekly allowances in the fall, dropped the money in a little porcelain horse Baba had brought one time from Herat. When the winds of winter began to blow and snow fell in chunks, we undid the snap under the horse’s belly. We went to the bazaar and bought bamboo, glue, string, and paper. We spent hours every day shaving bamboo for the center and cross spars, cutting the thin tissue paper which made for easy dipping and recovery. And then, of course, we had to make our own string, or tar. If the kite was the gun, then tar, the glass-coated cutting line, was the bullet in the chamber. We’d go out in the yard and feed up to ﬁve hundred feet of string through a mixture of ground glass and glue. We’d then hang the line between the trees, leave it to dry. The next day, we’d wind the battle-ready line around a wooden spool. By the time the snow melted and the rains of spring swept in, every boy iin Kabul bore telltale horizontal gashes on his ﬁngers from a whole winter of ﬁghting kites. I remember how my classmates and I used to huddle, compare our battle scars on the ﬁrst day of school. The cuts stung and didn’t heal for a couple of weeks, but I didn’t mind. They were reminders of a beloved season that had once again passed too quickly. Then the class captain would blow his whistle and we’d march in a single ﬁle to our classrooms, longing for winter already, greeted instead by the specter of yet another long school year.
But it quickly became apparent that Hassan and I were better kite ﬁghters than kite makers. Some ﬂaw or other in our design always spelled its doom. So Baba started taking us to Saifo’s to buy our kites. Saifo was a nearly blind old man who was a moochi by profession—a shoe repairman. But he was also the city’s most famous kite maker, working out of a tiny hovel on Jadeh Maywand, the crowded street south of the muddy banks of the Kabul River. I remember you had to crouch to enter the prison cell–sized store, and then had to lift a trapdoor to creep down a set of wooden steps to the dank basement where Saifo stored his coveted kites. Baba would buy us each three identical kites and spools of glass string. If I changed my mind and asked for a bigger and fancier kite, Baba would buy it for me—but then he’d buy it for Hassan too. Sometimes I wished he wouldn’t do that. Wished he’d let me be the favorite.
The kite-ﬁghting tournament was an old winter tradition in Afghanistan. It started early in the morning on the day of the contest and didn’t end until only the winning kite ﬂew in the sky—I remember one year the tournament outlasted daylight. People gathered on sidewalks and roofs to cheer for their kids. The streets ﬁlled with kite ﬁghters, jerking and tugging on their lines, squinting up to the sky, trying to gain position to cut the opponent’s line. Every kite ﬁghter had an assistant—in my case, Hassan—who held the spool and fed the line.
One time, a bratty Hindi kid whose family had recently moved into the neighborhood told us that in his hometown, kite ﬁghting had strict rules and regulations. “You have to play in a boxed area and you have to stand at a right angle to the wind,” he said proudly. “And you can’t use aluminum to make your glass string.”
Hassan and I looked at each other. Cracked up. The Hindi kid would soon learn what the British learned earlier in the century, and what the Russians would eventually learn by the late 1980s: that Afghans are an independent people. Afghans cherish custom but abhor rules. And so it was with kite ﬁghting. The rules were simple: No rules. Fly your kite. Cut the opponents. Good luck.
Except that wasn’t all. The real fun began when a kite was cut. That was where the kite runners came in, those kids who chased the windblown kite drifting through the neighborhoods until it came spiraling down in a ﬁeld, dropping in someone’s yard, on a tree, or a rooftop. The chase got pretty ﬁerce; hordes of kite runners swarmed the streets, shoved past each other like those people from Spain I’d read about once, the ones who ran from the bulls. One year a neighborhood kid climbed a pine tree for a kite. A branch snapped under his weight and he fell thirty feet. Broke his back and never walked again. But he fell with the kite still in his hands. And when a kite runner had his hands on a kite, no one could take it from him. That wasn’t a rule. That was custom.
For kite runners, the most coveted prize was the last fallen kite of a winter tournament. It was a trophy of honor, something to be displayed on a mantle for guests to admire. When the sky cleared of kites and only the ﬁnal two remained, every kite runner readied himself for the chance to land this prize. He positioned himself at a spot that he thought would give him a head start. Tense muscles readied themselves to uncoil. Necks craned. Eyes crinkled. Fights broke out. And when the last kite was cut, all hell broke loose.
Over the years, I had seen a lot of guys run kites. But Hassan was by far the greatest kite runner I’d ever seen. It was downright eerie the way he always got to the spot the kite would land before the kite did, as if he had some sort of inner compass.
I remember one overcast winter day, Hassan and I were running a kite. I was chasing him through neighborhoods, hopping gutters, weaving through narrow streets. I was a year older than him, but Hassan ran faster than I did, and I was falling behind.
“Hassan! Wait!” I yelled, my breathing hot and ragged.
He whirled around, motioned with his hand. “This way!” he called before dashing around another corner. I looked up, saw that the direction we were running was opposite to the one the kite was drifting.
“We’re losing it! We’re going the wrong way!” I cried out.
“Trust me!” I heard him call up ahead. I reached the corner and saw Hassan bolting along, his head down, not even looking at the sky, sweat soaking through the back of his shirt. I tripped over a rock and fell—I wasn’t just slower than Hassan but clumsier too; I’d always envied his natural athleticism. When I staggered to my feet, I caught a glimpse of Hassan disappearing around another street corner. I hobbled after him, spikes of pain battering my scraped knees.
I saw we had ended up on a rutted dirt road near Isteqlal Middle School. There was a ﬁeld on one side where lettuce grew in the summer, and a row of sour cherry trees on the other. I found Hassan sitting cross-legged at the foot of one of the trees, eating from a ﬁstful of dried mulberries.
“What are we doing here?” I panted, my stomach roiling with nausea.
He smiled. “Sit with me, Amir agha.”
I dropped next to him, lay on a thin patch of snow, wheezing. “You’re wasting our time. It was going the other way, didn’t you see?”
Hassan popped a mulberry in his mouth. “It’s coming,” he said. I could hardly breathe and he didn’t even sound tired.
“How do you know?” I said.
“How can you know?”
He turned to me. A few sweat beads rolled from his bald scalp. “Would I ever lie to you, Amir agha?”
Suddenly I decided to toy with him a little. “I don’t know. Would you?”
“I’d sooner eat dirt,” he said with a look of indignation.
“Really? You’d do that?”
He threw me a puzzled look. “Do what?”
“Eat dirt if I told you to,” I said. I knew I was being cruel, like when I’d taunt him if he didn’t know some big word. But there was something fascinating—albeit in a sick way—about teasing Hassan. Kind of like when we used to play insect torture. Except now, he was the ant and I was holding the magnifying glass.
His eyes searched my face for a long time. We sat there, two boys under a sour cherry tree, suddenly looking, really looking, at each other. That’s when it happened again: Hassan’s face changed. Maybe not changed, not really, but suddenly I had the feeling I was looking at two faces, the one I knew, the one that was my ﬁrst memory, and another, a second face, this one lurking just beneath the surface. I’d seen it happen before—it always shook me up a little. It just appeared, this other face, for a fraction of a moment, long enough to leave me with the unsettling feeling that maybe I’d seen it someplace before. Then Hassan blinked and it was just him again. Just Hassan.
“If you asked, I would,” he ﬁnally said, looking right at me. I dropped my eyes. To this day, I ﬁnd it hard to gaze directly at people like Hassan, people who mean every word they say.
“But I wonder,” he added. “Would you ever ask me to do such a thing, Amir agha?” And, just like that, he had thrown at me his own little test. If I was going to toy with him and challenge his loyalty, then he’d toy with me, test my integrity.
I wished I hadn’t started this conversation. I forced a smile. “Don’t be stupid, Hassan. You know I wouldn’t.”
Hassan returned the smile. Except his didn’t look forced. “I know,” he said. And that’s the thing about people who mean everything they say. They think everyone else does too.
“Here it comes,” Hassan said, pointing to the sky. He rose to his feet and walked a few paces to his left. I looked up, saw the kite plummeting toward us. I heard footfalls, shouts, an approaching melee of kite runners. But they were wasting their time. Because Hassan stood with his arms wide open, smiling, waiting for the kite. And may God—if He exists, that is—strike me blind if the kite didn’t just drop into his outstretched arms.
In the winter of 1975, I saw Hassan run a kite for the last time.
Usually, each neighborhood held its own competition. But that year, the tournament was going to be held in my neighborhood, Wazir Akbar Khan, and several other districts—Karteh-Char, Karteh-Parwan, Mekro-Rayan, and Koteh-Sangi—had been invited. You could hardly go anywhere without hearing talk of the upcoming tournament. Word had it this was going to be the biggest tournament in twenty-ﬁve years.
One night that winter, with the big contest only four days away, Baba and I sat in his study in overstuffed leather chairs by the glow of the ﬁreplace. We were sipping tea, talking. Ali had served dinner earlier—potatoes and curried cauliﬂower over rice—and had retired for the night with Hassan. Baba was fattening his pipe and I was asking him to tell the story about the winter a pack of wolves had descended from the mountains in Herat and forced everyone to stay indoors for a week, when he lit a match and said, casually, “I think maybe you’ll win the tournament this year. What do you think?”
I didn’t know what to think. Or what to say. Was that what it would take? Had he just slipped me a key? I was a good kite ﬁghter. Actually, a very good one. A few times, I’d even come close to winning the winter tournament—once, I’d made it to the ﬁnal three. But coming close wasn’t the same as winning, was it? Baba hadn’t come close. He had won because winners won and everyone else just went home. Baba was used to winning, winning at everything he set his mind to. Didn’t he have a right to expect the same from his son? And just imagine. If I did win . . .
Baba smoked his pipe and talked. I pretended to listen. But I couldn’t listen, not really, because Baba’s casual little comment had planted a seed in my head: the resolution that I would win that winter’s tournament. I was going to win. There was no other viable option. I was going to win, and I was going to run that last kite. Then I’d bring it home and show it to Baba. Show him once and for all that his son was worthy. Then maybe my life as a ghost in this house would ﬁnally be over. I let myself dream: I imagined conversation and laughter over dinner instead of silence broken only by the clinking of silverware and the occasional grunt. I envisioned us taking a Friday drive in Baba’s car to Paghman, stopping on the way at Ghargha Lake for some fried trout and potatoes. We’d go to the zoo to see Marjan the lion, and maybe Baba wouldn’t yawn and steal looks at his wristwatch all the time. Maybe Baba would even read one of my stories. I’d write him a hundred if I thought he’d read one. Maybe he’d call me Amir jan like Rahim Khan did. And maybe, just maybe, I would ﬁnally be pardoned for killing my mother.
Baba was telling me about the time he’d cut fourteen kites on the same day. I smiled, nodded, laughed at all the right places, but I hardly heard a word he said. I had a mission now. And I wasn’t going to fail Baba. Not this time.
It snowed heavily the night before the tournament. Hassan and I sat under the kursi and played panjpar as wind-rattled tree branches tapped on the window. Earlier that day, I’d asked Ali to set up the kursi for us—which was basically an electric heater under a low table covered with a thick, quilted blanket. Around the table, he arranged mattresses and cushions, so as many as twenty people could sit and slip their legs under. Hassan and I used to spend entire snowy days snug under the kursi, playing chess, cards—mostly panjpar.
I killed Hassan’s ten of diamonds, played him two jacks and a six. Next door, in Baba’s study, Baba and Rahim Khan were discussing business with a couple of other men—one of them I recognized as Assef’s father. Through the wall, I could hear the scratchy sound of Radio Kabul News.
Hassan killed the six and picked up the jacks. On the radio, Daoud Khan was announcing something about foreign investments.
“He says someday we’ll have television in Kabul,” I said.
“Daoud Khan, you ass, the president.”
Hassan giggled. “I heard they already have it in Iran,” he said.
I sighed. “Those Iranians . . .” For a lot of Hazaras, Iran represented a sanctuary of sorts—I guess because, like Hazaras, most Iranians were Shi’a Muslims. But I remembered something my teacher had said that summer about Iranians, that they were grinning smooth talkers who patted you on the back with one hand and picked your pocket with the other. I told Baba about that and he said my teacher was one of those jealous Afghans, jealous because Iran was a rising power in Asia and most people around the world couldn’t even ﬁnd Afghanistan on a world map. “It hurts to say that,” he said, shrugging. “But better to get hurt by the truth than comforted with a lie.”
“I’ll buy you one someday,” I said.
Hassan’s face brightened. “A television? In truth?”
“Sure. And not the black-and-white kind either. We’ll probably be grown-ups by then, but I’ll get us two. One for you and one for me.”
“I’ll put it on my table, where I keep my drawings,” Hassan said.
His saying that made me kind of sad. Sad for who Hassan was, where he lived. For how he’d accepted the fact that he’d grow old in that mud shack in the yard, the way his father had. I drew the last card, played him a pair of queens and a ten.
Hassan picked up the queens. “You know, I think you’re going to make Agha sahib very proud tomorrow.”
“You think so?”
“Inshallah,” he said.
“Inshallah,” I echoed, though the “God willing” qualiﬁer didn’t sound as sincere coming from my lips. That was the thing with Hassan. He was so goddamn pure, you always felt like a phony around him.
I killed his king and played him my ﬁnal card, the ace of spades. He had to pick it up. I’d won, but as I shufﬂed for a new game, I had the distinct suspicion that Hassan had let me win.
“You know...I like where I live.” He was always doing that, reading my mind. “It’s my home.”
“Whatever,” I said. “Get ready to lose again.”
Excerpted from “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini. Copyright © 2007 Khaled Hosseini. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Group USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.