"If you say the word 'Afghanistan' to anybody now, the images that immediately come to mind are war, the Taliban, caves, Tora Bora, bin Laden, maybe opium. There was a time when Afghanistan was a very peaceful place," said Khaled Hosseini on Thursday night at the UB Alumni Arena, as part of UB's Distinguished Speaker Series.
Hosseini grew up in Kabul, Afghanistan, before moving to the United States at the age of 15, and his contrasting views of his homeland are the basis for his internationally best-selling books, "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns."
Hosseini was chosen for this year's Distinguished Speaker Series partly because "The Kite Runner" is this year's UB Reads book selection. "The Kite Runner" was distributed to 5,000 students and staff at the beginning of the school year and is currently being used in 80 undergraduate courses. The popularity of "The Kite Runner" was evident in both the audience's applause throughout the night and the student artwork inspired by the story on display in the arena's main lobby.
Hosseini's presentation differed greatly from the usual UB Distinguished Speaker presentation, as he abstained from giving a speech and instead answered in-depth questions posed by the moderator, a panel comprised of UB faculty and students, and audience members. Clips from the 2007 movie adaptation of "The Kite Runner" were also played throughout the night, often relating to the question or topic at hand.
Hosseini, with his humble, self-deprecating humor, always insisting he wasn't as smart as the audience thought he was, charmed the audience instantly when he began the discussion by saying the night's audience was, "by far the best turnout I've ever had."
In the spring of 1999, Hosseini, at that time a practicing medical doctor living in northern California, saw a news report about the Taliban banning the sport of kite-flying, a favorite pastime of his as a boy. This inspired Hosseini to write a short story, and it was not until 2001 that he saw its potential to become a novel.
"The Kite Runner" tells the story of Amir, who grows up in Afghanistan prior to the Soviet invasion and the Taliban, and returns years later fueled by guilt and remorse.
Hosseini spoke at length about the Afghanistan he knew as a child, much like the one Amir knew in "The Kite Runner."
"Before the invasion of the Soviets, I never heard a gunshot. You could go somewhere for two weeks and forget to lock your front door. Murder was unheard of," said Hosseini. "When you saw kids on the street, they couldn't, the way today's children in Kabul can, show you how to dismantle an AK-47 in under a minute."
Amir's story often serves as an allegory for the history of Afghanistan, one of oppression, prejudice, violence and hope, and one which readers are not always aware of.
"When I finished 'The Kite Runner,' I began to send it to agents to get it published ... Most of them never gave me an answer, but one of them sent me a letter saying, "you know, we really like your manuscript, but Afghanistan is passe now. We're on to Iraq, and we don't think people would be interested in this book.' That was in June 2002, less than a year after 9/1 1. I was stunned. I felt that was really ominous for the rebuilding of Afghanistan."
With all the controversy surrounding the Middle East, the subject was bound to come up during the discussion. Hosseini discussed the origins of the Taliban, at first a group of distraught men who after fighting the Soviets and living in Pakistan refugee camps, knew nothing but war and the militant form of Islam they were taught. The Taliban, Hosseini said, has since changed into something unrecognizable.
"I dismiss the entire notion of good and bad in such simple terms in my real life, which is part of the reason why I'm a little irked when our political leaders say 'good guys, bad guys,' " Hosseini said. "Everybody here tonight is capable of doing something wonderful and altruistic, and at the same time, everybody is capable of doing something really atrocious. I think the hero and villain can coexist within the same person."
With the election just days away, politics inevitably came up in the discussion. Recently, Hosseini wrote an opinion piece for the Washington Post on some of the dirty tactics used in the campaigns, specifically the insinuation that Sen. Barack Obama is a Muslim or terrorist, mostly based on his middle name, Hussein.
"You know, judge the man on the basis of his record, on the basis of his speeches, but not because of his middle name," said Hosseini, receiving explosive applause from the audience.
One of the more interesting questions of the night was submitted by an audience member, who asked what foreign policy advice Hosseini would give the next president. Hosseini insisted he was terribly underqualified, and then discussed what it would take to truly stabilize Afghanistan.
"We can't withdraw troops from Afghanistan. I think that would be catastrophic. I think we've already seen the outcome of that on Tuesday, September 11th, 2001 ... Where we have failed in Afghanistan is on the civic front. The war in Afghanistan will not be won by killing Taliban, but it will be won by showing the people of Afghanistan that they have something at stake with us being there."
Hosseini ended the night speaking to the students in the audience. "I've traveled a lot around the world and I've been in countries where people are governed by brutal regimes. Their lives, their faiths, are at the mercy of somebody else's whim. They don't have a voice in society. Fortunately, we have an amazing society where we do have a voice. That's my way of saying, that I implore you, that come November 4th, go out and vote."
Carlene Miller is a junior at Alden.