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Kabul’s Splendid Son
By Justin Gerdes
There’s a story that Khaled Hosseini has told a few times at most. In 1987, during his senior year at Santa Clara, Hosseini began applying for medical school. A bright student with a major in biology under his belt, he was invited to interview at campuses across the country. For Hosseini, the opportunity was at once tantalizingly close and seemingly unattainable. The son of Afghan immigrants who had held careers as a diplomat and educator in Afghanistan but who made a living as blue-collar workers in the United States, Hosseini himself worked nearly full time to pay for school and help support the family, which included a grandmother and four siblings. He knew there was no money to pay for the flights and hotels to make the campus visits, and he couldn’t bring himself to ask his parents, who’d already sacrificed so much, for help.
Swallowing his pride, Hosseini approached William Eisinger, a biology professor, and explained his predicament. Eisinger told Hosseini not to worry, that he’d speak to the dean and administrators. A few days later, Eisinger pulled Hosseini aside after class and handed him a check from the University that more than covered his travel expenses. Nearly two decades later, Hosseini remains grateful, he says, for the “very private and very personal act of kindness”—one that he will never forget.
Hosseini shared the story with an overflow crowd at Louis B. Mayer Theatre in February 2007, three months before the publication of his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns. By that time, Hosseini was already the real-life actor in what must have seemed a dream. With the success of his first novel, The Kite Runner, which has sold more than 8 million copies in nearly three dozen countries, Hosseini rocketed from anonymity to worldwide fame. And he was back on campus as part of the inaugural season for the President’s Speaker Series.
Hosseini admits that he never imagined The Kite Runner would be published when he began writing it in March 2001. Six months and two-thirds into his first draft, though, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Overnight, Afghanistan, a country that many Americans could not (and still can’t) place on a map, was the lead story around the globe. Sensing that the world was ready for an Afghan story, Hosseini’s wife, Roya, encouraged him to submit the manuscript to publishers. Fearing he’d be thought opportunistic, and thinking that readers wouldn’t want to hear from him—he was, after all, an Afghan, from the country that hosted al-Qaida—Hosseini resisted. Roya, a debate major in college and lawyer, urged him on. Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and the War on Terror dominated the discussion about Afghanistan, she told him. Why not show people a different side of the country? Hosseini returned to the manuscript in December 2001. In June 2002, he sent the manuscript, the first Afghan novel written in English, to literary agent Elaine Koster, who sold it to Riverhead Books.
Released in June 2003 without much of a marketing push, the novel, despite its unknown author, soon became a popular book club selection and, eventually, a New York Times bestseller. Astonishment at his good fortune probably gave way to acceptance for Hosseini one day late in 2004. On a cross-country flight, Hosseini says that he watched as the passenger next to him reached into her bag and pulled out a copy of The Kite Runner. A moment that, for any writer, says, “I’ve arrived.” This summer, the book served as the “common reading” text for all incoming first-year students at Santa Clara.
The goodwill envoy
Hosseini was soon offered a platform to match his growing celebrity. In 2006, officials with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) presented Hosseini with a humanitarian award for his depiction of the plight of Afghan refugees in The Kite Runner, and they invited him to speak at World Refugee Day. Hosseini, however, wanted to do more. “I felt that I wanted to speak out, to take some action,” he told the Los Angeles Times in June 2007. Named a Goodwill Envoy by UNHCR, Hosseini traveled first to eastern Chad to visit with survivors of the violence in the Darfur region of Sudan, and later, in September 2007, he visited Afghanistan for the first time since the publication of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns.
Even so, in an interview with Renee Montagne on NPR’s “Morning Edition” just after his recent trip to Afghanistan, Hosseini described a country still in need of the world’s attention. In village after village, in the countryside outside Kabul, he saw families living in mud shelters or tents exposed to the environment. He met families who spent months huddled in earthen pits, exposed to freezing cold. He described a country where more than half the population doesn’t have access to potable water, and many work for less than $1 per day. Yet, remarkably, Hosseini said, despite a raging insurgency (and resurgent Taliban), increased opium production, joblessness, homelessness and abject poverty, Afghans, nearly 80 percent according to one survey, remain hopeful about their future. “We just cannot afford to give up on these people,” he said.
Justin Gerdes has written on politics, culture, and the environment for Motherjones.com, California magazine, and The Commonwealth magazine. He serves as editor for Flex Your Power.