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"Osama", film directed by Siddiq Barmak: 83 minutes, 2004
The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
Hardcover: 336 pages; Riverhead Books, 2003
West of Kabul, East of New York by Tamim Ansary
Paperback: 304 pages;Picador 2003
Reviewed by David M. Denny

The Kite RunnerKabul, summer 1970: I lie in bed on a hot afternoon, marveling at the voices of camels, donkeys, and the hawker's loud voice echoing through the streets of Jamal Menna, the neighborhood where I lived with the Azad family: "Shaftalu! (peaches), aloobalu! (cherries)." But that world is long gone, and the opening scenes of Barmak's "Osama" wash it away with bursts of water cannoning out of fire hoses directed not at black people in Alabama, but at veiled women and girls, protesting their hunger and prohibition from work under the Taliban regime. This Kabul is treeless and fruitless, except for one dead tree and a watermelon. The Kabul I knew comes to life again in Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, the first Afghan novel in English. His main character, only child Amir, is born in 1963 to a wealthy family with two full-time servants, one of whom, Hassan, is Amir's boon companion. Amir's scholarly mother died when Amir was born, and his distant, all-competent larger-than-life father seems to be the antithesis of Amir, the awkward bookworm.

But, as the Afghans say, zendagi migzara, life goes on, and for most people in the world, for whom the myth of progress is a mirage, this means that in significant, soul-grinding ways, it gets worse. But it can also mean redemption, as the saintly Raheem Khan puts it in a phone call to the 38-year-old Amir, who now lives in Fremont, California. "There is a way to be good again," Raheem insists from Pakistan, as death draws near. Shaken from the amnesia of ahistorical American life, Amir must decide whether to embark on a trek that gives him the dangerous opportunity to lose his life and gain his soul.

Nothing so hopeful arises from the chaos of "Osama," except perhaps for the moment when one young Afghan boy tears off the turban required by the Taliban and runs off alone, grief-stricken over the arrest of his friend "Osama," the girl who disguised herself as a boy in order to gain work and prevent her mother and grandmother from starving.

Journalism has its limitations; hell cannot simply be reported. The courageous images of "Osama" and the literary depth of Hosseini bring us the deeper, more chilling and unbearable truth about the horrors of public executions, "religious" fanaticism, the virtual enslavement of women, and the helplessness of the "little people" who cannot flee to Iran or Pakistan, let alone California. We see no hope for "Osama." I remember the joy of an Afghan wedding, and Hosseini describes one, but "Osama's" wedding is a blood-curdling initiation into sexual abuse and soul asphyxiation.

Tamim Ansary's memories of Afghanistan bear almost no resemblance to the wasteland delpicted in "Osama." Born in 1948 to an Afghan father and an American mother, Ansary left Kabul in 1964 to attend Colorado Rocky Mountain School. Since then, he has resided in the United States and written several children's books. His life in Kabul sounded very much like what I experienced there in 1970.

These are not just exotic tales of faraway. They contain universal wisdom. Perhaps the dark wisdom of "Osama" is impermanence: the Taliban no longer rule. But if redemption is a fiction, then impermanence is just a palliative drug to camouflage despair. "Osama" also manifests the hope-engendering dignity and courage that truth-telling demands.

Fragile hope suffuses Hosseini's work. Amir learns the terrible cost of enjoying what Raheem calls "the sin-with-impunity privileges" of Amir's socio-economic class. He learns to forgive, and wonders "if that was how forgiveness budded, not with the fanfare of epiphany, but with pain gathering its things, packing up, and slipping away unannounced in the middle of the night." The redemption portrayed in The Kite Runner may seem unsatisfying; it is sober and tentative, neither fairy tale nor Hollywood, and we may wonder whether, in the end, the fruit transcends the cost. That is a matter of faith. And for the rest of my life, The Kite Runner's recurring refrain, "for you, a thousand times over," will be the voice of a Hazara Christ calling to me and to all who, by the costly grace of God, may limp into the Kingdom.

Author's update
Since I wrote this review, Tamim Ansary has written Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes (416 pages; Public Affairs 2010).

As I write, news outlets report eighteen Afghan civilians killed near Kandahar, allegedly the result of a shooting rampage by an American soldier. This follows on Afghan rage over the American military's burning of Korans at Bagram air base near Kabul and the recent release of a video depicting United States Marines urinating on what appeared to be Taliban corpses. Please pray for healing, a thousand times over.

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