On Tuesday 3rd April over 120 alumni and friends gathered at the Hull New Theatre for a special alumni reception at the opening performance of Khaled Hosseini’s ‘The Kite Runner’. Prior to the performance we were joined by the University of Hull’s Dr Niaz Shah, Reader in Law and Chair of the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Taskforce, who shared some of his personal memories of kite running as a child in Pakistan, and who kindly shared some of the political and historical background to ‘The Kite Runner.’ Dr Shah is regularly instructed as an expert witness on Pakistan and Afghanistan, and his short talk was a perfect mixture of expert insight, reminiscences from childhood and funny annecdotes. His story about preparing the kite string by coating it in a mixture of glue and shards of broken glass to prepare it for battle in the sky was particularly memorable, as was the image he conjoured of children running through the houses of strangers to capture the defeated kites.
The audience gathered in the theatre to the sound of traditional Afghan music drummed on a ‘tabla’, a sense of mood and atmosphere growing. Over the course of the evening the audience is transported from Kabul, Afghanistan in 1963 to post 9/11 USA, and the twists, turns and secrets of the life of Amir, the narrator and main character, are laid out before us. We are presented with the story and tribulations of modern Afghanistan, first a monarchy, then a republic, then a country occupied by the Soviet army before it is ‘liberated’ by the Taliban forces. The epic sweep of the tale, though, is anchored in a single, crucial event in the childhood of Amir, the tragedy of which he will never be freed from.
This is the power that the story holds: Amir makes a terrible decision which causes great harm to his friend and servant Hassan, and yet his decision comes from the weaknesses, insecurities and fears of childhood. In Amir’s shoes, anyone might have made the same choice, but the tragedy is that in the backdrop of Afghanistan’s political upheaval, the consequences of Amir’s decision are far more severe than they would have been in any other context.
Amir’s friendship with Hassan is unequal, not because of their love for each other, but because of the social and religious divisions that the friendship of two boys, no matter how strong, cannot eradicate. In addition, his jealous struggle for the love, attention and approval of his father, the powerful patriarch Baba, is not an uncommon trope in coming of age stories, but in this one it adds to the sense of a character whose life, decisions and story is subject to conditions that are not in his control.
The most significant of those elements outside of Amir’s control is the character of Assef, the sociopath whose unbelievable cruelty sets everything in motion. Unperturbed by guilt, doubt or empathy, Assef is Amir’s inverse reflection. No matter the context or the political development, Assef thrives: at first because he is too young for his sadism to go noticed, then because there is not the infrastructure to deal with him, and finally because sadism and authoritarianism are rewarded with power by the Taliban.
‘The Kite Runner’ is a challenging, harrowing story, and even though there is a glimmer of hope at the end, it is not enough to chase away the uncomfortable questions the story poses. ‘There is a way to be good again’, the play’s tagline reads, quoting the words of Rahim Khan. The doubt that haunts us, after watching this play, is whether or not there is a way to properly undo a wrong.