Afghanistan’s Ghosts

By Ian McFeat

Illustrator: ©2008 Paramount Vantage/Phil Bray

Khaled Hosseini’s novel, The Kite Runner, is almost certainly the most popular book about Afghanistan ever published in the United States. And increasingly it’s being adopted in high schools across the country. But The Kite Runner is not simply a bestselling novel “set” in Afghanistan. It’s about a region of the world at war. As an English teacher, I knew that I couldn’t teach The Kite Runner without first grounding students in a history of the social conflicts there that framed the novel.

The Kite Runner is a powerful personal narrative of a young boy growing up in Kabul, Afghanistan, and the lengths he takes to escape his guilt. The story hinges around a horrific episode in which the main character, Amir, watches silently as his best friend, Hassan, is raped. This wrenching incident haunts Amir throughout his life and touches on themes of privilege, power, inequality, guilt, forgiveness, redemption, and hope that I thought my students would find compelling. But I was concerned about the novel’s limited depiction of the social conflicts and wars that had gripped much of the country for decades — and about the Hollywood-type clichés that thread through the novel. For example, The Kite Runner offers a contrived and cartoonish plot twist with the former boy rapist, Assef, growing up to be a Big Bad Taliban thug — suggesting implicitly that the Taliban are simply evil, requiring no analysis about their social origins.

Such caricatures may offer comforting justification for today’s U.S. military involvement there, but they do a disservice to our students. I want my language arts curriculum to move us closer to the real world. I hope my students will recognize the importance of searching for the roots of social problems, and come to feel themselves connected to the lives of others across time and political boundaries, not beholden to Hollywood plot lines.

Of course, the history of Afghanistan is complex, and much more could and should be taught than I’m able to do in my 11th-grade Language Arts classes. Here, I describe two of the activities I used to provide my students some of the background knowledge I thought they would need while reading The Kite Runner. I first describe an adaptation of Sandra Childs’ activity where students write from photographs taken after the post-Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan. I also describe a tea party activity I taught prior to beginning the novel that introduced themes and characters from The Kite Runner — as well as themes and characters missing from the novel.

The First Day

On the first day of the unit I asked students to reflect in writing about this question I’d written on the board: “When you hear the country name, Afghanistan, what comes to mind?”

I gave students markers and asked them to write their responses on poster paper. Most were vague: “Afghanistan is far away,” “The women there are treated bad with masks,” “I think it’s near Africa or something,” and my favorite, “Afghanistan? Like with the war and stuff there?” I used this activity not to amuse myself — I also didn’t know much about Afghanistan before I decided to study it with my class — but to find out what students already knew. I anticipated that at least one student would mention the current war in Afghanistan, and so I decided on an activity to follow this pre-assessment.

In a Rethinking Schools interview with Portland teacher Sandra Childs (Vol. 17, No. 4) she suggested an idea to allow students, as she said, to “[get] inside the imagined lives of these people and… honor, acknowledge, and voice their suffering.” This was one of my goals in the unit: to make the lives of the people of Afghanistan real for my students so that they might feel compassion and understand the human cost of war. Taking Childs’ advice and her website suggestion, www.dqc.org/-ben/index3.htm, I reserved computer time for my English class in the library. Before I gave each student the URL, I told them that they would be seeing some photographs that were disturbing and showed some of the horrors of war. I let them know that the images were taken in the aftermath of the U.S. bombing campaign in Afghanistan following September 11, 2001. I asked students to choose one photo that touched them or that they found particularly powerful.

I waited and watched students’ reactions as they pulled up the war images onto their computers. Some, like Donete, turned away from the screen when the website came up. “I don’t want to see that, man,” he said. “McFeat, I know what you want me to get here. War is horrible.” Kourtney was shocked. “We did this?” she asked her classmate, Heidi, sitting next to her.

Students used most of our class time viewing the 63 pictures from the website. When students had selected their photographs, I told them that they were going to write interior monologues, the inner thoughts and feelings of the individuals in their picture — trying to imagine that they were the people in the photographs. Students worked on drafts of their interior monologues the next day in class, and we spent time revising and editing the following day. Once students had typed out their final copies, we gathered for a read-around. Kourtney wanted to read her piece first. She’d written hers as a poem:

The Earth Splits Open

Lying here quiet, tender in my arms
I touch your sweet face
So innocent
in slumber
a tear splashes as I cry in disbelief.
Loneliness envelops me
Darkness to the dusk.
Anguish wild, like horses on the run.

Why did this happen to you?
Why couldn’t it be me bitten by the snake of retaliation?
Why don’t you get a chance to live?

I am lost and confused,
a whirlwind of fear.
Do I really have to do this?

The earth splits open beneath me,
I have slipped through the crack.

How can a father ever bury his son?

Jessie read his piece with anger:

“Keep the faith, the redemption at the end is worth the suffering.” I laughed. Is any god worth all this suffering? Everywhere you look, buildings are blown to dust like a child kicking over a sandcastle. Countless bodies lie in the streets. The air is filled with cries of agony from people who lost loved ones. Those who were unfortunate enough to survive pray for strength to carry on and look towards the sky for answers. But I already know the answer to this so-called “justice.” I look to myself and nothing else for the strength to carry on.

Jessie wasn’t the only one in class angry about the chaos caused by the bombing campaigns. Others expressed similar sentiments. But I also wanted to hook students into the history of Afghanistan, to have them try on the personalities that began these conflicts years ago. While the pictures offered powerful glimpses into the lives of Afghans devastated by U.S. bombing, the teaching was limited. To truly understand the online photographs, students needed to explore the historical context that led to these situations. With this in mind, I wanted to alert students to characters in The Kite Runner before we read about them. Together with a Senior Civics teacher, Travis Davio, we planned an activity to bring the history of Afghanistan alive for our students. We created a tea party.

The Tea Party’s Political Ghosts

Sometimes referred to as a Scavenger Hunt, (see Linda Christensen’s Reading, Writing, and Rising Up) a “tea party” can be effective in bringing hidden histories to life. In the tea party, students receive character descriptions and then must attempt to become the characters and introduce themselves to other classmates as a means of building background knowledge before reading a novel, watching a film, or encountering a new unit or any body of difficult material. Travis and I had created roles for each character in the novel, both young and old, as well as characters not included in the text.

For example, The Kite Runner does not describe U.S. government interests in the region or corporate interests in the oil and gas reserves of the countries bordering Afghanistan. I wanted students to grapple with the destructive policies of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union and surrounding neighbors of Afghanistan that contributed to the country’s painful decline. Over 29 years of war created five and a half million refugees, half a million injured, and left a million for dead. About half of Afghanistan’s prewar population of 12 to 15 million were maimed, made homeless, or killed; more than half the villages were destroyed.

So how did this all take place?

In 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. And, in the 1980s, after the invasion, the U.S. systematically set out to destroy the Soviet-backed state of Afghanistan. I wanted to alert students to the crucial role the U.S. played in bringing terrorists and fundamentalists to power in Afghanistan — a process that began even before the Soviet invasion. These policies still reverberate today.

In the late 1970s, U.S. policy in the region was to bleed the Soviets through a proxy war — which dragged on until the Soviets withdrew in 1989. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. attention shifted away from the region. Back in Afghanistan, fundamentalists filled the void left in the wake of the cold war. With thick stockpiles of weapons and funding from both the U.S. and the Soviets, Afghan radicals fought over the political scraps left after the Soviet withdrawal. With brutal and devastating results, much of Afghanistan was reduced to rubble. During this devastation in the 1990s, the Western media and governments mostly ignored Afghan civilians.

To alert students to some of this history, Travis and I created what we called “ghost characters.” The idea was that the ghost characters would provide students information that the novel leaves out. For instance, the novel doesn’t explore the now well-documented U.S. funding and support for development of radical Islamic fundamentalist groups like the Taliban. Similarly, the novel offers historical background on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, but fails to discuss the U.S. maneuvering that induced the Soviets to invade. (Jimmy Carter’s National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, later bragged in an interview that, contrary to popular myth, the United States started providing weapons to the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan even before the Soviet invasion — a boast confirmed in former CIA director, now Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates’ memoir.) I hoped to have students begin to formulate historical questions that might cut into the dominant narrative of Afghanistan: that the bad Russians invaded and the good U.S. stopped them by supporting Afghan “freedom fighters” (and boycotting the 1980 Moscow Olympics). I hoped that the questions students raised about this history might spark them to read the novel more critically and create an openness to investigate this silenced history in more detail later in our unit.

The Tea Party

Instead of announcing the ghost characters’ presence at the tea party, Travis and I gave these roles to students on the sly, and had them help serve the tea, while working in character.

One of these behind-the-scenes characters was the Unocal Oil Executive:

John J. Maresca,
Vice President of International
Relations, Unocal

While you or your company aren’t mentioned in the novel, you are important to the story of Afghanistan. As an executive at Unocal (a powerful energy company), you work closely with U.S. officials. You testified before Congress in 1998 that the United States needed to change the government in Afghanistan so that a new leader might help you to put through an oil pipeline deal. The novel doesn’t mention you, but you exist behind the scenes, pulling strings so that your oil and energy concerns are heard.

We also introduced other characters responsible for plunging Afghanistan into war:

Hamid Karzai,
Unocal, President of Afghanistan

Your name is Hamid Karzai. You used to work for Unocal, the oil company that tried to search for a natural gas pipeline deal in Afghanistan. In 2002, you became President of Afghanistan with help from the Bush Administration. Under your watch, a new pipeline deal with Unocal was signed that brought positive change to your country. You see yourself as a renaissance man, someone with ties to Washington, D.C., and the U.S. government, that will ultimately help your country. While you were never mentioned in The Kite Runner, you still had an enormous impact on the history of Afghanistan.

We listed the known characters from the novel on the white board, but on students’ tea party handouts, we included a few questions to alert them to the “Ghosts” in the room:

Which characters in the room are NOT included in the novel? If you haven’t found one, ask around and try to discover who they are. What role does each of these characters play in Afghan history? Why do you think they weren’t included in this novel?

Jessica had her “Amir” card in hand when she met Hamid Karzai, played by Donete. “So, what do you have to do with this novel?” she asked.

Donete said flatly, “Nothing. They don’t have me in this book. But I am President of Afghanistan, and I used to work for Unocal.”

Jessica walked over to where I was serving tea. “I got one of the ghosts, McFeat,” she said while writing Karzai’s information down in her packet.

Peter found a ghost character of his own. “That Brazaki [Brzezinski] guy helped to start the whole wars and stuff between the U.S.S.R. and us. Go talk to Samantha, she’ll tell you.”

After students had their fill of tea and cookies, and after they’d mingled around, and introduced themselves to other characters, I had them return to their seats and fill out responses to questions that I had prepared and copied off into packets. I also gave them time to write down questions they now had about Afghan history after having done the tea party. I wanted students to revisit their assumptions about Afghanistan and begin overturning some of the stereotypes they may have carried into the unit. And I also wanted students to begin formulating ideas and questions of their own that would help our critical thinking about the sometimes hidden history of Afghanistan.

Of course, I didn’t expect students to digest all of this history during the tea party, but I hoped that student questions raised during this activity would help launch an inquiry in conjunction with reading The Kite Runner — an inquiry that would be grounded in students’ curiosity.

Questions

Student questions revealed some of this thinking. After we had shared their questions aloud, following the tea party, I read them over that night:

So why does this Brzezinski guy want the Soviets in Afghanistan so bad?

Is this Unocal deal why we have to pay so much for oil? It costs me like, 20 dollars for a half tank of gas. So how does this work?

What exactly was the war between the U.S. and Soviets?

Why were we in Afghanistan in the 70s and then later?

Why didn’t the U.S. just quit sending money?

These and other questions provided a baseline for students to begin our investigation of Afghan history while reading The Kite Runner. Yet the questions also revealed some holes in the tea party. Most revealed my students’ desire to search for the easier responses that seek individual culprits for these wars, rather than to search out broader social interests. As tea parties focus on individual historical narratives, this kind of activity inherently lends itself to narrower explanations for U.S. policy. Reviewing kids’ responses made me see that I needed to add pieces to this curriculum that would help students recognize the broader social and systemic factors that drive policy decisions that lie behind the conflicts in Afghanistan. For example, I needed to have activities that addressed the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the U.S. in Afghanistan. And I needed activities that explored the gap between rhetoric and reality of the post-9/11 bombing of Afghanistan.

And yet, the tea party worked well in other ways. The questions helped students recognize that there was more to Afghan history than they would encounter in The Kite Runner — lots more. Ultimately, pursuing the questions that students raised following the tea party allowed us to dig deeper into the themes The Kite Runner addresses, but also to reach beyond the novel. For instance, the student questions about the role of the Soviet Union and the U.S. in the Cold War was clearly a historical area with which students had not yet grappled. And this made it clear that we needed to teach about this conflict as we were reading The Kite Runner.

What Was Going On Here?

A powerful aspect of The Kite Runner is that it presents a human face for a region of the world that has far too often been labeled and misunderstood. The Kite Runner helps us to see Afghans as real people, with lives, interests, shame, guilt — human conditions that connect us all. With the tea party as background, when we got into the novel we were able to chart characters by political representations, analyzing the book not just in traditional literary terms, but also in broader political and historical terms. And we compared themes from the book with themes from our own society. For example, we looked closely at the relationship of Amir and his father, Baba, and compared and contrasted this relationship with the one President Bush has with the U.S. population. We pulled out quotes from Baba and compared and contrasted these with quotes from Bush’s speeches about Afghanistan. We also pulled out quotes from the book that touched on the history of Afghanistan and had students research and rewrite those sections with a more adequate depiction of the history that Afghan civilians struggled through.

As I indicated earlier, The Kite Runner falls into the dominant narrative about the region: good guy versus bad guy, us against them. And coupled with the media’s failure to question U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, the idea that evil must be expunged from the earth, the notion that conflict can be solved with gun power and burning shards from missiles and bombs, The Kite Runner can become a problematic book to teach.

Yet, despite its shortcomings, The Kite Runner can also open up avenues for valuable social and personal exploration with students. With a curriculum crafted with the politics of the region in mind, dedicated to investigating the motives behind the wars in Afghanistan, our students can move closer to thinking critically about U.S. foreign policy and the role that novels play in the consciousness of our nation.

Ian McFeat (imcfeat@msn.com) teaches Social Studies and Language Arts at Lincoln High School’s ABE academy in Tacoma, Wash.

He previously wrote “Washin’ Away” (Vol. 20, No. 2).