Monday, December 31, 2007

'The Kite Runner' Critiqued: New Orientalism Goes to the Big Screen

By: Matthew Thomas Miller

While The Kite Runner movie is now captivating audiences throughout the country—much as the book did four years ago—with its enthralling tale of “family, forgiveness, and friendship” and the promise that indeed “there is a way to be good again,” very little has been written critiquing this work and its prominent role in the New Orientalist narrative of the Islamic Middle East.

Iranian literature specialist Dr. Fatemeh Keshavarz (Washington University in St. Louis) has classified this book as one of the recent works that she argues constitute a "New Orientalist" narrative in her book Jasmine and Stars: Reading More than Lolita in Tehran. (Dr. Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University also has written about New Orientalism and expatriates who serve as “native informers” or “comprador intellectuals” in respect to the Middle East).

Keshavarz broadly characterizes the New Orientalist works thusly:

"Thematically, they stay focused on the public phobia [of Islam and the Islamic world]: blind faith and cruelty, political underdevelopment, and women's social and sexual repression. They provide a mix of fear and intrigue—the basis for a blank check for the use of force in the region and Western self-affirmation. Perhaps not all the authors intend to sound the trumpet of war. But the divided, black-and-white world they hold before the reader leaves little room for anything other than surrender to the inevitability of conflict between the West and the Middle East."

While The Kite Runner is perhaps less obvious in its demonization of the Muslim world and glorification of the Western world—what Keshavarz terms the "Islamization of Evil" and the "Westernization of Goodness"—than books like Reading Lolita in Tehran, these themes nevertheless clearly permeate the entire novel. While seemingly just a captivating story of Amir and his redemption through the heroic rescue of his childhood friend Hassan’s son, Sohrab, the entire plot is imbued with noxious stereotypes about Islam and the Islamic world. This story, read in isolation, may indeed just be inspiring and heart-warming, but the significance of its underlying message in the current geopolitical context cannot be ignored.

At the most superficial level, the characters and their accompanying traits serve to advance a very specific agenda: everything from the conspicuous secularity of the great hero, Amir’s father, Baba, to the pedophilic Taliban (i.e. Muslim) executioner and nemesis of Amir, Assef, clearly perpetuates the basic underlying theme: the West (and Western values) = ‘good,’ while Islam = ‘bad,’ or even, ‘evil.’ The inherent goodness of Baba and evil of Assef is repeatedly reified for the reader in some of the most dramatic and graphic scenes of the entire book. Baba valiantly lays his life on the line to protect the woman who is about to be raped, while Assef brutally rapes children and performs gruesome public executions in the local soccer stadium. Yet, perhaps the most telling attribute of these two characters is the particular national ideologies that they express affinity for: Baba loves America, while Assef is an admirer of Hitler.

The most pernicious element of this novel, however, is also the same aspect that American readers consistently have identified as the most heart-warming and inspiring: the story of the redemption of Amir thorough his harrowing and heroic rescue of Sohrab. In short, Amir, the successful western expatriate writer must leave his safe, idyllic existence in the U.S.; return to an Afghanistan that has been ravaged by the Russians (our Cold War enemy) and the Taliban (the representation of our new Islamic enemy); and rescue the innocent orphaned son of his childhood friend from the incarnation of evil itself, Assef. Amir’s descent into this Other World, a veritable ‘heart of darkness,’ appears to be the only hope for its victims’ salvation.

This adventurous and engrossing story neatly functions as an allegorized version of the colonial/neo-colonial/imperial imperative of “intervening” in “dark” countries in order to save the sub-human Others who would be otherwise simply lost in their own ignorance and brutality. These magnanimous interventions, of course, have nothing to do with economic or geopolitical concerns; they are purely self-sacrificial expressions of the superiority of the imperial peoples’ humanity and ideology. When considered in this frame, the profound guilt that Amir suffers from his inaction during the violation of his innocent friend Hassan seems to represent the collective guilt of all “good” western or western-oriented people who watched idly while the Islamic bullies—epitomized by Assef—violated Afghanistan and the innocent western-oriented people like Baba and Amir. Of course, the implication then is that we also must redeem ourselves by returning and “rescuing” the people there from the Assefs of Afghanistan—this is our “way to be good again,” in the words Khaled Hosseini’s character Rahim Khan. This new recapitulation of the old “white man’s [now, western] burden” narrative, when combined with the “Westernization of Goodness” and “Islamization of Evil” clearly present throughout the novel, provides a superb ideological framework upon which to justify our present occupation and future military interventions in Afghanistan.

It certainly does not take much imagination to expand this story and its message to the entire Islamic Middle East—especially when we combine this work’s portrayal of Afghanistan with the other New Orientalist works on the Islamic Middle East, such as Azar Nafisi’s popular Reading Lolita in Tehran, Asne Seierstad’s The Bookseller of Kabul, Geraldine Brooks’ Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, and even scholarly works like Bernard Lewis’ What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. If what these works say about Islam and Islamic countries is the whole truth, then surely the continued and expanding U.S. military presence in that region is a good thing, right?

For anyone who has been to, or studies the Middle East, it is obvious that these accounts are gross distortions of the full reality on the ground there. It is not wrong to identify and write about the flaws of a particular country, religion, or ideology, but it is wrong and dishonest when an author’s writings systematically dehumanizes and reduces an entire culture and religion to the actions of its extremists. Especially, when these are the same people and countries that our leaders tell us need to be attacked and occupied by our military.

Matthew Thomas Miller is a graduate student in Islamic and Near Eastern Studies at Washington University in St. Louis. He can be reached at

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Windows on Iran - NIE Special (with bonus info)

Dear All,

I hope you are well!

Monday's *NIE Report* focused the attention on Iran once more. This brief special window is an attempt to clarify a number of important and interesting issues:

*Did Iran have a clandestine nuclear weapons program?*

* You might be curious about the reactions to the report in Iran. While the mood among those close to the Iranian President is jubilant about the report, a wide range of Iranian commentators and politicians are apprehensive about the spin put on the NIE report _which implies the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapon's program until the year 2003_. According to these sources, the conversations among Iranian officials, which was intercepted by American intelligence, points to a lively debate about whether Iran should or should not go in the direction of creating such a weapon's program. Since, in that debate, those opposed to such a program got the upper hand, it was never created. The IAEA inspections support this view.

* The Iranian newspaper headlines also show that the opposition by many Iranians to the creation of a weapon's program was not a result of outside pressure. Since in 2003 such a pressure was not there. Rather, those opposed argued that the country did not need to spend its resources on such a dangerous and useless program. * A similar debate is going on here in the Iranian American community. The following short essay by *Daniel Pourkesali* is a fine example. The essay provides the actual content of the NIE Report, and interesting observations on it:

*It Makes Sense to Adjust Policy with Reality*

* President's Bush suggested today (Dec. 4), that Iran is still dangerous even though it does not have a weapon's program because it possesses *the knowledge to make one*. The President of National Iranian American Council *Trita Paris* wonders how is Iran supposed to eliminate this knowledge (if indeed it has it).
To read his article visit:

Have a great weekend,

Special Bonus Info!

Fatemeh mentioned last week that the American media had misinterpreted Ahmadinejad's statement about the American report. Here are the details of that (from her friend Daniel M Pourkesali):


First let me say that I much rather see Ahmadinejad keep his mouth shut because the west continues to use him to demonize Iran and Iranians by deliberate mistranslation of his words. On their English site <>BBC quotes him as saying:

*"If you want to start up a new game, the Iranian people will resist and will not step back one inch. If you want to negotiate with us as an enemy, the Iranian people will resist and will conquer you."*

But the actual speech as posted on their own BBCPersian <>site
is quiet different:

*"Aval elaam konid az cheh mozzeii mikhahid baa mellat-e Iran gotogoo konid; agar mikhahid az moze-e doshmani barkhord konid, mellat-e Iran dar moghabeleh shoma khahad istaad va shomaa raa nakaam khahad kard." *

Which translates to:

*"You must first announce the angle from which you want to talk to the Iranian people. If you approach us as enemy, then the Iranian people will stand up in resistance and make you fail" *

Note how his actual speech is meant as a response to an act of external aggression while BBC's English translation casts Iranians as the aggressors who do the "conquering" (or "ghalabeh" ), a word NOT used in his speech.