For many Americans, perceptions of other societies and cultures usually involve arrogance, ignorance and even, condescension. While our nation is a baby compared to many others around the world, we are socialized to believe that everything in and around America is superior to other "backward" cultures. Consumerism and military might trump the preservation of history and culture every time.
Accidentally, I happened to tune in C-Span 2 and catch author Khaled Hosseini, speaking about his book, The Kite Runner (Riverhead Books, 2003) and his life growing up and then leaving Afghanistan. Raised the oldest of five siblings by educated parents—his mother was a teacher of Farsi and History at a high school for girls and his father, a diplomat—Hosseini went to live in Paris at the age of 11, as his father was assigned to a diplomatic post in the French city.
Following a bloody communist coup and the invasion of his former homeland by the Soviets, Hosseini’s family settled in the U.S in 1980., finding a home in San Jose, California, where the young Hosseini grew up and has lived for the past 25 years.
I was transfixed, listening to Hosseini talk about his book, his life as a young Afghan male, and his family. He told about a country and his home city of Kabul, then a teeming, cosmopolitan environment, where he regularly read novels and other literature from the west, after it was translated into his native Farsi. Like any other young man fascinated by books and ideas, this Afghan young man fell in love with reading and his life was forever enriched by it.
Like most Americans, I know little or nothing about Hosseini’s native country. Afghanistan occupies a unique place in the world, geographically, historically and culturally, as it exists at the crossroads of the Asian continent. Historian Alfred Toynbee called the country, "the roundabout of the ancient world." It has been a place where the migrating peoples of Asia passed through, leaving behind a rich mosaic of the continent.
Its most recent history has been characterized by coups, and civil unrest. For much of the past 30 years, the country became a pawn of the Cold War, with a Soviet occupation and the U.S. covertly funding the Mujahideen opposition. Prior to that, however, it had been a place, not unlike much of the western world, with an educated and prosperous middle class Because of its prior history and simmering tribal rivalries that had been kept dormant for decades, the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 caused destabilization and warlordism. With the U.S. no longer interested in the country after the Soviet withdrawal, the country experienced a vacuum of leadership that made it ripe for the rise of the Taliban movement.
As I listened to Hosseini speak, I thought about the Kabul of his youth and the contrast of a bombed out and gutted city that I had witnessed via a CNN documentary on the Taliban, about a year ago. It made me think of another former cradle of civilization and culture that had been destroyed by political factions and imperialistic tendencies of the world’s last superpower—that being the nation of Iraq.
Both countries had experienced the loss of an educated, middle class culture and way of life, with the possibility that it will never to return. Hosseini, who speaks at least three languages, is an internist, as well as having written a best selling book, puts most arrogant Americans to shame with his intellectual attainment.
I found myself wondering what other civilizations we’ll have a hand in destroying in our quest for world domination. I also found my thoughts invaded by self-doubt about writing down my observations about Hosseini, his former homeland and the role that America plays in making the world a place that is becoming more homogenized by the day. There are certainly people who care about the destruction and loss of other societies and civilizations, but I’m concerned that we are in the minority and lack the power to counter the ideology of moral superiority that grows larger and seeks to devour the rest of our planet.