Arab Americans in Literature and the Media

1Hollywood has a long history of stereotyping the Arab. From The Cafe in Cairo to The Siege, this Arab—invariably male—figures as the religious fundamentalist who sees in terrorism the only way to spread Islam over the entire globe. Having said this, this is not to argue either that Hollywood is ideologically corrupt, or that Arab (Americans) are the only ethnic group stereotyped in Hollywood’s cultural imagination. To refute the prior argument first, Bollywood, India’s film industry which has recently begun to outstrip Hollywood’s power of global dissemination through the sheer number of films produced in Bombay each year, is famous for stereotyping Western characters as invariably immoral and economically and politically corrupt. Bollywood’s blockbusters have thus recently taken to casting Italian women for roles no Indian actress could be prevailed upon to accept. If Hollywood has been criticized for its Orientalism, Bollywood’s Occidentalism is certainly no different from such cultural stereotyping of an entire part of the globe. Stereotyping, and the correlation between ethnicity and stereotyping thus seems to be a feature in the industry of mass entertainment, and Hollywood is certainly no exception to that. Yet, as Palestinian American critic Edward Said has so famously asked in Culture and Imperialism, how do we resist the stereotype?

2In the 1994 Hollywood production True Lies, Arab as well as Arab American culture is reduced to religious fundamentalism, and a religious fundamentalism which is curiously dismissive of cultural heritage and pride in one’s own cultural and artistic history. The story revolves around an Arab terrorist by the name of Salim abu-Aziz, who, with the help of his female accomplice, smuggles weapons of mass destruction to the U.S., hidden—and this is significant for my paper—inside ancient Egyptian statues. The Arab terrorist is thus said to have no interest in his own history, a history which is appreciated only in the West, hence the possibility of importing cultural historical treasures to be bought by wealthy American clients. Terrorism in this film appears as the be-all and end-all of the Arab world, a world entirely unconcerned with preserving its own tradition. In True Lies, Aziz’s female partner in crime shows her American opponent her collection of ancient art:

Incredible, aren’t they? I call them the four horsemen. They’re warrior figures from the Persian empire of Darius I. Around 500 B.C. They’re absolutely priceless. [looking at Aziz] Pity! [at his command, the statues are being busted to reveal the missiles hidden within them.]

In this scene, then, what Ella Shohat has called Hollywood’s “mummy complex” converges with the stereotype of the Arab terrorist. Hollywood is fascinated with ancient Middle Eastern heritage. Ironically, Hollywood films thus set out to preserve what, within the filmic narratives, Arabs themselves seem entirely unconcerned with. According to Ella Shohat,

Evoking André Bazin’s view of cinema as possessing a “mummy complex,” the cinematic capturing of the unknown has created a locus for popular anthropologizing and archeologizing. Often the spectator, identified with the gaze of theWest, . . . comes to master, in a remarkably telescoped period of time, the codes of a foreign culture shown as simple, unself-conscious, and susceptible to facile apprehension. The films thus reproduce the colonialist mechanism by which the orient, rendered as devoid of any active historical or narrative role, becomes, as Edward Said suggests, the object of study and spectacle. (148)

In True Lies, then, the mummy complex returns in the form of ancient Persian statues: Hollywood’s white gaze becomes the tool of Western archaeology. Where the white Western gaze can appreciate the beauty of these ancient statues, statues whose presence the film sets out to preserve, the Arab himself sees in them only vessels in which to hide weapons of mass destruction.

3My claim in this article is that Arab American literature can be seen as the other side of this projection or stereotype. Where Hollywood dramatizes, through the busting of ancient statues for the cause of terrorism, the Arab’s disregard for his own culture, novels such as Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and Nada Awar Jarrar’s Somewhere, Home set out to preserve precisely a distinct cultural heritage, and go on to celebrate the contemporaneity and complexity of diasporic Afghan and Lebanese experience. These books, I want to claim, are the fictional equivalent of Hollywood’s statues. Yet, in setting out to record Afghan and Lebanese history, respectively, Hosseini and Jarrar disprove the film’s claim of the Arab world’s disregard of its own cultural heritage.1 The novels refute both the “Arab’s” cultural ignorance and the reduction of Arabic diasporic culture not only to religion, but to religious fundamentalism. Where Hollywood constantly replays the busting of ancient “Arabic” statues by the Arabs themselves, Hosseini and Jarrar set out to describe the difficult but immensely important process of recording the past. Their books are the statues Hollywood refuses to mention, and cannot mention for fear that the binarism of its narrative opponents be destroyed.

4Where True Lies revels in portraying Arabs laying their own history to ruins, Nada Awar Jarrar’s narrative Somewhere, Home opens with a woman’s revisiting, in the midst of Beirut’s civil war, the now dilapidated family home in the mountains. It is for her unborn child that Maysa sets out to record a history and cultural heritage that is beginning to be effaced, forgotten:

Now, years after they have all gone, as Beirut smoulders in a war against itself, I have returned to the mountain to collect memories of the lives that wandered through this house as though my own depended on it. And as my heart turns further inward, I nurture a secret wish that in telling the stories of those who loved me I am creating my own. (4)

Maysa’s own diary which has to fill in historical gaps through the writing of fiction, is a metaphor for Jarrar’s own novel. If, as Shohat has argued, Hollywood’s mummy complex views the orient as devoid of narrative, Jarrar’s novel sets out to restore precisely such narrative. Where Hollywood sees in the Middle East a space whose history has produced statues only the West can appreciate—Hollywood, in this sense, becomes the equivalent of a Western museum—Somewhere, Home counters the mummy complex with the complexity of Arab diasporic experience.

5To return to True Lies,Hollywood can think of gender relations in the Arab world only in terms of misogyny. The Arab terrorist’s disregard for his own cultural heritage is thus paralleled by his disregard of all social relations; these are seen as merely obstructing the cause of terrorism. All social relations must hence be subordinated to terrorism. Misogyny, the film suggests, is the logical outcome of terrorist action, and both are seen as synonymous with “Arab” cultural difference:

Aziz: May I have a word with you?
X dismisses her secretary.
Aziz [closes the door, approaches her and hits her in the face]: You stupid undisciplined bitch!
X: It’s a good thing you’re paying me a lot of money.
Aziz: Do you realize they have surveillance teams watching the place right now? The telephones are almost certainly tapped and you were busy laughing and flirting like a whore with this Ranquist.
X: He checked out OK…
Aziz [hits her again]: I do not tolerate mistakes.

6Somewhere, Home, on the other hand, portrays an altogether different relationship between the genders. What is even more significant, in Jarrar’s narrative, the recording of cultural memory and the intimacy of human touch are interconnected:

Whenever Wadih had something of beauty to show me, the sea rushing and indifferent, the magnificence of mountains in winter or the distance in a blue sky, he would place a hand on the back of my neck and absently rub the skin there until I felt whatever I waslooking at move up my spine, down my arms, and into my fingerprints. (7–8)

Where Hollywood’s image of the Arab enemy weaves wife-battering into a terrorist narrative, Jarrar’s writing rebuilds the very statues that Hollywood has made Arab terrorists destroy. Where Hollywood can conceive of Muslim religion only in terms of religious fundamentalism, Somewhere, Home portrays religious cultural practice as cultural negotiation. Where Hollywood features only Arabs dismissive of their own history, Somewhere, Home sets out to record this cultural heritage in the multi-factedness of diasporic experience. Both the act of recording and the complexity of diasporic experience also recur in Khaled Hosseini’s 2003 novel, The Kite Runner, which I will now explore in more detail.

Flying Kites in Golden Gate Park

7Where Hollywood reduces Arabic culture to religious fundamentalism, Hosseini’s novel, set in Afghanistan before the arrival of the Taliban, revolves around the secularism of upper class Afghans. The book’s commitment, above all, is thus to secularism, a secularism which, after the seizing of the country by the Taliban, can be preserved only by the Khan family’s emigration to the U.S. Significantly, the novel portrays not so much an Afghan upper class elite which was Western even before emigrating to the West, but instead disentangles secularism from Westernization. What Hosseini’s narrative opposes to each other are not the Arab culture and the Western world, but an Afghan culture on the verge of religious fundamentalism and an alternative, secular Afghan culture.

8Where Hollywood has to insist on the Arab terrorist’s lack of hybridity and his refusal to become part of the West, Hosseini’s is an Arab American novel which opens in Golden Gate Park: “I went for a walk along Spreckels Lake on the northern edge of Golden Gate Park. The early-afternoon sun sparkled on the water where dozens of miniature boats sailed, propelled by a crisp breeze. Then I glanced up and saw a pair of kites, red with blue tails, soaring in the sky” (1). The metaphor of the kite, which gives the novel its name is more complex than it may at first seem. It is through the kite, its innocence and seeming lack of cultural marking, that Hosseini’s novel achieves a temporal and spatial simultaneity between Golden Gate Park and pre-Taliban Afghanistan. There is in the kite a transcendence of cultural specificity at the very moment in which this cultural specificity is being recorded. Golden Gate park is a space in which, protected by American secular democracy, the histories of the people who enter it on a sunny day do not matter. Anyone, to take up the novel’s metaphor, can be a kite runner. And yet, Hosseini’s superimposition of one kite upon another illustrates that the idea of the U.S. as a multi-ethnic nation is never a facile one. The U.S. is not only a space where the richness of the multicultural mosaic or melting pot can be enjoyed, but it is a nation-state which provides the framework not only for intercultural, but intracultural negotiation. What intrigues me about the opening of Hosseini’s book is that it disturbs the assumption that unmarked bodies enter the U.S. to be transformed into ethnic bodies in the multicultural set-up of the nation. Rather, the novel suggests, what is at stake is the intersection of previous readings of these bodies with the new histories they come to inhabit.

9Hosseini’s protagonist, Amir Khan, emigrates to the U.S. from a country which is itself a multiethnic state. The Kite Runner disturbs theoretical frameworks such as, for instance, postcolonial studies, because the immigrant’s country of origin is not dismissed in its complexity at the moment he enters the U.S. American nation. Rather, the U.S. and Afghanistan—like the kites spinning on the skies of both countries—are superimposed on one another. They are both multiethnic nations. Hosseini chronicles Afghanistan’s past as a country’s criss-crossed by multiple ethnicities and class demarcations. It is this superimposition which makes up the complexity of Arab American experience:

I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975. I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. That was a long time ago, but it’s wrong what they say about the past, I’ve learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out. Looking back now, I realized I have been peeking into that deserted alley for the last twenty-six years. (1)

Amir’s trauma, then, is not only the historical trauma of the take-over of Afghanistan by the Taliban, but his earlier personal betrayal of his best friend, the family servant Hassan.

Contesting Whiteness

10What is so intriguing about The Kite Runner is that it drives home two interconnected ideas. First, it stresses the idea that racial demarcations are entirely arbitrary. Second, it implies that the driving mechanism of each society, Western and non-Western societies alike, seems to be the drawing of ethnic lines. It is in this sense, for all their political and historical differences, that Afghanistan can be superimposed on the U.S. As Lisa Suhair Majaj has argued, the history of Arab Americans in the U.S., not only in terms of ethnic classification, has been a complex one: “Arab Americans occupy a contested and unclear space within American racial and cultural discourse. Although classified as ‘white’ by current government definitions, they are conspicuously absent from discussions of white ethnicity, and are popularly perceived as ‘non-white’” (320). Even more significantly, as Majaj goes on to say, Arab Americans’ religious difference often served as a rationale for their racialization: “Islamic culture was viewed as diametrically opposed to western European culture, and, in a conflation of religious and racial identity, was construed as intrinsically non-white” (323).

11It was this proximity of cultural and racial difference, ironically, which at the beginning of the 20th century, Arab immigrants to the U.S. sought to use for their own benefit. In U.S. legal history, the privilege of whiteness has been much more than a historical accident. At the opening of the 20th century, the right to citizenship was based on white skin color. Only those immigrants could be naturalized, who were conceived by U.S. legal discourse and, increasingly as history progressed, by popular perception, as white. This was called “the white person prerequisite” for citizenship. It is in this context that a number of immigrant groups went to court, fighting for the right to be classified by the Supreme Court as white persons. These court cases, which would decide the fate of a specific group for decades to come, were termed the “prerequisite cases.” These cases have recently been at the forefront of critical discussion and of a school of thought called Critical Race Theory, because they illustrate the arbitrariness of racial definition. While the fluidity of Arab-American racial definition may still be plausible from today’s point of view, it is important to note that from 1878 to 1952, Japanese, Indian, Philippino as well as Chinese immigrants went to court, all trying to prove that they were in fact white. Significantly, the court was for a long time undecided as to whether this whiteness was based on facial features or skin color: Thus, a Japanese claimant, Takao Ozawa, applied for naturalization in 1914, arguing that his skin was “whiter than [that of] the average Italian, Spaniard, or Portuguese” (Haney López 81). He lost, however, on the grounds that to the Supreme Court, whiteness and Caucasian features were synonymous.

12Race is thus never a fact; perception itself is socially determined. The prerequisite cases illustrate this intersection between perception and social / legal definition. If your court ruling was successful, you entered the Supreme Court as a person of unsure racial classification, and you left a white man (or woman). The fluidity of racial definition, then, was both a benefit and a curse. Citizenship rested on the claimant’s power of persuasion. It is in this context that in 1915, George Dow, a Syrian applicant, sought to use the interdependency between Christian religion and white skin color for his own benefit. He argued that Jesus Christ himself came from the region of contemporary Syria. Because no-one doubts the whiteness of Jesus Christ, the claimant went on to argue, Christ would clearly have been eligible for U.S. citizenship had he lived today. Because Christ came from the same region as he himself, Dow concluded in stunning logical about-face, denying citizenship to him would be the same as denying citizenship to Jesus Christ. George Dow thus used the logic of the U.S. legal system, and the interconnectedness of whiteness and Christian heritage, against the Supreme Court. It is perhaps significant of the forcefulness of his argument that the court found itself unable to disprove Dow’s logic. Yet, it nevertheless went on to rule against Dow’s whiteness by suggesting that this form of argument was emotional blackmail. As Ian Haney López has argued,

Judge Smithrefused via the rhetorical charge of emotivity to engage the question regarding the racial eligibility of Christ forcitizenship, a very interesting question indeed given that in much White supremacist ideology Whiteness and Christianity are nearly synonymous. (75)

13This, then, is the racial history of Arab Americans that Hosseini’s protagonist takes on by immigrating into the U.S. By entering the U.S., Hosseini’s protagonist can thus be seen to step across the edge of whiteness. Yet, it is one of the merits of the novel that it historicizes and contextualizes ethnic/racial demarcations without losing sight of the fact that they are nevertheless arbitrary. Amir, who in the U.S. comes to embody an ethnic subject, is traumatized by his own history of being ethnically unmarked in Afghanistan. The ultimate act of betrayal was not only Amir’s personal cowardice to help his friend Hassan when the latter was physically assaulted in that alley in Peshawar, Afghanistan. What is significant is that Hosseini’s novel does not only dramatize what it means to be discriminated against because of being racially different, but also what it means to be the perpetrator of discrimination. Racial demarcation, The Kite Runner tells us, is devastating for both the dominant and the subordinated groups. This devastation, moreover, holds true for both Afghanistan and the U.S.

14Amir’s trauma was his inability, in 1975, to become what contemporary U.S. whiteness studies have termed a “race traitor.” In the U.S., the editors of the Race Traitor magazine have recently called upon white American citizens to side with ethnic minorities by disturbing the assumption that they themselves are racially unmarked. Acting non-white, then, becomes an act of racial solidarity. According to Ian Haney López,

Dedicated through achieving racial justice through dismantling whiteness, this journal offers specific pointers on how to be a “race traitor,” defined as “someone who is nominally classified as white, but who defies the rules of whiteness so flagrantly as to jeopardize his or her ability to draw upon the privilege of white skin.” (189)

Race Traitor acts as a manual for unlearning and performatively abandoning the social privilege that comes with being white. This is one of the editors’ suggestions: “Answer an anti-black slur with, ‘Oh, you probably said that because you think I’m white. That’s a mistake people often make because I look white’” (Haney López 189). My point is, then, that this concept of race treason or the performative abandoning social privilege can also be applied to the Afghanistan of Hosseini’s novel. The Kite Runner, I would argue, can in fact be read as an exploration of what it means to uphold or to abandon social privilege. His inability to engage in race treason is the core of Amir’s trauma.

15Where the concept of race treason hinges on the U.S. American equation of social privilege with whiteness, my aim in applying the concept to Hosseini’s Afghanistan is thus to unsettle the culturally specific notion of “whiteness” and to call instead for the unlearning of one’s own transparency in ethnic terms. The question around which The Kite Runner revolves and which is highly relevant for both an Afghan and a U.S. context, is the difficulty of unlearning, even explicitly abandoning, one’s own privilege. This privilege, in both contexts, is the privilege of transparency, of being ethnically unmarked. By belonging to Afghanistan’s dominant culture and thus by being transparent in both race and class terms, Amir can stroll along the alleys of Afghanistan unmolested. It is by siding with Hassan, whose ethnic status entails a plethora of other markings, that Amir could have forfeited his own social privilege, but didn’t. Yet, The Kite Runner evades facile resolutions; it refuses to pose as a fictional re-writing of Afghan dominant historiography but highlights instead the immense difficulty of unlearning what is historically occasioned:

They called [Hassan] “flat-nosed” because of Ali and Hassan’s characteristic Hazara Mongoloid features. For years, thatwas all I knew about the Hazaras, that they were Mogul descendents, and that they looked a little like Chinese people. School texts barely mentioned them and referred to their ancestry only in passing. Then one day, I was in Baba’s study, looking through his stuff, when I found one of my mother’s old history books. . . . In it, I read that my people, the Pashtuns, had persecuted and oppressed the Hazaras. It said the Hazaras had tried to rise against the Pashtuns in the nineteenth century, but the Pashtuns had “quelled them with unspeakable violence.” . . . The book said part of the reason Pashtuns had oppressed the Hazaras was that Pashtuns were Sunni Muslims, while Hazaras were Shi’a. The book said a lot of things I didn’t know, things my teacher hadn’t mentioned either. It also said some things I did know, like that people called Hazara’s mice-eating, . . . load-carrying donkeys. (8–9)

16The Kite Runner demonstrates what Toni Morrison has called in another context, the impact of racism on those who perpetrate it. Amir’s enigma, and the reason why he commits the ultimate act of betrayal, is his inability to separate friendship from history. For Amir, Hassan’s unfailing loyalty is a puzzle. He is unable to account for a loyalty, an utter devotion which seems akin to selflessness: Hassan plays the role which society has allotted to him, but he plays it—and this is the puzzle—with sincerity. The role is no longer a role; Hassan’s servitude and his loyalty are but manifestations of his friendship for Amir: “Under the same roof, we spoke our first words. Mine was Baba. His was Amir. My name” (10–11).

17It is intriguing to me that this enigma of devotion, in which history, class, and ethnicity converge, is portrayed by Hosseini’s novel not as what in an American context would be called a mere act of minstrelsy. The point is not that Hassan exaggerates the role-play of servitude to the point that it seems absurd. Rather, he appropriates the role, he abrogates the performance, by being sincere about his loyalty. For all his inarticulateness, (an inarticulateness which the novel does not quite dispel), Hassan seems more conscious and more in command of his social role than Amir does who is his master. For Amir, the curse of mastery lies in not being able to resist the power which mastery is synonymous with.

One day, in July 1973, I played another little trick on Hassan. I was reading to him, and suddenly I strayed from the written story. Ipretended I was reading from the book, flipping pages regularly, but I had abandoned the text altogether, taken over the story, and made up my own. Hassan, of course, was oblivious to this. To him, the words on the page were a scramble of codes, undecipherable, mysterious. Words were secret doorways and I held the keys. (28)

18What is so stunning about Hosseini’s narrative is that he manages to complicate precisely this notion of holding the key. Hassan’s presence seems to hinge on an alternative literacy, a literacy which is based on his knowledge that Amir is indeed, holding the keys to worlds to which Hassan himself will never be provided access. And yet, it is Hassan’s knowledge of Amir’s mastery and the latter’s abuse of this mastery, which saves him from becoming a victim. The narrative is quick to highlight the rupture in Amir’s certainty of his own mastery:

“You’d do that?” He threw me a puzzled look. “Do what?” “Eat dirt if I told youto,” I said. I knew I was being cruel, like when I’d taunt him if he didn’t know some big word. But therewas something fascinating—albeit in a sick way—about teasing Hassan. Kind of like when we used to play insect torture. Except now, he was the ant and I was holding the magnifying glass. His eyes searched my face for a long time. We sat there, two boys under a sour cherry tree, suddenly looking, really looking, at each other. That’s when it happened again: Hassan’s face changed. Maybe not changed, but suddenly I had the feeling I was looking at two faces, the one I knew . . . and another, a second face, this one lurking just beneath the surface. . . . Then Hassan blinked and it was just him again. Just Hassan. (50–51)

19Hassan’s seeming ignorance of his friend’s abuse of his power, then, turns out to be Amir’s torment. In 1975, Amir sets out to win a kite tournament on which his father’s love for a son whose love of books he deems effeminate seems to be staked. Knowing this, Hassan, who is Amir’s kite runner, reaches for the prize-winning kite, the trophy depending on the catching of the last kite still left in the air. When Assef, a wealthy neighborhood boy who will later become a leader of the Taliban, asks Hassan to give him the kite and thus betray Amir’s trust in him, Hassan refuses. Amir watches, presumably unseen, as Assef proceeds to rape Hassan both as punishment and the ultimate sign of submission to be extracted from a boy who is, after all, only a Hazara: “Hassan didn’t struggle. Didn’t even whimper. He moved his head slightly and I caught a glimpse of his face. Saw the resignation in it. It was a look I had seen before. It was the look of the lamb” (71). The privilege of social transparency, then, proves to be Amir’s own undoing. To defend a Hazara who is not only his servant but his best friend would have been to abandon his own social privilege. For Amir to help Hassan who is being punished only because he is loyal to his master would have been to put the secret reading of an alternative history book into political and social practice. Amir’s own trauma is his inability to perform the act of race treason, of abandoning the privilege of being a Pashtun by siding with a Hazara: “Hassan was the price I had to pay, the lamb I had to slay, to win Baba. Was it a fair price? The answer floated to my conscious mind before I could thwart it: He was just a Hazara, wasn’t he?” (73).

20Whereas in the U.S. context of whiteness studies, the performance of race treason has been characterized by a certain playfulness and thus perhaps also a lack of historical specificity, Hosseini’s narrative drives home the painfulness and hence difficulty of such performances. Haunted by his own failure to stand up for his friend, he proceeds to try to provoke Hassan to the point where through Hassan himself, he would at last be given the punishment he feels he deserves. It is not until much later that Amir learns that Hassan knew that he watched the rape and let it happen, and that he nevertheless forgave Amir even that. When Afghanistan is hit by the Taliban, Amir, in an attempt to get rid of the one person who is a perpetual reminder of his own guilt, accuses Hassan of having stolen from him a precious watch, forcing his father to dismiss him and his father Ali. Hassan, loyal to the last, admits to having stolen the watch. Many years later, when Amir is happily married and living in the Bay Area, his father’s friend will tell him that Hassan was in fact his brother, his father’s illegitimate son with his servant Ali’s Hazara wife.

I, too, sing America

21It is significant that The Kite Runner sets out to reconcile the idea of America with its everyday reality: “Baba loved the idea of America. It was living in America that gave him an ulcer” (116). America, to which Amir has escaped to be rid of what for him has become his own shameful past, is not only a space of amnesia for immigrants now turned into ethnic subjects, but a space where past and present can be reconciled. As his father’s friend Rahim Khan tells Amir, “There is a way to be good again” (209). America, in The Kite Runner, is the framework in which the past can be righted, yet the novel does not privilege the ideal over the lived reality of America’s everyday life. As Amir’s father fights with Vietnamese American grocery store owners, the novel also makes clear the ways in which the past and the present, Afghanistan and the U.S. cannot merely be superimposed on one another:

I wanted to tell them that, in Kabul, we snapped a tree branch and used it as a credit card. Hassan and I would take the wooden stick to the break maker. He’d carve notches on our stick with his knife, one notch for each loaf of naan. . . . But I didn’t tell them. I thanked Mr. Nguyen for not calling the cops. Took Baba home. . . . A year and a half since we’d stepped off the Boeing from Peshawar, and Baba was still adjusting. (119)

And yet, it is America which enables Amir to make up to Hassan in a way which, the novel implies, would have been impossible in Afghanistan. Amir learns from Rahim Khan that Hassan was shot by the Taliban when trying to protect Rahim Khan’s house: For the Taliban, a Hazara had no right to trespass in such a house even when claiming to protect it for his master. The way to be good again, then, is for Amir to go back to Afghanistan and to adopt Hassan’s orphaned son. The adoption becomes the act of race treason which Amir should have committed 26 years ago in an alleyway in Peshawar. It is an act of taking on a different heritage, a disregard of blood laws valued so highly by even the diasporic Afghan community in the Bay Area. As Amir’s father-in-law tells his daughter, Amir’s wife:

Blood is a powerful thing, bachem, and when you adopt, you don’t know whose blood you’re bringing intoyour house. Now, if you were American, it wouldn’t matter. People here marry for love, family name and ancestry nevereven come into the equation. They adopt that way too, as long as the baby is healthy, everyone is happy. But we are Afghans, bachem. (172–73)

22I am interested in how this adoption is not a mere act of mainstreaming through which an immigrant Afghan couple becomes American. Rather, The Kite Runner reconciles Afghanistan and the U.S. through an act which is laden with complex and multi-layered histories. “There is a way to be good again, [Rahim Khan had] said. A way to end the cycle. With a little boy. An orphan. Hassan’s son. Somewhere in Kabul” (209). It is for the orphaned Sohrab that Amir is finally able to reverse sides as he becomes his adopted son’s kite runner in Golden Gate Park: “I ran. A grown man running with a swarm of screaming children. But I didn’t care. I ran with the wind blowing in my face, and a smile as wide as the Valley of Panjsher on my lips” (340).


23I am interested in Hosseini’s refusal to privilege any one side of the equation, to denounce the ideal of America in the face of its everyday reality as well as its contemporary politics. I believe that recent criticism, in academia and elsewhere, of U.S. foreign policy and its war on terror has left us with little space to explore what Hosseini reminds us of: the framework which America provides to be a secular Afghan in, where a Pashtun’s adopting a Hazara boy is in no way controversial or even extravagant. The flying of kites, Hosseini reminds us, was the first thing the Taliban banned: “A few weeks later, the Taliban banned kite fighting. And two years later, in 1998, they massacred the Hazaras in Mazar-i-Sharif” (197). It is perhaps ironic that an Arab American novel should be more faithful to this ideal of American secular democracy than Hollywood, which may at times be doomed by its own exclusionary mechanisms and need for ethnic stereotyping. To paraphrase Carlos Bulosan’s 1936 novel, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner illustrates the fact that America is also and especially in the heart of its immigrant populations. Hosseini’s complex Afghan American characters is what Hollywood refuses to show, but, if we think of films by Arab American directors and a potential mainstreaming of Arab American writers such as Khaled Hosseini and Arab diasporic writers such as Nada Awar Jarrar, which it may in time nevertheless come to acknowledge.

24The logic of Hollywood’s dramaturgy is that there are indeed two worlds, or, to cite Samuel Huntington’s famous formulation, two mutually incompatible civilizations. What The Kite Runner makes clear, on the other hand, is that this logic of opposition is itself a dead end. If Arab American experience has to reconcile both ingredients of this new ethnic identity, what Hosseini’s novel drives home is that what is at stake is the logic of transparency and privilege in any given society. By emphasizing that the Amir Khan walking through Golden Gate Park is both the newly made Arab American subject and the Pashtun who was wary of forfeiting his social privilege by helping his Hazara friend Hassan, Hosseini’s narrative dramatizes the point that there are no two or more worlds, but one human civilization that likes to differentiate itself through ever-new assignments of transparency.

25What Hosseini’s novel implicitly retraces is not only the shifting nature of racial demarcations of Arab immigrants in the U.S., but the fact that such shifting of ethnic demarcation is by no means confined to the U.S. As I tried to outline, within the U.S. context, Arab Americans have moved from being racially marked at the beginning of the 20th century to being racially unmarked for the remainder of this century, only to become marked once again in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11. If the Supreme Court on the basis of what was termed “scientific evidence” ruled in 1909, for instance, that Syrians are white, it proceeded to determine in 1913, now on the basis of what was called “common sense,” that they were not white (López 204-05). What The Kite Runner does, I believe, is to drive home the point of the contingency of racial demarcation. Hosseini’s novel thus also complicates a facile multiculturalism—the idea that all ethnic subjects mingle in Golden Gate Park—through what Ella Shohat has termed a “critical multiculturalism.” By insisting that Amir Khan is at once transparent and racially visible, that he is at once an ethnic and a normative subject, an Arab American and a Pashtun, The Kite Runner dramatizes both the historical specificity and the arbitrariness of racial demarcations. In this sense, Hosseini’s novel vividly illustrates that Arab American literature needs to be true to both elements separated by the hyphen, to both Middle Eastern and American histories. The Kite Runner dramatizes the ways in which Afghanistan and American can and cannot be superimposed on one another. Even if, Hosseini suggests, the act of flying a kite is not the same in Kabul as it is in San Francisco, there is nevertheless only one sky.

26Previously transparent subjects become racially marked in a new context; the Pashtun becomes an ethnic American the moment he crosses the border. What is at stake is not only, to cite Samir Dayal, that ethnic demarcations change the more you “zoom out” of a given context, but that racial demarcations are both arbitrary and socially meaningful, often with devastating consequences. Ironically, in the U.S., both Amir and Sohrab are ethnically marked subjects; they are both what in a Canadian context has been termed “visible minorities.” In the light of this new cultural logic, the adoption becomes a curiously self-evident act. And yet, because the novel superimposes Afghanistan on the U.S., it drives home the point that Amir is both racially marked and unmarked, that he is both Pashtun and Arab American. It is this complexity that underlies the adoption and makes it, in the logic of the narrative, an act of redemption.

27I am thus interested in the way that the U.S. whiteness studies concept of “race treason” is and is not applicable to the Afghan context in Hosseini’s novel. My attempt to map this concept of race treason onto a non-Western context is also a call for historicizing and contextualizing race treason. Race treason, I have suggested in this paper, needs to be redefined as the treason not so much of race, but of transparency. As the nature of racial difference is historically contingent, what is at stake is less racial categorization than the presence or absence of the privilege of social transparency. Because, I would argue, the concept of the race traitor or rather the traitor of transparency functions in both the U.S. and the Afghanistan of Hosseini’s narrative, The Kite Runner drives home the point, contra Hollywood, that there are no two worlds, only one. If the mechanisms of Afghan and U.S. society are, for all their differences historical and otherwise, nevertheless also fundamentally similar, the logic of binary oppositions loses its force.


1 The fact that in the U.S.,Hosseini’s novel has been received as an Arab- American text is in itself significant; what is at stake, I believe, is theway in which within the U.S. paradigm of the “ethno-racial pentagon” (Schlesinger), cultural specificities tend to be dismissed in favor of a “recognizable” classification.

Works Cited

Dayal, Samir. “Min(d)ing the Gap: South Asian Americans and Diaspora.” A Part, Yet Apart: South Asians in Asian America, ed. Lavina Dhingra Shankar and Rajini Srikanth. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998. 235–66.

Haney López, Ian. White By Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

Hosseini, Khaled. The Kite Runner. St Ives: Bloomsbury, 2003.

Jarrar, Nada Awar. Somewhere, Home. New York: Vintage, 2004; 2003.

Majaj, Lisa Suhair. “Arab Americans and the Meaning of Race.” Postcolonial Theory and the United States: Race, Ethnicity, and Literature, ed. Amrijit Singh and Peter Schmidt. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Schlesinger, Arthur M. The Disuniting of America. New York: Norton, 1992.

Shohat, Ella, and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Eurocentrism and the Media. New York: Routledge, 1994.


Mita Banerjee is Professor and Chair of American Studies at the University of Siegen. She is the author of The Chutneyfication of History, 2002, and Race-ing the Century, 2005. She is currently working on a study of the ways in which ‘postcolonial’ concepts have been reconfigured as we enter the new millennium.

Suggested Citation

Banerjee, Mita. “Arab Americans in Literature and the Media.” American Studies Journal 52 (2008). Web. 13 Apr. 2024. DOI 10.18422/52-06.


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