Khaled Hosseini Soars To New Heights

Khaled Hosseini loved flying kites as a little boy in Afghanistan. Now, that childhood pastime has become the perfect metaphor for the heights Hosseini says he never imagined he would reach with his pen.

He's got not one, but two current top-sellers both set in Afghanistan "A Thousand Splendid Suns" and his runaway best-selling first novel "The Kite runner". But he never actually thought he would be a professional writer.

"I never thought it was — I had the chops to do it," he told CBS News correspondent Thalia Assuras. "I never thought it was, you know, a realistic viable profession."

And this week he's witnessing the nationwide release of kite runner, the movie.

"In many ways, it's a first in Hollywood. Because here's — a major Hollywood production — about a family of Muslims," Hosseini said. "And it doesn't begin with terrorism. It doesn't begin with extremism. It's a human story. It's a family story."

Hosseini says it's his focus on human nature - both loving and cruel - that's captivated millions of American readers, who until a few years ago, had barely even heard of Afghanistan. it's where Hosseini's own story begins.

"I have vivid memories of growing up in Kabul," he said. "It is so different than what you see on television now. At that time, Kabul was this, kind of sprawling cosmopolitan city."

Hosseini's family was well-off in the 1970s. He was the oldest of five children.

"I wouldn't say privileged but certainly comfortable," he said. "My father was a diplomat, worked for the foreign ministry. My mother taught Farsi and history at a very large high school for girls."

And, unlike today, there was no war in Afghanistan.

"I never heard a gunshot in my childhood. I never saw a tank move," Hosseini said. "It was a time when the country was living in a very kind of peaceful anonymity."

When Hosseini was a young teenager, the family moved to Paris his father was assigned to the afghan embassy.

"It was supposed to be 3 1/2, four years and we were gonna come back," he said.

Photos: "The Kite Runner" Premiere
But in 1979 the way back was slammed shut. The family watched their lives changing on television as the soviet union invaded afghanistan.

"I remember the expression on my parents face," Hosseini said. "When they saw the Soviets, I think at that point they realized that, wow, we may never go home again. And we have to start thinking about a new life."

It started in San Jose, when the family was granted political asylum by the U.S. government.

"Well, this is the first home where we lived," he said while walking Assuras through his old neighborhood. "A three bedroom house. There were nine of us. We were pretty cramped."

They arrived with only suitcases so his parents were forced on welfare for a time.

"They'd never been in a position before to be given free money," Hosseini said. "And I think that was shameful to them."

It was hard for Hosseini too. He was 15 years old and didn't really fit in with the other kids.

"Those first couple of years where really rough," he said. "And my high school is just down the street. And that was tough because I didn't speak any English and I just did not get the whole high school culture at all.

But he got good grades and eventually became a doctor. It's a classic immigrant success story with two cultures constantly at play.

"This is the largest community of Afghans outside of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. There are maybe 80-90,000 Afghans," he said, referring to his old neighborhood, Fremont, Calif. which is near San Jose.

In Freemont, Hosseini's Afghan roots run deep. A cousin owns a rug store and dried goods from Afghanistan fill the aisles in a local market, where fresh flatbread is baked daily. his two worlds, says Hosseini, fit together easily.

"I rarely think about the Afghan and the American sides as separate parts of my life. It's just kind of become this organic existence.

Yet love was an entirely afghan affair when Hosseini met his future wife Roya, an Afghan-American 14 years ago. It was at a party when he was away at medical school. He was smitten within an hour of meeting her and while he asked her to marry him.

"I gave her a call five days later, proposed over the phone," Hosseini said. "And she was duly stunned. But I had made an impression on her. And so she accepted. More importantly her father accepted."

He asked his father to seek Roya's hand from her father in the traditional afghan way. That tradition is played out on scene in what Hosseini says is a favorite sequence in the kite runner, which was originally a short story. He says he's been writing since he was 8 years old.

"I've always been happiest when I'm kind of indulging the compulsion," Hosseini said. "And it is a compulsion to me. I really wrote all my life until I went to medical school. And then that, you know, that takes over your whole life."

He only tried to get some of his work published after his wife Roya, nudged him a bit. He said portions are autobiographical.

"It's early on especially, he said."That's the life I loved in those early chapters of 'The Kite Runner.' There's almost this kind of idyllic, romantic feel to those chapters."

But Hosseini's books are far from romantic. Both novels reflect many of Afghanistan's darkest days and the worst of human nature.

"I became what I am today at the age of 12 on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975," he writes in "The Kite Runner." "I remember the precise moment, crouching behind a crumbling mud wall, peeking into the alley near the frozen creek. Looking back, I realize I've been peeking into that deserted alley for the last 26 years. I don't want to forget anymore."

The central character Amir, must live with the fact that he was too afraid to help his best friend from being raped. It's a scene that's causing controversy. The main issue is that Muslim sensibilities will be inflamed by the rape sequence. Fearing reprisals, the studio delayed the release of the film until they could move the child actors out of Afghanistan for their own protection.

"It's very, very upsetting," Hosseini said. "If you see the film, the children are tremendous. I actually met them when they were on the set, and they're beautiful people. The idea that somebody would want to harm them because of their performance in the film, the idea is reprehensible. It bothers me, especially because I think ultimately the film is antithetical to any notions of ugliness and exploitation."

Amir who also had to leave Afghanistan, eventually returns as an adult, just like Hosseini, who returned after he finished "The Kite Runner."

"It was so surreal," he said. "I spoke to people, it turned out that a lot of things I said in the novel were real. In fact, the reality of what I found in Kabul was in many ways even worse. The brutality of the Taliban was incredible. Children watching their parents being killed in front of them, young girls sold into prostitution, forced into marriage, raped."

It was the stories he heard there about afghan women that set Hosseini, who has since stopped working as a doctor, on a mission to write his next novel, "A Thousand Splendid Suns."

"Afghan women, as a group, I think their suffering has been equaled by very few other groups in recent world history," Hosseini said.

There would be no fanciful images of kites to inspire this story. Hosseini says he was haunted by videotape, smuggled out of Afghanistan, of a woman being executed by the Taliban.

"That clip played in my mind over and over again," he said. "I remember the writer in me saw that woman walking her final steps. And I began in my mind somehow creating a life, a background, a history for this woman."

In the novel, that woman is Mariam, who's beaten and abused by a monstrous husband.

"It wasn't easy tolerating him talking to her this way," he writes in "A Thousand Splendid Suns." "To bear his scorn, his ridicule, his insults, his walking past her like she was nothing but a house cat. But after four years of marriage, Mariam saw clearly how much a woman could tolerate when she was afraid."

The novel debuted in January at the top of bestseller lists across the country and Hosseini, now finds himself arguably the most famous voice of Afghanistan.

"I hope people read these books and think about Afghanistan and the people who live there as real people," Hosseini said. "And for what happened, the tragedy in Afghanistan, to not be some flat statistic which doesn't echo in any kind of real way with you. But it happened to real people who are not that different from us."
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