All achievers

Khaled Hosseini, M.D.

Storytelling Phenomenon

I was so taken with the story and so swept up in that world that I had to write it.

Khaled Hosseini was born in Afghanistan, the oldest of five children, and spent the first years of his childhood in the capital city, Kabul. His family lived in the affluent Wazir Akbar Khan district of the city, in a cultivated, cosmopolitan atmosphere, where women lived and worked as equals with men. His father worked for the foreign ministry, while his mother taught Persian literature, and Khaled grew up loving the treasures of classical Persian poetry. His imagination was also fired by movies from India and the United States, and he enjoyed the sport of kite fighting he portrayed so vividly in his book The Kite Runner.

An Afghan boy flies a kite in the hills overlooking Kabul. Kite flying, the traditional sport of Afghan children, was banned under the fundamentalist Taliban regime, along with dancing, music, and a host of other activities. Reports of the kite flying ban inspired Khaled Hosseini to write his celebrated novel, The Kite Runner. Kites reappeared immediately when the Taliban was driven from Kabul. (© James Reeve/Corbis)
An Afghan boy flies a kite in the hills overlooking the city of Kabul. Kite flying, the traditional sport of Afghan children, was banned under the fundamentalist Taliban regime, along with dancing, music, and a host of other activities. Reports of the kite-flying ban inspired Khaled Hosseini to write his celebrated novel, The Kite Runner. Kites reappeared immediately when the Taliban militia was driven from Kabul soon after September 11, 2001.

In the early ’70s, Hosseini’s father was posted to Afghanistan’s embassy in Tehran, Iran, where young Khaled deepened his knowledge of the classical Persian literary tradition that Iran and Afghanistan share. Although Afghan culture lacked a long tradition of literary fiction, Hosseini enjoyed reading foreign novels in translation and began to compose stories of his own. He also made the acquaintance of his family’s cook, a member of the Hazara ethnic group, a minority that has long suffered from discrimination in Afghanistan. Young Khaled Hosseini taught the illiterate man to read and write, and gained his first insight into the injustices of his own society.

The Hosseinis were at home in Kabul when the 200-year-old Afghan monarchy was overthrown in 1973. The king’s cousin, Daoud Khan, proclaimed himself president of the new republic, but a long era of instability had begun. In 1976, Hosseini’s father was assigned to the embassy in Paris, and Khaled moved, with the rest of his family, to France. Although he did not know it at the time, it would be 27 years before he would see his native country again. Only two years after their arrival in Paris, a communist faction overthrew the government of Afghanistan, killing Daoud Khan and his family.

Physician and novelist Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner. (Courtesy of Khaled Hosseini)
Afghan-born American novelist and physician Khaled Hosseini. After graduating from college, he worked as a doctor in California. Hosseini has published three novels, most notably his 2003 debut The Kite Runner, all of which are at least partially set in Afghanistan. He retired from medicine to write full-time. (© Khaled Hosseini)

Although the new government was purging civil servants from the old regime, the Hosseinis still hoped that they might be able to return to Afghanistan. Infighting among the new leaders, and armed resistance to the regime in the countryside, plunged the country into chaos. The Hosseinis were still in France when the Soviet army entered Afghanistan in December 1979. The Soviets attempted to reinstate their communist allies, while numerous armed factions attempted to expel them. The Soviet occupation would last nearly a decade, while five million Afghans fled their country.

A return to Afghanistan was now out of the question for the Hosseini family, and they applied for political asylum in the United States. Young Khaled arrived in San Jose, California in the fall of 1980 at age 15, speaking almost no English. Having lost everything, his family subsisted for a time on welfare, and father and son went to work tending a flea market stall alongside fellow Afghan refugees.

Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner, with Khalid Abdalla and David Benioff, the star and screenwriter of the motion picture version of his novel, photographed at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco, 2007. (© Brant Ward)

In his first year of school in the U.S., Khaled Hosseini struggled with English, but his encounter with John Steinbeck’s Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath rekindled his love of literature, and he began to write stories again, this time in English. Khaled’s father found work as a driving instructor, and the family’s situation gradually improved, but Khaled, as the oldest child, felt a particular responsibility to succeed in the new country.

Determined to make a better life for himself and his family, Khaled Hosseini studied biology at Santa Clara University and medicine at the University of California, San Diego. He completed his residency at UCLA Medical Center and began medical practice in Pasadena. Now married, Khaled and his wife, Roya, decided to return to Northern California to be nearer their families. Dr. Hosseini joined the Kaiser Permanente health maintenance organization and settled in Mountain View, California to start a family.

Khaled Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner has become an international publishing phenomenon.
Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner has become an international publishing phenomenon, which spent 101 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, four of them at number one. In 1980, shortly after the start of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, his family sought political asylum in the United States and made their residence in San Jose, California. Khaled Hosseini, then age 15, did not speak English when he first arrived in the United States. He describes the experience as a “culture shock and very alienating.” He later earned a bachelor’s degree in Biology at Santa Clara University. In 1989, Hosseini entered the University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, where he earned his M.D. in 1993. He completed his residency in internal medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles in 1996. He practiced medicine for ten years, until a year-and-a-half after release of The Kite Runner.

Throughout his medical studies, Hosseini had continued to write short stories in his spare time. Happily settled in his new country, he found his thoughts returning to the land he left behind. After the departure of the Soviets in 1998, the extremist Taliban faction had seized control of Afghanistan, imposing a brutal theocratic rule and providing a base for anti-Western terrorists. Women’s rights, which previous regimes had promoted, were completely eliminated along with all foreign art or culture. Hosseini felt compelled to tell the world something of the life he had known before his country was consumed by war and dictatorship. In 2001, with the encouragement of his wife and father-in-law, he decided to try expanding one of his stories into a novel.

Khaled Hosseini and his wife Roya at the premiere of The Kite Runner in Hollywood. (AP Images/Tammie Arroyo)
Khaled Hosseini and his wife, Roya, at the premiere of The Kite Runner in Hollywood. (AP Images/Tammie Arroyo)

For a year and a half, he rose at four o’clock every morning to work on his novel before a full day of seeing patients. When the United States and allied countries launched military operations in Afghanistan, he considered abandoning the project, but with the defeat of the Taliban, he felt it more important than ever to tell his story to the world. With the eyes of the world turned on his country, he completed his tale of two Afghan boys, childhood friends separated by the calamities of war, and the divergent paths their lives take. Once Hosseini found an agent to handle the manuscript, the book was soon placed with publisher Riverhead Books, a division of the Penguin Group. The Kite Runner was released, with little publicity, in 2003.

Initial sales of the book in hard-cover were slow, but word of mouth built gradually as copies of the book were passed from reader to reader. The paperback edition found an enthusiastic audience around the world. The Kite Runner spent more than two years on The New York Times bestseller list, and returned to the list, five years after its initial appearance. As of this writing, it has sold more than 12 million copies, with editions published in more than 40 languages. Although it was greeted with acclaim in most circles, some Afghans objected to Hosseini’s portrayal of ethnic prejudice in Afghanistan. Hosseini had no regrets, and hoped that his treatment of the subject would spark an overdue dialogue among his fellow countrymen.

Khaled Hosseini's second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, confirmed the promise shown by his first book.
Khaled Hosseini’s second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, was published in 2007, and confirmed the promise shown by his first book. A Thousand Splendid Suns was a New York Times best-seller for 103 weeks, 15 at number one. And the Mountains Echoed debuted in 2013 near the top of the Times list and remained on it for 33 weeks.

Following the success of his book, Hosseini returned to Afghanistan for the first time in 27 years. He was shocked by the devastation that years of war had wrought on the city he knew as a child, but moved to find the traditional spirit of hospitality and generosity was unchanged. Everywhere, he heard stories of the tragedies his countrymen had suffered.

Hosseini continued to practice medicine for a year and a half after his book was published, but the demands on his time eventually compelled him to take a leave of absence. In 2006, he agreed to serve as a special envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, assisting displaced persons in war zones around the world. In this capacity he has traveled to eastern Chad to meet with refugees from Darfur and returned to Afghanistan to meet with refugees returning from Iran and Pakistan.

Author Khaled Hosseini and wife, Roya, enjoy the 2008 International Achievement Summit in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

Since his 2003 visit to Afghanistan, Hosseini had been at work on a second novel, focusing on the experience of women in pre-war Afghanistan, during the Soviet occupation and the civil war, and under the Taliban dictatorship. His new book, eagerly awaited by an army of readers, was published in 2007. A Thousand Splendid Suns takes its title from a poem by the 17th-century Persian poet Saib-e-Tabrizi. The story follows two women, Mariam and Laila, both married to the same abusive man. Like its predecessor, A Thousand Splendid Suns became a massive international phenomenon, topping the bestseller lists as soon as it was published. The paperback edition spent over two years on the New York Times bestseller list.

Khaled Hosseini receives the Golden Plate Award from NIH Director Elias Zerhouni at the 2008 Summit in Hawaii.

Later that year, The Kite Runner became a highly acclaimed motion picture, photographed in Kashgar province in the far west of China. Although the producers of the film were American, they chose to shoot the film in the Dari language to preserve the authenticity of the story. A controversy erupted in Afghanistan because a sexual assault against a young boy is depicted in the film. The child actor and his family were threatened with violence by traditionalists who believed this portrayal to be shameful. Release of the film was postponed while the boy and his family were relocated.

For the time being, Dr. Hosseini has given up his medical practice to write and continue his work for the United Nations. His third novel, And the Mountains Echoed, was hailed by The New York Times as his “most assured and emotionally gripping story yet.” He and his wife, Roya, and their two children, make their home in Northern California.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2008

Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner has become an international publishing phenomenon and a modern classic. This tale of childhood innocence betrayed, set against three tragic decades in the history of Afghanistan, gave readers around the world an insight into the human truth behind the headlines.

This unforgettable book is the product of Khaled Hosseini’s own life experience. Born in Afghanistan, his family fled to the United States when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. In the U.S., Khaled Hosseini became a successful physician, but he longed to tell the world something of the life he knew before his country was consumed by war. He rose at four o’clock every morning to work on The Kite Runner before a full day of seeing patients. Following the enormous success of his first book, a second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, soon joined it on the bestseller lists.

In addition to his thriving literary career, Dr. Hosseini now serves as a special envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, assisting displaced persons in war zones around the world.

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Tell us about your childhood in Afghanistan. Where did you live?

Khaled Hosseini: I was born and raised in Kabul. We lived in a neighborhood called Wazir Akbar Khan, which was one of the up-and-coming neighborhoods in Kabul.  My father was a diplomat. He worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul, and my mother taught Farsi and history at a very large high school for girls.  So I grew up in Kabul. I lived in Kabul until I was about five or six, lived in Tehran a couple of years —  kind of the diplomat family moving around.  Came back to Kabul and left just before the communist — a couple of years before the communist coup — in 1976.

You were one of five?

Khaled Hosseini: Yeah, I was the oldest of five. I have three brothers and a sister and the enumerable cousins and second cousins and whatnot and people that I consider cousins, who are not really actually related to me at all. The whole concept of family in Kabul is very loose, so I just had a very extended rich social life.

One gets that impression from The Kite Runner of a very close-knit community, even in the United States.

Khaled Hosseini: We came to the U.S. in 1980, this was a few months after the Soviets invaded, right around the time that President Reagan was elected, just before. And there was a seed of Afghan communities in the East Coast and the West Coast. We were one of the early families that came to the U.S. in Northern California. We lived in San Jose, my family still lives there. And there were a number of families there already. Some of them we knew, some we got to know. And then over the ensuing decade or two, we watched that community explode, and more and more families came, you know, people brought their brothers and their sisters and their cousins. And the next thing you knew, you had the genesis of an actual community, both in Virginia, near Fairfax, Arlington, D.C. area, and also in Northern California in the East Bay, around the cities of Fremont, San Jose. Now that community is about, I would say, maybe 80,000, 90,000 people, maybe more. And there is Afghan businesses and people interacting and Afghan social clubs and organizations and so on and so forth.

Mohammad Zahir Shah (1914-2007) was the last King of Afghanistan. The 40 years of his rule are remembered as a time of peace. He is seen here in 1963. Ten years later, his government was overthrown while he sought medical treatment in Italy. He returned to Afghanistan in 2002 to give his blessing to the new democratic government. (AP Images)
Mohammad Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan. The 40 years of his rule are remembered as a time of peace.

Back to the Kabul of your youth. What were the political circumstances at that time?

Khaled Hosseini: Afghanistan was a monarchy for over 200 years. We had King Zahir Shah, who passed away within the last year. King Zahir Shah had been on the throne since 1933. In 1963, a couple of years before I was born, he instituted a constitutional monarchy, and that was in effect for about ten years. My memory of that era, it was very peaceful and quiet. But in retrospect, it was an interesting time politically, a time of polarization, and to some extent, people were disillusioned with sort of the reforms and promises that had been made through the constitutional monarchy that never really panned out. And that was the circumstance under which the king was overthrown in 1973. He was away in Italy getting medical treatment. His first cousin overthrew him in a bloodless coup and took over, and Afghanistan’s era of monarchy was over and it became a republic.

I actually remember the night that the king was overthrown.  I was in Kabul, my parents were at the hospital where my mother was giving birth to my youngest brother that night, and we heard the gunshots, and we heard the tanks rolling in and all of the rumbling. I was home with my grandmother, and I said, “What is that noise?”  And she said, “Oh, they hunt ducks at night. Don’t worry about it, they’re just hunting ducks.”  I wake up in the morning, and there’s a couple of buildings have been damaged and so on, but otherwise there was not much violence.  We woke up to a whole new country.  So that was the reality, the political reality at that time.  And then again, there were economic reforms and more promises and so on made.  I left in 1973 when the president, Daoud Khan, was still in power, and it was from Paris where my father was working for the Afghan Embassy that we watched everything unravel, first with the Soviet, the communist coups of April ’78, and subsequently the invasion in December ’79 by the Soviet Union.

What a surreal experience that must have been to watch it from afar.

Khaled Hosseini: Yeah, surreal and very difficult in a way, because at that time, people didn’t have any real reason to leave Afghanistan. So…

We had a lot of family and friends in Kabul.  And the communist coup, as opposed to the coup that happened in ’73, was actually very violent.  A lot of people rounded up and executed, a lot of people were imprisoned.  Virtually anybody that was affiliated or associated with the previous regime or the royal family was persecuted, imprisoned, killed, rounded up, or disappeared.  And so we would hear news of friends and acquaintances and occasionally family members to whom that had happened, that were either in prison or worse, had just disappeared and nobody knew where they were, and some of them never turned up.  My wife’s uncle was a very famous singer and composer in Kabul who had been quite vocal about his dislike for the communists and so on and he disappeared.  And to this day, we have no idea what happened to him.  So that sort of thing, we began to hear news over in Europe of mass executions and really just horror stories.  So it was surreal, and it also really kind of hit home in a very real way.

Going back to your childhood, were you a serious student in school?

Keys to success — Preparation

Khaled Hosseini: I was a very serious student in school.  My parents were both — they weren’t intensely involved with our studies, but they were involved in a very global fashion in the sense that they told us that education is really important, you have to do your homework, you have to study and you have to do well.  And those were the principles in the house.  That was our job, to study and do well.  So I was a good student, all of my siblings were good students.  We were all pretty sensible kids. Homework and school always came first.   And so I did well when I was in school in Kabul in all of my subjects, and those were kind of a lesson and principles that served me well when I came over to the U.S. in 1980.  I had already developed the habits of being a good student and being very diligent, and so I did very well in high school here and through college and so on.  So I always was a pretty good student.

Did you like to read as a kid?

Keys to success — Passion

Khaled Hosseini: I loved to read as a kid. In fact, I was raised in a household where classic Persian literature and poetry was revered and prized. Both of my folks were really into it and they got us into it. In fact as a kid, I grew up around the likes of Saadi and Hafez and Omar Khayyam and Rumi and people like that. And I really discovered the novels at a little bookshop in Kabul, because there is not a great tradition of novel writing in Persian literature, certainly not in Afghanistan. There is a great tradition, an ancient tradition of poetry, but not of prose novel. So I discovered Western novels, though translated into Farsi, at a local little bookshop in Kabul, and it was there that I read my first novels. I read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Alice in Wonderland. I think they had these condensed young adult editions of classics like Don Quixote and Ivanhoe and Treasure Island, and I remember reading all of those and just falling in love with the format. And then they also had serialized novels that they would publish in magazines, and I was really a sucker for those as well. So I really fell in love with prose at that time and I began writing my first short stories at that age. I was probably eight or nine years old when I began writing. I really loved it, and I was really passionate about it. I felt so in my element when I was writing. And pretty much since then, I haven’t stopped writing. It is really kind of when my history of writing began.

Khaled Hosseini addresses Academy student delegates at the 2008 International Achievement Summit in Hawaii.

You mentioned the Farsi language. Could you explain for us what languages are spoken in Afghanistan and which ones you grew up with?

Khaled Hosseini: Afghanistan is a kaleidoscope of different ethnicities, tribes, sub-tribes, families and so on. Every region has its own dialect and its own local culture. So there are many, many different dialects, but there are two main languages. One is Farsi, or Dari, which is probably the more correct way of saying it. We speak the same language as in Iran — they call it Persian or Farsi. In Afghanistan it’s called Dari. It’s a slightly different dialect, closer to the roots of the actual language and has a different accent. Kind of like English being spoken in Texas and maybe in Ireland. Same language, just some words are different and some of the accent. The other main language is Pashtun, which was spoken in various parts of the country. It was spoken in Kabul as well, but I largely grew up in a Dari-speaking environment. Both of my parents were from Herat, which is a Dari-speaking city. So I grew up with Dari. I learned Pashtun in school. It was mandatory to learn Pashtun in school, but I never ever spoke it at home, and I have forgotten all of my Pashtun at this point.