Khaled Hosseini on Afghanistan, goodwill and his latest book

“Everything you do for every human being counts.” Khaled Hosseini is talking about the message he’s trying to convey through his eponymous foundation, which provides humanitarian aid to people in Afghanistan, but he could also be referring to one of the themes in his new book, And the Mountains Echoed.

It’s been 10 years since the former doctor wrote his first book, The Kite Runner, the story of a boy and his servant in 1970s Afghanistan. The book became one of the world’s top bestsellers and was adapted by Hollywood for the big screen. “It seems like just the other day,” Hosseini says.

And it’s been a busy one for Hosseini, who retired from medicine in December 2004, became a goodwill envoy for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 2006 and established the Khaled Hosseini Foundation in 2008.

And the Mountains Echoed, like his first novel and its follow-up, A Thousand Splendid Suns, explores familial relationships, but this time Hosseini focuses on siblings. As the oldest of five brothers and sisters, he knows first-hand the contradictions inherent in sibling bonds. “It can be such a love-hate relationship,” he says. At the centre of this story are Abdullah and Pari, a tight-knit brother and sister who, in an act of desperation by their father, are separated at a young age. As the two grow up, across decades and continents, readers meet Abdullah’s and Pari’s own children, cousins, co-workers and caretakers — each affected in his or her own way by the initial separation, and each struggling with the concepts of honour, sacrifice and betrayal.

The idea for And the Mountains Echoed evolved as “a network of overlapping stories,” he says. The initial spark was lit in the winter of 2008 after he read a news article about poor Afghans forced to sell their children to wealthier families, a move intended to help both the children and the family survive their current circumstances. “I thought it was just one of the sad byproducts of living in a country with a battered economy, racked by violence, but I talked to my father. He grew up in Afghanistan —he was a boy in the ’40s and ’50s — and he told me that was happening back then as well, in the heyday of the country.”

Inspired, Hosseini wrote one story, then another and another, until they overlapped and the series could be brought together in novel form. “The other books were written with linear narratives,” Hosseini says. “With this book, it’s a little different, because it’s shaped more like a tree. You have the main trunk, the story of the brother and sister. And the rest of the book is about following all the branches, all the narratives and characters whose lives are knowingly or unwittingly affected by [Abdullah and Pari’s separation].”

Based in San Jose, California, Hosseini, 48, lives with his wife, Roya, and their children, 12-year-old son Harris and 10-year-old daughter Farah. When he isn’t writing in his home office or being a dad, his time is divided between speaking engagements and his foundation, of which his wife is co-founder and chairperson.

Hosseini has made three trips back to Afghanistan in the past six years in his role as a goodwill envoy. Through the UN and his organization, his team provides shelter for Afghan families, employment opportunities for women and education for children.

This year his goal is to visit Europe to help Afghan children who have been sent there by their families. The hope is that they’ll find work and provide financial assistance to relatives still in Afghanistan, but “very often they get picked up on the street and end up in detention centres, and then they’re deported back home,” Hosseini explains. “These are minors whose lives are put at great risk and end up being exploited by smugglers. And they go back to Afghanistan without any kind of viable plan to reintegrate with society.”

The mission of Hosseini’s foundation has always been to help those who are most vulnerable, he says. And his audience has always been young people. “We really want to expand their notion of community, to encourage them to see themselves as part of a much bigger community than their zip code, their city, perhaps even their country.”

For the people of Afghanistan, goodwill isn’t just a gesture but key to their survival. Their needs are enormous, Hosseini says. “These people that we’re trying to reach are living in a country that was, even in its heyday, one of the poorest in the world, and is today the most impoverished non-African nation in the world. I really am interested in reaching out to young people and letting them know that nothing that you do for other people is insignificant. Nothing is too small.”

This article appeared in Chatelaine (June 2013).

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