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Bestselling Afghan author draws crowd at Brenau event

POSTED: October 28, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Tom Reed/The Times

Afghan author Khaled Hosseini prepares to sign a copy of his book "A Thousand Splendid Suns" for Paula Nirschel Thursday night at a reception at Brenau University.

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International bestselling author Khaled Hosseini graced the stage of Brenau University’s Pearce Auditorium Thursday evening to the delight of a sold-out audience.

Hosseini, who penned "The Kite Runner" and "A Thousand Splendid Suns," engaged in a candid conversation with a Brenau graduate about Afghanistan’s past and future, drawing the largest crowd in Brenau history, said Ed Schrader, president of Brenau University.

It took all of Pearce Auditorium plus three on-campus overflow venues to accommodate the hundreds of fans, many of whom viewed the author and humanitarian speaking live via simulcast.

Schrader introduced Hosseini by saying his novels have helped Americans to understand the country of Afghanistan, which is so pivotal in this time of war and economic uncertainty.

"These books have been nothing less than inspirational and extremely informative," Schrader said of Hosseini’s novels.

Hosseini took the stage with Maria Ebrahimji, a 1998 Brenau graduate, who is director and executive editorial producer for network booking at CNN in Atlanta. During her decade with CNN, Ebrahimji has been involved with numerous international stories focusing on Middle East issues.

Rather than Hosseini espousing the cultural and political facets of Afghanistan from a podium, Ebrahimji asked questions of Hosseini regarding his childhood in Kabul, his approach to writing — which he described as "compulsive" — and the real life people who inspired the characters of his novels.

"This is my first time to Gainesville," Hosseini said. "I have a phobia of chickens, actually. I wouldn’t do well here."

As the son of a father who was a foreign diplomat and a mother who taught languages and high school history, Hosseini recalls he’s been writing short stories ever since he "could pick up a pencil." Although he said he grew up in a "fairly affluent family" in Kabul, poverty and injustice were always apparent in the third-world country.

Hosseini, 43, related his memories of coming to California as a 15-year-old. He said to his father’s great joy, Ronald Reagan just had been elected president, and Hosseini likened high school to Dante’s "Inferno."

Now a U.S. envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Hosseini said he didn’t understand much of American politics at the time.

"I just knew Reagan was going to stand up to the Russians and support the Afghans," he said.

But it’s largely the time he spent in Afghanistan that shaped the plots and characters of his novels, which have given Americans and readers the world over a glimpse into Afghan culture.

He joked his recipe for a novel — "a dark story in a country that people know very little about, where all the good guys usually die" — would typically have been a bust.

Hosseini said as a child, he found joy in flying kites. He said he drew from the memories of his own youth to develop the two young boys in "The Kite Runner," who come of age in Kabul during a time of violent turmoil.

"There’s bits and pieces of me all over the pages," he said. "... For me, the kites are emblematic of a time in Afghanistan that is now gone, before (Osama) bin Laden ... before the terrorists. ... There was an Afghanistan before all of this happened, and it’s gorgeous and lush, and there’s waterfalls in the mountains."

Following a visit to Afghanistan in 2003, Hosseini penned "A Thousand Splendid Suns" to communicate the plight of Afghan women to the outside world. In his second novel, he tells of the women’s fears and hopes while addressing the oppression of Afghan women in education.

"I wrote the story so fearful that people would read the story and see the guy on the page struggling so hard to write for a woman," Hosseini said.

"The Taliban did not bring a new radical ideology to Afghanistan. The truth is, it goes back a long way," he said.

Eighty percent of women are illiterate in Afghanistan, Ebrahimji said. Hosseini added that the life expectancy of women in Afghanistan is 45 years old, while that of men is 47 years old, bucking the international trend of women outliving men. He said the anomaly is due to poor women’s health care, particularly in childbirth. In addition, he said 60 percent of Afghan girls are married younger than 16, which is the legal age of consent in Afghanistan.

Hosseini said education is perhaps the primary story of positive change over the past few years in Afghanistan. He said 6.5 million kids have enrolled in schools since 2002, 40 percent of whom are girls.

Paula Nirschel, founder and director of the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women, attended the discussion. She has helped 46 Afghan women to receive scholarships at universities in the United States.

Three of those girls, Shamim Siddiqi, Najia Nasim and Khadija Safi, attend Brenau.

Siddiqi, who came to Gainesville from Kabul, listened intently to Hosseini Thursday, and said his words on stage changed the way she felt about his novels.

"When I read ‘The Kite Runner,’ I was disappointed," she said. "I like him now because his thoughts were very positive."

Siddiqi said she felt his novels painted Afghanistan and its women in a very dark, suffering light. She said it was his message of hope that changed her mind.

"Afghans are a remarkably resilient people," Hosseini said. "They’re a positive, hopeful people filled with optimism and strength.



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