Trees and The Kite Runner
In 1992, the city of Sarajevo had 26,111 trees. Three years of war later, only 6,117 remained. Faced with a siege, the residents of Sarajevo had no choice but to cut down the trees to heat their homes, to cook their meals, to survive. Some time ago, I read a compelling quote that has stuck with me. It’s from Kemal Kurspahic, the editor in chief of a Sarajevo newspaper:
“Do whatever you can to stop the killing, to bring about peace, and then bring us trees.”
-Kemal Kurshpahic, Oslobodjenje, Spring 1998 Issue
(Also see Releaf Returns to Sarajevo)
This first thing on his wishlist was peace. Second up— trees.
The best-selling novel The Kite Runner focuses on another war-torn city, Afghanistan’s Kabul. Author Khaled Hosseini is describing a different city and a different war, but he still hits upon the loss of trees.
Part of his effectiveness comes from describing the many ways trees touched the lives of citizens in happier times. Descriptions and cameos of trees litter the entire novel. Although a particular pomegranate was prominent, it wasn’t the only tree accounted for in the book. A wealth of species – willows, pines, cypresses, cherries, apples, mulberries, gums, acacias, poplars, palms, persimmons, hibiscuses, loquats, birches and oaks- made appearances.
Trees were used to describe locales and landmarks. Jalalabad described as “the city of cypress trees and sugarcane fields.” A passage on Islamabad’s panoramic view mentions “rows of clean, tree-lined avenues and nice houses.” One of the main characters lived “[o]n the south end of the garden, in the shadows of a loquat tree.” Meanwhile, another character was buried “in the cemetery on the hill, the one by the pomegranate tree.”
Trees described people. The main character recalled sitting on his father’s lap as a child “like sitting on a pair of tree trunks.” He described his father’s strength by saying he had hands that “looked capable of uprooting a willow tree.”
Trees were used to portray affluence. A rich boy’s house was described as “a posh, high-walled compound with palm trees.” A family friend’s two-story home “had a balcony overlooking a large, walled garden with apple and persimmon trees.” Later in the novel, a character speculates on another’s privileged upbringing. Part of his tirade– the presence of fruit trees.
You probably lived in a big two- or three-story house with a nice backyard that your gardener filled with flowers and fruit trees. All gated, of course. Your father drove an American car. You had servants, probably Hazaras.
Trees were functional. Their fruit was ingested and their shade was enjoyed. The kites that were the namesake of the tale were also aided by trees. After the boys ran the kite strings through a “mixture of glass and glue”, they would hang “the line between the trees” to dry. The author even described how a snapped tree branch served as a credit card for two young boys.
Hassan and I would take the wooden stick to the bread maker. He’d carve notches on our stick with his knife, one notch for each load of naan he’d pull for us from the tandoor’s roaring flames. At the end of the month, my father paid him for the number of notches on the stick.
Trees illustrated the happy childhood of the two main characters. They chased each other “between tangles of trees” and “used to climb the poplar trees” to annoy their neighbors. The boys would respectively tell and listen to stories under a pomegranate tree. The same pomegranate tree documented the boys’ friendship in the form of their carved names and continued to do so for decades. Happiness and trees were so synonymous that at one point, one boy was able to cheer up the other simply by asking, “Do you want to go climb our tree?”.
In the book the main character escapes the turmoil of Kabul and eventually settles in America. After roughly 19 years, he returns to the city of his youth and is struck by the devastation. One change he definitely notices is the trees. When he first arrives in Afghanistan, he notes that “pine trees flanked the road, fewer than I remembered and many of them bare.” When he reaches the center district of Kabul, he discovered, “There weren’t as many palm trees there as I remembered.” At his childhood home “most of the poplar trees had been chopped down.”
As he had a somber reunion with his city and he watched children playing in ruins and mule-drawn carts swerve around debris, he had a question for his driver.
“Where are the trees?” I said.
“People cut them down for firewood in the winter,” Faris said, “The Shorawi cut a lot of them down too.”
“Snipers used to hide in them.”
A sadness came over me. Returning to Kabul was like running into an old, forgotten friend and seeing that life hadn’t been good to him, that he’d become homeless and destitute.
Because Hosseini had been consistently reminding us about the presence of trees throughout the story, this conversation has all the more impact. When I read The Kite Runner, I found myself coveting two things for the Afghan people– peace…and trees.
The former may be tricky, but there are numerous organizations already helping out with the latter.
Anthony Miller Plants an Apple Tree in Afghanistan (Photo by USDAgov)