“Salaam aleikum,” (peace be upon you) said Anjur, from across the room to the young Afghani man. “Wa aleikum salaam,” (peace be upon you too) responded Alireza Jawanshir.
Anjur and his Schenectady High School English 10H/IB classmates were at Union College a year ago, as part of the all-day event planned around the One County One Book choice, “The Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini.
Jawanshir, a serious and reserved young man of 26, shared his story of his escape from Afghanistan with the students. He came as a teenager to the United States in 2001 and said he “gained freedom but lost his family,” who remained behind in Afghanistan. His goal, he explained, is to educate young people as, he felt, older people are already set in their opinions.
This year’s 10H/IB trip to Union College is scheduled for April 9, the first day of Passover. Alireza’s goals reminded me of the story recounted on Passover about Moses leading the Hebrew people out of Egypt into the wilderness. After weeks without sufficient food, the people complained bitterly to Moses and he beseeched them to be patient and to trust in God’s ways. Eventually, God provided manna (breadfruit) for the people, but they were still not happy.
When Moses left them at the summit of Mount Sinai while he ascended to confer with God, the people below grew impatient and melted down their gold to create a golden calf to worship. When Moses descended with the tablets of the Ten Commandments, he was so angry at the scene before him that he smashed the tablets in anger. Those people who had transgressed were punished.
Before Moses ascended the mountain a second time, he made the people promise that they would obey God’s commandments. Even with that promise extracted, Moses would spend the next 40 years wandering around the wilderness.
Jewish comedians use this as material for jokes, but the intent was much more serious. Moses’ goal was to educate the young people, as the opinions of the older generation were already set in stone. He had no other choice but to let that older generation die out before deeming his people ready to enter the Promised Land.
Thousands of years later, young leaders, like Alireza Jawanshir, are still trying to educate the young. He reminded us that Afghanistan is not an Arabic country, but has an old and rich history. Islam is the predominant religion, but he said that other religions were practiced there as well, including Judaism. Judaism existed in Afghanistan thousands of years ago; there is only one known Jew still living there, but more than 10,000 Jews of Afghani descent in Israel. So, were I to meet such people, I would greet them with “Shalom aleichem” (peace be upon you) and be answered with “Aleichem shalom” (peace be upon you too), but in Hebrew, rather than Arabic.
The main themes of the novel “The Kite Runner” are atonement, redemption and family. The idea of atonement, to amend a sin or a mistake, is deeply rooted among many religions and ethnic groups. Humans have “to find a way to be good again,” as does the protagonist of the book.
Symbol and sport
The symbol of the kite represents youth, seen as a toy flown for fun in the wind at the end of a long string. But in Afghanistan, kite flying is a sport and was enjoyed by young men until it was banned by the Taliban regime. To be an expert flier, one must have a good kite, but also the right kind of string.
The string, as was explained in the book and echoed by Alireza, is embedded with glass and other materials whose contents are secretly guarded by the owners of the kites. The objective is to use your string to saw your opponent’s string in half, thus causing the kite to plummet to earth. A kite runner, a term invented by Khaled Hosseini, is one who chases after the fallen kite and retrieves it for the owner.
Alireza brought samples of his kites to share with the students. In a soft voice, he said that he still flies kites with his friends. Asked if he’d ever won a kite flying contest, he demurely, but proudly, answered that yes, he had and he still had the kite that he had flown to victory at age 14.
At the end of his talk, we all filed outside to join our guides for tours of the campus. One of my students was delayed and I hung back, waiting for her. As she came out of the building, Angela noticed that Alireza was going to fly one of his kites. As she and I walked to catch up with our group, we kept looking back in anxious anticipation.
Suddenly we were rewarded because there, against the blue March sky in the center of Union’s campus, Alireza’s red, black and white kite caught a gust of wind and soared heavenward. He had said earlier that his kites fly so high that we cannot see them. Angela and I kept glancing backwards up at the kite until we turned a corner and it disappeared from our sight.
But I knew that the image of that kite and Angela’s delight would remain in my memory forever. For his kite, like Alireza’s words, was a beacon, gliding and soaring on the wind, not seen by all, but inspiring those brave enough to see the truth.
Rosaline Horowitz teaches English in Schenectady High School’s International Baccalaureate program. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.
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