The period is December 2001, and our narrator, who tells his story in the first person, recalls an event that occurred in 1975, when he was twelve years old and growing up in Afghanistan. He does not say what happened, but says the event made him who he is. He follows this recollection by telling us about a call he received last summer from a friend in Pakistan named Rahim Khan. Rahim Khan asks our narrator, whose name is Amir, to come to Pakistan to see him. When Amir gets off the phone, he takes a walk through San Francisco, where he lives now. He notices kites flying, and thinks of his past, including his friend Hassan, a boy with a cleft lip whom he calls a kite runner.
As children, Amir and Hassan would climb trees and use mirrors to reflect sunlight into a neighbor’s window, or they would shoot walnuts at the neighbor’s dog with a slingshot. These were Amir’s ideas, but Hassan never blamed Amir if they were caught. Amir lived with his father, Baba, in a lavish home in Kabul. Meanwhile, Hassan and his father, Ali, lived in a small mud hut on the grounds of Baba’s estate, and Ali worked as Baba’s servant. Neither Amir nor Hassan had a mother. Amir’s died giving birth to him, and Hassan’s ran away after having him. One day while the boys are walking, a soldier says to Hassan that he once had sex with Hassan’s mother, Sanaubar. Sanaubar and Ali were an unlikely match. Ali was a devout reader of the Koran, the bottom half of his face was paralyzed, and polio destroyed the muscle in his right leg, giving him a severe limp. Sanaubar was nineteen years younger than Ali, beautiful, and reputedly immoral. Most people thought the marriage was arranged by Sanaubar’s father as a way to restore honor to his family. Sanaubar openly detested Ali’s physical appearance. Five days after Hassan was born, she ran away with a group of traveling performers.
The soldier refers to Hassan as a Hazara, which we learn is a persecuted ethnic group in Afghanistan. The Hazaras originally came from further east in Asia, and their features are more Asian than Arabic. Hassan’s parents were Hazara as well. Amir and Baba, on the other hand, are Pashtun. Once, while looking through history books, Amir discovered information on the Hazara. They had an uprising during the nineteenth century, but it was brutally suppressed by the Pashtuns. The book mentions some of the derogatory names they are called, including mice-eating and flat-nosed, and says part of the reason for the animosity is because the Hazara are Shia Muslim while the Pashtuns are Sunni Muslim.
Amir mixes his memories of Baba in with this information. Baba was a large man, six feet and five inches tall with a thick beard and wild, curly hair. According to one story, he even wrestled a bear once. Baba did all the things people said he could not do. Though he had no training as an architect, he designed and built an orphanage. Though people said he had no business sense, he became one of the most successful businessmen in the city. Though nobody thought he would marry well because he wasn’t from a prominent family, he married Amir’s mother, Sofia Akrami, a beautiful, intelligent woman who came from a royal bloodline. Baba also has his own strong moral sense. While Baba pours himself a glass of whiskey, Amir tells him that a religious teacher at his school, Mullah Fatiullah Khan, says it is sinful for Muslims to drink alcohol. Baba tells him that there is only one sin: theft. Every other sin is a variation of theft. Murdering a man, for instance, is stealing his life. He calls Mullah Fatiullah Khan and men like him idiots.
Amir tries to please Baba by being more like him but rarely feels he is successful. He also admits to feeling responsible for his mother’s death. Since Baba likes soccer, Amir tries to like it as well, albeit unsuccessfully. What Amir is good at is poetry and reading. But he worries his father does not see these as manly pursuits. When he and Baba went to see a match of buzkashi, a popular game in Afghanistan in which a rider must put an animal carcass in a scoring circle while other riders try to take it from him, a rider was trampled after falling from his horse. Amir cried, and Baba could barely hide his disdain for the boy. Amir later overhears Baba talking to his business associate, Rahim Khan, the man that later calls Amir from Pakistan. Baba says Amir is not like other boys, and he worries that if Amir can’t stand up for himself as a child, he will not be able to do so as an adult.
The first three chapters set out the basic facts of the story, including who the major characters are, their backgrounds, and what their relationships with each other are like. The section also establishes a context for the information: Amir, our narrator, is an adult living in the United States and looking back on his childhood years in Afghanistan. In fact, history is an important theme in the novel, and looking back on the past is a recurring motif. That’s because, for Amir, the past is not over. He believes it to be a fundamental part of who he is, and no matter how far he is in time or location from his childhood in Afghanistan, the events of that period are always with him. Though it remains unclear why, he feels a tremendous sense of guilt about those events, and he believes they shaped him into who he is. This guilt, in fact, informs the entire narrative. Appropriately, he opens the novel in the present then quickly jumps back in time.