As children in Afghanistan, Amir and Hassan would climb trees and reflect sunlight into their neighbors’ homes to annoy them, or else shoot walnuts at a neighbor’s dog with a slingshot. Hassan never wanted to do these things, but he would not deny Amir if Amir asked him, and if they were caught Hassan would always take the blame.
Amir begins his recollections with more characterization than plot, as Hosseini introduces the characters. From the start we see that Hassan and Amir are inseparable, but that Hassan is the more honest and courageous of the two.
Amir lives in a mansion in the wealthy Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul with his father, Baba. The house is decorated lavishly and always filled with Baba’s friends and the smells of smoke and cinnamon. In the living room is a photo of Amir’s grandfather hunting deer with the old king King Nadir Shah.
Amir’s social and familial standing are revealed – he is a wealthy, privileged child being raised by a single father with powerful connections. The smells are an image of Amir’s memory and nostalgia for his happy childhood.
Outside Amir’s house is a little mud hut where Hassan and his father Ali live. Though Amir and Hassan play together every day, Amir has only entered Hassan’s hut a few times. Amir explains that neither he nor Hassan grew up with a mother – Amir’s mother died giving birth to him, and Hassan’s mother ran away after he was born. Amir is one year older than Hassan.
Both the contrasts and the similarities between Hassan and Amir are made clear here – though Hassan is Amir’s closest companion, also raised by a single father, and similar in age, Hassan is still Amir’s servant and lives in drastically different conditions from Amir’s privileged upbringing.
One day Hassan and Amir were out walking when a soldier confronted them and claimed to have had sex with Hassan’s mother, whose name was Sanaubar. Sanaubar and Ali had been a strange couple – Sanaubar was nineteen years younger than Ali, beautiful, and had a bad reputation. Ali, on the other hand, was a devout Muslim whose face was partially paralyzed, and who walked with a bad limp because of polio. People thought that Sanaubar’s father arranged her marriage to Ali to restore her honor.
Amir expands on Hassan’s past and brings in some Afghan social constructs, particularly the gender double standard dealing with pre-marital promiscuity. Hosseini will critique Afghan society on this later in the novel. Ali is introduced as a saint-like figure, crippled and poor but religious, humble, and kind.
Some of the children mock Ali’s appearance and limp, and call him Babalu, or Boogeyman. Ali and Hassan are Hazaras, an ethnic minority in Afghanistan that is looked down on by the Pashtun majority (Amir and Baba are Pashtuns). The Hazaras have more Asian features, while the Pashtuns appear more Arabic. Another division between them is that the Hazaras are Shi’a Muslims, while the Pashtuns are Sunni. Amir once read a history book about a Hazara uprising in the nineteenth century, and how the Pashtuns put down the rebellion with “unspeakable violence.”
Hosseini introduces the Hazara and Pashtun conflict, which will be crucial to the plot. The Hazaras are shown as an oppressed minority – this is why Ali and Hassan are assumed to be “servant-class” despite their closeness with Baba and Amir, and why the wealthier Pashtun children mock Ali’s appearance. This “unspeakable violence” is only in history books for now, but soon it will return to Afghanistan.
Amir returns to describing Sanaubar, and he says that she mocked Ali’s appearance just as much as the Pashtun children did, but that Ali never retaliated with anger against his tormentors. Amir says that Hassan was born smiling, and had a cleft lip. Sanaubar saw her son, mocked him, and then ran away with a group of traveling entertainers five days later. Baba hired the same nursing woman that fed Amir to feed Hassan, and Ali often says that there is a special kinship between people who “fed from the same breast.” Amir says his first word was “Baba,” and that Hassan’s first word was “Amir.” Amir muses that perhaps everything that would later happen was already foretold by those two words.
Hassan is also portrayed as an almost saintlike figure, born smiling. Sanaubar leaves Ali in the first betrayal of the novel. The closeness of Amir and Hassan is emphasized by the fact that they “fed from the same breast,” and so are basically brothers. This makes the fact that one is wealthy and one is a servant seem even more strange and poignant, and shows how difficult it is to overcome old differences of religion and class in Afghanistan. Their first words imply that conflict will arise from Amir’s love of Baba and Hassan’s loyalty to Amir.