The Kite Runner begins with our thus-far nameless protagonist explaining that the past cannot be forgotten. A single moment in time defined him and has been affecting him for the last twenty-six years. This moment was in 1975 when he was twelve years old and hid near a crumbling alleyway in his hometown of Kabul, Afghanistan. When the protagonist's friend, Rahim Khan, calls him out of the blue, he knows that his past sins are coming back to haunt him even in the new life he has built in San Francisco. He remembers Hassan, whom he calls "the harelipped kite runner," saying "For you, a thousand times over." Rahim's words also echo in his head, "There is a way to be good again." These two phrases will become focal points for the rest of the novel and our protagonist's story.
The protagonist remembers sitting in trees with Hassan when they were boys and annoying the neighbors. Any mischief they perpetrated was the protagonist's idea, but even when Hassan's father, Ali, scolded Hassan, he never told on the protagonist. Hassan's father was a servant to the protagonist's father, Baba and lived in a small servant's house on his property. Baba's house was widely considered the most beautiful one in Kabul. There Baba held large dinner parties and entertained friends, including Rahim Khan, in his smoking room. Though the protagonist was often surrounded by adults, he never knew his mother because she died in childbirth. Hassan never knew his mother, either, because she eloped with a performance troupe a few days after his birth. The protagonist always felt a special affinity with Hassan because he too was motherless. It was not a surprise that Hassan's mother, Sanaubar, left Ali. The only things these first cousins had in common were being of the Hazara ethnicity and the Shi'a religion. Otherwise, Sanaubar was nineteen years younger than Ali, gorgeous, and reportedly promiscuous. Meanwhile Ali was a pious man afflicted by paralysis of the lower face muscles and a crippled leg. Rumor had it that Sanaubar taunted Ali for his disabilities just as cruelly as strangers and refused to even hold the infant Hassan because of his cleft lip.
One night, after hearing so many insults thrown at Hassan because he was Hazara, the protagonist secretly read a summary of Hazara history. He found out that the Hazara people were descended from Moguls, owing to their flattened, "Chinese-like" facial features. The Hazaras were brutally oppressed throughout their history for being Shi'a instead of Sunni Muslim. His own people, the Pashtun, oppressed the Hazaras. The protagonist wondered why Baba had never told him any of this. He pitied Hassan for being a hated minority because he was an unusually gentle and kind person, "incapable of hurting anyone." In lieu of the boys' mothers, a kindly woman nursed and sang to both of them. Ali used to remind the boys that they were bound together because they had "fed from the same breasts." The boys were indeed like brothers. The protagonist explains that his first word was "Baba" while Hassan's was his name, "Amir." He says that the event that transpired in 1975, to which he alluded in Chapter One, was "already laid in those first words."
Amir describes Baba as being a huge and intimidating man who stood six feet, five inches tall and was purported to have wrestled a bear because of the long scars on his back. Despite his huge size, Baba was softhearted. He even devoted three years to funding and building an orphanage. Amir was proud to have such a successful father. Together with Rahim Khan, Baba owned several successful businesses and he had also married well; Amir's mother, Sofia Akrami, was a highly respected and educated poetry professor of royal descent. However, Baba's successes took him away from home and from Amir most of the time. When he was present, he was usually aloof.
One day in school, a Mullah or Muslim teacher told Amir and his classmates that drinking was a sin. When he got home, Amir asked Baba, a frequent drinker, about what the teacher had said. Baba told Amir that ultra religious people were not only wrong in their convictions but dangerous. He said, prophetically, "God help us all if Afghanistan ever falls into their hands." Then he explained to Amir that the only sin is stealing, whether a piece of property or a life. Baba knew about having things stolen firsthand; his father's life was stolen by a thief who stabbed him to death while robbing his house. Amir was grateful that Baba spoke to him so personally, but felt a simultaneous guilt for not being more like his father. He always felt that Baba hated him a little for 'killing' his mother as he was born.
Because Baba was aloof and often absent, Amir turned his attention to books. By the age of eleven, he could recite more poetry than anyone in his class at school. Baba wanted Amir to be an athlete like him, but Amir was not talented at soccer and did not have an interest in Baba's choice sport. Once, Baba took Amir to the yearly Buzkashi tournament. Buzkashi is a traditional Afghani sport in which a "highly skilled horseman" called a chapandaz from one team must retrieve an animal carcass from inside the other team's stampede and drop it in a special scoring circle while being chased by chapandaz from the other team who try to steal the carcass from him. As they sat watching the tournament, Baba pointed out Henry Kissinger, who was sitting in the bleachers, to Amir. Before Amir had a chance to ask Baba who Henry Kissinger was, one chapandaz fell off his horse and was trampled to death. Amir cried all the way home while Baba tried unsuccessfully to hide his disgust at his son's weak disposition. Back at home, Amir overheard Baba complaining to Rahim Khan about how Amir was always lost in his books and did not stand up for himself. Rahim Khan told Baba that he was self-centered, but Baba maintained that Amir was "missing something." Amir heard him say, "If I hadn't seen the doctor pull him out of my wife with my own eyes, I'd never believe he's my son."
Though brief, Chapter One of The Kite Runner sets the tone for the entire novel. Before we know anything about the protagonist, including his name, we learn that one moment in his past has defined his entire life. We do not learn exactly what the moment is until Chapter Seven. This tells us that the event has significance beyond its detail; it is not so much specifically the rape, but more generally the betrayal, that makes that moment in time so central to Amir's life. We also discover in the short first chapter that Amir has been trying to forget his secret for the last twenty-six years. His betrayal of Hassan haunts him continually throughout his life, but it is not until he is 'caught' that it spurs him to action-and then, very reluctantly. When Amir thinks he is alone with his secret, he can pretend it does not exist. Once he finds out that Rahim Khan knows what he did, he cannot hide from it anymore. Khaled Hosseini makes extensive use of foreshadowing in The Kite Runner, including Baba's statement, "God help us all if Afghanistan ever falls into [the religious fundamentalists'] hands," which anticipates the Taliban's takeover decades later. Hosseini's use of foreshadowing connects him to the genre of magical realism. Even though there are no supernatural events in the novel, there is an underlying sense that every action has significance and must come full circle.
From the foreshadowing in Chapter One, we can surmise that Amir's guilt has something to do with Hassan. That an event involving Hassan has defined Amir's entire life indicates Hassan's monumental importance as a character. Amir feels powerless as a child, so he takes out his frustrations on his unsuspecting best friend. He lords his privileges and his education over Hassan, but in reality it is Hassan who has power over him. We can tell this even from the title, which refers to Hassan (though also to Amir at the story's end). The most obvious indicator of Hassan's importance is the fact that Amir does not mention his own name until he reveals that it was Hassan's first word. It is as though Amir as we know him does not exist without Hassan, as though Hassan's voice-representing his influence-made Amir come into being.
The theme of loyalty is central to the novel. Amir's lack of loyalty to Hassan is what keeps him rooted to that one moment in the winter of 1975. Hassan's unflinching loyalty to Amir is what results in his rape, his leaving Wazir Akhbar Khan, and one could argue, his death many years later. We learn the basics of Amir and Hassan's relationship early on, as embodied in their mischief making. Amir is a child of privilege who wants attention, so he feels safe and even entitled to getting into trouble. Yet his insecurity and fear of Baba makes him unable to stand up for himself or take credit for his mistakes. In contrast, Hassan is a servant who has a very close and constant relationship with his father, Ali. Ali has taught Hassan to be so righteous and loyal that he would not dream of starting trouble and does not hesitate to cover up for Amir. As we learn, Hassan is so determined to protect Amir and not to cause anyone grief that he keeps his rape a secret. The difference between Amir and Hassan underscores the connection between loyalty and family. Hassan is loyal and long-suffering just like Ali, who kept the secret that Baba had an affair with Sanaubar and that Hassan was not his biological son. Amir betrays Hassan just as Baba betrayed Ali, and like Baba, Amir must suffer for what he did and pay retribution.
The theme of loyalty is connected to the theme of silence and secrets. Remaining silent about injustice is Ali and Hassan's way of showing loyalty to Baba and Amir. The story of The Kite Runner is filled with things untold or unspoken. Baba's adultery, Hassan's rape, and Amir's betrayal of Ali and Hassan are examples of things untold. One major unspoken thing in the boys' household is the difference between Pashtuns and Hazaras. Amir does not even know why the Pashtuns demean the Hazaras until he secretly reads a history book. It is only twenty-six years later, when General Taheri refers to Sohrab as a "Hazara boy," that Amir breaks his silence about this issue and demands respect for Sohrab. Another major unspoken truth in the household is the lack of mothers. Sanaubar gets little attention until the end of the novel, when she reappears in Hassan's life and redeems herself by caring for Sohrab. Baba maintains such silence about Amir's mother, Sofia Akrami that he assumes Baba blames him for her death. He learns more about her from the beggar in Kabul than he ever did from his own father. The key secret keeper and revealer in the story is Rahim Khan, who protects secrets for Baba, Ali, Hassan, and Amir. Ultimately, he is the one who insists on Amir's redemption.