A few weeks ago, I ate my first pomegranate. The first task was to open it. After watching quite a few YouTube videos about how best to consume this tricky but delectable fruit (there seems to be a range of hotly-contested viewpoints on this topic amongst home videographers) I decided to defy those who advocated a more complex method. I took a risk and just cut it open. I was amazed at the luscious crimson colour of the seeds and the drops of juice which slid down my knife. The taste was incredible.
This fruit is at the heart of The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, which is perhaps one of the most popular novels published since the millennium. Its cover boasts that over 8 million people have read it and it is currently on the UK A level course in some schools.
I’m not one to argue with over 8 million people. This beautifully written and carefully crafted novel tells the recent history of Afghanistan through the eyes of Amir, who grows up in 1970s Kabul. He and his friend-servant, Hassan, spend the early years of the decade flying kites, reading, watching American films, and buying street food. Their favourite haunt is the top of a hill near Amir’s father’s luxury home. This is the site of an overgrown cemetery, with a pomegranate tree near the entrance. The boys claim the tree, carving their names and ‘sultans of Kabul’ into its bark, and eating its pomegranates.
As the boys eat the fruit, they read the story of Rostam and Sohrab from the Shahnameh. I am definitely not an expert in Persian literature, but I have found out that in this text, Rostam’s mother, Rudabah, is described as having a mouth and cheek as beautiful as a pomegranate. The fruit is therefore linked with the theme of lost mothers, which recurs throughout the novel.
In many cultures pomegranates conjure up ideas of abundance, fertility and happiness. In Judaism and Christianity, the pomegranate is said to decorate the robe of the High Priest after the Israelites left Egypt. Apparently pomegranates feature in Turkish and Persian wedding ceremonies. In the Qur’an, pomegranates are amongst the rewards given in paradise. If you visit http://www.pomwonderful.com/pomegranate-wellness/history/ you can find a long list of the religious and cultural uses of the pomegranate throughout history. These days, if you google ‘pomegranate’ you are more likely to find out about super-foods and diet plans than religious beliefs. But the idea is the same – the pomegranate is somehow associated with an abundance of life. Perhaps it is something to do with the overwhelming flavours and the dark beauty of the fruit’s skin. I can only imagine how much richer the fruit would be in the dry heat of Afghanistan rather than the damp cold of the north of England.
However, the pomegranate is also said to be the fruit on the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. That is, in some religions it is the fruit which led to death and the fall of mankind. In The Kite Runner the tree stands in a cemetery and so is reminiscent of death rather than life. And right from the beginning of the novel, the pomegranate symbolises the boys’ strained relationship and Amir’s petty jealousies. The fruit is described as ‘bloodred’, pointing forward to the violent events which are to come (don’t worry – I’m not going to spoil it for you here if you haven’t yet read it!). Later, Amir viciously pelts Hassan with overripe pomegranates.
The early section of the novel draws to a close in a nightmare of political instability. Russia invades Afghanistan in 1979. The Taliban seize control in 1996. After this Hassan sits under the pomegranate tree in the cemetery and remembers his friendship with Amir. But the tree has grown barren, just as the vibrant street life of Kabul has been curtailed.
The contradictory history of the pomegranate – bringing both life and death – seems to sum up the main idea behind the novel. Amir and Hassan’s friendship is messy and far from ideal – like most of the relationships in The Kite Runner – but somehow it survives political upheaval and personal betrayal. And throughout the novel, even as relationships and cultures come to an end, new possibilities are opened up.
Because I was so overwhelmed by the absolutely fabulous taste of the pomegranate, there is no recipe this week. Just go and eat a pomegranate. I recommend just going for it. But, if you want to procrastinate, watch some YouTube videos about how best to cut them open.