I just finished reading the book, A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini. I loved this book as much as I loved Hosseini’s book, The Kite Runner. Set in Afghanistan over a period of about 40 years, this story tells of two women, Mariam and Laila, and how their two lives painfully intersect against the backdrop of one Afghanistan’s most volatile and violent periods in recent history.
After reading Hosseini’s two books, I feel like I better understand the history and culture of Afghanistan. The book starts out with a five year old Mariam. She lives with her mother in a hut, or kolba, outside of a small city called, Herat. Mariam is a harami, or illegitimate child. Her father, Jalil, is the richest man in Herat and Mariam’s mother was his servant when he impregnated her. Rather than bearing the shame of conceiving a harami, he sent Mariam’s mother to live outside of town. Jalil visits Mariam once a week and Mariam adores these visits with her father. Despite her mother’s repeated warnings that her father is not the man she thinks he is, Mariam chooses to believe that her father loves her and would do anything for her. Mariam finds out that this is painfully untrue when her mother dies and Jalil refuses to take care of her or let her live in his house. Jalil’s three wives devise a plan to get Mariam out of their hair and to stop bringing shame on their family. Mariam is married off to a much older man named Rasheed and sent to live a reclusive life in Afghanistan’s biggest city, Kabul.
Years later, as Soviet bombs drop in Kabul, Laila is born. Laila grows up reeking the advantages of Communist rule. Mainly that being female doesn’t hold her back from enjoying a lot of freedom and being well educated. Laila’s older two brothers go off to fight the Soviet soldiers and she is left alone with her doting father and emotionally neglectful mother. Laila’s best friend, Tariq, is a victim of a Soviet landmind, and despite having an artificial leg, is her protector. When the Americans come and help the Afghans defeat the Soviets, Laila and her family cheer as the Soviets leave Kabul, naively thinking that they will finally be enjoying peace. However, break-off Afghani tribes quickly begin fighting each other for power and not only does the violence continue, it escalates.
When they are teenagers, Tariq’s family leaves Afghanistan for the safety of Pakistan. Laila’s family stays even though her father feels it would be better to leave. One day a missile aimed at Laila’s house kills her parents and nearly kills her. Her neighbors, Rasheed and Mariam, rescue her, nurse her back to health. Laila receives word that Tariq and his family were killed and soon Laila joins the family in as Rasheed’s second wife. Laila has no other choice because marrying Rasheed will keep her save. With no living relatives she would be homeless and vulnerable to being raped or killed. At first Mariam and Laila are bitter rivals. Soon they become as close as mother and daughter.
To say more would be spoiling the ending of this fantastic book. Most of all I came away from reading this book feeling a tremendous gratitude for being born in America, where, as a female, I take for granted the life that I live. Especially after the Taliban takes over Kabul, you see just how badly females were treated under their rule. Life stock was treated with more respect. Not only were women required to wear burquas whenever they left the house, if another man saw their face who was not their husband, they could be killed. They couldn’t leave the house without a male relative. If they did, they would be beaten. They were not allowed to be educated. They could only be seen my female doctors. That makes it kind of difficult when women weren’t allowed to work. The hospitals they were able to go to were places in squalor without adequate water, medications, or human decency. If a woman was raped, she could be killed by her family in an “honor killing” to save face. These are human atrocities that I could never imagine.
The husband in the book, Rasheed, is a violent man who brutally beats Mariam for not providing him the son he desires. He beats her physically and he beats her down emotionally until she truly believes she is nothing. When Laila joins the family he pits them against each other by treating Laila like a Queen in the home and Mariam as her servant. After a few years, Mariam and Laila become close as they protect themselves against Rasheed’s cruelness. Laila’s friendship and her daughter Aziza’s love, save Mariam from feeling like she lived a wasted life. My favorite passage in the book is when Mariam reflects over her life:
She thought of her entry into this world, the harami child of a lowly villager, an unintended thing, a pitiable, regrettable accident. A weed. And yet she was leaving the world as a woman who had loved and been loved back. She was leaving the it as a friend, a companion, a guardian. A mother. A person of consequence.
Mariam and Laila’s story is fictional. However, there are probably thousands of Mariams and Lailas who have suffered due to the wars in Afghanistan and the oppressive culture. Despite all the progress that has been made in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban by the Americans in 2001, the misogynistic culture is still hard to overcome. Just within the last week, the Afghani government tried to pass a law that would require women to have sex with their husbands at least every four days. Marital rape does not exist to them. The wonderful thing we saw happening was women protesting in the streets. Social progress is happening.
I would recommend this book to anyone who not only desires to read a wonderful book, but anyone seeking to understand Afghanistan’s history and culture. Hosseini is truly a master of story telling. You will get lost in his world.