The War-Wearied Women of Kabul
A Thousand Splendid Suns
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007
“Maybe you should write about Afghanistan again.… Tell the rest of the world what the Taliban are doing to our country.” In his best-selling first novel, The Kite Runner (2003), Khaled Hosseini’s protagonist, Amir, responded awkwardly to this suggestion. “I’m not quite that kind of writer”, he objected, uneasily.
In his new book, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini has become “that kind of writer”. But although Hosseini is unmistakably driven to tell the rest of the world what has been happening back home, his exploration of Afghanistan’s relentlessly gut-wrenching recent past is not confined to the notoriously repressive regime instituted by the Islamist Taliban on their arrival in Kabul in 1996. A Thousand Splendid Suns spans decades of Afghan hardship and strife. It opens in 1964, in Herat, Afghanistan’s third largest city, and closes in Kabul, in 2003. It catalogues the successive eras of the reign of King Zahir Shah, Mohammed Daoud Khan’s Republic, communist governance, internecine strife between various mujahideen factions after the withdrawal of Soviet troops, and the arrival of the Taliban. The narrative stays with its protagonists as they wait for the end of the war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, and as they follow the bombing of Afghanistan by the United States in the aftermath of 9/11. It also features the arrival of a UN peacekeeping force and the installation of Hamid Karzai as interim president in 2002. The consequences of these ceaseless upheavals are registered in Hosseini’s tale of lives devastated by wave after wave of brutal misrule, ravaged again and again by incommensurable extremities of pain and grief.
While The Kite Runner was almost entirely devoted to the depiction of the world of boys and men, A Thousand Splendid Suns is a book about the lives of women in Afghanistan’s deeply patriarchal society. From its opening page, the novel relentlessly exposes the injustices to which women are subjected. The story has two protagonists: Mariam and Laila. This double focus imparts breadth and balance to Hosseini’s representation of the problems faced by women across the country. Mariam is a harami, the illegitimate daughter of an already thrice-married rich man, forced to live in shame and secrecy on the outskirts of Herat. When her mother commits suicide, Mariam, aged 15, is promptly married off to Rasheed, an ageing and brutal shoe-maker based in Kabul. With Mariam’s arrival in the Afghan capital, the narrative shifts its focus to Laila, whose beginnings in life, in a house just down the street from Mariam’s, have been comparatively fortunate. Born into a loving and educated family, Laila benefits from the unprecedented opportunities provided for women under the Soviet occupation. As her father remarks, “Women have always had it hard in this country, Laila, but they’re probably more free now, under the communists, and have more rights than they’ve ever had before.” Laila is sustained by her close friendship with her neighbour and classmate Tariq, who lost a leg to a landmine at the age of five: when Laila is bullied by local boys, he defends her with “his unstrapped leg raised high over his shoulder like a sword.” But no life in this novel is left unmarked by the scars of war, and Laila’s precarious happiness begins to unravel as news arrives of the deaths of both her mujahideen brothers at the hands of the Soviets. Kabul soon explodes into civil war. Friends leave or die, blown apart by rockets on streets nearby. When a rocket kills both her parents, Laila, who only just survives, is taken in and nursed back to health by Mariam and her husband. But Rasheed, it soon emerges, has ulterior motives, and exploits Laila’s physical and emotional vulnerability to pressure her into becoming his second wife. From this point on Mariam and Laila’s lives become inextricably linked. The form of the novel responds to these new circumstances: Hosseini’s narrative alternates between the two women’s perspectives. The relationship is a rocky one at first, but Rasheed’s domestic violence, and the birth of Laila’s daughter, Aziza, forge a bond which eventually leads to an act of absolute self-sacrifice on the part of one friend for the sake of the other.
In the opening pages of the book, Mariam’s mother had warned: “There is only one, only one skill a woman like you and me needs in life… It’s this: tahamul. Endure.” Her cynical admonition turns out to be a tragically accurate forecast of the trials that await Mariam and Laila as wives to Rasheed. The wearing of the burqa is the first of the changes required by Rasheed: “For your own protection, naturally. It is best.” Both women experience the strangeness of seeing the world through a mesh screen. Hosseini’s representation of these episodes is impressively even-handed given the book’s mission to raise awareness about the injustice of such male prerogatives. He does not, as might have been expected, blankly dismiss the burqa as an unacceptable patriarchal imposition. Indeed, within a page of Mariam’s first burqa-clad outing, Mariam discovers, to her surprise, that the anonymity the garment provides, and the privacy it affords from prying eyes, are also comforting. Mariam and Laila are subjected to frequent domestic abuse. After one dreadful beating, Laila reflects that before life with Rasheed, she “would never have believed that a human body could withstand this much beating….” Horrific scenes punctuate the narrative with unremitting regularity. When pregnant, Laila is so terrified that she might not be able to summon love for Rasheed’s child that she comes close to using a bicycle spoke to abort the baby. In another appalling passage, the child is delivered by caesarean section in a women-only hospital in which doctors are required to operate in burqas, using rudimentary, unsterile equipment, and where there is no anaesthetic to numb the pain of the operation.
Lighter episodes relieve the narrative tension. Hosseini depicts Laila’s childhood in the same controlled and touching vein as marked the early chapters of The Kite Runner. An exalting trip to see the Bamiyan Buddhas, for instance, affects the reader both emotionally and symbolically. There are other reminders of Afghanistan’s threatened cultural treasure-trove. Laila’s father is moved to tears by a seventeenth-century poem about Kabul. It is from this ode to the city’s ancient beauty that Hosseini draws his novel’s title: “One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs/ Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.” Later on, in the midst of the carnage of war and the ravages of drought, it is a relief to read of even little (and imported) joys, such as the “Titanic fever” that “gripped Kabul” during the summer of 2000. In spite of the ban imposed by the Taliban, the film finds its way onto the city’s (also illegal) TV screens, and “there was Titanic deodorant, Titanic toothpaste, Titanic perfume, Titanic pakora, even Titanic burqas.”
Like The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns ultimately grants its characters and its readers a measure of hope. As the novel draws to a close, we are treated to an exhilarating wealth of good omens: a baby gives its first kick in Laila’s womb as dawn breaks on a newly rebuilt orphanage filled with children settling down to morning lessons. The dream of a peaceful Afghanistan, Hosseini insists, ought not to be relinquished.
This is not a book that works its magic by the strength of its style. Its sentences are clipped, transparent. There are few rhetorical flourishes, and those often come across as melodramatic self-indulgences, which ill befit the integrity and intensity of the characters’ suffering. There is something awkwardly sentimental about the way in which Hosseini constantly hints at later developments, or labours inherently moving moments. Hosseini’s great strength is plot, and his finely crafted storyline overrides the novel’s stylistic weaknesses. Where The Kite Runner strained to straddle two worlds (Afghanistan and America), a strong unity of place adds to this novel’s emotive force by reinforcing the sense of entrapment and claustrophobia that pertains to Mariam and Laila’s lives. A Thousand Splendid Suns involves the reader deeply in the lives of its characters, by sketching a detailed picture of their individual pasts and daily routines. The frequent use of Afghan words and phrases (shaheed for martyr, for instance, or nikka for wedding) adds crispness and poignancy to the depiction of Mariam and Laila’s world. By the time the plot tightens, the effect of Hosseini’s gradual weaving and meshing of storylines and personalities is breathtaking, the suspense almost unbearable.
Part of the book’s affective power derives from the immediacy of the reality to which it refers. It is, inevitably, in dialogue with the myriad news stories and documentaries which provide daily reminders that many of the fictional events described in A Thousand Splendid Suns are true – and true on a grand scale. Mariam and Laila’s lives are charted against the backdrop of recognisable political events, including some of the most shocking and emblematic journalistic images that have come out of Afghanistan in recent years, such as the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas by the Taliban in 2001 and the public executions held by the Taliban in Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium. Hosseini’s disclaimer that “The village of Gul Daman is a fictional place –as far as I know” draws attention to the novel’s close correlation of fiction and reality. Similarly, the novel’s Afterword explicitly evokes the real and ongoing Afghan refugee crisis: it tells of the author’s activities as US envoy to the UNHCR and invites the reader to find out more by visiting the organization’s website.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is a good and important book. It is good because it is a gripping, touching novel; it is important because it speaks for women who have long been (and many of whom continue to be) condemned to silence. It is a work committed to helping living people in whatever ways fiction can: it is, in fact, a humanitarian novel.
Scarlett Baron is a DPhil student in English literature at Christ Church, Oxford. She is writing about the influence of Flaubert on James Joyce.