Monday, March 17, 2008

A story of women in Afghanistan

It is difficult to write a review about A Thousand Splendid Suns without wanting to make comparisons to Khaled Hosseini's first novel, The Kite Runner, even though the two books are mutually exclusive. One doesn't have to have read The Kite Runner to understand A Thousand Splendid Suns, and in fact the two books are quite different.

The similarities lie in the way the story is told, in that Hosseini begins the story in an Afghanistan very unlike the one we read about in the newspapers today. A Thousand Splendid Suns begins in the 60's with Mariam, a harami, the illegitimate child of a rich man. Her father is never able to fully claim her and when her mother dies she is forced into an arranged marriage that will move her far away from her father and enable him to forget the shame that lies in her very being. Mariam is moved to Kabul, where she is treated kindly at first by her new husband. However, he is very strict, expecting her to where Burqa long before the Taliban comes to power and makes it mandatory for all women.

In the book we see Afghanistan transformed from a very modern city, where women are treated as equals with (most) men. It then goes through the period where Afghanistan is at war with Russia, and the story changes from Mariam to Laila. Laila is only 14 when her friends have all moved from her childhood neighborhood to escape the war. Just as her family is preparing to leave themselves, their home is shelled and both of her parents are killed. She is rescued by Rasheed, Mariam's husband, and forever after their lives are entwined.

Once the book reaches this point it takes on a much quicker pace, switching back and forth from Mariam to Laila, telling the story of their life together from each of their perspectives, which eventually becomes one and the same. Once the Taliban takes over we see a stark contrast between the Afghanistan of before and the Afghanistan of today.

"They want us to operate in burqa," the doctor explained, motioning with her head to the nurse at the door. "She keeps watch. She sees them coming, I cover."

She said this in a pragmatic, almost indifferent, tone, and Mariam understood that this was a woman far past outrage. Here was a woman, she thought, who had understood that she was lucky to even be working, that there was always something, something else, that they could take away.

Reading this book was difficult for me as it was told from the perspective of women. I could almost tangibly feel their anger mounting. They try everything humanly possible to get away from the horrible situation, but they are always betrayed.

Mariam thinks back to that long-ago morning when Mammy had said to her, "Like a compass needle pointing north, a man's accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that Mariam."

For them, these experiences really put their lives into perspective. They realize they really don't have any other option. And their husband helps them to see that, always pointing out that without him they'd be out on the street or dead because neither is able to work, nor are they able to be in public without a male companion without risking being severely beaten.

Mariam heard the answer in his laugh: that in the eyes of the Taliban, being a communist and the leader of the dreaded KHAD made Najibullah only slightly more contemptible than a woman.

If you are interested in Afghanistan, it's culture and it's people, both before and after the last 20 years of conflict, I highly recommend Hosseini's books. He tells the stories of normal people, and he tells it with a balanced hand I don't think would be possible by westerners who probably wouldn't be able to write without showing their outrage by such treatment of women.

Other blog reviews of this book:
Maw's Books

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