2007’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini offers a look behind the burqa.
As the less-heralded follow-up to Khaled Hosseini’s breakthrough novel “The Kite Runner,” 2007’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns” offers another view into life in 1970s and ‘80s Kabul, Afghanistan, only this time with a female perspective.
Hosseini, who was born in Afghanistan and forced to leave the country due to his father’s political affiliation, is determined to give the reader insight into the minutiae of life in pre-Taliban Kabul, in which the Western-crazed populace tested the boundaries of traditional Afghan society.
He realizes that most Westerners can only view Afghanistan through the images of war and violence that they see on TV. By humanizing his characters, Hosseini is able to highlight the struggle of the greater human condition.
The plot focuses on the young couple of Laila and Tariq and the middle-aged married couple of Mariam and Rasheed. Unable to conceive a child, Mariam and Rasheed fall into a loveless marriage, mired by emotional distance and abuse.
Hosseini does a masterful job of showing the plight of Mariam who, like women all over the world, is forced to suffer in silence with very little hope of improving her situation.
“Through the mouthful of grit and pebbles, Mariam mumbled a plea. Tears were leaking down her face.
‘CHEW!’ he bellowed a gust of his smoky breath slammed against her face. Mariam chewed. Something in the back of her mouth cracked.
‘Good,’ Rasheed said. His cheeks were quivering. ‘Now you know what your rice tastes like.’”
Excerpts such as these represent how Hosseini captures the pain of Mariam and Rasheed’s abusive marriage. Infertility, discontentment, and disagreeable cooking can be dynamics within any domestic relationship.
However, Afghanistan’s social practices allowed Rasheed to cover his wife in a burqa and keep her captive inside of her own home. Rasheed is not interested in using Muslim customs to protect Mariam and providing for her spiritual well-being—instead, he wants to punish her for representing the hopeless situation of their current predicament.
When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to support the socialist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, the country erupted in chaos. Like in “The Kite Runner,” Hosseini focuses on the destructive consequences of the Soviet invasion on Afghan society.
After Tariq is believed to have died of his wounds from a rocket attack while fleeing to the Pakistan border, Laila’s entire family is killed when their house is bombed. Although Laila survives, she becomes homeless without the means of providing for herself. To make matters worse, Laila was also pregnant with Tariq’s child. In desperation, she turns to Mariam and Rasheed, who begrudgingly allow her to enter into their dysfunctional home environment.
Eventually, Rasheed becomes sexually involved with Laila and takes her as his second wife. The Quran allows a man to take more than one wife as long as he can treat them equally well. Rasheed, however, was a man who was incapable of treating anybody well, his decision to marry Laila destroys any chance of reconciling his relationship with Mariam.
Mariam is now forced to suffer at the hands of jealousy and insecurity—along with the abuse—as she begins to focus her hostility on Laila. Eventually, Mariam bonds with Laila over her newborn child Aziza, and the two rebuild their fractured relationship. The four of them continue to live together as an odd unit eventually coming together as a family as the world around them continues to crumble.
Readers looking for a political thriller with large doses of action should not reach for “A Thousand Splendid Sons.” In some ways, it can be seen the Afghani equivalent of a slow English novel. Even when violence and calamity is all around them, individuals still have their own personal problems.
However, this is Hosseini’s goal—to humanize Afghanis and show the universally recognizable minutia of the moments which make up life. All of us appear to have our own insecurities and fears, trying to find solace in a troubled world.