31 July 2011

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Brief Synopsis
This novel tells the stories of two Afghani women in the period from the Soviet invasion in the early 1970s, through the civil war, the era of the Taliban, and the many years of war until 2003.

Thoughts and Reflections
I had intended to read this novel long ago. However, somehow, it ended up packed in a box and unread. Thankfully, the time to sort the boxes came and the book was once again discovered. I dove right in.

Though the focus on the novel is on the women, I appreciated the history lesson entwined in the plot and the depictions of the different ruling influences during this period of time. The Soviet years are both positively and negatively depicted. On the one hand, these years are good years to be a woman in Afghanistan. Women may wear what they please, be educated, and work. However, these years are also years of war, when many sons are lost in battle. The following years of civil war reveal corruption and a disappointed population. The causes for which their sons fought and died are lost in a corrupt battle for power. Then, the onset of the Taliban rule is at first celebrated. The Taliban are considered to be the end of war, good rule, and peace at least, but end up as brutal years, years of poverty and drought, and a terrible time to be a woman. The early 2000s appear as hopeful years, with the Americans pushing back the Taliban and asserting democracy over Afghanistan. However, corruption still rules. Warlords are rulers, only now with American approval. Nonetheless, the mood is one of peace, an understanding that the years of brutal conflict are at last over. A reader reading this book today, however, knows that Afghanistan will experience another 8 years of war and foreign occupation.
Islam is obviously present in the novel. However, the book does not cast any judgement on the Muslim religion or religious fundamentalism or make any comments on religious corruption. Mariam, for instance, is constant in her faith. Her piety stands in contrast to the injustices she experiences as a women under and Fundamentalist Islamic State. However, the author makes no judgement on Islam, neither condemning nor defending the religion.

The status of women is a constant theme in this novel. The novel has 2 protagonists, Mariam and Laila. Mariam was born a bastard daughter to a servant woman, who was spared being killed, but exiled out of Herat to live in a mud hut. Mariam`s father, a wealthy man in Herat, came weekly to visit her and play with her. Being removed from the social pressures of the city, Mariam did not completely understand her position in society, nor that she was considered a threat that had the potential to compromise the reputation of her father. She did learn this, however, at the age of 15, at the same time as the death of her mother. She was quickly married to a man older than her father and sent away to Kabul. This was the year of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the year Laila was born. In her marriage, Mariam failed to provide children. As a result, she was scorned by her husband and made little more than a servant.

Laila lived in a family with quite liberal ideas. Her education was valued and her father believed that the Soviet years were good years to be a women. Women could work, Laila`s father and Laila`s friends believed that Laila would do more than simply marry and have children, that she would do something important with her life. However, war resulted in the scattering of her friends, the death of her parents, and the shattering of her education. Rather than living on the streets, she agreed to become the second wife of Rasheed, Mariam`s husband. Laila had also slept with her long time best friend, Tariq, and had become pregnant. Her marriage to Rasheed was used to cover up the pregnancy.

These women lived in competition for a number of years. Laila first had a daughter, Aziza, the daughter of Tariq, then later a son, Zalmai, of Rasheed. The women eventually reconcile when Laila stands up for Mariam to Rasheed who is about to brutally beat her again.

Male-female relationships are discussed. At first, Rasheed seems to be a good man, giving Mariam time to adjust to his home. However, slowly, things begin to feel awry. Rasheed, being of stricter values, forces the women each to wear a burqa outside the home, believing that the face of a women is the business of her husband`s alone, even during the more open Soviet years. Eventually, through the civil war and the rule of the Taliban, Rasheed`s values begin to coincide with those of the government. The book goes onto explore the treatment of women under the Taliban. A list of rules issued by the Taliban is read, indicating that a woman must wear a burqa, that she must be accompanied by a male relative when outside the home, and so one. The women are forced into sexual activity with Rasheed, having no power to say no to their husband and experience incredible physical and emotional abuse from him. At one point, Laila and Mariam attempt to run away from Rasheed, but are betrayed and sent to the police and eventually home to Rasheed.  Whilst in the police station, the women indicate how badly they are treated and what will happen to them if they return to Rasheed`s home. It seems that many women at the time have attempted running away from their homes and husbands, but the policeman simply responds that the government does not interfere with the privacy of the home. The women have no legal action for the abuses they receive. The women have no legal rights inside or outside the home.

This issue of gender is also explored through Laila`s children, Aziza and Zalmai. Rasheed is obviously disappointed when Laila first produces a daughter, rather than a son. He has bought clothing and toys for a boy and refuses to purchase the necessary items for a girl. He does not acknowledge Aziza, fails to refer to her by name, and become impatient with the demands of a baby. During her pregnancy, Rasheed prayed many times for a son and constantly talked about the child being a son. Both women during their pregnancies felt a fear and pressure regarding producing a male child. Rasheed, once Laila produces a boy, Zalmai, is overjoyed and spoils the boy. He focuses all his attention on the boy and puts the family in debt in order to buy Zalmai toys. When Rasheed can no longer support the family for all his debt, he forces Laila to place Aziza in an orphanage, claiming that he can no longer feed everyone in the household. Fortunately, the orphanage is a good one and teaches girls, despite the fact that the Taliban forbids the teaching of girls.
The plight of these women is difficult to read. The lack of opportunities for them, the lack of legal rights is absolutely suffocating. The story of Aziza is heartbreaking. Laila, ever loyal to her daughter, and Mariam, as dedicated to Laila`s children as if they were her own, are a consolation in her sole consolation in Aziza`s story. The stories of Aziza and Mariam are ones that stand out most strongly in my mind, in part, because they are fatherless children and essentially scorned by society. However, they were both protected from this scorn by their parents. Mariam`s story is a sad story, but one with moments of goodness. For never giving birth to a child of her own, her final act is certainly one of maternal instinct. Aziza, happily, finds her father, and despite the pain and rejection of her childhood, she knows the love of her father and finds healing.

Eventually, the women are freed from Rasheed and Laila is able to live a life that she had only dreamed of in the many years of marriage with Rasheed. They leave the war-torn Afghanistan for the lush hills of Pakistan. However, in the early 2000s, the American`s seem to have pushed out the rule of the Taliban. Laila remembers the city and country of her childhood and longs to return, to return and help rebuild. This pull back to her home country is almost startling. She gives up the safety of Pakistan to return to the precarious Afghanistan. In many ways, it is a beautiful gesture and the book ends on a hopeful note. However, reading this book now in 2011, I know that Afghanistan experienced another 8 years of war. Certainly, the hopeful and bright ending, with this knowledge becomes bitter sweet.

This is a story of great loss. Every character`s life is marked with loss. This is a difficult novel to read and in general does not paint men very positively (interestingly, the author is male), focusing rather on the plight of women during this period. I enjoyed the novel. I enjoyed learning about Afghani culture and the experiences with the different powers that ruled from the 1970s until present day. The discussion of how much can change in such a short period of time is both interesting and terrifying. Nonetheless, the ending is hopeful. The future for Afghanistan is a hopeful one.

About the Author
Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1965. His father was a diplomat for the Afghan foreign ministry and in 1976, the family was relocated to Paris, France. Due to the Soviet invasion, the family did not return to Kabul as planned in 1980 and instead sought and were granted political asylum in the USA. They moved to San Jose in 1980. Khaled Hisseini attended Santa Clara University and received a degree in Biology in 1988. He went on to receive a Medical Degree in 1993 from the University of California -San Diego's School of Medicine. He practiced as a Doctor until 2004. He began writing his first novel, The Kite Runner, while practicing. He became a goodwill envoy for the UNHCR in 2006. A Thousand Splendid Suns was his second novel and published in 2007. He works to provide humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan through the Khaled Hosseini Foundation and currently lives in northern California.

Things I Loved About This Novel
1. Aziza and Mariam. Somehow, these two are paired in my mind. Their stories are both sad and happy.
2. The cultural information. Afghanistan has not been my topic of study and the media tells us little more than the situation of war in Afghanistan. I don`t believe I learned much new information about women in Afghanistan, but enjoyed the reminder about individuals and a culture.
3. The commentary on the different ruling powers from the 1970s until 2003.


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