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Friday, January 01, 2010

A Thousand Slendid Suns

“every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief”

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a novel that is at once both brutal and beautiful. Khaled Hosseini presents us with two ordinary Afghan women whose lives are extraordinary through their response to suffering.

From a certain point of view, we can read this novel as though we were perched high in the sky observing the intersection of several crossfires. One crossfire is that of Afghanistan itself, war torn and demolished by conflict. These are the real, literal bullets that rip holes in homes and leave children fatherless and mothers childless. Yet these bullets are often provided by nations that are many miles away, safe from the destruction, safe to play political games with a faceless people group.

This larger crossfire stretches from the former Soviet Union to the United States of America. Within this larger crossfire is a smaller, more dangerous crossfire. In this restricted space, the women of Afghanistan are the targets of spiritual, psychological, physical, and religious abuse by men whose pain, frustration, and warped religious fervor find release against the most vulnerable.

But out of the suffering, true character emerges, real love.


“‘And that, my young friends, is the story of our country, one invader after another,’ the driver said, flicking cigarette ash out the window. ‘Macedonians. Sassanians. Arabs. Mongols. Now the Soviets. But we’re like those walls up there. Battered, and nothing pretty to look at, but still standing. Isn’t that the truth, badar?’”

Kabul is the main backdrop for the novel. The reader walks along the streets of Kabul, visits an orphanage, a women’s prison, and even barters with the vendors in “Titanic City,” a market place that sprang up during the Afghanistan craze over the U.S. film Titanic.

The historical backdrop begins with the communist takeover in 1978, follows the mujahideen rebellion against the communist, the eventual withdrawal of Soviet Troops in 1989 and subsequent warlord rule and in-fighting of the mujahideen, traces the rise and fall of the Taliban and the United States’s post 9/11/01 war and military presence.

This background, however, comes to life. The power of the novel is to give human faces and voices to those who get lost in the political, military, and religious interests. These interests reduce human beings to a means to an end. When people become means to ends, conflict and violence resolutions come more naturally. Internationally, we in the U.S. can play chess for world domination by arming rebellions; domestically, behind the walls of Afghan homes, men can gain the upper hand over their wife with a fist to the face. The approach is the same: dehumanize the other.

Yet the recourse to violence can never deliver what we hope for. Violence begets violence. Jesus said that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. Ghandi said that an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth makes the whole world blind and toothless. Under the Reagan administration, the U.S. armed the mujahideen, which eventually resulted in the rule of the Taliban and deep-seated resentment of U.S. interference in the Middle East. The rise in militant Islam and terrorism came back to haunt the U.S., most obviously in the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

But more than simply a notion of retribution, the objective of violence (if there is any) fails in that violence dehumanizes the aggressor even more than the victim. We see this clearly in Rasheed. While only a teenager, Mariam is forced to marry the much older Rasheed. At first, Rasheed is hospitable, though certainly coarse and controlling. He takes Mariam around the city and even buys her “a pure gift,” a dark maroon silk shawl with beaded fringes and edges embroidered with gold thread. At first, Mariam balks at this gift. She is reminded of her father, who purchased gifts for her only as a matter of penance, a way to absolve him of the guilt of fathering Mariam, an illegitimate child. But Mariam looks at Rasheed’s face and discerns that he has given her this gift in a moment of vulnerability. He has put something of himself on the line, opened himself with this present. However, this vulnerability and easy manner of Rasheed with devolve into cruel rage and abuse.

When Rasheed realizes that Mariam cannot have children, he sinks into hatred and contempt. He resents Mariam and beats her. His violence turns him inward, away from the possibilities of love. Love could have made him whole. Acceptance could have turned their house into a home.


“Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam.”

I was intrigued by the author’s explicit reference to the Disney Pinocchio film. When Mariam is a young girl, her father Jalil enchants her with stories of the movie Pinocchio. Jalil owns a theater and the film is showing. Mariam wants to go see the movie. She wants it so badly that she walks all the way to her father’s village and waits on his doorstep for him. But he will not see her. She sleeps on his doorstep, and he will not receive her.

Through a series of events, Mariam’s trip to see her father results in her being pressured/forced to marry Rasheed. Many years later, in an attempt to reconcile with Mariam, Jalil tries to give her a Pinocchio video.

The Pinocchio motif lends itself well to many elements of the novel. In the Disney film, Pinocchio can become real only if he is brave, truthful, and unselfish. Pinocchio must navigate through temptations in a society where he is still a puppet, not yet human. Mariam, representing the women and mothers of Afghanistan, is viewed by the male-dominated society as sub-human, like a wooden puppet who is not yet a real boy. The country of Afghanistan, as well, could be said to be in pursuit of becoming real; however, having pursued this course by violent means, it has become entrenched and trapped in its own hostility.

“Seasons had come and gone. Presidents in Kabul had been inaugurated and murdered. An empire had been defeated. Old wars had ended, and new ones had broken out. But Mariam had hardly noticed, hardly cared. She had passed these years in a distant corner in her mind, a dry, barren field, beyond wish and lament, beyond dream and disillusionment. There the future did not matter, and the past held only this wisdom: that love was a damaging mistake and its accomplise, hope, a treacherous illusion….”

Mariam’s existence becomes wooden. Over time, she becomes Rasheed’s puppet. He pulls the strings. She stays home. She cooks. She cleans. She becomes Rasheed’s scapegoat, and he beats her when his aggression boils over.

It is love that begins Mariam’s transformation. Laila, the other protagonist in the novel, becomes Rasheed’s second wife. At first, Mariam is jealous and resents her; but eventually Mariam is able to open to Laila and Laila’s little girl, Aziza. Holding Aziza in her arms, she realizes the wonder of the love of a child. In that moment, Mariam becomes a mother.

“Mariam had never before been wanted like this. Love had never been declared to her so guilelessly, so unreservedly….And she marveled at how after all these years of rattling loose, she had found in this little creature the first true connection in her life of false, failed connections.”

Eventually Mariam is fully transformed, and she realizes the full beauty, her true radiance. At the time of her death, she reflects, and she experiences abundant peace.

“Though there had been moments of beauty in it, Mariam knew that life for the most part had been unkind to her. But as she walked the final twenty paces, she could not help but wish for more of it…..She would have liked that very much, to be old and to play with Aziza’s children.
Mariam wished for so much in those final moments, yet as she closed her eyes, it was not regret any longer but a sensation of abundant peace that washed over her. She thought of her entry into this world…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 it as a friend, as a companion, a guardian, a mother. A person of consequence….This was a legitimate end to a life of illegitimate beginnings.
Mariam’s final thoughts were a few words from the Koran that she muttered under her breath.
He has created the heavens and the earth with the truth
He makes the night cover the day and makes the day overtake the night
And he has made the sun and the moon subservient
Each one moves on to an assigned term
Now surely he is the mighty, great forgiver

For me, this was the most profound moment in the novel. I hesitate to include it in a review; the words feel so sacred, and taking them from their context almost feels inappropriate. Perhaps it is. But these words lead us to something deeply touching about humanity.

Love, Violence, and Hope

“Let me tell you something. A man’s heart is a wretched, wretched thing Mariam. It isn’t like a mother’s womb. It won’t bleed, it won’t stretch to make room for you.”

In our search for something more real, we human beings seem to find it in the face of love. And yet it is love that we so often cannot find. Some consciously seek love, some only seek love in very indirect ways. Some, like Rasheed, become so lost in their own despair and illusions that they wander far from love, and far from even any sense of the healing power of love.

I am struck that despite the fact that love is so often that which we seek, it is also that which so easily escapes us. We often try to control love, but love is beyond control. We try to manipulate others to gain love. We make ourselves loveable, or we give to others, hoping to earn love; but pure love will always elude manipulation. In frustration, we may try to force love, but love can never be won with violence. In resignation, we may withdraw and close ourselves to love, believing we are not worthy, believing love cannot be found.

Love is a surprise. We must open our hearts to love, but never try to grasp it.

For me, the most startling element of the story of Christ is that God would incarnate, emptying God of Deity. God chooses to demonstrate the nature of love by giving up control of love. Rather, Christ dies. This act of sacrifice asks nothing in return. Religion tries to capture this love in salvation formulas, creeds, or other forms of institutional control. But the act of love asks nothing, demands nothing, expects nothing. Christ’s love even defies Christianity’s attempt to contain it in its own religion. Christ’s love is only the openness of vulnerability. Love gives up its own love. Love opens its hands, neither clinging to others nor rejecting them. “Love always hopes.”

“It hurt to talk. Her jaw was still sore. Her back and neck ached. Her lip was swollen and her tongue kept poking the empty pocket of the lower incisor that Rasheed had knocked loose two days before. Before Mamee and Babee had died and her life turned upside down, Laila would never that a human body could withstand this much beating, this viciously, this regularly, and keep functioning.” (Laila)

Through all of the brutality of the novel, there is beauty. Mariam is “like a rock in a river enduring without complaint, her grace not sullied but shaped by the turbulance that washes over her.” There is “something deep in her core” that Rasheed and the Taliban cannot see—something hard like a block of limestone…“something that will be her undoing and Laila’s salvation.”

Despite the graphic violence, the novel ends with a sense of hope. But this hope is seasoned and wise. If Afghanistan (or any country) continues on a violent course, if the nations of the world see it as a political playground, then more violence will probably occur, more pain, more destruction and devastation. The situation is fragile. The hope, however, is living. It shines, like a thousand splendid suns in the radiance of the women who have endured the most suffering.

The novel closes with a sense from Laila about the fragile hope she has for the future and a poem by Hafiz:

Joseph shall return to Canaan, grieve not
Hovels shall turn to rose gardens, grieve not
If a flood should arrive to drown all that’s alive
Noah is your guide in the typhoon’s eye, grieve not


chris van allsburg said...

I'd like to read this book. I'm trying to get through Atlas Shrugged. Only 900 and some pages to go!

Jonathan Erdman said...

What leads you to read Atlas Shrugged? And how goes the reading? Anything interesting to report?

evan said...

I think this was a story that will stay in me, something to sit with, so to speak. When I try to come up with a comment for A Thousand Splendid Suns, I'm quieted by the fact that this is a tough, tough story. I'm made afraid by how believable it is, and it shouldn't be believable! What do I know about Afghanistan, Islam or the interpersonal interactions of typical Afghani women and men. Yet, this story clicked on something within me: "This happens. This happens everywhere. Including here. That is why this story is believable." 'This' being patriarchy, violence against women, violence on part of the state, despair, social manipulation etc. Looking around, though, these problems are so veiled! Sure, reading a story written by an Afghani-born doctor who has spent the better half of his life in the US, it is plain as day to see the social violence in his character's daily lives. But now I get up and say, "This won't go on in my community, no sir!" And then what do you do? We have what appears to be a smooth-running society! And there's a whole lotta murk.

I think though, this novel does a good help in elucidating important, important issues. Hosseini hints at a thin hope, I think, but just a thin one.

tamie marie said...

Jon, I believe this is one of the most beautiful posts you have written to date, perhaps one of the most beautiful pieces of writing you've written. You're clearly writing from your soul.

Your post took me back to the novel, and I, like Evan, find I don't have much to say. Maybe this is why fewer people are commenting on your blog these days. Because your words, coming from a deep place, have a quieting effect.

Of course, the novel itself has a quieting effect. I cried for a long time when I finished the book. Then I went to sleep, and when I woke, I hardly had anything to say.

It does happen, Evan my friend. If you want to find the women to whom it happens, go visit a jail. Or a church. Perhaps the first step, and the step we have to keep making every day, is to keep our heart as open as possible at all times, and to listen more than we speak. Because then, the people who are experiencing these things may find in us a safe place. And then we can go from there.

Thank you, Jon. Thank you for a beautiful novel, and a beautiful review.

tamie marie said...

Leaving one more comment so I can hit the comment box.

But also....with the hope of maybe getting conversation flowing....

Evan and Jon....what does it feel like to you two, as men, to read a book like this? I always wonder this. I mean, I am a woman so I can easily identify with the victims in the story. I, too, have been victimized by men, on a personal level and a structural/societal level. But I wonder what it is like to be a man. Does any part of you identify with the men in the story? Do you feel like you understand where the rage/abuse comes from? Or, on the other hand, do you feel like you really can't understand it at all? If so, how does it make you feel to know that so many of your gender are the violent ones? Why is it that men are far, far more often the abusive, violent ones in the world? Do you have any light to shed on this? Is there something in the system that wounds men in some way that they end up striking back like this? I'd love your insights.

evan said...

Those are a lot of hard, hard questions, and all at once! Yowzers.

As far as the story goes, there are parts of characters that I can identify with, sure. Parts particularly of Babi and Tariq. However, these two are also the characters Laila loves and trusts--it seems a greater effort is made through the narration to understand them, you know? However, abusive Rasheed seems to be viewed as incomprehensible, opaque. Did we have any clues to his childhood, family etc? I'm sure Hosseini meant to depict him to the reader as muddled and opaque because Miriam and Laila were more likely to view him that way, you know? The two women seemed absolutely clueless as to his rationality.

In the same way, I'm clueless in front of men like Rasheed. On a scale of Babi to Rasheed, my own father tips over onto Rasheed's side in terms of possessiveness, pride and combativeness... but not rage or any form of abuse.

Maybe I'm not the best person to answer this question, first. I really don't identify as firmly masculine. Of course, growing up in a society that is filled with violent men, characters like Rasheed are sad, yet certainly nothing new. But do I personally feel any connection to or understanding of where the rage/abuse is coming from? Really, not at all. Despite having grown up immersed in typical American boyhood, and I definitely have some insight into what goes on on the road to adulthood, but I really don't feel any clue as to the general topic of "rage and abuse," especially with an example like Hosseini's Rasheed to draw off. Hm.

Jonathan Erdman said...


You asked if there was anything that I (as a man) could relate to about the men in this story. You also asked.....well.....let me just use your words: "Why is it that men are far, far more often the abusive, violent ones in the world?.....Is there something in the system that wounds men in some way that they end up striking back like this?"

What I relate to is the sense in which the system shapes my expectations of what "maleness" means. The meaning of being a man is something that I realize more and more is a result of conditioning. I think I continue to see subtle ways in which I have been conditioned. The more I recognize these things, the more I can ask myself, "Is this something I really want? Or is it just something I have been conditioned to want?" So much of who we are is conditioning (perhaps all of what we are is conditioning), so becoming aware of these things and then developing some way of assessing a more authentic desire seems to be much of the work of being mature/self-aware/spiritual/enlightened/etc.

Like Evan, I cannot relate to the rage in Rasheed. Rasheed is clearly a desperate man. He becomes more so as the novel moves on. As the narrative progresses, we see that Rasheed has less and less control. Rasheed's personal flaws cause him great pain early in his life. He marries again, but his wife cannot produce offspring. Later, the country goes to hell, he becomes economically depressed, his country spins out of control, and his wives despise him. In desperation, Rasheed turns to the fundamentalist elements of his upbringing, channeling his anger into conforming reality into the way it is supposed to be: patriarchy, hierarchy, patriarchy. The women become the scapegoats. But this sends Rasheed into a psychological and spiritual tailspin from which he just degenerates.

Rasheed responds to his frustrations (being suppressed and oppressed and personal failure) by persecuting those below him. Violence goes down the power structure.

I think we all face frustrations in life, and I think we can all relate to responding in ways that hurt ourselves and others. This is something that I can relate to.

Sorting out how this relates to my gender can be a tricky thing. It seems like a process.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Some continued thoughts....

I think that To Kill a Mockingbird is illuminating. In the South (and in Macomb in particular), there was a strict hierarchy: white upper class, white middle class, white lower class, and people of color. Those of each class felt most threatened by the class just beneath them. Each class desperately wanted to maintain their spot in the hierarchy. Nobody stops to ask why. It's just how we are conditioned. Violence gets sent down the hierarchy. Sending violence up the hierarchy is a rebellion that the whole of society will suppress.....best to just be content and channel negative feelings down the hierarchy, to those beneath you.

But this comes from being wounded, I think. It wounds us to realize that we are less than someone else or some other class. It is wounding to come to grips with the fact that we will be defined based on our class, not based on individual and unique distinctives. Maybe we don't consciously realize this woundedness most of the time. We just send our negativity down the hierarchy in the form of violence (which is not necessarily physical; it can be as subtle as a condescending joke about some one/race/gender who is "beneath" us in someway).

The same thing seems to be at work as we define ourselves as men. Being a man is defined hierarchically: men are higher on the hierarchy than women. So wounded men send violence down the hierarchy in order to cope with woundedness and the many ways in which their freedom/dignity/self is denied. I certainly feel how this works. I also see it in others. I feel a good deal more self-aware now than I was 3, 5, or 10 years ago. I think much of my faith in recent years has been addressing this issue, much of this without me even recognizing it consciously. Faith has become a process of confronting my own woundedness/brokenness in a direct way, unflinching, and dealing with it by grieving, not with anger/frustration/withdrawal/denial or other negative coping mechanisms.

I think that the more I have dealt with my own woundedness in a direct way, the more it has made me aware of the woundedness of others. Rasheed strikes me as someone completely unaware of his own brokeness, with the result that he is ignorant of the extent of the suffering of others. It's like a perpetual violence, but of the sort that seems unaware of the depth of suffering that it is causing. Rasheed is arrogant, strutting around like he is in control. But he is clearly just a product of the system, out of touch with himself and with others, he is at the mercy of his vices and negative passions, turning violence against those who threaten his fragile ego and tenuous place in the hierarchy.

These are some of my thoughts.

Thank you for opening up these questions. I am now very interested in your response. What is your perspective? You have asked about the male perspective. You say that you can easily relate to the women/victims in the story. From that perspective, how do my thoughts on this subject appear? Is there any ring of truth to my thoughts and experiences? Does it seem to excuse men from culpability for their violence?

Another interest I have is to hear you talk more about what you admire in the women of this novel. What are the specific qualities and actions that inspire you? What specific things impressed you, personally?

And what else can we say about how men and women can move away from violence, subjugation, and oppression? What are the lessons from the novel? From your personal experiences and observations?

tamie marie said...

I just wrote a super long comment and lost it. Fuck. I must regroup and then I'll try again.

tamie marie said...

Fuck fuck fuck. I HATE losing stuff on the internet!

Sigh sigh triple sigh.

Okay, I'll try again.

Maybe this time I'll try several smaller comments. It'll be less of a loss this way, if it happens again.

The first thing I noticed is that neither of you, Evan or Jon, identified with Rasheed. Which makes sense to me because I don't see really much of Rasheed in either of you. I can certainly see a lot of Tariq in you, Evan.

But. Let me pose this question to you, Evan. Think about how you felt this last weekend, when you were pepper-sprayed by the police. I am assuming that you felt rage, although I guess I don't know for sure. I imagine you felt fear, shock, outrage, anger, emotions in that sphere. Now, imagine that you were consistently treated like that by people in power. Imagine you were treated like that for years and years, and that there wasn't much you could do to fight back. Next, imagine that at the end of all those years you were put in a position of power over the very people who had mistreated you for so long. How would you treat them, or at least be tempted to treat them?

If we're not historically aware, I think we often believe that if the oppressed gained power they would be kind and gentle rulers, since they understand what it's like to be abused. But the opposite is very often the case. Historically, it's very often the case that when the long-oppressed gain power they're ruthless rulers. Which actually makes sense, once you get what the experience of long oppression is like.

More in a sec.

tamie marie said...

I was talking to Deb the Wonder Therapist once about a family situation in which one of my uncles is abusive to his children. He rages, consistently places them in dangerous situations, enjoys spanking them, publicly demeans them, etc. I feel very poorly toward this uncle (what would I do if I was placed in a position of power over him? how would I treat him if he was suddenly incapacitated and I was his care-giver?). Anyway, I was talking with Deb and we were talking about how my uncle was also abused as a child.

Deb said that people who are violent are people who were once powerless and have not come to terms with that powerlessness.

I think it works like this. The experience of being oppressed, or violated by the people who should have been protecting you, creates all sorts of feelings: rage, self-loathing, confusion, feelings of worthlessness, hatred, sorrow, fear. As children we're unable to process those feelings. And, if abuse happens to us as an adult, but a powerless or oppressed adult, we're often still unable to process the experience. If it happens that people who have had such experiences are put into positions of power (say, they become parents--or bosses), then there is this unconscious feeling that they can finally seize the power.

It is incredibly difficult and incredibly painful to just sit with the abuse or oppression of the past and acknowledge that happened, it is terrible, and that it can't be changed. Forgiveness can happen, but no one can change the past. That is a very hard thing to really acknowledge to oneself. It is much easier to try to kind of retroactively try to undo the powerlessness, through acts of violence (controlling --exerting power over--others). Do you see what I am saying?

more in a sec.

tamie marie said...

Against all odds, I can actually identify with Rasheed to some small degree. I think that when I was a child I often felt powerless and afraid. When I became a teenager, and then later in my early 20s, I would sometimes have this experience when I was around young children where I would want to hurt them, or force them to bend to my will. I wanted to yank them around, spank them, make them obey my wishes, however arbitrary or ridiculous those wishes were. I did not act on those feelings, but that's how I felt deep down. And it's interesting that I grew up in a culture where spanking was totally acceptable, so had I been a babysitter or something, I could have totally justified my desires for violence--to myself and to the children's parents--by saying that the children had "disobeyed." See what I'm saying? I think this kind of thing happens all the time. Fortunately I never babysat. I'm also really glad I did not have children when I was younger.

My point is that I experienced, on a visceral level, what it is like to go from being powerless-and-oppressed to being powerful. If you haven't been able to work through all the tough stuff about having been hurt in the past, there are pretty good odds that you'll become the victimizer in the future.

But that wasn't the story of Laila and Maryam, who after all had been victimized to a rather unbelievable extent. And yet, they were good mothers, they did not hurt the powerless. I identify with this, and I admire it like crazy. It's also the story of someone like Nelson Mandela, who was abused for so many years, and yet forgave his oppressors and sought to rule with fairness and goodness.

I also really really admire how Maryam and Laila sacrificed themselves for the people they loved. And how Maryam used the sliver of power that she had in order to love Laila. She was a victim and she was powerless on one level, and yet she chose to be strong and powerful even in the midst of that situation. That is profound. That is how I want to live.

tamie marie said...

I'm trying to think of what else I said in that long comment. I wrote about power going up and down the power structure. I think I'll have to come back to this later though. We can start there for conversation for now!

Jonathan Erdman said...

Coming back to this conversation after a bit of an absence.....what you are saying here reminds me of what you have said in another post of yours--in the comment section. You talked about how violence is often an easier way than honestly. So, it is easier to be violent toward people who are oppressing us than it is to be honest about how they have hurt us.

So, your example is from our experiences teaching in the jail. Sometimes we get left in the jail for long periods of time, even after we have ended class and put a request in with the guards. Your point was that it's easier to become angry at the guards than it is to talk about how vulnerable and scared we feel at being locked up and left in a cell. But doing the latter seems to be the hard work you are talking about. It's the "narrow road," if you will. It seems to involve a good deal more pain than returning violence with violence (though this is not always the actual truth).

Jonathan Erdman said...

Correction to previous comment: Rather than calling it an "absence" from commenting, I prefer to call it a period of silence and contemplation. I like the idea of being able to take time with these weighty discussions.