“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
A LOVE SUPREME
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Friday, January 01, 2010
“every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief”