"A Thousand Splendid Suns" by Khaled Hosseini is an eloquent story about women abused and frightened and with no hope, about the terrible wars in Afghanistan, about the juxtaposition between what was and what became, and about the landscape of the country the author was born in. Again, I have read a book about the Middle East, with Pakistan again in the background, the place to which Afghan refugees flee. Published in May 2007, this book has gone back to press almost daily since its first week on sale, and over 1,400,000 copies were sold in the first six weeks. It was #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for four straight weeks.
"A Thousand Splendid Suns" is the superior book, but Hosseini's "The Kite Runner", a fictionalized autobiography all the way down to his friendship with a Hazara servant whom he taught to read, made me think. "The Kite Runner" movie was true to the book because Hosseini's soul was poured into the film as much as it's poured into is books.
Miriam, the bastard child of a maid and a rich man, is introduced as a young girl living in a hidden hovel created by her father on the outskirts of a city in Afghanistan. Her mother commits suicide when Miriam leaves on an adventure and the 15-year-old girl (without as much guilt as one would think she'd have) is taken to her father’s house until her father’s wives find her a suitable husband. In the car, with her father’s arm draped over her shoulder, “For the first time, Miriam could hear him with Nana’s ears. She could hear so clearly now the insincerity that had always lurked beneath, the hollow, false assurances.” This is the moment when Miriam grew up--her father showed her she was essentially alone and he wasn't going to be there for her. She is quickly married to an unsavory middle-aged shoemaker from Kabul.
Laila, a young girl with an educated father who no longer teaches during the reign of the Communist regime, and her friend Tariq, beloved son of an older couple, a boy who lost a leg to a bomb and wears a prosthetic leg, are soulmates. When the Taliban come into town and Tariq’s family makes plans to leave, Tariq confesses his love for Laila, but she cannot leave her father. As Laila says, “the irony crushed her.” Contemplating their own move some time later, Laila's beloved father says, “It’s strange to think that I’ll be sleeping beneath another city’s skies soon.” Laila response is, “Oh, Babi. We’ll come back.” but Laila is left bereft when her home is blown up in a bombing.
Rasheed, motivated by wanting an heir, brings Laila into his home with Miriam, and after a stranger tells her about Tariq’s death, the choiceless Laila agrees to marry Rasheed. Laila’s secret is that she’s already pregnant with Tariq’s baby, but for a time, Laila is the favored wife because Rasheed wants a child. It’s difficult to be the favored wife when the first wife Miriam shoots her “a cheerless glance and went back to slicing the stem off a bell pepper and strimming strips of fat from meat. A hurtful silence would fill the room, and Laila could almost see the wordless hostility radiating from Miriam like waves of heat rising from asphalt. She would retreat back to her room, sit on the bed, and watch the snow falling.” When the baby is born, Rasheed’s incensed that Laila bears a girl-child and Laila then falls prey to the mistreatment and abuse Miriam has born for twenty years. The two women become unlikely friends in the horrible situation they find themselves in. They live in a country where women cannot go into the streets showing their faces and they cannot go anywhere alone, and when Laila tries to escape to Pakistan with Miriam and Aziza, they are found out and taken back to Rasheed, who beats them.
The Taliban make it difficult for people to work and Rasheed loses his business to a bomb, although on the morning of September 27, 1996, Laila felt that the Taliban coming into Kabul would be their salvation. It soon becomes clear that the Taliban will make the life of women more restrictive than it already is. Trusting Laila tells Rasheed that the Taliban cannot treat people as they do and Rasheed replies, “spoken like the arrogant daughter of a poetry-reading university man that you are. How urbane, how Tajik, of you. You think this is some new, radical idea the Taliban are bringing?” He tells her the Taliban are taking them back to their roots, their tribal history.
The author claims to have had difficulty getting into the heads of his female characters until he let go and just let them be human beings, but I feel he did a great job at letting us feel how Laila felt. He also comes to understand Miriam, who fights for Laila in the god-forsaken woman's hospital set up by the Taliban and where Laila must give birth: “Miriam saw now the sacrifices a mother made. Decency was but one. She thought ruefully of Nana, of the sacrifices that she too had made . . . Miriam wished she’d understood then what she understood now about motherhood.” War-ravaged Afghanistan, with its political troubles, religious fanaticism, crumbling infrastructure, desperate and suffering population, confused moral fabric, and fractured womanhood is graphically and honestly displayed.
The home the threesome inhabit becomes a living hell even though Laila evenutally bears Rasheed a son upon whom Rasheed rains affection. The family begins to starve under the Taliban. Eventually Aziza, Laila's first-born who Rasheed now knows as Tariq’s child, is put into an orphanage which Laila visits despite severe restrictions. This was the saddest and most tragic of passages in the book, the time when the entire family was starving and they had to give up one of the children. Unfortunately, the situation is not uncommon in Afghanistan.
On the day Tariq shows up in their doorway, alive, their love for each other thrives even though hard living had worn them down. In the climax of the book, Rasheed tries to choke Laila to death after finding out about the visit from Tariq. In the Muslim world, pride is man’s #1 treasure and a wife spending time alone with a man uncovered is a terrible thing. One wonders why Tariq put Laila into harm’s way in that way, but it may have been because he’d been in a refugee camp and then in prison and had no idea how mistreatment of women had become part of the culture of Afghanistan under the Taliban. Miriam, stronger than life, saves Miriam by killing Rasheed with a shovel to the head. The women are faced with what to do—they put Rasheed’s body in the shed, but they know full well one or both of them will die for the murder. Miriam does not convince Laila that Laila’s life means more than hers, but in the end Laila agrees that she should take the opportunity to flee with Tariq and the children. Miriam is willing to die if it can give Laila and her children a better life.
Tariq and Laila and the children end up in peaceful Murree, Pakistan. On their wedding night, Laila remembers the “ease with which they would crowd the air between them with words” when they were young, and now, “it was blessing enough to know that he was here.” In the middle of the night, she found their hands “still clamped together, in the white-knuckle, anxious way of children clutching balloon strings.” Laila thinks about Miriam’s death and wonders about the life she and Tariq have made as hotel workers and asks “Did she sacrifice herself so she, Laila, could be a maid in a foreign land?” And her father had always said she would do great things. It is time to go home, but only after she makes a pilgrimage to Herat, where Miriam was born, to find Miriam, and to find herself.
Laila finds Mullah Faizullah’s home and his son Hamza welcomes her and wants to hear the story of Miriam, so Laila tells him everything she knows about Miriam’s life after she left her native land. When Laila is done, the son says his father was very fond of Miriam and he sometimes joined his father on his weekly visits to Miriam. Laila is led to the tiny kolba where Miriam spent her first fifteen years and sits and listens to the wind filtering through the willows; she closes her eyes and soaks up the feel of the place. She sees Miriam, feels her moving and reciting verses from the Koran, and then imagines a young Miriam sitting at the table making a doll by the glow of an oil lamp, and the vision is so real, she hears Miriam’s voice say, “Laila jo?” Startled, the moment ends, and Hamza announces has something for her. He gives her a box that Jalil gave to Faizullah before he died, for Miriam. Inside is a letter expressing a father’s love and regret as well as a sack of money.
The phrase “a thousand splendid sons” is from a poem by 17th-century Saib-e-Tabrizi to describe leaving behind a beloved city, and is quoted when Laila’s family prepares to leave Kabul and again when she decides to return there from Pakistan. It’s mentioned at the end of the book, “Miriam is in Laila’s own heart, where she shines with the bursting radiance of a thousand suns.” The phrase is an affectionate nod to Hosseini’s own Kabul and to the feelings Laila has for Miriam, who has become a mother to her, despite the fact that they shared a husband. Laila is without knowledge of Miriam's ultimate fate, but in jail during her final days, she returns to her self, the self that had been lost over her adult life, and dreams of being with those she loved, her father, her beloved Mullah Faizullah, and Nana, and in her childhood home. It is a prayerful time, a quiet end to a troubled life.
Laila, Tariq, and the children return to Kabul and work with the kind-hearted administrator of the orphanage, Zaman, to improve the orphanage. When Laila sees their pictures in a newspaper article reporting the renovations at the orphanage, she remembers her friend Hasina’s words, “You’re going to be somebody. I know one day I’ll pick up a newspaper and find your picture on the front page.” In Kabul they make a difference in the lives of children whose lives have been torn apart, quite literally. And Miriam is there in everything they’ve done, but mostly, Miriam is in Laila’s own heart, where she shines with the bursting radiance of a thousand suns.
Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul in 1965 to an Afghan Foreign Ministry diplomat and high school teacher. During his childhood they lived a few years in Tehran and a few years in Paris. They planned to return to Kabul in 1980, but Afghanistan had already witnessed a bloody communist coup and invasion of the Soviet army. They were granted political asylum in the United States and settled in San Jose, living through several years of hardship for a period of time. Hosseini earned a degree in biology in 1988 from Santa Clara University and entered medical school at University of California in 1993. He completed his residency in Los Angeles. He was an internist between 1996 and 2004. He began writing "The King Runner" in 2001 and it was published in 2003. It was an international best seller and published in 38 countries; after 120 weeks, it’s still #4 on The New York Times Bestseller List. In 2006 he was named a goodwill envoy to the United Nations Refugee Agency. He says “I have been on an extended sabbatical from medicine, and have spent the last two years focusing on my writing, something that had long been a dream of mine. My days are shaped now around the creation of stories.” That young boy, Amir, in Hosseini’s first novel was unmistakably the writer.
On his blog, Hosseini says “the struggle of Afghan women was simply too compelling, too tragic, and too important and relevant a story, and both as an Afghan and as a writer, I knew that I couldn’t resist writing about it.” He goes on to explain how he went back to Kabul in 2003 and he heard story after story about women who had been raped, beaten, imprisoned, humiliated, women who had seen their husbands blown to pieces, seen their kids starve to death. He said, “I came away humbled by the enormity of the suffering that these women had endured. And I came away humbled by the fight that these women had in them, by their resilience and their courage.” The character Miriam’s mother instructs her “Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman.”
Hosseini also writes about visiting Afghan refugees who were being forced to return to their homeland from Pakistan and Iran, and their homeland is not equipped to handle the influx of people; Afghanistan is still in need of international support. Touring Afghanistan was like Amir said, “I feel like a tourist in my own country . . . But the most striking thing to me was that despite the atrocities, the unspeakable brutalities, and the hardships Afghans had endured, they had not lost their humility, their grace, their hospitality, or their sense of hope.” While "The Kite Runner" was being filmed, in Afghanistan and China, Participant Productions and Paramount Vantage started partnering with various NGOs to train 1000 Afghan teachers over the next two years and built fifty rural libraries in Afghanistan.
Hosseini says his mission in writing his books was not about the good that came out of the books. He just wanted to tell a good story. “I have never sat down to write with broad, sweeping ideas in mind, and certainly never with a specific agenda. It is quite a burden for a writer to feel a responsibility to represent his or her own culture and to educate others about it. For me it always starts from a very personal, intimate place, about human connections, and then expands from there.”