Tuesday, October 23, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

The Chilean writer, Isabel Allende is so right. A Thousand Splendid Suns is ‘unforgettable’.

This book is unforgettable because it draws back the veil on the changing face of Afghanistan, through war, drought, hunger, anarchy and oppression from numerous external and internal regimes. It views the country through the burqas and grilled veils (chadri) of Afghani women—the experience of polygamy, the centrality of Islam, the role of warlords and the Mujahideen.

The writing is sprinkled with Arabic, Pashtun, Farsi and Russian phrases, uttered in a variety of accents, which symbolize the influence of numerous cultures and conquest. Conditions are tough for so long and the enemies are relentless. Although, as Babi said to Laila, “Laila, my love, the only enemy an Afghan cannot defeat is himself.” (p122) One gets many glimpses of everyday life in Afghanistan, through the seasonal and religious cycles of the year and over the long time span that this story covers. There are fascinating cameos of weddings and funerals with insights into arranged and coerced marriages and the burials of the outcast.

This number one bestseller is unforgettable because it is about displacement and the plight of fleeing one’s country as a refugee. This crisis is personalized in the character of Tariq who, like eight million Afghanis, abandons his family to settle in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. The theme is extended in the attempt of Mariam and Laila to escape but they are apprehended at the railway station (like hundreds of women) and are taken to prison cells where they are violently punished.

The author, Khaled Hosseini, is now a US envoy for the UNHCR and is deeply involved in the plight of refugees throughout the world. This book may well be his greatest contribution, as he tells the story of exile and the pull of home. It is helpful that this book has a free reading guide (downloadable) to assist people in discussing and understanding the refugee situation more fully.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is unforgettable because it tells the harrowing story of childlessness and stillbirth in a culture where bearing children is a religious and cultural duty and failure to produce is a social death sentence. The book movingly tracks the rollercoaster ride of expecting children and dashed hopes and the powerful emotions that this condition evokes.

The childlessness experienced by Mariam represents only the tip of the problem of how many Afghani women have been treated. The book tells of violence done by men to their wives and the unwillingness of others to intervene because this is ‘the business of the husband’. Repeatedly the longing for male babies is sounded and the disappointment expressed when a pregnancy produces a girl (usually called ‘the baby’ or ‘that thing’). One learns how women are forced into marriage from as early as fifteen years of age, sometimes with old men who desire another younger wife when they are bored with their older model. Very discretely, Hosseini writes about the dynamics of sex and he delicately exposes the violence, the functionality and the one-sidedness of the act. Afghanistan appears as a country where women have little chance to decide the course of their lives.

The book is unforgettable because it centers on the shame of illegitimacy—Mariam being born a harami and becoming to her father, his legitimate wives and the community a mugwort or a weed. This condition, added to her other handicaps, means that Mariam becomes a refugee in her own clan and community. When she is turned away from her father’s home she ponders the issues of home and family and expresses her aloneness: “She did not belong here. But where do I belong? What am I going to do now?” (p38)

This volume is unforgettable because it is beautifully written. The episodes are relayed in a gripping fashion. The author is the master of suspense. Chapters often end with a dilemma or an unanswered question that urges the reader to turn the page. One senses that something momentous has or is happening but Hosseini holds back information and skillfully delays disclosure so one is searching for the resolution or the confirmation to one’s hunches.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is unforgettable because it is magnificently poetic. The poetry commences with the title of the book, which is a phrase taken from a poem composed in the seventeenth century by the Persian poet Saib-e-Tabrizi:

“One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,
Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.” (p172)

The poetic descriptions continue through the book and are best illustrated by the description of Ramadan and the way it transforms Kabul or the final thoughts in the life of one of the main characters in the story. (pp 71, 329)

This book is unforgettable because it focuses on the dark side of religion. When Afghanistan comes under the control of the fundamentalist Taliban, the fun goes out of life, cultural icons (such as the pre-Islamic Buddhas of Bamyan statues) are destroyed and religion is transmitted by rocket mortars and upheld by irrational and brutal acts of violence. A comprehensive example of the way religion can sap the life out of a culture is expressed in the rules issued in a Taliban flyer and tossed onto the Kabul streets.

This book is unforgettable because it concerns the human condition—the events and stages of birth, marriage, childlessness, suicide, death and remarriage. The hurdles are relentless but the indomitable quality of the human spirit is expressed well by Laila when she responds to the painful story of a taxi driver:

“I’m sorry,” Laila says, marveling at how every Afghan story is marked by death and loss and unimaginable grief. And yet, she sees, people find a way to survive, to go on. Laila thinks of her own life and all that has happened to her, and she is astonished that she too has survived, that she is alive and sitting in this taxi listening to this man’s story.” (p350)

Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns (Great Britain: Bloomsbury, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 66.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of A Thousand Splendid Suns; Khaled Hosseini.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

This book represents the best from Barbara Kingsolver’s scribblings about the woes and wonders of her ‘year of seasonal eating’ in the southern Appalachians. It records her sense of being ‘called home’ from Arizona to fulfill her desire “to live in a place that would feed us.”

This book is a family affair with Barbara supplying the main text, her husband Steven Hopp providing tips within the sidebars and Barbara’s daughter Camille sharing reflections on her childhood and this experiment, plus lots of yummy recipes.

The ground rules for developing this ‘leaves of grass’ culture were simple to state but onerous to practice:

* Make every attempt to feed ourselves animals and vegetables whose provenance we knew
* Try and wring petrol out of the food chain, even if that meant giving up things
* Shop for food so close to home that we’d know the person who grew the produce (often that was us!)

The book does not feel like Cistercian austerity and self-denial as they decided to treat themselves to one luxury item (in limited quantities) each time they went shopping e.g. coffee, dried fruit, hot chocolate). The mood of the book is serious but light, spiced with literary references, dashes of humor, snatches of conversations from the Kingsolver farmhouse and garnished with drawings that rightly ‘make the book smile’.

It is not intended as a ‘how-to’ tome but it is has the feel of a text book with the sidebars crammed with resources and web links, the pages of recipes pointing to the Animal, Vegetable, Miracle web site and the extensive bibliography and lists of organizations at the end. The book is instructive, ranging from the history of asparagus, the lost art of turkey sex, the tending of fruit trees, the finding of economic substitutes for tobacco growing in the south through to the issues of vegetarianism.

The style is inspirational with Kingsolver becoming the new Billy Graham of growing tasty vegetables, sharing the gastronomical gospel of home style cooking and declaring to her readers “what it is that makes for the hallelujah of a July garden.”

The book bursts with passion. One conviction shared with strength is the ignorance that most people have about vegetable life and the origins and processes by which food arrives on supermarket shelves and in food packets. This book makes a case for children to learn agriculture at school. Kingsolver recognizes the weak food culture of America that consists of not much more than burgers on 4 July, turkeys at Thanksgiving and smashing pumpkins at Halloween. This is slight when compared with the strong food cultures of Italy and France. She asks her American readers, “Will we ever develop a food culture of our own?” In addition to advocating ‘la vida loca’, the authors promote the reading of food labels, the slow food movement, restoring the kitchen to the center of the home and the spin offs such as the experience of neighborliness.

Writing about local food during this ‘Home on the Prairie’ experiment does suggest rightly that Animal, Vegetable, Miracle must have a local focus. This is one of the challenges for readers living in a New York apartment or international readers living in the dry conditions surrounding Dubai. The book has the flavor of the American south and this agricultural log cycles through the months and the seasons of the northern hemisphere. However, the message and implications are evident for all and the chapters on the customs of growing and cooking in European countries do add some international substance.

Will readers experience conviction of agricultural ignorance and epicurean transgressions and respond to the Kingsolver appeal? It might be a cop out for the hardened city slicker to protest, saying this experiment might be attractive and practical if they had a 200 acre farm and a healthy bank balance. The authors seek to distill the implications of their year for people living in suburbia and they head off such excuses by contending that “the main barrier standing between ourselves and a local-food culture is not price but attitude. The most difficult requirements are patience and a pinch of restraint—virtues that are hardly the property of the wealthy.” (p30)

Related to patience is the important commodity of time. Kingsolver reveals that an enormous amount of time went into the planning of this experiment as well as the daily chores. Former pastimes were left behind and the nature of entertainment changed. Now that the book is written and the one year, farm sabbatical is over, will this lifestyle continue in the form that the book has described? Is this to be the permanent lifestyle and if not what adjustments might be made? It will be intriguing to see how far into senior adulthood such a demanding lifestyle can be endured or is this physical lifestyle the secret of longevity, health and fulfillment?

It is tantalizing to ask, “How would the Kingsolvers grow, cook and eat differently now, if they were to return to suburban life in the desert of Arizona?

How has and how will this agricultural experiment affect the literary career of Barbara Kingsolver? It has obviously produced this journal but will it enrich her novel writing? Or will the investment of time in planting zucchini, peeling spuds, making cheese and knitting jumpers mean that the much desired Kingsolver novels wither on the vine?

Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L Hopp & Camille Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating (London: Faber & Faber, 2007).

This book is available from Magrudy’s Bookshops in the UAE at a cost of Dh 91.00.

Geoff Pound

Image: Front cover of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; Barbara, Steven, Camille and Lily.