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.