All day, this poem about Kabul has been bouncing around in my head. Saib-e-Tabrizi wrote it back in the seventeenth century, I think. I used to know the whole poem, but all I can remember now is two lines:
"One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs, Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls."
Khaled Hosseini's first bestseller, The Kite Runner, hit the American and European lists in 2003 and was adapted into an award-winning film in 2007. His second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, continues his quest to write about the life of Afghan people. While his first novel focused on the warring country from the point of view of two young boys, the second adopts a more challenging approach through two women living in Kabul. Hosseini himself explains, "I suppose there were some easier roads I could have gone down, but I chose this one because, both as a writer and an Afghan, I couldn't think of a more riveting or important or compelling story than the struggle of women in my country."
A Thousand Splendid Suns tells the story of Laila and Mariam, two Afghan women from different generations. Mariam grows up near Herat with her mother. She is a harami - a bastard - the illegitimate daughter of Jalil, a man with three wives and nine legitimate children. Mariam dotes on her generous father, but is crushed when she eventually realizes that he is ashamed of her very existence. Jalil's wives decide to get rid of the difficult 15-year-old girl by marrying her off to a Kabuli shoemaker, Rasheed.
Two decades later, Laila is growing up in Kabul with an educated, liberal father and a mother who is slowly losing her mind worrying about her two sons who were lost in the war against the Soviets. Laila's everyday life is literally shattered when a bomb hits her home. Rescued by Rasheed, one of their neighbours, Laila becomes his second wife, hated and resented by Mariam. But things gradually change as the women manage to find something in common, despite everything they've been through.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is a touching story. I can see why it appeals to so many Western readers: it is written in a predictable "Western" way. Despite the cultural peculiarities and the occasional Farsi or Pashto words for the sake of "local colour", the actual characters act and think in ways that are not so very different from us. They can be easily identified with, even though they are far away and live in circumstances that seem humanely impossible.
The description of Kabul in the novel shows that the author is truly in love with the city. The pictures that we see in newspapers and on the TV screen - dust-coated, dirty streets lined with menacing, barren brick walls - are only a part of the picture. Actual people live real lives within those walls. The women in Kabul, as opposed to many other parts of the country, were anything but repressed in the times before the Taleban. The novel tries to bring new colours into the simplified black-and-white image of Afghanistan that many people still have.
Khaled Hosseini: A Thousand Splendid Suns. Bloomsbury. 2007. 417 pages.
Bloomsbury: Khaled Hosseini
Indian Muslims review: A Thousand Splendid Suns
Wikipedia: A Thousand Splendid Suns
Wikipedia: Khaled Hosseini