A Thousand Splendid Suns – H3a Reading Group Review, 7 December 2011

Thousand Splendid Suns
by Khaled Hosseini

One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs, Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.  (Saib-e-Tabrizi 17th C)

Babi:  “The only enemy an Afghan cannot defeat is himself”

“Only the hardest of hearts could fail to be moved”
Glamour

“Hosseini has that rarest of things, a Dickensian knack for storytelling”
Daily Telegraph

“Men in the novel fare somewhat badly, being rather vague or one-dimensional”.
Littlemoon Amazon Reviewer

For the Group, the book worked on a number of levels:

  • As a history of Afghanistan, demonstrating that the country has always had more than its share of problems, particularly resulting from  inter-tribal strife (see time-line below)
  • As an illumination of things that happened to the people of Afghanistan easily within our memory but which we either didn’t understand or were, wilfully or otherwise, unaware
  • As a history of the place of women in society in Afghanistan:  in Afghanistan the path of their fate veered from old style male domination, to being relatively emancipated and educated, to being brutal subjugated – first under the Mujahideen and the various war lords and then under the Taliban – and now hopefully heading back to equality and freedom again
  • As an account of two woman, Mariam and Laila, following the path of their fate, living with and enduring the ever-changing male imposed “rules” in Afghanistan
  • As a story of love between couples and especially between friends
  • As a story of the power of human spirit to endure unimaginable hardships
  • And finally, as a story of ultimate triumph, of a sort, of good over evil

For all of us, the book raised questions about our knowledge of the history of the troubled country which is Afghanistan.   For one member, his earliest awareness of Afghanistan was vague:  nothing more than recollections of school history lessons about the British trying and failing to rule the area in the late 19th century. Then, it seemed to him, nothing much happened until, in the 1990s, the world heard of uprisings of the Mujahideen against the Soviet occupiers.  Russians?  When did they get in there?  Still, it seemed there was general approval for the Western-funded “victory” over the traditional “bogeyman” and the Russian withdrawal.

At that time, though, it wasn’t appreciated that the same Western funded arms would be used in a bloody civil war that would drag on for years with especially deadly consequences for the women of Afghanistan.

It all became vague again, with many names of powerful war lords and tribal leaders trotted out on the news bulletins, all hell-bent on annihilating each other.  In the West, even when we concentrated on the news closely enough, we still never quite sure who were the “goodies” and who the “baddies”.   It took the attack on World Trade Centre on 11 September to crystallise things for many of us;   and “al Qaeda” and Osama bin Laden were added to our lexicon of demons.

One of the few sympathetically written men in the book, Laila’s father, says:

“To me, it’s nonsense – and very dangerous nonsense – all this talk of I’m Tajik and you’re Pashtun and he’s Hazara, and she’s Uzbek.  We’re all Afghans and that’s all that should matter”

For many of the group it came as a surprise to learn how emancipated women were in Afghan society before the Russians arrived.   It was even more surprising to hear that this was actively encouraged under the tutelage of the Soviets.

“It’s a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan, Laila” said her father, Babi

One group member said she had been to university with an Afghan woman and was aware of how sophisticated the educated Afghan women were in former times.  As this member pointed out, the repressions dealt out to educated Afghan women in particular, must have been bitterly difficult to accept.

But others in the group pointed out the enormous chasm between characters like Laila’s father and the  urban sophisticated women  in general  and those, the majority, in the country, the rural poor.

As Khaled Hosseini writes in the afterword

The sad truth is that the Taliban style oppression of women in certain regions of Afghanistan existed long before the Taliban was even a twinkle in the loving eye of the Pakistani secret intelligence”.

In the voice of Babi the same statement is made:

Here in Kabul, women taught at the university, ran schools and held office in government… but in the tribal areas, women were rarely seen on the streets and then only in burqa and accompanied…where men lived by ancient tribal laws, men who had rebelled against the communists and their decrees to liberate women, abolish forced marriage and raise the marriageable age to 16”

One member pointed out a possible parallel with the lives of women in the affluent west of Turkey and those living in the South Eastern area of the country

A member pointed out the difficulties of trying to develop any country which has high levels of illiteracy and feudal social structures.   And yet another emphasised the enormous difficulties facing any country which intervenes in the affairs of similar under-developed countries, where tribal loyalty and ancient traditions count for more than western concepts of freedom and democracy.

It is often said that in war, the first victim is Truth.  Some of the group felt that hard on its heels, the second casualty always seems to be civilians and particularly women and children.  This came out very clearly in the book.   In Afghanistan, very often it was Islam which was claimed illegitimately by all factions to justify their actions.   The armed struggle gave the fundamentalist religious fighters the perfect excuse to drive women back into what they, the men, believed their place should be, in the home and under the suppression of their husbands, fathers, brothers.

Many of us recalled images from the 90s of women in blue burqas picking their way through the almost uniformly grey war torn ruins of the city of Kabul.

In this book Khaled Hosseini tells us the story of those women against the wider sweep of Afghan history.    A number of us admitted they had tended to blame the Taliban for all the evil inflicted on Afghan women but through Hosseini’s book we learn that this was going on almost from the day the Soviets finally abandoned their attempts to rule Afghanistan.

Following the Soviet withdrawal and the intertribal insurgency, came the Taliban.   Many of us were  surprised to learn how initially the Taliban were actually welcomed by some of the population since they brought a semblance of law and order  to a country exhausted by years of turmoil,  first in the fight against the soviets and then between the warring ethnic factions.

As Rasheed says in reply to Laila’s assertion that the Taliban are savages:  “Compared to what?  The Soviets killed a million people?   Do you know how many people the Mujahideen killed in Kabul alone these past four years?   Fifty Thousand!   Is it so insensible, by comparison, to chop the hands off a few thieves?”

Of course it was not “chop a few hands off a few thieves”.   When the Taliban came, life suddenly became brutal for all but especially for women, being banned from going out without a male relative, banned from working, banned from wearing makeup or appearing in public without a burqa, banned from travel, banned from an education.      For men we learnt it was marginally easier but not much.   Public executions, bans on music, television, shaving, even keeping birds and flying kites.

Women and their reaction to the oppression:

We considered at length some of the reactions of women to the oppression they faced.

  • Burqa – for Mariam it was uncomfortable at first, but (as several people in the group had heard others describe it) “she learned to her surprise, it was also comforting.  It was like a one-way mirror.  Inside it, she was an observer, buffered from the scrutinizing eyes of strangers”.
  • “Enduring” – so much of the book is about women who, despite everything, “Endure”.  Early in the book Nana tells Mariam that “There’s only one, only one skill a woman like you and me needs in life, and they don’t teach it in schools.   Tahamul Endure….. “   Asked “endure what”, the reply is chilling: “don’t you fret, there won’t be any shortage of things”
  • Perhaps one of the most excruciating of all examples of endurance was the horror of the caesarean operation without anaesthesia – so horrific that is almost too painful to read.

 

Men in the book

 

There are only a few men in the book with whom we could sympathise:  these include Laila’s father, Babi, Tariq, her childhood sweetheart, Kasim the orphanage manager, and, eventually, perhaps even Jalil, Miriam’s father.

As for the others, we needed to look no further that Nana’s warning to Miriam early in the book:

“Like a compass needle pointing north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman”

As the book progresses most men more than live up to the warning by Nana.

(As an aside, the lack of sympathetic men in most of the books we have chosen to read so far  prompted one of the male members (who couldn’t join us that day) to send a message asking us  when we would choose a book with some decent men in it.)

We were unanimous in agreeing that Rasheed is odious.    We accepted, yes, he lost his son, yes, he is consumed by guilt, but at his heart, his evil lies in him wanting a replacement son at all costs.   He does his best to charm the innocent Mariam – we remembered the present of the shawl before their first attempt at producing a child – then blames and punishes her cruelly when she can’t give birth to the son he demands.

When Miriam fails him, he turns to the younger, more educated neighbour Laila, shortly after she loses her family in a military attack.   She does produce the son he demands but his unending cruelty turns on both of them when they try to escape his brutality.  But ironically it is his wicked behaviour that finally unites the two women and ultimately leads to his own death.

The group noted that the importance placed on the birth of boys was not limited to this particular region, or indeed this period in history.  It seems to have been a universal fact that boys have always been valued above girls.

A lighter moment came in the discussion when various bits of folklore were described for discerning the gender of the unborn child.   In Anatolia, a knife and a pair of scissors hidden under separate cushions on two chairs are employed:  the pregnant woman is invited into the room and if she sits on the cushion hiding the knife, the child is predicted to be a boy.   Needles or wedding rings suspended over the belly by a thread (or a single hair from the father’s head) were also tried and true methods from other parts of the world – it all depends on whether the suspended object swings back and forth, or revolves in a circle.

 

Women in the book

The whole group found that the relationship between Mariam and Laila was convincing and the transition from hostility to love very moving.   Despite the age difference, despite the circumstances that bring them together, the power of friendship and love shines through.

As for Nana, Mariam’s mother, most of us started out not liking her much but, like Mariam towards the end of the book, ultimately we rather warmed to her.   Towards the end of her life, Mariam realised how much her mother had suffered and how remarkably she had endured.

“Marian saw now the sacrifices a mother made.   She thought of Nana, of the sacrifices that she too had made.  Nana, who could have given her away, or tossed her in a ditch somewhere and ran.   But she didn’t.  Instead she endured the shame of bearing a Harami”. 

None of us was very sure about Miriam’s death and we were left with mixed feelings.   Should she have been executed for the murder for the example?    In a country with a properly functioning legal system we felt she would not have been found guilty?   We noted that even the Taliban judge, aging and facing death himself, has to excuse himself (he had one eye on the judgement of heaven of course) when he sentences her.

One of the most poignant thoughts to come out of the book was that Mariam finally feels fulfilled.  Early on she thinks of herself as Harami (illegitimate). As one member pointed out the word “haram” also covers sins against a society’s norms and rules.   Mariam herself saw where she fitted in the scheme of things:

a person who would never have a legitimate claim to things other people had, things such as love, family, home, acceptance”.  For most of her life she believed “that love was a damaging mistake, and its accomplice, hope, a treacherous illusion”

However, by the moment of her death

“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 to this world as a Harami child… an unintended thing…. 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, a companion, a guardian, a mother.   A person of consequence at last.  No.  It was not so bad”

For those left behind, Laila says it all:

“I’m sorry”, Laila says, marvelling 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.

Some of us were a little unsure about the ending of the book.  We were not sure about the box with the money left by Jalil.   Laila going back to Herat, tracing the son of the Mariam’s Imam, being given the box with the money… for some it felt a little too much like a spring board to a happyish ending!

Indeed, whilst the author finishes the book on a relatively optimistic note, subsequent events in that troubled country may yet conspire to prove his optimism to be rather premature.

The Group’s verdict?  It was not an easy or comfortable read for any of us but one that was both enlightening and perhaps even inspiring.

Afghanistan profile BBC©2012

A chronology of key events:

1838-42 – British forces invade, install King Shah Shujah. He is assassinated in 1842. British and Indian troops are massacred during retreat from Kabul.

1878-80 – Second Anglo-Afghan War. A treaty gives Britain control of Afghan foreign affairs.

1919 – Emir Amanullah Khan declares independence from British influence.

1926-29 – Amanullah tries to introduce social reforms, which however stir civil unrest. He flees.

1933 – Zahir Shah becomes king and Afghanistan remains a monarchy for next four decades.

1953 – General Mohammed Daud becomes prime minister. Turns to Soviet Union for economic and military assistance. Introduces social reforms, such as abolition of purdah (practice of secluding women from public view).

1963 – Mohammed Daud forced to resign as prime minister.

1964 – Constitutional monarchy introduced – but leads to political polarisation and power struggles.

1973 – Mohammed Daud seizes power in a coup and declares a republic. Tries to play off USSR against Western powers.

1978 – General Daud is overthrown and killed in a coup. Start of armed revolt.

Soviet intervention

1979 December – Soviet Red Army invades and props up communist government.

1980 – Babrak Karmal installed as ruler, backed by Soviet troops. But anti-regime resistance intensifies with various mujahideen groups fighting Soviet forces. US, Pakistan, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia supply money and arms.

1985 – Mujahideen come together in Pakistan to form alliance against Soviet forces. Half of Afghan population now estimated to be displaced by war, with many fleeing to neighbouring Iran or Pakistan.

1986 – US begins supplying mujahideen with Stinger missiles, enabling them to shoot down Soviet helicopter gunships. Babrak Karmal replaced by Najibullah as head of Soviet-backed regime.

1988 – Afghanistan, USSR, the US and Pakistan sign peace accords and Soviet Union begins pulling out troops.

Red Army quits

1989 – Last Soviet troops leave, but civil war continues as mujahideen push to overthrow Najibullah.

1992 – Najibullah’s government toppled, but a devastating civil war follows.

1996 – Taliban seize control of Kabul and introduce hard-line version of Islam, banning women from work, and introducing Islamic punishments, which include stoning to death and amputations.

1997 – Taliban recognised as legitimate rulers by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. They now control about two-thirds of country.

1998 – US launches missile strikes at suspected bases of militant Osama bin Laden, accused of bombing US embassies in Africa.

1999 – UN imposes an air embargo and financial sanctions to force Afghanistan to hand over Osama bin Laden for trial.

2001 September – Ahmad Shah Masood, leader of the main opposition to the Taliban – the Northern Alliance – is assassinated.

US-led invasion

2001 October – US-led bombing of Afghanistan begins following the September 11 attacks on the United States. Anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces enter Kabul shortly afterwards.

2001 December – Afghan groups agree deal in Bonn, Germany for interim government.

Hamid Karzai is sworn in as head of an interim power-sharing government.

2002 January – Deployment of first contingent of foreign peacekeepers – the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) – marking the start of a protracted fight against the Taliban.

2002 April – Former king Zahir Shah returns, but makes no claim to the throne and dies in 2007.

2002 June – Loya Jirga, or grand council, elects Hamid Karzai as interim head of state. Karzai picks members of his administration which is to serve until 2004.

2003 August – NATO takes control of security in Kabul, its first-ever operational commitment outside Europe.

New constitution

2004 January – Loya Jirga adopts new constitution which provides for strong presidency.

2004 October-November – Presidential elections. Hamid Karzai is declared winner.

2005 September – Afghans vote in first parliamentary elections in more than 30 years.

2005 December – Parliament opens with warlords and strongmen in most of the seats.

2006 October – NATO assumes responsibility for security across the whole of Afghanistan, taking command in the east from a US-led coalition force.

2007 August – Opium production has soared to a record high, the UN reports.

2008 June – President Karzai warns that Afghanistan will send troops into Pakistan to fight militants if Islamabad fails to take action against them.

2008 July – Suicide bomb attack on Indian embassy in Kabul kills more than 50.

2008 September – US President George Bush sends an extra 4,500 US troops to Afghanistan, in a move he described as a “quiet surge”.

2009 January – US Defence Secretary Robert Gates tells Congress that Afghanistan is new US administration’s “greatest test”.

2009 February – NATO countries pledge to increase military and other commitments in Afghanistan after US announce dispatch of 17,000 extra troops.

New US approach

2009 March – US President Barack Obama unveils new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan to combat an increasingly ”perilous situation”. An extra 4,000 US personnel will train and bolster the Afghan army and police, and there will also be support for civilian development.

2009 August – Presidential and provincial elections are marred by widespread Taliban attacks, patchy turnout and claims of serious fraud.

2009 October – Karzai declared winner of August presidential election, after second-placed opponent Abdullah Abdullah pulls out before the second round.

2009 December – US President Barack Obama decides to boost US troop numbers in Afghanistan by 30,000, bringing total to 100,000. He says US will begin withdrawing its forces by 2011.

An Al-Qaeda double agent kills seven CIA agents in a suicide attack on a US base in Khost.

2010 February – Nato-led forces launch major offensive, Operation Moshtarak, in bid to secure government control of southern Helmand province.

2010 July – Whistle blowing website Wiki leaks publishes thousands of classified US military documents relating to Afghanistan.

General David Petraeus takes command of US, ISAF forces.

2010 August – Dutch troops quit.

Karzai says private security firms – accused of operating with impunity – must cease operations. He subsequently waters down the decree.

2010 September – Parliamentary polls marred by Taliban violence, widespread fraud and a long delay in announcing results.

2010 November – NATO – at summit in Lisbon – agrees plan to hand control of security to Afghan forces by end of 2014.

2011 January – President Karzai makes first official state visit to Russia by an Afghan leader since the end of the Soviet invasion in 1989.

2011 February – Number of civilians killed since the 2001 invasion hit record levels in 2010, Afghanistan Rights Monitor reports.

2011 April – Burning of Koran by a US pastor prompts country-wide protests in which foreign UN workers and several Afghans are killed.

Some 500 mostly Taliban prisoners break out of prison in Kandahar.

2011 July – President’s half-brother and Kandahar governor Ahmad Wali Karzai is killed in Taliban campaign against prominent figures.

2011 September – Ex-president Burhanuddin Rabbani – a go-between in talks with the Taliban – is assassinated.

2011 October – As relations with Pakistan worsen after a series of attacks, Afghanistan and India sign a strategic partnership to expand co-operation in security and development.

2011 November – President Karzai wins the endorsement of tribal elders to negotiate a 10-year military partnership with the US at a Loya Jirga traditional assembly. The proposed pact will see US troops remain after 2014, when foreign troops are due to leave the country.

2011 December – At least 58 people are killed in twin attacks at a Shia shrine in Kabul and a Shia mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif.

Pakistan and the Taliban boycott the scheduled Bonn Conference on Afghanistan. Pakistan refuses to attend after a NATO air strike killed Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border.

2012 January – Taliban agree to open office in Dubai as a move towards peace talks with the United States and the Afghan government.

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