Reviewed by Sara Baron, Dean of University Library
One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs
And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls
-lines from “Kabul,” by Saib-e-Tabrizi, 17th century Persian poet
My grandmother told me I should read this book. Since she reads about 10 library books a week and is on a first name basis with her local librarian, I trust her judgment when it comes to a good book. And she was right. A Thousand Splendid Suns is an enlightening work of fiction about tragic loss and enduring love, extreme violence and encompassing acceptance, oppressive war and abundant peace. The tensions among the individual characters of the novel match the cultural conflicts of war in Afghanistan society.
Two women from very different backgrounds are thrown together by violent circumstances and unjust societal consequences. Mariam, the poor and uneducated harami (illegitimate) girl who grew up in a hut; and Laila, the educated, middle-class daughter of a literature professor, find themselves fighting for life and dignity amongst the Taliban in their city and a ruthless husband in their home. Even though their pasts are completely different, they must negotiate life behind the burqa, beneath harsh living conditions of bombs and rockets, and amongst the painful blows of domineering Rasheed.
This novel covers a period of great cultural shifts in Afghanistan from the late 1960s to the present day. During this time the country was in a civil war, was invaded by the Soviet Union, and saw the rise of the Taliban. With each phase of conflict, living conditions for women changed. In the late 60s and early 70s, the period was one of liberation for women, during which many excelled in higher education, politics and professional life. In the cities, they wore modern clothes, makeup and hairstyles. By the late 1980s, the mujahedeen had defeated the Soviet army while civil war continued to ravage the country and produce a new warring faction, the Taliban. Under Taliban rule, conditions for women degenerated, and in 1993 a new law forbad women to be out of the home without the burqa. Schools for girls and women were closed, and women were only allowed in hospitals for women with women doctors, which were few and far between. The strict observation of sharia law was applied even more severely to women. Laila recalls “The freedoms and opportunities that women enjoyed between 1978 and 1992 were a thing of the past now – Laila could still remember Babi saying of those years of communist rule, It’s a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan, Laila.”
In an interview on YouTube, Hosseini states that he wrote this book based on “the collective spirit” of many women with whom he had conversations in early 2000. He talked with them about their lives and the living conditions during the civil war through the Taliban. These turbulent years in his home country of Afghanistan are a fitting backdrop to the story of Mariam and Laila, two unlikely friends who overcome fate and tragedy to find love, acceptance and eventually peace.
Following are links to a few resources you may find interesting.
Khaled Hosseini discusses A Thousand Splendid Suns on NPR
First Lady Laura Bush’s essay about Khaled Hosseini in Time Magazine
Borders Book Club with Khaled Hosseini
CNN story about Bamiyan Buddhas destroyed by Taliban
Afghanistan Online: The Plight of the Afghan Women
Kabul by Saib-e-Tabrizi