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A Thousand Splendid Suns: Book Review


The Faces Behind the Burqas


I almost didn’t readA Thousand Splendid Suns, knowing it would be a painful experience, but my daughter reassured me that the story is, as they say these days, redemptive. I hate to nitpick, but my dictionary tells me that redemption has to do with being freed of sin by Christ, and I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about here. Oprah can probably be blamed for redemptive literature.

In any case, A Thousand Splendid Suns does deliver a hopeful message—but only partially. Hope runs through the narrative, in small and large acts of love and courage, particularly between the two main female characters. And in the end, the author somehow manages to squeeze some hope into the midst of a terrible, terrifying climax.

Be it redemptive, hopeful, or none of the above, I’m glad I read the book. There’s something about the “awful/wonderful” literary genre that enriches and enlightens–maybe not everyone, but that’s how such books affect me. I cannot possibly feel sorry for myself or complain about my life, at least for a few days: I have only to remind myself that I don’t live in Afghanistan.

When writer/actor/activist Eve Ensler talks about Afghanistan in The Vagina Monologues, she introduces it as a country where hating women is fully codified—or at least she did from 1996 to 2001, when the Taliban ruled the country. Under the Taliban, women could not leave the house without a man, and even then in a burqa; women couldn’t work; they couldn’t get medical treatment—all hospitals were dedicated exclusively to treating men. If a woman ran away from a brutal husband she was brought home for his punishment. Acts of defiance brought beatings and sometimes death.


These things, and more, befall Mariam and Laila, the two main characters in A Thousand Splendid Suns, which begins during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, and follows the rebel Mujahadeen movement that overthrew the hated communists. Welcomed at first as heroes by the people, the rebels quickly splintered into warring factions (using weapons supplied by the U.S. for fighting the Russians), and the brutal Taliban emerged victorious. Within two weeks after occupying Kabul, the country’s capital, they instituted Shari’a, a system of Muslim law under which women are treated worse than cattle.

It is in Kabul that the lives of Laila and Mariam, two very different women with very different histories, intersect. Theirs is the story behind the history, the truth behind the above mentioned facts, the daily lives behind the daily headlines. Theirs are the faces behind the burqas. This is the part of history they don’t teach in school: the details of precisely how wars and movements affect real people. Knowing their stories makes the reader genuinely concerned about Afghan women, more inclined to follow news reports as we worry about the Mariams and Lailas and their children. A Thousand Splendid Suns has caused me to feel deeply for the Afghan people on a level that newspaper facts alone cannot reach.

But here’s the thing about redemption, or hope, or whatever it is that a good writer like Hosseini manages to inject into a tale full of brutality and misery: in real life, there have been reports of a Taliban resurgence. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Afghan Taliban is better organized today than it was in 2001, and they’re recruiting new members all the time. Thus, I’m more worried than ever about the millions of Lailas and Maryams whose lives may again be imperiled. Rather than regret meeting them, though, I wish everyone would read A Thousand Splendid Suns and get to know them also. Maybe if everyone worried a little bit more, we could do something to bring about redemption, in whatever way we might interpret it.

That’s more like it! 



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