SRB: The View Through the Islamic Mesh
A Thousand Splendid Suns By Khaled
Bloomsbury Paperbacks, $27.99. Reviewed by ALISON McCULLOCH for the Scoop Review of Books
When she is first made to wear a burqa, Mariam, one of the two main characters in Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, finds some comfort in it. The “shameful secrets of her past” – that she was born a harami or illegitimate child – are hidden from the outside world, “from the scrutinizing eyes of strangers.” But it’s tricky to walk without tripping over the hem, the headpiece is “tight and heavy” and it’s strange “seeing the world through a mesh screen.”
One suspects, from this description, that Hosseini test-wore one of the garments – so frightening to Western eyes – as part of his effort to imagine his way into the lives of the two women he’s writing about. Like Amir and Hassan, the male leads of Hosseini’s first novel, “The Kite Runner,” the women of “A Thousand Splendid Suns” come from different sides of the tracks (and in their case, end up living on the same street). Mariam grows up the shunned child of a housekeeper who is banished from her wealthy employer’s home when she becomes pregnant with his child. When her mother dies, 15-year-old Mariam is married off to a shoemaker some 30 years her senior who lives in Kabul, 650 miles from her home in Herat. The other female lead, Laila, is raised in Kabul, the beautiful, educated daughter of a former schoolteacher and his wife. (In The Kite Runner, Amir is the son of a wealthy Kabul businessman and Hassan is his servant’s child – or so it seems at first.) The similarities between these novels don’t stop there. Indeed, A Thousand Splendid Suns often feels like a continuation of its predecessor, with only names and circumstances changed. There’s the same kind of misery, heartache, violence and betrayal; and familiar plot devices frequently reappear – the “I never saw him/her again” cliffhanger, and the sometimes clunky glimpse into a mysterious future we know we will eventually reach, as when Mariam finalises her marriage contract and Hosseini adds: “The next time Mariam signed her name to a document, 27 years later, a mullah would again be present.”
Mariam and Laila are interesting and worthy characters, but they feel less rounded than was Amir, the narrator of The Kite Runner. Perhaps it’s the gender divide, or the fact that Amir was, at least in part, an autobiographical creation. (Both Hosseini and his fictional counterpart were born in Kabul, starting writing as children and fled to California in the early 1980s.) The two young men of The Kite Runner were essentially motherless children whose fathers who loomed over their lives. But for the women of A Thousand Splendid Suns, it’s the mothers who dominate and damage them: Mariam’s is embittered by her lover’s abandonment; Laila’s is driven to depression by the deaths of her two sons on whom she doted, at her daughter’s expense.
Laila and Mariam live on the same street for more than a dozen years before their lives fully intersect, a point reached halfway through the novel when 14-year-old Laila is orphaned in a rocket attack. She is taken in by Rasheed and Mariam, who at 33 has failed to bear her husband any children. You can feel where this is going, and it does. The cruel Rasheed takes Laila as his second wife, encasing her in a burqa as he had Mariam and snuffing out her hopes and dreams – aided in both, of course, by the Taliban.
“Attention women,” runs the 1996 decree. “You will stay inside your homes at all times. It is not proper for women to wander aimlessly about the streets. If you go outside, you must be accompanied by a mahram, a male relative. If you are caught alone on the street you will be beaten and sent home. You will not, under any circumstances show your face. You will cover with a burqa when outside. If you do not, you will be severely beaten. Cosmetics are forbidden. Jewelry is forbidden. You will not wear charming clothes. You will not speak unless spoken to. You will not make eye contact with men. You will not laugh in public. If you do, you will be beaten. You will not paint your nails. If you do, you will be beaten. Girls are forbidden from attending school. All schools for girls will be closed immediately. Women are forbidden from working. If you are found guilty of adultery, you will be stoned to death.”
Hosseini points out in postscript to this book that life was harsh for many Afghan women, especially those in rural areas, even before the arrival of the Taliban, whose “gender apartheid” he describes as “one of the great unresolved injustices of the modern world.” As the president of the U.S.-based Feminist Majority Foundation (which has a campaign focused on Afghan women) noted, “If this was happening to any other class of people around the world, there would be a tremendous outcry.” On a visit to Kabul in 2003, Hosseini recalls “standing at street corners and seeing fully covered women walking along, trailed by four, five, six, seven children. I remember thinking, who is that person inside? What has she seen? What has she endured? What makes her happy? What gives her sorrow? What are her hopes, her longings, her disappointments? A Thousand Splendid Suns is in some ways my attempt at imaging answers to those questions.”
And for all its sometimes stock plotline and character, A Thousand Splendid Suns is – to this outsider at least – a most valuable and eminently readable window on what life might be like on the other side that mesh screen. (For a female perspective, the Feminist Majority has a reading list that including several books by women at ) On that first outing in a burqa (which was before the Taliban took power), Mariam was taken by her husband to Chicken Street. (“ ‘I don’t see any chickens,’ Mariam said. ‘That’s the one thing you can’t find on Chicken Street.’ Rasheed laughed.”) The street is located in a wealthier neighbourhood and as Mariam waits outside a shop, it’s the women she notices. “Modern Afghan women married to modern Afghan men who did not mind that their wives walked among strangers with makeup on their faces and nothing on their heads.”
You can take a trip to Chicken Street on Google Earth, and find user-generated images of houses and shops, even one labelled “outhouse near Chicken Street.” It’s eerie looking at the busy footpaths, imagining Mariam standing there. Or Laila, who visited the street as a girl with her friends. In the book, a popular restaurant near Chicken Street becomes an interrogation centre and “sometimes screaming was heard from behind its black painted windows.” And just down the road, is the women’s prison, “a drab, square-shaped building in Shar-e-Nau.” But anything more on that would be giving too much away.
Alison McCulloch’s reviews have appeared in The New York Times Book Review and other publications.