Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Book 66: A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

I bought this book a while back, but every time I picked it up, I couldn’t get past the first chapter or two. I’d liked The Kite Runner but felt like maybe it wasn’t worth all the acclaim it had received, and thought the ending was rather ludicrous. A friend of mine has also read both books and she thinks The Kite Runner is the better of the two. However, I preferred A Thousand Splendid Suns. I mean, in The Kite Runner, the protagonist returns to Afghanistan to save his childhood friend’s son from an orphanage only to discover that their neighborhood bully and arch nemesis had already taken him out of the orphanage to torture him. There’s a part towards the end of A Thousand Splendid Suns that might ask for a certain suspension of belief but it’s not unbelievable and completely farfetched; it’s the kind of thing that can happen, just not that often.

Also, since this novel focused on characters that remained in Afghanistan, it taught more about the various regimes that have occurred over the past thirty years in Afganistan, while The Kite Runner was about the expatriates’ experience.

In ways, the occurrences are similar to many novels with women taking place in Muslim countries – after a period of greater freedom for women, the religious fundamentalist become more powerful again, and women once again find their movements and choices restricted. Reading Lolita in Tehran showed similar themes of nationalism and patriotism that the whole country agreed with that suddenly carried a very negative anti-Western, anti-woman backlash with them.

A Thousand Splendid Suns starts with Mariam, a young girl, who is the illegitimate daughter of one of the most prominent men in her small area. After her fifteenth birthday, Mariam finally demands some kind of recognition from her father, and in the subsequent events, she is married off to a man 30 years her senior. At first, her marriage is more pleasant than she would have expected but as time passes, her husband shows his true colors, and her life becomes dominated by fear and condescension.

Born nineteen years after Mariam, Laila is the daughter of their neighbors whom Mariam has little to no interaction with. Laila’s father was a teacher and much more progressive than Mariam’s husband Rasheed, and Laila is raised with an education. Laila’s childhood witnesses several changes in regime, beginning with the Soviets who are hated but have one advantage to them as far as Laila’s father can see: they have given women the best opportunities they have ever had. After the Soviets are defeated, several factions wage war against it for power, hurting the civilian population. Many Afghanis become refugees, including Laila’s best friend and childhood sweetheart Tariq.

After years of infighting, the population greets the Taliban with enthusiasm, and it is only later that the women realize how badly things will now be for them. However, even before the Taliban, women like Mariam had no say in their lives, and even Laila who is from a more progressive background finds herself with no options.

While the novel ends somewhat positively with the UN and various organizations trying to provide aid to the country, I am not sure if the future is really going to be much better. I know recently the constitution that was voted on in Afghanistan basically legalized marital rape, although I believe that has since been changed again. Also after eight years of war, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was another backlash against all things Western after the occupation ends – it’s a logical enough reaction, but unfortunately it also becomes an excuse and a reason to oppress women.

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