Hazel McHaffie

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Well, having loved The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, … I just had to read another of his novels,  A Thousand Splendid Suns, which has also languished on my shelves for far too long.

It’s set against the same backdrop: Afghanistan at the time of the overthrow of the king, through the civil war, the rule of the Mujahideen, and the coming of the Taliban. A wounded country, sinking into a state of destruction, starvation, oppression, brutality and terrible fear.

Jalil Khan is one of the wealthiest men in Herat before the wars begin. He has three wives and nine legitimate children, properties, a thriving business, but he blotted his reputation when an affair with his housekeeper became public. His illegitimate daughter, Mariam, adores him, and for fourteen years he visits her, in her maternal home – a mud hut, in a clearing, with no amenities – and makes a big fuss of her. Her genuine affection for him makes his eventual betrayal all the harder to bear. He has chosen his reputation over her welfare.

She’s still only 15, and now motherless, when she’s married off to a man thirty years her senior. Rasheed is an embittered and malodorous shoe-maker, who takes her away from everyone and everything she knows. She is uprooted, displaced, like an intruder in someone else’s life. Nevertheless, initially, when he hides her from the gaze of other men, she feels prized by him, treasured and significant, but that all changes when she loses pregnancy after pregnancy, and he becomes brutish, harsh and violent.

Eighteen years into their fruitless marriage, when he rescues a young girl, Laila, from the rubble following a rocket attack which kills her parents and destroys her home, a new dynamic is established. Rasheed by now is in his sixties, Mariam 33, the girl 14. He grooms Laila to become an additional wife. Laila is already stricken with grief, not only losing home and family, but also hearing that her young lover, Tariq, has been killed. What’s more, she’s just discovered she’s pregnant with his baby after one clumsy coupling … all hope of running away together has gone. She knows there’s no future for her either in this punitive land, or in the refugee camps if she were to flee the country, unless she is under the protection of a man. Marriage offers her her only chance.

Rasheed openly favours Laila and makes Mariam’s life a misery with his cruel taunts and obvious preferences. But that all changes when the baby turns out to be a girl, Aziza, and Rasheed vents his displeasure on Laila. Mariam’s resentment turns to pity for the poor girl, and gradually allegiances change as the two women unite in the face of Rasheed’s harsh treatment of them both. They conspire to escape together, but their plans are thwarted when a stranger betrays them. Rasheed exacts a terrible revenge.

Two and a half years after the failed escape, the Taliban arrive. Their oppressive rule is crushing for women like Laila, reared to expect education and independence. Now the two wives must always wear burqahs, never go out unaccompanied by a man, suffer domestic abuse without hope of rescue, work like slaves. Rasheed’s violence escalates, and the only person he treats well is his son, Zalmai. It suits him to have the Taliban’s approval to punish his wives with beatings and deprivation.

After 27 years of marriage to this man, Mariam finally turns, when she sees him strangling Laila with every intention of killing her. Her old lover Tariq has returned and Laila has dared to speak to him without a chaperone – an unforgivable offence worthy of death in Rasheed’s eyes. Mariam is prepared to forfeit her own life to save Laila. And she does.

For four decades, now, the Afghan refugee crisis has been one of the severest around the world. In this tale of unconscionable violence, oppression and survival against the odds, Afghanistan and its people and its sorrows come vividly to life. Real love and honourable sacrifice shine the brighter for the contrast with evil. Hosseini has not only accomplished this, but he himself works as a US goodwill envoy for UNHCR, the humanitarian agency, helping to protect basic human rights of refugees, provide emergency relief, and help them restart their lives in safe environments. Lots to commend him.

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