Years ago, when my brother Chris was 18, he recommended a book to me. Now mind you, Chris is the only person in my family that does not have a bone-deep love of reading; so I was very curious. The book was “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini, and I must have read it in about 14 hours of non-stop reading. It is set in Afghanistan in both the cities of Herat and Kabul. Ironically, Chris joined the Army that same year and was deployed to Afghanistan, to Kandahar. Both of my brothers each did two tours of duty in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom.
When I read this book, my brothers were already in Afghanistan and my father was in Iraq. While this book is set at the start of the Soviet-Afghan War (considered to be part of the Cold War) and ends at the very start of the 9-11 attacks, I soaked up every ounce of Afghanistan history that is laced throughout this book. To understand what shaped today’s Afghanistan, one must look back at the Soviet’s influence, then to the Mujahideen warlord takeover, and finally to the Taliban revolution. The historical facts are all accurate, and Khaled Hosseini did a remarkable job of tying the historical truth in with a fictional story. Before he wrote “A Thousand Splendid Suns”, Khaled went back to Afghanistan, his birthplace, for the first time in 30 years. Many of the moving stories he heard from Afghan women made their way in bits and pieces to this book.
“One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs, or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.”
“A Thousand Splendid Suns” starts in 1964 and ends in 2001. The story follows two women from very different walks of life. Mariam was the illegitimate daughter of the wealthiest man in Herat, who was raised by her bitter mother in a shanty just outside of town. She worships her father, and decided to set out for the first time in her life. On her 15th birthday, she went to his house to ask to be part of his “real” family. This decision changed the course of her life, and set the story in motion. She is given away to a man named Rasheed, whom she was forced to marry. He takes her back to Kabul, where requires that she wear a burka and surrender to the lifestyle of being submissive and subservient to him. Laila was born to a liberal family in Kabul, and only ever knew freedom and happiness. The collapse of Mohammad Najibullah’s regime in April 1992, other wise known as the Battle of Kabul, starts the merging of their lives. Laila is forced by circumstance to marry Rasheed, and quickly encounters the horrors of an abusive and domineering husband.
If you had told me mid-read that this book would have a happy ending, I wouldn’t have believed it. As gut-wrenching as some of the events depicted in this novel were, I was so struck by the loving manner in which Khaled writes these women. His perception of Afghan women is very well illustrated in his words, and the character development that he took the time to do makes this book so captivating to me. What these women endured in this story, and what real Afghan women endured in real life, truly mystifies me. To think of a life in 1990s Afghanistan as a women sends a shudder down my spine, and the strength shown by Laila and Mariam made for the most beautiful read. This story is one for everyone, as is the inspiring message to keep hope alive, even in the darkest of hours. I was nothing short of inspired and awed when I finished “A Thousand Splendid Suns”, and I’m so thankful that my brother recommend it to me all those years ago.