Sunday, June 03, 2007

The cruel, luckless lot of Afghan women

Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, but moved in 1980 to America, where he has lived ever since. A physician by profession, he hit the spotlight after his debut novel, The Kite Runner, became an international best-seller in 2003. A touching portrayal of the friendship between two men, The Kite Runner has as its backdrop the tumultuous history of modern Afghanistan.

In his new novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini again focuses on an Afghanistan ravaged by conflict. But this time, he delves into the lives of two disempowered, burqa-clad women, Mariam and Laila, who come together to chart a destiny in the face of unrelenting cruelty.

The novel begins with Mariam, the illegitimate offspring of a wealthy cinema owner, Jalil. Mariam lives on the outskirts of Herat with her mother, and is provided for by Jalil, who visits regularly. In spite of her mother's warnings, Mariam grows close to her father. Then, one day, she comes to visit Jalil at his mansion in Herat. Dismissed by Jalil's men, she returns home to find her mother dead, whereupon she is forced to live in Jalil's house.

This turns out to be a temporary arrangement. Mariam, all of 15, finds herself married off to Rasheed, a shoemaker in Kabul. Thirty years her senior, Rasheed is coarse and unkempt. To Mariam, Kabul in the 1970s is a lively, interesting place whose sights and sounds lead her to expect a good future. Under the monarchy, women are permitted to go to school and work. Hosseini captures well Mariam's shock at the way Kabul women dress:

These women were all swinging handbags and rustling skirts. Mariam even spotted one smoking behind the wheel of a car. Their nails were long, polished pink or orange, their lips red as tulips. They walked in high heels, and quickly, as if on perpetually urgent business. . . . These women mystified Mariam. They made her aware of her own lowliness, her plain looks, her lack of aspirations, her ignorance of so many things.

Only weeks into the marriage, however, Rasheed's bestial ways come to the fore. After she miscarries, he becomes impatient and cross with her: "He was more apt to sulk these days, to fault her cooking, to complain about clutter around the yard or point out even minor uncleanliness in the house."

Heartbreaking as Mariam's story is, it is less tragic than Laila's. A sprightly girl born into a liberal Kabul family in 1978, she has a father who is a schoolteacher and tells her, "When this war is over, Afghanistan is going to need you as much as its men, maybe even more. Because a society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated." Laila even has a boyfriend, Tariq, with whom she hopes to spend the rest of her life. The novel's first half focuses on the contrast between the lives of Laila and Mariam, who live just a few houses away from each other.

Then the force of events begins to play havoc with Laila's life. Her childhood is spent observing the defeat of the communists and the rise of the mujahideen. In the civil war that breaks out after the last of the Soviet tanks have left Afghanistan, her house is hit by a rocket, and both her parents are killed. By then, Tariq is in Pakistan, and Laila is left with no choice but to marry her savior - Rasheed.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is, at one level, a taut story of two women who come together by chance and discover a filial bond in the absence of any other. Mariam discovers the joys of motherhood with Laila's offspring and commits an act of unmatched bravery and supreme self-sacrifice to allow the younger woman a good life.

At another level, this is an insightful chronicle of the lives of ordinary women in Afghanistan. The portrayal of these lives, with their brutality and everyday cruelty, touches the reader to the core. The U-turn Laila's destiny suddenly takes demonstrates why liberal attitudes at a personal level aren't enough if society at large does not support a structure committed to them. Without getting preachy, Hosseini's novel sends a message to Islamic societies to look within and face up to their denial of rights and opportunities for women that are taken for granted in other parts of the world. Paradoxically, by refusing to glorify his native country's less edifying aspects, Hosseini has in fact done it a distinct service.


From Philadelphia Inquirer.

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