A Thousand Tears

Copyright © by SuZi, 5/16/14


  Reading about a culture that is other than one’s own is usually informative: in many cases, it will increase compassion, a sense of understanding, a lessening of xenophobia; however, in the case of  Khaled Hosseini’s  A Thousand Splendid Suns,  some readers might be left—despite the optimistic ending—with a sense of revulsion toward the culture in the novel’s setting, that of Afghanistan.

  While a male writer whose protagonists are female may or may not be an issue with some readers, and while Hosseini’s novel takes on female characters as a kind of  balance to the young men in his previous novel The Kite Runner, it is  Hosseini’s matter-of-fact story arc of the lives these characters endure that is so appalling. The two primary characters,  Mariam and  Laila, are both wed to a much older man when each girl would have been, in American culture, high school sophomores. Although Mariam is some years older than Laila, by the time she is nineteen, she has suffered seven miscarriages and is afraid of her husband, Rasheed:

  She lived in fear of his shifting moods, his volatile             temperament, his insistence on steering even mundane exchanges down a confrontational path that, on occasion, he would resolve with punches, slaps, kicks[…] ( 89). While an abusive husband is not, unfortunately, a horror limited by one culture, the Afghanistan in this novel does not allow abused wives to leave their husbands. Towards the end of the novel, when Mariam is in a prison that provides no food, the author observes that  the women in the prison “were all there for the common  offense of ‘running away from home’ ” ( 322). The prison itself is a nightmare of filth where […] many of the children had been born[…]. All day, they ran       around, making up lively games, unaware of the stench of feces and urine that permeated Walayat and their own bodies, unmindful of the Talib guards until one smacked them (322). The Taliban too is painted in this novel as a horrific, brutal regime, unrestrained in its misogyny.

  Hosseini’s novel  is set in recent history.  Although told through the eyes of characters, readers still see the destruction to the country’s previous cultural triumphs: Men welding pickaxes swarmed the dilapidated Kabul Museum and smashed pre-Islamic statues to rubble—that is, those that hadn’t already been looted by the Mujahideen. The university was shut down and its students sent home. Paintings were ripped from walls, shredded with blades. Television screens were kicked in. Books, except the Koran, were burned in heaps, the stores that sold them closed down. The poems of Khalili, Pajwak, Ansari, Haji Dehqan, Ashraqi, Beytaab, Hafez, Jami, Nizami, Rumi, Khayyam, Beydel, and more went up in smoke ( 250).

  While Westerners invested in arrogance might crow that the Taliban no longer holds sway, Hosseini’s novel details the post-Taliban inter-fighting of warlords as well. The misery in this novel becomes a binary of regional and personal agony. For the two protagonists, their lives become a sequence of  psychic and physical torture that includes, for Laili, an un-anesthetized caesarian birth( 254 -260), and the forced abandonment of her daughter, at Rasheed’s insistence, to an orphanage( 279-290).

  A notable irony of the novel is Hosseini’s  rather matter-of-fact writing style juxtaposed against the horror of the characters’ experiences. At once point, Laila, who insists on visiting her daughter in the orphanage, no longer has the accompaniment of Rasheed, and has to negotiate her way past the Taliban, which forbids women to go about alone:

  If she was lucky, she was given a tongue-lashing or a single kick to the rear, a shove in the back. Other times, she met with assortments of wooden clubs, fresh tree branches, short whips, slaps, often fists.

  One day, a young Talib beat Laila with a radio antenna. When he was done, he gave a final whack to the back of her neck and said, ‘ I see you again, I’ll beat you until your mother’s milk leaks out of your bones’ That time, Laila went home. She lay on her stomache, feeling like a stupid, pitiable animal, and hissed as Mariam arranged damp cloths across her bloodied back and thighs. But, usually, Laila refused to cave in. […] Soon Laila took to wearing extra layers, even in the heat, two three sweaters beneath the burqa, for padding against the beatings [ 285-286].

  As nauseating as these, rather abundant, passages are in the novel, they also serve to create repulsion  toward  the novel’s culture as well.

  If Hosseini’s novel is to serve a readership, it would not be to lessen any sense of disgust at modern  Afghanistan. While the hellish lives of women—girls by comparison to American cultural standards—is , at best, a nightmare from which the reader awakens at the last page, it does not evoke a sense of compassion for that culture as a whole. If Hosseini’s works serves any purpose of didacticism, it is that a country in ruin is a contemptible dystopia from which the lesson learned is one of  what to avoid. For western readers, the horror of  institutionalized misogyny is an abyss into which any culture dare not fall.


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