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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