...to read A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini
Okay, so maybe I won't detail a thousand splendid reasons, although after reading it, there are easily quite a few reasons to read it. I will just detail the first reason that came to mind.
That reason is feminism.
I first picked up Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns after I had been read his first novel, The Kite Runner. I found myself falling in love with his writing style and the stories he has to tell, being a modern Afghani author now living in the United States. And in A Thousand Splendid Suns, I found some things I wanted to cheer on.
I had always been what I called a “static feminist.” I am happy with where feminism has progressed up until now, and I see no reason for feminism to continue. In fact, feminism now annoys me. When I see women that want the Priesthood or want more of a role in Mormon leadership, I tend to be judgmental. However, in A Thousand Splendid Suns, I found a new cause to cheer on: Islamic feminism. What makes this so unique is that it is a male author, Khaled Hosseini, that is writing this very feminist novel. And this novel is not feminist in that it empowers women; in fact, it takes away power from the women in it to demonstrate just how severe the problem is in the Middle East. I fell in love with this passage: “Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter. Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always” (7). The imagery here is just mind blowing, and it sticks with me every time I see a compass now or when I orient myself to find where north, east, south and west are in relation to where I am standing at that present time. It reminds me how much the Western world has progressed, and how little the Middle East has. As Farah Ahmedi, the writer of “The Story of My Life: An Afghan Girl on the Other Side of the Sky,” once said, “Afghanistan is over 2,000 years old, populated by the same people with the same history and the same religion for all those 2,000 years. Why is it that America, that is just over a few hundred years old is so much more advanced, yet composed of all different people with different histories and different religions, is more advanced than Afghanistan?”
The second instance of imagery that has remained with me since I first read this book in ninth grade is this passage: “A man’s heart is a wretched, wretched thing, Mariam. It isn’t like a mother’s womb, it won’t bleed, it won’t stretch to make room for you. I’m the only one who loves you. I’m all you have in the world, Mariam, and when I’ve gone you’ll have nothing…you are nothing.” What surprises me is that it was a man that wrote these words, but part of Islamic culture dictates that it must be a man that writes these words—because traditionally, no one would listen to a woman. I love how clever Hosseini is; he knows that by writing the Kite Runner first, he would establish himself as a worthy Middle Eastern writer. Later, he decided to tackle the larger issues in the Middle East: women’s rights, but not by outright stating what is wrong with the Middle Eastern culture. He depicts it as it is, and this is why I became so personally involved in this issue.
The last passage that really hit my heart is one that highlights the setting of Kabul, and the differences between America and the Middle East.
“That summer, Titanic fever gripped Kabul. People smuggled pirated copies of the film from Pakistan- sometimes in their underwear. After curfew, everyone locked their doors, turned out the lights, turned down the volume, and reaped tears for Jack and Rose and the passengers of the doomed ship. If there was electrical power, Mariam, Laila, and the children watched it too. A dozen times or more, they unearthed the TV from behind the tool-shed, late at night, with the lights out and quilts pinned over the windows.
At the Kabul River, vendors moved into the parched riverbed. Soon, from the river's sunbaked hollows, it was possible to buy Titanic carpets, and Titanic cloth, from bolts arranged in wheelbarrows. There was Titanic deodorant, Titanic toothpaste, Titanic perfume, Titanic pakora, even Titanic burqas. A particularly persistent beggar began calling himself "Titanic Beggar."
"Titanic City" was born.
It's the song, they said.
No, the sea. The luxury. The ship.
It's the sex, they whispered.
Leo, said Aziza sheepishly. It's all about Leo.
"Everybody wants Jack," Laila said to Mariam. "That's what it is. Everybody wants Jack to rescue them from disaster. But there is no Jack. Jack is not coming back. Jack is dead.”
This extensive passage is a metaphor for the desperation and complete loss of hope that the women of the Middle East are suffering under. Like the ship, they know that there is no escape from a certain death under the ocean, or, in their case, under Taliban rule. It is painful for me to read and even more painful for me to imagine. The setting of Kabul is of utmost importance to the novel; Kabul, after all, has suffered so much in recent years; Soviet invasion, American occupation, and Taliban tyranny. By homing in on two victims’ stories--Laila and Mariam,--Hosseini effectively tells the entire history of Kabul across three generations. This metaphor of the Titanic would not be as strong if it was not juxtaposed with the stark contrast of Kabul. Titanic begins with an unbelievable hope and dreams of grandeur for female Middle Eastern viewers. By the end, they had fallen in love with a man—Jack—that represented the love that could be between a man and a woman. And by the end, that hope had been dashed to pieces in the way Jack had died, because of the sad fact of reality of where they live. These women will never have a chance at the luxurious life the cruise ship passengers had, and even if they did, it would just be taken away in the end.
This blunt truth is what hurts me the most about A Thousand Splendid Suns. Even the title highlights the superiority of men in the culture: a thousand splendid sons. Men always have a title of honor in the Middle East, as seen in this dialogue between one of the women, Laila, and a policeman: “ ‘As a matter of policy, we do not interfere with private family matters, sister.’ ‘Of course you don’t. When it benefits the man’” (238). While sexism like this still exists in America, thankfully, dialogue such as this would be condemned.
While I do not live in the Middle East, growing up in New Jersey meant I had a lot of Muslim friends since there were no Mormons, and Muslims had the closest standards to Mormons that I could find. However, the Muslims I was friends with wore all kinds of clothing; one, Shehara, dressed the way one would expect an average American to dress and wore heavy eye makeup, something that is never seen in the Middle East. The other, Salwa, wore a hijab that covered her hair and she covered all of her skin, except for her face and hands. Both chose to dress this way because of choice, and this is exactly what Khaled Hosseini is after. In an interview, he stated, “personally, I find the idea of making a woman faceless reprehensible. I wish every single woman in Afghanistan could lift the burqa and walk the streets freely. The choice…should be theirs to wear it.”
This is yet another reason why A Thousand Splendid Suns resonated so deeply with me. In the Mormon church, we are always taught about the importance of agency, and what it means to have agency. However, the agency of these women have been taken away. They still have a choice, but that choice is between obedience and death—which is hardly a choice at all. A Thousand Splendid Suns is what really opened my eyes to what is occurring in nations around the world, not just in my immediate backyard.