If you check my Ratings Key for 4-star books here is what you find:
- Must read
- Want to read again
- I learned profound lessons
- Just beautiful
- I cried
A Thousand Splendid Suns checks all these boxes.
In addition, reading it now is extremely timely, given the recent departure of the United States from Afghanistan on August 30, 2021.
We hear the story from the perspective of two young women, girls at first, in alternating chapters.
Mariam was born in 1959 in Herat in western Afghanistan, the cradle of Persian culture. She is an illegitimate child of one of the richest men in the city, Jalil. He has three wives and nine legitimate children among them. They all live in one large mansion as a happy family. Mariam and her mother, however, live in a hovel he had built for them a couple of miles out of town, up a steep hill, away from the city, and away from his “respectable” life. But he apparently loves Mariam enough to come and visit her once a week and spend quality time with her. She grows up into her teenage years loving and adoring her father, not knowing any better that life could be different. One day she walks to the city without permission, arrives at her father’s house and quickly finds that there is indeed a difference between her and her other siblings. Within just a few days, at the age of fifteen, she is married off to a middle-aged man in Kabul, Rasheed. Despite per protests, Rasheed takes her with him and her life changes drastically. Rasheed is a brute of a man who thinks nothing of beating a wife with a belt until she bleeds.
A few houses down the street from Mariam and Rasheed lives a young family with a little girl named Laila. There are two older brothers. Laila’s father is somewhat of an outsider in the neighborhood. He is an intellectual, a teacher, who loves his books and cherishes education, even for a girl. Laila grows up in a loving, albeit poor, family. Her best friend is Tariq, a neighborhood boy who is two years older than she. Laila’s older brothers go to war against the Soviets and eventually both die for the cause. Laila’s mother is so shaken, she becomes morose and sickly. Eventually, a stray rocket hits their house. Laila is the only survivor but severely wounded.
Rasheed and Mariam rescue her, and promptly, Rasheed decides to take Laila as a second wife, against Mariam’s will. This stroke of fate puts the two women, a generation apart, into the same household under the boot of a severely abusive man.
A Thousand Splendid Suns is about the devastating abuse and systemic destruction of women in a regime and society where a few theocrats have absolute power over the lives of millions of people. It is also about the history of Afghanistan, starting in the 1960s and through about 2007. It describes the years before the Soviets invaded the country in the 1980s, their eventual defeat, the rise of the Mujahideens, their devolution into bands of warlords bent on destroying their own country for personal gain and power, and finally the rise of the Taliban, pre-Osama bin Laden. It illustrates in vivid detail what the Taliban, basically a bunch of uneducated goat-herders and religious fanatics, did to their own country and most importantly, to 50% of their population – all the women. We witness the hardships of women under that regime, and then, as we all know, the post 9/11-years as the American’s supposedly liberated the Afghans from the Taliban. Things started getting better again in the country and people’s lives started to improve.
That is where A Thousand Splendid Suns ends. There was hope. There was light again for girls and women.
The bitter, brutal irony is that I read this book not in 2007 when it came out, but fifteen years later, now in 2023. I know that the Americans left the country under very adverse conditions for the Afghan people. I know that the country fell into the hands of the Taliban again within days of America leaving, and I know, from reading A Thousand Splendid Suns what happened to the Afghans – again.
It’s easy for us to make decisions about how we feel about Afghanistan being a world away. Reading A Thousand Splendid Suns is crushing, challenging, and most of all thought-provoking. We didn’t do anything new to Afghanistan. We were just another invader in the revolving door of systematic subjugation of a nation and its people, a nation that could not be defeated by two superpowers in two generations, but a nation that also hasn’t figured out how to live and prosper on its own.
The Afghan people are not to be blamed. The sick interpretation of Islam and the fact that an entire nation is willing to subjugate itself to its dogma is at the root of the problem. And that is exactly why there should never be any connection between politics, government and church, any church at all.
Reading this book, I realize that through my entire lifetime on this planet, the people of Afghanistan have suffered, badly suffered, and there is no end in sight even now.