Once one reads The Kite Runner, about two boys growing up in Afghanistan, the story remains seared on the soul. It cannot be "un-known" as much as parts of it wound the sensibilities — and with that tale Afghan-American novelist Khaled Hosseini entered the pantheon of highly-respected story tellers. There, the author successfully portrayed men and how they deal with honor, shame, pride, and betrayal.
Now the author follows with a second book, A Thousand Splendid Suns, that matches the first in every way — except that it enters the hearts of women, particularly those who are suffocated by their own misogynistic culture. This saga follows two women, girls really, who are from very different Afghan families and circumstances, but end up married to the same man, the sadistic Rasheed. The first, Mariam, is an illegitimate daughter given away at age 15 in order to save her father's pride; the second, Laila, arrives in that home years later, accepting her status as second wife for complicated reasons. To be certain, she has very few options from which to choose.
While at first they divide the household chores and responsibilities in a way that minimizes their contact — for there is no reason for them to get along — over the years they come to love one another as dearly as any mother-daughter pair and each generously sacrifices what little she can to spare the other the wrath of their shared despotic husband. All of this is woven brilliantly amongst the familiar details of Afghanistan's recent political upheavals, which include the mujahadeen fighting Soviet occupation, the fall of the Soviet Union, the rise of the Taliban, the constant nerve-wracking (usually deadly) tribal posturing, and ultimately bin Laden's attack on the United States, simply adding one more chapter to Afghanistan's bloody conflicts.
Hosseini makes clear in his depiction of daily life the severe limitations placed on Afghan women. Their safety and well-being were entirely contingent on the nature of their fathers, their brothers, their husbands, and their own ability to produce sons. They couldn't leave the home, choose their own spouse, arrange an education, or travel without permission, and unescorted women were subject to sanctioned harassment and beatings by men on the streets. When one of the women is forced to temporarily entrust her young daughter to an orphanage because of widespread hunger, her weekly visits (unaccompanied) required running a gauntlet of abuse at every corner. Soon she learned to wear protective padding under her burkha. Sometimes she persevered across town to her destination, and at other times she was overcome by the violence, leaving the child feeling bereft and abandoned without the much-anticipated rendezvous.
While Rasheed beat Mariam regularly once she proved unable to give him the son he desired, his rage quickly turned on both women when he sensed disobedience, betrayal, collaboration or loss of face. To see the complicity of the neighbors, the government, and the culture — even from the distance of a novel — was maddening. Surely it is beyond our ability to really imagine those who have to live it daily, generation after generation around the world.
Lest one be put off by the oppressive details, the book truly is one of hope and astonishing faith. Both women turn to God as they know Him and find great comfort in prayer. What is more, love prevails at every turn. The story is a marvelous revelation in particular of the power of motherly love and generosity. Despite obstacles everywhere, Hosseini's two heroines give flesh to the adage: "Where there is no love, put love, and then there will be love" (Saint John of the Cross). The Christian reader will marvel at the weight of sacrifice and the desire to be just in an unjust world. One character actually sits in her room, poised with a sharp object with which she intends to abort an unwanted pregnancy, and in the end cannot commit the act — she knows it is not the child's fault to have been conceived and he is only worthy of her motherly embrace.
There are ubiquitous newspaper accounts, internet articles, and books on the troubling traditions that remain stubbornly entwined with Islam. It is a subject to be studied — so that we can respond with the Christian understanding of the dignity of all persons and our beautiful theology of the body. Women deserve so much more, children require so much more, and God promises so much more. Love is powerful, and resilient mothers can move mountains when necessary — but it will take our prayers and dialogue promoting marriage as a reflection of the rich union of God and His Bride the Church to bring the truth to these dark corners of the world.