Tuesday, November 6, 2007

367 Splendid Pages


A Thousand Splendid Suns
by Khaled Hosseini

I still remember standing in the parking lot at my former church, the Sunday morning that we learned that U.S. troops had invaded Afghanistan in the first retaliation for 9/11 and the opening salvos of the war on terror. I was standing with my friend M., who, when we heard the news, immediately burst into tears and said "There are no more miserable people anywhere in the world than the Afghans. Why do we have to heap more on them?" Her question was somewhat rhetorical, as at the time the search for Bin Laden made going into Afghanistan seem like a logical step. I think she was making the point, though, that it is tragic when a war on terror ruins or ends the lives of so many people who have never even thought of committing terrorist acts.

Khaled Hosseini, in both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns humanizes the Afghan people and articulates their suffering better than any story on CNN that I have seen to date. I did not think he could top his first book, but he may have with this one. When I think of Afghanistan, I think of dust and rubble and starving people, a country characterized by the Islamic extremism that has turned it into a cultural wasteland. There are legitimate reasons for those images in our mind with the present Afghanistan, but Hosseini's books show us that it has not always been that way, and it does not have to remain that way.

Hosseini weaves personal stories with the history of Afghanistan, so that the reader picks up the history of the country while also idenitfying with and coming to care about the people who lived through it. Both of his novels deal with suffering and redemption and grace that pervades (and prevails) against all odds. We see that there are many Muslims who are a lot like us - who want to raise their children, worship God, and live peaceful lives. Circumstances prevent them from doing that all too often, yet they manage to create pockets of tranquility, find the odd moment of humor, and develop relationships that help them to endure.

One of the main characters of A Thousand Splendid Suns, named Mariam, is truly downtrodden. Through the whole book, we just wait for her to get one tiny break, one ray of hope, and (with the exception of her relationship with Laila and Laila's children) it just never happens. It was Mariam who brought M.'s long ago words in the WPC parking lot to my mind. In the end, though, Mariam sacrifices herself, literally giving her own life, so that the three people she cares most about can have a chance for a better future. Mariam's resolve as she walks to her execution reminded me of Christ facing the jeering mob and giving himself up for all of us. Laila finds a way to keep Mariam's memory alive, by caring for the orphaned children of Kabul.

At one point in the story, Mariam is teaching the child Aziza the daily Islamic prayers that she (Mariam) has used for so many years to anchor and order her life in the midst of constant humiliation and a lifetime of being treated like she is less than nothing. Mariam says to Laila: "These prayers are all I have to give her because they are really the only things that have ever been mine." Mariam has learned the hard way what can sustain the human spirit through unimaginable brutality and hopelessness.

This is a must read. I will not forget it, and I hope the U.S. does not forget the people of Afghanistan again.

Reverent Reader

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