A Total Eclipse

Hosseini's story of the fall of Kabul


by Jeanne McDonald

What if you woke up one day and millions of fliers had been thrown, blown, or posted around your city, listing the new laws of the land? Among them, Singing is forbidden. Dancing is forbidden. Playing cards, playing chess, gambling, and kite flying are forbidden. Writing books, watching films, and painting pictures are forbidden. If you keep parakeets, you will be beaten. Your birds will be killed. If you steal, your hand will be cut off at the wrist. If you steal again, your foot will be cut off. [Women will] stay inside your homes at all times. You will not . . . show your face. You will cover with burqa when outside. If you do not, you will be severely beaten. You will not speak unless spoken to. You will not laugh in public. Your will not paint your nails. If you do, you will lose a finger. Women are forbidden from working. If you are found guilty of adultery, you will be stoned to death.

Fiction? No. These unbelievable mandates became reality when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in September 1996. This was in Kabul, a previously thriving and open city where women were teachers and physicians and government workers who could walk freely in Western clothing and boys flew kites instead of carrying rocket launchers. It is the landscape of a new book, A Thousand Splendid Suns (Riverhead Hardback, $25.95) , in which author Khaled Hosseini brings to life beautifully drawn characters that readers will not soon forget.

Hosseini's affluent family left Afghanistan in 1980, and he wrote his first highly acclaimed novel, The Kite Runner , from his childhood memories. But when he returned in 2003 he was shocked to see the devastation wrought by various factions that had since occupied the country. What struck him most was the enormous number of women begging on the streets with their children. Forbidden to work, they cannot otherwise provide sustenance for their families. In many cases, their husbands have been killed, imprisoned or stripped of their jobs and their homes. Every day presents a new struggle for survival. Some women even place their children in filthy, overcrowded orphanages to insure that at least they will have something to eat.

These desperate women became the prototypes for Hosseini's brilliantly drawn characters in the novel. The women who had approached him on the streets told him heart-wrenching stories of their fight for survival, and it was from these true accounts that the characters of Laila and Miriam began to emerge. Early in the novel we learn that Miriam's mother, Nana, became pregnant by her employer, Jalil, who, under pressure from his several legitimate wives, refuses to take Nana and her baby into his home, instead relegating them to a shack in the woods. Thus, Miriam lives forever with the stigma of being illegitimate, a harami. And Nana, always angry about her own fate, never lets Miriam forget it. â“Women like us,â” she says. â“We endure. It's all we have.â”

But Miriam has no idea what endurance means until, at 15, she is forced into marriage by Jalil. Her despicable husband, Rasheed, more than three times her age, exemplifies the cruelty of the Middle Eastern theory that women are chattel, born to be slaves to their husbands. Miriam endures Rasheed's fists and belt buckle, sinking further and further into despair as the years pass in this dangerous and punishing environment. Then, by a series of circumstances, Laila, a teenager, comes into the household in order to have a roof over her head when her parents are killed by a rocket. By nature independent and spirited, Laila also becomes a target of Rasheed's fathomless wrath. Yet, somehow, throughout all this abuse at home and with their city exploding around them, the two women begin to bond. And there comes a time when their very survival depends on their mutual devotion and respect for each other.

But neither their lives nor Afghanistan will ever be the same. With tears in her eyes, Leila recalls her father's farewell ode to Kabul, two lines from an ancient poem dedicated to the former beauty of the city: One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,/ or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls. As readers, we can see those moons, we can smell the lamb cooking in Miriam's kitchen, we can taste the blood in her mouth after an attack by Rasheed. Hosseini puts us there in his scenes, making us flinch when Rasheed reaches for the belt, and making us weep when the women's plans for escape are foiled. He paints his characters with stunning clarity and somehow manages to compress innumerable wars and events into a compact and compelling story. And most of all, he teaches his readers about grace and sacrifice in a world that too often forgets that those qualities ever existed.


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