Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A Thousand Splendid Suns

I began reading A Thousand Splendid Suns which depicts life in Afghanistan through the eyes of (so far) a young girl.

This girl, Mariam, enters this world when an elite man of the community, Jalil has an affair with one of his servants. Her mother raises Mariam alone in the outskirts of the town with the help of her father's money. He grows up worshiping Jalil (her father) who visits her every week with what seems like sincere affection.

I can't go into it here (really I'm just too lazy), but her mother ends up hanging herself when Mariam is 15 and as a result, Jalil (and his three wives) push Mariam into a forced marriage to a 45 year old man who lives in Kabul conveniently a distance far, far away. That's where I am.

Here's how this chapter (Chapter 8) finishes:

Jalil was busy telling her [Mariam] that Kabul was so beautiful, the Moghul emperor Babur had asked that he be buried there. Next, Mariam knew, he'd go on about Kabul's gardens, and its shops, its trees, and its air, and before long, she would be on the bus and he would walk alongside it, waving cheerfully, unscathed, spared.

Mariam could not bring herself to allow it.

'I used to worship you,' she said.

Jalil stopped in midsentence. He crossed and uncrossed his arms. A young Hindu couple, the wife cradling a boy, the husband dragging a suitcase, passed between them. Jalil seemed grateful for the interruption. They excused themselves, and he smiled back politely.

'On Thursdays, I sat for hours waiting for you. I worried myself sick that you wouldn't show up.'

'It's been a long trip. You should eat something.' He said he could buy her some bread and goat cheese.

'I thought about you all the time. I used to pray that you'd live to be a hundred years old. I didn't know. I didn't know that you were ashamed of me.'

Jalil looked down, and, like an overgrown child, dug at something with his to of his shoe.

'You were ashamed of me.'

'I'll visit you,' he muttered. 'I'll come to Kabul and see you. We'll --'

'No. No,' she said. 'Don't come. I won't see you. Don't you come. I don't want to hear from you. Ever. Ever.'

He gave her a wounded look.

'It ends here for you and me. Say your good-byes.'

'Don't leave like this,' he said in a thin voice.

'You didn't even have the decency to give me the time to say good-bye to Mullah Faizullah.'

She turned and walked around to the side of the bus. She could hear him following her. When she reached the hydraulic doors, she heard him behind her.

'Mariam jo.'

She climbed the stairs and though she could spot Jalil out of the corner of her eye walking parallel to her she did not look out the window. She made her way down the aisle to the back, where Rasheed sat with her suitcase between his feet. She did not turn to look when Jalil's palms pressed on the glass, when his knuckles rapped and rapped on it. When the bus jerked forward, she did not turn to see him trotting alongside it. And when the bus pulled away, she did not look back to see him receeding, to see him disappear in the cloud of exhaust and dust.

Rasheed, who took up the window and the middle seat, put thick hands on hers.

'There now, girl. There. There,' he said He was squinting out the window as he said this, as though something more interesting had caught his eye."

So many thoughts about the first eight chapters of this book culminating when a father, shamefully and cowardly, literally throws away his 15 year old daughter like she was nothing more than a used up doll, tossed aside through an arranged marriage with a 45 year old stranger.

So, many of my thoughts on politics come down to how will our societies adequately be judged? I think we're judged by how the most vulnerable among us are doing. How many human beings are dismissed and disregarded? How many people are treated like animals or property? How do we care for our elderly? Or our poor? Obviously, the biggest shame in our Constitution was the way black slaves were counted as 3/5 of a person, and even more so, that we even had slaves at all. Or in virtually every society throughout much of our history, how women have been and continue to be deplorably treated and abused.

I know personally, its really difficult to recognize that every single person I encounter has a huge back story most likely filled with at least some amount tragedy and loss. Do I really succeed in putting myself in others shoes - even the homeless man? I know I have a long way to go personally.

I think what happens when you get to a certain place, there's so much fear that you will lose it. Jalil was the man in his town, owned lots of businesses, had three wives, ten children to them. He had Mariam with a servant girl and he risked shame. I'm not sure how much of a risk this was, the book didn't go into it. Would he loose anything if he took responsibility? It was certain neither of his three wives wanted Mariam around.

One more thought about this book. The author, Khaled Hossseini literally puts me in the shoes of Mariam jo, this obscure Aghanistani girl in a land I have no experience with. Reading these sorts of novels, helps to increase empathy.

"In a study published earlier this year psychologist Raymond A. Mar of York University in Toronto and others demonstrated that the number of stories preschoolers read predicts their ability to understand the emotions of others. Mar has also shown that adults who read less fiction report themselves to be less empathic."

I'm wondering how most people rate empathy on a scale of important personal characteristics, but I would suggest that for Christians, empathy was at the center of Christ's life and for Mormon's and I'm guessing for others as well it was a central part of his suffering and death:

"Jesus' perfect empathy was ensured when, along with His Atonement for our sins, He took upon Himself our sicknesses, sorrows, griefs, and infirmities and came to know these 'according to the flesh' (Alma 7:11-12). He did this in order that He might be filled with perfect, personal mercy and empathy and thereby know how to succor us in our infirmities. He thus fully comprehends human suffering." - Neal A. Maxwell

So, yeah, empathy is pretty important religiously speaking. But what about business? What does it really mean when we're building something to be purchased by another. We are anticipating someone else's needs and trying to fulfill them. At the heart of capitalism - when it works well - is empathy.

Its interesting to read a novel about Afghanistan considering we are currently fighting our longest war there right now.

Obviously, its a country far too complex to comment about considering I know virtually nothing about it. But I think it's a country worth learning about. And that - an awareness of a country we are occupying - too, should be reflected in our politics.


JRV said...

love love love that book. Enjoy!

Sara said...

You know Jenny's the one who gave me that book, right?

H said...

And you know that Sara gave me the book and I did something like 10 posts about it, right?

Interetingly, I did a lot of empathizing with Jalil in those first few chapters. Given his circumstances, I believe that he did the best he knew how. I don't remember if or what he had to lose, but I don't think that Mariam would have been better off living with him. She was clearly not accepted in the house and would have been known throughout the community as a child from his affair. It would not have been good. I also believe he was doing the best he could when he arranged a marriage for her, whether or not we understand the culture or not.

tempe turley said...


I just finished it and its such a heartbreaking book. I remember when you were blogging about this book, and I went back to those posts to read some of them again.

It's funny how we took different things from the book (some of the quotes you liked struck me as well though).

I want to blog more about the book, but it was so riveting - I couldn't put it down. Maybe I will have time soon.

Its funny how it ends with Jalil. I actually have some empathy for him as well, but it doesn't change how I feel about him much. I could tell he was trying to be a good person, but he was so weak and what he did what so legitimately bad. And he knew it.

But, I liked how toward the end of Mariam's life when out of desperation she tried to make contact with him. How, in light of all the evil that surrounded her, Jalil's act was not that big of a deal. And that is true as well.

The ending was heartbreaking. His attempt at atonement which was rejected, but not knowingly.

Afghanistan is such a sad, sad place.