This column, which ran on UPI’s Religion and Spirituality Forum, is written with gratitude to Gene Hewitt, who gave me both of Khaled Hosseini’s novels and who took me to a staged production of The Kite Runner at San Jose State University. Everyone’s lives should be filled with such literate and kind-hearted friends.
Like most fans of Khaled Hosseini’s debut novel The Kite Runner, I was afraid to pick up his newly-released second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns. I was among the millions of readers around the world who found myself slightly dehydrated from the shedding of tears while reading The Kite Runner’s tale of redemption and forgiveness set against the horrors of war and the struggles of immigration. It has been a few years since I read The Kite Runner, and the story still haunts me.
Two weeks ago a friend of mine gave me A Thousand Splendid Suns and I began to read the book completely expecting to be disappointed. I was sure that Khaled Hosseini’s second novel either would be a The Kite Runner sung in a different key, or it would be pathetic nonsense, having us all wish that Hosseini had taken up Harper Lee as a role model, and returned to his medical practice.
But I was not disappointed. A Thousand Splendid Suns is a marvelous novel about two women brought together by war, cultural mores, and marriage to the same abusive man. It is a story of love and domestic survival set against the increasing dilapidation of a nation, as Afghanistan is passed off from the abuses of Soviet occupation to the relentless violence of the Mujahidin to the religious repressions of the Taliban.
While it is unfair to compare A Thousand Splendid Suns to The Kite Runner it is impossible not to. Much of The Kite Runner moved through emotional and physical geography with which I am familiar: like the characters in the novel I have hurt others and found redemption and forgiveness; and while I’ve not been to Afghanistan, large parts of The Kite Runner take place in the neighborhoods where I live and work. That sense of intimacy enhanced the novel’s power over me.
For me the great gift of A Thousand Splendid Suns lay in its complete foreignness. The protagonists are women living in a land I’ve never visited, who survive two decades of warfare while being subjected to the worst kinds of domestic abuse imaginable, all of which is beyond my ken, making Hosseini’s second novel vitally important for me to read.
Important also is Hosseini’s description of Afghanistan. In The Kite Runner, Afghanistan plays a lesser role, being the setting for a story that, in some ways, and with a few important modifications, could have happened anywhere. But in A Thousand Splendid Suns the landscape, culture and modern history of Afghanistan are intricately woven into the story.
I was surprised at what I did not know about Afghanistan, especially given my country’s decades-long involvement in the warfare that rips through the pages of A Thousand Splendid Suns. I knew that the Taliban rose to power in the bloody aftermath of the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan. I knew that the Taliban imposed all sorts of arcane and sometimes kooky rules upon the Afghan people and that they could be cruel in the enforcement of those rules. And, of course, I knew of the connection between Osama Bin Laden and the Taliban regime, which eventually lead to the US invasion of Afghanistan after the attacks of September 11, 2001.
But like most Americans, I was unaware of the depth and complexity of Afghanistan’s ethnic, cultural and religious diversity, and I am grateful to Khaled Hosseini for teaching me what I should have learned a long time ago.
When a nation is at war in a foreign land, as the United States is at war in Afghanistan, it behooves the people of the warring nation to learn about the children of God in whose land the battles are being fought. However justifiable a nation’s warfare may be, it its important that the potential victims of that warfare not be reduced to politically expedient stereotypes, as has happened in popular American perceptions of Afghanistan, where visions of terrorist men and burka-clad women dance in our heads.
I am of the firm conviction that every American should read A Thousand Splendid Suns before our armed forces redeploy from Afghanistan, and I owe a personal debt of gratitude to Khaled Hosseini for opening my eyes to the richness of Afghanistan’s culture and the complexity of its recent history.