1 Arashigar

A Thousand Splendid Suns Character Essay Questions

READERS GUIDE

Questions and Topics for Discussion

INTRODUCTION

After 103 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and with four million copies of The Kite Runner shipped, Khaled Hosseini returns with a beautiful, riveting, and haunting novel that confirms his place as one of the most important literary writers today.

Propelled by the same superb instinct for storytelling that made The Kite Runner a beloved classic, A Thousand Splendid Suns is at once an incredible chronicle of thirty years of Afghan history and a deeply moving story of family, friendship, faith, and the salvation to be found in love.

Born a generation apart and with very different ideas about love and family, Mariam and Laila are two women brought jarringly together by war, by loss and by fate. As they endure the ever escalating dangers around them-in their home as well as in the streets of Kabul-they come to form a bond that makes them both sisters and mother-daughter to each other, and that will ultimately alter the course not just of their own lives but of the next generation. With heart-wrenching power and suspense, Hosseini shows how a woman’s love for her family can move her to shocking and heroic acts of self-sacrifice, and that in the end it is love, or even the memory of love, that is often the key to survival.

A stunning accomplishment, A Thousand Splendid Suns is a haunting, heartbreaking, compelling story of an unforgiving time, an unlikely friendship, and an indestructible love.
 


ABOUT KHALED HOSSEINI

Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 1965. His father was a diplomat with the Afghan Foreign Ministry and his mother taught Farsi and History at a large high school in Kabul. In 1970, the Foreign Ministry sent his family to Tehran, where his father worked for the Afghan embassy. They lived in Tehran until 1973, at which point they returned to Kabul. In July of 1973, on the night Hosseini’s youngest brother was born, the Afghan king, Zahir Shah, was overthrown in a bloodless coup by the king’s cousin, Daoud Khan. At the time, Hosseini was in fourth grade and was already drawn to poetry and prose; he read a great deal of Persian poetry as well as Farsi translations of novels ranging from Alice in Wonderland to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer series.

In 1976, the Afghan Foreign Ministry once again relocated the Hosseini family, this time to Paris. They were ready to return to Kabul in 1980, but by then Afghanistan had already witnessed a bloody communist coup and the invasion of the Soviet army. The Hosseinis sought and were granted political asylum in the United States. In September of 1980, Hosseini’s family moved to San Jose, California. They lived on welfare and food stamps for a short while, as they had lost all of their property in Afghanistan. His father took multiple jobs and managed to get his family off welfare. Hosseini graduated from high school in 1984 and enrolled at Santa Clara University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Biology in 1988. The following year, he entered the University of California-San Diego’s School of Medicine, where he earned a Medical Degree in 1993. He completed his residency at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles and began practicing Internal Medicine in 1996. His first love, however, has always been writing.

Hosseini has vivid, and fond, memories of peaceful pre-Soviet era Afghanistan, as well as of his personal experiences with Afghan Hazaras. One Hazara in particular was a thirty-year-old man named Hossein Khan, who worked for the Hosseinis when they were living in Iran. When Hosseini was in the third grade, he taught Khan to read and write. Though his relationship with Hossein Khan was brief and rather formal, Hosseini always remembered the fondness that developed between them.

In 2006, Hosseini was named a goodwill envoy to the UNHCR, The United Nations Refugee Agency. His new book, A Thousand Splendid Suns, will be published in May 2007.
 


DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
  • The phrase “a thousand splendid suns,” from the poem by Saib-e-Tabrizi, is quoted twice in the novel – once as Laila’s family prepares to leave Kabul, and again when she decides to return there from Pakistan. It is also echoed in one of the final lines: “Miriam is in Laila’s own heart, where she shines with the bursting radiance of a thousand suns.” Discuss the thematic significance of this phrase.

  • Mariam’s mother tells her: “Women like us. We endure. It’s all we have.” Discuss how this sentiment informs Mariam’s life and how it relates to the larger themes of the novel.

  • By the time Laila is rescued from the rubble of her home by Rasheed and Mariam, Mariam’s marriage has become a miserable existence of neglect and abuse. Yet when she realizes that Rasheed intends to marry Laila, she reacts with outrage. Given that Laila’s presence actually tempers Rasheed’s abuse, why is Mariam so hostile toward her?

  • Laila’s friendship with Mariam begins when she defends Mariam from a beating by Rasheed. Why does Laila take this action, despite the contempt Mariam has consistently shown her?

  • Growing up, Laila feels that her mother’s love is reserved for her two brothers. “People,” she decides, “shouldn’t be allowed to have new children if they’d already given away all their love to their old ones.” How does this sentiment inform Laila’s reaction to becoming pregnant with Rasheed’s child? What lessons from her childhood does Laila apply in raising her own children?

  • At several points in the story, Mariam and Laila pass themselves off as mother and daughter. What is the symbolic importance of this subterfuge? In what ways is Mariam’s and Laila’s relationship with each other informed by their relationships with their own mothers?

  • One of the Taliban judges at Mariam’s trial tells her, “God has made us different, you women and us men. Our brains are different. You are not able to think like we can. Western doctors and their science have proven this.” What is the irony in this statement? How is irony employed throughout the novel?

  • Laila’s father tells her, “You’re a very, very bright girl. Truly you are. You can be anything that you want.” Discuss Laila’s relationship with her father. What aspects of his character does she inherit? In what ways is she different?

  • Mariam refuses to see visitors while she is imprisoned, and she calls no witnesses at her trial. Why does she make these decisions?

  • The driver who takes Babi, Laila, and Tariq to the giant stone Buddhas above the Bamiyan Valley describes the crumbling fortress of Shahr-e-Zohak as “the story of our country, one invader after another… we’re like those walls up there. Battered, and nothing pretty to look at, but still standing.” Discuss the metaphorical import of this passage as it relates to Miriam and Laila. In what ways does their story reflect the larger story of Afghanistan’s troubled history?

  • Among other things, the Taliban forbid “writing books, watching films, and painting pictures.” Yet despite this edict, the film Titanic becomes a sensation on the black market. Why would people risk the Taliban’s violent reprisals for a taste of popcorn entertainment? What do the Taliban’s restrictions on such material say about the power of artistic expression and the threat it poses to repressive political regimes?

  • While the first three parts of the novel are written in the past tense, the final part is written in present tense. What do you think was the author’s intent in making this shift? How does it change the effect of this final section?
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    1. Hosseini has said that he wrote A Thousand Splendid Suns to focus on the experiences of women in Afghanistan. Describe how the changing political situation affects women’s position in Afghan society over the course of the novel. When do women have the most rights? The least?

    As portrayed in the novel, women appear to be relatively free under King Zahir Shah and Daoud Khan. Jalil’s three wives dress stylishly, do not wear head coverings, and pluck their eyebrows. Arranged marriage is common, but the mullah at Mariam’s wedding makes it clear that she must give her explicit consent to the marriage. The fact that Jalil’s daughters plan to go to university suggests that a university education for women is not uncommon among the middle and upper classes. Mariam and Rasheed’s observations of Kabul reveal that many women in the city forgo head coverings and dress in a modern style; they are shown working in offices and walking around the city alone.

    Under the communist government in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, women enjoy the most freedoms. Laila’s father tells her, “it’s a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan.” Equality for women is emphasized in the communist propaganda, and women are given equal access to education. The communists abolish forced marriage and raise the minimum marriage age for girls to sixteen. The wearing of hijab and burqa is discouraged, as men and women are considered equals. Still, the idea of women’s rights still meets with strong opposition in the tribal areas of rural Afghanistan.

    After the Mujahideen take over and establish an Islamic state in 1992, there are increased laws limiting the freedom of women, supposedly in accordance with a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Women are required by law to cover, are forbidden to travel unaccompanied by a male relative, and punished by stoning to death if they commit adultery. When Laila and Mariam attempt to run away from Rasheed, the police catch them and return them home to their abusive husband. It is unlawful for a woman to run away from her husband—even if he is a brutal abuser like Rasheed.

    Following the Taliban takeover in 1996, women’s rights are the most severely restricted. Women are now required to stay inside the home at all times, and cannot leave unless accompanied by a male relative. If caught alone on the streets, women are beaten. Laila and Mariam are not beaten by police when caught trying to run away under the Mujahideen; however, Laila is beaten numerous times when trying to visit her daughter in the orphanage. Under the Taliban, women are forbidden from attending school or working. As a result, nearly 90 percent of Afghan women today are illiterate.

    2. Compare and contrast Laila and Mariam. How do the two women go from being enemies to close friends, and what do they learn from each other?

    Mariam and Laila are quite different in some respects. Mariam is rather homely, while Laila is a stunning beauty. Mariam was an illegitimate child, forced into marriage by her father; Laila’s father adored her and encouraged his daughter to reach her full potential. Mariam was denied an education, while Laila was a top student raised with the expectation that she would go on to university. Mariam has only known the abuse of her older husband, while Laila had the chance to experience true love with Tariq.

    Notwithstanding their differences and the circumstances that bring them together as a family, the two women are destined to become close friends. Enemies after Laila marries Rasheed, they become joined in suffering his abuse. As Rasheed turns on his younger wife, Mariam sympathizes. Mariam will be strengthened, and not diminished, by Laila’s entry into her home. Laila, too, will gain from her relationship with the older woman.

    Broken down by years of abuse in her marriage, Mariam has learned not to stand up for herself. Laila, on the other hand, speaks up and defends her co-wife when Rasheed strikes her. This awakens Mariam, teaching her that she can fight back. Towards the end of the novel, Mariam will defend Laila by killing Rasheed. From Laila and particularly from Aziza, Mariam learns of the power of love. Aziza loves her despite everything—despite her harami shame (being born out of wedlock) or her aging face. And Mariam’s love for Laila and Aziza make her capable of heroic acts.

    Laila finds Mariam to be the dependable mother figure she lacked growing up. Mariam teaches Laila to cook, clean fish, and sew. She tries to teach Laila patience; Laila’s outbursts against Rasheed will only bring on more beatings. In her final act for Laila, Mariam teaches Laila about love and sacrifice.

    3. Discuss the following quote from Nana: “Like a compass needle that always points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam” (Chapter 1, p. 7). Is Nana correct that men always find a way to blame women? Give examples from the story. 

    Although Nana’s quote may at first seem an exaggeration, Mariam finds her mother was right that men tend to blame women. First, Mariam’s father blames her for putting him in an awkward position by refusing to marry Rasheed. In fact, he is to blame for forcing his daughter into marriage. Later, during her abusive marriage, Mariam is blamed countless times by Rasheed. He blames her for the miscarriages and for undercooking the rice.

    After Rasheed marries his second wife, Laila, he blames Laila for giving birth to a girl. When she withholds sex from him, he blames Mariam for turning her against him. He blames Aziza for her smelly diapers, and eventually blames Laila for growing older and less attractive. He sends Aziza to the orphanage, blaming her for being a drain on the family’s food supply.

    The government under the Mujahideen and Taliban institutionalize this blaming behavior. For instance, women are blamed for marital problems. If a woman runs away from an abusive husband, she is punished, and not the husband. When Mariam is tried for the crime of killing Rasheed, she is blamed and then executed for murder, even though the judges appear to believe her that she committed the crime in order to save Laila’s life.

     

    4. Explain why Mariam is willing to face punishment for the killing of Rasheed. Was her execution at the hands of the Taliban a meaningless tragedy? Why, or why not? Why does she pray to Allah at her execution, even though the execution was done under Islamic law?

    Readers may find it hard to understand why Mariam would stay and face the justice of the Taliban for the killing of Rasheed. In fact, she does so in order to save Laila. She knows that if she flees along with Laila, the Taliban will never stop searching for them both, but if she admits to the crime and accepts punishment, Laila will be able to go freely and live a happy life with Tariq.

    Mariam faces her punishment knowingly. She does not protest, although she knows she is not really to blame. Her death is not a meaningless tragedy because she accepts it, seeing it as necessary to save her friend. She dies a hero—a person of consequence.

    It may seem a bit of a contradiction that Mariam prays to Allah at her execution, since the execution is done under Islamic law. However, the God Mariam knows—the merciful and comforting God she learned about from Mullah Faizullah—is not the same as the one the Taliban know. The Taliban do not speak for God, and Mariam knows this.

    5. Discuss the character of Rasheed, contrasting him with other men in the novel, such as Hakim, Jalil, and Tariq.

    Rasheed is an example of the worst of a patriarchal society. A misogynistic bully, he requires his wives to wear burqa and forbids them from leaving the home unaccompanied by him. They are not allowed to make eye contact with, or speak to, other men. He claims that these measures are necessary to protect his and his wives’ honor, but when Mariam finds his stash of pornographic magazines, the reader realizes that Rasheed has no real concept of honoring women. It is hypocritical for him to insist that his wives cover, but then to look at other men’s wives uncovered.

    Jalil provides the first foil (a foil is a contrast) for Rasheed. Good-looking and charming, he teaches his daughter about Persian poetry and literature. He apparently loves his daughter, but is ashamed by her and allows his wives to convince him to marry her off. Rasheed is neither good-looking nor charming. He does not offer many gifts to Mariam, but the ones he does offer seem like real gifts, and not bribes. Rasheed is not as weak as Jalil and does not allow his wives to have an influence over his decisions. 

    Hakim provides a second foil for Rasheed. An educated and liberal-minded man, Hakim desires an education for his only daughter. Far from attempting to dominate his wife, Fariba, Hakim actually tends to be dominated by his wife instead. Rasheed, on the other hand, does not respect women or support women’s education. He dominates his wife and grows enraged when she contradicts him.

    Finally, Rasheed’s relationship with Laila contrasts with the relationship between Tariq and Laila. Tariq is unselfish; he cares about Laila’s comfort the first time they make love. He defends Laila from attack, while Rasheed attacks her. Tariq and Laila are a love match, while Rasheed’s relationships with his wives are like business transactions; the women must fulfill their duties to him (bearing a child and taking care of the household) or risk being beaten.

     

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