Hello, my dear strangers!
I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write this final part of the journey through my favourite literary characters, but the novel I’m about to describe is one of those that always leave me feeling somewhat weak and drained, despite its unparalleled beauty. Hence, it’s taken me a while to focus my thoughts and transform them into, more or less, coherent sentences. Hope you enjoy. Parts 1, 2 & 3.
1. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini – Laila and Tariq
If I had a Euro for every time I tried to write a review about this novel and failed miserably at it, I’d be a very rich woman today. Each and every time I tried to, a lump the size of an apple would form in my throat, my eyes would well up and I’d give up after three sentences. Sometimes, the human emotion defeats the written and spoken word and renders it unnecessary. Nevertheless, since this time my objective isn’t to present the entire novel, but merely Laila’s point of view, I’ll give it a go. However, I must make a slight digression here to tell you that this is an incredible novel that you should definitely read, regardless of your genre preference. The choice is yours, but if you decide to do it, then my advice to you would be to stop reading my review, since it’s riddled with spoilers.
To understand the conditions and circumstances of this love story and its appeal, you first have to understand the day-to-day lives of the majority of Afghan women. Most women who live in countries where their actions and behaviour aren’t defined by religion and tradition cannot possibly fathom what that’s like. I won’t pretend to have all the information and all the knowledge, since I haven’t done any extensive research on the subject, but I am not completely ignorant either. I’ve seen many documentaries, I’ve read statistics and I’ve talked to my Afghan students about the living conditions of average Afghan women. Blaming religions, especially particular religions and religions foreign to us, comes easy to most people. It comes very easy to me, too, what with me being an atheist. But, when you compare the holy books of several major world religions, you come to a conclusion that they are all almost equally misogynistic. Christianity is the major religion of my homeland, yet I’m not defined by it, at all. I have a choice not to get involved with it and I’m free to exercise my choice without any fear of a backlash. Afghan women don’t have that same freedom when it comes to their religion. And that’s where tradition and culture come into play.
Tribal laws and custom reign supreme in their country. Women regularly get imprisoned for ’crimes’ such as running away from abusive households, running away from forced and child marriages and eloping with the men they love. They also get imprisoned when they get raped, since it’s considered adultery. Honour killings are commonplace as well. My culture or, more precisely, the culture of my country and the society I was raised in, allows me to freely turn my back on the religion of my ancestors. In Afghanistan, the culture and society don’t allow for this. What’s more, the words of the holy book get twisted out of proportion and many crimes go unpunished, since they’re widely considered to be in the spirit of Islam. Add to that the fact that Afghanistan ranks as the second most illiterate country in the world and you’ll get a clearer image of how this dangerous cocktail of ignorance, religion and tradition, coupled with ongoing unrest, has helped shape the issues this country faces today.
Just thinking about the magnitude of it all makes me feel scared for my wonderful students, glad that they managed to escape such a regime and, frankly, grateful that I’m not in their shoes. And everything that I’ve described here applies to the situation at present, which cannot even compare to the terror these people endured under the mujahideen and other fundamentalists. That’s the backdrop of the story, one that the reader has to keep in mind in order to fully appreciate the story of Laila and Tariq.
From the very first sentence of Laila’s part of the novel, the reader gets an insight into just how much Tariq means to her. Laila is nine-years-old at the beginning of her story. Tariq is two years older and wears a leg prosthesis, courtesy of a land mine. She lives with her parents, her two elder brothers she barely has any recollection of having gone off to fight the Soviets. However, none of them are the first ones to get mentioned. Tariq is the one she thinks about first. He has gone to visit his uncle for a fortnight and Laila is finding the separation from her best friend difficult to bear.
The fate of your average Afghan woman doesn’t apply to Laila, at least not during her childhood. Her parents are highly educated, her Babi being an over-qualified manual worker, a delicate, soft-spoken, mild-mannered man who stresses the importance of education and peace and her Mammy being a hot-tempered tempest of a woman, prone to long episodes of depression and mourning the absence of her sons. Laila prefers her father and the peace and tranquility he brings to her world. He is an open-minded and progressive thinker who doesn’t think less of the fairer sex and one of the few decent men in the novel, the one who sets a high standard for other men to live up to and a role model for Laila. His influence will be especially important in the later parts of the novel, once Laila finds herself married to a man who is a complete opposite of her gentle father. Her Mammy, however, spends most of her time in bed with her sorrow and, when she does decide to speak and be active, spends that time attacking Babi and pointing out his flaws.
Their home is an unhappy one, which is probably why Laila prefers spending time with Tariq and his family, having meals with them, playing cards and chess with Tariq and vicariously experiencing what a happy household should look like. Tariq is both her closest friend and her confidant. They talk to each other every day, go on walks, help each other with homework and, every night, they shine flashlights into each others’ rooms, a nightly ritual which brings them both lots of joy.
Tariq is very protective of her. During his absence, Laila gets teased by an older boy who squirts his urine into her hair. Even though at first she decides to keep quiet about it, his arrogant demeanour provokes her into telling Tariq about it. Tariq attacks the boy with his leg prosthesis and the boy never picks on Laila again.
And then, the first of many tragedies strikes Laila’s family when her two brothers die in the fighting. Her mother sinks further into depression and, while Laila sympathises, she cannot truly feel any sorrow over their loss, since they left when she was just a toddler, two men who were her brothers, yet complete strangers. She admits to herself that the only boy she considers her true brother, Tariq, is alive and well. As a result, Laila begins shouldering more and more of the household chores, tending to her bereaved mother, and even begins fearing Mammy would commit suicide. It’s clear to see that she’s taking on much more than she should at her young age. When Mammy does speak, her words are only of her sons, without much consideration for Laila’s feelings. Laila has always lived in her brothers’ shadow, but now that they are dead, she sees no way of stepping out of it whatsoever.
Years pass and the political climate in Afghanistan keeps changing, with the Soviets slowly losing their dominion. The tension between Laila and Tariq keeps growing. They’re aware of this, though still too young to put a finger on it. Clearly, these are two people who are just meant for each other.
A few years later, Laila is fourteen and Tariq sixteen. A lot of things have changed. Tariq’s father has suffered a series of strokes which have left him weak and moody. One of Laila’s closest friends has been married off to a much older man by her father. When the last of the Soviets leave the country, Mammy finally livens up again. She decides to throw a party. During the preparations, she muses how her daughter has grown and warns her that an Afghan woman has to work hard to keep her reputation untarnished, alluding to Laila’s close friendship with Tariq. Laila tries to reassure her that they’re just friends, but deep inside knows that she has fallen head over heels in love with him. When he’s with her, she can barely keep her heart from pounding straight out of her chest. When he isn’t, he’s all she thinks about. The neighbourhood has started to take notice of them as well, frequently gossiping behind their backs and giving them unwanted looks. Tariq has changed, too. He’s grown taller, begun shaving and working out and taken up smoking, all with an air of contemptuous indifference to him.
During the party, Laila does her best to ignore Tariq, so as not to breathe further life into rumours about them. But then he gives her a subtle nod to follow him outside and she does. Through playful banter and harmless jokes at each others’ expense, Tariq reveals that he has eyes only for her. They’re interrupted by loud sounds of commotion coming from the party and rush back to see that two men have begun fighting over politics, with others joining in. Eventually, Tariq throws himself into the scuffle as well to try to break it off, though he’s soon beaten and comes out with his prosthesis undone.
And that’s when everything changes and takes a turn for the worse, when political talks fail and rockets begin raining down on Kabul.
Kabul has now become a battlefield, divided into sections by feuding warlords. After each nearby explosion, Laila rushes out into the street, praying to find Tariq’s house still standing. Things get so bad that Babi pulls her out of school and Tariq buys a gun for protection. When Laila asks him if he’d be capable of killing someone with it, he says he’d do it for her. Then he leans in and, amid the despair and smoke and constant fear, they share their first kiss, thus creating their own little oasis of peace. Babi longs to flee Kabul, but Mammy doesn’t want to leave, certain that peace is impending. One day, one of Laila’s friends gets killed by a stray rocket. Peace is nowhere in sight and Laila only has the occasional clandestine meetings with Tariq to look forward to, as if his kisses were enough to erase everything.
And then, Tariq’s elderly parents make the decision to leave Afghanistan. The lovers’ final scene together is one of the most heartwarming and heartwrenching I have ever read. Laila is furious and dejected and begins slapping Tariq, angry at the entire mess their lives have become. Then they start kissing again and, before they know it, they’re down on the rug, hurriedly, yet tenderly making love, their audacious decision spurred on by the fact that they might never see each other again. Afterwards, Tariq asks her to come with him. He professes his love for her and asks her to marry him. Laila is overjoyed, yet crushed by the circumstances. Her obstinate mother refuses to leave, her father won’t do it without her and Laila can’t bring herself to leave them behind and let them face the violence and the uncertainty alone. She refuses Tariq’s offer, yet he keeps pleading with her. Laila makes him leave, but he stays by her door, pounding at it, promising her he would come back for her one day. And then he leaves.
Seventeen days later, Mammy finally agrees to leave. They start packing and Laila’s spirits lift again, for they’re going to Pakistan where Tariq is. She dreams of reuniting with him, of their two families filling out paperwork together and moving away together and, ultimately, living together. But, it’s not to be. A rocket strikes their house, killing Laila’s parents and leaving her severely wounded. She gets taken in and nursed back to health by her neighbours, a married couple named Rasheed and Mariam.
After she gets better, Laila makes the decision to leave for Pakistan. However, a man comes to see her. He tells her that he was a patient in a hospital in Peshawar where he met Tariq. The refugee lorry Tariq was in, he says, got bombed and Tariq lost his other leg too before succumbing to his wounds and dying. Laila’s entire world comes crashing down.
But then, she realises that she’s pregnant. A part of Tariq still lives on inside her and, she reasons, the baby cannot possibly be brought up in a refugee camp. So, when Rasheed offers to take her on as a second wife, Laila accepts, hoping to pass off Tariq’s child as his own. What she doesn’t realise, however, is that Rasheed is a monster and that the wonderful treatment at the hands of men she has enjoyed with her father and Tariq is over. She marries Rasheed, a man of about sixty, and starts a sexual relationship with this man who’s old enough to be her grandfather, the first of many sacrifices she makes as a mother.
Laila has a strained relationship with Rasheed’s first wife, Mariam. The older woman resents Laila, even though Laila does nothing to aggravate her and it is indeed Rasheed who’s creating the drift between them. A few months later, Laila gives birth to a daughter, Aziza. Rasheed, a narrow-minded, primitive man, is outraged, for he wanted a son. Rasheed gives Aziza the cold shoulder, growing moodier by the day. However, Aziza’s presence and Laila’s fair treatment warm up Mariam’s heart and the two women begin bonding. Little by little, they start opening up to each other, finding comfort in the others’ words, sharing a common enemy. Mariam tells her of her sad life, which I won’t go into now, and, in return, Laila tells her that she’s been stealing money from their husband for months, that she plans on leaving and that Aziza, like Mariam herself, is a harami, an illegitimate lovechild.
The day finally comes. The women wait for Rasheed to leave for work and then catch a taxi to the bus station. The newly imposed laws say that women are not allowed to travel without male companions, so Laila finds a man who looks trustworthy and asks him to pretend he’s her cousin in order for them to safely travel to Peshawar. However, the man turns them in to the police and Laila, Mariam and Aziza are escorted back to the enraged Rasheed. He beats Mariam bloody and locks her up in a toolshed and locks Laila and Aziza in one of the rooms, leaving them without food and water for days. Laila slips in and out of consciousness, dreaming of Tariq and of introducing Aziza to her real father. Just when Laila begins to think that they’ll die in the room, Rasheed unlocks the door and lets them out, kicking her and threatening to kill Aziza and Mariam before her very eyes if she ever tries to do something similar again.
Two and a half years later, the Taliban enter the city, bringing with them a slew of oppressive rules, many of them aimed at women. What little safety and freedom women enjoyed thus far are now gone. However, not a chapter goes by that Laila doesn’t think back to Tariq. He may be dead, but is never far from her thoughts. She finds comfort in her memories, dreaming of the day when her life will take a turn for the better. Rasheed, however, grows more suspicious every day, questioning Laila about the nature of her friendship with Tariq and pointing out some of Aziza’s features which resemble neither Rasheed nor Laila’s. Laila does her best to stifle his doubts.
Shortly afterwards, Laila learns she’s pregnant again. At first, she contemplates ending the pregnancy with a metal spoke, fearing she would never be able to love Rasheed’s child as much as Tariq’s. In the end, she decides against it. Nine months later, there is only one centre in Kabul where women can deliver babies, a dirty, squalid building without any adequate equipment. There are only two doctors and the place is swarming with injured women. Laila gets admitted after hours of waiting around in pain. It’s ascertained that Laila needs a Caesarean and there are no anesthetics in the hospital. The baby needs to be delivered immediately or it will die. Through unimaginable pain, Laila gives birth to a son, Zalmai.
Rasheed adores Zalmai and gives him everything that he previously denied to Aziza, a mere girl. When Rasheed is away, Zalmai is a good-natured little boy. However, in his father’s presence, Zalmai becomes obstinate and spoiled, turning on his mother and Mariam. Years pass, with the two women still at the mercy of Rasheed’s temper and his violent bouts of anger. One time, he suggests making Aziza beg in the streets for money. Laila adamantly refuses. He slaps her. She punches him back. And he then shoves the barrel of his gun in her mouth.
Drought ravages Kabul. Then Rasheed’s shoeshop, their only source of income, burns down. The family sells everything they can spare. Food becomes scarce in their household, with Laila’s children getting thinner and thinner each day.
Things get so bad that Laila becomes forced to place Aziza in an orphanage. At first, Rasheed agrees to accompany them as they go and visit her, but later on, he refuses to and Laila goes alone, suffering beatings from the Taliban for the innocent crime of being a woman caught wandering the streets without a male companion.
And then, once again, everything changes. Laila and Mariam catch Zalmai shouting at some stranger in the yard one evening. Not believing her eyes, Laila sees that it’s Tariq. Almost ten years have passed since the last time they saw each other, that fateful afternoon when Aziza was conceived. Rasheed paid that man to come and lie to Laila, to tell her that Tariq had died, so she wouldn’t leave to go looking for him. But, Tariq has kept the promise he made. He has come back for Laila.
Their reunion, now as adults, as people who have endured so much and grown so much, is one of the toughest chapters I’ve ever read. The irony crushes you, the what ifs and the if onlys taking your breath away. Tariq is now a twenty-five-year-old man, complete with an adult’s movements and gestures, a world’s worth of sorrow and humiliation hidden behind his slow words, his tired small smile. He slowly starts weaving his story and the reader learns about everything that happened to him since he left Afghanistan, at least the parts he chooses to tell Laila. The rest are too painful, at least for their first encounter.
Tariq tells her about his time in Pakistan, how crowded and unsanitary the conditions in the refugee camp were, how he watched endless children die and get buried, how his own father didn’t survive their first winter there. He tells her about his mother catching pneumonia and almost dying, about how he threatened a younger boy with a shard of glass in order to steal his blanket for his mother, about the scarce job opportunities and how he never got chosen for a job, on account of his leg. He goes on to tell her how he was paid to smuggle hashish, but got caught and ended up in prison. He doesn’t tell her much about his time there and Laila can see that he’s still haunted by the memories. It was during his imprisonment that his mother died of exposure.
Tariq would go on to serve seven years. When he got out, he went to another Pakistani town, where his cellmate’s brother ran a hotel. Tariq did well over there, working as a janitor and a handyman, before saving up enough money to go back and look for Laila. Laila is crushed by the circumstances that have kept them separated for so long. She tells him about the man who lied to her about Tariq dying. He understands. She tells him about their daughter. He wants to meet her.
Later that day, Zalmai tells his father that a man was in their house, oblivious to the harm his words would cause. Rasheed locks him up in his room, then comes back to murder his wives. While he’s choking the life out of Laila, Mariam, disgusted by the mistreatment she has endured at his hands for nearly thirty years, musters enough courage and kills him with a shovel. Laila is frantic, desperately trying to think of ways of saving them both, but Mariam has already made her decision. She turns herself in and the Taliban execute her, sacrificing herself so that Laila can live.
Afterwards, Laila escapes with her children and Tariq to Pakistan, to the small town where he works in a hotel. They get married that same day. A few days later, Laila tells Aziza that Tariq is her real father. This conversation and Laila’s thoughts on the father-daughter relationship she sees forming always leaves me sobbing. Tariq also comes to love Zalmai and is tender and patient with the boy’s rebuttals. He and Laila slowly resume their former rhythm, now robbed of innocence, but stronger than before.
However, after a year or so, Laila starts longing for the familiar streets of her childhood again. The dust from bombs has barely settled in Kabul, yet she hears of numerous instances of progress being made and decides to go back. When she asks Tariq if he’d go with her, he answers he would follow her to the end of the world. They pack up and travel back, making a stop at the town of Herat, where Laila bids her final farewell to Mariam, before going back to the city where they were born and raised.
Once there, Laila and Tariq take to renovating the orphanage where Aziza once had to stay. Tariq does the manual labour, while Laila works as the teacher, in the process becoming a surrogate mother to the war-ravaged orphans. At the end of the novel, she is expecting her third child. Every evening, Tariq, Aziza and Zalmai offer their thoughts on what the baby’s name should be. However, only boys’ names are at play. If it’s a girl, Laila has already decided to name her Mariam.
Before I go on about the relationship, I am going to make a quick digression and say a few words about Mariam, simply because I feel like I have an obligation to. Her life consists of abuse, neglect and inescapable circumstances. Long before delving into Laila’s story, the author gives us an account of Mariam’s childhood, her marriage and her pregnancies. I won’t go into detail about it all, but just wanted you to know that there’s more to the novel than just Laila and Tariq. Another thing I like about the mother-daughter relationship that Mariam and Laila share is how ultimately Mariam proves to be Laila’s saviour. Behind the gruesome treatment of women depicted in its pages, this novel really does convey a feminist message. Laila does the best she can with the cards that she’s been dealt, but once she finds herself fighting for her life, suffocating under Rasheed’s merciless grasp, it is Mariam who delivers a fatal blow to him and the one who sacrifices herself so that Laila and her children may escape the punishment. It isn’t Tariq who swoops in on his white horse and kills Rasheed, but Mariam. It isn’t a man who rescues Laila, but a woman, a mother.
A friend of mine who’s also read both Between Shades of Gray and A Thousand Splendid Suns has asked me why I prefer Laila and Tariq over Lina and Andrius. Two reasons, I guess. First, Ruta Sepetys leaves out a huge chunk of the story untold, which is fine, in and of itself, but leaves readers with lots of questions, questions that can easily be answered with a bit of imagination. But, still, I place Laila and Tariq’s reunion and overall relationship above Lina and Andrius’ because of all those small details. Hosseini goes to great length to show how the two characters have changed individually and how their relationship has changed and matured. Both couples get separated by war, spending a decade, give or take a few years, apart, that much is true. In the end, we find out that Lina and Andrius find their way back to each other in a single line of a letter, which, I repeat, is fine. But Hosseini gives us dozens and dozens of pages on what went on with Tariq during his absence, while he was presumed dead, and the minute details of his and Laila’s relationship after it resumes. As a detail-oriented person, I appreciate that immensely.
And the second reason would be that, as far as Afghans go, both Laila and Tariq stand out. The more documentaries I watch, the more statistics and stories I read and the more I talk to my students about it, the more I realise how rare men like Tariq and Laila’s Babi are in the Afghan society. Now, don’t get me wrong – of course I don’t think that Afghan men are inherently horrible husbands. Psychology teaches us that the majority of our behavioural patterns are a result of nurture, not nature, which is why we should never underestimate the power of tradition and custom. A wide majority of Afghan boys get taught very early on that they are superior to girls. In many rural areas, girls are still being considered property, being sold off to pay family debts. Not having grown up in such a household, Laila maintains the mentality of an emancipated woman. Not having grown up in such a household, Tariq places women on an equal footing with men. There are numerous instances of this, scenes which may slip by unnoticed, simply because you never thought such trivialities could ever be challenged in a different society. Laila tells Tariq she wants to move back to Kabul. She tells him she wants to make a stop in Herat to learn more about Mariam’s early life. Once there, she takes a taxi and goes to Mariam’s childhood home on her own. In another household, in another marriage, a wife wouldn’t even dream of speaking her mind and telling her husband about what she wanted, let alone uprooting her family and going off somewhere alone. Although, sadly, we have learned to associate such behaviour with conservative cultures that heavily rely on religion, don’t make a mistake thinking such behaviour is exclusive to underdeveloped countries. One of my closest friends lives in Switzerland, the promised land of plenty and personal liberty, yet her own marriage is no better than prison. Open your eyes, take a good look at the people around you and you’ll discover a sundry of marriages in which one partner always seems to dominate the other one.
There is so much to be said about this relationship, most of which cannot even be put into words, at least not by me. The amount of love and respect Laila and Tariq share is unbelievable. They start off as friends, almost siblings, but are clearly meant for each other, and begin to develop romantic feelings for each other as soon as they’re old enough to. It isn’t puppy love, though. Even in its infancy, their love is tremendously strong and pure. The icing on the cake is that it doesn’t dwindle with time, but grows stronger still.
Ten years pass. Ten full years. I cannot possibly overstress that fact. Ten years. Laila thinks that Tariq is dead, yet still loves him. Tariq has no idea what’s become of Laila and doesn’t hope for much when he comes back looking for her, yet he still does it. He doesn’t consider her ‘broken’ or ‘impure’ just because she’s married and has given birth to another man’s child, which, might I add, is a horrible notion that’s also widespread in the so-called civilised Western countries. Instead, he apologises for bringing disruption to her life and promises to leave her alone if that’s what she wants. When she assures him that she doesn’t, he helps her escape to a more peaceful life. Her children become their children. He immediately resumes his parental responsibilities, without a second thought, loving both his biological child and the child of another man.
Tariq never presumes anything, never demands that his rights be heard, never expects anything other than what Laila willingly offers to him. And, when she announces she wants to go back to Kabul, he tells her he’d follow her anywhere. There is no jealousy, no vanity and no submissiveness in their relationship, on either part. When they reunite, hardship, not time, but hardship has taken a toll on them physically. They’re both in their mid-twenties, yet have aged prematurely, are missing teeth and experience chronic pain that will probably never completely go away. Yet, there is no judgement, there are no petty remarks. They accept each other completely, the good and the bad.
I feel like there’s more to be said about Laila and Tariq and the love they share and there probably is, volumes and volumes, but I’ve run myself dry. It’s essentially inconceivable in today’s world that a love such as this one exists, yet every now and again, we hear of real-life instances of the tremendous sacrifices and feats people make for their loved ones, of acts which don’t make much sense to most people, yet deep inside, I believe that most people cherish such stories, be they real, fictional or inspired by real events. They cherish them and secretly long for them for, at the end of the day, it really does all come down to love, dumb as it may sound. I’ve chosen to limit myself to romantic love in these four parts, yet let us not forget about the other shapes and forms love takes. Parental love, love among siblings, friends, grandparents and grandchildren, love towards our lazy pets, love for inanimate objects and abstract notions which we desire, love for good books and good food and good times, love for ourselves and, perhaps the most important one of all, that indescribable love we feel for something undefined and untermed, something you feel when you wake up little before the break of dawn that makes you so ridiculously happy to be there. I don’t know if you realise what I’m talking about. Maybe I don’t even realise it myself. Or perhaps I’m confusing it all with a different sensation. Anyway, imagine your lives without all these different types of love and how bleak they would be. Few people have it all at all times. Maybe you’ve found a wonderful partner, but your grandpa is dead. Or perhaps your grandpa is consoling you over the death of your partner. Or perhaps you’re not an animal lover (get the Hell off my blog). In any case – love.
Keep the love alive 🙂