The Reverberations of Afghanistan’s History

The freedoms and opportunities that women had enjoyed between 1978 and 1992 were a thing of the past now–Laila could still remember Babi saying of those years of communist rule, It’s a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan, Laila. Since the Mujahideen takeover in April 1992, Afghanistan’s name had been changed to the Islamic State of Afghanistan.

This quote appears in Chapter 36 as Laila and Mariam are trying to escape from Kabul. Their plan is risky as it is, and the political state does not make it any easier. Laila contrasts her current reality to a past that was, according to Babi, filled with opportunity. These changes directly influence the way Laila and Mariam must make their escape, which includes finding a man to escort them. Had this occurred in the Afghanistan Babi talked about, they wouldn’t be in their unfortunate situation in the first place. This is one example of how Laila evokes her father’s vision of Afghanistan during difficult times.

Rasheed laughed. Mariam heard the answer in his laugh: that in the eyes of the Taliban, being a communist and the leader of the dreaded KHAD made Najibullah only slightly more contemptible than a woman.

As Rasheed and Mariam discuss new political updates in Chapter 37, an astute connection is made between Rasheed’s political beliefs and those that are growing in popularity at this point in the novel. Rasheed’s laughter signifies that he agrees with the Taliban, who have just begun enforcing oppressive Shari’a laws, many of which are aimed at controlling women. While the Taliban is not killing women outright, the laws show they still find women “contemptible,” and they need to be controlled.

Laila is not as forgiving. Massoud’s violent end brings her no joy, but she remembers too well the neighborhoods razed under his watch, the bodies dragged from the rubble, the hands and feet of children discovered on rooftops or the high branch of some tree days after their funeral.

In Chapter 49, Laila reflects on the atrocities she lived through upon hearing of Massoud’s death. This quote brings a kind of reckoning to Laila, one where she realizes that so much of the violence endured in Kabul stemmed from power-hungry men. The imagery used by the author is stark to highlight the civilian lives lost and the tragedies of war. The political unrest that gripped Afghanistan during Laila’s formative years had the real cost of human lives. However, Laila is mature enough now, perhaps even a bit far removed from what she has gone through, to show some level of understanding toward the man who has indirectly caused her so much anguish.

Concern for Reputation

Nana was wrong about Herat too. No one pointed. No one laughed. Mariam walked along noisy, crowded, cypress-lined boulevards, amid a steady stream of pedestrians, bicycle riders, and mule-drawn garis, and no one threw a rock at her. No one called her a harami. Hardly anyone even looked at her. She was, unexpectedly, marvelously, an ordinary person here.

Mariam experiences her first outing outside her mother’s kolba in Chapter 5. For her entire childhood, Nana has used Mariam’s status as a harami as a means to control her. When Mariam finally slips from under her mother’s gaze and goes to Herat, it is her first experience of shedding this false reputation that has been made to define her. No one treats her with the same agitation with which her own mother treats her. Although she will continue to feel shackled to the label of harami throughout the novel, this taste of normalcy, of no one constantly pointing out her shame, deeply affects the young Mariam.

‘Anyway, this isn’t about me or the bra. It’s about you and Tariq. He’s a boy, you see, and, as such, what does he care about your reputation? But you? The reputation of a girl, especially one as pretty as you, is a delicate thing, Laila. Like a mynah bird in your hands. Slacken your grip and away it flies.’

This discussion occurs in Chapter 23 as Mammy discusses Laila’s relationship with Tariq. Finally, Laila is old enough to be considered a young woman. As it was custom in Afghanistan’s culture, Laila would need to be primed for a marriage suitor. In this quote, Mammy seems to have the best intentions for her daughter, but Laila has shown that this isn’t the future she desires for herself. In Mammy’s eyes, it’s better for Laila to maintain her reputation so she can marry well and be respected instead of tarnishing it by continuing a romance with Tariq. Mammy uses the metaphor of a mynah bird to illustrate how delicate one’s reputation truly is.

‘The point is, I am your husband now, and it falls on me to guard not only your honor but ours, yes, our nang and namoos. That is the husband’s burden. You let me worry about that.’

This quote, from Chapter 31, involves Rasheed telling Laila the new expectations he has now that they are married. This conversation is Rasheed’s attempt at chivalry. The word “honor” is a stand-in for the word “reputation.” When Rasheed says, “not only your honor, but ours,” he is tying the reputation of his wife to his own. To Rasheed, the only way to guard Laila’s honor is through controlling her, assuring she does nothing that would damage how society and their community view him. Furthermore, the very words he uses aim to soften his real declaration: Laila is now his wife, and she must obey him.

Relationships Between Mothers and Daughters

Nana always gave a slow, burdened smile here, one of lingering recrimination or reluctant forgiveness, Mariam could never tell. It did not occur to young Mariam to ponder the unfairness of apologizing for the manner of her own birth.

In Chapter 2, Nana tells Mariam about the traumatic experience she had giving birth to her. Their relationship is so fraught that Nana shames Mariam before she was even fully brought into this world. Even Mariam’s birth is a cause for shame. It is unclear to both the reader and to Mariam how much affection Nana has for her own daughter. Because of Nana’s cruel words and behavior toward Mariam, Mariam feels like she has to apologize “for the manner of her own birth,” something she had no control over.

She would never leave her mark on Mammy’s heart the way her brothers had, because Mammy’s heart was like a pallid beach where Laila’s footprints would forever wash away beneath the waves of sorrow that swelled and crashed, swelled and crashed.

Laila ponders her difficult relationship with her mother in Chapter 20. In a society where sons are favored, Laila feels she lives in the shadows of her two brothers. Not only are they sons, but they are war martyrs. By using the metaphor of a beach, Laila implies she will never leave a lasting impression on her mother’s heart. She truly feels that her mother will never care for her the same way she felt for her sons, even though Laila is the one who is alive and taking care of her through grief.

And when she did that, Mariam swooned. Her eyes watered. Her heart took flight. And she marveled at how, after all these years of rattling loose, she had found in this little creature the first true connection in her life of false, failed connections.

In Chapter 35 Mariam finally realizes the intense love she has for Aziza. Up until this point in the novel, Mariam has wanted to create as much space as possible between herself and Laila and Aziza. This quote, where Mariam finally allows herself to feel love for Aziza, marks a significant turning point in her character. By recognizing the “false, failed connections” in her life, she acknowledges that people who were meant to love her in the past did not extend the affection she felt she needed. Mariam has finally found true connection in Aziza.