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Laila was born to Fariba and Hakim during the April revolution of 1978, which brought the communists to power. By 1987, Laila and her friend Tariq have become close, but now Tariq has left Kabul to visit his uncle. Fariba, “Mammy” to Laila, teases Laila for missing the crippled young boy. Laila feels for her father, a scholar, as Fariba constantly scolds him for neglecting the maintenance of their home. Fariba had once been charmed by Hakim’s soft and bookish ways. Hakim, whom Laila calls “Babi,” had told Laila she was too smart to marry young and should have an education first. Laila’s teacher, a woman, does not cover herself. None of the girls in Laila’s class are allowed to cover, because women and men are now equal under communism. Laila’s class learns about the Soviet Union, supposedly the happiest nation in the world. The children are encouraged to report any adults who might want to rebel against their new leaders. Mammy doesn’t show up to take Laila home from school, so Laila walks with her older friends, Hasina and Giti. Her friends joke about her having a crush on Tariq. Once she is alone, Laila is distracted by an older man standing outside Rasheed the shoemaker’s house. Laila doesn’t notice Khadim until the boy points his gun in her face.
Khadim is Tariq’s age, eleven. Khadim follows Laila when Tariq isn’t around, calling her “Yellow Hair” and telling Laila he’ll marry her one day. Today, he taunts her with a water gun. Other neighborhood boys gather as Khadim soaks Laila’s hair. Laila realizes the gun was filled with urine, and she runs home to wash off the stench. After several rinses, Laila goes to her mother’s room. Mammy has good days and bad days. Khadim called Laila’s mother loony, but mostly Laila thinks her mother is worried about her sons in the anti-communist Afghani resistance. Today, Mammy has all the curtains drawn, and she is wrapped in blankets. After Laila tells her mother what Khadim did, Mammy thinks she might talk to Khadim’s mother. Laila asks Mammy why she hadn’t picked Laila up from school. Mammy had forgotten and promises she will remember tomorrow. Babi recites a poem about Kabul while packing up his books.
Weeks pass, and Tariq has not returned from his trip. Laila is starting to worry, but then she sees a familiar light wink on and off in Tariq’s bedroom window. Laila visits him the next day. Tariq’s parents always welcome their “daughter-in-law” into their home. Later, Laila sees Khadim while she and Tariq are on their way to the bus stop. Laila hadn’t planned to tell Tariq what Khadim did to Laila, but the story comes out anyway. Tariq runs over to the group of boys and unstraps his prosthetic leg. Tariq beats Khadim with the leg, and Khadim leaves Laila alone from then on. That night, Babi is helping Laila with her homework when they are interrupted by a knock at the door.
A uniformed stranger asks to speak with Laila’s parents. As Laila watches from the stairs, Mammy begins screaming. The women of the neighborhood come over the next day to help Laila’s family begin funeral preparations. Mariam, the shoemaker’s wife, comes to pay her respects, as well. Although Laila does her duty as a daughter, she feels disconnected from her mother’s grief. Laila had never met her brothers Ahmad and Noor, so they hold a more legendary than fraternal place in her mind. Laila sees Tariq as her true brother.
Mammy mostly stays in bed. Laila takes care of her mother and tends to the household duties. The only distraction Mammy has from her grief is talking about her sons. Laila hears about what brave martyrs her brothers were, and how Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud himself had prayed over Ahmad and Noor’s bodies. Laila is worried for her mother’s life, so she tries ridding their home of dangerous objects. Laila can’t find Babi’s razors, so she shares her worries with her father. Babi does nothing. Mammy confesses to Laila that she had thought about taking her life the night she found out about her sons’ deaths. But Mammy wants to see her sons’ cause fulfilled; she wants to live to see the Soviets expelled from Kabul.
Babi takes Laila and Tariq on a road trip. On the way, Babi tells Laila and Tariq about the history of invasions in their country. When they arrive at their destination, which Babi finally tells them is the Bamiyan Valley, Babi encourages Laila and Tariq to climb the Buddha statues with him. Babi explains that the area was a center for Buddhism until Islamic rule took over. Babi and Laila share a moment alone as they admire the view. Babi tells her how his grief for Laila’s brothers is different from Mammy’s grief. Babi shares with Laila his dream to take the family to America, but Laila knows that Mammy will never abandon the cause of her sons. Mammy will not leave Afghanistan until it is free. Laila doesn’t tell Babi that she, too, wouldn’t want to leave Afghanistan, if it meant leaving Tariq. A few months later, Babi tells the family that a treaty has been signed in Geneva between communist Russia and the Afghan government. The Soviets will soon leave Afghanistan, but Mammy refuses to celebrate prematurely.
The beginning of Part Two contrasts Laila’s pleasant childhood with Mariam’s difficult life. The two protagonists are introduced when they are the same age, which helps the reader view them as mirrors of one other. Whereas Mariam lacks close familial connections, Laila has loving parents and a strong friendship with Tariq. The novel begins to weave both protagonists’ lives together when Laila is revealed to be the daughter of Fariba, the same woman Rasheed, Mariam’s husband, criticizes in Part One. In the starkest contrast between the two protagonists, the people surrounding Laila encourage her intelligence and allow her to go to school. These differences inform how the two characters confront their growing shared reality.
Chapters 16 and 17 reintroduce the theme of gender roles, but through Laila’s more progressive lens. Laila’s teacher is an advocate of the communist presence in Afghanistan and does not allow the female students to wear coverings because women should be equal to men. This assertion of feminism suggests that Laila is living in a more progressive era than the one Mariam grew up in, and also establishes Laila as having more agency than Mariam had or still has.
Political unrest and personal relationships develop the novel’s running theme of violence. When Laila is faced with a toy water gun held by the neighborhood bully, he makes claims of ownership toward her and says he will marry her because she is so beautiful. These words might ordinarily be a compliment, but when they’re juxtaposed with the boy spraying Laila with urine instead of water, the words turn ominous and foreshadow future violence against Laila. Parallels can also be drawn between this toy gun and Rasheed’s gun. Mammy (Fariba) is put into a depressive episode because of the mounting political violence. The source of her depression partly comes from worrying over the safety of her sons’ involvement in the anti-communist Afghan resistance.
Apart from being a foil for other male characters in the book, Tariq is shown to be both a tragic victim of violence and a perpetrator of it. Tariq’s missing leg brings the consequences of war and violence to the forefront of Laila’s story. He is sensitive, intelligent, and mature for his age, but in a scene of violence begetting violence, Tariq punishes the bully that sprayed Laila with urine by using his prosthetic leg to attack the boy. Using violence as an act of chivalry only serves to emphasize the brutal sort of world in which they both live.
The loss of Laila’s brothers, Ahmad and Noor, turns the mounting violence personal and affects Laila’s home life. Laila does not understand the intense grief of Mammy as Laila never met her brothers, but nevertheless she performs the duties of being her mother’s emotional support. Mammy dispels the idea of taking her own life when she says, “I want to be there when it happens, when Afghanistan is free, so the boys see it too.” She will stand as a proxy for her sons so that through her they can experience the fall of communism even in death. This statement also ties Mammy’s wellbeing directly to the effects of the political conflict.
The Bamiyan Buddhas emerge as a symbol of Afghanistan’s inherent beauty and offer a liminal space for the characters to consider the past before the country rushes toward turmoil. Laila, Babi, and Tariq’s trip to the Buddhas represents an opportunity for reflection before they are overtaken by the political events to come. To get to the view at the top of the Buddhas, they must climb up high, giving the image of being on a precipice. Coupled with the view are lush descriptions of the Bamiyan Valley below, painting a resonant picture of Laila’s beloved Afghanistan. The scene between Laila and Babi that follows allows both characters to set aside their current reality and dream of escaping the violence that grips their country. The political events are again described in tandem with major points in the character’s lives when a few months after their trip, Babi tells Laila that the Soviets signed a treaty and will soon be leaving their country. This moment is repeated as a memory toward the end of the novel, highlighting its importance.