A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini explores the unlikely bond between two female characters linked by a domineering husband, loss, and a nation in continual upheaval. Read this study guide to understand the historical backdrop to this powerful story of friendship, endurance, and love.
Mariam and Laila are born into polar opposite worlds at drastically different times in Afghanistan’s history. Mariam enters the world as an unwanted, illegitimate child, a harami, during a peaceful monarchy. She is reared in isolation by a resentful, unhappy mother who floods Mariam with notions of shame and hopelessness. Laila is born to a loving, modern family on the night of the Communist Coup in Afghanistan. While the ensuing resistance takes her brothers and devastates her mother, Laila is brought up by a father who inundates her with pride and hope for the future. Separated by more than twenty years and dissimilar experiences, Laila and Mariam are forced together by the violence of war, and a shared, unhappy marriage.
Use the brief summaries and study guide questions below to help you get the most out of your reading of A Thousand Splendid Suns.
Part I - A Thousand Splendid Suns
The reader is introduced to a young Mariam, her mother Nana, and the few characters who are allowed into their secluded lives at the kolba. Among these is Jalil, Mariam's father, a wealthy businessman in Herat with three wives and many children. Mariam relishes her weekly visits from Jalil, who, unlike Nana, makes Mariam feel like a treasured jewel. This allusion is shattered when Jalil disappoints Mariam on her birthday and she walks into Herat to see him. This visit starts a chain of events that will end with Mariam being sent off to marry Rasheed, a man more than twice her age in far off Kabul. She is plaqued with miscarriages, disdain and violence from Rasheed.
Study Guide Questions:
- When did the Persians rule the area that now encompasses Afghanistan?
What famous or infamous conquerors have held power in this area?
- At the time of Mariam's birth, what form of government did Afghanistan have?
- Why do you think Nana chose such an isolated spot for their home?
Why do you think Nana's fits, most likely epilepsy, are deemed a jinn?
Towards the end of Chapter 10, what does Rasheed mean when he tells Mariam, "But I'm a different breed of man, Mariam." ?
- Remember this statement and compare Rasheed to other men you will meet in the book. (i.e. Hakim, Tariq)
- Mariam experiences two sensations while wearing the burqa, one inhibits her while the other is oddly liberating. Describe why you believe Mariam had these divergent attitudes towards this garment?
In Part II, readers learn more about Laila, her friend Tariq, their families and life under the Communist government. Mammy, Laila's mother, is despondent over the absence of her sons whom have joined the Mujahideen forces of Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir. These sons, Noor and Ahmad, are killed in the struggle against the Soviets and Mammy grows more depressed and distant. Laila's well being is seen to by her father Hakim, a gentle, educated man who was forced from his teaching job when the communists came to power. The Soviets are defeated by the Mujahideen, who come to Kabul. Intense, factional fighting between Massoud and Hekmatyar ensues. Meanwhile, Laila and Tariq grow older and closer. When he announces his family will move to Pakistan, the two make love unexpectedly and he asks Laila to come with him. She won't leave her parents but soon after it is decided Laila's family will leave Kabul as well and go to Pakistan. As they prepare to leave, their home is hit by rocket fire; Laila's parents are killed and she is wounded.
Study Guide Questions:
Who is Taraki and what is the PDPA?
- In Chapter 18, why does Hakim tell Laila that it is a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan? Which government is in power in Kabul when he make this statement? Does this good time for women last? If not, when does it change?
- Why do Tajiks feel slighted in Afghanistan as compared to the Pashtuns? To which tribe does Laila's family belong? Tariq's?
Why was Laila's nickname Revolutionary Girl?
- What happens that temporarily revives Mammy's spirits?
Outside influence, invasion, and cultural infusion are almost a constant in Afghanistan's long history. What period of time is represented by the Buddha at Bamiyan Valley?
- Why do you think Hakim (Babi) thought it was important for Laila and Tariq to see the two Buddha?
Image from www.historyforkids.org
Laila awakes to learn she has been taken in by Rasheed and Mariam. She learns from a stranger that Tariq has been killed in Pakistan. A lustful Rasheed sets his sights on Laila and proposes marriage; Laila, discovering she is pregnant, accepts. There is only resentment and distrust between Mariam and Laila. A second child is born. Rasheed adores his son, Zalmai, but grows colder, questions the paternity of their daughter Aziza, and is cruel to both women who develop a friendship and alliance. The Taliban come to Kabul and everything changes. Laila and Mariam plan to escape but are caught by the Taliban and returned to Rasheed. He is brutal in his retaliation and eventually makes Laila place Aziza in an orphanage.
One day Rasheed takes Mariam to a hotel to use a phone. He insists she try to reach Jalil and ask for money which she does only to learn Jalil has died. The man who arranged for the use of the phone looks familiar to Mariam but she does not know him. Soon after Tariq shows up at Laila and Mariam's home. Laila learns the truth of what has happened to Tariq during their separation and, while minding Zalmai, Mariam realizes the man at the hotel and the stranger who brought news of Tariq's death were one in the same. That night, Zalmai tells Rasheed of the male visitor. Enraged he beats his wives and nearly kills Laila. Mariam gets a shovel and kills Rasheed. She will send Laila and the children with Tariq but turn herself into the Taliban. Mariam is beheaded in front of a crowd at a stadium in Kabul.
Study Guide Questions:
- How does life change for all women in Kabul when the Taliban arrive?
- What is shari'a?
- What is the Beard Patrol?
- What does Rasheed have to alter about his life in order to comply with the Taliban's edicts? What about Mariam and Laila?
- Why was it impossible for Mariam and Laila to escape Kabul on their own?
What are the two documents that Mariam signed in her lifetime?
- Explain what each was and how they altered the course of her life.
- Why did Mariam believe she was thinking like a mother when she decided to give herself up?
Laila, Tariq, and the two children flee to a resort area in Pakistan where they work in a hotel. They are here for the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan by American and Coalition forces. After a time, they decide to return to Kabul. On the way Laila wishes to visit Herat and the small kolba where Mariam began her life.
- Why do you think Laila felt the need to see the kolba and Mariam's old friend?
- How was Kabul different when they returned?
- Given Laila's trip to Herat and her return to Kabul, does it seem as if Afghanistan was a unified or disjointed nation at that time?