books that made me ache

After finally setting the book down I paced back and forth round the house, circled the round table in the dining room several times before walking past the open swing door to stare outside like a brain-washed vegetable, getting through another book-induced existential crisis and, maybe, withdrawal.

I ached so deep for A Thousand Splendid Suns and so I stamp this book with a six out of five, an eleven out of ten or a hundred-and-one out of a hundred splendid stars. Unforgettable, timeless, beautiful — tragic, but beautiful — book. I had to close it a lot of times just to let out an ugly fake cry, overwhelmingly kiss the cover, reenact a scene all by myself (don’t judge me!) or collect my thoughts and scribble them on my notebook.

I don’t know if I understood the title correctly. There were only two instances in the book where it or part of it was mentioned:

1.) p.186; Laila’s Babi quoted two lines from a poem about Kabul by the 17th century poet Saib-e-Tabrizi

“One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs,

or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.”

2.) p.402;

“Mariam is never very far. She is here, in these walls they’re repainted, in the trees they’ve planted, in the blankets that keep the children warm, in these pillows and books and pencils. She is in the children’s laughter. She is in the verses Aziza recites and in the prayers she mutters when she bows westward. But, mostly, Mariam is in Laila’s own heart, where she shines with the bursting radiance of a thousand suns.”

A Thousand Splendid Suns for me translates to hope — the hope of Kabul, and Afghanistan as a whole, that is the Afghans themselves. It’s about coming home, about the thousand radiant mornings that await Afghanistan, finally ending the decades of darkness, when it rebuilds itself from the rubbles it was reduced to during the war. Just as how Laila’s father predicted: “When the war is over, Afghanistan is going to need you as much as its men, maybe even more. Because a society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated. No chance…You can be anything you want, Laila. I know this about you. And I also know that when the war is over, Afghanistan is going to need you.”

Laila became restless when she heard about schools built, roads repaved, and women returning to work in Kabul and, suddenly, her pleasant life in Pakistan seemed inconsequential, wasteful. “Kabul is [home], and back there so much is happening, a lot of it good. I want to be a part of it all. I want to do something. I want to contribute. I feel like I have to go back. Kabul is waiting. Needing. This journey home is the right thing to do.”

It was sad, though, the fact that it took Bush’s bombs to redeem Afghanistan and create this new era in its history. Maybe, in that sense, it had become a necessary evil — a large-scale war to make way for peace (albeit temporary). Well, it is easy to talk politics, to talk of strategies, of greater good and lesser evil, of justifying war with arguments from both experiences and theories.

When we hear about war, we picture men in  fatigue taking covers, shooting, throwing bombs, fighter planes dropping missiles, people running frantically to all directions, loud explosions and screams and cries, then smokes, and when they clear, dead bodies then a ghost town then a blurred spot on the map. We feel bad for five minutes and then move on with our lives. And years later when the battleground recovers and peace is reestablished, industry grows, life returns, we are convinced that, yes, the war was necessary.

BUT.

Nobody knows war and peace like its survivors do: “Maybe this is necessary. Maybe there will be hope when Bush’s bombs stop falling. But she cannot bring herself to say it, not when what happened to [her father] and [mother] is happening to someone now in Afghanistan, not when some unsuspecting girl or boy [there] has just been orphaned by a rocket.”

To outsiders every war is just another war, but to the people caught in the middle, every bullet, every second, every death is a special case. Because none of these realities, this detailed picture of war Hosseini painted through his book, probably crossed our minds:

1. The wasted potentials of the dead from which could have emerged a Van Gogh, a Hemingway, an Einstein. This list is infinite.

2. The nervous, sleepless nights spent wondering whether you will be spared this time and for how long.

3. The digging, the pulling from the debris, what remained of a sister, a brother, a grandchild. The pain of having only a headless torso or a socked left foot to burry and mourn.

4. The becoming of a ghost town, the unknowing of streets you once knew so well, the untying of relationships, the endless parting.

5. The dead bodies walked on and eaten by dogs in the morning.

6. The refugees on their way to camps caught in crossfire.

7. The disabling injuries, the burns, the missing body parts, the deformed faces.

8. The people living under scraps of cardboard in refugee camps, battling against TB, dysentery, famine, crime. That’s before winter, before frostbite and pneumonia, before those camps become frozen graveyards.

9. The women killing themselves out of fear of being raped and men who, in the name of honor, would kill their wives or daughters if they’d been raped by the militia.

10. The forcing of young boys, at gunpoint, to join the war. In plain daylight they are dragged right off the streets and when soldiers from a rival militia captured them, they are tortured. They are electrocuted, their balls crushed with pliers. The soldiers make the boys lead them to their homes. Then they break in and kill their fathers, rape their sisters and mothers.

11. The unfortunate fate of getting shot within the brief, innocent moment when you got out to get milk.

12. The hospitals without basic facilities, the operations without anesthetic.

13. The poverty and hunger, the brittle, dried bread that tasted like sawdust, the canned ravioli, split five-ways,  stolen from grocery stores  at the risk of getting your hands chopped off, the raw turnip with salt, the black bananas for the day’s meal. The mother’s poisoning of her own children. The father’s pocketing of a customer’s leftover cheese ring to bring home to his son.

14. The children born in a shabby prison cell that smelled of shit and piss and sweat and damp woods. Children who have never seen the world, who thought the four walls that confined them was all there is.

Nobody wins any war, not really. This tragic fact wraps A Thousand Splendid Suns, but this is definitely not all. There is so much more that the book covers — so much, so deep, so wide, so long — it will take a series of long articles and intensive research to discuss them. For example, there is the very interesting and urgent issue of sexism  (“Learn this now and learn it well: Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always.”) but I feel that it would take some time to write about it. So let’s move on to the writing, instead.

I liked that the characters are very human with very human tendencies that you will find it difficult to play god and pass judgment right away. In fact, you may even find it in you to favour villains, too. I also think that the shifting of perspectives at some parts in the book was very cool and effective. For example, the part where Nana and Jalil told Mariam their different versions of how Nana gave birth to her, the author shifted from Jalil and Mariam’s scenario to Nana and Mariam’s without cutting the train of thought and made it seem like the exchanges of dialogues from the different scenarios belonged to just one continuous scene.     

The writing is so powerful (it was love at first chapter for me) it plays with your senses and gives you a realistic perspective of war then the illusion of firsthand experience. The storytelling encourages the intellectual participation of the readers through the abundance of read-between-the-lines, passages and scenarios so cleverly written and put together. I remember reading about a novelist who once said that if a gun is mentioned in a story, it will eventually be fired. True enough, not a word, object, character, anecdote and plot-twist is ever wasted in A Thousand Splendid Suns. Towards the end of the book the hair on my arms and nape stood at attention as I held my breath when loose ends began to tie back to previously vague mentions, when little hints started making sense, when questions were finally getting their answers, and everything else was falling to place. Mind-blowing.

If you are a refugee, feminist, Muslim, Christian,  theist, atheist, soldier, terrorist, priest, criminal, saint, sinner, artist, scientist, American, Asian, married, expat, overseas worker, bourgeois, prole, parent, lawyer, doctor — whoever and whatever you are, if you are a human being, this book is for you. It will pulverize you, then it will resurrect you. What you make of that and what that does to you is the best part.