A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns

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History and Memory in Afghanistan Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
History and Memory in Afghanistan Theme Icon
Suffering and Perseverance Theme Icon
Shame and Reputation Theme Icon
Love, Loyalty, and Belonging Theme Icon
Gender Relations Theme Icon
Female Friendship Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Thousand Splendid Suns, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
History and Memory in Afghanistan Theme Icon

As Laila, Babi, and Tariq drive out on a day trip from Afghanistan, their taxi driver tells of the tumultuous history of the region. He concludes, “And that my friends, is the story of our country, one invader after another.” The novel deals with a thirty-year swath of Afghan history. It begins with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan up until their withdrawal in 1989, and continues through the infighting among the Mujahideen throughout the 1990s. The book ends shortly after the events of September 11, 2001, which introduced many Americans to Afghanistan for the first time. Many events in the characters’ personal lives, in fact, are tightly bound to political events, and the narrator uses history as a reference for the novel’s action.

Through it all, the main characters retain a hold on what they consider the “true” Afghanistan, distinct from those “invaders” who may hold power over the country at any one time. There are often competing notions of the “true” Afghanistan, depending on the characters’ political opinions and beliefs. Babi, for instance, is distraught by an Afghanistan where women cannot participate equally, while for Rasheed such inequality epitomizes the type of country that Afghanistan should be. The reader, however, is clearly meant to take Babi’s side.

The narrator also often stresses the natural beauty and ancient history of Afghanistan, which help to define it. The Taliban’s destruction of the ancient Buddhas visited by Laila, for instance, is portrayed as a devastating attack against the nation itself. Despite the multiple invasions, bombings, and massacres, Laila and Mariam are able to keep their notion of Afghanistan intact through their own memories—for Laila, the happier times of her childhood, and for Mariam, the joy she gained from building a bond with Laila and her children. It is Laila’s continued memory of Afghanistan that compels her to return, despite the violence, at the end of the novel.

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History and Memory in Afghanistan Quotes in A Thousand Splendid Suns

Below you will find the important quotes in A Thousand Splendid Suns related to the theme of History and Memory in Afghanistan.
Part II: Chapter 16 Quotes

“I know you’re still young, but I want you to understand and learn this now,” he said. “Marriage can wait, education cannot. You’re a very, very bright girl. Truly, you are. You can be anything you want, Laila. I know this about you. And I also know that when this 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, Laila. No chance.”

Related Characters: Hakim (Babi) (speaker), Laila
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

Laila's friends have been joking around about how to ward off unwanted suitors, but Laila recognizes that she does not need to worry about such problems, since Babi wants her to get an education. Here she recalls what he has repeated to her multiple times.

Babi's advice could not be further from Rasheed's understanding of the proper place of a woman in Afghani life. Rather than considering the home as the women's sphere, Babi thinks that the education of women is not just positive but necessary for Afghanistan to recover from its many wars and succeed in the future. He sees Laila as an example of how the next generation can repair the mistakes and failures of earlier generations, and he understands that that can only take place if all citizens are educated. Babi thus makes the education of women not a private question, a question of giving women opportunities now often barred from them, but a question that is directly linked to the national future of the country.


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Part II: Chapter 18 Quotes

“To me, it’s nonsense—and very dangerous nonsense at that—all this talk of I’m Tajik and you’re Pashtun and he’s Hazara and she’s Uzbek. We’re all Afghans, and that’s all that should matter. But when one group rules over the others for so long…There’s contempt. Rivalry. There is. There always has been.”

Related Characters: Hakim (Babi) (speaker)
Page Number: 130
Explanation and Analysis:

Unlike Laila's family, which is Tajik, Tariq's family is Pashtun, meaning that they speak Pashto rather than Farsi—but they revert to Farsi when Laila comes to visit, for her sake. Although Laila is not old enough to fully understand all the ethnic conflicts of the country, Babi has explained to her that these two ethnic groups traditionally have not gotten along. However, he also tells her that, from his point of view, such quarrels are not only silly but are also dangerous—especially because the conflicts have so often turned violent.

Babi attempts to instill in Laila a sense of belonging to and gratefulness for the nation of Afghanistan, beyond the quarrels that he sees as petty and belonging to each group. Still, Babi acknowledges the suffering that can result when one group does manage to triumph over others and keep them subservient to its own interests. This inequality, he suggests, is what is at the root of the most violent of ethnic conflicts in Afghanistan, and perhaps what prevents the country from coming together as a unified nation. 

Part II: Chapter 21 Quotes

“And that, my young friends, is the story of our country, one invader after another. [...] Macedonians. Sassanians. Arabs. Mongols. Now the Soviets. But we’re like those walls up there. Battered, and nothing pretty to look at, but still standing.”

Related Characters: Taxi Driver (speaker)
Page Number: 146
Explanation and Analysis:

Babi has taken Tariq and Laila on a day trip outside Kabul, though their final destination is still a surprise. As they ride along in the taxi Babi has hired, the taxi driver takes the opportunity to share some of his own opinions about the state of Afghanistan and the suffering it has historically experienced. The driver goes through a long list of various foreign peoples that have invaded Afghanistan. Surrounded by other countries, in a strategic location for trading and for other political gains, Afghanistan has long been a prized target for invaders.

The taxi driver does not attempt to put an optimistic spin on this sobering reality for Afghanis. The walls of the Red City to which he points—walls of a nine-hundred-year-old fortress, battered multiple times and failing, at one point or another, to defend the city successfully—have nonetheless not yet crumbled. This physical continuity is, according to the taxi driver, something to admire, and is indicative of Afghanis' general response when facing political challenges and when forced to deal with a new round of difficulties and suffering.

Part II: Chapter 26 Quotes

All day, this poem about Kabul has been bouncing around in my head. Saib-e-Tabrizi wrote it back in the seventeenth century, I think. I used to known the whole poem, but all I can remember now is two lines:

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

Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls.’”

Related Characters: Hakim (Babi) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Saib-e-Tabrizi’s Poem
Page Number: 191-192
Explanation and Analysis:

As Babi is mourning what has become of the country that he loves so much, he confides in Laila and shares something that consoles him in times of difficulty: a poem. This classic work from the seventeenth century is what gives the novel its title. The poem itself is beautiful, but its significance for Babi lies also in the image of Afghanistan that the work calls up, an image that shares nothing with the violent destructiveness that now seems to characterize Kabul and the nation at large.

These two lines in particular suggest that suffering is not the only thing shared by Kabul’s inhabitants. The “moons that shimmer” and the “splendid suns” underline the beauty of daily life in the city—a spectacle that repeats with each rising of the sun and view of the moon at night. But these beauties are not always readily available, remaining at times “hidden” behind the various walls of the city. The diversity of experiences and lives is to be marveled at, but one should also understand the inability of ever knowing all that takes place behind the physical walls of Kabul and behind the walls of its inhabitants' memories. Even in a time of war, however, it is possible to acknowledge the persistence of such daily histories.