Mariam remembers the first time she heard the word “harami,” or bastard. She is five years old, and it’s a Thursday—the day her father Jalil comes to visit her at the small one-room house where she lives with her mother, Nana. She accidentally breaks a piece of Nana’s treasured tea set, and Nana calls her a clumsy harami. Only later does Mariam understand the shame associated with the word, staking her out as an unwanted person who will never find love.
From the very first page, the theme of shame envelops Mariam’s story. Throughout the novel, the very word “harami” will be used as a weapon, accusation, or simply a placeholder for the fact that Mariam occupies the lowest rung on the social ladder in Afghanistan.
Mariam adores Jalil, who never calls her such a name, but instead visits and tells her stories about their city, Herat, and the famous poet Jami who lived there. Mariam believes his stories because she’s never been into the city. Nana, though, says Jalil spins lies, and has betrayed them by casting them out.
As a child, Mariam adores her father unconditionally. As a distant, benign presence, Jalil is easier to love than Mariam’s bitter and beleaguered mother, who nevertheless is bringing up Mariam on her own.
Jalil has three wives and nine legitimate children. He owns a cinema and is very wealthy. Nana was one of his housekeepers, but then became pregnant with Mariam. Her own father disowned her and Jalil sent her off to live in the one-room “kolba.” Nana reminds Mariam never to trust men as a result—a man will always find a way to accuse a woman.
This backstory says much about Mariam’s social situation—adjacent to but worlds away from wealth and security. Nana’s explicit articulation of the inequalities between men and women will gain even greater significance later on.