In the summer of 2000, the drought is worse then ever, and villages turn nomadic, searching for water and pastures and settling in slums outside Kabul. This is also the summer when all of Kabul is obsessed with the movie Titanic. People smuggle pirated copies into Kabul and watch with the volume down late at night. Sometimes, Mariam and Laila unearth the TV to watch with the children. Kabul River has dried up and the riverbed becomes “Titanic City,” with people selling all kinds of Titanic-themed objects, from toothpaste to perfume. Laila tells Mariam that it’s become an obsession because everyone wants Jack, the main character of the movie, to rescue them—but Jack is dead, and isn’t coming back.
While the public sphere is growing increasingly restricted in Kabul, the novel makes clear that not all simple joys have been destroyed. The bustling Kabul that Mariam found exciting and overwhelming when she first arrived has moved underground to Titanic City, despite the Taliban’s bans. As a romantic love story, Titanic seems to appeal to Kabulis in search of a happy ending, or of a world in which love really does triumph over suffering.
Later that summer, a merchant falls asleep without putting out his cigarette, and Rasheed’s shop is one of the ones consumed in fire. Thrown into poverty, they must sell everything. Rasheed stays home every day, slapping Aziza, kicking Mariam, and yelling at Laila. He is fired from a job at a kebab house for getting into a fight, and from a restaurant because customers complained about long waits. When Laila says he was probably napping, he goes at her with both fists, kicking until he no longer can.
Whereas Laila and Mariam deal with setbacks with grace and endurance, Rasheed grows even more unbearable than he was before. For the first time, the very qualities that make him a tyrannical force to deal with at home make him unable to contribute productively in public. Laila seems to have lost some of her wariness about saying what she thinks to him.
Soon, hunger is all they can think about. They skip meals, eating dried bread, stolen canned ravioli, raw turnips and blackened bananas. Aziza grows extremely thin and Zalmai becomes listless and pale.
Though Laila and Mariam have weathered Rasheed’s abuse, this new threat poses a greater peril because of its effect on Laila’s children.
But Mariam has a plan. She and Rasheed walk to the Intercontinental Hotel, and Rasheed greets one of the doormen, who Mariam finds vaguely familiar. Every few minutes, cars drive up to the hotel holding men in turbans—the Pakistani and Arab Islamists who Rasheed says are really running the country. An hour later, the doorman leads them inside, to a balcony where he gives them a small black phone and a scrap of paper with a number on it.
While a few blocks away, families are suffering from hunger, the Intercontinental Hotel is still a sleek, modern center of political action—one of the few places where phones can be found in Afghanistan— even if Afghans themselves are no longer as involved in these negotiations.
Mariam thinks back to the last time she’d seen Jalil, thirteen years earlier, in the spring of 1987. He had stood outside her house next to the blue Benz with Herat license plates, calling her name. Mariam had caught a glimpse of him from her window, but she refused to leave. Now she wishes she hadn’t had so much pride, and had forgiven him—his faults seem like so little next to Rasheed’s malice or the violence of the Mujahideen. She reaches the mayor’s office in Herat on the phone, and asks for Jalil Khan. He says he doesn’t know him—the cinema has long been closed. Mariam pleads with him, and he tells her that there’s a groundskeeper who has lived in Herat all his life. After a few minutes, he returns to the phone to report that Jalil Khan died back in 1987.
Jalil’s visit to the neighborhood had caught the attention of Laila, who knew only that there was a blue Benz from Herat outside Mariam and Rasheed’s home. Now we have the backstory, which makes far more sense given our understanding of Mariam’s history with Jalil, and her final refusal to submit to the shame of being snubbed by him. Now, though—having suffered even more herself and having witnessed even greater destruction on a national level—Mariam finds that her love for her father is stronger than pride or shame, though it’s too late.
Mariam realizes that Jalil was dying back then, and had driven from Herat to say goodbye. Rasheed looks at her, and Mariam shakes her head. Rasheed calls her useless.
As usual, Rasheed is uninterested in the nuances of Mariam’s past, and only cares about what can be useful for him.