Mariam is placed in the Walayat women’s prison near Chicken Street. There are no curtains or glass on the windows, so there’s no privacy from the Talib guards. She’s in a cell with five women and four children: many of the children have been born here, and have never seen the world outside. All the other women are there for having run away from home, so Mariam has a certain notoriety and the women compete to share food and blankets with her.
The women’s prison is filled with prisoners who have, in one way or another, flouted the strict laws put in place by the Taliban that have limited women’s freedoms and movements. Mariam is one of the only ones to have committed a true crime, though her case, of course, is more nuanced than that.
One of the women, Naghma, tried to elope with a mullah’s son. When they were caught, he was flogged until he said that Naghma had cast a spell on him. He was freed and Naghma jailed. Mariam recalls Nana’s warning: men can always find a woman to blame.
Mariam hadn’t listened to Nana as a child, still unquestionably loyal to Jalil, but now she understands just how harsh repressive cultural norms can be towards women.
At Mariam’s trial, there had been no cross-examination, no legal council or appeals. One elderly judge spoke to Mariam with apology rather than accusation. Another, younger, judge claimed that women’s brains are made differently than men’s, which is why a woman’s word is worth less. The elderly judge then said that he had only a few months to live. Though he was not frightened to die, he was frightened to be summoned to God and have to explain why he did not obey God’s laws. He understood Mariam’s cause, but was disturbed by her brutality—even if Mariam did not seem to be a wicked woman. He said he must sentence her to death, as Shari’a law requires. She was given a document to sign, remembering the last time she’d signed her name to a document, 27 years before.
The way in which Mariam’s trial was conducted reveals how unfairly Taliban law treats women—one judge even claims that women’s testimony isn’t worth as much as men’s. The older judge, however, seemed to wrestle honestly with the meaning and the implications of Shari’a law. His speech helps to create nuance in the novel between a modern, perhaps more Western, conception of justice and a traditional one. This, the second time Mariam signed a document, also submitted her to the rules of another—though this time she actively chose this submission.
On the last of Mariam’s ten days in prison, she watches children below her barred window, singing a rhyme Jalil had taught her. That night she’d dreamed of eleven pebbles, arranged vertically; of a young Jalil; of Mullah Faizullah playing with her in the stream; and of Nana calling her to dinner in the kolba.
On Mariam’s last night, her dreams consist of her earliest memories, both of joy and love—her relationship with Mullah Faizullah and Nana—and of her longing for acceptance, as shown through the eleven pebbles she once arranged.
On the way to Ghazi Stadium, the young Talib across from her in the bus asks if she’s hungry. When she refuses, he asks if she’s afraid. She says she is, and the Talib says that his own father, according to his mother, was the bravest man she knew—and yet he still was crying the day the communists took him. For the first time, Mariam cries a little.
This is another case in which the novel complicates the notion that Talibs as uniformly evil. As the story of this Talib shows, all Afghans have suffered in some way through the tumultuousness of the past several decades.
As she enters Ghazi stadium, thousands of people look down at her. Earlier, she had feared she would panic or weep, but she thinks of Zalmai, of the father she took from him, and she’s able to walk steadily. She knows she has had a difficult, painful life, but she finds herself, in these last seconds, wishing for more of it—more time with Laila, the ability to see Aziza grown up, to play with her children.
Mariam goes to her death consciously aware of the sacrifice she made for Laila and her family, but also of the suffering she has caused for Zalmai, which allows her to embrace the ultimate suffering for herself. As strong as Mariam is, her love for Laila and Aziza cannot entirely stop her desire to see them again.
But at the last moment, as she closes her eyes and the guard lifts his Kalashnikov, she feels not regret but peace. She came into the world as a harami, an unwanted, shameful presence, but since then she has loved and been loved. Her final thoughts are from the Koran, about God, the Mighty, the Great Forgiver. The guard asks her to kneel, and one last time she does as she’s told.
Mariam’s life trajectory has been one of near-constant suffering but also triumph and love. Though she did not find belonging where she expected to, her relationship with Laila ultimately allowed her to find meaning and a place of significance in the world, and to finally make her own choices.