Life in Murree is comfortable and calm, the kind that Laila used to dream of when she was with Rasheed. She is thankful for it, but one night in July 2002, she and Tariq are talking about how the coalition forces have driven the Taliban out of every major city, and there’s now an interim president, Harmid Karzai. She decides it’s time to tell Tariq how she misses Kabul, but also feels restless when she hears about schools and roads being rebuilt. She hears Babi in her head telling her she can do anything she wants; she hears Mammy saying she wants to be in Afghanistan when her sons’ dream of a new country come true; and finally, she can’t think that Mariam died so that Laila could live comfortably as a maid in a foreign place.
After so many decades of war and day-to-day danger, it finally seems as though Afghanistan may be entering a period of rebuilding rather than further destruction. Laila is acutely aware of how much others have sacrificed in order to allow her to survive, and how she has been equipped—despite the strict, anti-progressive laws of the last few years—with the tools to be a strong female leader. Returning to Afghanistan is the only way Laila can imagine repaying these debts.
When she tells Tariq, he asks if she’s not happy in Murree. Though she is, she tells him that she wants to be a part of what’s happening in Kabul. She says it’s only if he wants to go to, and Tariq smiles and says he’ll follow her to the end of the world. But first, she says, she wants to go to Herat.
Laila has followed Tariq to Murree, where he had already established a job and a life. Now, he is willing to be similarly loyal to Laila—a reminder of how he’s remained loyal to her even while they were apart.
Laila has to convince Aziza, who still has nightmares, that Kabul is safer now. As Sayeed drives them to the station, Laila herself wonders if they’re really right to leave the safety of Murree. But she recalls Babi’s ode by Saib-e-Tabrizi to Kabul, about the thousand splendid suns, and she’s convinced that they’re making the right decision.
Laila has lived through enough political coups and transitions to know that in Afghanistan, safety and security are never a sure thing. But Babi’s poem convinces her, knowing as she does that there is a true Kabul, the one from the ode, to be rebuilt.
They pass through Iran on the way to Herat, since the Afghan roads have been decimated. They pass an Afghan refugee camp, all black tents and sheets of corrugated steel. But in Herat, most of the streets are paved and lined with trees, with steady electricity and parks under construction. Ismail Khan, the warlord who controls Herat, collects customs at the Afghan-Iranian border that Kabul says is meant for the central government, to invest in the city. Their taxi driver speaks in awe and a bit of fear of Ismail Khan.
As the family drives back towards the Afghan border, they are met with the physical evidence of the destruction wrought by the Soviets, Mujahideen, Taliban, and other leaders. Ismail Khan is an ambivalent figure, maintaining order and security but also affirming his own individual power rather than participating in the democratic process.
After a night in a hotel, Tariq finds Laila a taxi, since she wants to go alone. Zalmai starts to cry when she leaves, but then he reaches for Tariq, which both comforts and devastates Laila.
Laila is obviously happy that Zalmai has grown to love Tariq, but she also feels renewed shame at her and Mariam’s actions.
The taxi driver says he’s lived in Herat his whole life, and has seen everything—even the March 1979 uprising, when a couple of Heratis killed a few Soviet advisers and the Soviets bombed the city in retaliation. Thousands were killed, including the driver’s two sisters. Laila marvels at the grief and loss that is present in every Afghan’s story, but also at the Afghan people’s survival—including her own.
This taxi driver recalls the one on the way to the Bamiyan Valley, who said Afghanistan has endured through so many invasions. In this case, it becomes clear how personal Afghan stories are inextricable with the broader Afghan tragedy.
They drive through the village of Gul Daman, and the driver asks for directions from a boy playing by a windmill, before stopping in front of a walled one-story house. A middle-aged man opens the door. When Laila asks for Mullah Faizullah’s house, he says that he is his son Hamza. She’s come about Jalil Khan’s daughter, Mariam, Laila says. At once, Hamza’s face lights up, and he asks if Mariam’s also come. He seems to deflate when Laila says she’s passed on, but he invites her in anyway.
This time, we see the village of Gul Daman through the eyes of Laila, a girl who grew up in cosmopolitan Kabul, rather than in a village. Hamza clearly knows who Mariam is—the close relationship between Mariam and Mullah Faizullah has somehow brought Laila and Hamza, an unlikely pair, together.
Laila tells Hamza everything. Near the end she struggles to stay composed. After a long silence, Hamza says his father was incredibly fond of Mariam, and was upset when Jalil sent her away. But Mullah Faizullah lived to an old age, he says.
Hamza gives Laila a sense of someone else who loved Mariam fiercely, and who understood the profound suffering that she experienced throughout her life.
Laila asks Hamza to show her where Mariam lived. They walk fifteen minutes downhill, and then up a grassy path until they reach a clearing and a streambed now dried up. Laila hurries up until she reaches the willows and sees that the kolba is still there. The interior is tiny, dark, and dim. Laila tries to imagine Mariam living fifteen years in this place. Here, though, unlike in Pakistan, it’s easy to summon the details of her face. She pictures the kolba at the time of Miriam’s childhood, with tea on the stove and chickens clucking outside. She pictures Mariam as a child, knowing that in a few years she will become a woman who will endure without complaining, never burdening others despite her own sorrows. Weeping now, Laila says goodbye to Mariam.
This is the reason Laila wanted to visit Herat: to be able to gain a more whole picture of Mariam, who was initially no more than the burqa-clad wife of Rasheed, and yet who became Laila’s closest friend. By visiting the kolba, Laila realizes how much she didn’t know about Mariam. But the visit also confirms for Laila just how admirable of a person Mariam was. By imagining and visualizing her here, Laila pays homage to the woman she would become, and attempts to give some kind of thanks for the enormous sacrifice Mariam made for her.
Upon their return, Hamza gives Laila a box, which Jalil had given to his father before he died, asking him to keep it for Mariam. His father never unlocked it, he says, so it is God’s will for it to be Laila.
Mullah Faizullah is clearly not the only person from Mariam’s past who continued to think of her after she left.
Back at the hotel, Laila opens the box to find an envelope, a burlap sack, and a videocassette. Laila asks the clerk to allow Laila to use the videocassette in the hotel’s one TV. She’s confused, and doesn’t understand—the film is Disney’s Pinocchio.
Though Laila does not understand the significance of the film, we are meant to recall the cartoon that Mariam begged Jalil to take her to see—and his refusal.
The envelope holds a letter dated May 13, 1987. In it, Jalil tells how disappointed he was that Mariam did not come out to speak with him in Kabul a month earlier, but he can’t blame her. He tells of all his family sorrows, and hopes she has been spared the same. He says he misses Mariam, and feels constant shame and regret for how he treated her. He regrets he didn’t let her in the day she visited him in Herat, and that he didn’t make her a real daughter. Honor, now, means little to him, after all the terrible things he’s seen in war. Now he can only ask for her forgiveness. He is no longer wealthy, but has enclosed Mariam’s share of his inheritance. He knows death is coming, and he hopes that she will be more charitable to him than he ever was to her. He hopes she will come and see him one last time, and give him the chance to welcome her like he never did before.
For much of her life, Mariam was convinced that she was loved by no one, belonged nowhere, and deserved nothing—she simply had to endure the shame of being a harami. This letter—as well as the way Hamza speaks of Mariam—shows that nothing could be further from the truth, and that Jalil, like Mullah Faizullah and Laila, was full of admiration for Mariam’s strength of spirit. Jalil’s letter shows the power of love and forgiveness, though it is also bittersweet: while Laila is able to see Jalil’s regret, and we also know Mariam felt regret for not forgiving him, neither Jalil or Mariam would ever know how the other felt.
That night, after they’ve eaten dinner and returned to the hotel, Laila tells Tariq about the letter and shows him the money in the sack. He holds her as she cries.
Mariam has given Laila one final gift, but her visit also has given her one more opportunity to grieve.