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.
History and Memory in Afghanistan ThemeTracker
History and Memory in Afghanistan Quotes in A Thousand Splendid Suns
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
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.’”