Amra Ademovic stands in the wing of a vast Afghan hospital, speaking to Idris and Timur (two characters Nabi mentioned in the previous chapter). Idris has just returned to Kabul, though it’s not clear where he’s come from. Timur is a prominent businessman in the United States, who, as Idris is well aware, cheats on both his wife and his taxes. Idris suspects that Timur is a fraud. Yet Timur gets away with everything, it sometimes seems to Idris, because he’s charismatic and good-looking.
Hosseini still doesn’t give us what we want: Pari’s reunion with Abdullah. Instead, he takes us off on another journey, again involving supporting characters from previous chapters. We remember Idris as the son of Mr. Bashiri (Mr. Wahdati’s neighbor), and Timur as the son of Mr. Bashiri’s brother. Hosseini continues to expand his web of interconnectedness.
Idris, Timur, and Amra stand in the hospital, surveying a young girl named Roshana, who is very ill. Idris notices, with a flash of irritation, that Timur and Amra are flirting slightly. Back in the United States, where Timur lives, Timur goes by “Tim.” He’s changed his name following the events of September 11, a decision that, he claims, doubled his real estate business. Idris, in contrast to his brother, is quiet and sensitive, and works as a doctor.
At first it seems clear that Idris is the “better” and more moral of the two cousins: Timur, by contrast, is conceited, selfish, and generally indifferent to other people. Yet we should take these impressions with a grain of salt. As in the previous chapters, we’re limited to a single character’s impressions, and Hosseini’s narrators are often unreliable. We add the relationship between cousins to the many kinds of families portrayed in the novel.
Amra asks Timur and Idris what they’re doing in this hospital in Kabul. Timur explains: he and Idris are cousins, whose families fled to Pakistan following the Russian invasion of the 1980s, and then moved to California. This is the first time they’ve returned to their home in twenty years. They’ve decided to reconnect with their heritage, and, in the long run, donate money to Afghan charities. Privately, Idris thinks that Timur is concealing the real reason they’ve come back to Afghanistan: they want to reclaim the property their parents left them, property whose value is astronomically high now that Kabul is stable once again. Amra nods along as Timur explains why he and Idris are in Afghanistan. She then invites them to a party that night.
Idris and Timur are the first major characters in the novel who have lived in the United States (the country where Hosseini himself immigrated when he was fifteen years old). This further expands the novel’s scope, and introduces new themes like distance, international politics, and foreign wealth. Evidently, Timur and Idris are rich and fairly successful—it remains us to be seen how they’ll use their wealth and power upon returning to their war-torn homeland.
Timur and Idris have been sent to Kabul by Idris’s uncle (Timur’s father). Timur’s father wants his son and nephew to regain his old property, bribing officials if necessary. Idris’s own father died of cancer, and Timur was highly supportive of Idris during this difficult period. During the funeral, Idris was slightly irritated with Timur, because Timur was more capable of crying in public than he—strangely, Idris felt that Timur was “upstaging him” during his father’s funeral. Idris is also resentful of Timur for quickly becoming wealthy and successful in America as a car dealer. Idris, by contrast, is currently working long, hard hours as a resident at UC Davis, in preparation for his career as a doctor. His wife, Nahil, is studying hard for her LSATs. In spite of the tension between Idris and Timur, Timur has always been generous with Idris, and he loans him money frequently. Nahil tells Idris that he’s foolish to dislike Timur, since Timur has been so generous. Idris insists that Timur’s generosity is all an act, a part of his sleazy showmanship.
Idris and Timur have arrived in Kabul for the same reason, and their selfishness is disguised by a show of compassion. The fact that they’re there to do exactly the same thing underscores how silly it is for Idris to claim that he’s “better” than Timur. His complaints that Timur was “better at crying” at the funeral seem particularly narcissistic, as if Idris was focused more on competing with his cousin than on his own father’s death. As we learn more about Idris, it becomes increasingly obvious that he’s mostly just jealous of Timur for making more money and being more respected and liked by his friends. This chapter is partly about the distances that can exist even between “close” character, like Timur and Idris. While they’re cousins, it’s clear that they don’t particularly like or understand each other. This is an echo of the sister-relationship between Parwana and Masooma.
Timur and Idris have arrived at Mr. Wahdati’s home, prepared for the party Amra mentioned. The house is lavish by Kabul’s standards, though it’s sustained a great deal of damage in the past twenty years. Inside, the cousins notice that workers have begun repairing the property: planting new flowers in the garden, bricking the walls, painting the fences, etc. There are about twenty people inside, all of them smoking and drinking. Idris and Timur greet Markos, who introduces them to the owner, an elderly man (whom we know to be Nabi). Together Timur, Markos, Nabi, and Idris discuss Nila Wahdati. Markos mentions that Nila became a successful, renowned poet before she killed herself. Timur changes the topic to rent—he reminds Nabi that he could make a fortune by charging his guests high rent. Nabi acknowledges that Timur is right, and says that he refuses to do so.
One of the simplest yet most rewarding pleasures of this novel is the “eureka” moment when we connect some of the dots and recognize a character who has narrated a previous chapter. Here, for example, we recognize that Idris and Timur are speaking with Nabi—whom we know well now, though the cousins don’t know him at all. Each character in the novel is surrounded by many other characters, each of whom has their own unique experience and knowledge. And yet for the most part, the characters in the novel (like people in real life) don’t make an effort to understand one another—their stories remain trapped inside their heads, and no one recognizes the many threads connecting us all.
The party proceeds. Idris is uneasy, as he always is at parties. To his surprise, Amra greets him and strikes up a conversation. She points out that Idris clearly doesn’t like his cousin very much, and Idris doesn’t disagree. He explains that Timur has always embarrassed him by behaving like the stereotypical Afghan-American: arrogant, flirtatious, and crude. Amra reveals that she knows why Timur and Idris are in Afghanistan: they obviously want to reclaim their old property. Idris is surprised by Amra’s insightfulness, but she explains that she can see through anyone. Idris notes that Amra is very beautiful, though her beauty seems trapped inside tiredness and disillusionment.
Once again, we get the distinct sense that Idris isn’t as good a person as he thinks. While Idris claims to be less arrogant and conceited than his cousin, we can tell that he and Timur are attracted to the same woman, Amra. It’s easy to imagine that much of Idris’s resentment of Timur, at least while they’re in Kabul, isn’t based on Timur’s moral inferiority, but rather the fact that Timur and Idris are “competing” for the same woman. Idris isn’t any better a person than Timur, he just likes to think he is.
Amra explains to Idris what will happen to Roshana, the young girl in the hospital. Roshana lived with her family outside of Kabul, Amra explains. Roshana’s uncle and father had a fight over their property. The fight was bitter, but after many weeks, it seemed that her father and uncle were about to make up. The uncle visited the father in his home, and they embraced—the traditional sign of ending an argument. Afterwards, the uncle excused himself, and when he returned to the house, he was holding an axe. He killed Roshana’s father, mother, and brother. Roshana miraculously survived her uncle’s attack, though she has a cracked skull, and probable brain damage.
It’s truly shocking to move from the petty family rivalries of the previous section to the doctor’s description of how Roshana almost died. Timur and Idris’s mutual resentment seems absurdly insignificant next to the life of a little girl almost murdered by her uncle. This is exactly the effect Hosseini has in mind—he wants to show us how absurd it is to value our own silly desires more highly than the needs of other people.
The chapter cuts ahead to the next day. Timur wants to go to the town of Istalif, but Idris refuses, claiming to have a bad hangover. After Timur leaves, Idris finds a cab and asks to go to the local hospital. He makes a stop at the local bazaar first.
It’s not yet clear what Idris is going to do, but we can be sure that it will be partly motivated by his desire to prove himself a better person than his cousin.
Idris arrives at the hospital, carrying a box. He makes his way through the halls to where Amra is sitting by Roshana’s bed. Idris greets Roshana and shows her the presents he’s bought her: VCR tapes of old American films, such as Toy Story and E.T. Because there’s a television in the hospital, Roshana is able to watch a film immediately.
Much like the earlier characters in the novel, Idris interacts with other people using art—in this case, connecting with Roshana through children’s DVDs that he picks up at a bazaar.
Halfway through the film, the power goes out, and Idris decides to leave the hospital. As he leaves, he runs into Roshana’s maternal uncle (not the man who attacked her with an axe). The uncle complains that it would have been better if Roshana had died—now, she’ll have to go through life without a husband. He asks Idris for money, and Idris gives him some, which he instructs the uncle to use to buy Roshana some shoes.
Once again, we see that family is no guarantee of affection. Roshana’s uncle (or rather, the man who claims to be her uncle) seems to have no real love for Roshana—and also holds the sexist idea that a woman’s life is only fulfilled by having a husband. Idris’s attempts to care for Roshana seem clumsy and naïve—assuming that the uncle asking for money will actually buy shoes and return
Idris develops a routine of visiting the hospital to see Roshana. He brings Roshana presents, and spends more time with Amra. Timur warns Idris to be careful—Roshana can’t become too attached to him. Idris grudgingly accepts that Timur is right, though he wonders if Timur might be jealous of Idris’s concern. Idris is scheduled to fly back to the U.S. in less than a week. During one visit to the hospital, he tells Amra that he wants to help Roshana get better. She needs a neurosurgical operation, he recognizes, one that she’d be more likely to get in the U.S. He even offers to pay for the operation. Amra is surprised and overjoyed with this news. She also tells Idris that the uncle to whom he gave money has disappeared.
In this scene, Idris makes a big, bold promise to an essentially helpless girl. It’s easy for him, from his position of relative privilege and power, to say things like this to Roshana, but to Roshana his whims could have huge repercussions. It’s also possible that Idris is partly trying to impress Amra with his charity. It remains to be seen if Idris will have the willpower and compassion to follow through with this offer. As usual, Idris feels like he is competing with Timur in everything—even compassion.
Idris is sitting on a plane back to the United States, next to Timur. Timur brags about having sex with many women in Kabul. He also explains that he’s hired a lawyer named Farooq to monitor their family’s property in Kabul. Timur plans on returning to Kabul in another month. As Timur goes on, Idris silently remembers saying goodbye to Roshana, and telling her that he’d see her again.
The contrast between Idris’s concern for Roshana and Timur’s indifference seems perfectly straightforward: Timur is a hedonist, and doesn’t care about other people, while Idris is compassionate, and cares deeply for others. And yet we’re also seeing all this from Idris’s biased perspective.
Idris returns to the U.S. and reunites with Nahil, his wife. Idris is overjoyed to see his two children, Zabi and Lemar, but he’s also reminded that they’re growing up ignorant and spoiled—precisely the qualities he tried to discourage in them. Idris suggests that the family get lunch at an Afghan deli. At the deli, Idris notes that the owner is a man named Abdullah, who’s married to a woman named Sultana. Abdullah is one of Idris’s medical patients: he married Sultana in Pakistan in the 70s, and moved to the U.S., where he has a daughter named Pari (II). Abdullah greets Idris and asks him how Timur is doing. They banter briefly, and Abdullah tells Idris that he can eat for free. As Idris and his family leave the restaurant, Lemar asks Idris why Abdullah gives them free meals. Idris says it’s because he’s Abdullah’s doctor, but secretly, he knows the real answer: Timur lent Abdullah the money to start his restaurant.
At every turn of Idris’s life, he’s reminded of his dislike for Timur. Here, for instance, we learn that Idris’s family can eat free at Abdullah’s restaurant because Timur lent Abdullah money long ago. The more important and exciting news in this section is that Abdullah—Pari’s brother!—lives in the United States, is married, and has returned to the narrative. Idris’s annoyance in this scene is ironic as well—at the restaurant Idris is reminded of his cousin, whom he finds obnoxious, but he’s reminded precisely because of Timur’s own charitable actions.
In the next few days, Idris is quiet and thoughtful. He asks Nahil if she thinks they need so much “stuff” —their home theater, their house, etc. Nahil insists that she and Idris have earned their lifestyle with hard work, but Idris doesn’t find this answer satisfying. That night, he can’t sleep. He stays up, looking at his computer. Suddenly, he receives an email from Amra. In the email, Amra explains that Roshana wants to send him a message: she’s been enjoying the videotapes Idris bought her, and wishes that Idris would return to Kabul very soon.
Idris’s time in Kabul has made him question his career path in the United States. Having visited a war-torn country, where the majority of people have very little, it makes sense for Idris to now be questioning his comfortable lifestyle. Nahil has clearly sublimated the materialistic rhetoric of the U.S.—and again Hosseini gives us an example of how wealth and luxury interfere with one’s innate sense of compassion and empathy.
Idris resumes his work. He’s extremely busy—overbooked for the next two weeks. His chief, Joan Schaeffer, tells him that he misdiagnosed one of his patients, meaning that many of his colleagues will know about his mistake. In the hurry of work, Idris doesn’t have the time to talk to Joan about Roshana’s operation. He receives another email from Amra, in which she asks if Idris has looked into an operation for Roshana. Idris is irritated by the email, but then feels guilty for his irritation.
With every section in this chapter, Idris seems to be drifting further from his goals of helping Roshana. He’s busy, works hard, and has many other concerns—yet we can’t help but think that Idris’s inaction is also the result of his laziness and complacency, not his stress. We start to realize that Idris simply isn’t a very good person, even if he likes to believe otherwise.
Later in the week, Idris approaches Joan Schaeffer about Roshana’s operation. He explains the circumstances, and asks her if American healthcare could pay for her procedure. Joan replies, sadly, that her board of directors probably wouldn’t approve of the operation. Joan suggests that Idris look into humanitarian groups that would perform the operation. Idris, much to his own surprise, isn’t disappointed by Joan’s response—he’s almost relieved.
Idris is relieved at Joan’s answer because it makes him look good while also freeing him from responsibility. Idris can go on with his life, secure in the knowledge that he’s made a sincere effort to help Roshana. He thinks that he is compassionate, but really he just wants to be thought of as compassionate.
The weeks go on, and Idris begins to concern himself more and more with his material needs. He installs a home theater system, and begins telling himself that he’s earned everything in his life with hard work and study. He begins to forget about Roshana, very slowly, until eventually she becomes nothing more than a character in a movie. He begins ignoring Amra’s emails, too.
Hosseini is brutally insightful about the relationship between compassion, and selfishness. Idris becomes more invested in his material life because he believes that he’s a good person, and has made a sincere effort to help Roshana. Paradoxically, believing that he’s a good person makes him a worse person. From the viewpoint of Idris’s life in the U.S., it’s easy to forget about his connection to suffering Afghans, and Roshana becomes unreal to him.
The narrative cuts ahead by six years. Idris is standing in line at a bookstore, holding a book. The book, ghostwritten by a journalist, is about Roshana. Idris thinks, with great pain, about the love and respect Roshana gave him when she was in the hospital. He opens the book and looks at the dedication page, which reads, “To the two angels in my life; my mother Amra, and my Kaka Timur.”
The final sections of this chapter read like a nightmare—Idris’s worst fears are confirmed when Timur accepts the responsibility for Roshana, making Idris look like a negligent fool (which he probably is). The supposedly selfish, obnoxious Timur is the one who actually followed through with compassionate acts, instead of just empty promises.
It’s revealed that Idris is standing in a book-signing line, and he’s only a few feet away from Roshana. When it’s his turn to meet Roshana and have his book signed, Roshana barely looks at him—it’s not clear if she recognizes him or not. Idris tries to tell her who he is, but a clerk sternly tells him to move along. He takes his book and moves outside. When he opens the book, he sees two sentences: “Don’t worry. You’re not in it.”
In the nightmarish final lines of this chapter—the most self-contained, and one of the most disturbing in the book—Roshana speaks directly to Idris through writing. Roshana now recognizes the truth about Idris: he’s a fundamentally selfish person, more concerned about his own “image” than other people’s well-being.