The chapter begins with a teacher, Malalai, telling a young student, Adel, that his father is a great man. Adel lives in a town called New Shadbagh, the population of which consists of refugees from the old town of Shadbagh. Adel, Malalai, and many others are standing outside, listening to a speech from Adel’s father, Baba jan. Baba jan has built a school for young Afghani women, and this is the opening ceremony. He walks by his young pupils, all of whom address him as “Commander Sahib.”
This is the first time we’ve returned to Shadbagh since Chapter Two, and we see that Shadbagh has changed completely, thanks (we can assume) to the decades of war and violence in the country. Hosseini once again puts off the reunion between Pari and Abdullah, and instead introduces still more new characters. We can tell that this new narrator is a young boy, and that he greatly admires his father.
Adel thinks about his relationship with his father, Baba jan. As a younger man, Baba jan fought against the Russians during their war in Afghanistan. He was shot twice during this conflict, and still shows off his wounds. He is openly committed to the principle of jihad (the Islamic principle of constant struggle for faith). Adel wishes that he could have joined in the jihad alongside his father. He also recognizes that he’s extraordinarily lucky to be the son of such a great man.
Many of Hosseini’s readers might have their own preconceptions about jihad—it is usually seen as an inner struggle against sin, but some regard it as a principle of holy war and terrorism. Hosseini doesn’t refute or accept either interpretation, but continues to tell his story from the limited perspective of one character—in this case a child who parrots his father’s beliefs about violent jihad.
The opening ceremony draws to a close, and Baba jan motions for Adel to accompany him to his car. An old man, accompanied by a child, stops Baba jan and tells him that they need to speak. Baba jan speaks quietly with the old man for a few moments, and then climbs into the car, alongside Adel, to be driven home by his private chauffeur, Kabir. Kabir drives Abel and Baba jan through New Shadbagh, past shops, houses, and a huge public square. In the center of the square there is a statue of a man wearing a turban and holding a rocket-powered grenade launcher. Adel knows that his father has been personally involved in the building of many of these sites in town.
We’re given the distinct sense that The Commander is doing things that he doesn’t want Adel to know about. For the time being, however, Adel lives in state of bliss: he loves his father unconditionally, and can’t imagine that The Commander is capable of a single evil action. This is an important variation of the theme of family: sometimes, the familial bond between a father and son can be based on lies or ignorance.
The car swerves out of New Shadbagh toward Adel’s home in Old Shadbagh. Adel remembers growing up in the larger city of Kabul. When he was still very young, Baba jan moved Adel and Baba jan’s wife to Shadbagh, where they still live. Baba jan and Adel arrive at their home, and before they get out, Adel tells his father that he feels proud today. Baba jan responds that Adel must learn to help other people, using his power and talent for the good of his nation. Baba jan adds that he’ll be visiting Helmand, a nearby city, soon. He reminds Adel that nothing in the world is more important to him than his son.
We get the sense that The Commander has made an effort to isolate his wife and son from his “operations,” but it’s still not clear why this is the case. Nevertheless, we can sense that he’s hiding something bad from his family. At the same time, The Commander seems utterly sincere in his devotion to Adel. But it is possible to commit evil acts in the public sphere and still be kind and loving to one’s family.
Later in the evening, Baba jan has left for Helmand. The old man who stopped Baba jan earlier in the day stops by the house. Kabir, the servant and assistant, walks outside and tells the old man to go away. The old man stubbornly says that he’ll wait as long as it takes for “the commander” to return. Adel, listening to the conversation, asks Kabir what he does for his father. Kabir explains that he’s there to protect “the commander” from nuisances and enemies. Adel is close with Kabir: they play games and watch movies together. He often notices that Kabir carries a gun, a Kalashnikov (the “K” in AK-47).
It becomes increasingly obvious that The Commander is a dangerous or violent man, as evidenced by the constant presence of guns in his house, and the fact that Adel has bodyguards, seemingly around the clock. And the Mountains Echoed is perhaps the least “political” of Hosseini’s novels, but it is impossible to write a multi-generational epic about Afghanistan without at least referencing all the political turmoil and violence the country has experienced. Clearly The Commander is a part of this violence.
A few days after Baba jan leaves for Helmand, Adel walks into his parents’ bedroom. There he finds his stepmother (whom he thinks of as his mother), working out in front of a television. She is a small, pretty woman. Adel rarely sees his biological mother, since she lives in Jalalabad with her three sons (Adel’s half brothers). Adel enjoys spending time with his half-brothers, and he wishes he lived with them. He recognizes that his stepmother is very lonely in Shadbagh—she does nothing all day but work out and watch television. Adel recently learned that his stepmother wasn’t originally intended to be Baba jan’s wife: Baba jan had wanted to marry her older sister, Adel’s Aunt Nargis.
In spite of his innocence about his father’s life, Adel proves himself to be remarkably insightful about other people. He’s conscious that his mother is sad and lonely (not unlike Nila in the previous chapters). This reminds us that material possessions aren’t a replacement for human love and contact—not for Adel (who obviously wishes he could live with his half-brothers), and not for his mother. The Commander’s sinister endeavors have made his family rich, but that doesn’t mean that they are happy.
Adel decides to spend the day walking around his house’s enormous grounds. He wanders by his father’s prized orchard. Suddenly, he sees a young boy—the same boy who was standing with the old man who accosted Baba jan. Adel asks the boy what he’s doing there, and the boy explains that he’s only looking for some shade. The boy points out the man on Adel’s T-shirt, the great soccer player Maradona. They get into a lively conversation about soccer, and afterwards, the boy introduces himself as Gholam. Adel introduces himself as well. Adel enjoys talking with his new friend, as he hasn’t talked to a boy his own age in nearly two years. Adel and Gholam decide to play soccer together. Adel easily defeats his opponent—he notices that Gholam is weak, has bad vision, and seems to be in poor health.
Although Adel thinks that he’s defeated his weaker, clumsier opponent, other impressions of the scene run deeper. Gholam is clearly in horrible health—something that Adel, who’s been taken care of by The Commander for his entire life, notices immediately. Gholam is obviously living in poverty, like the old man who takes care of him. Extreme economic inequality is a hallmark of a corrupt government, and here we see the two extremes of Afghan society—but represented by children, who naturally feel a sense of equality and companionship, despite the deep divides between their economic states.
Adel and Gholam continue talking. Gholam explains that he was born in a Pakistani refugee camp outside of Jalozai. He mentions his father’s half brother, Uncle Abdullah, who lives in America and sends his family money. One day, the Pakistanis sent the Afghan refugees, including Gholam and his family, back to Afghanistan. It was around this time that Abdullah stopped sending money. Gholam lives in a tent in a field, with his father. Gholam also mentions that his father has an uncle, Nabi, who lives, or lived, in Kabul.
We now realize that Gholam is Abdullah’s nephew, and so at least have a better reference point for this chapter now. At moments like this, we are also reminded that Hosseini has set himself the enormous, ambitious project of telling a story that unfolds across six decades and many continents.
Gholam and Adel continue talking. Gholam mentions that Adel’s father has many enemies. Adel has heard this from his own father: Baba jan told him that many of the same people who fought alongside him against the Russians in the 1980s have now turned against him, and spread rumors about him. Adel mentions that his father is currently inspecting his cotton fields in Helmand—fields that Adel has heard about for many years. Gholam laughs and calls Adel “a piece of work.” Adel isn’t sure what this means.
The Taliban figure prominently in Hosseini’s novels. Here, they’re not mentioned by name, but we can guess that The Commander, who fought in rebel groups during the Soviet-Afghan War, is now a member of the Taliban, the terrorist group that wreaked havoc on Afghanistan during the 2000s (when the chapter is set). Gholam doesn’t have the luxury of having Adel’s childhood innocence—he is all too aware of violence, poverty, and war crimes.
In the coming days, Adel sees little of Gholam. Then, about a week after meeting him for the first time, Adel sees Gholam near the orchards, carrying a paper bag. Gholam explains that his father has found a job making bricks, and Gholam’s new job is to mix mortar. This is hard work, and gives him horrible blisters. Gholam suggests that they play more soccer, and Adel agrees. For the next few days, they play every afternoon. Adel learns more about Gholam’s father, whose name is Iqbal. Iqbal is struggling to find regular work as a brick maker.
In this section we’re given the final piece of the puzzle, and we learn that Gholam’s father is Iqbal (Abdullah’s half-brother, the son of Saboor and Parwana). We can guess that Iqbal learned how to make bricks from Saboor—who, as the novel was beginning, was preparing to do work on the Wahdatis’ mansion.
One day, Gholam tells Adel something unpleasant: Adel’s father built his mansion on Gholam’s family’s land. The orchard area used to be dotted with people’s houses. Adel can’t believe this is the truth. He accuses Gholam of lying, and tells him that Baba jan is a great, generous man. Gholam continues, talking about how horrible his family members felt when they returned from Pakistan to find that Adel’s father had destroyed their homes and built a mansion there. Gholam insists that his father has the ownership documents for Adel’s father’s land—documents he has tried to show Adel’s father, with no success. Gholam leaves Adel, but before he does, he tells Adel to ask his father to show him the “cotton fields” in Helmand.
It’s not immediately clear why Gholam waited to tell Adel this important information. Perhaps Gholam was looking for a friend in Adel, and didn’t want to spoil their friendship before it even began. It’s also possible that Gholam himself is just learning about his family’s property situation, and tells Adel as soon as he realizes the truth. It also becomes clear that the “cotton fields” The Commander had mentioned to Adel are dangerous places (though we’re not told exactly why).
The evening after his fight with Gholam, Adel still isn’t sure what to believe. On one hand, he worships his father, and finds it hard to believe that he could do any wrong. On the other, he can’t understand what Gholam meant when he mentioned cotton fields. He asks his stepmother if she’s ever seen the cotton field in Helmand. His stepmother says that she’s never even been to Helmand, since Baba jan says it’s unsafe to stay there.
In this transitional stage, Adel is still very loyal to his father, but can’t understand why Gholam would be lying. We get the sense that Adel’s stepmother is almost as ignorant of The Commander’s life as Adel is—but Adel’s stepmother tries to delude herself into ignorance, while Adel still sincerely believes in his father’s greatness. Thus Adel’s stepmother is another example of a kind of “willful forgetting.”
A few days after he speaks with his stepmother, Adel sees Gholam wandering through the orchards. Gholam tells Adel that there’s been a highly suspicious mix-up at the courthouse. Iqbal brought the judge his ownership documents, but the documents have now, according to the judge, been mysteriously burned. The judge insists that without ownership documents, Iqbal has no case for reclaiming his land. Iqbal had also noticed that the judge was wearing a gold watch. With this, Gholam walks away from Adel, looking furious.
No matter what other crimes The Commander may or may not have committed, it’s clear that he also uses bribery and extortion to control other people. It’s implied that The Commander paid off the judge with a new watch in exchange for “disappearing” Iqbal’s documents.
A few days after Adel’s talk with Gholam, Baba jan returns to Shadbagh. Adel is overjoyed to see him, though he can’t stop thinking about what Gholam has told him. Baba jan sits down to tea with Adel and his wife. He tells a story about his battles with the Russians in the 80s. Suddenly, there’s the sound of breaking glass. Baba jan rushes to the broken window, where he finds a rock lying on the ground. He looks out of the window and sees the old man who accosted him outside the school. Baba jan tells his wife to take Adel upstairs. Upstairs, Adel asks his stepmother what Baba jan will do with the old man. She replies that he’ll try to use reason to make peace with him. Adel begins to weep, and eventually he falls asleep in his stepmother’s lap.
It’s suggested that nothing has changed about The Commander himself—it’s only Adel’s perception that has changed, and now he is better able to notice how self-aggrandizing his father is. It becomes especially obvious that Adel’s stepmother is willfully delusional: she’s convinced herself that The Commander will use “reasoning” and “peace,” despite all the evidence that he’s actually about to murder Iqbal. Hosseini builds a sense of terror and suspense without ever showing any real violence—we see everything through the relatively sheltered worldview of a child, but are left to draw our own conclusions.
Shortly after the incident with the window, Adel sneaks into his father’s study and uses his computer to look up information about the event. Online, he finds a story about an “Assassination Attempt” on his father. The story explains that Baba jan tried bravely to protect his wife and child from a dangerous assassin with ties to the Taliban. The story doesn’t say what happened to the supposed assassin.
Hosseini never really reveals what The Commander does—instead, he shows us that The Commander is a liar, manipulates the press, and bribes judges. While these aren’t the worst crimes imaginable, they suggest others—crimes that Adel can’t see (and so we can’t either).
Adel leaves his father’s study, thinking about everything he’s experienced. He realizes that he’ll never be able to worship his father as he used to. He also realizes that his stepmother must know some disturbing things about her husband—things which she keeps hidden from Adel. In the end, Adel assumes, he’ll probably come to accept everything his father does, except that he’ll never be able to love his father again.
In this heartbreaking section, Adel “comes of age”—he realizes that his father isn’t the idol he’d thought he was. As a result of this, he comes to pity his stepmother, recognizing that she’s a sad, lonely woman who has to lie to herself to keep her sanity. Hosseini leaves Adel to an uncertain fate—we don’t know if he’ll grow up to emulate his father half-heartedly, or if he’ll break away from his father’s dangerous influence. Either way, this is a depressing conclusion for a child to reach.