The Breadwinner takes place in Kabul, the capital city of Afghanistan, around the year 2000. It follows 11-year-old Parvana and her family as they attempt to survive in a city that has, for the last 20 years, been gripped by conflict that hasn’t changed life for the better: the Soviets invaded in 1979, left a decade later, and the country then fell into civil war. In the novel’s present, the Taliban controls the country—and Kabul, a once-thriving metropolis, is now mostly rubble and poverty. Though Parvana’s family very clearly sees these conflicts as wholly negative, their pride in their country, their city, and in their identity as Afghans shines through the novel. Thus, The Breadwinner proposes that even as war and conflict dramatically change what Afghanistan looks like and how its people live, people must maintain their sense of pride in themselves and in their country if they wish to survive and stay true to their identity as Afghans.
As Parvana and Father explain, Afghanistan’s long history is marked by conflict and invasion—but every time, the Afghans expelled their invaders and emerged stronger and prouder than ever before. This is a point of pride for Parvana and her family in particular, but it’s also a pride that she suggests is shared by all Afghans. Parvana’s family, which was upper-middle class before bombings decimated the city of Kabul, is also proud of their educational achievements. Both Mother and Father are highly educated and spent time abroad to earn their degrees. For a long time, the family saw itself as a proud and essential part of the modern, intellectual world. In the present, however, Parvana must grapple with the knowledge that the current invaders aren’t invaders in the same sense as historical invaders like Alexander the Great—the Taliban are Afghans, just ones with “very definite ideas about how things should be run.” Their assumption of power, which began about a year before Parvana’s story picks up, resulted in girls being kicked out of school, women being forced to wear burqas (long garments that cover the wearer from head to toe) and give up agency and jobs, and many families descending into poverty. For Parvana, the issue is as much that the invaders are her own countrymen as it is that everything she once took pride in about her country no longer exists.
Despite this, though, Parvana and her family learn that through telling stories that help them remember their history and by undertaking small acts of resistance, they can continue the legacy of their predecessors and maintain their pride in their country and cultural identity. For Mother; Parvana’s older sister Nooria; and Mrs. Weera, an old friend with whom they reconnect, this means outwardly obeying the Taliban—while secretly starting a school for girls and putting together a magazine chronicling the experiences of Afghan women under the Taliban. With this, they can recreate the sense that Afghanistan values its women for their intelligence, their drive, and their stories, with the added bonus that the magazine will enlighten others worldwide as to what’s really going on in the country. For Parvana, resistance takes a different form. Following Father’s arrest, which leaves them with no man able to support the family, Parvana assumes the identity of a made-up cousin, Kaseem, and takes over her father’s spot in the market to write and read letters for people who are illiterate. As Kaseem, Parvana is understandably terrified of being found out—but she also realizes that assuming this identity is the only way she can keep her family alive and enable her other family members to engage in their own acts of resistance. Survival, and all the actions and deceptions that survival entails, becomes its own act of resistance. Though Parvana seems to understand on some level that Afghanistan is never going to be the same country that Nooria or their parents remember from their childhoods, she nevertheless has the power to resist the Taliban—and in doing so, she can discover a sense of purpose and pride in her nationality.
Afghanistan, History, and Pride ThemeTracker
Afghanistan, History, and Pride Quotes in The Breadwinner
History was her favorite subject, especially Afghan history. Everybody had come to Afghanistan. The Persians came four thousand years ago. Alexander the Great came too, followed by the Greeks, Arabs, Turks, British, and finally the Soviets. One of the conquerors, Tamerlane from Samarkand, cut off the heads of his enemies and stacked them in huge piles, like melons at a fruit stand. All these people had come to Parvana’s beautiful country to try to take it over, and the Afghans had kicked them all out again!
For most of Parvana’s life, the city had been in ruins, and it was hard for her to imagine it another way. It hurt her to hear stories of old Kabul before the bombing. She didn’t want to think about everything the bombs had taken away, including her father’s health and their beautiful home. It made her angry, and since she could do nothing with her anger, it made her sad.
Parvana knew she had to fetch the water because there was nobody else in the family who could do it. Sometimes this made her resentful. Sometimes it made her proud. One thing she knew—it didn’t matter how she felt. Good mood or bad, the water had to be fetched, and she had to fetch it.
Other people lived in the part of the building that was still standing. Parvana saw them as she went to fetch water or went out with her father to the marketplace. “We must keep our distance,” Father told her. “The Taliban encourage neighbor to spy on neighbor. It is safer to keep to ourselves.”
“How can we be brave?” Nooria asked. “We can’t even go outside. How can we lead men into battle? I’ve seen enough war. I don’t want to see any more.”
“There are many types of battles,” Father said quietly.
“You are a writer. You must do your work.”
“If we had left Afghanistan when we had the chance, I could be doing my work!”
“We are Afghans. This is our home. If all the educated people leave, who will rebuild the country?”
“Mrs. Weera!” Nooria exclaimed. Relief washed over her face. Here was someone who could take charge, who could take some of the responsibility off of her shoulders.
Parvana took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Up until then, she had seen Talibs only as men who beat women and arrested her father. Could they have feelings of sorrow, like other human beings?
Parvana found it all very confusing. [...] All day long, though, her thoughts kept floating back to the Talib who missed his wife.
“Do you think they’d mind us doing this?” Parvana asked.
“The people who are buried here. Do you think they’d mind us digging them up?”
Shauzia leaned on her board. “Depends on the type of people they were. If they were nasty, stingy people, they wouldn’t like it. If they were kind and generous people, they wouldn’t mind.”
“Would you mind?”
Shauzia looked at her, opened her mouth to speak, then closed it again and returned to her digging. Parvana didn’t ask her again.
“No,” Parvana told her mother.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I don’t want to quit yet. Shauzia and I want to buy trays, and things to sell from the trays. I can follow the crowd that way, instead of waiting for the crowd to come to me. I can make more money.”
“We are managing fine on what you earn reading letters.”
“No, Mother, we’re not,” Nooria said.
Mother spun around to scold Nooria for talking back, but Nooria kept talking.
“I need a break,” she told her mother. “I don’t want to see anything ugly for a little while.”
Mother and Mrs. Weera had heard about the events at the stadium from other women’s group mothers. Some had husbands or brothers who had been there. “This goes on every Friday,” Mother said. “What century are we living in?”
Parvana was tired. She wanted to sit in a classroom and be bored by a geography lesson. She wanted to be with her friends and talk about homework and games and what to do on school holidays. She didn’t want to know any more about death or blood or pain.
“Do none of you appreciate nature? This boy has undertaken to bring a bit of beauty into our gray marketplace, and do you thank him? Do you help him?” An old man pushed his way to the front of the little gathering. With difficulty, he knelt down to help Parvana plant the flowers. “Afghans love beautiful things,” he said, “but we have seen so much ugliness, we sometimes forget how wonderful a thing like a flower is.”