Understanding the Afghans

Rule number one: They’re not like us.
by Ann Marlowe

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini Riverhead, 384 pp., $25.95

As you emerge, moist-eyed, from this riveting story of male brutality and female endurance, you may find yourself feeling that you’ve leapfrogged a massive cultural gap, landing in a warm mushy pile of empathy with two Afghan women whose circumstances could not be more different from yours. Sadly, this feeling is a delusion. You haven’t crossed an enormous gap; you’ve read a very well-crafted novel that makes Afghan culture seem peculiarly like ours.

Khaled Hosseini is largely imagining a culture he lived in for eight of his first 11 years, and then revisited in 2003. Telling his story from the viewpoint of two women–one a barely educated provincial, one a middle-class Kabul girl, who end up as co-wives of the same brute–Hosseini offers descriptions of Afghan housecleaning, food preparation, and baby care that belie his sex and show his skill as a storyteller. His tale is leavened with Dari words, but it is an American’s account, and A Thousand Splendid Suns reinforces a message Westerners want to believe: Afghan society is basically like ours, but for the flaw of gender inequality. And Afghans reason as we do, they just start with some bad ideas about women’s place.

Hosseini’s first book, the four-million-selling The Kite Runner, was about boys and men, but the fixation of post-Taliban writing on Afghanistan–especially the most commercially successful writing–is women’s tribulations. Asne Seierstad’s heavyhanded The Bookseller of Kabul has sold impressively since it was published in 2003. Ridiculous propaganda like Ann Jones’s Kabul in Winter (2006) raised the ante further. The well-made movie Osama (2003) took a fresher approach, with a heroine who disguises herself as a boy in the Taliban period. Meanwhile, it’s hard to dine out in certain circles in the United States without meeting someone who knows someone who’s started a charity to help Afghan women.

This Western obsession has more to do with our gender culture than with the specifics of the situation of Afghan women. Americans are notably uninterested in the very similar problems of women in other developing countries, including those much closer to the United States. Take away the head scarves, and the essentials aren’t so different in some Caribbean and South American countries. Many African women arguably have it worse, with a culture of rape and infidelity, and the AIDS epidemic both of these have fueled–not to mention genital mutilation. But the sudden explosion of interest in the oppression of Afghan women, in particular, besides having a prurient Orientalist dimension, is another way of advancing an anti-masculinist agenda with ideal villains: Islamic fundamentalists. It conveniently overlooks the fact that there are many Islamic traditionalists who do not abuse their wives, just as there are bien-pensant liberal Democrats who do.

Earlier popular novels about Afghanistan, including James Michener’s Caravans (1963) and Idries Shah’s Kara Kush (1986), written when Afghan women were much worse off than today, treated gender with a lighter touch. Michener even mocks the conventional view of Afghan family life, with an American anti-heroine, an early seeker after “authenticity,” who rejects her Afghan husband as too liberal and runs off with a nomad chief. As in Bookseller and Osama, Hosseini’s villains are Taliban, or Pashtun traditionalists. As soon as Rasheed tells Mariam to wear a burqa when outside the house, you know you’re in for a few beatings at least. (Burqa is another instance of giving the Western reader what he’s accustomed to; in 1974, this garment was known as a chad’ri, a Farsi word; burqa is Arabic and gained currency with the Taliban.) Hosseini’s heroines have names that are easy on Western ears, Mariam and Laila, while the villain bears the thoroughly Islamic Rasheed–”rightly guided” in Arabic.

The problem with the recent focus on the hardships of Afghan women is that these are inseparable from the larger fault lines of Afghan society. In Afghanistan, connectivity is everything. The main flaw in Afghan society is also its main strength: The individual understands him or herself mainly as part of a family and larger kinship group, and not as an individual functioning alone. Afghans don’t reason or feel in the same ways we do. Honor and the potential for loss of face loom much larger, and so does an almost visceral religious sense. I’ve seen a university-educated woman weep about her future mother-in-law’s village-style manners, though she would be living thousands of miles away. It was a question of allying with a family of lower status. I’ve also seen a woman who prepares food for family members who ignore the Ramadan fast agonize over whether taking an aspirin would mean breaking her own fast.

These are the reasons there was no looting when the Taliban fell, why Afghans maintained their self-respect despite the fact that their recent freedom is “the foreigner’s gift.” It is also why it’s difficult to get things done in Afghanistan, why doing nothing is better than potentially losing face by failing at doing something, why Afghan leaders grumble in private but fail to stand up in public. And it’s why Afghan women are both chattel to be traded in marriage and respected, powerful matriarchs–sometimes in the same families.

But because Hosseini scants the connectivity of Afghan society–and treats his characters as individuals, American-style–his plot isn’t realistic. Afghan women between the ages of 45 and 49 have borne, on average, 8.8 children, and the average urban household size is 6.6 people. Some Afghans I know in Kabul have almost 100 first cousins. Yet the three main characters here come from American-style nuclear families. Mariam, the rural girl, grows up in a forest hut with just her mother, seeing her father once a week, and seeing none of her maternal relatives. Laila has two much older brothers who are killed in the civil war; she lives alone with her parents. Tariq seems to be an only child living alone with his parents; he makes a visit to his paternal uncle, but otherwise no extended family are in the picture. (The Kite Runner’s hero, Amir, also grew up in an atypically tiny Afghan family–just him and his widowed father.)

So what difference does it make if Hosseini chooses to write about an unusual demographic? After all, you could write a novel about American life in which the main characters all came from families of nine or 10 children and it wouldn’t necessarily be misleading about the culture.

This is true, but focusing on the situation of women, and making the central family an abusive one, is misleading without considering the protections the extended family provides.

Cultures come with their own problems, but also with their own remedies. When 14-year-old Laila loses her parents in an explosion, Rasheed takes her in and marries her without consulting any of her family. In real life, her extended family would have heard the news before the dust settled (the Afghan grapevine is amazing), swooped her up, carried her away to their ancestral Panjshir Valley, and married her off to a suitable Tajik relative. In real life, Rasheed’s brutality toward his wives might have been restrained by his family, and his wives might have confided in sympathetic in-laws. But he never takes his wives to his native Kandahar to see his people. Anyone who’s spent time in Afghanistan will find this odd.

Hosseini tells some home truths that take courage to tell, and which some Afghans need to hear–they bear as much responsibility for destroying their country as anyone else; the Communists were the first and only rulers to treat Afghan women with a semblance of equality–and some truths we need to hear: Afghans are as three-dimensional as Americans. Even the villain Rasheed is a complex character, capable sometimes of kindness, and a good father to his young son. Many Afghan families are warm and loving, like Laila’s and Tariq’s.

But besides depicting Afghan life as though the extended families did not exist, Hosseini also pushes a gender politics that owes more to San Francisco than to Kabul. Good guys are pacific, passive, “sensitive,” and secular. Bad guys are Islamic traditionalists, read porn, and hurt people. The hero of A Thousand Splendid Suns, Tariq, has only one leg–I’m not even going to start in on the symbolism of that–and consequently doesn’t fight in any of the many wars he lives through. Mainly, he endures. Finally a husband, he does what his wife tells him to do. So does Laila’s adored father, an ineffectual, henpecked intellectual. Mariam’s wealthy father is also a pretty weak character. It was like this in The Kite Runner, too: Amir, a virgin, marries an Afghan woman who’s had a lover–a scandalous role reversal by Afghan standards. Not to mention that the morally admirable Hassan is a rape victim, the ultimate unmanning.

Hosseini is using his author’s pulpit to foment changes he thinks Afghan society needs to make, and more power to him. But castration is not a very useful prescription for modernizing Afghan society. Few of those charities helping Afghan women recognize that you cannot help Afghan women without the participation of Afghan men. And Afghan men aren’t going to buy into a model of masculinity based on the American metrosexual ideal.

Hosseini has worked out the kinks that made The Kite Runner endearingly rough-edged. The plot ticks along faultlessly, and there’s a genuine surprise in the story line.

There are also lapses. Would an educated Afghan family be likely to allow their nine-year-old daughter to play for hours on end with an 11-year-old carpenter’s son? Would a shoemaker like Rasheed use terms like “peaceful resolution”? Would Mariam, raised in a semi-feral state by her crazed, former housemaid mother have no trouble fitting into lower-middle-class Kabul society? Would Rasheed–in his early forties when he marries 15-year-old Mariam in 1974–be a physical menace in his late sixties to 40-year-old Mariam and 21-year old Laila? How many 70-year-old shoemakers are terrifyingly fit?

Hosseini is a well-intentioned, highly intelligent man, and there’s nothing naive about his books. Nor is there anything deliberately misleading. But the reason The Kite Runner, the first Afghan-American novel, was also one of the most successful books of its time is also the reason A Thousand Splendid Suns doesn’t do more than scrape the surface of Afghanistan’s woes: Hosseini writes American novels that just happen to be set in Afghanistan.

Ann Marlowe is the author, most recently, of The Book of Trouble: A Romance.

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