Afsoon, Khadija, and Nargis
Afsoon, Khadija, and Nargis are Jalil’s three wives. They pressure Jalil to get rid of Mariam by marrying her off.
Ahmad and Noor
Ahmad and Noor are sons of Fariba and Hakim and brothers of Laila. They are away for seven years fighting with the Mujahideen in the war against the Soviets. When the news comes that they have been killed, Laila does not feel sorrow because she can barely remember them.
Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir
Commander Massoud, an ethnic Tajik, was a popular leader of the Mujahideen with the ongoing support of the United States. He organized a rebel force called the Northern Alliance to fight the Taliban after their takeover of Afghanistan in 1996. Massoud was killed by suspected al-Qaeda agents in 2001. Although Massoud never appears in the novel, he is mentioned frequently and is idolized by Laila’s mother, Fariba. Fariba is told that Massoud was present at the burial of her two sons, who were killed while fighting under his command in the war against the Soviets.
Aziza is Laila’s daughter by Tariq, whom Laila falsely represents as Rasheed’s child. Aziza’s name means “Cherished One,” but far from cherishing her, Rasheed treats his daughter with disdain. When the family falls on hard times, he suggests that Aziza be sent out on the streets to beg. Later, Aziza is sent to an orphanage. Aziza grows attached to Mariam while still a baby, and a special bond develops between the two.
One of the very few friends of Mariam’s mother, Nana, Bibi is a rotund, elderly woman who loves to gossip. She forms part of Mariam’s community during her childhood outside of Herat.
Khan became the first president of Afghanistan in 1973 after overthrowing the Shah, or king and establishing a democratic state. Khan was overthrown and assassinated in 1978 by communist forces.
Farhad, Muhsin, and Ramin
Farhad, Muhsin, and Ramin are Jalil Khan’s sons and Mariam’s half-brothers. They bring food and supplies to Mariam and her mother. Later in the novel, it is revealed in Jalil’s letter that Farhad is killed in 1982 while fighting against the Soviets.
Giti and Hasina
Giti and Hasina are Laila’s school friends. Hasina is outspoken and witty. She is dismayed when her father promises her in marriage to a much older cousin. Giti is a somewhat silly girl. She falls in love with a friend of her brother’s and hopes to marry him, but is killed by a rocket during the war.
Commander Hekmatyar, an ethnic Pashtun, is a Mujahideen leader characterized in the novel as being particularly brutal for his attacks on civilians during the war. He was an avowed enemy of Massoud.
Hakim and Fariba
Hakim and Fariba are Laila’s parents, whom she calls Babi and Mammy. Hakim is a schoolteacher who encourages Laila’s education. Rasheed thinks he is weak because he does not require his wife to wear a burqa. Far from attempting to control his wife, however, Hakim is often dominated by Fariba. Fariba suffers from chronic depression and blames her husband for allowing their two sons, Ahmad and Noor, to go and fight jihad against the Soviets. When her sons are killed, Fariba lives only to see the Mujahideen win victory in Afghanistan. For a long time, Fariba refuses to leave Kabul for a safer place during the war. After she finally agrees and they are preparing to leave the city, both Hakim and Fariba are killed by a rocket that destroys their house.
Hamza is the son of Mullah Faizullah. Laila meets him when she returns to Gul Daman village after Mariam’s death, and he gives Laila the tin box that Jalil left for Mariam.
Jalil Khan is Mariam’s father. A wealthy, handsome merchant and cinema owner in the city of Herat, Jalil has three wives and ten children. Mariam is his illegitimate daughter by one of his housekeepers. Jalil visits Mariam each week and provides for her and her mother; however, he is too ashamed of his illegitimate child to accept her into his home. Later in life, Jalil regrets his mistreatment of Mariam and attempts to seek her forgiveness, but she rejects him. He leaves her a long letter of apology and a quantity of money as her inheritance, which are found by Laila after Mariam’s death.
Khadim is a neighborhood bully who torments Laila, once spraying her with urine from a squirt gun. He stops harassing Laila after being beaten up by Tariq.
Khala Rangmaal, nicknamed “Auntie Painter,” is Laila’s schoolteacher who slaps students back and forth like a painter wielding a brush. A Soviet loyalist who teaches students communist propaganda, Khala Rangmaal also provides an example of a strong woman. In keeping with communist ideology, she firmly believes in the equality of women and men. She refuses to wear a hijab and forbids her female students from covering as well. Later in the novel, Laila sees Khala Rangmaal teaching children at the orphanage in Kabul.
One of the two main characters in the novel, Laila is an ethnic Tajik from Kabul. A stunning beauty with blonde hair and green eyes, she falls in love with a boy named Tariq at a very young age. She is a top student and, encouraged by her father, Hakim, has plans for university. Laila’s dreams for the future are shattered when her parents are killed in a rocket attack. She is rescued by her neighbor, Rasheed, and nursed back to health by Mariam. She becomes Rasheed’s second wife after he leads her to believe that Tariq is dead. Laila has two children—a girl named Aziza and a boy named Zalmai.
One of the two main characters in the novel, Mariam is an ethnic Tajik from the western province of Herat. Born as the illegitimate child of a wealthy man, Jalil Khan, and his housekeeper, Nana, she grows up in a simple mud hut in the village of Gul Daman, on the outskirts of the city of Herat. She longs to be accepted into her father’s family, but he is ashamed of her. When Mariam is fifteen, her mother commits suicide and her father marries her off to a shoemaker in the capital city of Kabul. Mariam’s hopeful spirit is beaten down after seven miscarriages and many beatings at the hands of her abusive husband, Rasheed. In Laila and her daughter Aziza, Mariam finally finds love and the family she has always longed for. She makes the ultimate sacrifice for them at the end of the novel.
The Mujahideen, or so-called Afghan freedom fighters, were rebels fighting against the Soviet-controlled government of Afghanistan during the civil war of 1978–1992 with the covert support of the United States. Soon after the Mujahideen forces overthrew the communist government in 1992 and established an Islamic state, they began to war amongst themselves for political control, bringing ruin to the capital city of Kabul. Laila’s parents are killed in the rocket attacks of the Mujahideen.
Mullah Faizullah is the elderly Koran tutor in Mariam’s village of Gul Daman. Mariam adores her teacher and he adores her, as well. Faizullah teaches Mariam that she can always find comfort and aid in the words of the Koran, adding that “God’s words will never betray you.” Faizullah’s liberal interpretation of Islam provides a humane and moderate counterpoint to the rigidly fundamentalist Islam preached by the Mujahideen and the Taliban.
President of the communist-led Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, he was ousted from power in 1992 by the Mujahideen and assassinated by the Taliban in September 1996. Mariam, Laila, and young Aziza are horrified to see the mutilated bodies of Najibullah and his brother being displayed in public by the Taliban.
Nana is Mariam’s mother. Rejected for marriage at a young age due to her epilepsy, and later shamed for bearing the illegitimate child of her wealthy employer, Nana is a bitter woman who teaches her daughter to expect nothing but suffering out of life. She kills herself when Mariam runs away to live with her father.
Niloufar is Mariam’s half-sister, the daughter of Jalil’s wife Afsoon. Niloufar is eight years old when Mariam comes to stay with the family, and says that she does not mind if Mariam is her sister. Later in the novel, it is revealed in Jalil’s letter that Niloufar and Afsoon are killed in the communist uprising of 1979.
Rasheed, Mariam’s husband, is at least twenty-five years older than Mariam and an ethnic Pashtun while she is Tajik. He is a prosperous shoemaker living in the capital city of Kabul. An abusive man who enjoys having power over women, Rasheed represents the worst of men in a patriarchal society. A widower who lost his only son to drowning, he seeks a wife who will bear him another son. When Mariam fails to bear children, he treats her cruelly and eventually seeks to marry a second, much younger wife, Laila. He requires his wives to wear full burqa. They must avoid speaking to other men and must not leave the house unaccompanied by him. Rasheed’s cruelty and manipulation reach nightmarish extremes until he is finally killed by Mariam while trying to choke Laila to death.
Sayeed, the brother of Tariq’s friend Salim, is the owner of a hotel in the mountain retreat of Murree, Pakistan. A kindly man, Sayeed hires Tariq as a caretaker and gives him a place to live. Later, he gives Tariq money to marry Laila.
Sayim is an older Pakistani man who befriends Tariq in prison in Pakistan. When Tariq is released, he goes to Murree to find work in a hotel owned by Sayim’s brother, Sayeed.
Abdul Sharif is the name given by a stranger who comes to tell Laila that Tariq is dead. Later, it is revealed that he is a friend of Rasheed’s, whom Rasheed has paid to lie to Laila.
Tariq is Laila’s childhood friend and sweetheart. Tariq, an ethnic Pashtun, has only one leg as a result of being injured by a Soviet land mine. He is separated from Laila when his family flees to Pakistan during the war, but promises to come back for her. Laila is led to believe he is dead, but he eventually does return for her and they run away to Pakistan together. Unlike Rasheed, Tariq respects women as equals and truly loves Laila. He is the real father of her daughter Aziza.
King Zahir Shah
The last king of Afghanistan, the Shah ruled for forty years until he was overthrown in 1973 by Daoud Khan.
Zalmai is Laila’s son by Rasheed. Rasheed spoils his son while neglecting his daughter, Aziza. As a result, the toddler Zalmai learns to treat his mother and Mariam rudely while in his father’s presence. Zalmai tells his father about Laila’s visit from Tariq, leading to Rasheed’s near-fatal attack on Laila. He eventually accepts Tariq as his father.
Zaman is the director of an orphanage in Kabul where Aziza is sent to live when the family falls on hard times. Zaman believes in education even if the Taliban do not, and secretly teaches the orphans at his shelter. Later, Laila returns to Kabul and helps Zaman renovate the orphanage.
Afsoon, Khadija, and Nargis