“Like a compass needle that always points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam.”
Chapter 1, p. 7
These are words of advice given to Mariam by her mother, Nana. Rejected by her fiancé, shamed as a seductress by her lover Jalil, and abandoned by her father, Nana is a bitter woman who prepares her daughter to expect nothing but abuse from men. Unfortunately, Mariam finds throughout her life that her mother is often correct; women must endure much injustice in patriarchal Afghan society.
“What’s the sense in schooling a girl like you? It’s like shining a spittoon. There is only one skill a woman like you and me needs in life[…]: tahamul. Endure.”
Chapter 3, p. 17
This is Nana’s response when she learns that Mariam wishes to go to school. During Mariam’s childhood, it was not uncommon for women to be educated, and in fact, Jalil’s other daughters were expected to go to university. Nana, however, does not value education. Education for women was later forbidden under the Taliban. Mariam indeed endures much suffering in her lifetime, but she later learns the transcending quality of love.
“God’s words will never betray you, my girl.”
Chapter 3, p. 16
These are the words of Mariam’s Koran teacher, Mullah Faizullah. Although he admits he does not always understand the meaning of the Koran’s words, he finds comfort in them and teaches Mariam to do the same. Faizullah’s liberal interpretation of Islam provides a contrast with the punitive fundamentalist Islamic law laid down by the Mujahideen and the Taliban. Mariam remembers Faizullah’s teachings many times throughout her life. At the moment of her execution, she prays to Allah, confident that he forgives her. Thanks to the teachings of Faizullah, the God Mariam knows is merciful and forgiving, unlike the God represented by the Taliban.
“I have customers, Mariam, men, who bring their wives to my shop. These women come uncovered, they talk to me directly, they look me in the eyes without shame. They wear makeup and skirts that show their knees. Sometimes they even put their feet in front of me […] for measurements, and their husbands […] think nothing of a stranger touching their wives’ bare feet! They think they’re being modern men, intellectuals, on account of their education, I suppose. They don’t see that they’re spoiling their own nang and namoos, their honor and pride.”
Chapter 10, p. 63
These are Rasheed’s words to Mariam shortly after their marriage in 1973. In the 1970s, attitudes in the city of Kabul were relatively progressive, and women, especially professional women and those of the higher classes, felt free to not cover themselves in public. Rasheed, however, believes that women should cover their bodies with a burqa when out in public and should never leave the home unaccompanied by a man. He claims that he wishes to protect his wives, but really he aims to dominate and control them.
“I know you’re still young, but I want you to understand and learn this now…. Marriage can wait, education cannot. You’re a very, very bright girl. Truly, you are. You can be anything you want, Laila…. I know that when this war is over, Afghanistan is going to need you as much as its men, maybe even more. Because a society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated, Laila. No chance.”
Chapter 16, p. 103
These are Hakim’s words to his daughter, Laila. In sharp contrast to Rasheed, Hakim has progressive attitudes about women and believes strongly that Afghan women have an equally important role to play in their country. Rather than attempt to marry her off at a young age, Hakim hopes his daughter will pursue an education and contribute to the rebuilding of Afghanistan after the war. Laila fulfills her father’s hopes for her at the end of the novel, when she leads a project to rebuild an orphanage in Kabul.
“Laila, my love, the only enemy an Afghan cannot defeat is himself.”
Chapter 18, p. 122
These are the words of Laila’s father, Hakim. Hakim despairs of the ethnic and ideological divisions in Afghanistan that lead Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks to take up arms against one another and that leads men in the tribal areas to fight those who wish to modernize the nation and liberate women.
“[T]hat, my young friends, is the story of our country, one invader after another…. Macedonians. Sassanians. Arabs. Mongols. Now the Soviets. But we’re like those walls up there. Battered, and nothing pretty to look at, but still standing. Isn’t that the truth, badar?”
Chapter 21, p. 132
These words are spoken by the taxi driver who takes Laila, Tariq, and Hakim to the ancient fortress of Shahr-e-Zohak. They provide a sense of Afghanistan’s long history of conflict, as well as its status as a coveted land on the Silk Road from China to Western Asia.
“Meet our real masters,” Rasheed says in a low voice. “The Taliban are puppets. These are the big players and Afghanistan is their playground.”
Chapter 41, p. 274
In this quote, Rasheed speaks of the rich Pakistani and Arab Islamists they see at the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul. The extremist Taliban are merely puppets of foreign interests that wish to control Afghanistan. Just as the Soviet Union and the U.S. used Afghanistan as a battleground in the Cold War, these Islamists now wish to use it as a battleground for the war between the U.S. and the Muslim Middle East.
“God has made us differently, you women and us men. Our brains are different. You are not able to think like we can. Western doctors and their science have proven this. This is why we require only one male witness but two female ones.”
Chapter 47, p. 324
These are the words of the Talib judge who hears Mariam’s case. He expresses the belief of the Taliban that women are inferior to men.
“[S]he was leaving the world as a woman who had loved and been loved back. She was leaving it as a friend, a companion, a guardian. A mother. A person of consequence at last.”
Chapter 47, p. 329
These are Mariam’s thoughts as she faces execution for the killing of Rasheed. Mariam emerges as the true hero of the novel, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for her loved ones and her beliefs. Although the Taliban execute her, Mariam leaves the world on her own terms, proud of the person she has become.