“A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini

(Originally published on Wednesday, November 9th, 2016, the day after Donald Trump won the electoral college, while losing the popular vote by almost 3,000,000 votes)

‘”This isn’t some village. This is Kabul. Women here used to practice law and medicine; they held office in the government’…

“…Men wielding pickaxes swarmed the dilapidated Kabul Museum and smashed pre-Islamic statues to rubble…The university was shut down and its student sent home…Books, except the Koran, were burned in heaps, the stores that sold them closed down…”

The difference between Kabul in the 1970s and Kabul in the late 1990s was a change in leadership. Not just one person, but a movement. The cities, where thousands of people look each other in the face every single day, were home to arts, culture, and science, all of which proud and ancient traditions of the Middle East. There were, however, a small faction of people, most of whom lived in semi-isolation far outside the cities, who thought that the ability for all people, including women, to become educated and make decisions was immoral. It was determined, without any appeal to reason or rational thought but instead justified solely on the basis of tradition and ancient, vaguely composed, manuscripts that women were not human beings, people in general had no rights, and the role of the government was to oppress, control, and punish. Once this faction took control it took almost no time at all to realize their vision.

The change in power in Afghanistan happened through force, but that doesn’t have to be that way. Democracies are fantastic at degrading into tyranny, Plato will tell you all about it. The people, having no idea how to run a government, just dash from one thing to the next, trying out anything that catches their eye, until someone audacious and bombastic enough comes along promising to end all problems, never being too specific about how, and the people, being short sighted and impulsive, perhaps simply being dumb, listen. The tyrant is elected, inaugurated instead of coronated, and, if the power of the military, the legislature, and the courts are on the tyrant’s side, takes over. Elections become farcical if they continue to exist at all, and the people, realizing too late what they have done, are crushed by the weight of their chosen leader. Too late it is realized that democracy works only when the people in power agree to the terms. 

Hosseini has written a book about a full rotation of a wheel very similar to this one, based upon the actual events in Afghanistan that happened only a couple decades ago. A woman, Mariam, scorned by her father and left motherless, is married off to a shoemaker, Rasheed. Rasheed takes control of her in every way, as women across the country are beginning to be controlled by their government in a similar fashion. When she becomes old, and has not given him a child, he takes another wife, Laila, a teenager, and the dissent into object-hood turns from a slope to a free fall. 

This is a story about the relationship between men and women in a society where the former has the option of controlling the latter. Many men take the opportunity, some to their own regret, and others never do. It is a story about women who fight back, even if in slow and subtle ways. It is a story about survival, hope, despair. It is fiction based on a non-fiction fable. The moral of the story being that where human beings are involved there is no certainty and that power can spiral away from the people at the drop of a hat. Or the drop of a bomb. Or the drop of a ballot into its box. 

Human beings love a dichotomy. One religion is good, one is bad. One person is good, one is bad. The reality always lies in the context, the degree, the placement on a spectrum, but to acknowledge that would be to recognize that perfection does not exist. To acknowledge that perfection doesn’t exist is to admit that there are faults even in the concepts and people we love dearly. To acknowledge that is to say there are options, that other people’s opinions have value, that, good lord, we might be wrong. A Thousand Splendid Suns is a book written on the spectrum, a recognition that certain ways of practicing a religion has horrendous consequences,  that certain ways of governing a country is tantamount to assault on a national level, but it also recognizes that even under the worst conditions good things do happen, sometimes things that could not have happened without that terrible, horrific context. 

The state of the world is in constant flux. No country has ever been perfect, though some have gone through long period of obvious and startling improvement. That progress can be rolled back, throughviolence, voting, or just sheer bad luck, but it can be rolled forward again. It might even be the case, though it would be a hard argument to make, that for a nation, a culture, a species, to progress it is necessary to roll downhill. Sometimes it is in those reversals that we realize what makes us strong, allows us to see what is worth working for, motivates us to take on that work, and to get the job done. A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of a wheel, a wheel that is still in motion, but one that has gained ground where once it was racing downhill. That wheel, just as the wheels of all societies, governments, nations, is not driven by luck, grace, or happenstance, but through the application of power. Through work. Kabul, at the end of Hosseini’s beautiful tale, is working towards life and love again. In real life, it has rolled back, but perhaps, because of the progress made, it won’t ever roll as far. If the same is to be true of wheels everywhere, it will be because of the power of the people making it roll.

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