I Dared to Call Him Father by Bilquis Sheikh and Richard H. Schneider

I Dared to Call Him Father: The Miraculous Story of a Muslim Woman’s Encounter with God by Bilquis Sheikh and Richard H. Schneider

I read the 25th anniversary edition of this classic testimony of a well-to-do Muslim Pakistani woman, Bilquis Sheikh, who came to faith in Christ at the age of sixty-five through a series of dreams and visions and through comparison of the Koran to the Christian Bible. Bilquis’ study of the Bible was very confusing to her, but her breakthrough came when a Catholic nun suggested that she talk to God “as if He were your father” and ask Him to show her the truth. She did, and she sensed the presence of God as she prayed.

“‘I am confused, Father,’ I said. ‘I have to get one thing straight right away.’ I reached over to the bedside table where I kept the Bible and the Quran side by side. I picked up both books and lifted them, one in each hand.’Which, Father?’ I said. ‘Which one is Your book?’

Then a remarkable thing happened. Nothing like it had ever occurred in my life in quite this way. For I heard a voice inside my being, a voice that spoke to me as clearly as if I were repeating words in my inner mind. They were fresh, full of kindness, yet at the same time full of authority.

In which book do you meet Me as your Father?

I found myself answering: ‘In the Bible.” That’s all it took. Now there was no question in my mind which one was His book.”

Bilquis went on to leave Pakistan and travel around the world, telling people of how God had spoken directly to her to lead her to Christ. It is an inspiring story and would pair well with Nabeel Qureshi’s Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus which tells about a more intellectual route to faith in Christ for a Muslim seeker. The two converts have in common, besides their Muslim background, their great devotion to family and the deep pain of estrangement from family that their conversion cost them. However, both Mr. Qureshi and Bilquis Sheikh write that Jesus is worth the cost, that following Him and living in His presence is the ultimate treasure.

If You’re Reading This by Trent Reedy

Mike gets a letter a few weeks before his sixteenth birthday: “If you’re reading this, I’m very sorry, but I was killed in the war in Afghanistan.” Thus begins a series of letters to Mike from the dad he didn’t really know who died in Afghanistan when Mike was eight years old. Can Mike get to know his dad and maybe get some wisdom and advice, even though his dad is gone?

This YA contemporary fiction book has several things going for it:

It has a male protagonist, written by a male author. Mike really feels like a typical sixteen year old guy, kind of a straight arrow geek, but those really do exist. Mike reminds of some sixteen year olds I know.

The plot hinges on and features football, a very popular sport that hasn’t received its due in YA fiction. At least not in a good way. The stereotypical football player inmost YA fiction is a popular brain-dead jock who’s dating or dumping the also popular, brainless cheerleader. Mike finds friendship and community and the enjoyment of being part of a team in playing football, even if he does have to deceive his mother in order to make the team.

Mike’s dad is an everyman soldier who died in Afghanistan, and we get to know him as Mike does through his letters. Mike’s mom is over-protective and also distracted by trying to provide for Mike and his sister. These are real parents, not cardboard, and they both play an important part in Mike’s life and in the story. Not many YA novels really delve into the parent/teen relationship of imperfect parents who nevertheless love and try to relate to their also imperfect sons or daughters. Usually the parents are absent, stupid, or evil. Mike’s parents are none of the above.

I wouldn’t hesitate to give this book to any teen who’s trying to make sense of the war in Afghanistan or Iraq or any of the future wars we manage to get ourselves into. It’s not the final word on war or the meaning of life or heroism or honor, but it is a perspective. It’s an honorable and real perspective. I am quite impressed with Mr. Reedy as an author and as a commentator on the effects of war on families and especially young men. I like his other book that I read, Words in the Dust, and I liked this one, too.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own and do not reflect or determine the judging panel’s opinions.

Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy

I found the story behind this book almost as intriguing as the book itself. In an author’s note at the end of the book, Mr. Reedy says he wrote the novel by accident. He planned to write children’s books set in small town Iowa, but he was sent to Afghanistan in 2004 as a part of an Army National Guard unit. At first, he hated his job providing security for reconstruction teams that were rebuilding Afghanistan’s infrastructure after decades of war and repression. He felt as if he were being cheated of his chance to repay the Al Qaeda terrorists for their actions on 9/11. Then, he began to meet and get to know average Afghan people, including a girl named Zulaikha who was afflicted with a cleft lip. American army surgeons were able to perform corrective surgery on Zulaikha’s lip and palate. And Mr. Reedy had a story that that he was anxious to tell.

“I have never been a girl and I am not an Afghan. Many would say that stories about Afghan girls should best be told by Afghan girls. I agree completely. I would love nothing more than to read the story of the girl who we helped in her own words. However, the terrible reality is that by some estimates, 87 percent of Afghan women are illiterate. . . Though progress is being made in Afghan education, too many Afghan girls are unable to get their stories out. In spite of this, or maybe even because of it, I believe it is very important for more Afghan stories to be told, as a greater understanding may foster peace.”

So, Words in the Dust is the fictional story of Zulaikha, a Muslim girl living in northern Afghanistan, based on the story of the real Zulaikha and on the stories of other people Mr. Reedy met during his time in Afghanistan. I thought the story was fascinating, true to life as far as I am able to judge, and somewhat horrifying. Some really, really bad things happen in Zulaikha’s life in in her family. So this book is not for young readers or tender minds. Mr. Reedy describes the bad stuff in a respectful, almost understated, way, but it’s still bad stuff.

So I would classify this book as Young Adult fiction, emphasis on the adult. Zulaikha is an engaging heroine, and again quite representative of what I would think Afghan girlhood is really like. The culture is very Muslim, very male-dominated, and the book ends with Zulaikha’s hopes for the future along with the word, Inshallah, “God willing”. Words in the Dust would be a good introduction to life in a traditional Muslim culture in a country that has been torn by war and nearly destroyed by Taliban terrorism and persecution of females.

I appreciated the story and the look into another way of life and the possibilities and problems that are present in Afghanistan even now.

Shooting Kabul by N.H. Senzai

Isn’t it interesting how much attention a country gets when we (the U.S.) go to war with or invade them? How many children’s books can you name set in Sri Lanka, Armenia, or even modern Italy? But there are several set in in Vietnam and now in modern Afghanistan. That’s not a criticism, just an observation, perfectly understandable.

Shooting Kabul takes place in 2001 when Fadi and his family flee Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. In the confusion of their escape, Fadi’s six year old sister, Mariam, is left behind. And each person in the family feels guilty for having let it happen. Fadi’s father, Habib, feels th loss of honor for not having taken care of his daughter. Fadi’s mother, Zafoona, knows that it was her responsibility as a mother to make sure Mariam was on the truck that took the family across the border into Pakistan. And Fadi’s older sister Noor says that it was her job to look after the younger chldren, so it’s her fault that Mariam was left behind. However, Fadi knows that it was his refusal to help Mariam with her beloved doll, Gulmina, that really caused Mariam be left, and now it is twelve year old Fadi who must get Mariam back. Can he win the photography contest and the airplane tickets to India and find Mariam?

Fadi is a great character, a kid who worries about his family and his responsibilities and his honor. Kids do worry, and adults sometimes don’t realize how complicated and difficult a young person’s decisions and dilemmas can be. I liked the photography angle in the story and the details about what makes a good photograph and how to deal with lighting and other technical difficulties. I also liked the glimpses of a modern Afghan family integrating religious beliefs, cultural practices, and family crises in a new and somewhat trying environment, San Francisco, CA.

The story is partly about adapting to a new culture, but the overriding theme is that of blame and shared responsibility and a family caring for one another. Fadi’s family share the guilt that comes from having left Mariam behind, and they share the sense of obligation to do everything possible to find Mariam and bring her home. It’s an exciting, yet realistic, story that kids can connect with and grow from reading.

More kids or YA books set in Afghanistan or about Afghans:
Wanting Mor by Rukhsana Khan. Semicolon review here.
The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis.
Parvana’s Journey by Deborah Ellis.
Mud City by Deborah Ellis.
Camel Bells by Janne Carlsson.
Under the Persimmon Tree by Suzanne Fisher Staples.
Thunder Over Kandahar by Sharon McKay.
Count Your Way Through Afghanistan by Kathleen Benson, James Haskins, and Megan Moore.
Afghan Dreams: Young Voices of Afghanistan by Mike Sullivan and Tony O’Brien. Reviewed at The Well Read Child.
Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan by Jeanette Winter.

Shooting Kabul has been nominated for the 2010 Cybil Awards in the Middle Grade Fiction category.

Veiled Freedom by J.M. Windle

Kabul, 2001—American forces have freed Afghanistan from the Taliban. Kites have returned to the skies. Women have removed their burqas. There is dancing in the streets.

Kabul, 2009—Suicide bombing, corruption in government, a thriving opium and heroin trade, Sharia law, and women oppressed and treated as slaves and property. Is this the Afghanistan, the free country, that American soldiers and Afghan freedom fighters gave their lives to secure?

In her exploration of the state of liberty and democracy in Afghanistan today, J.M. WIndle creates three characters who serve as examples of some of the conflicts and intricacies that exist in that war-torn country. Amy Mallory is a twenty-something Christian relief worker who’s experienced emergency situations around the world, but nothing like Afghanistan. Steve Wilson is a former Special Forces operative who now works for a private security company. His job is to protect the new Afghani Minister of the Interior, the person second in command to the president of Afghanistan. Jamil is a native Afghan with a troubled past. He goes to work for Amy’s NGO because he needs a job to be able to eat, but working for a woman, even an ex-patriate woman, has its challenges in Afghanistan.

This novel includes plenty of material to offend or discomfort ideologues. The teachings of Isa Masih (Jesus) and Muhammed are compared, and Muhammed comes up short. At the same time, American and European efforts to change the surface of Afghan society obviously fall far short and at times are counterproductive. Security expert Steve Wilson comes to the conclusion that we should just leave Afghanistan to the Afghans and allow chaos to ensue. Aid worker Amy Mallory decides to stay and try to help in spite of the severe restrictions on what she can do or say or offer. Jamil finds his own way to pursue freedom and justice, but the price may be his life.

I’ve read several other books, both fiction and nonfiction, set in Afghanistan, and this novel, from a Christian perspective, reinforces my view that Christian ministry in a Muslim culture is a difficult and costly calling. Although God can and will work anywhere, the Christian who attempts to demonstrate the love and mercy of Christ to Muslims will most likely find deep-seated opposition and spiritual warfare. In every culture, American, Arabian, Afghan, German, Chinese, or Australian, there are aspects of that culture that set themselves up in opposition to the gospel. In the United States some of those opposing forces are materialism and the lure of riches, the sexual saturation that permeates Western culture, and pride in our own accomplishments both individually and as a culture. In Afghanistan a lack of respect for women, moral self-righteousness, and the concept of honor within a closed society all combine to combat both political and spiritual freedom.

Veiled Freedom uses the vehicle of a political thriller to discuss some of these issues in both Western and Afghan culture and to explore at least one way in which the gospel of Jesus Christ might be able to infiltrate and transform Afghanistan. The ending is kind of a long shot, but with God all things are possible.

BBAW Interview Swap

Swapna Krishna of S. Krishna’s Books is a 20-something reader and book blogger from Washington, D.C. Since she’s about the age of my Eldest Daughter, it was a blast to swap interviews with her for Book Blogger Appreciation Week and get some reading recommendations from the younger generation.

We don’t know each other at all, but I am indebted to you for several good reading suggestions including Best Intentions by Emily Listfield and Eat, Drink and Be from Mississippi by Nanci Kincaid. I see that you also enjoyed The Help by Kathryn Stockett. That brief list makes me think we share a fondness for literature set in the South. Is that so, and if so, can you name other favorite pieces of Southern literature?

Yes!! I do very much enjoy literature set in the South. One of my favorite authors, not just of Southern fiction but generally, is Karen White. She specializes in Southern fiction – I love The House on Tradd Street, The Memory of Water, and The Lost Hours, just to name a few. I also loved Beth Hoffman’s Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, a book I know made its way around the blogosphere.

How did you get started as a reader? As a book blogger?

I’ve been a reader all my life – I started reading at the tender age of 3, thanks to my older sister who taught me to read! I started as a book blogger over 2 years ago. I had gotten to a point where I would buy books, bring them home, and realize I’d already read them but didn’t remember the titles because I didn’t keep track of what I was reading. I tried a paper journal, but I filled it up so quickly that it seemed silly. I’d already been reading book blogs by then, so I thought I’d start one to review books, but also just to keep a record of what I’d read!

If you could vacation in a book world, where would you go to get away from it all? What book would you like to enter into and interact with the characters?

Oooh, lovely question! This is cliche, but probably Harry Potter. I loved how vivid of a world J.K. Rowling created. Those books are still my escape when I need to get away from life for awhile. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read them.

I read at your website that you are a member of the National Book Critics Circle. What is that, and why did you join?

The NBCC is a association of book reviewers, mostly print reviewers. I joined when I started working with The Book Studio, a book website that features video interviews with authors. I haven’t really done much with it, but it’s nice to have!

I also noticed your South Asian Review Database and your South Asian Author Challenge, a different kind of “Southern literature.”What are those all about?

That’s so true, I didn’t think of it that way, but it is a different type of Southern literature, ha! South Asia consists of countries around the Indian subcontinent – India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, etc. My heritage is South Asian, so I’ve always been very interested in literature from the region. In mid-2009, I realized there wasn’t a huge presence of South Asian literature within the blogosphere, and the South Asian Challenge was an effort to rectify that. The South Asian Review Database is a place where anyone (challenge participant or not) can come to link up their reviews of books by South Asian authors. It’s all my effort to promote the literature of the region, I only wish I could do more!

What are your favorite books and/or authors from South Asia?

Well, I’ll have to include the cliche answers, Salman Rushdie and Jhumpa Lahiri. Rushdie got me interested in South Asian literature when I read The Satanic Verses in high school (though, knowing what I know now, there’s no way I could have fully understood it and I must go back and read it sometime). Recently, I’ve become a cheerleader for Thrity Umrigar. All of her books are good, but The Weight of Heaven just blew me away. Additionally, Shilpi Somaya Gowda’s The Secret Daughter was just amazing. I also love Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni (she is an incredibly prolific author, but I’ve only read 2 of her books) and Indu Sundaresan’s historical fiction.

What book or books inspire you?

Hmmm, this is a tough one. Books with beautiful writing usually inspire me, hence why I am such a fan of Salman Rushdie. Fyodor Dostoevsky, W. Somerset Maugham – these are writers I love simply because their prose speaks to me. It really stirs something within me.

What do you like to do when you’re not reading?

When I’m not reading, I’m usually spending time with my husband. He works a lot, so when he’s not working, we’re usually together. We love watching TV, and to a lesser extent, movies. I’ve gotten him into Indian movies (he isn’t Indian), so we’ve been watching more of those lately! We love to eat good food and we travel A LOT (a little too much lately, if you ask me!) I love spending time with my friends, though many aren’t local, so I do spend too much time on the phone, and it’s why I travel so much. I also just love to experience the area I live in, Washington DC.

You’re sort of a veteran book blogger. What advice do you have for those who are new to book blogging?

Funny, I don’t think of myself as a veteran! I guess my advice to those who are new to book blogging would be to READ. I know it sounds silly, but seriously. Read anything and everything. Consistent posts are crucial if you’re trying to build an audience. Additionally, I know it’s tempting to start clamoring for review copies the second you start a blog, but resist that temptation and wait for awhile! Review your own books or library books – build up a healthy review library before you start asking publishers for books.

Thanks, Swapna. I really did enjoy getting to know you and your blog, and I’m planning to read some more South Asian fiction soon. You’ve inspired me!

And here Swapna interviews me. You know, you could just be-bop back and forth all day: Swapna to Semicolon, Semicolon to Swapna, S. Krishna’s Books to Semicolon’s reviews, etc. Have a great day.

Wanting Mor by Rukhsana Khan

Afghanistan is in the news almost every day, and those children who hear about the war there have questions about the people of Afghanistan and the culture there. Wanting Mor by Pakistani author Rukhsana Khan could serve as an introduction to a country that has become, for better or for worse, a preoccupying subject for Americans and for the world.

When Jameela’s mother, Mor, dies, her father decides that he and Jameela will move from their village to Kabul to start a new life. Unfortunately, Jameela’s father is a self-centered and cruel man. In a story that reminded me of Hansel and Gretel, Jameela’s father acquires a new wife, and then decides that Jameela, with her cleft lip and general uselessness, is an impediment to his new life.

The points that interested me the most in this book were those where cultures and ideas intersected. Jameela’s father and his new wife are typical of city dwellers in many third world and Muslim countries who are becoming Westernized and losing their loyalty to traditional customs and religious laws. Jameela herself finds comfort and strength in the traditions of Islam, particularly the head covering or chadri (also called a burka), that serves to protect Jameela from prying eyes and from the embarrassment that she feels over her cleft lip. The orphanage where Jameela ends up living is dependent on the charity of Americans and of other wealthy Afghanis and foreigners, but the attitude that children and the management of the orphanage have toward these benefactors is sometimes less than respectful or even grateful. This conversation between Jameela and another of the orphans shows the difficulties in such a relationship and perhaps could clue us in to how the Muslim world in general might feel about Americans and other westerners a lot of the time:

“What do you think of this new donor lady?”
I shrug. “She seems all right.”
“They all do when they first arrive.”
“What about the soldiers? They didn’t do anything wrong.”
Suraya scowls. “They’re invaders. They want to control us. They won’t be happy until they change us so we’re just like them.”
“They fixed things. You should be grateful.”
Soraya stands up and paces around our small room.
“I’m tired of being grateful.”

People do get tired of being grateful. And somehow we will have to find a way to leave Afghanistan, and Iraq, with a sense of mutual respect and cooperation. At least, I hope we can.

And I hope we can find a way to help girls like Jameela without taking away their cultural heritage or their self-respect.

Amazon Affiliate. If you click on a book cover here to go to Amazon and buy something, I receive a very small percentage of the purchase price.
This book is also nominated for a Cybil Award, but the views expressed here are strictly my own.

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

“The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea. you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die,” he said, laying his hand warmly on Mortenson’s own. “Doctor Greg, you must make time to share three cups of tea. We may be uneducated. But we are not stupid. We have lived and survived here for a long time.”

Subtitled One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace One School at a Time, this book was both inspiring and disappointing at the same time. Greg Mortenson was a mountain climber who attempted and failed to climb K2, the second highest mountain in the world found in the northern regions of Pakistan (Baltistan). While he was in this remote area of Pakistan, Greg was inspired to begin a one-man mission to build schools there, especially schools for girls, most of whom were not getting any kind of education.

As the son of Lutheran missionaries, Mortenson grew up in Africa as an MK, and even after they returned to the U.S. neither Greg nor his parents were exactly rich according to American standards. So Mortenson, living out of his car, began his campaign to build schools for girls in northern Pakistan by writing letters on an antiquated typewriter to every celebrity, famous person, or potential donor he could think to write. He explained what he wanted to do, wrote something like 600 letters, and got no response. A Pakistani expatriate who owned a copy store taught Mortenson how to use a computer and a word processing program, and he wrote more letters. Still no response.

Finally, he connected with one rich, sort of eccentric, donor, and he went to Pakistan with $30,000 to build his first school in the mountain village of Korphe. That one school was only the beginning, and that’s a capsule version of the inspiring part.

The disappointing part was that, as much as I admire what Greg Mortenson has done and continues to do, I think he is mistaken to put his trust in education alone. He seems to have left his Christianity behind in a quest change the world through education. Education is a wonderful thing. Education may be the best, perhaps the only thing, that can be done for the girls and boys of Pakistan and Afghanistan, given their cultural and religious heritage. So, I applaud Greg Mortenson and his organization CAI for what they have done and for what they continue to do.

However, I first of all agree with this reviewer at Amazon who opines that boys need education just as much as girls do. Read his exposition for a look at why educating just girls or girls in preference to boys may be counter-productive and produce civil unrest instead of the peace we all want.

Secondly, education without a Christian moral foundation produces only educated fools, according to the Bible and according to historical experience. I can name many individuals and groups of individuals who have been highly educated and also committed to evil goals and foolish ideals. An education does not guarantee peaceful intent, and neither does a change for the better in socio-economic class. No matter how much we as Americans may want to think that we can change the world by improving people’s standard of living and giving them books, it will have only limited success. Do I believe that making poor people richer and giving young people a chance at an education is a goal worth working for, and donating to? Yes, I do. However, according to CAI’s website, “The best hope for a peaceful and prosperous world lies in the education of all the world’s children.”

No, our hope does not lie in education. Without Christ, the change in a culture that is produced by education is only cosmetic and unlikely to produce the kind of lasting political change that we as Americans would like to see. People can be educated, even educated using funds donated by Americans, and still hate us. We should give and do good because it’s the right thing to do, not because we expect that a school building and classes and clean water will make them quit believing the mullahs who tell them that we are godless infidels. I know it’s unpalatable and controversial, but education is not God.

The book itself is decently written, and the story is absorbing. The idea that one person can have an idea and do something important to make the world a better place and the details of that idea working out in one man’s life are inspiring, as I said. Don’t expect great literature; do expect the story of a great life.

The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

The Bookseller of Kabul–Seierstad. Recommended at Bookfest.

The Bookseller of Kabul is a nonfiction account of the lives of a real family in Kabul, Afghanistan. Journalist Asne Seierstad lived with the family for four months as a guest, welcomed by the patriarch of the family, a man she calls “Khan” in her story. Unfortunately, her first impression of Khan as a liberal, forward-thinking Afghan intellectual changed as she came to know his family and his family interactions. In particular, it becomes quite clear, although Ms. Seierstad does not include herself as a player or even an observer in the book, that she was appalled by the treatment of women in Khan’s family and in Afghan society as a whole. She describes how Khan takes a sixteen year old second wife and exiles his first wife to Pakistan to take care of his business affairs there. She also shows the way the other women in the family, especially Khan’s sister Leila, are trapped and limited by the circumstances and assumptions that are taken for granted in Afghan family life, at least in this particular Afghan family.

Khan, whose real name Shah Mohammed Rais was rather obvious to anyone who actually lived in Kabul, read the book after it was published and immediately screamed bloody murder. From a New York Times article December 21, 2003:

Seierstad lived with the family for four months, and then wrote a detailed account of the experience — in which she portrayed the bookseller as a liberal intellectual in public but a tyrant to his family. This summer, Rais received a copy of the book in English. And then the trouble began. Furious at what he viewed as Seierstad’s misrepresentations and betrayal of his hospitality, he vowed to sue her for libel in a Norwegian court. He wants damages and a cut of the profits from ”The Bookseller of Kabul,” which became an international best seller (and the most successful nonfiction book in Norway’s history).

I don’t know what Mr. Rais expected Ms. Seierstad to write. Perhaps she flattered him and lied to him and implied that she approved of his polygamous lifestyle and autocratic family governance. At any rate, according to Wikipedia as of 2005, Rais has “declared he was seeking asylum in either Norway or Sweden, as a political refugee. Things revealed about him in Seierstad’s book had made life for him and his family unsafe in Afghanistan.”

This Salon article calls Ms. Seierstad “The Hypocrite of Kabul” and accuses her of cultural insensitivity. However, the same author Anne Marlow, writes approvingly of Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner. I guess she hadn’t had a chance to read Mr. Hosseini’s second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns in which he directly engages with the tradition and practice of Afghan subjugation and mistreatment of women.

Did Asne Seierstad betray the hospitality offered to her by writing frankly and disparagingly of the family with whom she shared a home for four months? Probably. I wouldn’t have written a book about such a family without at least spending a lot more time and energy disguising the main characters.

Are the women of the Rais family mistreated by my (Western) standards? Absolutely. And I would defend cultural standards that allow women to leave the house without covering their faces and to receive an education and to be more than household slaves, as standards that should prevail in both the East and the West, human standards.

The slave owners in the South didn’t like Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book messing with their “way of life” either. On the other hand, she wrote fiction, not a poorly disguised invasion of privacy.

Insightful and illuminating but voyeuristic.

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

I liked Mr. Hosseini’s first novel, The Kite Runner (Semicolon review here), very much. So did a lot of other people. It became a best seller, and it’s been made into a movie. A Thousand Splendid Suns is just as compelling and as ripped-from-the-headlines relevant as The Kite Runner. In fact, I liked it in some ways more because it was about the women of Afghanstan, a story which epitomizes the bravery, resilience, and long-suffering of the Afghan people even more than a story about men and boys like The Kite Runner. The men of Afghanistan have suffered, certainly, but they also have been the cause of much of the suffering that has torn Afghanistan to pieces in the past, and they have had the option of fighting back and defending themselves in many instances. The women mostly endured and struggled to survive and continue to do so.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is about two of those women who survived, Mariam and Laila. Mariam is a country girl, a harami (illegitimate child), educated only in her knowledge of the Koran, and married to a man, Rasheed, who wants her only for the sons that she is unable to give him. Laila, twenty years younger than Mariam, is the youngest child of a schoolteacher father and a derelict mother, but Laila has the education and the romance that Mariam has been denied. Laila’s friend Tariq is the love of her life, her best friend. When all of these characters must endure war, Soviet occupation, the chaotic rule of the mujahideen, and finally the Taliban, they are tested almost beyond endurance.

This book is about endurance, about what it takes to survive in a war-torn country like Afghanistan and about how one might be able to endure and live through a horribly abusive marriage and family life. Just as Mariam has very few choices in her life about whom she will marry, about where she will go or how she will live, the people of Afghanistan found themselves with fewer and fewer choices about their lives and how they would live them. And after all the war is over and the Taliban is removed from power, even then, the book tells us, “Laila is happy here in Murree. But it is not an easy happiness. It is not a happiness without cost.”

The message I derived from the novel is that hope is elusive, but necessary, and love can be redemptive, but sometimes at a great cost. Even though all the characters in the book are Muslim, I found the book to have a “Christian” theme, as one of the characters, Mariam, gives her life to save the others and give them a hope and a future.

Isaiah prophesied of Jesus:

“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.”

This description fits the character of Mariam in the book, as she acts as a Christ figure. However, the Islamic worldview in the book also comes through. In the Koran, Allah is All-Merciful, but also inscrutable, and it is impossible to know whether He will choose to be merciful to any particular sinner or not. A Muslim can only hope for Allah’s mercy with no assurance of forgiveness. Mariam’s judge at her trial says: “Something tells me you are not a wicked woman, hamshira. But you have done a wicked thing. And you must pay for this thing you have done. Shari’a in not vague on this matter. It says I must send you where I will soon join you myself.”

This “justice” is Islamic law and theology in practice. Mariam has done nothing wrong, but she is made to pay for her trangression of Islamic law anyway. And she is not promised forgiveness, but only told, “May Allah forgive you.”

A Thousand Splendid Suns offers insight into Islamic culture, Afghan history, the subjugation and courage of women, and the possibility and the cost of redemption. I think it’s well worth a read.

Khaled Hosseini lists some of his “most important books” for Newsweek magazine. Interestingly enough, two of the books on Hosseini’s list are The Bible and The Koran.

Khaled Hosseini’s blog post for January 10, 2008: “My first novel, The Kite Runner, was dominated by men and I knew, even as I was finishing it, that I was going to write about Afghanistan again and that this time I would write about Afghan women. The struggle of Afghan women was simply too compelling, too tragic, and too important and relevant a story, and both as an Afghan and as a writer, I knew that I couldn’t resist writing about it.”

Other bloggers’ reviews, mixed:

Krakovianka: “When I reached the halfway mark, I finally had to confess myself disappointed. There was potential and promise in the story, but I felt the writing was not at all compelling, and the story was positively mediocre.”

Wendy at Caribousmom: “Hosseini’s novel is a must read – if only to remind us of the suffering of women in other countries, and the outrages of war. Beautifully written, fiercely powerful, and with a message about the redeeming quality of love and hope, A Thousand Splendid Suns is highly recommended.”

Laura’s Musings: “The story takes place against the backdrop of unrest, war, and terror that characterized Afghanistan from the early 1970s to the early 2000s. Hosseini paints a vivid picture of events; every single character experienced death and loss.”

Jennifer at Random Musings: “It’s a book of sadness, mostly. I know it’s supposed to leave the reader with a feeling of hope and of “moving on”, but for me it wasn’t enough hope to extinguish the grief it poured out earlier in the book.”