Voicing Identity

Major Afghan ethnic groups

In A Thousand Splendid Suns, Hosseini brings to light a culture in which tribal affiliations are the defining characteristic of personal identity, even more important than national identity. One thing that is worth noting is that in the seventies and eighties, there seemed to have been a slowly developing national pride, at least in Hosseini’s vision of Afghanistan. Laila’s father tells her that “… it is a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan,” because women can study and become doctors, professors and lawyers. This pithy statement presages, however, the dismal years that lie ahead that we already know as readers. Likewise, during the seventies and eighties when Mariam moves to Kabul and speaks Tajik with a Herati accent, national pride begins to be more important than tribal identity.  So it is perfectly normal at this time that all the clans of Afghanistan work together for the good of their country.  Of course, we know that all this changes in the 1990s when the Taliban (with strong Pashtun roots) once again moves to the forefront.

What I find fascinating in Hosseini’s way of narrating his story is that he is constantly making the reader confront a foreign language. Words are often given in Pashto or Farsi and then immediately translated into English. How many novelists writing about a foreign land dupe us into believing that the predominate language everywhere is English? That is not the case here. The reader has to constantly break the flow of reading and be prepared to sound out the difficult syllables–written in Latin script, of course. Sometimes, however, the English translation is not given, which leaves the reader wondering as to the precise meaning of the word. When Mariam is in prison before her execution, a fellow inmate, Naghma, recounts how she was promised to a man thirty years older than her who smelled like goh (p. 354). We never really find out what goh means, much less what it smells like. Another example is when Mariam is saddened by the fact the she would not see Aziza as a young woman, would not be present to throw noqul candy at her wedding (p. 360). We know that noqul is a kind of candy, but precisely what kind is left to our imagination.

Finally, Hosseini’s use of language clearly demonstrates just how brilliant of a writer he is. An essential part of the dénouement of the book involves our learning elements of this foreign language. When Laila and Rasheed fight over Aziza, Rasheed calls Aziza a haramy. Of course no translation is necessary, because we know exactly what haramy means having learned it from Mariam’s story at the beginning of the novel. That is to say that when the story is at its most intense, Hosseini makes sure that we have integrated a small piece of this world inside of ourselves through language, the essential building block of identity.

Dr. Donald Wright, Professor of French and Arabic, Director of Middle Eastern Studies

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2 Responses to Voicing Identity

  1. Andrea Judkin says:

    I really enjoyed reading this book. The vivid descriptions about the characters and the overall geographic of afghanistan made me feel like I knew the people and were familiar with the area. I was touched and it made me realize how good we have it in is country. I would recomend this book to read for anyone.

  2. Daniel Tinsley says:

    I am still reading this book, however I am almost finished. I am a veteran from the OEF/OIF wars and this brings a lot of insight to the whole thing. Its very interesting to me to see that what my experiences there were like compared to the very detailed descriptions. It brings back memories and even though parts of it is years old, it is still very valid and applicable to the conditions of the countries when I was there. Great read, started a bit slow, but now I can hardly put it down. He is an amazing writer and I am looking forward to meeting him.

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