Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

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09/09/2012

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

If my memory serves me right, the second most famous novel from Khaled Hosseini, author of the 'The Kite Runner', first arrived on my radar through my work in schools. 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' was delivered as part of a box of free books from a government-backed initiative to encourage a culture of reading amongst high school students. It's title and cover caught my attention but it was only a good few years later, whilst shopping around for books to read during the summer holidays, that I finally got around to turning its pages.

As a side note, it is heartening that these schemes continue despite the onset of the economic crisis and the reign of Michael Gove as Secretary State for Education, who through a range of antiquated, elitist policies (readily picked apart by practitioners) has earned himself the title of 'Most Hated Ever' from teachers and the threat of large scale industrial action. (He has survived this hostility so far, just as he survived his part in the expenses scandal). But this is not simply a battle within British education, it is representative of broader clash of conflicting views around the development of politics, economics and society - our very culture - within 21st century Britain.

For me it points to a question of whether we want to change our culture from one of hierarchy to one of meritocracy. Over the past 50 years I think we have moved from a strictly hierarchical society, in which those from a particular lineage and upbringing tended to dominate, to an inbetween place where social mobility has increased but remains nonetheless limited. BBC News Magazine published a good commentary on this, by Andrew Neill, not long after the election of David Cameron's government, which had (and still has) an unrepresentative proportion of superwealthy heirs and Etonians. To make the progress made so far, we have first had to critique aspects of our culture, recognise they are wrong, and then embrace change - and arguably the elections of Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair have all been manifestations of this national project, albeit with very mixed results.

And for me, journeying through A Thousand Splendid Suns whilst sat on a beach in Cuba, my reading saw me both enraptured by a fast-flowing romantic story, but also, similarly reflecting on issues of culture and its relationship with politics. In this case, Afghanistan and other widely different cultures (such as Pakistan, Iran, Syria etc.) that are currently experiencing crisis and conflict - and have either been subject to Western intervention or likely to be at some point in the near future.

In many ways Khalid Hosseini's novel is an honest bringing to life, and critique, of Afghanistan culture. Through a tense, beguiling tale about the lives of two Afghanistan women, Mariam and Laila - to the background of the major political events that have impacted the country over the past 30 to 40 years, namely foreign invasions and civil war - Khalid Hosseini highlights the patriarchal, repressive nature of the society he grew up in and it's most brutal consequences for women.

This is epitomised in the advice given early on in the story to a young Mariam, “Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter: Like a compass needle that points north, a man's accusing finger always finds a woman. Always.” These words, delivered by her embittered mother, sound at first like little more than the warnings of a woman who has loved and lost. However, as the fate of Mariam is played out to its shocking end, initially running parallel to and midway colliding with that of Laila, it becomes clear that what Khalid Hosseini is pointing to is something much more endemic than one woman. The author, who was born in Kabul but has spent most of his life in Western countries, focuses the novel particularly on the issue of 'honour' culture within Afghanistan. Specifically, he looks at how this code of living - which seems to transcend the various ethnic groups within the country - systematically favours males and can become an excuse for their subjugating and abuse of females.

This is brought to life primarily in the character of Rasheed (the monstrous husband of Mariam and Laila) but interestingly, also through the early actions of Mariam's female relatives who are both victim and advocates of this domination system. There is also a powerfully indicative moment towards the end where Mariam signs her name for the second time, having previously signed her marriage certificate, putting her signature to her own death warrant - a pointer that the direct manifestation of this aspect of domestic Afghan culture is arguably the emergence of the Taliban government.

Running in the background is the more political story of Afghanistan, charting the invasion of the Soviet Union, civil war, the Taliban and more recently, the occupation of the country by US-led NATO forces. Naturally, reading it through British eyes, the novel encourages reflection on the British military presence in Afghanistan, and more pointedly, the decade-long effort to 'nation build'. And perhaps Khalid Hosseini, whilst casting a overt critical eye on his homeland, is also casting an implicit critical eye on the latest foreign-imposed political project on the country, which was seemingly embarked upon with little knowledge of the country's deep-seated culture.

Furthermore, in his elegant descriptions of Herat's history as a city of Persian poets, Khalid Hosseini also provides an glimmer of an alternative Afghanistan to the 'backwardness' of other aspects of his portrayal - highlighting that Afghanistan continues to have a rich, diverse Islamic heritage to draw upon, not simply the puritanical interpretation of Mullah Omar and his Pashtun comrades. A similar potted history is provided to the reader with regards to Kabul, with attention drawn to the fact the 1960s and 1970s saw an influx of women into universities and professional classes. The very title of the book, taken from Persian poet Saib Tabrizi's musings on Kabul, points to a better time when Afghanistan served as a hub and crossroads for Eastern culture, and as a country capable of making progress.

An interpretation could also be drawn that Khalid Hosseini is making some commentary on the interplay between Pashtun culture, which tends to dominate the country, and the Tajik minority culture which descends directly from Persia (now known a Iran).

The ending, in which the Taliban are vanquished from Kabul - and our knowledge of the events since then - can't help lead to a sense that Afghanistan has become a lost cause. Certainly, this is the view of Mariam and Laila as they compare the Titanic movie to Afghanistan's fate,“Everybody wants Jack to rescue them from disaster. But there is no Jack, Jack is not coming. Jack is dead.” But there is also a sense, through this deeply human story, that there remains a great source of strength within the Afghan people - particularly Afghan women - that will at some point rise up collectively. And maybe this is the crux of the matter, there are no Hollywood heroes who can rescue Afghanistan, Afghanistan can only save itself.

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