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Study Guide: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini - BookNotes

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CHAPTER 39: Mariam, September 1997


Rasheed and Mariam take Laila to the hospital to give birth, only to discover that it no longer treats women. There is only one hospital in the entire city that does treat women - Rabia Balkhi which has no clean water, no oxygen, no medications, and no electricity. When the crowd groans and cries out in disgust, the Talib fires his rifle into the air and another one brandishes a whip. So Mariam, Laila, and Rasheed head for that hospital.

When they arrive, the waiting room is teeming with women. Mariam helps Laila sit down against a wall and promises her that she’ll get her seen by a doctor. She wades into the crowd and fights against elbows and arms to get to the front. Now she knows what sacrifices a mother makes. She understands what Nana had endured - the shame of bearing a harami --and the thankless task of raising Mariam around which she had shaped her life. Now Mariam wishes she had been a better daughter to Nana. She fights with others at the front of the line to speak to the nurse. When the nurse hears that Laila doesn’t have a fever and isn’t bleeding, she tells Mariam that they will get to her. Now she should take her for a walk and wait.

It is dark when a nurse finally calls them in. Inside the delivery room, there are eight beds on which are women in various stages of labor. There are no curtains between them. Rubber gloves are lined up on a clothes line to be reused. The doctor, in a blue burqa is a small, harried woman with birdlike movements. She asks questions about the pregnancy and then gives Laila an internal exam. Once she has accomplished the exam, she tells Mariam that Laila needs a caesarean, because the baby is breech. The problem is there is no anesthetic and Laila will have to bear the pain of the operation. Laila tells them to do what they have to and give her her baby. In the operating room, the doctor removes her burqa while one of the nurses keeps watch for any Talib who might beat the doctor for removing it. The doctor is far past outrage. She has come to realize that there is always something more they can take away. And so the operation begins with Mariam holding Laila’s hand. Later, she will think how she will always admire Laila for how much time passed before she screamed.


The true outrage of the Taliban’s war against women is seen in this chapter where Laila is forced to endure the unbelievable pain of surgery without anesthetic. Nana’s comments about how men always find a way to hurt women continues in this scenario.

CHAPTER 40: Laila, Fall 1999


It is Mariam’s idea to dig a hole, but she and Laila have a very difficult time doing it because of the drought. The drought started in 1998 and made life even more of a problem for people surrounded by war. The shallow wells quickly dried up and the there were long lines at the deep wells. The two women waited hours for their turn. There were no spring floods, because there hadn’t been much snow the winter before. As a result, the Kabul River dried up. Poor Mariam is now forty, but looks much older. She has deep pouches under her eyes and she has lost her two front teeth, the result of Rasheed knocking them out when she accidentally dropped Zalmai. Zalmai, the little boy born after Laila’s horrific caesarean, is now two, a plump little boy who looks very much like his father. When Laila had him alone, he is sweet and good-natured and she realizes that all her fears of loving a child of Rasheed’s are unfounded. She loves this little boy as deeply as she does Aziza. Unfortunately, Zalami worships his father and changes in personality whenever Rasheed is around him. He is defiant and easily offended. He holds grudges and persists in being mischievous even when Laila scolds. Rasheed approves of it all. He also buys the child everything he wants and more even though they cannot afford it. Most days, he even takes the child with him to his shop and allows him to play even among materials that could be dangerous to him. His patience with Zalmai is a well that runs deep and never dries. And of course, he resents any attention Zalmai gives to Laila.

One night, Rasheed brings home a television and a VCR. He had bought them on the black market and even though there are no working television stations, he plans to buy his little boy all the videotapes he can find. The TV is all Zalmai’s and he controls what it shows. Upon hearing this, Aziza climbs into Mariam’s lap. They are inseparable now and of late, Mariam has been teaching Aziza all the verses she should know from the Koran. Mariam thinks, “It’s all I have to give her, this knowledge, these prayers. They’re the only true possessions I’ve ever had.” Laila responds to the new TV with trepidation, because the Taliban had banned them. She fears they’ll be caught. She tells Rasheed sarcastically that instead of videotapes he should buy them a new well.

Later, after dinner, Rasheed tells Laila about his new plan: he wants to put Aziza on the street to beg since they are short of money. Laila refuses to allow it and so she slaps her. Something inside of Laila snaps, and she punches him hard enough to make him stagger two steps backward. When he turns and leaves the room, Laila thinks that it was worth it to punch him for all they’ve endured. It is the ultimate act of defiance, but her defiant act is soon beaten down when Rasheed returns, grabs her by the throat and shoves her against the wall all the while shoving the barrel of his gun into her mouth.

The two women are digging the hole because of the raids. The Taliban is raiding people’s home unexpectedly now on a daily basis for the purpose of confiscating banned items and punishing the homeowners in a variety of ways. So the hole becomes the hiding place for the TV and VCR. They decide they will dig it back up when it becomes safer to own them. That night Laila dreams that they are in the back digging again; only this time they are lowering Aziza into the hole instead of the TV. They keep telling her that it’s only for a little while. And when the first lumps of dirt hit the plastic they have wrapped around her, Laila can taste it in her dream.


This chapter reveals life in the house with Rasheed spoiling his new son to the detriment of the boy and the rest of the family. Times are harder because of the drought, but Rasheed has no problem buying a banned television for Zalmai at the same time he wis willing to place Aziza on the streets as a beggar.

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