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

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The story begins with the word that Mariam comes to hate her entire life - harami or bastard - which she heard for the first time when she was only five years old. She has never forgotten the day it happened even though she was quite young when she first heard it. It occurred on a Thursday, the day Jalil always visited her at the kolba (hut). To pass the time while she waited for him, imagining him waving as he crossed the knee-high grass in the clearing, Mariam decided to climb a chair and take down her mother’s Chinese tea set. Mariam loved the set almost as much as her mother did. Her mother loved it, because it was the sole relic that she still had that had belonged to her own mother who had died when she was two. Just as she was climbing down, Mariam lost control of the pot, and it fell to the floor and shattered. When her mother, Nana, saw what had happened she became so angry that Mariam thought she might be possessed by a jinn, as she had been once before. Nana gritted her teeth and proclaimed her a clumsy little harami. She added that this was her reward - an heirloom-breaking clumsy little harami. At the time, she didn’t understand the meaning of the word. “Nor was she old enough to appreciate the injustice, to see that it is the creators of the harami who are culpable, not the harami, whose only sin is being born.” Even though she didn’t understand the meaning, Mariam knew from the way her mother spit out the word that it meant she was an unwanted thing: an illegitimate person who would never have a legitimate claim to such things as love, family, home, and acceptance.

Mariam was reminded that Jalil never called her by this name, but instead, called her his little flower. He would sit her on his lap and tell her stories of Herat, the city where Mariam was born in 1959. He would tell her about how it was the cradle of Persian culture, the home of writers, painters, and Sufis. He told her about Queen Gauhar Shad who had raised the famous minarets in the 15th century. He told her about a pistachio tree beneath which was buried the great poet Jami and that he had taken her there once when she was very little. Mariam didn’t remember the pistachio tree. In fact, even though she would live the first fifteen years of her life within walking distance of Herat, she would never see this famous tree. Nonetheless, she would listen to him with enchantment, filled with pride that she had a father who knew such things.

When Jalil would leave, Nana would tell Mariam that he told rich lies - a rich man telling rich lies. She told Mariam that he had never taken her to see the tree and that he had betrayed them both by casting them out. Mariam hated herself for allowing Nana to speak this way about Jalil, because she never felt like a harami when she was with him. She loved him even if she had to share him. He had three wives and nine legitimate children, all of whom were strangers to Mariam. He owned a movie theatre where he bought the children who came to the movies ice cream. Of course, said Nana, he never bought ice cream for Mariam. He was one of Herat’s best - connected men with other businesses and a home with a cook, a driver, and three housekeepers. Nana had been one of those housekeepers until her belly began to swell. Jalil’s family was outraged by her and ordered that Jalil throw her out. Nana’s own father had also disowned her and moved away. Sometimes, Nana wished that her father had had had the stomach to sharpen one of knives and do the honorable thing. It might have been better for her. Jalil didn’t have the courage, either, to do the honorable thing: stand up to his family and accept the responsibility for what he had done. Instead, he made her pack up her things and moved her into the kolba outside the city. Nana often told Mariam that he had told his wives that Nana had forced her self on him and that it was her fault. “This is what it means to be a woman in this world,” she would say. This prepares the reader for what will follow in this novel. Nana says, “Like a compass needle that points north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman.”


This first chapter introduces the reader to the basic premise of the novel - the lives of women in the Islamic world, in this case, Afghanistan. Mariam is an illegitimate child, the product of a servant and a wealthy man. Her mother is the one who emphasizes this idea the most, because she is bitter about the circumstances of her life. She has paid the full price for having a child out of wedlock while Jalil has seemingly paid nothing more than money to support her and Mariam in little more than a hovel outside of Herat. She has been ostracized even by her own father and now is doomed to a life of loneliness. In the meantime, Mariam also pays for having even been born, because she is a reminder of all Nana has lost.



Chapter Two is one of “he said - she said.” Nana tells her side of the story, and Jalil has his side. Nana tells Mariam that to Jalil and his wives, she was a mugwort or a weed that is ripped out and tossed aside. However, unlike a weed, she had to be replanted and given food and water on account of Mariam. That was the deal Jalil made with his family. Nana insisted that she wanted to live somewhere removed, detached, so that she didn’t have to see Jalil parade around town with his wives. She also refused to live in her father’s old house because of the way he had treated her. And so, after his oldest son suggested building a kolba in the clearing which overlooked all of Herat, Jalil agreed to build a kolba there. It was nothing more than sun-dried bricks with a dirt floor, two sleeping cots, a table, two straight-backed chairs, and one window. They must use an outhouse some distance from the house. Jalil could afford to have others build this hut, but he and his sons did all the work. Nana says that it is his idea of penance, and she calls the hut a rat hole.

Nana had almost married when she was fifteen to a young parakeet seller. When she tells Miriam this story, her daughter can tell that “perhaps for the only time in her life, during those days leading up to her wedding, Nana had been genuinely happy.” Then, a week before the wedding, a jinn had entered her body, causing her to have severe seizures. It was no doubt epilepsy, but for these superstitious, uneducated people, it was a deal-breaker and the parakeet seller’s family called off the wedding. After that, Nana had no more suitors.

Nana also frequently tells Mariam about the day she was born. She says that no one came to help her, and Jalil never summoned a doctor or midwife to attend the birth. She said she lay on the cold dirt floor for two days trying to push Mariam out and that when the baby was finally born, she cut the cord with a knife that she had kept beside her. At this point in the story, Nana would always give a slow, burdened smile, one of lingering recrimination or reluctant forgiveness. Mariam never realized until she turned ten that it was unfair to have to apologize for the manner of her own birth.

Of course, Jalil tells Mariam that none of this ever happened. He had been out of town, just as Nana said, but he insisted that he had already made arrangements for the birth and that Mariam had been born in a hospital. Furthermore, the birth was all over within an hour, he said, so that “even in birth, she was a good daughter.” When he had been informed of the birth, he hadn’t just shrugged and kept on riding his horse. Instead, he had rushed right back to bounce her in his arms and a hum a lullaby to her. Nana insists that she had chosen the name Mariam, because it had been her mother’s name. However, Jalil says that he chose it, because it was the name of a lovely flower. Because Jalil doesn’t fill her with recriminations, Mariam tends to believe him instead of her mother.


This chapter is so sad, because it is reminiscent of a divorced couple and how they use their children to hurt each other. Nana passes on her bitterness to Miriam for whom she is responsible for all but one day a week, while Jalil plays the loving father who only has to spend a few hours a week with his daughter.

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