Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns tells of a country ravaged by war, poverty, natural disaster (drought) and hopelessness. During the Great Depression, hundreds of thousands of Americans sought refuge in the nation's cinemas, losing themselves, at least for a couple of hours, in the fantasy worlds projected upon the giant screens before them. In Hosseini's novel, the film Titanic performs the same function for the people of Afghanistan. Its spectacle, its forbidden imagery, and its vision of opulence amid despair all appeal to those deprived of opulence but mired in despair. Hosseini's narrator provides no pat answer to the film's magical affect on the people of Afghanistan. Early in the novel, the author notes the film's enormous popularity while offering myriad reasons for its reception in Kabul:
"It's the song,they said. No, the sea. The luxury. The ship. It's the sex, they whispered. Leo, said Aziza sheepishly. It's all about Leo. 'Everybody wants Jack,' Laila said to Mariam. 'That's what it is. Everybody wants Jack to rescue them from disaster. But there is no Jack. Jack is not coming back. Jack is dead.'"
This passage speculating as to the reasons for Titanic's popularity is immediately followed by the seemingly inevitable tragedy that must befall Afghanistan:
"Then, late that summer, a fabric merchant fell asleep and forgot to put out his cigarette. He survived the fire, but his store did not. The fire took the adjacent fabric store as well, a secondhand clothing store, a small furniture shop, a bakery. They told Rasheed later that if the winds had blown east instead of west, his shop, which was at the corner of the block, might have been spared."
James Cameron's extravaganza is all things to all people: a disaster flick, a love story, a masterful display of technological wizardry, and a possibility of hope. Its imagery is completely alien to the residents of Kabul, who have endured Russian occupation, civil war, and now the brutal and primitive rule of the Taliban. A population deprived of entertainment as well as freedom -- the Taliban banned all forms of entertainment, including music, dancing and kite flying, the latter a favorite pastime of the native Pashtun -- would respond to a film like Titanic precisely as Hosseini's characters respond. The sexual imagery alone would delight masses even as the more religiously pious among them would rush to condemn it as heretical.
"Zalmai is almost six. Aziza is ten. They celebrated her birthday last week, took her to Cinema Park, where, at last,Titanic was openly screened for the people of Kabul."