The beginning of the story takes place in an idyllic setting in the town of Herat and its environs. The town is known for its artists, especially its poets. Mariam, one of the main characters, lives in a small house with her mother. Jalil, Mariam’s father, lives in a large house inside the town limits.
When Mariam marries, the setting changes to Kabul, the largest city of Afghanistan and its capital. Here live various types of people, ranging from the most modern (who are highly influenced by the West) to the most traditional (who follow the strict dictates of conservative religious sects). The modernized population encourages education of both men and women. Many of these people drive fancy cars and live in large houses.
The novel begins in 1974, as Soviet-backed communists are ruling the country under a dictatorship. As the story progresses, so too does the power of the Taliban, who fight the Russians and eventually push them out of the country. The story ends in 2003, after the arrival of U.S. forces. War is a constant companion to the characters of this story, as one political and military faction supplants another.
Ideas for Group Discussions
1. Create a timeline for this story. Begin with the early twentieth century, before the story starts. Include the names and reigns of political leaders, combining factual information with the births, deaths, and other events in the fictional characters’ lives.
2. What different factors affected Mariam and Laila to make Laila more outspoken than Mariam and more willing to stand up to Rasheed? How did their parents differ? What beliefs were each of them raised with?
3. Mariam’s opinion of her father, Jalil, differed greatly from her mother’s opinion. Discuss what Mariam thought of Jalil and then contrast this with what Mariam’s mother thought. Which portrait of Jalil do you think was most correct?
4. Why did Mariam’s mother hang herself? Why did she feel so desperate? Were her feelings justified? Mariam believed her mother’s death was a significant turning point in her own life. Do you agree?
5. Why was Rasheed so hard on Mariam? Do you think the author was too biased in Mariam’s favor? Can you find any positive characteristics that Rasheed exhibited?
6. Why didn’t Laila go with Tariq when his family left Kabul for Pakistan? Why didn’t Tariq demand that Laila go with him? Even if you cannot find exact explanations for these actions, what do you think might have been behind them?
7. What brought about Mariam and Laila’s friendship? What changed to make Mariam like Laila? What was their relationship like before this happened?
8. If you were in a jury, how would you have judged and punished Mariam for killing Rasheed? Was the crime justified? Was there any way out of the predicament without resorting to murder? Do you think Mariam just wanted to save Laila, or did she also want to see Rasheed dead?
Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Research the lives of women in Afghani culture. What advantages or restrictions did the women experience under the monarchy? Under the warlords? Under communist rule? Under the Taliban? Since the U.S. invasion, have their lives improved? According to your research, did Hosseini accurately depict the lives of women in this novel?
2. Mariam sacrificed her life to save Laila, Aziza, and Zalmai. Write a letter that Mariam might have composed to Laila in her last days in prison, expressing her love as well as why she did what she did. What do you think, given Mariam’s circumstances, she would want to say to Laila? Read your letter to your class.
3. Find pictures of Afghani clothing for men, women, and children. Include traditional clothing such as the burka as well as more moderate forms. How do the different types of clothing reflect the emotional, psychological, and social conditions of the characters in the novel? Give a multimedia presentation to your class that includes the pictures you found.
4. Research the economics of Afghanistan. How does the country make its money? How do the average citizens make a...
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