Chapters 1-3 Summary

Mariam remembers that she was five years old the first time she heard the word harami, which means “bastard.” Anxiously expecting the weekly visit of her father, Jalil, Mariam breaks one of the pieces of her mother’s porcelain tea set, the only remaining relic of Nana’s own mother. Mariam’s clumsiness prompts Nana to scorn her daughter, but the meaning of Nana’s words would only become apparent to Mariam years later. Even though Jalil is Mariam’s father by birth, Jalil never invites her to his home in Herat. Instead, he visits the kolba, the hut in which Mariam and her mother live, every Thursday and appeases Mariam with stories. But Nana tells Mariam not to believe Jalil’s words because they are simply “rich lies.” Jalil, one of the wealthiest men in Herat, has three wives and nine other children, and he owns a cinema. Nana had been one of his housekeepers, and after Jalil took her to his bed, Nana became pregnant with Mariam. Jalil’s wives demanded that Nana be thrown out of the house, and feeling disgraced, Nana’s father abandoned her and moved to Iran. Instead of standing up to his wives, Jalil sent Nana to live in the kolba on the outskirts of Gul Daman.

Nana and Jalil tell opposing stories of Mariam’s birth. Nana claims that Mariam kept her in painful labor for two full days and that no one came to attend her, forcing her to cut the umbilical cord herself. But Mariam prefers to believe her father’s story: Jalil claims that even though he was out of town, he arranged for Nana to be taken to a hospital where she received care. He says that the doctors told him that it took less than an hour for Mariam to be born and that even then she was a good daughter.

To make penance, Jalil sends two of his sons each month to the kolba with a wheelbarrow filled with food rations. Nana says that the boys laugh at Mariam when they leave. Nana hates having visitors at the kolba, but she makes a few exceptions: Habib Khan, the village’s leader; Bibi jo, an older woman whose husband was a friend to Nana’s father; and Mullah Faizullah, the village’s Koran tutor. Mullah Faizullah is Mariam’s favorite visitor—aside from Jalil—and one day she tells him that she wants to go to school. On a previous occasion, Bibi jo mentioned that Jalil’s other daughters have been allowed to attend school in Herat, and Mariam wants to go also. But Nana tells her daughter that the only lesson she needs to learn is that of endurance.