Chapter 1 introduces Mariam, a young girl growing up in western Afghanistan in the early 1960s. At age five, Mariam learns that she is a harami, meaning born out of wedlock. Her father, Jalil Khan, is one of the wealthiest men in the city of Herat. He owns a cinema, three carpet stores, a clothing shop, and a car. He has three wives and nine children, and employs a cook, a driver, and three housekeepers. Mariam’s mother, Nana, was one of his housekeepers. After Nana became pregnant, she was thrown out of the house. Nana’s own father disowned her, and sometimes Nana wishes he had done the “honorable thing” and killed her outright instead. Now Mariam and her mother live alone on the outskirts of town, not with Jalil’s family.
Despite her status as illegitimate outcast, Mariam adores her father. Jalil visits her often, telling stories of Herat’s splendid past as the cradle of Persian culture, filled with writers, painters, and Sufi poets. He makes Mariam feel special and loved. Nana, however, warns Mariam that her father is a “[r]ich man telling rich lies…. He cast us out of his big fancy house like we were nothing to him.” Remembering how Jalil shamed her by protesting that Nana had forced herself on him, Nana instructs her daughter that “a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that, Mariam.”
After Nana became pregnant with Mariam, she wanted to live far away from Herat. Jalil and his sons built her a mud hut, or kolba, on a steep hill in the village of Gul Daman (a fictional location, invented by Hosseini) outside of the city of Herat. There is a chicken coop, sheep, a cast-iron stove, and a tandoor oven for baking bread.
Nana almost married once, when she was fifteen, but shortly before the wedding was to take place, she had an epileptic fit (understood by Nana as a jinn, or spirit, entering her body). When the news of the fit got back to the groom’s family, the wedding was called off.
Nana tells a horror story of the day Mariam was born in 1959. She claims she was all alone, as Jalil hadn’t even bothered to get a midwife for her, and labored for two days while Jalil was away horseback riding. However, Mariam later comes to doubt this story. Jalil tells her that Nana was actually taken to a hospital in Herat and only labored for an hour before Mariam was born. He was away horseback riding, but came directly the hospital when he heard the news.
Nana claims she named Mariam after her mother; Jalil says it was he who chose the name because Mariam, the tuberose, was a lovely flower.
Jalil’s sons come once a month to the kolba, bringing a wheelbarrow filled with food and supplies. Mariam feels sorry for them, as the journey up the steep hill is laborious. Nana, however, yells at the boys, calling them names and flinging rocks at them if they come too near the house. She claims that the boys laugh at Mariam behind her back
Mariam helps her mother with the daily chores, and Nana teaches her to cook. Nana dislikes visitors, but permits a select few, including the village arbab, or leader, Habib Khan, who brings gifts of food; a rotund old family friend whom Nana calls Bibi jo; and the elderly village Koran tutor, Mullah Faizullah. Mariam adores Faizullah, who patiently tutors her in the Koran and tells her stories of his childhood. Faizullah teaches Mariam that she can always find comfort and aid in the Koran, saying: “God’s words will never betray you, my girl.”
When Mariam tells Mullah Faizullah that she wishes to go to school, Faizullah speaks to Nana about it. Nana, however, fiercely rejects the idea. “What’s the sense schooling a girl like you? It’s like shining a spittoon,” she says. There is only one skill Mariam needs for her life, Nana says—and that is to endure. All she can expect in life is rejection and heartache, and she must learn to survive it.
Mariam eagerly awaits a visit from her father, Jalil, every Thursday. While Nana is described as not very attractive, with short, uncombed hair, a lazy eye, and ill-fitting clothes, Jalil is handsome. He has a wide smile of white teeth, a cleft chin, and a trimmed mustache. He is well-dressed in a dark brown suit with a tie.
Mariam runs into Jalil’s arms. Despite her rants about him behind his back, Nana receives Jalil politely. She asks about his family; his third wife is expecting another child. This will make ten children, not counting Mariam.
Jalil takes Mariam fishing and teaches her rhymes. He brings her news clippings to keep her informed about the happenings of the world. In the summer of 1973, when Mariam is fourteen, Jalil reports that King Zahir Shah has been overthrown in a bloodless coup and that Daoud Khan, the former prime minister, is now the president. It is rumored that the socialists helped him to power, although Daoud Khan himself is not a socialist.
Mariam’s interest strays as she notices a gift in her father’s pocket. It is a leaf-shaped pendant hung with tiny coins. She is delighted, but Nana later says the gift is cheap junk made by nomads. Mariam vows that soon, she will go to live with her father in Herat, just like his other children.
Analysis of Part 1, Chapters 1–4
The novel tells the story of two Afghan women, Mariam and Laila, and how they live through the tumultuous recent history of Afghanistan. The novel is divided into four parts. Part 1 tells the story of Mariam, a woman from the city of Herat, the illegitimate daughter of a rich merchant. Part 2 tells of another woman, Laila, who grows up in the capital city of Kabul, the daughter of a teacher. In Part 3, Mariam and Laila meet and their lives become intertwined. Part 4 provides the denouement, or conclusion, to the story, telling of what becomes of Laila after she and Mariam part ways.
The opening chapters of the novel paint a picture of a harsh world, one that is not kind to women. A sad fate is foreshadowed for the innocent and hopeful Mariam, as her mother, Nana, warns that men always point the finger of blame at women, and that pain and heartache are the only things a woman can expect from life.
Glimpses of the beauty and magic of Afghanistan are seen through the stories told by Mariam’s father, Jalil, and by her teacher, Mullah Faizullah. The two men’s influence on Mariam contrasts sharply with Nana’s bitter lessons. Jalil opens Mariam’s mind to literature, art, and Sufi poetry; Faizullah, who, unlike Nana, believes in the value of education for women, teaches Mariam the beauty of the Koran. The kindly, white-bearded mullah admits he doesn’t understand the meaning of everything in the holy book, but he loves the sounds of the Arabic words as they roll off his tongue. Faizullah’s liberal interpretation of the teachings of Islam provides a contrast to the extremist views of the arch-conservative Taliban, who appear later in the book.
Jalil’s conversations with his daughter provide a vehicle for the author, Hosseini, to inform the reader about the changing political situation in Afghanistan. In Chapter 4, he tells of the bloodless coup that ousted the Shah, or King, in 1973 after a forty-year reign, and about the early days of Daoud Khan’s presidency. Throughout the book, Hosseini will continue to weave the tumultuous events of recent Afghan history into his story. The experiences of the two main characters—Mariam and Laila—parallel historical events. For instance, the overthrowing of King Zahir Shah prefigures the imminent overthrowing of Jalil as the king in Mariam’s life.
Incidentally, King Zahir Shah’s reign was peaceful. Although he is criticized for failing to develop the economy, the Shah is remembered today for his efforts to modernize Afghanistan and move it toward democracy. In 1964, he introduced a new constitution which provided for free elections, a parliament, universal suffrage, and rights for women—reforms that were unpopular among many conservative Muslims. After many years in exile, the king returned to Afghanistan in 2002 after the defeat of the Taliban and was lauded as a “Father of the Nation.” He died in 2007. Daoud Khan was also known for his progressive policies; however, after taking power, he arrested and executed hundreds of political opponents. Khan was assassinated in 1978 during a communist revolution (described later in the novel).