Summary of Part 2, Chapters 16–19
Part 2 opens nine years after the coup, in the spring of 1987. The Soviets, who invaded in 1979 to crush rebellions against the communist government, have been occupying the country for eight years. All this while, a civil war has continued between the Soviets and the Muslim nationalist rebels, or Mujahideen.
Laila is nine years old and a stunning beauty with green eyes, high cheekbones, and curly blond hair. She is in love with Tariq, a handsome eleven-year-old Pashtun boy from the neighborhood who has lost his leg to a Soviet land mine. Laila is upset to learn that Tariq will be away from Kabul for thirteen days to visit an uncle. Laila’s parents, Fariba and Hakim (whom she calls Mammy and Babi), fight often. Fariba dominates her slim, bookish husband with her ferocious ranting. She blames her husband for allowing their two sons, Ahmad and Noor, to go to war against the Soviets.
On her way to school, Laila sees a Benz with Herat license plates parked out front of Rasheed and Mariam’s house. There is a white-haired man inside, apparently Jalil, come to visit his daughter. When she returns from school at the end of the chapter, the car is still there and the man is standing outside of it, gazing at Mariam’s house. Mariam apparently will not receive her father.
Laila’s teacher, a communist and Soviet loyalist, wears no head covering, makeup, or jewelry, and emphasizes that men and women are equal in every way. She tells students the Soviet Union is the greatest country in the world, along with Afghanistan, and that when they entered Afghanistan in 1979, following the coup, it was to help protect the country from brutes. She reminds students of their duty to report any rebels fighting against the communist government. However, rumor has it that after eight years of fighting, the Soviets are losing the war. The United States is supporting the Mujahideen, and Muslims all over the world are joining the cause of jihad.
After school, Laila walks home with her friends Giti and Hasina, talking about suitors. Hasina has already been promised to a cousin twenty years her senior, and Giti’s father will almost certainly give her away in a few years. Laila is grateful that her own father does not plan to force marriage on her. Hakim wants his daughter to have an education first. He tells her: “When this war is over, Afghanistan is going to need you…. [A] society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated, Laila. None.” Though Hakim himself is a university-educated man, he is no longer working as a teacher; the communists have sent him instead to work in a bread factory.
Laila, a top student at school, does not intend to marry until she finishes university. However, the girls joke that she will marry Tariq, her “handsome, one-legged prince.” As they continue walking, Laila hears a voice behind her, and she turns to face the barrel of a gun.
The gun is a plastic squirt gun filled with urine, and the boy wielding it is eleven-year-old Khadim, who has a crush on Laila. Other boys gather and taunt Laila as Khadim soaks her yellow hair with the yellow liquid, daring her to tell her sweetheart Tariq.
At home, Laila washes her hair. She thinks bitterly that this would not have happened if her mother had come to walk her home as she was supposed to. Apparently suffering from chronic depression, Fariba has good days and bad days. On good days, she is playful; she has tea with friends, reminisces about the early days of her courtship and marriage, and discusses finding wives for her two sons when they return from the war. On her bad days, she cannot leave her bed. On her walls are pictures of her two sons. She keeps shoeboxes filled with letters and clippings they send her. The clippings, from foreign newspapers, tell of the dangers of Soviet land mines and chemical warfare. Laila, for her part, hardly remembers her brothers. They left home seven years before to fight the jihad with Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud’s forces in the northern province of Panjshir.
Laila finds her mother in bed and tells her about the incident with Khadim. Her mother apologizes for not being there, and then taps her heart: “You don’t know…[w]hat’s in here.”
At the end of the chapter, Laila notices the Benz leaving Mariam’s house.
Two weeks have passed, and Tariq has not returned. Laila is tormented by thoughts that he will not come back. Then, one night, she sees the familiar signal of his flashlight out in the street, shining up at her window.
The next day, she goes to Tariq’s house and is received by his family, who teasingly call her their aroos, or daughter-in-law. Tariq explains that they were delayed in returning because his uncle had a heart attack. Though Tariq’s family are ethnic Pashtuns, they speak Farsi when Laila is around. The Tajiks have always felt slighted, according to Laila’s father, because the Pashtuns are in the majority and have held the power in Afghanistan for most of the country’s history. However, Laila never feels any tension or rivalry at Tariq’s home.
Tariq and Laila exchange jokes while waiting for his mother to prepare dinner. Laila confesses that she’s missed Tariq while he was away, but he scoffs at her embarrassing admission. Later, she tells Tariq about the attack from Khadim, and he beats the other boy; Khadim never bothers Laila again.
At home, Laila’s father helps her with homework. Although he doesn’t approve of the propaganda she’s learning in school, he appreciates how the communist government promotes education, especially education for women, who currently make up two-thirds of the students at Kabul University. He tells it is a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan, and she must take advantage of it. The communists are trying to liberate women, abolish forced marriage, and raise the minimum marriage age for girls to sixteen. Of course, the threat of women’s freedom is one of the main things the rebels are fighting against. Outside of Kabul, in the tribal areas, men resist the idea of women being equal to men.
A man arrives with the heartbreaking news that Laila’s brothers have been killed in battle. A funeral is held for them. Laila’s parents are devastated, but Laila has a hard time feeling sad about brothers she barely knew. Tariq, she feels, is her true brother.
Analysis of Part 2, Chapters 16–19
These chapters, set in 1987, portray life in Kabul as it was near the end of the Soviet occupation of 1979–1989. Some additional historical background may be helpful to understand the events. The Soviets invaded in 1979 and took control of the government, supposedly with the intention of supporting the fledgling communist state and protecting it from being taken over by Islamist extremists. Their occupation, however, did not succeed in establishing peace. Instead, Afghanistan became one of many battlegrounds in the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. A civil war raged for ten years between the Soviets and the so-called Mujahideen, or Afghan freedom fighters, led by warlords from different parts of Afghanistan and supported covertly by the U.S. With the support of the U.S., the Mujahideen eventually succeeded in driving the Soviets out in 1989, as will be seen in later chapters of the novel.
During the ten-year Soviet occupation, many educated Afghans lost their jobs and were forced to do manual labor, as happens with Laila’s father Hakim in the novel. Schools taught pro-Soviet propaganda. However, the communist occupation did result in increased rights for Afghan women. As Laila’s father points out, the communists make life better for women by encouraging women’s education, abolishing forced marriage, and raising the marriage age. However, it is clear that women’s rights are not supported by many Afghans outside Kabul, nor in families less educated than Laila’s.
There is poetic justice in the reappearance of Jalil. Just as Mariam once waited outside her father’s house in Herat, Jalil now waits for Mariam, made to suffer rejection the way he made his daughter suffer years before. The appearance of Jalil creates suspense as to whether Mariam will ever be able to forgive her father. Jalil’s reappearance also reminds the reader of how geographically close Mariam and Laila are to each other and foreshadows the crossing of the two women’s paths.
Meanwhile, the love story of Laila and Tariq contrasts with Mariam’s loveless arranged marriage with Rasheed. Mariam once hoped Rasheed would defend and protect her from harm, but instead he harms her himself. Tariq, on the other hand, does defend and protect Laila. The incident in which Tariq is shown defending the beautiful Laila casts him as the fairytale hero—he is her knight in shining armor, wielding his leg as a sword.
Through the portrayal of Laila’s deeply depressed mother, Hosseini shows how the ongoing war affected Afghan families. Countless mothers like Fariba endured the extended absence of their sons and their eventual loss to war.