Summary of Part 2, Chapters 20–23
Laila’s mother lies in bed most days, wearing black and suffering from various ailments. She prays five times daily, asking God to bring victory to the Mujahideen, and laments her martyred sons. Ahmad would have been a great leader; Noor would’ve been an architect who could have transformed Kabul with his designs. Concerned about her mother’s state of mind, Laila makes her promise that she will never kill herself. Fariba promises that she won’t do so, if only because she wants to live to see the Soviets disgraced and the Mujahideen coming to Kabul in victory.
Laila, her father, and Tariq go on a day trip out of Kabul. They pass through checkpoints and stop for convoys of Soviet troops. Here, outside of the city, the war is more visible. They go out to the countryside and see the black tents of nomads. Out in the distance are the ruins of an ancient fortress, Shahr-e-Zohak, The Red City, which was built nine hundred years ago to defend the country from invaders. The taxi driver points out, “that, my young friends, is the story of our country, one invader after another…. Macedonians. Sassanians. Arabs. Mongols. Now the Soviets.”
A half-hour later, they reach their destination. They have come to Bamiyan, the site of two giant Buddha statues chiseled into a rock cliff near the Silk Road. At one time, Laila’s father explains, there were five thousand monks living as hermits in caves in those cliffs. They carved the Buddhas and painted beautiful frescoes inside the caves. Climbing up inside one of the Buddhas, the three travelers enjoy a spectacular view of the Bamiyan valley, carpeted with lush fields, and the snowcapped mountain beyond. Laila’s father tells the children that this is their heritage; he wanted them to experience it for themselves.
Laila’s father confesses that as much as he loves Afghanistan, he sometimes thinks of leaving to start over somewhere new. They could go to America and open an Afghan restaurant. Laila could go to a top American high school. But he also knows that Laila’s mother would never allow this. She’d never leave the homeland her sons had died for. And Laila’s father would never leave his wife.
After lunch, they nap; Laila’s father reads a paperback copy of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Its plot seems a metaphor for the struggle going on in their war-torn country. Hemingway’s old man, Santiago, struggles to capture an enormous fish, only to see it torn up by sharks.
Laila thinks again about her father’s dream of leaving Afghanistan. She herself would not want to leave, because it would mean leaving Tariq.
Six months later, in April 1988, Laila’s father comes home with the news that the Soviets have signed a peace treaty in Geneva and will be withdrawing from Afghanistan. However, Fariba points out that the communist government under President Najibullah is still in place, and Najibullah will continue to be a puppet of the Kremlin. She won’t celebrate until the Mujahideen are truly victorious.
In January 1989, Laila watches as the last Soviet convoys leave Kabul. The crowd heckles and jeers, and women hold high the photos of their martyred husbands and sons. Tariq and Laila sneak off together to watch a Soviet movie dubbed into Farsi. Both feel uncomfortable, sitting in the cinema, when they see the onscreen characters kiss. Laila can’t help but wonder what it would be like to kiss Tariq.
Three years pass, and it is 1992. Tariq’s father has suffered a series of strokes. Hasina is married off to her cousin. The Soviet Union crumbles, and the republics of Lithuania, Estonia, and Ukraine declare their independence one after the other. President Najibullah now attempts to portray himself as a devout Muslim in order to hold power, but people have not forgotten that he was once the chief of the dreaded KHAD, the secret police, and was responsible for the torture and murder of many dissidents. The Mujahideen refuse his efforts to forge a peace settlement, and in April 1992, Najibullah surrenders at last.
The Mujahideen come in victory to Kabul. Laila’s mother knows all their names and sees them as heroes. Her particular hero is the Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, also known as the “Lion of Panjshir.” Now that victory has come, she puts aside her black mourning clothes and cleans the house in preparation for a party. She asks Laila when she plans to marry Tariq. Laila is now too old to play with the boy as a friend; people will talk. In fact, they already are talking, comparing the young couple to Laila and Majnoon, the heroes of a famous romantic poem.
At the party, the new state of Afghanistan is discussed. The Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, as the country was called under the communists, will now be known as the Islamic State of Afghanistan. For now, the country will be run by an Islamic Jihad Council, and meanwhile, a grand council of leaders and elders will form an interim government, leading up to democratic elections.
Laila’s friend Giti attends the party as well, and the two prepare food together in the kitchen. She looks more grown up now, and has a crush on an older boy, who she hopes will ask for her hand in marriage. Tariq enters to see Laila. He has grown taller and his face more angular, and he has a new cockiness he didn’t have before. She teases him about the silly girls who are after him now, but he makes her heart jump by saying he only has eyes for Laila. As they talk, a fight breaks out at the party between two men arguing politics. One man is an ethnic Tajik and the other Pashtun; the Pashtun accuses the popular Tajik leader Ahmad Shah Massoud of having made a deal with the Soviets in the 1980s, and the Tajik takes offense. Other men start jumping in, throwing punches; to Laila’s horror, Tariq too participates in the fight.
Soon after, the leadership council of the new Islamic State of Afghanistan elects the ethnic Tajik leader Rabbani as president, angering the ethnic Uzbek, Pashtun, and Hazara factions. War breaks out as the factions battle for control of the government. The Mujahideen have found the enemy in each other. Rockets begin to rain down on Kabul, and Laila’s mother begins to wear black again.
Analysis of Part 2, Chapters 20–23
These chapters chronicle an ongoing cycle of hope and disappointment for Laila’s family and for the country as a whole. In 1973, after the overthrowing of the Shah, there had been high hope for the new democratic government of Daoud Khan; that hope was dashed by the communist coup and the entry of the Soviets in 1978–79. Fariba’s hopes for her sons are destroyed when they are killed in the war against the Soviets. Her hope for the nation’s future is renewed when the Mujahideen overthrow the communist government in 1992 and establish an Islamic state. However, that hope, too, is soon destroyed. The fight at Fariba’s victory party foreshadows and parallels the fight that breaks out among the new political leaders of Afghanistan. Having defeated their common enemy, the nationalist Mujahideen are no longer united. Their alliance dissolves in ethnic rivalries that have plagued the diverse nation throughout its history. The long civil war continues and intensifies, now threatening to destroy the nation’s capital, Kabul.
The trip to Bamiyan provides a view of Afghanistan’s rich cultural heritage, its unique position on the Silk Road linking China to Western Asia, and its long history of defending itself against invaders. As recounted later in the novel, the treasured giant Buddhas of Bamiyan were to be destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, in an example of the radical Islamic government’s religious intolerance and lack of respect for culture and the arts.
Both Laila and her friend Giti are in love, but a dark cloud looms over their happiness, as it is foreshadowed that their fledgling romances will be destroyed by the violence that is overtaking Afghanistan.