Culture / Politics

A Literary Portrayal of Life During the Soviet War in Afghanistan and the Taliban Regime


Olga Lenczewska writes about K. Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns” and the commentary on the Soviet regime in Afghanistan as featured in the novel

In his 2007 novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, the Afghan-American writer Khaled Hosseini portrays the life of Afghan people during a time of political transition: from the Republic of Afghanistan, to the socialist, Soviet-allied Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, to the Mujahideen-ruled Islamic State of Afghanistan, and finally to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan led by the Taliban. Hosseini’s account of the struggle to survive through regime fluctuation and various political demands pertains to Afghans of all social classes, political views, and ethnic backgrounds. Hosseini’s novel is to be appreciated for making misery and abuse a reader’s fascination, for showing the value of sacrifice and beautifully portraying the strength of Afghan women; yet Hosseini also equips the reader with an account of the various relations between a common man and history through examples of people’s attitudes towards the Soviets and the Taliban.

A Thousand Splendid Suns revolves around the lives of two Afghan women. Mariam and Laila come from different worlds, the former struggling with poverty and lacking an educational background, the latter leading a happy life amidst a loving family. The stories of the protagonists intertwine as a result of the many tragedies caused by the politically unstable situation in Afghanistan: the Soviet War (1979-1989), the internal conflicts amongst the jihadists “Mujahideen” (1989-1996), and the Taliban regime (1996-2001). Nonetheless, the opinions of the characters vary on the matter and should be examined accordingly.

In 1978, as a result of Saur Revolution, the socialist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan ceases to exist after the assassination of one of the leaders of the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), Mir Akbar Khyber, and the following overthrow of the president Daoud Khan. The Afghan government controlled by PDPA deploys Soviet forces. When the uneducated Mariam asks Rasheed (a much older man whom she was forced to marry) what a communist represents, he abruptly criticises her for her lack of knowledge. When he answers the question, it becomes clear that, despite being a well-respected businessman, he has no idea either: “he crossed his ankles on the table and mumbled that it was someone who believed in Karl Marxist” [p.97][1]. At this point it becomes clear to the reader that Afghan society is constituted of men of good social status and wealth, who take advantage of their gender-afforded privileges yet lack a political awareness. The flaws in the country’s regime are traceable to its leaders’ misunderstanding of the political economy.

The Afghan warriors during the Soviet war

Afghan warriors during the Soviet war

Afghanistan’s regime is based on the USSR prototype. Soviet “progressiveness” determines the adoption of quasi-liberal propaganda. Women appear to have extensive rights, including access to education and liberal, Western vestments. In 1987, when the country still finds itself under the rule of the Soviet-allied PDPA, Laila comes across Soviet propaganda at her school. Her teacher explains that the Soviet Union is the best nation in the world because everyone is equal and friendly there, “and everyone in Afghanistan would be happy too, she said, once the anti-progressives, the backward bandits, were defeated. (…) She is further taught that no war ever took place in the provinces, but mere skirmishes against troublemakers stirred by people she called foreign provocateurs” [p.112]. The propaganda in the Afghan education system is evident and echoes the system in Eastern European countries under communist rule. However, for the intelligentsia of Afghanistan the Soviet regime has certain positive connotations such as progress and equality of opportunity for both sexes. Indeed, Laila’s dad, an university professor, doesn’t object to the Soviet regime and explains to her daughter that “The [Afghan] society has no chance if the women are uneducated” [p.114]; “Women have always had it hard in this country, Laila, but they’re probably more free now, under the communists, and have more rights than they’ve ever had before” [p.133]. Laila’s mother, by contrast, dreams of the day when the Soviets leave Afghanistan. This stems from her loss of two sons in the Soviet War fought against the Mujahideen. The struggle of motherhood is well contrasted with the education of the male figure in the family, reflective of a clash in attitudes. On the one hand the novel speaks of admiration for Soviet values in Afghanistan through introduction of equal rights and enfranchisement for women, while the other side of the story deplores the tragedy of deaths on the war front.

The year 1989 sees Soviet departure from Kabul. But the people on the streets don’t believe their regime is over because the current president, Najibullah, is “a Soviet puppet” and a former head of KHAD, an Afghan equivalent of the Soviet KGB. The physical presence of the Soviets is not required in order for Afghanistan to impose the communist regime on the country. Three years later, when the Republic of Russia emerges as a political entity, Najibullah changes tactics and portrays himself as a devout Muslim, reaffirming his desire to rule over his political loyalty and ideological consequentialism. The intelligentsia members of Afghanistan, such as Laila’s father, don’t trust him anymore: ““Too little and far too late,” said Babi [Laila’s father]. “You can’t be the chief of KHAD one day and the next day pray in a mosque with people whose relatives you tortured and killed.” Feeling the noose around Kabul, Najibullah tried to reach a settlement with the Mujahideen but the Mujahideen balked” [p.157].  This is when the life in Kabul becomes particularly dangerous and people enter a process of mass immigration to Pakistan and Iran, Laila’s friends and the love of her life Tariq included.

In 1996, the country is rescued from the Mujahideen by the Taliban, who arrive “out of nowhere”: “Their leader was a mysterious, illiterate, one-eyed recluse named Mullah Omar who, Rasheed said with some amusement, called himself Ameer-ul-Mumineen, Leader of the Faithful” [p.226]. Rasheed comments that perhaps the Taliban know nothing of the country, but they are “pure and incorruptible”, and thus better than the corrupt, greedy Mujahideen commanders who kill one another. Tragically for the Afghan women, the Taliban regime forbids the female citizens to go to school, work, leave their homes alone, or have access to sanitary aids (for example, when Laila gives birth to her second child, she has to have a caesarean section without any anaesthetic). Everyone has to dress according to the rules: men have to grow a beard, women must be fully covered. Entertainment such as book-writing, singing or dancing is forbidden too. Laila doesn’t believe people will obey in Kabul, where so many women are used to working and studying, but Rasheed laughs at her: “In the eyes of the Taliban, being a communist and the leader of the dreaded KHAD was only slightly more contemptible than a woman” [p.272]. Rasheed is simply glad that women will now have as little rights as he has always wanted them to, since a long time ago asking Mariam and Laila to hide upstairs when his friends visited him.

The different reactions and comments of the main protagonists, such as Mariam, Rasheed, Laila, her father, her mother, and a teacher, demonstrate the complexity of the Afghan society’s views and needs. Rarely does any novel portray life under a Soviet regime in an ambivalent manner as seen in A Thousand Splendid Suns. The Western reader is faced with a multifaceted view, whereby the Soviet regime had carried with it both misery and progress, economic decay and enfranchisement alike.

Olga Lenczewska

[1] All page numbers refer to the British edition of A Thousand Splendid Suns: Bloomsbury 2007.


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