Summary of Part 3, Chapters 39–42
Chapter 39: Mariam
It is September of 1997, and Laila is about to give birth to her second child. Arriving at the hospital, they are turned away; the Taliban has forbidden women to be treated in the same hospitals as men. There is only one hospital for women now, and it has no supplies; no clean water, no oxygen, medications, or electricity.
The waiting room at the women’s hospital is in chaos. When Laila is finally seen by a doctor, she is told she must have a caesarian because the baby is not positioned properly for delivery. However, there is no anesthesia in the hospital. “Cut me open and give me my baby,” Laila says. Her fingers crush Mariam’s as they cut into her body, and she screams.
Chapter 40: Laila
It is now the fall of 1999, and the country is in the second year of a terrible drought. Laila and Mariam dig a well in the back yard in order to get drinking water.
Laila’s son, Zalmai, is two years old and resembles his father. When Laila is alone with him, the boy is sweet and playful. However, his father spoils him, and when Rasheed is around, Zalmai is defiant and impudent. Rasheed takes Zalmai everywhere and indulges him with gifts they cannot really afford, such as a television and VCR bought in the black market. Meanwhile, he suggests that Aziza become a street beggar to help raise money for the family. Enraged by the suggestion, Laila punches her husband, but gets a gun shoved into her mouth as a reply.
Since television is banned by the Taliban, they must bury their set in the yard in order to hide it. Laila has a nightmare that instead of the television, they are burying Aziza in the ground in order to hide her from the Taliban, too.
Chapter 41: Mariam
In the summer of 2000, the drought reaches its third and worst year. Livestock dies off, and farmers migrate to the city and live in slums. The movie Titanic comes out, and everyone in Kabul gets pirated copies. They are obsessed with this movie about a terrible disaster, and fantasize that they will be rescued from disaster just as the heroine, Rose, is rescued by her lover, Jack. “But there is no Jack,” Laila says. “Jack is not coming back. Jack is dead.”
A fire destroys Rasheed’s shop, leaving the family with no source of income. Everything must be sold, including Zalmai’s TV. Rasheed goes to work for restaurants, but is fired twice for being rude to customers. The family begins to starve.
Finally, desperate, Mariam decides she must call her father in Herat to ask him for help. She and Rasheed go to the Intercontinental Hotel to make the phone call. Rasheed knows the doorman there, and he will allow them to use the phone; the doorman looks familiar to Mariam, too, but she can’t place him. In the hotel are many rich Pakistani and Arab Islamists. “Meet our real masters,” Rasheed says in a low voice. “The Taliban are puppets. These are the big players and Afghanistan is their playground.”
Reaching Herat by phone, Mariam is told that her father died years ago, back in 1987, the same year he had waited outside Mariam’s house in Kabul. Mariam realizes now that when he came to see her, it was because he was dying and wanted to say goodbye.
Chapter 42: Laila
It is April of 2001, and Laila is nearly twenty-three. The Taliban have alienated the outside world by destroying the famous giant Buddhas of Bamiyan. Mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud has formed an opposition group called the Northern Alliance and is seeking Western aid to fight the Taliban. He has warned Western leaders about terrorist camps in Afghanistan; the terrorists will damage the United States and Europe very soon if nothing is done to stop them.
With Rasheed still out of work, and the women forbidden from working by the Taliban, the family is forced to give Aziza up to an orphanage, where she at least will not go hungry. The orphanage director is a kindly man named Zaman, who believes in education even if the Taliban do not. He secretly teaches the orphans in his care. Laila even recognizes her former teacher, the communist woman, as one of the instructors.
Laila promises to visit regularly, but soon Rasheed loses interest and stops taking her. As it is forbidden for a woman to leave the house alone, Laila is beaten many times while trying to reach her daughter. Sometimes she manages to get there for a visit; often, she cannot. On her visits to see Aziza, she is happy to find that her daughter is learning—about tectonic plates, the atmosphere, and evaporation. On the surface, she seems happy and glib; however, there are signs that she is being damaged by the separation. She has developed a stutter.
Rasheed finds work at a hotel; he looks pitiable in his bellhop’s uniform. On a rare family outing with Aziza, he buys a toy for Zalmai but refuses to buy one for Aziza; he can’t afford both.
After the outing, when Rasheed drops them off at home and goes to work, the women find a man waiting at the front door. It is Tariq.
Analysis of Part 3, Chapters 39–42
Chapters 39–42 illustrate life under Taliban rule, from 1997 to 2001. Laila’s experience in the hospital shows how far the Taliban have gone in their oppression of women, as women are denied even the right to basic health care. Her experience also shows the strength of women, as Laila undergoes the excruciating pain of a Caesarian without anesthesia in order to save her unborn child.
The introduction of Zalmai, a male child, as a counterpart to the female child, Aziza, serves to illustrate further the unfair treatment of women under the current government. Zalmai is being raised in a society that treats women as second-class citizens. He is spoiled and given a television, while his sister is threatened with being sent out to beg in the streets and ultimately sent away to an orphanage. Although Zalmai is naturally sweet and loving, his personality is distorted by the favoritism and the bad example of his father, making him defiant and impudent toward his mother.
The orphanage is a positive environment for Aziza and a reminder that there is hope for Afghanistan, as there still exist sanctuaries like these even under the watchful eye of the repressive regime. Zaman, like Hakim and Mullah Faizullah, is an example of an educated male who does not buy into the sexist ideology of his society.
The metaphor of the Titanic represents the state of the country under Taliban rule. Like the ship, the country is a disaster. The reference to tectonic plates also provides a metaphor for the threat present in not only Mariam and Laila’s lives, but in the world as a result of radical Islam. On the surface, things may appear stable apart from the occasional tremor, but cracks are forming beneath the crust, and a catastrophic earthquake is imminent.
In Chapter 42, there are definite signs of an earthquake to come on a global scale. Massoud, fighting against the Taliban, warns Western leaders that if they do not help him, terrorists from Afghanistan will strike the U.S. and Europe very soon. This foreshadows the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001, which would lead to another war in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, an earthquake is about to happen in the lives of Mariam and Laila, as Tariq appears at their door.