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HOME > Classical Novels > A Thousand Splendid Suns > Part ONE Chapter 1
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Part ONE Chapter 1
Mariam was five years old the first time she heard the wordharami.
It happened on a Thursday. It must have, because Mariamremembered that she had been restless and preoccupied thatday, the way she was only on Thursdays, the day when Jalilvisited her at thekolba. To pass the time until the moment thatshe would see him at last, crossing the knee-high grass in theclearing and waving, Mariam had climbed a chair and takendown her mother's Chinese tea set. The tea set was the solerelic that Mariam's mother, Nana, had of her own mother, whohad died when Nana was two. Nana cherished eachblue-and-white porcelain piece, the graceful curve of the pot'sspout, the hand-painted finches and chrysanthemums, thedragon on the sugar bowl, meant to ward off evil.
It was this last piece that slipped from Mariam's fingers, thatfell to the wooden floorboards of thekolba and shattered.
When Nana saw the bowl, her face flushed red and herupper lip shivered, and her eyes, both the lazy one and thegood, settled on Mariam in a flat, unblinking way. Nana lookedso mad that Mariam feared the jinn would enter her mother'sbody again. But the jinn didn't come, not that time. Instead,Nana grabbed Mariam by the wrists, pulled her close, and,through gritted teeth, said, "You are a clumsy little harami Thisis my reward for everything I've endured An heirloom-breaking,clumsy little harami."At the time, Mariam did not understand. She did not knowwhat this word harami-bastard -meant Nor was she oldenough to appreciate the injustice, to see that it is the creatorsof theharami who are culpable, not theharami, whose only sinis being born. Mariam did surmise, by the way Nana said theword, that it was an ugly, loath-some thing to be harami, likean insect, like the scurrying cockroaches Nana was alwayscursing and sweeping out of thekolba.
Later, when she was older, Mariam did understand. It wasthe way Nana uttered the word-not so much saying it asspitting it at her-that made Mariam feel the full sting of it. Sheunderstood then what Nana meant, that aharami was anunwanted thing; that she, Mariam, was an illegitimate personwho would never have legitimate claim to the things otherpeople had, things such as love, family, home, acceptance.
Jalil never called Mariam this name. Jalil said she was his littleflower. He was fond of sitting her on his lap and telling herstories, like the time he told her that Herat, the city whereMariam was bom, in 1959, had once been the cradle ofPersian culture, the home of writers, painters, and Sufis.
"You couldn't stretch a leg here without poking a poet in theass," he laughed.
Jalil told her the story of Queen Gauhar Shad, who hadraised the famous minarets as her loving ode to Herat back inthe fifteenth century. He described to her the green wheatfields of Herat, the orchards, the vines pregnant with plumpgrapes, the city's crowded, vaulted bazaars.
"There is a pistachio tree," Jalil said one day, "and beneath it,Mariam jo, is buried none other than the great poet Jami." Heleaned in and whispered, "Jami lived over five hundred yearsago. He did. I took you there once, to the tree. You were little.
You wouldn't remember."It was true. Mariam didn't remember. And though she wouldlive the first fifteen years of her life within walking distance ofHerat, Mariam would never see this storied tree. She wouldnever see the famous minarets up close, and she would neverpick fruit from Herat's orchards or stroll in its fields of wheat.
But whenever Jalil talked like this, Mariam would listen withenchantment. She would admire Jalil for his vast and worldlyknowledge. She would quiver with pride to have a father whoknew such things.
"What rich lies!" Nana said after Jalil left. "Rich man tellingrich lies. He never took you to any tree. And don't let himcharm you. He betrayed us, your beloved father. He cast usout. He cast us out of his big fancy house like we werenothing to him. He did it happily."Mariam would listen dutifully to this. She never dared say toNana how much she disliked her talking this way about Jalil.
The truth was that around Jalil, Mariam did not feel at all likeaharami. For an hour or two every Thursday, when Jalil cameto see her, all smiles and gifts and endearments, Mariam feltdeserving of all the beauty and bounty that life had to give.
And, for this, Mariam loved Jalil.
* * *Even if she had to share him.
Jalil had three wives and nine children, nine legitimatechildren, all of whom were strangers to Mariam. He was oneof Herat's wealthiest men. He owned a cinema, which Mariamhad never seen, but at her insistence Jalil had described it toher, and so she knew that the fa9ade was made ofblue-and-tan terra-cotta tiles, that it had private balcony seatsand a trellised ceiling. Double swinging doors opened into atiled lobby, where posters of Hindi films were encased in glassdisplays. On Tuesdays, Jalil said one day, kids got free icecream at the concession standNana smiled demurely when he said this. She waited until hehad left thekolba, before snickering and saying, "The children ofstrangers get ice cream. What do you get, Mariam? Stories ofice cream."In addition to the cinema, Jalil owned land in Karokh, land inFarah, three carpet stores, a clothing shop, and a black 1956Buick Roadmaster. He was one of Herat's best-connected men,friend of the mayor and the provincial governor. He had acook, a driver, and three housekeepers.
Nana had been one of the housekeepers. Until her bellybegan to swell.
When that happened, Nana said, the collective gasp of Jalil'sfamily sucked the air out of Herat. His in-laws swore bloodwould flow. The wives demanded that he throw her out.
Nana's own father, who was a lowly stone carver in thenearby village of Gul Daman, disowned her. Disgraced, hepacked his things and boarded a bus to Bran, never to beseen or heard from again.
"Sometimes," Nana said early one morning, as she wasfeeding the chickens outside thekolba, "I wish my father hadhad the stomach to sharpen one of his knives and do thehonorable thing. It might have been better for me." She tossedanother handful of seeds into the coop, paused, and looked atMariam. "Better for you too, maybe. It would have spared youthe grief of knowing that you are what you are. But he was acoward, my father. He didn't have thedil, the heart, for it."Jalil didn't have thedil either, Nana said, to do the honorablething. To stand up to his family, to his wives and inlaws, andaccept responsibility for what he had done. Instead, behindclosed doors, a face-saving deal had quickly been struck. Thenext day, he had made her gather her few things from theservants' quarters, where she'd been living, and sent her off.
"You know what he told his wives by way of defense? ThatIforced myself on him. That it was my fault.Didi? You see? Thisis what it means to be a woman in this world."Nana put down the bowl of chicken feed. She lifted Mariam'schin with a finger.
"Look at me, Mariam."Reluctantly, Mariam did.
Nana said, "Learn this now and learn it well, my daughter:
Like a compass needle that points north, a man's accusingfinger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that,Mariam."

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