Although A Thousand Splendid Suns spends time outside of Kabul, the novel is a big love letter to the birthplace of author Khaled Hosseini. After all, the title of the novel is taken from a poem dedicated to Kabul's beauty.
The novel looks at the city during a time of conflict, when forces from within and without are struggling to take control of Afghanistan. Kabul itself hits some highs and lows throughout this period, but the novel never loses faith in the people of Kabul and their ability to endure.
Cash Rules Everything Around Me
Like all cities, Kabul has many different faces. There is Deh-Mazang, the low-to-middle-class area where Rasheed's house is located. We also take a stroll down Chicken Street where Mariam sees the "modern Afghan women," whose freedom she envies (1.11.19). This is one of the first signs of the class issues that affect Kabul.
While the wealthy side of Kabul enjoys modern amenities and easy access to a higher education, the poorer part has a much harder time. It's easy to flaunt traditional morality when you have money, but it's harder when you are struggling to make ends meet. While the rich kids get "watches with leather bands," the children in the poorer parts only have "old bicycle tires" to play with (1.11.19). And that's before times get really tough in Kabul.
The Times They Are A-Changin'
Things take a turn for the worse after the Soviets take control. There are certainly some benefits at first, specifically in terms of women's rights: girls have more access to education than ever, and traditional moral rules are not supported by the government. Unfortunately, there are many who disagree with these changes, and they band together to form the Mujahideen. Surprisingly, this unites the often-warring ethnic groups of Afghanistan.
Once the war is over, however, this alliance falls apart.
The Taliban take control after years of fighting, but they have no interest in returning Kabul to its former glory. Instead, they take old-school morality from conservative rural communities—what Rasheed calls "the real Afghanistan"—and bring it to the city (3.37.53).
That means that all women must wear burqas at all times, that girls are forbidden from going to school, and that all forms of media, from music to movies to painting, are banned. They're about two laws away from being the small town from Footloose.
Moving On Up
The people of Kabul show a surprising amount of resilience in spite of the situation. The whole city falls in love with the movie Titanic, for example. They flaunt the Taliban's media ban and risk punishment in order to share an emotional experience with each other.
There's a similar thing happening within Laila and Mariam's home, as well. They experience the same poverty as the rest of Kabul, and though their home becomes more and more squalid, the relationships between Laila, Mariam, and Aziza grow stronger.
Then, just like that, the Taliban is gone. With UN forces now in Kabul, life returns to some semblance of normality. Laila sees that the people have taken to planting flowers in old missile shells and calling them "rocket flower" (4.51.13). Talk about taking lemons and making lemonade.
That's the beauty of Kabul. Though the people suffer and struggle, they never lose hope. You can take their money, you can take their loved ones, but you can never take the spirit of the people of Kabul.