When the money ran out, hunger began to cast a pall over their lives. It was stunning to Mariam how quickly alleviating hunger became the crux of their existence. (3.41.36)
How can you expect people to go about their daily lives without food in their stomachs? To be honest, the Shmoop staff won't even start working until we've had a breakfast burrito and two large coffees each. Speaking of which...
Death from starvation suddenly became a distinct possibility. Some chose not to wait for it. Mariam heard of a neighborhood widow who had ground some dried bread, laced it with rat poison, and fed it to all seven of her children. She had saved the biggest portion for herself. (3.41.38)
People do crazy things when they have no hope. The neighborhood woman from this passage saw poverty as a slow death, choosing instead to take control herself. What she does is unthinkable, but it's not hard to see how her actions were shaped by her circumstances.
"What good are all your smarts to you now? What's keeping you off the streets, your smarts or me? I'm despicable? Half the women in the city would kill to have a husband like me. They would kill for it." (3.38.22)
This is an unfortunate truth that the educated, middle-class Laila has yet to realize. It's easy to pursue your dreams when you have money, but it's much harder when finances are tight. This becomes doubly true once the Taliban basically forbids women from making a living.
He watched little emaciated boys carrying water in their jerry cans, gathering dog droppings to make a fire, carving toy AK-47s out of wood with dull knives, lugging the sacks of wheat flour that no one could make bread from that held together. (3.44.37)
This is a heartbreaking image of the reality of poverty. It's even more upsetting that the children are playing with toy guns, because the war is one of the biggest causes of widespread poverty.
Laila would notice the dirt under Aziza's fingernails, and Aziza would notice her noticing and bury her hands under her thighs. Whenever a kid cried in their vicinity, snot oozing from his nose, or if a kid walked by bare-assed, hair clumped with dirt, Aziza's eyelids fluttered and she was quick to explain it away. She was like a hostess embarrassed in front of her guests by the squalor of her home. (3.42.97)
People think that kids don't notice things as much as adults, but we can see here how living in the impoverished orphanage is impacting Aziza. Like Laila, she feels unduly guilty for the conditions she's living in.
After the fire, Rasheed was home almost every day. He slapped Aziza. He kicked Mariam. He threw things. He found fault with Laila, the way she smelled, the way she dressed, the way she combed her hair, her yellowing teeth. (3.41.24)
The experience of living in poverty has a profound effect on personal relationships. Rasheed takes out his frustration about money on Mariam, Laila, and Aziza, despite the fact that many of the problems are his fault.
Aziza stammered now. Mariam noticed it first. It was subtle but perceptible, and more pronounced with words that began with t. Laila asked Zaman about it. He frowned and said, "I thought she'd always done that." (3.42.105)
Aziza didn't exactly have an easy life before the orphanage. She struggled alongside her family after Rasheed's shop burned down. The conditions at the orphanage must be pretty bad for her to be so shaken up by them.
"It isn't your fault. Do you hear me? Not you. It's those savages, those washis who are to blame […] And you're not alone, hamshira. We get mothers like you all the time—all the time—mothers who come here who can't feed their children because the Taliban won't let them go out and make a living. So you don't blame yourself. No one here blames you. I understand." (3.42.49)
Laila needs to hear these words from Zaman. When you're as desperate as Laila is, it's easy to blame yourself for your circumstances. Zaman reminds her that she too is a victim of bigger political and economic forces.
Laila told him she didn't care what other people did with their children.
"I'll keep a close eye on her," Rasheed said, less patiently now. "It's a safe corner. There's a mosque across the street!"
"I won't let you turn my daughter into a street beggar!" Laila snapped. (3.40.46-48)
Okay, you think child labor is bad? How about making your child pretend to be a homeless street beggar? Laila rightfully shoots down the idea, but the fact that it's an option indicates the direness of their financial status.
"There is no time," she said. "For one thing, none of the nearby pharmacies have it. […] Even if you find it, chances are you can't afford it. Or you'll find yourself in a bidding war with someone just as desperate." (3.39.70)
In America, people debate over the price of medical care until they go blue in the face, but they should count their blessings that things aren't this bad. There's little doubt that the warlords who run the government have plenty of money to buy medical care for themselves, leaving little for poor women like Laila.