These women were—what was the word Rasheed had used?—"modern." Yes, modern Afghan women married to modern Afghan men who did not mind that their wives walked among strangers with makeup on their faces and nothing on their heads. (1.11.19)
The word "modern" comes up again and again. Cities like Kabul are havens for modern Afghans, who prefer democratic values over traditional morality. As we'll come to see, though, not everyone agrees with this modern lifestyle.
[Jalil] was fond of sitting her on his lap and telling her stories, like the time he told her that Herat, the city where Mariam was born, in 1959, had once been the cradle of Persian culture, the home of writers, painters, and Sufis. (1.1.7)
Although we never get a firsthand look at Herat in its prime, we hear countless stories about the city. The hip, bohemian Herat is a great contrast to the repressive political environment that characterizes Afghanistan in the second half of the novel.
This, she thought, was Ahmad and Noor's Afghanistan. This, here in the provinces, was where the war was being fought, after all. Not in Kabul. Kabul was largely at peace. (2.21.7)
Again, we see the importance of the division between urban and rural Afghanistan. While the Soviets are still in power, Laila remains in Kabul, blissfully isolated from the fighting. Of course, the war eventually reaches the city and brings with it the culture of rural Afghanistan.
Here in Kabul, women taught at the university, ran schools, held office in the government. No, Babi meant the tribal areas, especially the Pashtun regions in the south or in the east near the Pakistani border, where women were rarely seen on the streets and only then in burqa and accompanied by men. (2.18.105)
Afghanistan is defined by the tension between its cities and its rural areas. The cities are modern and educated, while the country is conservative and traditional. Both areas have their positive and negative qualities, but the tension between the two can sometimes cause chaos, as it does here.
To me, it's nonsense—and very dangerous nonsense at that—all this talk of I'm a Tajik and you're a Pashtun and he's Hazara and she's Uzbek. We're all Afghans, and that's all that should matter. (2.18.46)
There are a ton of different ethnic groups in Afghanistan, and there's plenty of tension to go around. These ethnic divisions even cause the downfall the Mujahideen. Babi, on the other hand, favors a nationalistic view of Afghanistan, rather than a tribal one.
"How urbane, how Tajik of you. You think this is some new, radical idea the Taliban are bringing? Have you ever lived outside your precious little shell in Kabul, my gul?" (3.37.53)
The different ethnic groups of Afghanistan have vastly different cultures. The Persian Tajiks are known for the metropolitan nature, while the Pashtuns have a conservative culture. These differences are embodied by Laila and Rasheed: she's a Tajik, and he's a Pashtun.
[Laila] thought longingly of the wide-open skies of her childhood, of her days of going to buzkashi tournaments with Babi and shopping at Mandaii with Mammy. (3.32.31)
These peaceful images of pre-war Kabul show how "normal" life in Afghanistan was. Laila watched sports with her dad and went shopping with her mom. Does that seem much different from your day-to-day life?
That summer, Titanic fever gripped Kabul. People smuggled pirated copies of the film from Pakistan—sometimes in their underwear. After curfew, everyone locked their doors, turned out the lights, turned down the volume, and reaped tears for Jack and Rose. (3.41.12)
American pop culture has a surprisingly big impact on the Kabul in A Thousand Splendid Suns. Even in the midst of a war, Afghans are so hungry for stories that they are willing to risk life and limb to watch a movie.
[I]n the last few months, she has found herself missing the city of her childhood. She misses the bustle of Shor Bazaar, the Gardens of Babur, the call of the water carriers lugging their goatskin bags. (4.50.5)
After the war, Laila often becomes nostalgic for the Kabul of her youth. Many of the places she remembers are destroyed, which leaves her and the other remaining Afghans with the task of rebuilding.
For the first time in year, Laila hears music at Kabul's street corners, rubab and table, dootar, harmonium and tamboura, old Ahmad Zahir songs. (4.51.13)
The Afghanistan portrayed in the novel is full of art, music, and culture, which makes the Taliban's ban of media all the more disheartening. Once the Taliban is defeated, however, it doesn't take long for that vibrant culture to peek its head back up again.