Study Guide

Ali and Maryam in The Breadwinner

By Deborah Ellis

Ali and Maryam

Parvana's little brother and sister haven't been out of the house in eighteen months, and since Ali is only two years old and Maryam is only five, this means they've had pretty bleak childhoods.

Ali was only a couple of months old when the Taliban took over, so this lifestyle is all he knows. He dozes on Mother's lap with "a piece of nan in his little fist" trying hard not to fall asleep "as if he hated the thought of missing something" (2.47). Meanwhile, Maryam likes to draw pictures and imagine that some day she will be rich and wear a green silk dress. The highlight of their days is to sit in a "ray of sunshine" that seeps into the apartment from the one tiny window up high (3.19). Like we said: pretty sad lives.

The night the soldiers kidnap Father is terrifying for these kids. They watch their parents get beaten, and they scream "with every blow to their mother's back" (2.77). After their screaming subsides Mother comforts the children by putting them to sleep on "an uncluttered spot on the floor" next to one another. (3.1) Sound comfy? Not.

Even though the children don't know exactly what is going on, they know Father is gone and they miss him—Ali keeps "waddling" over to the door and pointing to it, as if waiting for Father to appear (4.36). Meanwhile, Maryam helps Parvana put together a puzzle made of Father's face, but it just isn't the same. And then when Mother falls into her deep depression, the children suffer some more. Ali stops crawling around on the floor and just curls in a ball sucking his thumb, while Maryam desperately needs food; her cheeks "begin[ning] to look hollow" (4.64).

Once Parvana starts making some money to put food in their bellies, things look up a bit for the little kids, and Parvana even starts taking Maryam with her to fetch water. Parvana, Nooria, and the two children sometimes go out for a few hours in the market, which energizes the kids, who love to splash around at the water tap, finally getting a chance to act like children and feeling "livelier than they had in a long time" (8.55). These moments are brief, though, and the general sadness of Ali and Maryam's childhood is a stark reminder of how many innocent lives the Taliban ruins.