Most people in Afghanistan could not read or write. Parvana was one of the lucky ones. Both of her parents had been to university, and they believed in education for everyone, even girls. (1.12)
Can you imagine a country that is mostly illiterate? Think about what our society would be like if most of our citizens couldn't read or write. Parvana is one of the lucky ones because she has educated parents, but this isn't the case for most kids.
The two soldiers grabbed her father. The other two began searching the apartment, kicking the remains of dinner all over the mat.
"Leave him alone!" Mother screamed. "He has done nothing wrong!"
"Why did you go to England for your education? the soldier yelled at Father. "Afghanistan doesn't need your foreign ideas!" They yanked him toward the door.
"Afghanistan needs more illiterate thugs like you, "Father said." One of the soldiers hit him in the face. Blood from his nose dripped onto his white shalwar kameez. (2.72-2.75)
Father is being kidnapped because he is an educated man, and the fact that he received his education in England makes matters even worse—the Taliban is threatened by anyone who might challenge their ideas or authority, and nothing suggests someone might do just that like an education abroad.
Inside the room, the other two soldiers were ripping open the toshaks with knives and tossing things out of the cupboard.
Father's books! At the bottom of the cupboard was a secret compartment her father had built to hide the few books that had not been destroyed in one of the bombings. Some were English books about history and literature. They were kept hidden because the Taliban burned books they didn't like. (2.81-2.82)
As the Talibs tear through Parvana's apartment, she worries that they will find and burn Father's books and writings, his most valuable possessions that symbolize the importance of education in their lives. Censorship is a form of control, and books provide a source of freedom, which leaves us curious… Would you risk your life for a book?
Mother wasn't supposed to be out of her home without a man, or without a note from her husband.
"Nooria, write Mother a note."
"Don't bother, Nooria. I will not walk around my own city with a note pinned to my burqa as if I were a kindergarten child. I have a university degree!" (3.25-3.27)
Mother just wants to get out of the house to shop for a few hours. Is that too much to ask? Under the Taliban rule, the answer is yes. Women are under men's control in Kabul, and this is humiliating to Mother who is a well-educated woman. Education for Mother gives her stature in the community; it earns her respect. Nooria winds up forging a note from Father for Mother to carry with her just in case, though—a trick an illiterate family wouldn't be able to pull off.
It would help if she could read, but the only books they had were Father's secret books. She didn't dare take them out of their hiding place. What if the Taliban burst in on them again? They'd take the books, and maybe punish the whole family for having them. (4.45)
The Taliban really hates books, so much so that Parvana is scared to death to even take a peek at her Father's books while inside her apartment. They are his prized possessions and he would be heartbroken without them, so she doesn't dare risk losing them, even though they offer some comfort to her.
"Are you keeping up with your studies?" Mrs. Weera asked.
"My father's parents don't believe in girls being educated, and since we're living in their house, my mother says we have to do what they say."
"Do they mind you dressing like a boy and going out to work?" (6.32-6.34)
You got to love Mrs. Weera's dry humor. Shauzia's family is relying on her for food, and this involves her risking her life on a daily basis as she pretends she is a boy… But crack a book? Heck no. No girl in their family's going to do a think like that. While we think Parvana is the most unfortunate little girl alive, her family life looks like sunshine and roses compared to Shauzia's—at least Parvana's family encourages her to think for herself and expand her mind.
Nooria had ideas for the school. She had been planning to go to teacher's college when she finished high school, before the Taliban changed her plans. Father had given her and Parvana lessons for awhile when the schools first closed, but his health was not good, and the practice fell away.
"I could teach arithmetic and history," Nooria said. "Mrs. Weera could teach health and science, and Mother could teach reading and writing."
Parvana didn't like the idea of learning from Nooria. As a teacher, she'd be even bossier than she was as a big sister! Still, she couldn't remember the last time she'd seen Nooria excited about something, so she kept quiet. (9.48-9.50)
Education gives Nooria's life a purpose—she feels that teaching is her calling, and just the thought of starting a small school excites her. You've got to hand it to these women. They refuse to let a few Taliban soldiers get in the way of the girls' education, and school means so much to them that they are willing to die in order to keep young minds growing.
"Do you really want to do this?"
Nooria nodded. "Look at my life here, Parvana. I hate living under the Taliban. I'm tired of looking after the little ones. My school classes happen so seldom, they're of almost no value. There's no future for me here. At least in Mazar I can go to school, walk the streets without having to wear a burqa, and get a job when I've completed school. Maybe in Mazar I can have some kind of life. Yes, I want to do this." (13.6-13.7)
Nooria has agreed to the arranged marriage, which means she will move to Mazar. Parvana questions if this is what she really wants, but it clearly it is—Mazar offers women the freedom to go to school and get a job, and for Nooria, this is a chance to become fulfilled and lead a meaningful life.
"If we had left Afghanistan when we had the chance, I could be doing my work!"
"We are Afghans. This is our home. If all the educated people leave, who will rebuild the country?" (4.9)
When the Taliban first arrived in Kabul, Mother wanted to leave but Father felt it was important to stay, since they are part of the few educated elite, and he believes it is their duty to help build a new government once the Taliban is defeated. Father's decision causes conflict in his marriage, and really puts the women in the house in a pickle. Aren't they the ones who suffer the most? For being so smart, some might say this was a really stupid decision.
"Mrs. Weera was going to Pakistan. "Homa will come with me. We'll put her to work there." They were going to link up with the members of the women's group who were organizing Afghan women in exile.
"Where will you stay?"
"I have a cousin in one of the camps," Mrs. Weera replied. "She has been wanting me to come and live with her."
"Is there a school there?"
"If there isn't, we'll start one." (15.37-15.41)
Mrs. Weera has devoted her life to educating Afghan women, but if she can't teach in Afghanistan anymore, then she'll move to Pakistan—no matter what though, the teaching must continue. She flippantly mentions starting a new school from scratch like it's a piece of cake, but we don't doubt her.
She wasn't supposed to be outside at all. The Taliban had ordered all the girls and women in Afghanistan to stay inside their homes. They even forbade girls to go to school. Parvana had had to leave her sixth grade class and her sister Nooria was not allowed to go to her high school. Their mother had been kicked out of her job as a writer for a Kabul radio station. (1.3)
One of the Taliban's first items of business is to take away women's rights—no school, no work, and no roaming the streets without a man. This is particularly hard for the women in Parvana's family because they are raised to value their education and independence. In general, though, restricting women's freedom is the Taliban's way of keeping them submissive.
Parvana rushed after her. She had to run to keep up with her mother's long, quick steps, but she didn't dare fall behind. There were a few other women in the street and they all worse the regulation burqa, which made them look all alike. If Parvana lost track of her mother, she was afraid she'd never find her again. (3.38)
The burqa restricts women's freedom, and it also makes them lose their individual identities. This poses a problem for Parvana here because if she loses her mother on the way to the prison, she will have no idea how to find her. Mother, however, is a woman on a mission, and she not about to let a burqa get in her way of finding her husband.
Parvana had never been inside a prison, but she had other relatives who had been arrested. One of her aunts has been arrested with hundreds of other schoolgirls for protesting the Soviet occupation of her country. All the Afghan governments put their enemies in jail.
"You can't be truly Afghan if you don't know someone who's been in prison," her mother sometimes said. (3.9-3.10)
The Afghan people know that speaking out against their oppressors may land them in prison, but they do so anyway because freedom is that important. We think of prison as a place to punish criminals, but in their country, prison is a place to contain those who fight for their rights. Mother jokes about it being a part of their lifestyle, but making light of the situation is probably her way of coping and helping Parvana feel less afraid.
Fetching water took a very long time. Maryam had seen nothing but the four walls of their room for almost a year and a half. Everything outside the door was new to her. Her muscles were not used to the most basic exercise. Parvana helped her up and down the steps as carefully as she'd had to help Father. (8.37)
Can you imagine being a child and not being able to play outside for nearly eighteen months? No sunshine. No exercise. When Maryam finally sees the light of day, her body is in shock, and she's so weak and fragile that just walking is strenuous.
For Ali's sake, Nooria went along with the idea. Every day after lunch, Parvana, Nooria, Ali and Maryam went outside for an hour. Ali had been only a few months when the Taliban came. All he really knew was the little room they had been shut up in for a year and a half. Nooria had not been outside, either, in all that time.
They would walk around the neighborhood until their legs got tired, then they would sit in the sunshine. When there was no one around, Parvana would keep watch, and Nooria would flip up her burqa to let the sun pour down on her face.
"I'd forgotten how good this feels," she said. (8.51-8.53)
Nooria isn't thrilled that she has to have Parvana-the-boy escort her outside, but since she isn't free to walk about on her own, she has no choice—plus it's Ali's only chance to see what the outside looks like. While she is hesitant at first though, Nooria thoroughly enjoys her hour a day of sunlight. Sure someone might see her, but it's worth the risk to feel sun on her face.
"There's only my mother and me and my two little sisters left," Shauzia said. "My mother doesn't go out. She's sick all the time. We're living with my father's parents and one of his sisters. Everybody fights all the time. I'm lucky to be able to get away from them and go to work." (9.30)
Confinement isn't easy on any family, but Shauzia's situation is much worse than Parvana's, since she doesn't get along with her father's family so her home life is stressful and combative. Dressing up like a boy and roaming the marketplace is Shauzia's break from the drama at home, and though the situation is dangerous, anything is better than being stuck in cramped quarters with people you can't stand.
"As soon as I get out of Taliban territory, I'm going to throw off my burqa and tear it into a million pieces." (13.37)
Nooria is moving to Pakistan to get married, and while she's probably not a huge fan of an arranged marriage, it offers her more freedom than she currently has, so she's totally on board. And as soon as she possibly can, she is ditching her burqa for good. You go, girl.
"Do you really want to do this?"
Nooria nodded. "Look at my life here, Parvana. I hate living under the Taliban. I'm tired of looking after the little ones. My school classes happen so seldom, they're of almost no value. There's no future for me here." (13.7)
Parvana questions Nooria's decision to marry a man she's never met, but Nooria will do anything for freedom. Sure she's not living in prison per se, but she's basically a prisoner in her own home—and Nooria is willing to do whatever it takes to liberate herself, even leave her family and country if she needs to.
"We found him on the ground outside the prison," one of the men who had brought him home said to Mrs. Weera. "The Taliban released him, but he was unable to go anywhere on his own. He told us where he lived, so my friend and I put him on our Karachi and brought him here."
Parvana was down on the toshak with her father, clinging to him and weeping. She knew that the men stayed to tea, but it wasn't until they were getting up to leave, to make it back to their homes before curfew, that she remembered her manners.
She got to her feet. "Thank you for bringing my father back," she said. (15.2-15.4)
The Taliban's idea of freeing Father from prison is tossing him out on the street, though he clearly can't get himself home—if it weren't for the help of those two nice men, who knows if Father would have ever made it home. For Parvana's part, Father's release is nothing short of a miracle. She had seen what the soldiers do to prisoners (remember the hand-chopping scene?), and understands deeply that Father is one of the lucky ones.
The men left. Parvana started to lie back down beside her father, but Mrs. Weera stopped her. "Let him rest. There will be time to talk tomorrow."
Parvana obeyed, but it took days of Mrs. Weera's careful nursing before Father even started to get well. Most of the time he was too ill and weary to talk. He coughed a lot.
"That prison must have been cold and damp," Mrs. Weera said. Parvana helped her make a broth and fed it to her father hot, off a spoon, until he was able to sit up and eat. (15.4-15.7)
Since this novel is written from the limited perspective of Parvana, we don't know anything about Father's stay in prison, but when he returns, Parvana can only imagine what he endured—beatings, humiliation, and horrible living conditions, to say the least. Imprisonment is the ultimate way to take away someone's freedom, but somehow Father is able to survive.
"I decide what we're going to sell, not you. There's no longer any use for it, unless you're planning to go parties you haven't bothered to tell me about."
Parvana knew there was no point arguing. Ever since she had been forced out of her job, Mother's temper grew shorter every day. (2.31)
Parvana really isn't too keen on selling her shalwar kameez, but she knows she's lost the battle with Mother—her tone and sarcasm show how miserable she is since she lost her job and has been confined to the apartment. She was once a successful writer who was raising children to be educated and independent, and now that has changed—here she's grabbing for the little bit of control she can.
Nooria covered herself completely with her chador and scrunched herself into a small ball. Young women were sometimes stolen by soldiers. They were snatched from their homes, and their families never saw them again. (2.70)
Nooria fears the Taliban in a different way than Parvana—the soldiers do really bad things to young women that they capture, and Nooria really doesn't want to become a victim. While Parvana is still a child, Nooria is a woman, and this puts her in much more danger. Maybe Parvana is lucky to be able to hide her femininity.
When the Taliban first came and ordered all men to grow beards, Parvana had a hard time getting used to her father's face. He had never worn a beard before. Father had a hard time getting used to it, too. It itched a lot at first. (2.47)
Is it just us or are you getting the feeling too that the Taliban really don't like any part of the body showing? First it is the burqas and now the beards…
Women were not allowed to go into the shops. Men were supposed to do all the shopping, but if women did it, they had to stand outside and call in for what they needed. Parvana had seen shopkeepers beaten for serving women inside their shops. (5.2)
By making it extremely difficult for women to buy food—a.k.a. a basic human need—the Taliban keeps them dependent on men… unless, of course, they dress their young daughters up as boys. Ha.
Parvana wasn't sure if she would be considered a woman. On the one hand, if she behaved like one and stood outside the shop and called in her order, she could get in trouble for not wearing a burqa. On the other hand, if she went into a shop, she could get in trouble for not acting like a woman! (5.3)
Parvana's a girl, but not yet a woman… and though she lives in Kabul, not even she is certain what this means when it comes to the Taliban's laws. These dudes and their laws are kind of hard to keep up with.
There were going to turn her into a boy.
"As boy, you'll be able to buy what we need, and no one will stop you," Mother said.
"It's a perfect solution," Mrs. Weera said. (6.1-6.3)
As the saying goes, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. So since only boys are allowed to walk around Kabul freely, Parvana will become Kaseem in order to make money and buy food for her family.
Parvana took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Up until then, she had seen Talibs only as men who beat women and arrested her father. Could they have feelings of sorrow, like other human beings? (7.38)
Major stereotypes are at work here. The Talib men think all women are dirt and treat them as such, while the women think all Talib men are women beaters. That's one of the reasons why this whole letter-reading gig is important to Parvana—she learns that not all Taliban soldiers are evil.
All of this was written in a letter that arrived while Parvana was out at work. The women in the groom's family belonged to the same women's group as Mother. The letter had passed from one member of the group to another until it finally reached Mother. Parvana had read the letter, but she still had a lot of questions. (13.5)
The women in Afghanistan and Pakistan find ways to work together and get things done. So while we've been thinking that Mother has done nothing but take care of life inside the apartment for eighteen months, all the while she has been putting out feelers among her women peeps to find a way to freedom for her oldest daughter.
"Now you are both my daughter and my son," Father said when he was well enough to notice her new appearance. He rubbed his hand over her cropped hair and smiled. (15.8)
Let's face it: Father has always treated Parvana more like a boy than a girl—at least by current Afghan standards—so her new look fits her perfectly. Father has never kept her sheltered or treated her as weak, and she is educated and strong, so while he is jokes about her new look, he is serious at the same time. Parvana has always been just as strong as any boy in Afghanistan—now, she just looks the part.
Two days later they were ready to leave. They were going to travel by truck, just as the rest of the family had done.
"Am I traveling as your son or your daughter?" Parvana asked Father.
"You decide," he said. "Either way, you will be my little Malali." (16.61-16.63)
Father doesn't care if Parvana is a girl or a boy or a fish. He is so proud of her courage, and for him, that quality is gender neutral. He wants Parvana to be whoever she needs to be to feel safe.
"I need this girl to help me walk," her father would tell any Talib who asked, pointing to his leg. He had lost the lower part of his leg when the high school he was teaching in was bombed. His insides had been hurt somehow, too. He was often tired. (1.6)
Father has had a hard life. His mind still seems sharp, but his body has been through the ringer, and he's old and fragile. What makes him want to keep fighting? Wouldn't it be easier if he just stayed at home and let someone else do the work for him?
Her anger melted when she saw her mother pick up the parcel of Hossain's clothes and put it away on the top shelf of the cupboard. Her mother always looked sad when she touched Hossain's clothes. (2.39)
Parvana's brother was killed by a land mine and Hossain's clothes remind Mother of her pain and loss. Her suffering over the loss of her son reminds us that the Taliban isn't the sole destroyer of Afghanistan—this country's been a warzone for twenty years.
"Afghanistan needs more illiterate thugs like you," Father said. One of the soldiers hit him in the face. Blood from his noise dripped onto his white shalwar kameez.
Mother sprang at the soldiers, pound them with her fists. She grabbed Father's arm and tried to pull him out of their grasp.
One of the soldiers raised his rifle and whacked her on the head. She collapsed on the floor. The soldier hit her head a few more times. Maryam and Ali screamed with every blow to their mother's back. (2.75-2.78)
The Taliban have no mercy—they barge right into Parvana's apartment, kidnap Father, and beat Mother up on the process. While the little ones may not fully understand what is happening, they understand their mother's pain and this scares them to death.
Her feet burned and stung with every step. When she took off her sandals, she could see why. Her feet, unused to walking such long distances, were covered with blisters. Most of the blisters had broken, and her feet were bloody and raw.
Nooria and Maryam's eyes widened when they saw the mess of Parvana's feet. They grew wider still when they saw their mother's feet. They were even more torn up and bloody than Parvana's. (4.1-4.2)
Parvana and Mother push aside their physical pain when they are on their way to prison to help father, but when they come home without him, their emotions no longer blind them to their physical suffering. After having their movement so restricted, their bodies are shocked by the use they get on this journey.
"I'd like to sell things off a tray. That way I could move with the crowd. But first I need enough money to buy the extra tray and the things to sell, and we never have extra money."
"We don't, either. Could we really make a lot of money that way?" Often there was not enough money for kerosene, so they could not light the lamps at night. It made the nights very long. (9.22-9.23)
Most Afghani families are living in poverty, with little money to buy food or heat the house, and these are the condition both Shauzia and Parvana live in. Think about it: these two are psyched to find a different way to earn some extra money, but not to buy a video game or download their favorite song—they are eager to make enough money for their families' most basic needs.
Parvana didn't have a clue what was going on. Where were the soccer players?
All of a sudden one of the soldiers took out a sword, raised it above his head and brought it down on the man's arm. Blood flew in every direction. The man cried out in pain.
Next to Parvana, Shauzia started screaming. Parvana clamped her hand over Shauzia's mouth and pulled her down to the floor of the stadium stands. The rest of the stadium was quiet. There was still no cheering. (11.55-11.57)
Geez—Parvana just wants to sell some gum to soccer fans, but the next thing she knows she's watching the Taliban chop off people's hands. What do you think about this scene? How is it written? Does it seem believable?
Parvana was tired. She wanted to sit in a classroom and be bored by a geography lesson. She wanted to be with her friends and talk about homework and games and what to do on school holidays. She didn't want to know anymore about death or blood or pain (12.49).
There's only so much an eleven-year-old girl can take, and up until this point, you have to hand to Parvana: she's been a trooper. But now the poor kid needs a break. She's had enough of violence and adult responsibilities, and longs for her school days.
The marketplace ceased to be interesting. She no longer laughed when a man got into an argument with a stubborn donkey. She was no longer interested in snippets of conversation she heard from people strolling by. Everywhere, there were people who were hungry and sick. Women in burqas sat on the pavement and begged, their babies stretched across their laps. (12.50)
The novelty of the marketplace is wearing off. It was exciting in the beginning and being able to roam about freely is great and all, but after seeing so much misery… well, Parvana has had enough for a while. What does this say about her?
One afternoon, she heard sounds coming from above her. A man was very angry. He was shouting at a woman who was crying and screaming. Parvana heard thuds and more screams. Without thinking, she spray to her feet and looked up at the window, but she couldn't see anything through the painted glass.
"What goes on in man's house is his own business," a voice behind her said. (12.63-12.64)
The Window Woman is clearly being beaten by whoever is holding her captive, but no one can do anything to help her. People know suffering is happening all over Kabul, but they also know that if they speak up or try to fight, they will suffer themselves. In this kind of environment, how can the suffering ever end?
The man who came back from prison was barely recognizable, but Parvana knew who he was. Although his white shalwar kameez was now gray and tattered, although his face was drawn and pale, he was still her father. Parvana clung to him so tightly she had to be pulled away by Mrs. Weera so that her father could lie down. (15.1)
Parvana is so excited to see her father that she doesn't quite understand how much he suffered in prison—and because of this, we realize just how much she's suffered in his absence. This girl is majorly glad to have her dad home.
At first it was the Soviets who rolled their big tanks into the country and flew war planes that dropped bombs on villages and the countryside.
Parvana was born one month before the Soviets started going back to their own country.
"You were such an ugly baby, the Soviets couldn't stand to be in the same country with you," Nooria was fond of telling her. (1.26-1.28)
Parvana has literally never known anything but life during wartime; Nooria hasn't either, and neither have their younger siblings. Yikes.
After the Soviets left, the people who had been shooting at the Soviets decided they wanted to keep shooting at something, so they shot at each other. Many bombs fell on Kabul during that time. Many people died. (1.29)
It's pretty bad when people want to kill so badly that they turn on their own. Makes you wonder: is violence learned or is it innate?
Now most of the country was controlled by the Taliban. The word Taliban meant religious scholars, but Parvana's father told her that religion was about teaching people how to be human beings, how to be kinder. "The Taliban are not making Afghanistan a kinder place to live!" he said. (1.32)
Parvana's father gets angry when he thinks that the Taliban are using religion as a reason for violence, and he explains to Parvana that the real practice of religion does the exact opposite of what the Taliban are doing. If the Taliban were truly acting in the name of their religion, there would be no violence and certainly no oppression.
For most of Parvana's life, the city had been in ruins, and it was hard for her to imagine it another way. It hurt her to hear stories of old Kabul before the bombing. She didn't want to think about everything the bombs had taken away, including her father's health and their beautiful home. It made her angry, and since she could do nothing with her anger, it mad her sad. (1.46)
War brings out so many emotions, and it's hard for a little kid to process them all. Maybe it's better that Parvana has only known a country at war, since at least this way she can't be haunted by good times from the past. That's one emotion she's been spared.
Mrs. Weera had lost a lot of things, too, in bombing raids. "What the bombs didn't get, the bandits did. Makes it easier to move, though, doesn't it?" (8.16)
Parvana helps Mrs. Weera get her things so she and her granddaughter can move in with them, and it's not a hard job because Mrs. Weera doesn't have that much—war has destroyed it all. Sure it makes moving easier, like Mrs. Weera jokes, but it also makes living kind of sad.
"Watch out for land mines," Shauzia said. Then she grinned. Parvana grinned back. Shauzia was probably joking, but she kept her eyes open anyway.
"Kabul has more land mines than flowers," her father used to say. "Land mines are as common as rocks and can blow you up without warning. Remember your brother."
Parvana remembered the time someone from the United Nations had come to her class with a chart showing the different kinds of land mines. She tried to remember what they looked like. All she could remember was that some were disguised as toys—special mines to blow up children. (10.40-10.43)
Who does that? Who would kill children? This shows that the Taliban are purely evil. The girls try to pretend it's not as terrifying as it actually is but they know the truth—Parvana is down a brother because of the land mines, and with one false move she could be next.
The sky was dark with clouds. They walked for almost an hour, down streets Parvana didn't recognize, until they came to one of the areas of Kabul most heavily destroyed by rockets. There wasn't a single intact building in the whole area, just piles of bricks, dust and rubble.
Bombs had fallen on the cemetery, too. The explosions had shaken up the graves in the ground. Here and there, white bones of the long-dead stuck up out of the rusty-brown earth. (10.4-10.5)
The more Parvana sees of Kabul, the more she notices that it is in ruins—even the cemetery seems more dismal. We think the imagery here of the skeletons unearthed from their graves is really great, though—it reads like a horror movie.
"How can we be brave?" Nooria asked. "We can't even go outside. How can we lead men into battle? I've seen enough war. I don't want to see anymore."
"There are many types of battles," Father said quietly.
"Including the battle with the super dishes," Mother said.
Nooria is right—she can't win the battle going on outside the house, so Mother jokingly reminds her there are small, everyday battles they need to fight inside the house to keep the family strong, even if it's just doing the dishes. The idea is that to be brave in any battle is to keep pushing, even though it feels useless.
"The Taliban is in Mazar," Homa repeated. "They went from house to house, looking for enemies. They came to my house. They came right inside! They grabbed my father and my brother and took them outside. They shot them right in the street. My mother started hitting them, and they shot her, too. I ran back inside and hid in a closet. I was there for a long, long time. I thought they were finished killing people at my house. They were busy killing at other houses." (14.42)
Uh-oh… While it totally stinks for Homa and her family and the residents of Mazar, this is exactly where Mother and the rest of the family are headed in hopes of Nooria escaping the Taliban's rule through marriage. The political climate has changed, it seems, and for the worse.
Kabul was a dark city at night. It had been under curfew for more than twenty years. Many of the street lights had been knocked out by bombs, and many of those still standing did not work.
"Kabul was the hot spot of central Asia," Parvana's mother and father used to say. "We used to walk down the streets at midnight, eating ice cream. Earlier in the evening, we would browse through book shops and record stores. It was a city of lights, progress and excitement." (14.23-14.24)
Those were the days… but not anymore. War's come along and completely destroyed this once-vibrant city.
"The lesson here, my daughters," he looked from one to the other, "is that Afghanistan has always been the home of the bravest women in the world. You are all brave women. You are all inheritors of the courage of Malali." (2.61)
Father so badly wants his daughters to be courageous, so he tells them the story of Malali. He wants them to understand that bravery isn't attained with age or gender or even race, and that if Malali can inspire the Afghan soldiers to defeat the British, imagine what they can do.
Parvana couldn't sleep. She could hear her mother and Nooria tossing and turning as well. She imagined every single noise to be either Father or the Taliban coming back. Each sound made Parvana hopeful and fearful at the same time. (3.5)
The night of Father's kidnapping is pretty rough. Parvana misses him so much, and now paranoia sets in as she worries that the Taliban will barge back in at any moment. You know how it is when your mind plays tricks on you. Is that sound Father opening the door, or is a Talib solider returning? No wonder this kid can't sleep.
Malali wouldn't be afraid, Parvana knew. Malali would form an army and lead it in a storming of the prison. Malali would lick her lips at such a challenge. Her knees wouldn't be shaking as Parvana's were.
If Parvana's mother was scared, she didn't show it. She marched straight up to the prison gates and said to the guard, "I'm here for my husband." (3.44-3.45)
Parvana is terrified as she and her mother approach the Taliban prison in hopes of rescuing Father. She looks to her role model, Malali, but only feels like she pales in comparison. Meanwhile, nothing can get in Mother's way—and Parvana sees firsthand how courageous a woman can be when her family is threatened. Watch and learn Parvana.
Parvana started to cry. "The Taliban… one of the soldiers… he was chasing me."
"Dry your tears. Under such a circumstance, running was a very sensible thing to do. I always thought you had the makings of a sensible girl, and you've just proven me right. Good for you! You've outrun the Taliban. Where are you going with all that bread?" (5.23-5.24)
Parvana knows going to the marketplace is a bad idea, but she sets aside her fear because her family is starving. When confronted by a Talib solider, she lets her instincts take over and runs away as fast she can—in this moment, Parvana summons the courage to protect herself (and the bread) for the sake of her family. Luckily she runs right into Mrs. Weera, who praises the young girl for using her smarts… even though she is crushing the bread.
Parvana began to tremble.
"You are a letter reader?" he asked in Pashtu.
Parvana tried to answer, but she couldn't find her voice. Instead, she nodded.
"Speak up, boy!" A letter reader who has no voice is no good to me."
Parvana took a deep breath. "I am a letter reader," she said in Pashtu, in a voice that she hoped was loud enough. "I can read and write in Dari and Pashtu." If this was a customer, she hoped her Pashtu would be good enough. (6.15-6.19)
This man wants his letter read and is in no mood to deal with this kid who won't even speak. If Parvana is going to survive, she needs to find the courage to read this man's letter with confidence.
She turned around to plead with her mother. "Don't make me do this!"
"You see?" Nooria said in her nastiest voice. "I told you she was too scared."
"It's easy to call someone else scared when you're safe inside your home all the time!" Parvana shot back. She spun around and went outside slamming the door behind her.
Out on the street, she kept waiting for people to point to her and call her a fake. No one did. No one paid attention to her at all. The more she was ignored, the more confident she felt. (6.59-6.62)
Parvana is the family's only hope for food since she can physically pass as a boy—but while the family is excited about this plan, Parvana is just terrified. Luckily, she is so mad at Nooria that she doesn't even realize she's thrusting herself into the marketplace, and once she gets there, she realizes her family is right—no one is really concerned about her. This gives her courage to buy what she needs.
When she came to the shop that sold tea, rice and other groceries, she hesitated for a slight moment, then walked boldly through the door. I'm a boy, she kept saying to herself. It gave her courage. (6.64)
Parvana has never been outside of the house without her Father, so when the family sends her out to buy some food after his kidnapping, she is terrified. Who knows what the Taliban will do to her if she is discovered? She finds courage from looking like a boy, though.
"Maybe we can save her!" Parvana said. She saw herself climbing up the wall, smashing the painted-over window with her bare fist and helping the princess down to the ground. The princess would be wearing silk and jewels. Parvana would swing her up onto the back of a fast horse, and they'd ride through Kabul in a cloud of dust. (12.43)
Parvana and Shauzia imagine they are saving the Window Woman from whoever is making her scream and cry. They have great fun pretending they are brave heroes, but they don't have to pretend—outwitting the Taliban every day to put food on their families' tables sounds a whole lot like heroism to us.
"You'll never guess," her mother said. "Nooria's getting married." (12.66)
We don't know about you, but we think it takes guts to leave your country and family and agree to marry someone you've never met. Or is it stupidity? Either way, you've got to hand it to Nooria for taking a chance at a better life.
"I'm Malali, leading the troops through enemy territory," she murmured to herself.
That helped, too, although it was hard to feel like a battle heroine with a cigarette tray handing around her neck. (14.26-14.27)
Parvana knows she should rescue this girl (Homa) who's on the run, but she's afraid too. By pretending she is Malali though, Parvana feels like she can get the woman to safety—it might seem a little silly, but we're pretty sure Homa doesn't mind.
Parvana looked at Mother, still lying on the toshak. She looked at Ali, worn out from being hungry and needing his parents. She looked at Maryam, whose cheeks were already beginning to look hollow, and who hadn't been in the sunshine in such a long time. Finally, she looked at her big sister, Nooria.
Nooria looked terrified. If Parvana didn't obey her, she would have to go for food herself.
Now, I've got her, Parvana thought. I can make her as miserable as she makes me. But she was surprised to find that this thought gave her no pleasure. (4.64-4.66)
Since Father left, the family has really been suffering. The babies are hungry and dirty, and Mother has shut down completely, so Nooria tells Parvana that she has no choice—she has to go out for food. But Parvana doesn't want to—she's only eleven, after all, she isn't supposed to go out alone. Going out is seriously dangerous, but after assessing her family's situation, Parvana realizes she has no choice. Her family needs her, and so she goes.
She kept hauling water. Her arms were sore, and the blisters on her feet started to bleed again, but she didn't think about that. She fetched water because her family needed it, because her father would have expected her to. Now that Mrs. Weera was there and her mother was up, things were going to get easier, and she would do her part. (5.51)
For Parvana, being part of a family means chipping in and making sure everyone is taken care of, and with Mrs. Weera's arrival, Parvana feels her family can make it through these hard times if they all do their part. While fetching the water is probably the worst of the household chores, Parvana knows it is also the most important—plus Father's expectations linger even though his presence in the house is gone, and she wants to make him proud.
"Dear Niece," Parvana read. "I am sorry I am not able to be with you at the time of your wedding, but I hope this letter will get to you in time. It is good to be in Germany, away from all the fighting. In my mind, though, I never really leave Afghanistan. My thoughts are always turned to our country, to our family and friends I will probably never see again." (7.27)
When a woman gets married, she agrees to leave her family and start a new one, very often with a husband she's never met, which can be upsetting for those she leaves behind.
Mrs. Weera had been living with her grandchild in a room even smaller than Parvana's. It was in the basement of a ruined building.
"We are the last of the Weeras," she said. "The bombs took some, the war took others, and pneumonia took the rest."
Parvana didn't know what to say. Mrs. Weera did not sound as though she was looking for sympathy. (8.12-8.14)
Mrs. Weera has accepted the fact that she's alone, but for some reason she doesn't seem lonely. Perhaps this is because she has dedicated her life to fighting for women's rights—so though the Taliban has taken away her family, she's still got a whole lot of purpose.
"There's only my mother and me and my two little sisters left," Shauzia said. "My mother doesn't go out. She's sick all the time. We're living with my father's parents and one of his sisters. Everybody fights all the time. I'm lucky to be able to get away from them and go to work." (9.30)
Dressing up as a boy is dangerous, but Shauzia does it willingly because it gets her away from her family—home isn't a happy place for this kid. Sure Shauzia is dying to get away from Afghanistan for all the obvious reasons, but she also really wants to get away from her family.
"Do you want to come with me?" Shauzia asked. "We could look after each other."
"I don't know." She could leave Afghanistan, but could she leave her family? She didn't think so. (12.39-12.40)
Here lies the major difference between Shauzia and Parvana: Shauzia has no trouble leaving her family, but Parvana just can't. It's not because Shauzia isn't a loving daughter—it's because the people she lives with are family in name only, and she gets no love or support from them. Shauzia feels she is better off on her own.
"We can't leave Kabul! Parvana exclaimed. "What about Father? What will happen if he gets out of prison and we're not here? He won't know where to look for us!" (13.10)
While Mother and the kids head to Pakistan with Nooria, Parvana refuses to go. She still has hope that Father will return, and is determined that someone will be there waiting for him. And who better for the job than his Malali?
Parvana found the next few weeks to be a strange time. With only herself, Mrs. Weera and Mrs. Weera's grandchild, the apartment seemed almost empty. Fewer people meant fewer chores, less noise and more free time. Parvana even missed Ali's fussing. As the weeks went by, she looked forward more and more to everyone coming back. (13.39)
Sure our families can be annoying, but when they are not there, we miss them. Parvana is still home, but her home doesn't seem the same without her family. Does that make sense? Parvana actually misses Ali's screaming and even Nooria's attitude. Go figure.
"She wants to leave. She hates it here. Couldn't she go with you? She could be your escort!"
"Shauzia has family here. Do you mean to say she would just leave her family? Desert the team just because the game is rough?"
Parvana said no more. In a way, Mrs. Weera was right. That was what Shauzia was doing. But Shauzia was also right. Didn't she have a right to seek out a better life? Parvana couldn't decide who was more right. (15.44-15.46)
Shauzia wants out of Afghanistan, and her desire for a better life outweighs family loyalty—plus she doesn't really like her family too much anyway. So while Mrs. Weera feels her first obligation should be to her family, Parvana realizes that it isn't always so cut and dry.
"Who would read what I write? Am I allowed to publish? No. Then what is the point of writing, and what is the point of looking? Besides, it will not be for long. The Afghan people are smart and strong. They will kick these Taliban out. When that happens, when we have a decent government in Afghanistan, then I will go out again. Until then, I will stay here." (4.6)
Mother wants nothing to do with the Taliban, and she believes so strongly in the Afghan people that she is willing to wait until they kick them out of the country before she begins writing again. Father tries to convince her that writing again might expedite that process, but Mother is stubborn and she won't listen. She knows that, as a woman, there is no sense fighting the Taliban, yet at the same time, her belief in Afghani's resiliency keeps her hopeful.
"Mrs. Weera!" Nooria exclaimed. Relief washed over her face. Here was someone who could take charge, who could take some of the responsibility off her shoulders. (5.35)
Nooria has been in charge since Father was kidnapped and Mother got depressed, and frankly, it's been quite stressful—food and money are scarce, and the little ones are hungry and lethargic. So when Mrs. Weera arrives, she saves the day. Sure it's a huge help to have another adult around, but she's a breath of fresh air, and her lively spirit in the apartment makes everyone feel like the family might be okay.
"Father come back to us!" she whispered, looking up at the sky. The sun was shining. How could the sun be shining when her father was in jail?
Something caught her eye, a flicker of movement. She thought it came from the blacked-out window, but how could it? Parvana decided she was imaging things. (7.47-7.48)
Parvana never doubts that Father will one day return, and while she pleads to the sky for him to come back, she senses that someone is watching over her. Not in a creepy way, though—in a comforting way. Women are not allowed near windows and they are blacked out so people can't see in them… Is Parvana being hopeful or foolish?
"I thought you were my father," she said, tears falling down her face.
The man put his hand on her shoulder. "You seem like a fine boy. I'm sorry I am not your father." He paused, then said in a lower voice, "Your father is in prison?" Parvana nodded.
"People are released from prison sometimes. Don't give up hope." The man went on his way into the market, and Parvana went back to her blanket. (8.66-8.67)
Parvana is so sure she sees Father walking around the marketplace, but she is wrong. Luckily, though, the dude she manhandles seems pretty nice—he could have told her what most likely happens to old men in prison, but instead he tries to give her hope. Thanks, stranger.
It was a small square of embroidered cloth, no more than two inches long and an inch wide. Parvana had never seen it before. As she wondered where it had come from, her eyes went up the blacked-out window where she thought she had seen a flicker of movement a few weeks before. There was no movement now. (8.69)
The little present confirms to Parvana that someone is definitely watching her from that window. But who? And why? Parvana doesn't care; she is just glad there is a friendly presence in the marketplace.
"Most people who are arrested are never heard from again. They just disappear. I have an uncle who disappeared."
Parvana grabbed Shauzia's arm and forced her to stop walking. "My father's coming back, she said. "He is coming back!" (9.16-9.17)
Shauzia isn't trying to be a downer here—she's just explaining that the odds aren't really in Father's favor. Not many people can survive a Taliban prison, not to mention someone as frail and old as Father, but Parvana tells Shauzia to talk to the hand. Her father is not like the rest—so he will come home and that's final.
Parvana gave Shauzia a nudge, and they looked out over the mounds of dug-up graves, at the boys, sweaty and smudged with dirt, at the piles of bones beside them, gleaming white in the sudden sunshine.
"We have to remember this," Parvana said. "When things get better and we grow up, we have to remember that there was a day when we were kids when we stood in a graveyard and dug up bones to sell so that our families could eat." (10.55-10.56)
Parvana and Shauzia are digging up people's remains for money, because their families are that poor—and yet they still believe that one day things will change. There will be a time in their lives when they look back on this and chuckle to themselves about how hard their lives once were.
Parvana was fresh out of hope. She did what her mother had done. She crawled onto the toshak, covered herself with a quilt and resolved to stay there forever.
For two days she stayed on the toshak. "This is what the women in our family do when we're sad," she said to Mrs. Weera.
"They don't stay there forever," Mrs. Weera said. "They get up again, and they fight back." (14.50-14.52)
When Parvana learns that the Taliban are in Mazar, she loses all hope—Nooria moved there for freedom, and Mother and the little ones are there with her. Mrs. Weera tries to be positive as always, but Parvana doesn't feel like it, and just like her mother did when Father was kidnapped, she wants to wallow in her despair. There will be none of that on Mrs. Weera's watch, though—she snapped Mother out of her depression and she will do the same for Parvana.
"Are they dead?" Parvana asked.
"No, no, not dead. They may look scraggly and dying now," he said, "but the roots are good. When the time is right, these roots will support plants that are healthy and strong." He gave the earth a final pat, and Parvana and one of the others helped him up. He smiled once more at Parvana, then walked away. (15.58-15.59)
Twenty years from now, Parvana thought. What would happen in those twenty years? Would she still be in Afghanistan? Would Afghanistan finally have peace? Would she go back to school, have a job, be married?
The future stretched unknown down the road in front of her. Her mother was somewhere ahead with her sisters and her brother, but what else they would find, Parvana had no idea. Whatever it was, she felt ready for it. She even found herself looking forward to it. (15.79-15.80)
This is the final scene in the novel, and Parvana and Father are in the back of a truck, hitching a ride to Pakistan to find the rest of their family. While some people would be sad to leave their homeland or terrified about what lies ahead, Parvana instead seems hopeful. This girl's got one resilient spirit.