Inside the World of A Thousand Splendid Suns

By Elspeth Sweatman

Mariam, Laila, and Rasheed—the characters at the center of A Thousand Splendid Suns, running through February 26 at The Geary Theater—may have begun in the mind of author Khaled Hosseini and playwright Ursula Rani Sarma, but their personalities are rooted firmly in their native Afghanistan.

Approximately the size of Texas, Afghanistan is a land of extreme beauty and extreme geographic diversity, ranging from towering mountains to expansive plains to barren deserts. Winters there are harsh, and summers sweltering. In this dramatic landscape live 32.5 million Afghans, a mixture of religions, languages, and ethnicities.

A timeline of Afghan history. By A.C.T. Graphics Team.
In 1979, the Soviet Union sent troops into Afghanistan to prop up a failing socialist government, but they were ill-prepared for the ferocious response of the Afghan people. When the Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, Afghans were hopeful that life would return to normal.

However, many of the militant groups that had fought the Soviets—known as the Mujahideen—turned against each other. The nation descended into civil war. One group shelled Kabul from the surrounding hills, while others fought for control of neighborhoods. It is during this dangerous period that Ursula Rani Sarma’s adaptation of A Thousand Splendid Suns begins.

Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo by Joe Burger, 2007. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Into this bloodshed burst a new group that looked like the answer to many Afghans’ prayers for peace: the Taliban. Spreading from the refugee camps in Pakistan in the early 1990s, the Taliban took control of most of Afghanistan by 1996. Many Afghans welcomed it with open arms, seeing in its fierce religious beliefs a solution to the violence that had plagued the country for almost two decades.

The people’s celebrations were short-lived. The Taliban believed that impurity and vice were the root cause of the country’s problems. Through its Department for the Preservation of Virtue and the Elimination of Vice, the Taliban issued edict after edict banning anything that might entice people to sin. Women were forbidden from working, attending school, and leaving their homes without a male relative to escort them. This is the political and social world that Mariam and Laila must navigate in A Thousand Splendid Suns.

A Thousand Splendid Suns runs through February 26 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about Afghanistan and the creation of A Thousand Splendid Suns? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.'s in-depth performance guide series. 

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