A letter for Khaled Hosseini: You made me cry, thank you.
When I was twelve and thirteen in primary school, I had an incredible Kiswahili teacher by the name Mr. Omari. We called him Bomari behind his back and said it as Bomaree and not Bomari because his manner deserved an expansion of his name. He was a large, big big man. With bloodshot eyes and the darkest skin. His belly went ahead of him in life and his hands smacked the air around him as he walked. I found his gait somewhat comical and threatening all at once. He walked with both his feet turned outward, heaving and sweating, with his shirt sticking to his belly and his hands rushing to the apex of his stomach to detach it every so often. Bomaree was larger than life. His voice boomed and stomped right into your ear when he spoke his high and mighty Swahili.
Bomaree hailed from the Gusii hills. Funny, considering his heavy Swahili dialect. I know this because in the middle of class, right when he had been going on in his acquired coasterian accent for so long that we no longer understood him, he would break into a bout of Gusii and curse us for being so daft. Then, his thunderous voice would command that we all get up and each recite ten Swahili methalis at him to get a chance to sit back down. That was how he kept us awake in his classes; like anyone can sleep with that voice within earshot. But twelve year olds are odd. Maybe we could then.
I digress. Anyway, attending Bomaree’s class was like being in church. You had to have a kamusi, a notebook and a pen. Nothing else. The Swahili dictionary was your bible and the notebook and pen were your tools for catching and bagging what the Lord was saying. Then, later, you would sit and meditate and read your notes and hope that you would understand what you wrote and by extension what he was saying. Usually, you wouldn’t because he spoke in such deep Swahili, I have a feeling he invented most of his words. Which then has me wondering, what was the point of having the kamusi if he would make up words as we go?
Despite what you might now think Khaled, I loved Bomaree. With all my heart. He represented for me a level of scholarship, academic dedication and fondness for language that I have carried with me since. In Bomaree, I first saw just how much beauty exists in Swahili poetry and how much depth there is in language and its use for expression. In a sense, Bomaree with his drunk red eyes and inflated stomach was my first link to advanced poetry.
He always outdid himself, Mr. Omari. He taught us things we had no business knowing and which the curriculum definitely did not need him to teach. As such therefore, he brought into my radar the great poets of the Coast, “ Malenga wa Ziwa Kuu” and their little poetry feuds where they would write poems in response to each other; antagonizing societal problems and each other’s opinions. The chain would go on and on such that at one point, the initial cause for response was buried in a long forgotten poem. Usually, or as Bomaree said was the case, poets would not disclose that their latest poem was in response to a certain poem by so and so. They would instead just write and therefore create a sort of game for readers to piece together poetry and link it to other poems they had read before.
Are you still with me Khaled?
What is my point with all this? My point is that I found it beautiful. That’s all.
Recently when I was holding your book at 3 AM, right in those moments when I had lifted my head from the page and was shaking it, apprehensive about what might happen next, I thought back to the great poets of the Coast and suddenly, I resolved to write this response to you. In that moment, I just wanted things to go right. There he was, Rasheed, with his hands around Laila’s neck. Her eyes were rolling back into her head and my dear Laila was on the brink of death.
I lifted my head and took in a sharp dry whiff of air. My heart braced itself for yet another crashing.
“Please don’t do it, Khaled. Don’t do it.” Don’t kill Laila.”
Funny, now that I think about it, there is nothing those words could do. I knew I was holding the complete book which means whatever was to happen, was going to happen regardless. Still, I said a short earnest prayer and believed every single word of it. So, when Mariam, Laila’s co-wife, struck Rasheed and killed him, I saw brief evidence of God right there.
You might think nothing of that scene Khaled, but for me, that scene was like that crucial moment in every Indian movie when they zoom in on everyone’s faces right before a pivotal decision is made. For me, up until this point, I had sat through you tearing to the ground the Afghan people and their land, then tearing apart the two lovers in the story, bombing and shooting every good person and now Laila. Laila was about to die.
I think in order for you to understand why it matters so much, I must say that I see myself in Laila. Perhaps we all do. Perhaps every time anyone reads a story, they see themselves in the protagonist. It’s not like that this time. Well, it’s not just that. It’s more so about the timeliness of the story you weave and the way it shows up right when it does; permitting for me a continuation of being that had been put to halt.
Let me explain.
I bought your book at one dollar and fifty cents when I first moved to New York. I had made a couple of new friends and we collectively were curious about thrift stores in Manhattan. So, that afternoon, we went to downtown Manhattan and hopped around thrift stores finding little knickknacks on the racks to make ourselves feel more at home in the big city. In one of the shops, I wandered towards a pile of books in a corner. Now Khaled, there is something inside of me that cannot help itself when it comes to books. I always get so excited to see books. I am sure you understand given your acclaimed authorship status. Anyway, I walked towards the pile of books and started to rummage and dig. Children’s books, cook books, murder and mystery books, magazines, nothing caught my eye.
Then, I saw it. I saw your name before I saw the title of the book. I had read “And the Mountains Echoed” before and so I recognized your name. With much excitement, I paid my dues and left a happy girl with her newish one dollar book. It was a no brainer, I was going to read the book that same evening.
I didn’t. Not the evening after or even a month later. I didn’t touch your book for the next ten months after that day.
Then, one day, about two weeks ago, I saw it on my shelf and picked it up. Since then, every day, I have woken up and slept to “A thousand splendid suns.” Now, you must also know Khaled, that right before I picked your book up, things were in a topsy turvy state for me. I was in the middle of a protest. In a way, reading your book was part of that protest. I felt the weight of the world’s chaos within my blood and in my lungs, pulling me down at every chance. I felt ill equipped to deal with the political awakening I was coming to. All too quickly, I was losing battles and wars I didn’t sign up for. Suddenly, my skin was under scrutiny. A huge divide was forming in my mind towards whiteness and institutions larger than me. A bitterness kept rising towards those institutions. It felt like so much of what I considered my norm had been a lie. Like I was snapping back into a reality I had been blind to for so long. And it hurt Khaled. It hurt in a sting I didn’t recognize. I still don’t. I still don’t fully understand why it hurts that way.
Right before I reached for your book, I felt helpless; like I was showing up to a coding competition armed with poetry and rhyme. My fingers refused to pen words. My heart was swelling each day with heaviness and fear. I no longer walked the same when I went to the store for milk. I saw color everywhere and suddenly, I just wanted to be a child again.
So I slid into my past. Slowly and brazenly, refusing to acknowledge the way in which everything was falling apart. Refusing to dub it either orchestrated for a period of time or a state of being that has always been. See Khaled, I am one of those highly emotional individuals. I once told some people that I love like the wind; I should have added then that I do everything like the wind. Including feeling; taking things up and whirling them around me; Engulfing myself with whatever lies around both for the sake of it and because I can’t help it; Getting lost therein; Unable to tell apart my own creation from that which I cannot control. I am messy like that. Like the wind.
Every so often, I get caught up in whirlwinds such as that one that hit a little over two weeks ago, right before I picked up your book. When they hit, these whirlwinds, (or when I create them), they leave everything in a mess and I end up whimpering towards a calmer past. So, right before I picked up your book, I refused to clean my floor. On it, I had piles of clothes and bits of food. On my desk, I was growing some indigenous crisp and popcorn crops. Each time I wanted to leave my room, I practiced the art of jumping stories. My leg muscles are more defined for it. With every new thing that fell off my desk and added to the filth on the floor, I had decided:
“I will not be cleaning up anytime soon. This is how I will mourn and protest.
I hold strongly that life must not go on. Every day, I watch us slip back into that status quo. I watch myself slip back into things- such as this writing that do nothing to change the horrendous world we live in. I abhor it because sadly, it is the way things must be. I have no say in that. I do however have a say in the state of my room. So, I am painting it George and plastering it Yasmin. I am bringing the protest into my walls and letting my T-shirts lay strewn on the ground. Lifeless and without form. I look at them with contempt every so often. Sometimes the scrambled up pieces of paper on my desk join my thoughts in chanting unintelligible things. Things that one might consider scripture because they were written on everyone’s skin before they got white washed off. I have a roach join in on the gleeful madness every so often. I refuse to make my bed too because how can I enjoy put together sheets when the muslin that accompanies taken life is wrapped in a hurry and amidst sobs. Here where I am, I let my soda be the tears of mothers and I will pour it into my heap of filth.”
See Khaled, wind.
This was my resolve. That I would be slipping back into childlike messiness. That this protest of mine was both refusal to continue with life and a shot at nostalgia, living as I did when I was with my mother. Any time now, she will barge into my room and declare that she does not understand how I can live this way. I keep thinking she is about to so I have left my door slightly open. Any moment now, my mother and I will be throwing words at each other over the state of my room.
I will say it’s not that bad and she will insist that I cannot be living like a mole.
I will smile because I know that moles don’t have shirts and promise to clean up. It will be Wednesday and she will know that it will not be done.
On Saturday, right when I am about to start cleaning up, she will show up again. This time, she will pop her head into my door and say briefly but carrying all the heft of a mother:
“Clean this room.”
And my plans will have been ruined. And the shirts on the floor will have to stay another week.
Your book saved me Khaled.
From this madness I have created and from my own mind that refuses to be fine. I find that books and poetry can do that sometimes. But yours did it so beautifully. It showed up right when I needed it. Infused with love and passion and real people but also set within a time of war and absolute horror. I think I was starting to feel like I can’t live like I always have in this sad world I am awakening to but, Tariq, Laila, Mariam and Aziza very much did in their world full of bombings and rockets of fire.
I found it especially beautiful how you finished the story. Happily. In a sense, that reassured me. That even stories with killings and dead parents and abusive husbands end well. I think your book is a great great book. I know this because I cried before the end.
Khaled, you’ve calmed this wind and you will never know of it. You and your heartbreaking words and characters. And what of it?
I will clean my room and figure out how to be whole even while things fall apart like this.
All my admiration and appreciation.
This third post is for Pride,
You are here. Always here. Allowing us to own what we are and be unapologetic about it.
Be proud of you.
However you come.