As the European Premiere of 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' UK tour reaches its final destination of The Nuffield Southampton Theatres in SOUTHAMPTON. Read Diane Parkes' interview with the novel's author and his thoughts on Afghanistan
A Thousand Splendid Suns Shines the Light on Afghanistan
Author Khaled Hosseini was born in Kabul in 1965 but left Afghanistan as a boy, spending most of his life in the United States of America. Offered political asylum, he and he family watched from afar as their country was torn apart by foreign powers, civil war and the Taliban.
Khaled didn’t return to Afghanistan for nearly 30 years and, when he did, he was both horrified and awed at the stories he heard – particularly the stories of the hardships and cruelty faced by women during that time.
It was these stories and the people he met who inspired his novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, which has now been adapted for the stage with a European premiere in Birmingham in May and a UK tour.
The best-selling novel and play tell the story of the unlikely friendship between two Afghan women Mariam and Laila. When Laila is left an orphan after a bomb attack her older neighbour Rasheed offers to help her – by making her his second wife. Where initially there is huge resentment between his first wife Mariam and Laila, they gradually build a deep friendship so that together they can survive the war and their husband.
“I went to Afghanistan for the first time in 27 years in March of 2003 and many of the things that are in the pages of this book and that you will see on the stage are things that I saw and heard and read about during that visit,” Khaled recalls. “To return to Afghanistan and walk the streets and hear the stories of the atrocities and the injustices that were inflicted on women and girls was something very different from reading about Afghanistan in America.
“There’s a scene in the book and the play in which Laila has to give birth and goes to the hospital and finds she’s going to have a Caesarean section with nothing. This was inspired by a conversation I had with a physician in Kabul about his experiences during the wars. He told me supplies were very low and very often they had to perform operations with nothing – no antibiotics, no fluids, no anaesthesia. A lot of what you see in the play is what I learned on that trip.”
Hosseini’s first novel The Kite Runner was an international best-seller and a hugely successful film and play. A Thousand Splendid Suns was first adapted for the stage in California two years ago by playwright Ursula Rani Sarma. And, for Khaled, his story took on a new life in the stage production.
“I saw the play in one of the previews and then the show in San Francisco at least twice and I was surprised by how emotionally gripping it was. I was in tears - along with a lot of other people. It’s a very powerful and very moving experience.
“But I think that’s what makes theatre such a powerful medium – there’s a communal experience that you have together with all these other people in the dark, watching this drama unfold just a few metres from you. The impact is very powerful.”
Khaled believes the success of both the novel and the play is because readers and audiences can relate to Mariam and Laila.
“I think there is a real-world aspect to this story,” he says. “What happened in Afghanistan is a war which is still ongoing. And women suffered disproportionately – they suffered at every turn and they suffered deeper than men did in many ways. But also this is a story about family, sisterhood, love, friendship, overcoming the hardships of life – and these are not Afghan things, they are very universal experiences and wherever you come from you recognise them as human experiences.
“I wanted people to have a better understanding of Afghanistan. The iconic image of Afghan women is of a woman in a burqa walking down the street with children trailing her. My interest in creating this book was the woman behind that image – that there is a person with a life and a richness of experience, of hopes and disappointments. I wanted to explore those things.
“One of the most common things which is prevalent in the letters I receive is people say they knew nothing about Afghanistan before reading my books. For them it was a country of Taliban, Osama bin Laden and poppy production but what I hope my books have given is a picture of Afghanistan’s rich traditions and customs and sense of the people themselves rather than the typical images you see on television.”
Khaled has lived away from his native country for most of his life and yet still feels very emotionally tied to it. His Khaled Hosseini Foundation provides financial support for women, children and refugees in Afghanistan, providing shelter and access to education.
Now with potential Afghanistan peace talks on the table, Khaled is watching the future of his country very closely.
“One eye is hopeful and one eye is wary. In the sense that I, like the vast majority of Afghans, have been waiting for a peace process to end this war.”
But, Khaled says, peace will only be lasting if it takes into account all of the Afghan people.
“I signed my name to a letter, alongside many other people, that specifically requested and stated the importance that women’s voices must be heard for this peace process to work. Afghanistan will be doomed if we ignore the voices of women. They have to be a cornerstone not just of the peace process but also of the rebuilding of the country.”
And he believes those women will be recognised in this new stage adaptation of A Thousand Splendid Suns directed by Birmingham Repertory Theatre artistic director Roxana Silbert and featuring Sujaya Dasgupta, Amina Zia, Pal Aron and Waleed Akhtar.
“I’m thrilled that the story is being kept alive with a UK production,” he says. “Now more than ever, I hope people will see the play and remember the things we have in common. We put labels – this person is a refugee, this person is this or that – when at the end of the day we are all people. I hope the audiences will walk out of the theatre with empathy, compassion and a greater understanding that what we have in common is greater than our differences.”
It was this humanity at the heart of the novel which attracted playwright Ursula Rani Sarma to take on the adaptation.
“I had read and admired the book and when I was asked about adapting it for the stage I didn’t hesitate at all – this was something I really wanted to do. The story has such strong female voices,” says Ursula whose previous adaptations have included Yerma for West Yorkshire Playhouse and Dark Things for Traverse Theatre.
“One of the first things Khaled said to me was ‘I am not a playwright so I am here if you need me but I absolutely will not be sitting over your shoulder’. And so he gave me the freedom that I needed because when you are adapting a piece of work you really need to get under its skin – almost to the point where you feel like it was yours to begin with.
“I spent a lot of time with the book and then I came to a point where I put it to one side and started to re-imagine it as a theatrical experience. I didn’t want it to be a book on stage, it needed to earn its own place as a theatrical experience and feel completely at home on the stage.
“A good adaptation is like a sculpture, you have to decide quite carefully what to carve away in order for the piece to emerge in the right shape. It was great that I was able to do that and not worry that Khaled would think I had taken a hatchet to his creation!
“It’s about stripping away and not trying to get everything in – and that can be very nerve-racking when you know how many millions of people all around the world talk about this book with such affection.
“But by focussing on the friendship between Mariam and Laila, I knew that was the key to unlocking it. I fully committed to these two incredible and inspiring women who have the ability to continue despite all the odds.”
The stage version has been hugely successful in America and Ursula is convinced British audiences will also respond to it.
“It’s brilliant because when you look at the cast you have to ask yourself – how many plays can you populate with such a diverse cast and with such strong female characters? This show is such a gift for me and to see it continue and now have another life in the UK is really exciting.
“I’m hoping these audiences will experience that emotional power and resonance that the book gave birth to. And also that it raises awareness of a time and a place which audiences have some familiarity with through the media but that media may be sensationalised. Coming to see a play like this you can see the faces behind those headlines – these were the lives which were affected and which continue to be affected by what has happened and what is continuing to happen in Afghanistan.
“I want the audience to leave with a sense of humanity, that despite the harsh reality that war has brought to places like this, there’s a human spirit to survive and endure and there’s a spirit of hope.”