June 20th is World Refugee Day, an annual event intended to raise awareness of the 42.5 million people forcibly displaced from their homes and country. One way to learn about the refugee experience is to read the work of Khaled Hosseini, including his new novel And the Mountains Echoed.
The lives of Afghani refugees are woven into this complex weave of stories. Abdullah and Pari, separated as children when Pari is sold and moved to Paris, are finally reunited in Oakland where “Abe,” his wife and daughter, have been resettled after time in a Pakistani refugee camp. The camp is never a setting, but Abe and his half brother were displaced there. Abe is resettled to northern California but his brother remains behind, so as almost always happens when families are broken up, the resettled one sends $1000 every 3 months after getting settled. His brother returns to his home in the village because he does not feel welcome in Pakistan [Pakistan does house more refugees than any other country, currently], only to find his property has been taken over and his home has been replaced by a garish mansion built by a warlord. The warlord kills him when he confronts him. Abe’s nephew–born and raised in the refugee camp–schools the sheltered warlord’s son on the ways of the world.
Idris and Timur, cousins displaced to Pakistan before resettling to Northern California have a smaller role in the novel. They are the refugees who return to claim their family home. Idris, a doctor, is pulled into the life of a girl injured, more or less abandoned. Her uncle is bought off, much like Pari, but Idris does not follow through on his promise to help her when he returns to the US. Upon arrival, Idris is first horrified by his decadent California life, but readjusts, and forgets the girl. She writes a memoir, becomes famous, and Idris is both overcome with guilt and afraid that his shallowness is exposed in the memoir. He goes to a book signing, but Roshi, the young girl, doesn’t seem to recognize him. When he reads the inscription, however, he gets quite a surprise: I’ll spoil no further–one of the great lines in the novel.
This story is not developed much further but more fully engages issues of refugees, their guilt, the stories of those who stayed behind, their relationship as diaspora than any other section in the novel. Hosseini also addresses the problems of aid industry driving up costs in Kabul, disrupting the city and its culture.
The cousins eat at Abe’s Kebab House in California, crossing paths as every story crosses at least one path. Abe’s daughter narrates the final two chapters, the refugee child raised in America, unable to play volleyball but required to learn Farsi. Unable to attend college in Baltimore, engaged by broken off, and friends with an Afghani veteran–a promising story line that doesn’t get developed. She ends up living under cultural constrictions Nali, her aunt’s mother, fought against fifty years earlier. Resettlement and integration presents opportunities, but comes with a wide range of challenges.
Although the story of only a few families, the novel deftly covers the experiences of many transnational refugee families who live with deep unresolved pain. Those who don’t resettle face uncertainty, violence, displacement in homelands. Those who resettle and succeed can become alienated and/or conservative preservers of the culture they left behind. And the Mountains Echoed is humanity before politics, but not without subtle gestures towards the politics of Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan of course.
The novel has much, much more to offer, and the audio book (how I “read it”) uses three readers to help represent the multiple points of view.
- On World Refugee Day there are 45.2 million refugees worldwide: this is why disarmament is an essential part of the story (ypimap2013.wordpress.com)
- World Refugee Day 2013: Moving beyond trauma, honoring resilience (themigrationist.net)